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Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010

See Ron's Guys Run, But Watch the Pitching

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Being a certain age, the Observers had a 1960s song in their heads last week, with updated lyrics: "We met him on a Thursday and our hearts stood still, da doo ron ron ron..." Some Brewers fans had a heart-stopping question: "Who the heck is Ron Roenicke and why isn't the flashy Bobby Valentine the new manager?" For others, Roenicke's testimonials as the Angels' bench coach and his pledge to use an "attacking style" had hearts quickening after two glum years. Maybe they were hearing, "Dey do run run run... to the playoffs." But it won't happen unless the Roenicke era brings a more important upgrade.


Artie: I want to be the first to say it: "Fire the bum!"

Frank
: You think the Roenicke hiring is a bust?

Artie
: How could I before the guy writes his first lineup card? But if they're out of contention by the end of May, like they were this year, and people are calling for his head, I'll be able to say, "Where were you? I said it in November."

Frank
: Duly noted. One belief about Roenicke is that he'll "relate to the players" better than Ken Macha did. To me, this is always a murky thing. Does it mean Roenicke will let them pull their shirts out when they win?

Artie
: Macha was hired in part because he was so calm, the anti-Ned Yost. Roenicke's no spotlight-hound like Valentine, but I guess he doesn't look like he needs a nap, a la Macha.

Frank
: So Roenicke will be a pal. Does that necessarily mean anything? The real formula for team chemistry is W I N.

Artie
: I like the idea that the Brewers will run more. For too long this team has been long-ball addicted, like Doug Melvin's teams were in Texas.

Frank
: As I told my nephew on Long Island, the Brewers follow Earl Weaver's old Baltimore credo—offense is a three-run homer. But he reminded me, "That worked for Weaver because he also had great pitching and defense."

Artie
: So the Brewers have only been one-third Weaver-ized. Now they'll try to add some National League style with the speed game. They have the components in Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain.

Frank
: But I think this notion that the N.L. runs wild is overblown. This year the Brewers stole 81 bases, 12th-most in the league. But the N.L. leaders, the Mets, had 130, well under one per game, and only five N.L. teams even got to 100 steals. The four highest totals in the majors were Tampa Bay (172), the White Sox (160), Oakland (156) and Seattle (142). Here's something else: The Mets stole almost 50 more bases than the Brewers but scored almost 100 fewer runs. Which total would you rather have?

Artie
: Yeah, but the Brewers' 750 runs seemed to come in bunches. They had a 20-run game, an 18-er, two 17-ers—that's 72 runs, almost 10% of the total, in four measly games. And they had 26 games—all losses—when they got zilch or one run. Maybe another steal or two would have helped.

Frank
: All I'm saying is it would be a mistake to try to make the Brewers a "go-go" team overnight. The assumption is that Prince Fielder will be gone in 2011, but they'll still have Ryan Braun, Weeks, Hart and Casey McGehee, who combined for 108 dingers.

Artie
: But the running concept isn't just steals. It's taking the extra base, more hit-and-runs, maybe teaching the guys how to bunt.

Frank
: Going from first to third requires being on first. As we've noted before, Escobar finished with an on-base percentage under .300. Same for Carlos Gomez, but he may have played himself off the team already.

Artie
: The lineup was totally top-heavy; they got virtually nothing out of the 6-7-8 spots. More running might boost that.

Frank
: But no matter who's managing or how they score runs, this team ain't going anywhere unless the pitching improves. The stats don't lie: For each of the last two seasons, name almost any offensive category and the Brewers were in the N.L.'s top five. But name almost any pitching category and they were in the bottom three.

Artie
: This year the pitchers did jump to fifth in strikeouts. But they were also next-to-worst in walks, which meant everyone was throwing too many stinkin' pitches. Which meant the starters almost never went beyond the sixth inning, which meant the bullpen got fried, which meant... 77-85.

Frank
: The expectation is that a Fielder trade will bring pitching help. But now that the Giants have won the World Series with all that pitching, your dream of getting Madison Bumgarner or Matt Cain looks dim.

Artie
: The best they'd get now is Jonathan Sanchez—and they'd have to give up more than Prince. My new dream is to see Prince, Gomez and Manny Parra in Kansas City next year for Zack Greinke. The Sporting News also lists Detroit and Baltimore as looking for a bopper at first base, and the Tigers are labeled, "Will Spend to Contend." But Prince has competition—Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn as free agents, Adrian Gonzalez as trade bait.

Frank
: And with the prospect that Prince is a one-year "rental" before he hits free agency, there are questions about his worth right now.

Artie
: The Brew Crew's pitching was lots better in September, but let's not fool ourselves. When six innings is the zenith for a starter, it's a recipe for disaster.

Frank
: Right now it’s Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and I guess Chris Narveson in the rotation. Chris Capuano is a free agent, but could come back; Mark Rogers showed a bit in September; but Dave Bush has been invited to look elsewhere.

Artie
: As for the bullpen, so often relievers blow hot and cold. There's no guarantee that John Axford will hold up as the closer, or that Kameron Loe or Zach Braddock will be as effective as they were in September. On the other hand, maybe Todd Coffey will rebound from his sub-par 2010.

Frank
: For now we can only fall back on the only foolproof sports prediction: "We'll see!" And if what we see is bad, well, you can say you knew it all along.

Taking Care of Business

Frank: The state had a "no surprises" football weekend. Badgers stay on course for a Big Ten title, check. Packers totally humiliate the Cowboys...

Artie
: Double check! Couldn't happen to a better bunch unless it was the Vikings. Remember that guy in the XFL whose jersey said "He Hate Me"? I should have a split jersey, half purple and half white with those dumb stars, and "I Hate Them" on the back.

Frank
: Got that, Secret Santas? One tiny cloud over the weekend was the Bucks' slow start.

Artie
: Give ’em a half-check. They beat Indiana without Andrew Bogut but just didn't make shots and lost to New Orleans at home.

Frank
: That made them 2-5, but they played really well in the overtime loss at Boston. There's plenty of time.

Artie
: That's just it. They need time to blend in all the new players. The defense looks all right, so I'm not worried.

The Spark of Enjoyment

Frank: One more thing about managers; I'd like to note the passing of Sparky Anderson. A World Series winner in both leagues, a Hall of Famer and a genuinely nice guy.

Artie
: A nice trifecta!

Frank
: I have my own Sparky story. In 1991 the Journal sent me to Florida for spring-training stories. One morning at the Tigers' camp in Lakeland I saw Sparky alone in his office. He didn't know me from a fungo bat but he waved me in and gave me 20 minutes. He lit up about County Stadium and Bud Selig, then the Brewers' owner: "When I see him pacing that porch under the press box, I know I've got him!"

Artie
: Just two guys talkin' baseball, ain'a?

Frank
: Three guys, actually, because the great broadcaster Ernie Harwell strolled in. There was no "big-timing" of the stranger from Milwaukee. Just pleasant and enlightening conversation. Thanks, Sparky.