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April 23, 2014

Painting the Black

Some Things Brewing

by R.J. Anderson


Among the surprise teams in the early going, the Brewers have a case for most shocking. Milwaukee entered the season pegged for fourth place in the division by the Baseball Prospectus staff, but has raced to a major-league best 15-5 start. Of course it is early and any team can look brilliant over a 20-game sample—even last season's Astros managed a 12-8 run in late May and early June—yet the Brewers deserve some attention for their hot start, which gave them higher playoff odds through Tuesday than all but five teams in the majors. Rather than harp about their inability to play this well all summer long, let's focus on some of the intriguing developments surrounding the team.

The Brewers swing (and miss) a lot
Although the Orioles and Braves have tried their best, the Brewers have maintained their reign as the league's most swing-happy bunch. Our plate-discipline stats show four Milwaukee hitters among the 25 most aggressive in the league (min. 200 pitches), and five in total who have offered at more than half the pitches they've seen. The Brewers do more than attack, as no team has whiffed more often than Milwaukee has thus far. Mark Reynolds and Khris Davis are the main perpetrators, with each coming up empty on more than a third of his swings, but Milwaukee as a whole has precious few high-contact types (Jonathan Lucroy, Jean Segura, and Scooter Gennett qualify).

While the Brewers have scored the 10th-most runs so far, there will be nights where contact is hard to come by. Don't be surprised if pitchers with better stuff than Aaron Harang (no short list, mind you) carry no-hit bids deep into games against the Brew Crew.

Ron Roenicke status: Runnin'—sort of
For reasons beyond alliteration, Milwaukee fans have nicknamed Roenicke "Runnin' Ron." Unfortunately for their manager, the Brewers are not built to run often. With Norichika Aoki elsewhere, Milwaukee's lineup is short on reliable basestealers. Consider it no shocker then that the early returns from their running game are underwhelming. The Brewers have been caught on nine of their 22 stolen-base tries, giving them the NL's worst success rate. Only the Mariners, who have attempted 12 fewer steals, have been less efficient.

Despite their shortcomings when it comes to stealing, the Brewers have excelled in another important area of baserunning: taking the extra base on in-play opportunities. Milwaukee leads the league by a fair margin, having advanced on 60 percent of its chances. The distance between the Brewers and the second-place Angels is the same as the gap between the Angels and the 12th-place Royals. Perhaps the Brewers get better reads on batted balls than pitchers, or are faster underway than over their first few steps. Either way, Milwaukee offers a great example of how baserunning talents can differ.

Love him or hate him, Ryan Braun remains productive
Braun was on a Hall-of-Fame trajectory 15 months ago; much has changed since, however, and it remains to be seen whether he can regain the trust of those in the clubhouse, press box, and grandstands. Those who have forgiven Braun can appreciate his skill set as one of the game's finest, if not purest power-speed blends. The 30-year-old has two multiple home run games already, both coming within the state of Pennsylvania, and is 40 percent of the way to matching his 2013 extra-base hit total in about a third of the plate appearances. Much of Braun's legacy remains unknown. For now, though, he's is reaffirming his position as a superstar.

The new Francisco Rodriguez
Speaking of sullied reputations. Rodriguez's latest stint in Milwaukee is off to a good start, along with the rest of the remade bullpen. In addition to ascending to closer, the feller known as K-Rod has appeared 11 times, saved eight games, allowed zero runs, and fanned nine more batters (16) than he's allowed to reach base (seven). Whenever a pitcher sees his average velocity decline, concern begins to bubble. In Rodriguez's case, there's reason to think he'll survive. He has traded some curveballs for changeups, and has generated more groundballs on his fastball than in recent memory—suggesting that he could be throwing more two-seam fastballs. Provided Rodriguez continues to miss barrels and keep the ball on the ground, he should contribute more to the Brewers than his otherwise tepid market suggested he could.

