The National League conversation has (rightfully) been dominated by the NL West all year. This was expected coming into the season, considering the Los Angeles Dodgers are the defending World Series champs and the San Diego Padres loaded up over the winter with the intent to compete with their neighbors to the north.
But the San Francisco Giants' ascent was quick and got plenty of people talking. Out east, the New York Mets and their new owner, Steve Cohen, kept things interesting regardless of where they were in the standings, the Atlanta Braves aggressively retooled after losing their best player, Ronald Acuna Jr., to injury and the Washington Nationals tore their 2019 World Series team down to the studs.
Somewhere in the middle of it all—geographically and standings-wise—are the Milwaukee Brewers, the leaders of the NL Central and the potential World Series team that isn't garnering the same headlines as the others. At the start of the season, much of Milwaukee's attention was on the Bucks' championship run. Now, it's football season in Green Bay. The Brewers haven't had any drastic highs or lows and Wisconsin fans are likely taking in the final days of summer.
But Milwaukee is deserving of some headlines and of its status as a pennant contender. The Brewers execute in all three facets of the game, the front office brought in the right reinforcements at the trade deadline and their organizational depth has helped them withstand injuries to key players this season.
It starts with pitching for the Brew Crew, something that's been true dating back at least four years. The bullpen was the star in that electric seven-game NLCS loss to the Dodgers in 2018. The Brewers got enough starting pitching, but it was the bullpen that kept them in games. Josh Hader became a household name, throwing 7.2 innings in that series without allowing a single earned run. He didn't allow any in the NLDS, either, and has only allowed two in 12.1 postseason innings.
Milwaukee had the fifth-best bullpen in baseball that year. This year, its bullpen is the eighth-best in baseball, with a Big Three of left-handers Hader (1.66 ERA, 24 saves in 25 opportunities, 2.0 fWAR) and Brent Suter (12-5, 2.86 ERA, most wins for a reliever in baseball, 12th-most relief innings pitched) and right-hander Brad Boxberger (5-3, 2.47 ERA).
Right-handers Devin Williams, Miguel Sanchez and Hunter Strickland, a savvy addition made in June, have all helped things down in the bullpen. Jake Cousins was plucked from relative obscurity in independent ball and has yet to allow an earned run in 17 innings.
Milwaukee boasts the second-best ERA in baseball (3.09), and it's been largely due to the dominance of the starting rotation. Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta have formed an even more dominant trio.
Burnes had an ERA of nearly 9.00 in 2018, but he saw better results when he increased his cutter usage in 2020: 4-1, 2.13 ERA. Now, he's using it more than ever, more than 50 percent of the time according to Fangraphs, and he complements it with a curveball and a slider. There is more movement on the cutter, more drop on the curveball and his fastball velocity increased this season as well.
Earlier this month, Burnes struck out 10 straight hitters in a win over the Chicago Cubs. Watching them all back-to-back is sort of mesmerizing. Only two others have accomplished the feat: former Mets hurler Tom Seaver and current Philadelphia Phillies starter Aaron Nola.
Mets ace Jacob deGrom might not throw another inning this season, which would position Burnes, who has the highest fWAR of all starting pitchers (5.8), as the frontrunner for NL Cy Young.
Peralta recently hit the IL with right shoulder inflammation, but with the Brewers holding a 9.5-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds, they can use some of their organizational depth to allow him—and others on the IL—to get healthy for the postseason. That combination of depth and sufficient recovery time could be especially beneficial for a team that has seen some of its top talent land on the injured list this season.
The other strength of this team is its defense, which Fangraphs ranks second in baseball. They've prevented 44 runs this season, which is the seventh-most in the league. Strong pitching and defense can help the Brewers overcome their biggest weakness: their offense.
General manager David Stearns and his front office made some smart acquisitions at the trade deadline to try to bolster an underperforming offense.
Between a back injury and a bout with COVID-19, Christian Yelich hasn't looked like himself this season. Though the former MVP is still capable of heating up down the stretch, the club didn't bank on it.
Instead, they acquired shortstop Willy Adames, who has a 150 OPS+ since being traded from the Tampa Bay Rays. They also traded for Rowdy Tellez to get more offensive production out of first base. Tellez gives them a left-handed bat and takes the pressure off of Keston Hiura, who was hitting just .166 before being placed on the COVID IL.
This is what the best front offices do: Develop enough talent so they have the capital to make trades and fill in the holes without depleting the farm system or even the active roster. That depth is needed to withstand injuries, and it's needed in September to get everyone primed and ready to play deep into October.
And as of right now, there's reason to picture October baseball in Milwaukee. Fangraphs gives the Brewers a 10.3 percent chance of winning the World Series, the fourth-best odds in baseball.
It's easy for teams in smaller markets to get lost in the regular-season shuffle, especially once preseason football begins. So while everyone else is talking about Fernando Tatis Jr. playing in the outfield and debating the merits of Zack Wheeler out in Philadelphia, here's some appreciation for one of the steadiest, most consistent teams in the National League.
The Brewers have been just as good as the teams out west, if not better, even if they're not dominating the conversation.