The Milwaukee Brewers are Good

Posted: 05/04/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

We are at a really weird part of the MLB season in that we have passed the point in which all weird results can be dismissed as “small sample size”, but we are not yet at the point where weird things can be fully believed. Usually, by mid-June, the contenders are pretty much established, and the teams in last place probably won’t come back. Now, though, it’s early May, so while early starts have to be taken seriously, they should still be taken with a grain of salt. So.. are the Brewers legit? How about the Rockies? Can the Mets stay above .500? Are the Diamondbacks really the worst team in baseball? Will Cleveland, Boston and Pittsburgh, last year’s biggest success stories, continue to struggle? We’ll tackle the Brewers today.

The Milwaukee Brewers are good: In a way, this was predictable, and I kind of predicted it. In picking the Brewers to win 83 games before the season, I believed that Ryan Braun would be good even without steroids, and that the Brewers would be in the playoff hunt until the end. It looks like they are even better than I thought they would be. If you had asked me to predict the May 4th stats of every Brewers hitter before the season, I wouldn’t have been far off. The hitters are doing basically as expected, which is a good sign, because I don’t think much regression is in store. Braun is good: he’s hitting .318 with a 154 wRC+, a .952 OPS, and six homers. Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy are also very good, and both give good defensive value at a tough spot to fill (centerfield, catcher). And Mark Reynolds has been providing power and a very poor average. Predictable. In fact, you could make a great argument that the Brewers offense has been underperforming. I thought the offense was going to carry the team; instead, they are 18th in baseball in runs scored and have a .302 team on base percentage. Three guys in particular have been poor: Aramis Ramirez, Jean Segura, and Khris Davis. For Ramirez, you can fully expect a bounce-back. He’s long been a good hitter, and I wouldn’t expect a sudden decline at age-35. Segura and Davis were last year’s success stories, and have come crashing back to earth. Segura has been bad since the second half of last year, so the decline was coming. He isn’t this bad, so expect some better results ahead. Davis, on the other hand, was terrific at the end of last year, eventually leading the Brewers to open up a spot for him in the outfield with the trade of Norichika Aoki. He’s responded with a 34/1 K/BB rate and a .229 average. I’m worried about Davis, because his plate discipline is poor and he doesn’t get on base enough. He could be benched in the near future, but does still provide some power.

So if the hitting has been worse than expected, how are the Brewers 21-10 and shattering expectations? You guessed it: the pitching. The Brewers have a 3.01 team ERA, and a league-leading 24 quality starts from 31. The rotation has exceeded all expectations. All of a sudden, one of the worst rotations in baseball last year is now one of the best and deepest. Yovani Gallardo, following a few disappointing seasons, has bounced back to a tune of 2.47 ERA. I don’t think he’s this good, but a low-3 ERA seems reasonable. After Gallardo, Kyle Lohse has remained reliable. He’s a valuable innings-eater. And the depth beyond those two is terrific. The under-the-radar signing, Matt Garza, has been an ace for much of his career. He has a 5.00 ERA, but has gotten unlucky. If he stays healthy, Garza is a heck of a #3. The biggest surprises have come in the form of Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. Perhaps Estrada’s start shouldn’t be a surprising, as his ERA has been sub-4 for each of the past two seasons. But he’s flown under the radar, mostly because of injury issues. He’s taken another step forward. And then there is Peralta, who has been the best starter on the staff this year. The 24-year old pitcher was poor last season in his first full season, with 73 walks in 183 innings. But the walks have seemingly disappeared this year: Peralta is down to nine walks in 39.2 innings. That has made the big difference, as Peralta is now flirting with a sub-2 ERA. I think he’s going to be good all season. The walk rate needs to stay down, but I think an ERA in the 3.50 range is likely. So here’s how the Brewers rotation is shaping out:
Gallardo: 2.47 ERA, 6 QS (7 starts), 5.36 K/9, 2.27 BB/9.. Strikeout rate down, walk rate down, effectiveness up.
Lohse: 2.70 ERA, 5 QS (6 starts), 9 K/9, 2.48 BB/9.. ERA below 3.50 since his terrible 2010 season.
Garza: 5.00 ERA, 3 QS (6 starts), 7.5 K/9, 3 BB/9.. Normal peripherals, last season with ERA over 4 was 2006, just 30 years old.
Estrada: 3.13 ERA, 5 QS (6 starts), 8.2 K/9, 2.41 BB/9.. Has shown he can be an effective starter. Needs to stay healthy.
Peralta: 2.04 ERA, 5 QS (6 starts), 7.26 K/9, 2.04 BB/9.. Needs to keep his walk rate down. Looks like the best #5 in baseball.
And then there is the bullpen, which has been even more shocking. This wasn’t supposed to be a good bullpen. It was probably supposed to be one of the worst. Jim Henderson, who was supposed to be the closer, has fallen apart, and has a 7.15 ERA. But much of that has been moot, thanks to the performance of the five key pitchers in the bullpen. Francisco Rodriguez isn’t vintage K-Rod (he is throwing a lot slower than he did in his prime), but he’s sure pitching like it. Rodriguez has 14 saves, by far the most in baseball, and has yet to give up a run in 17 innings. He also has 24 strikeouts and has even gotten some early MVP love. Will Smith, who has been a setup man, has also been terrific, with one run allowed in 12.1 innings of 18 strikeout ball. Rodriguez, Smith, Brandon Kintzler, former starter Zach Duke, and Tyler Thornburg have combined to allow seven runs in 64.1 innings, good for an ERA just over one.

Bottom Line: K-Rod and the bullpen are due for regression, but the rotation looks like one of the best and deepest in baseball and could continue to carry the team. On the other side of the ball, Braun, Gomez, and Lucroy are really carrying this team, and the Brewers could really use some more contributions from last year’s breakout players. Just as the pitching could regress, the hitting should improve, so the answer is yes, Milwaukee is legitimate. Given that St. Louis has shown a few chinks in their armor and the Brewers already have a six game jump on the Cardinals (and everyone else in the NL Central, for that matter), Milwaukee might just be favored to win the NL Central.

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