Eleven weeks ago, I left the Midwest (and range for Brewers local TV broadcasts) to spend the summer in South Carolina. I was able to catch a handful of day games in lieu of working, but, if you’re reading this, I’m sure that you all caught more Brewers baseball than I did this summer.
And if you had told me that, upon leaving South Carolina 11 weeks later, that the Brewers would still be in first place, I most likely wouldn’t have believed you–and that’s not for a lack of optimism about the team. At that time in late May, it was still hard to buy into a team that was cooling down significantly after the best start in franchise history while playing in a division returning three playoff teams from last season.
The good news is that they’ve proven themselves as a legitimate contender to win the NL Central over the course of the summer. Coming back to the great Midwest, it’s time to take a step back and look into a question I’ve been posing on Twitter all summer: “How the heck are the Brewers still in first place?”
It’s time to piece this bad boy together.
First, let’s compare their production compared to the preseason PECOTA projections, the system that projected the Crew to post a record of 80-82 this season. For a team on pace to win ten more games than they were projected, you would expect to see some significantly higher levels of production and value from at least the offense or pitching as a whole. But, as you’ll see, that doesn’t hold entirely true, with the exception of guys like Carlos Gomez, Scooter Gennett, and Jonathan Lucroy.
The starting rotation has been, for the most part, what we could have expected. A true ace hasn’t emerged, but the combination of Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, and Matt Garza (before getting injured) all pitched about equally well.
Baseball Prospectus’ “Effectively Wild” podcast brought up a fairly simple system to evaluate players around the trade deadline to determine how hefty the asking price will be to acquire them. It was as follows:1-Bench bat, below replacement starter, weak relief arm 2-4 or 5 starter, 1-2 win offensive player, LOOGy, middle reliever 3- 2 or 3 starter, 2-4 win offensive everyday starter, set-up man/closer 4- All-Star caliber player, 4+ wins 5- MVP-contending player
So, essentially, the Brewers rotation is mostly a jumble of 3′s, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There have been very few times the starter that night didn’t give the Brewers a good chance to win the game (there would be even fewer if the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t exist). As much as I hate using the stat, the Brewers have four starters in the top twelve in all of baseball in quality starts (minimum 6 IP, 3 or fewer ER). As a staff, they rank second behind the Braves in quality starts. Piece together a rotation of 2′s and 3′s and that’s bound to happen for you.
As mentioned briefly above, Gomez and Lucroy are the standouts carrying the most significant loads offensively. Both MVP candidates, Gomez is worth 4.5 fWAR and Lucroy 4.4 fWAR as of Wednesday, both in the top seven in the National League in that category.
Gomez is the league’s only 15+ HR, 25+ SB player in all of baseball, and he has more than surpassed his PECOTA projection for the season. Arguably the game’s most exciting player to watch day-in and day-out, Gomez is on pace for a second straight 6+ WAR season. That’s something that’s only been done by a limited group of players within the last five seasons that includes Jose Bautista, Mike Trout, Robinson Cano, and Miguel Cabrera, among a couple others.
Lucroy has been equally awesome for Milwaukee. After showing flashes of offensive potential in his first three seasons as a starting catcher, everything has clicked for him this season with a .376 wOBA while continuing to be the game’s best pitch framer behind the plate.
While players like Khris Davis, Aramis Ramirez, and Mark Reynolds have performed at or around their expected values, Gomez and Lucroy emerging as MVP candidates has made a huge impact on the Brewers offense that ranks seventh in runs scored.
Pre-season models that project win-loss totals take much more into account than individual win-loss performance. It’s much easier to forecast hits, walks, home runs, and positive outcomes a team produces to go along with the hits, walks, home runs, and negative outcomes they’ll give up. A team’s record is the combination of the above results with the timing of those–and it’s near impossible to accurately predict the timing of when these outcomes will take place relative to their opponents’ results.
So a projected record is, essentially, taking into account how the projections indicate a team’s expected run total compared to the expected run total against (which in and of itself takes in many more factors to project run differential). So, without being able to predict how the random timing of the Brewers offense, defense, and pitching would perform, judging by other factors that are we’re able to forecast more easily, they were pinned as a 80, 81, or 82 win team.
Next, because we’re looking at the Brewers in the context of the National League Central and not just within the team itself, it’s important to look at the state of the rest of the division, and baseball in general.
One of the most glaring characteristics of Major League Baseball this season is its parity. The Royals, Orioles, and Brewers are leading divisions. The Mariners, Marlins, and Blue Jays are in Wild Card contention. It’s crazy and beautiful and stressful, all at the same time.
