The Twins take on interleague rival Milwaukee for six games over the next week plus, beginning with three in Milwaukee Monday through Wednesday. The Brewers will come to Target Field for a three game mid-week series next week. Entering the first set, the Brewers are 4 games behind Chicago in the NL Central at 6-7 while the Twins were just swept in Kansas City and have lost 4 straight.
Milwaukee reached the postseason again last year, finishing 89-73 and earning a wild card berth. Things were looking even better than that for most of the season, but injuries to key players (Christian Yelich, Corey Knebel) late in the season diminished the Brewers’ chances of a deep playoff run. Ultimately, they lost a late lead in the wild card game to eventual champion Washington and headed to the off season. Now in his sixth season, Manager Craig Counsell is somehow the longest tenured skipper in the National League.
Milwaukee had a very busy off season making a slew of small free agency moves to add veteran depth and reinforce a roster built around star outfielder Yelich and introducing a re-branding / return to the past of their logo. Of course, the biggest move was extending Yelich to a new contract that will keep him with the club through the 2029 season for $215-million. The other big(ish) move was a trade with San Diego that sent right-hander Zach Davies and outfielder Trent Grisham out and brought in highly regarded infield prospect Luis Urias and left-hander Eric Lauer. The small free agency moves included adding Avisail Garcia (OF), Justin Smoak (1B/DH), Brett Anderson (LHP), David Phelps (RHP), infielder Jedd Gyorko, and utilityman Brock Holt. These kinds of low cost moves serve to distribute and diversify risk on the roster. The club also dipped into the international free agency market by signing veteran pitcher Josh Lindblom to a three-year contract after he spent parts of five seasons in Korea.
Last year’s catcher Yasmani Grandal left in free agency for the White Sox and the Brewers are now platooning veterans Omar Narvaez (acquired in off season trade with Seattle) and Manny Pina behind the plate. Also returning are young middle infielder Keston Hiura (19 homers and .570 slugging in only 84 games), budding ace Brandon Woodruff, and the dominant bullpen tandem of Josh Hader and Knebel (healthy after Tommy John surgery). The rest of bullpen is a combination of hard throwing right handers (Corbin Burnes, Devin Williams, Freddy Peralta) and soft-tossing low slot lefties (Brent Suter, Alex Claudio). Franchise icon Ryan Braun also returns for his 14th season.
Overall, Milwaukee is a team that intends to win now while keeping an eye on the near future. The minor league system is not highly regarded as most of the best prospects have graduated to the majors in recent seasons. There are some questions marks on this roster, particularly in the starting rotation after Woodruff, but also around the diamond. The team is asking career right fielder Garcia to man center field after Lorenzo Cain opted out of the season, something he may not be capable of doing well. Shortstop Orlando Arcia leaves a lot to be desired offensively (career .280 wOBA) and may be unseated by Urias if and when he returns from the COVID list. The Cubs are off to a fast start in the division and the Brewers will need a number of things to break their way (and quickly) if they are to contend for a playoff berth in 2020.
★ ★ ★
1. Christian Yelich’s Lift Off
Any breakdown of the Brewers has to begin with the superstar Yelich, who earned that big contract on the back of consecutive 7+ fWAR seasons. The move to Milwaukee has unlocked Yelich’s power. He belted 36 and 44 homers the past two seasons after never hitting more than 21 in five previous seasons in Miami. The home ballpark certainly plays into that some, as Miller Park is a much friendlier hitter’s park than the caverns of Miami – but Yelich has also made some adjustments to get more loft into his swing. Long among MLB’s leaders in exit velocity and hard-hit percentage Yelich has steadily increased his average launch angle over time, which has had a dramatic impact on his slugging:
This kind of adjustment has become a pretty common story across baseball the past several years. Those exit velocity numbers above were never worse than the top 8% of all hitters in a season. But with the low launch angles there were too many batted balls beat into the ground to do a lot of extra base damage. By adjusting his swing to hit the ball in the air more, Yelich has escalated his game to another level.
What to look for:
Like many lanky, long armed hitters (Yelich is 6’3), he is most effective when he can get his arms extended. While he’s dangerous no matter where you try to pitch him, Yelich is even more powerful with pitches up and out over the plate. Look at all the red zones on the outer and upper zones in his 2019 slugging profile from baseballsavant.mlb.com:
For the Twins, the best option is to try to beat Yelich down, where it’s more difficult for him to get the ball elevated (see the slightly lower slugging percentages at the bottom of the chart). There can be opportunities to get inside on his hands with fastballs and then try to get him to chase down and away out of the zone with right-handed changeups or left-handed breaking balls. Both of those are tricky propositions and require good location though, because any misses over the plate invite damage.
