Thursday, May 8, 2014

What's Going On With: The Milwaukee Brewers

This is Part 6 of a six-part series looking at the three worst and three best teams in baseball to date, and figuring out why they've done what they've done and whether they'll keep on doing it. Let this segment be a lesson in getting while the getting's good. When I started writing about the top three teams in baseball, the Brewers had the best record. They don't anymore. So we've hit the teams with worst records (here are the links to the Chicago CubsHouston Astros, and Arizona Diamondbacks), third-best San Francisco Giants, and the now-best Detroit Tigers. Now, the second-best (but best at the start of the week) Milwaukee Brewers.

How Good Have They Been? The Brewers are 22-13, a .629 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 102-60. After a smoking hot start, they've lost six of their last eight games.

How Much of a Surprise is This? Three National League Central teams made the postseason last year. The 74-88 Brewers were not one of them. At best, they were viewed as a dark horse team that might be able to break .500. When I wrote about the Diamondbacks, I said that they were the most disappointing team in baseball. The Brewers are the most unexpectedly good. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 55% chance of making the postseason.

What's Been Right? The Brewers have scored 3.97 runs per game, just below the league average of 3.98, but pitching's been the strength. The Brewers' 3.11 ERA is fourth-best in the league. The starters have a fourth-best 3.14 ERA. The relievers' 3.07 isn't a lot better than league, but the bullpen leads the league in saves with 15 and has blown only four, giving it a second-best 79% save percentage. The defense has been decent, converting 71% of balls in play into outs, second most in the league. So the surprise has been pitching-driven. The headliner is closer Francisco Rodriguez, who has converted all 14 of his save opportunities and has allowed, in 18 innings, 26 strikeouts, 12 baserunners and no runs at all so far.

Has Luck Been Involved? Please refer here for a discussion of the terms used below, and why I chose them.

The pitchers have maybe been a little lucky. They've allowed just a .219 batting average with runners in scoring position compared to an average of .237. That's probably not sustainable. But that's about it. Nothing that screams "regression to the mean." 

What's The Outlook? The Brewers have cooled some. K-Rod is going to allow runs at some point. Starters Wily Peralta, Yovani Gallardo, and Kyle Lohse currently have ERAs of 2.17, 2.47, and 2.72, respectively, compared to career averages entering the season of 4.11, 3.72, and 4.35, respectively, so they are likely to give up ground. But the Central has been a weak division (currently tied for worst in the majors with the AL West), with only the Cardinals, who have struggled to score runs, above .500 other than Milwaukee. If the Brewers just play a game over .500 the rest of the way, they'll win 86. A few wins more and they're the surprise entrant in the postseason.

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