The underrated Aramis Ramirez
Ramirez turns 36 in late June, yet he's opened the season as strong as a spring chicken. His last home run put him within 43 of the 400 mark, which should be an attainable goal. If Ramirez does attain that achievement, he would become the fifth third baseman since 1950 to do so, joining Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, and Darrell Evans. (Adrian Beltre is 19 home runs ahead of Ramirez, and could beat him to the punch.) Whether Ramirez stays healthy or not is anyone's guess, but his offensive prowess (just one season with a sub-100 OPS+ since 2003) should stir Cooperstown talk—even if his defensive limitations ultimately hush the conversations.

As an aside: the 2003 deal Jim Hendry made to land Ramirez and Kenny Lofton at the deadline remains one of the best we've seen in recent memory. Ramirez provided the Cubs with parts of nine quality seasons, while Lofton solidified the top of the lineup with a .381 on-base percentage. Meanwhile, the Pirates' return (Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill, and Matt Brubac) fizzled.

That's Khris—with a question mark
The Brewers moved Aoki to the Royals and Braun to right field to make room for Davis, who played above his head last season during an abbreviated stint. The 26-year-old is a polarizing player, as scouts have doubted his ability to live up to his numbers in the majors. These days, his nickname should be Confirmation Bias because every hot or cold streak will confirm that the scouts were right/wrong about him. Even so, some are holding out hope during a prolonged cold spell.

Davis has been exploitable this season thanks in part to some questionable-looking mechanics. Yet our Mark Anderson offered reasons for optimism. "I've never worried about the hands in the past. There's some pre-pitch noise there but he always got them to the right spot when he needed to and had good enough hands to rip the bat through the zone and make just enough contact for his power to play.

"He's stepping in the bucket a bit this year in a way I haven't seen him do, almost like he's selling out to mash everything over the left field wall. His swing was always a little violent and left his feet moving at contact, but again, it worked.

"The mechanics always left you believing there would be considerable swing-and-miss, but there was enough ability to get the barrel to the ball that he made it work and the pop played in game situations. It looks like he's trying to do too much right now. I'd give it some time before really getting alarmed."

The rotation has been sneaky good
Four times through the rotation, the Brewers have the fifth-best staff ERA in the majors. Their peripheral statistics aren't as complimentary but, as we'll see, the defense behind the pitchers has been high quality. Anticipating solid seasons from Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse was no stretch, nor was expecting growth from second-year righty Wily Peralta. Still, the Brewers have to be pleased with what they've gotten from Yovani Gallardo—who has, thus far, avoided the home run ball to an unsustainable degree—and Marco Estrada—whose finesse game is changeup-heavy. Health is the big variable, as the Brewers lack the starter depth of most teams. If the starting five can remain a constant, then Milwaukee ought to finish with an average-to-above-average unit.

The Brewers are defending the hit-and-run oddly...
Picture how a team defends the hit-and-run. Generally, the pull-side middle infielder stays in place while his opposite treks to the bag. It makes sense: most groundballs are pulled, and if the batter conforms then the infield will be in position to make the play.

The Brewers have done something different a few times this season by assigning the pull-side infielder to cover second base on hit-and-run or stolen-base attempts. It's an interesting deviation from the norm, in part because it could catch some hitters off guard, and because the break-even point is higher than you'd expect. Take a typical hit-and-run situation, with a runner on first base and nobody out. The Brewers would need to succeed (get an out at first base while the runner reaches second) about 72 percent of the time to make it worth the downside (runners on the corners). To date, that rate appears unattainable, but perhaps the Brewers will keep trying to buck conventional wisdom.

...yet their defense remains sound
If an overachieving lineup, rotation, and bullpen weren't enough, the Brewers have also fielded the ball as well as anyone in the league. Milwaukee completed an impressive transformation last season, finishing top-10 in defensive efficiency a year after checking in at 29th. Through the first few weeks, the Brewers have held true to those improvements: they rank fourth in groundball OPS-against, first in line-drive OPS-against, and fourth in overall defensive efficiency—perhaps in part due to their aggressive shifting. Long story short: it's a good time to be a Brewer.

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,  Ryan Braun

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