We're still in the portion of the season when you have to be careful about taking anything at face value—especially with performances that seem out of character.
On that note, here's me telling caution to take a hike so I can say this: You might want to take the Milwaukee Brewers seriously as NL Central contenders.
The Brewers won on Friday night, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-2. They got all four runs off Francisco Liriano and received seven innings of two-run ball from Wily Peralta. Francisco Rodriguez struck out the side in the ninth for his third save.
The reasons for the Brew Crew's success? Cliches, according to manager Ron Roenicke:
"Everything's clicking and we'll continue to grind these things out the best we can." - Ron Roenicke— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) April 12, 2014
At last check, the Brewers were indeed leading the league in Weighted Clicks Created Plus, and their GAR (Grinding Above Replacement) was off the charts.
Speaking less sarcastically, the Brewers do hold the best run differential in MLB at plus-24. There's naturally some flukiness at play there. And where there's flukiness, regression tends to follow swiftly. The Brewers surely won't finish the year with the plus-400-ish run differential they're on pace for.
There is, however, plenty to like about these Brewers.
Let's start by discussing Milwaukee's biggest strength at the moment: its bullpen. According to FanGraphs, Brewers relievers currently boast a 0.91 ERA.
Further data from FanGraphs shows that there's more than just ERA to gawk at:
Brewers relievers have done everything that good relievers should be doing: rack up strikeouts, limit walks, keep the ball on the ground and keep the ball in the yard.
These are huge reasons why their performance has pleased not just ERA, but FIP as well. That's Fielding Independent Pitching, which removes defense from the equation and tells us how good pitchers are based on strikeouts, walks, home runs and hit-by-pitches.
The individual arms are good, too. Zach Duke and Will Smith are good for lefty-on-lefty matchups. Jim Henderson and Tyler Thornburg can both bring the heat. And while Rodriguez doesn't throw as hard, Brooks Baseball can show that his increased reliance on his changeup has paid off in helping him get swings-and-misses.
This is not to suggest that 0.91 ERA is going to last, mind you. It's not, because not lasting is what 0.91 ERAs do. But when you have a bullpen with good arms and a closer who can miss bats like crazy, you're probably going to be looking at a body of solid relief work at the end of all things.
Not that it's all about Milwaukee's bullpen, of course. The Brewers have also gotten excellent starting pitching, as their starting rotation's 2.31 ERA stands as one of the best in MLB.
That there's a bulbous 4.04 FIP next to that 2.31 ERA says it's not going to last. But rather than a total fluke, this rotation's early success is a case of it picking up where it left off.
The least impressive performance there was authored by Peralta, but even that one was pretty good. Certainly good enough for what he is this year, anyway, and that's a No. 5 starter.
And the reason he is a No. 5 starter, of course, is because the Brewers went out and signed Matt Garza.
Garza made his Milwaukee debut with eight brilliant one-run innings, and surrendered just three earned runs in six innings his next time out to put his ERA at 2.57. Health is going to be a key question mark with him, but he looks like he could be for the Brewers what he was for the Chicago Cubs: a starter who posted a 3.45 ERA across 60 outings.
Right now, the Brewers have arguably the best pitching staff in MLB. It's not actually that good, of course, but I'll wager that Milwaukee's pitching was underrated coming into the season. Its early success is an excuse for it to be underrated no longer.
Which is good, because there's a limit to how much I trust Milwaukee's offense. It may boast a collective .769 OPS, but allow me to share two concerns:
- The team's walk percentage is 5.1.
- The team's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .336.
Repeating a trend from 2013, that walk percentage is the lowest in MLB. That's concerning because walks, as a species, are generally helpful. The Brewers are going to need more of them once that BABIP comes down, and that BABIP will come down.
On the flip side, it does bode well that the Brewers were able to avoid having a bottom-feeding offense (19th in runs scored) in 2013 even despite their aggressiveness, as it's something they did with little help from either Aramis Ramirez or Ryan Braun. Injuries and Braun's 65-game suspension limited the two of them to just 153 combined games.
Thus far in 2014, however, things are looking up for both these guys.
Ramirez hit his first home run on Friday night, and I've long since given up on the notion that his bat will eventually run out of juice. He hit .283 last year even with his health issues, and has hit below .280 just once since 2004.
Braun, meanwhile, has snapped out of a cold start to the season by slashing .450/.455/1.000 over his last five games. The big stop along the way was his three-homer outburst in Philadelphia, which showed that he can play through loud booing just fine and that his wounded thumb might not keep the clamps on his power after all.
4th time Ryan Braun has hit three homers in game. Seven RBI is career high. He has answered Philly boos the way all players dream of.— Tom (@Haudricourt) April 8, 2014
Braun and the Brewers will have to be very careful with that thumb. But if he's able to stay on the field, it's easy to like Milwaukee's lineup with him as the centerpiece. A lineup with Braun, Ramirez, the increasingly awesome Carlos Gomez, the underappreciated Jonathan Lucroy and young talents like Jean Segura, Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett is a fine lineup indeed.
In the interest of full disclosure, all of this isn't me standing up and saying, "See! Told you so!"
I didn't have the Brewers pegged as the NL Central champs before the season, nor did I even have them down as a wild card. I liked what they had, but not enough to elevate them to contender status in a division that featured three (three!) 90-win teams in 2013.
But what we've seen in the early going is the Brewers turn potential into reality. And with the St. Louis Cardinals off to an iffy start and the Cincinnati Reds off to an awful start, the Brewers have earned themselves a leg up in a division race that might not follow the same script as it did in 2013.
The Brewers still have a long way to go before clinching anything. But since they've made things easier on themselves with their early win streak, and since they have enough talent to keep regression from killing their season altogether, hey, why not them?
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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