The Brewers’ Early Winning Streak

Maybe the most annoying thing you could say is that the Brewers are going to regress. They’re not going to keep winning 83% of their baseball games. They’re not going to end the season with a +378 run differential. They’re not as good as a 1.80 team ERA, and they’re not going to keep running a .250 BABIP against. They’re on a nine-game winning streak, but they’re going to lose, and they’re going to lose, inarguably, dozens of times. The Brewers, in truth, aren’t close to this good. No kidding. This year’s Brewers aren’t literally the best team in the history of baseball.

But every hot streak is unsustainable, just as every cold streak is unsustainable. Any team that wins nine in a row and any team that wins 10 of 12 will have contributing factors you can’t expect to keep up in the long run. What’s important isn’t determining whether or not the Brewers will keep winning at this clip. They won’t. What’s important is determining where the Brewers stand now, relative to where they stood a couple weeks ago before the season was underway.

Toward that end, there are two sub-questions:

  1. What have the Brewers already done?
  2. What do the Brewers project to be?

You never expect any team to start out 10-2, because 10-2 isn’t a reflection of any team’s true talent, but one certainly wouldn’t have expected the 2014 Brewers to start out 10-2. The Dodgers or the Tigers or the Red Sox, maybe. But our projections pegged the Brewers as a mediocre ballclub. So let’s get into the first sub-question.

What have the Brewers already done?

The simplest thing is just to look at the playoff odds. We’re not even halfway through the first month of the regular season, so I know it’s complete silliness to be paying attention to the playoff odds already, but then I also know that, mathematically, it’s not complete silliness, since all the games count. At 10-2, the Brewers have the best record in baseball. They don’t just lead their division — they lead by three games over the Cardinals, and four games over the Pirates, and six games over the Reds and Cubs. All of those margins are going to change between now and the end of September, but if you want, you can think of the Brewers as beginning a 150-game season, where they’re given a head start.

According to our Playoff Odds page, when the Brewers were 0-0, they stood about a 7% chance of winning the division, and about a 7-8% chance of winning one of the Wild Cards. We gave them a 14.5% chance of postseason baseball. Look now. Now the Brewers have a 16% shot at the division, and a 17-18% shot at one of the Wild Cards. Their playoff odds are up to 33.7%, which is an increase of 19.2 percentage points. Basically, if you repeated the rest of the season three times, you’d expect the Brewers to make the playoffs once. A few weeks ago, we put their chances at 1-in-7.

Unsurprisingly, the Brewers have the biggest odds gain in baseball to date. In second are the A’s, at +14.6 percentage points. Then there are the Braves, at +10.1. Bringing up the rear are the Red Sox, at -10.3. No one would say the Brewers are in a favorable position now, but they’re in one of the best possible positions, and it’s not like they’ve been playing against slouches — though they did get to sweep the Phillies, they also swept the Pirates and Red Sox, and they opened against the Braves. In a long-distance running race, you don’t want to sprint out of the gate, because while you’ll pull out ahead, eventually you’ll run out of energy and fall back. Baseball, presumably, doesn’t work like sprinting. The Brewers have effectively sprinted ahead, but their energy profile is still perfectly fine.

Maybe you don’t like odds this soon. Think of it this way: we opened with the Brewers projected as about a 77-win team. Now we have them projected as almost an 82-win team. It’s not that the projections have really improved — it’s that you project out the remaining 150 games, and then add 10 wins and two losses. We know that there are error bars around win projections. The closer a team’s win projection gets to the lead, the more the error bar catches first place.

So should we get to the second sub-question?

What do the Brewers project to be?

A different way of putting this: is there anything we’ve seen that might give us reason to be more optimistic about the Brewers than we were a few weeks ago? Out of the hot start, should there be any different expectations, or will the Brewers just play like the expected Brewers the rest of the way?

Or: are the Brewers’ odds actually even better now?

One notes that it isn’t the hitting that’s been out of line. Carlos Gomez has been the best position player, but he probably really is the team’s best position player, and though he won’t keep slugging .706, he was just worth almost eight wins. Ryan Braun has a troubling hand injury, but he’s also hitting the ball well early on, suggesting that maybe the injury won’t spoil his numbers. Jonathan Lucroy has started a little too hot, but over the previous two seasons he’d been a well above-average bat. There’ve been other contributors, but the offense has also had problem points, and right now the Brewers are fifth in the National League in runs per game. They could continue to be a good unit, provided Braun maintains enough of a feel and provided Lucroy’s 2012-2013 weren’t flukes.

