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June 14, 2011

Painting the Black

Something Brewing

by R.J. Anderson

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After an offseason spent fostering optimism through action, the Brewers emerged as one of the darling picks for prognosticators in the early spring. The sins of yesteryear were shed along the way, as Milwaukee picked up two new starters, a role player or two, and a new manager who was cut from the same cloth as those who helmed winners with the Angels, Rays, and Padres. The roster appeared well-rounded, and the club’s chances of taking home a division crown—and perhaps more—seemed strong.

Then camp started, and suddenly clouds began to gather. Team doctors diagnosed Zack Greinke, acquired to front the rotation, with a broken rib. He was expected to miss weeks and wound up returning in the first week of May. Shaun Marcum, the organization’s other big off-season injection of talent, suffered from shoulder tightness but would persevere and open the season without issue. 

Once the games started, the inauspicious signs multiplied, as the Brewers lost games in every way possible:

  • On Opening Day, the Brewers led the Reds 6-3 entering the ninth inning. John Axford, the most reliable mustached closer in baseball, would record two outs, but the Reds would record four runs first, thanks in part to a walk-off three-run home run hit by Ramon Hernandez.
  • In game two, Marcum failed to last five innings and parted with five walks and three earned runs charged to his name. The Brewers lost 4-2.
  • In the third game of the season, the Brewers charged out to a 1-0 lead thanks to a leadoff home run by Rickie Weeks. The Reds would then go on to outscore Milwaukee’s finest 12-2 over the final eight frames, dropping the Brewers to a lonely 0-3 mark on the season.
  • Game four looked like it might be the first that the Brewers could add to the win column. Chris Narveson, a seemingly milquetoast southpaw previously cast aside by the Cardinals, spun a beauty against the Braves, going six innings, allowing three hits, striking out five, and allowing no runs.  Milwaukee clung to a 1-0 lead entering the eighth, as Takashi Saito—another off-season addition—entered to help close things out. On the eighth pitch of his outing, Saito allowed a home run to Martin Prado. On the 20th, he coughed up a home run to Dan Uggla, which was enough for the Braves to secure a win and for the Brewers to fall to 0-4. It was the first time in Saito’s career that he’d given up multiple home runs in an outing.

The Brewers notched their first victory in game five, ending a miserable four-game stretch to start the year. Losing four in a row at some point during the season is a forgivable sin, but doing so with nothing in the win column to negate the slump is a quick way to dampen any optimism surrounding a team.

A week after Milwaukee’s first victory, they sat at 5-5. After another week, they were 9-8. A month after the first win, they were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak that left them at 14-19. By the end of May, they were 27-23, and now, entering mid-June, they sit in first place at 38-29 after a thrilling sweep of the Cardinals.

The “how” is often more interesting than the “what,” and that is no different with this Brewers squad. They have the sixth-best bullpen earned run average in baseball, the 11th-best rotation earned run average, and the 11th-most runs scored. Those are modest rankings for a first-place team, but the Brewers can plausibly claim to field six of the top 10 or 12 players in the National League Central: Greinke, Marcum, Gallardo, Weeks, Prince Fielder, and Ryan Braun.  So far, those six have lived up to their billing:

Name

IP

ERA

SIERA

WARP

Greinke

48

4.69

2.14

1.1

Marcum

90 2/3

2.68

3.36

1.3

Gallardo

86 1/3

3.96

3.90

1.1

Name

PA

HR

TAv

WARP

Braun

282

14

.335

2.8

Fielder

281

19

.352

2.6

Weeks

298

12

.298

2.4

The discrepancy between Greinke’s earned run average and SIERA notwithstanding, he has managed to strike out 60 batters in 48 innings while granting only seven free passes. Marcum’s numbers are less flashy, but he has gone at least six innings in every start since his first. Gallardo’s most recent start was the first this season in which he failed to last beyond five innings, and he allowed only 10 earned runs in 40 innings pitched in May. Offensively, Braun, Fielder, and Weeks have hit more home runs (45 combined) than seven teams.

Beyond the stud six, the Brewers are receiving strong contributions from numerous role players. The aforementioned Narveson is tied with Marcum for the most Wins Above Replacement Player on the pitching staff, while Axford continues to close out games with a verve befitting a man with first-class lip sweater. One would also be remiss not to note Randy Wolf’s transformation back into a major-league pitcher.

The worthwhile contributions extend beyond the mound. Jonathan Lucroy has provided some power from the catcher’s position while finishing with the fourth most WARP amongst Milwaukee position players. Nyjer Morgan, acquired for a song in the spring, has an eccentric personality that is labeled either gleeful or a distraction depending on his team’s recent fortunes; the Brewers are winning, so Morgan’s latest antics have been deemed adorable as he successfully platoons with Carlos Gomez. Corey Hart has also joined in on the fun with a slash line of .287/.331/.500.

It may seem like everything is going well for Milwaukee nowadays, but that is not the case.  Casey McGehee is struggling at .225/.284/.321, and the Brewers are daily forced to make a self-defeating choice between Yuniesky Betancourt and Craig Counsell at shortstop. Manager Ron Roenicke steered the Brewers through a two-week span without a left-handed reliever beginning in mid-May, with Zach Braddock missing time and Mitch Stetter proving ineffective. Other bullpen failings include Saito, who’s been out since early April with a hamstring strain, and Kameron Loe, whose earned run average hasn’t matched his peripherals.

Some additional credit is due to the skipper. Roenicke hasn’t received much publicity this season, but his commitment to shifting has seemingly helped a historically poor fielding unit outperform the limitations of its personnel. The improved quality of starting pitcher has likely helped too (and the out rate is up league-wide), but the Brewers are converting batted balls into outs at their highest rate since 2008:

Season

DE

2011

.710

2010

.692

2009

.705

2008

.715

Good things can happen when stars behave like stars, role players contribute, and the manager puts players in positions to succeed. Right now, good things are happening for this Brewers team, and it doesn’t take a sanguine supporter to envision the positive vibes continuing throughout the remainder of the season and even into the fall.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Milwaukee Brewers,  The Who,  Brewers

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