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:
- What have the Brewers already done?
- 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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