The key to the Brewers so far has been run prevention. They’re third in baseball in rotation ERA. They’re first in baseball in bullpen ERA. This is a rotation that doesn’t have a clear ace, and this is a bullpen that, a year ago, did more to hurt the cause than help. The unit will perform worse, but it’s a question of by how much. And when you look at both parts, you can see glimmers of actual hope.

Just to refresh your memory, the Brewers projected for a bottom-third rotation, and for a bottom-sixth bullpen. That same bullpen is currently using Tyler Thornburg, who’s gained velocity in relief and shown controlled, swing-and-miss stuff. Working in relief as well is Zach Duke, who’s been tremendous against lefties as a reliever for a few seasons. And Will Smith is coming off a year of striking out a third of everybody in Kansas City, so that all seemingly makes for strong support around Francisco Rodriguez, Jim Henderson, and Brandon Kintzler. Bullpens are volatile, and bullpens are hard to project, and sometimes relievers come and go. But right now, if you look at Milwaukee’s relief corps, it actually seems like a strength, which is quite the departure from 2013.

As for the rotation, the Brewers are third in ERA-, fifth in FIP-, and seventh in xFIP-. The unit’s groundball rate is up above 50%, making for a substantial increase from 2013 and making for greater utilization of Milwaukee’s defensive infield shifts. The staff as a whole has increased its rate of pitches down in the zone, and that, incidentally, is where Lucroy and Martin Maldonado excel in receiving. And if you go name by name, you can see how all five of these starters could succeed.

Matt Garza has pretty much always been fine, when he’s been healthy. Kyle Lohse hasn’t been anything but terrific since 2010. As much as Yovani Gallardo‘s seemingly declining, he’s never posted a below-average xFIP. Marco Estrada‘s been good for about four strikeouts for every walk. And while Wily Peralta‘s had command issues before, his velocity is up and he’s always been a heavy groundballer. All of these guys could be average or better, and while just about every rotation eventually needs to call on some depth, for the time being the group is healthy and collectively excelling.

You don’t have to squint too much to see an adequate starting rotation. You don’t have to squint too much to see an adequate bullpen. And you certainly don’t have to squint too much to see an adequate lineup. Put it all together and you have something like an adequate baseball team, with the regular upside and downside. In the past, we described the Brewers as a stars and scrubs team with too little support to remain afloat. Now, the support pieces might be there, behind the guys like Gomez and Braun and Lucroy. There isn’t a lot sexy about league-average performance, but every team needs those players around the better players, and the Brewers have a lot of league-average hope. Maybe beyond hope — maybe probability.

What the Brewers presumably aren’t is the best team in the NL Central. What the Brewers are is the team with the NL Central’s best record, and another thing the Brewers are is a team with real good players and a number of players who could be fine enough. Based on what the Brewers have already done, they’ve increased their playoff odds dramatically. And if you believe they’re a more talented team than the preseason projections, then the Brewers might’ve already kicked off something of a special year. There’s no such thing as a bad time to go 9-0. 9-0 has a way of making everything better.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


39 Responses to “The Brewers’ Early Winning Streak”

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  1. JS says:

    The Brewers are legit contenders and it doesn’t take much besides comparing why they failed last year, and the changes they made in the off-season, as long as getting healthy to realize this.

    Last year, was a worst-case scenario, disaster of a year. Everything that could go wrong went wrong, and they still finished with 74 wins. Despite getting healthy and improving their roster, most people still projected them to finish only a couple games better. They have the talent to compete not only this year, but for years to come.

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    • iSteve says:

      Besides adding Garza, what have they done?

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      • jim S. says:

        Hey, wait a minute. You guys are missing perhaps the most important thing: the Brewers have added Hank the dog. Talk about a little canine karma.

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      • Jason B says:

        Well they (presumably) won’t be missing Braun on a suspension as they did last year; technically not an addition but it should make them better than they were.

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      • JS says:

        They also got Wil Smith, resigned K-rod in addition to the Garza acquisition. They also brought up some guys last year that are starting now: Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett who both look pretty good so far. They got Reynolds/Overbay while still not ideal at 1B is much improved over Yuniskey Betancourt and Jaun Francisco last year.

