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September 25, 2012

Painting the Black

What's Brewing in Milwaukee

by R.J. Anderson

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In the days leading up to July 27th, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin weighed his options regarding free-agent-to-be Zack Greinke. He could keep Greinke, gamble on overcoming bleak playoff odds, and recoup draft picks during the offseason; or, trade Greinke before the deadline and jumpstart the rebuilding process. Melvin chose to send Greinke to the Angels for a trio of prospects. Days later, on July 31th, the Brewers improved their record to 47-56; the nearest wild card team sat 12 wins ahead. Given their team’s positions in the standings and on the trade market, you could excuse Brewers fans for checking out. After all, the 2012 season appeared to be another disappointment in a string of them, dating back to the club’s loss in the 2011 National League Championship Series.

Over the ensuing months, Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder would leave via free agency. A case of broken protocol entangled newly minted NL MVP Ryan Braun in a messy controversy, if not a 50-game suspension. Factor in Greinke speculation, and Milwaukee fans were eager to get the season underway, with the drama of a pennant chase being a preferable alternative to the malaise of their offseason. The good feelings didn’t last long. Milwaukee spent April bobbing over and under the .500 mark, finishing the month at 11-12. By the time August arrived, the Brewers’ rounded playoff odds were zero percent.

But Milwaukee has played well since, amassing a 32-18 mark since August 1st. The only NL team with more wins during that span is the Giants. Milwaukee’s 16-6 September puts them in position to challenge the Cardinals for the final wild card spot.

The first thing that pops to mind whenever a team goes on a tear is strength of schedule. Milwaukee is not fattening its win total by devouring cupcakes. They’ve played 23 games against the dreck of the NL (defined here as the Cubs, Astros, Rockies, Mets, and Marlins) and walked away with 14 wins. Alternatively, Milwaukee has played five series against prospective playoff teams (the Reds, Cardinals, Braves, and Nationals) and walked away with a single series loss—a three-game sweep at the hands of the Cardinals in early August. If the Brewers reach the tournament, expect to hear about how they’ve been playing (and winning) playoff series for most of the past two months.

Fueling the Brewers’ run is the heart of the order. Melvin signed Aramis Ramirez to replace Fielder’s lost power. Ramirez has done more than that. Entering play on Monday, he had 76 extra-base hits in 598 plate appearances; Fielder, by comparison, had 59 extra-base hits in 652 plate appearances. The other two musketeers in this case are Braun and Corey Hart. Braun should garner MVP consideration, again, and has a 1.000 OPS since the trade deadline. Hart, who physically replaced Fielder at first base, is hitting .303/.377/.517 over the past two months. Jonathan Lucroy and Norichika Aoki, amongst other role players, deserve credit for quality play as well.

One common misconception plaguing the Brewers’ October charge is that the rotation has improved since shedding Greinke. In fact, Milwaukee’s starters had managed a 4.29 run average since August 1st through the weekend*, as opposed to a 4.19 mark in the time before. The average NL starter is allowing about 4.40 runs per nine innings. Their real addition-by-subtraction move involved releasing Randy Wolf. Moving on from Greinke and Wolf over the course of a four-week period meant finding replacements in short order. Nothing changed at the front-end, with Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum still in place. Marco Estrada, a former waiver-wire acquisition, has transitioned from dogsbody reliever to legitimate starter. Meanwhile, prospects such as Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers, and Wily Peralta have given the Brewers reason to consider them options when replacing Marcum this offseason.  

*Milwaukee then allowed 12 runs on Monday afternoon, with Estrada responsible for seven of those, causing the rotation’s run average to increase to 4.45.

The bullpen has been the real difference. John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez spent parts of the summer trading meltdowns, to the point where Milwaukee installed an unknown, Jim Henderson, as the closer. In September, Axford and Rodriguez have returned to form, allowing four runs in 20 2/3 innings. Jose Veras, an offseason acquisition, has lowered his seasonal ERA from 5.02 to 3.76 since the beginning of August, thanks to a 22-game stretch in which he’s yielded three runs. The aforementioned Henderson has also gotten in on the act. The end result is a bullpen allowing 4.11 runs per nine innings*, as opposed to the 5.44 mark they allowed through the season’s first four months. 

*After Monday’s implosion, the bullpen run average is now up to 4.29.

The Greinke trade, which symbolized the end of the Brewers season, has actually fueled their recent success, too. Shortstop Jean Segura started slow, but has hit .333/.414/.412 in September. The Brewers have lacked credible shortstop play since Alex Gonzalez suffered a season-ending injury, and solidifying the position for now and the future appears to be one of the keys to the Greinke deal.

Without any head-to-head matchups with the Cardinals, the Brewers need help to close the gap. On paper, Milwaukee seems to hold the edge in strength of schedule. While the Brewers and Cardinals share two common opponents (the Reds and Astros), Milwaukee will play a series with the Padres while the Cardinals have to take on the Nationals. In an odd twist, the two teams vying for the top seed could determine their first-round opponent. The Brewers have a chance if the Reds and Nationals play their A-lineups, which is more than anyone could’ve said seven weeks ago. 

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

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