Saturday, April 12, 2014
Brewers hitting all the right notes
By Jason Collette
When our panel of experts published its team predictions for the 2014 season, not one listed the Milwaukee Brewers as their pick. It is hard to blame the panel, as Milwaukee's offseason was rather quiet outside of the surprise signing of Matt Garza coming off the heels of a 74-88 season, which saw Carlos Gomez break out while Ryan Braun broke down physically and the hounds of justice closed in on him and ended his season with a 65-game performance-enhancing drugs suspension.
The rest of the Brewers offseason involved shopping in the free-agent bargain bin as they brought in Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay and proceeded to trade Norichika Aoki to the Kansas City Royals to acquire Will Smith to give them someone who could work in the bullpen as well as the rotation while freeing up a starting role for Khris Davis. The Fangraphs projected standings believed Milwaukee to be a .500 team at 81-81. The PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus had the club one game worse than Fangraphs at 80-82.
Ten games into the season, Milwaukee has an early two-game lead in the National League Central and the best record in all of baseball after defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates for the team's seventh straight win. That winning streak includes a perfect 6-0 record on the road with stops in Boston and Philadelphia and Friday night's win to pull them even at 2-2 at Miller Park.
Aramis Ramirez's two-run homer in the fourth inning on Friday gave the Brewers a lead they never relinquished.
It sounds cliché, but it is truly an all-around team effort that has Milwaukee off to a hot start.
The success begins with the pitching staff. Heading into play Friday night, Milwaukee pitchers had a league-best 1.95 team ERA and had held opposing batters to a .205 batting average. The starting pitchers had a collective 2.44 ERA while holding opposing batters to a .227 batting average. Wily Peralta went seven innings in the victory Friday, marking the seventh time in 10 contests this season that a Brewers pitcher worked at least six complete innings in a start. Last season, Milwaukee was in the bottom third of baseball in that area as starters worked at least six innings just 93 of 162 times.
The bullpen has been even more amazing as that group now has a 0.91 ERA with the two shutdown innings provided Friday by Jim Henderson and Rodriguez. The bullpen has permitted just three earned runs in 29⅔ innings of work. One reason Rodriguez has the closer role instead of Henderson is that the club was concerned with Henderson's velocity and life on his pitches coming out of spring training. Henderson answered some of that concern Friday by touching 96 mph on the radar gun while working a perfect eighth inning. Getting the ball to Henderson and Rodriguez has been the surprising youthful combination of Smith and Tyler Thornburg. The duo has combined to face 50 batters; 11 have reached base, one has scored and 17 have struck out.
Offensively, Milwaukee has been more aggressive on the basepaths to help generate runs. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the league average for teams taking an extra base is 40 percent. Last season, Milwaukee was well below the league average at 35 percent. That was the lowest total in the National League and nearly all of baseball. Heading into play Friday, Milwaukee is well above that league average and has taken the extra base a league-leading 61 percent of the time.
The top six spots of the Brewers lineup have also not been an easy matchup for opposing pitchers. The red-hot Gomez has set the table, while the equally hot Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucroy have cleaned it up. Only the Colorado Rockies have a higher team batting average and OPS in the National League, and the only team to hold the lineup in check this season has been the strong pitching efforts of the Atlanta Braves.
The hot start that Milwaukee is off to can be viewed as a precarious one for a couple of reasons. Primarily, the fluid status of Braun's thumb issue is going to be a situation that will most likely linger for the rest of the season. If he does have to take an extended period of time off, it exposes the other issue with the team in its lack of depth. However, the surprising start gives them an early leg up in a division that does have a clear favorite in the St. Louis CardinalsSt. Louis Cardinals but no clear second. Injury issues to favorite postseason candidates in the other divisions have left a crack open in the door for Milwaukee to kick in and perhaps surprise pundits, just as the Baltimore Orioles did in 2012.
Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays, and also contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.