        Also, Ramirez is healthy, Braun might be healthy (still dealing with thumb issue but looking ok so far).

        Their weakness is depth, so if they run into injury problems that will be an issue, but if they can stay healthy they are as good as any team in the league.

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        • Anon21 says:

          “They also got Wil Smith”

          Perfectly cromulent middle reliever, almost as far from “difference maker” as you could possibly get.

          “resigned K-rod”

          Not a change.

          “Reynolds/Overbay while still not ideal at 1B”

          That seems like a considerable understatement.

          “if they can stay healthy they are as good as any team in the league.”

          Really? The Healthy Brewers are right there with the Dodgers?

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        • harrison says:

          Reynolds/Overbay don’t have to produce like Joey Votto. What matters is how much of an improvement they are over Betancourt and Francisco, and the most reasonable answer is “a considerable one.”

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        • JS says:

          Yes, absolutely. The Dodgers are a good team but not that better than any of the other contenders, I’m guessing you are just biased?

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        • JS says:

          Pretty sure we can lol Anon21 now

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      • Joe says:

        I think a lot of people overlooked during the preseason what a big difference a health Aramis Ramirez can make. In 2012 he hit a ton of doubles and was a big-time run producer, before knee trouble kept him out most of last year.

        If he can be something close to that, with a healthy Braun and broken-out Carlos Gomez, then the Brewers have a 1-3-4 lineup punch that matches up pretty well with just about any team in baseball.

        Looking beyond that, Lucroy and Khris Davis are nice back-end of the order hitters, Segura has major potential hitting second, and Mark Reynolds seems like a useful all-or-nothing power hitter to have at the back of an NL lineup before the pitcher.

        If Gallardo rebounds from a bad year and Peralta starts to pitch up to his potential, that gives the Brewers a starting rotation without any seriously weak links even if it lacks any aces.

        So it’s not so much what they’ve added to last year’s team as it is that a lot of things went very wrong last year, and likely won’t go so wrong this year. That’s my optimistic, homer-colored glasses take at least.

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      • SRB says:

        They dumped Yuniesky Betancourt, Juan Francisco, and Alex Gonzalez, who contributed to a combined -4.7 fWAR at 1B last season.

        Mark Reynolds/Lyle Overbay forming a passable platoon is already a massive improvement.

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      • Dustin Rucinski says:

        Will Smith, Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay. Not game changers but upgrades over the guys last year.

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      • Mr baseball says:

        The brewers added an above average SP in FA, they also made the biggest improvement in all of MLB at 1st base. They also replaced their below avg closer with an above avg closer

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  2. Pirates Hurdles says:

    It seems we forget that the Brewers had a 9 game win streak last April too. Its early, far too early to make conclusions.

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    • Jason B says:

      Good thing he didn’t then! Basically just said that they have improved their postseason chances considerably (from roughly 1-in-7 to roughly 1-in-3), but even so they will miss the postseason more often than not.

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      • Pirates Hurdles says:

        More in response to the 1st commenter declaring MIL a playoff contender. Not directed at Jeff, although he probably should have mentioned the 2013 9 game April streak in his fairly balance article.

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  3. Diamond Doug says:

    Superbly written. Statistical analysis quiets all the naysayers. The Brewers are in far better shape than the pundits expected. It’s what is accomplished on the field that counts. That’s why we love this game.

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    • TWNDAI says:

      Uh, what statistical evidence is supposed to be quieting the naysayers, exactly? The article says they went from being REALLY unlikely to make the playoffs to being just pretty unlikely.

      I also love that you praise statistical analysis in the same comment you trot out the old platitude about how it’s “on the field” that the game is played. Heh.

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      • TWNDAI says:

        Hey, whaddya’ know, they’re 8-13 in their last 21 now and have a negative run differential. Nay, I say. Nayyyyy.

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  4. Robby says:

    I have a question I was hoping someone could answer for me. There were a couple references here about the Brewers having a bad bullpen last year, and WAR seems to agree. However when I look at the team numbers for the Brewers and the Rangers, I don’t really see any glaring statistical differences, other than HR rates. K, BB, BABIP, xFIP are all pretty similar.