★ ★ ★
2. Brandon Woodruff – Milwaukee’s hidden Ace
Since the beginning of the 2018 season, right hander Brandon Woodruff has started just 29 games, covering just over 150 innings. While staying healthy has proven difficult, pitching extremely effectively has not. Among starting pitchers with at least 100 innings in that span, Woodruff ranks 12th in MLB with a 3.19 FIP, ahead of such names as Zack Wheeler, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, and Trevor Bauer. Woodruff’s 10.3 K/9 ranks 20th best, ahead of Walker Buehler, Lance Lynn, and Mike Clevinger. So far in 2020, he’s improved further on those marks – 2.73 FIP, 10.9 K/9.
Woodruff achieves this success with power stuff that is elite in terms of both velocity and spin:
What to look for:
To put these numbers in context, the velocity is firmer than Gerrit Cole’s across the board. The only slider with more velocity belongs to Jacob deGrom. The only faster sinkers belong to Luis Castillo and Dinelson Lamet. Statcast has a super cool affinity tool that uses cluster analysis of a pitcher’s speed and movement profile to determine which other pitchers’ arsenals are most similar. By that approach, one of his closest matches is Max Scherzer. Also offered is affinity by batted ball results. If you prefer those, his closest matches include deGrom and Buehler. Given those nuggets, I’ll conclude my scouting report by saying Brandon Woodruff is really good and you probably didn’t know it. He’s quietly become a whole bunch of no fun for opposing hitters.
★ ★ ★
3. Replacing Lorenzo Cain in Center
Another of the consequences of the St. Louis Cardinals COVID-19 outbreak was Lorenzo Cain’s decision to opt out of the rest of the 2020 season. Replacing his steady offensive production (career 106 wRC+) will be easier for Milwaukee than replacing his defense in center. Long a well above average centerfielder, Cain won his first Gold Glove last season. Since Cain took over nearly full-time in center for Kansas City back in 2013, his +65 defensive runs above average, ranks as the 8th most in baseball at any position.
Free agent signing and long-time Twins nemesis Avisail Garcia will get the first shot at being the primary replacement for Cain. Garcia played 94 innings of slightly below average centerfield (-10.5 UZR/150, -1 OAA) last season for Tampa Bay. That marked his first foray up the middle since 2013 when he was 22.
What to look for:
The advanced metrics disagree a bit on Garcia’s defense. By Fangraphs’ metrics, Garcia has been below average every season of his career except last year. Statcast pegs him more or less an average defender since 2015, with his two best performances coming in the past 2 years when he saved three outs above average each season. While he may not be known for his glove in a vacuum, Garcia might be Milwaukee’s best option in center because of his surprising speed. At 6’4”, 250 pounds Garcia probably isn’t what you picture when you think of fleet feet. I was surprised to learn (and you might be too) he has ranked at least in the 89th percentile across MLB in average sprint speed each of the past five seasons. Last year’s average of 28.8 feet / second is tops among the outfield options on Milwaukee’s roster.
★ ★ ★
4. Josh Lindblom’s Evolution
Probable Tuesday starter Josh Lindblom has taken an unconventional road to his first big league rotation job. Our friends at Brew Crew Ball published a really nice overview of Lindblom’s career back in December when he was signed from the KBO as a free agent. Suffice it to say, it’s been a long road to Milwaukee. A once highly regarded prospect who couldn’t quite stick after parts of four MLB seasons, Lindblom headed overseas. It was there, with the help of pitching analytics, that Lindblom remade his arsenal and the way he used his pitches. This led to great success the past two seasons in Korea when he won the equivalent of the Cy Young twice and earned the league’s MVP award last season. Like many of these kinds of stories the analytics helped him identify the things he does well and he made the decision to do those things more often. In his case, it meant scrapping his sinker in favor of his four seamer and reducing his changeup usage in favor of his slider. In addition, Lindblom picked up a few new tricks along the way – adding a splitter and learning to manipulate the speed and shape of his slider into two distinct offerings.
What to look for:
While Lindblom doesn’t possess the velocity of many of his teammates, his 90-91 mph four seam fastball plays up because of its elite spin rate. Among pitchers to have thrown at least 100 pitches in 2020, Lindblom ranks 8th in spin rate on his four-seamer (2578 rpm). The spin rate allows him to work effectively up in the zone, despite the lower velocity. To play off that he works the splitter down below the zone, giving him a great weapon for left-handed batters. While it comprises only about 10% of his arsenal his splitter is also among the league leaders in terms of spin rate (1214 rpm – lower rpm is better for splitters). For right-handed batters Lindblom works off the fastball with a slider / cutter hybrid. The slider version is bigger breaking (14.6 inches of horizontal movement) and slower (76.9 average mph), while the cutter is firmer (86.1 mph) and tighter (3.3 inches of horizontal break). It remains to be seen how well Lindblom’s stuff will translate back to the majors but if pitches like this are any indication, he seems to be well-armed to have success.
Josh Lindblom, Disgusting 79mph Breaking Ball. pic.twitter.com/9HVEARqdtL— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 7, 2020
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John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.