Baseball Prospectus projects a grand total of four teams to win 90 or more games this season; last season 11 teams won 90 or more games, and the Rangers missed the postseason despite winning 91. Eighteen teams, however, are projected to finish over .500, meaning that the fifth-best team will be only finish around 8 games better than the 18th-best. Last season, the fifth-best record (Pirates) finished 16 games ahead of the team with the 18th-best record (Angels).
In the NL Central, three playoff teams were back from 2013 with major carryover in their rosters. The Cardinals were the best team in the NL, which carried over in a run to the World Series. They added Jhonny Peralta, who’s been a defensive machine at shortstop with a 123 wRC+ and Matt Adams was primed for a breakout–which has come to fruition. Pittsburgh returned the 2013 MVP and a young, talented roster. Cincinnati has been among the contenders in the division since the Ken Macha era, basically, and you could Sharpie them in for somewhere between 82-90 wins. Then there was the Brewers.
But the Cardinals are not the run-away-with-the-division team we thought they would be. Unlike Cardinals teams of past, they’ve failed to put together an extended hot streak and are riddled with injuries. The Pirates are starting to piece things together finally with their pitching, as Josh Harrison and Russell Martin have been great compliments to Andrew McCutchen all season. And the Reds…well Joey Votto is down with an injury and we just really can’t figure them out completely.
The Brewers have taken advantage of a division in which no team has emerged as a pull-away front runner to, essentially, become your classic team that, well, can’t be that pull-away front runner. It’s been kind of awesome to watch, actually.
With a division race that’s expected to come down to the wire in a league full of parity, there’s not much margin for error at this point in the season. An extending losing spell may ruin a team’s chances at a Wild Card berth or division crown–and with today’s playoff format, you don’t want to be playing for, essentially, a coin flip to determine your chance to play (at least) three more games and fight for a World Series. The addition of the second Wild Card spot has made winning the division even more crucial for teams in contention down the stretch.
While that would be the downside to the close race the Brewers are a part of, the other side of that would be that Milwaukee might not even have to win 90 games to win the division. Unless the Cardinals, Pirates, or even the Reds play .600 ball the rest of the way out, the Brewers will have a good chance at winning the division into the last week. Even with that, .600 ball from here on out would give both the Pirates and Cardinals around 88/89 wins–and the Pirates are the only team of those two to show the ability to play at that level for an two to three weeks at a time, much less for a month and a half.
The Brewers torrential opening month of the season still is one of the biggest factors in their current first place standing. Their 20-7 start put them 6.5 games up of St. Louis, and they got to 21 wins faster than the famed “Team Streak” 1987 Brewers did. While the results haven’t held–and nobody could have possibly expected them to–that start has been the difference maker in the division. As a whole, the bullpen hasn’t been an entirely large difference maker for the 2014 Brewers, but their elite, basically unrepeatable performance for an extended streak to open the season still has them holding onto first place.
As mentioned above, the Brewers Pythagorean record (which takes into account their expected record based on run differential) is 64-57, which reflects a lot of what happened in that first month. They started 12-2 in games determined by two or less runs and an equally-impressive 10-4 in one-run games. As expected, they’ve come back down to earth with a 17-15 record in one-run games, but the out-of-this-world performances of Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg, Zach Duke and Francisco Rodriguez helped the team get off to such a strong start–just look at the numbers.
The Brewers relative lack of big wins and success in close games early on go right along with their Pythagorean record. Does that mean they’ve gotten lucky? Maybe they have (even though I’m sure Wei-Chung Wang didn’t help the team’s run differential out a whole lot).
They may have even been the beneficiary of some luck on the pitching side this season, as well. As a staff, their collective 7.4 WAR ranks a forgettable 25th in baseball, but watching their progress this season, this team doesn’t have the feel of one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball. Their 3.66 ERA ranks 14th in baseball, but their staff FIP is good for 23rd (3.97), which could mean that they may have lucked out of some runs with balls that have been put in play. Opponents .284 BABIP is the seventh-lowest in all of baseball, which furthers the idea that the Brewers have maybe squeezed out a couple of wins because of luck.
In the end, though, the Brewers may just be a good team that, if they get hot at the right time, can make some noise in October. They put out a lineup that features six regulars with an OPS+ higher than 110. Their starting rotation doesn’t have a big weakness and they feature one of the best closers in baseball this season.
After spending probably too much time trying to figure out how the heck the Brewers are still in first place, I am slowly but surely coming to my conclusion: I have no clue how the heck the Brewers are still in first place, but I love it.