    I assume there are park factors at work as well with the Rangers pitching in Arlington, but it’s not exactly like Miller Park is Petco. My question is, what am I missing that created a 7-win gap in WAR between the two?

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    • Terence says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Because Fangraphs pitcher WAR is FIP-based it basically has three inputs, BB%, K%, HR%. Those rates are then park and league adjusted. The Rangers play in a hitter’s park and a hitter’s league. The Brewer’s bullpen was 50% worse at preventing home runs than the Ranger’s bullpen before making park and league corrections. That difference over 500 IP (33% of the season) is significant.

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  5. Steven says:

    “No one would say the Brewers are in a favorable position now”

    The people over at Baseball Prospectus would, 54% Playoff odds!

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  6. Biesterfield says:

    Do you update your ROS projections based on uncertainty and changes around true talent in addition to past record?

    In other words, say we get 3/4 of the way through the season and the Brewers are still in first place. Will you still project the last 1/4 of the season for them as a true talent 77-win team, or do you adjust their true talent upward using some type of Bayesian-like formula?

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  7. LHPSU says:

    I’m actually not sure why projections were down on the Brewers before the season. They had a pretty good lineup, at least average at every position except 1B (where they have a servicable platoon that isn’t called Yunievsky Betancourt), and quite a lot more than that from CF, RF and C. Garza theoratically gives them three No. 3 (or better) starters with some upside behind that.

    The Brewers’ concern is the “health willing” part, because Aramis Ramirez and Lucroy are good bets to miss time, Braun’s thumb isn’t completely healthy and we all know about Garza. If they’re healthy, I don’t think they’re doing anything unexpected, and really nothing has changed since early March.

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  8. jruby says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    “You never expect any team to start out 10-2, because 10-2 isn’t a reflection of any team’s true talent. . .”

    But, of course, you always expect *some* team to start out 10-2, because 10-2 is a reflection of the variability of baseball results.

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    • Anon21 says:

      Happens, on average, less than once per season, so you actually should not expect that going into the year: http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/45967/the-list-10-things-that-caught-my-eye-2

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      • jruby says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        You should *expect* it if it happens more than once every two seasons; that is, if it’s more likely to happen than not. Your article says it’s happened 15 times out of 19 seasons, I think. So hell yeah you expect it.

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    • jruby says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      To be more precise, supposing random outcomes, the chance that at least one team starts 10-2 or better is – if I’ve done my math right, knock on wood – 66.1%.

      It’s significant for the Brewers that the Brewers started 10-2, but it’s not *significant* significant that the Brewers started 10-2. It means their true talent level is a bit more likely to be on the right side of 50%, and more importantly it means they’re more likely to make the playoffs regardless of their true talent.

      Of course, my comments are just a less-helpful, less-interesting version of what Jeff said in the article…

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  9. Thomas Au says:

    Forget about “10-2” for a moment. The Brewers have won eight games more than they lost. Assume they do that for the remaining 150 games in the season. That would be 79-71 for those games, and their 10-2 start would make the total 89-73.

    That’s 15 more wins than in 2013. Presumably half or more of those extra wins will come against the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals. Using 2013 win totals as a starting point, that pulls the Reds below 90 or even 89 wins, the Pirates down to 90 wins (or less), and the St. Louis Cardinals below 95 wins. All of a sudden, the Brewers are third, if not second, in NL Central, and (probably) get one of the two wild cards.

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    • Iron says:

      However, that is not a valid assumption. Fangraphs projected standings have them going 72-77 the rest of the way. Now, that is just a projection, but is at least based on more than just randomly hoping they go 8 games over based on a good run over a tiny sample.

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      • TWNDAI says:

        It’s also not valid to assume you can just take those wins directly from the two teams they’re most likely to need them against.

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  10. Mr baseball says:

    Healthy Brewers = 90 wins. Expected health Brewers = 84 wins. Injured brewers = 77 wins

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    • Iron says:

      End of season result versus fan interpretation, regardless of actual time spent by Brewer players on the DL:

      90 wins = ‘we were healthy’
      84 wins = ‘we lost too much time from some key players’
      77 wins = ‘we got clobbered by injuries’

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  11. Bobby Ayala says:

    Much like Roenicke, you’ve forgotten about Wei-Chung Wang.

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