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Is this the best Milwaukee Brewers team ever?

Milwaukee's 49 wins and 5 1/2-game division lead are both tops in the majors this season. Photo:

Milwaukee's 49 wins and 5 1/2-game division lead are both tops in the majors this season.

With their win over the Rockies on Thursday night, the Milwaukee Brewers finished the first half of their 2014 schedule with the best 81-game record in franchise history. Their 49-32 mark is two games better than their previous best of 47-34, set by the 1979 team and tied by the 2007 squad. That raises a question no one thought would be asked this season: Is this year’s team the best in Brewers history?

That’s not as absurd a question as you might think. If Milwaukee is simply as good over its next 81 games as it was over its first 81, it will win a franchise-record 98 games, breaking the mark of 96 set by the 2011 team. If the Brewers win the National League Central, a division they currently lead by 5 1/2 games, it would be just the third division title in franchise history, joining their 1982 AL East and 2011 NL Central championships (the Brewers also had the best overall record in the AL East in strike-shortened 1981, but lost that October's division playoff series to the Yankees). The limited amount of glory in Milwaukee's past -- just four playoff appearances in 44 seasons -- adds legitimacy to the notion that this year’s surprising squad will become one of the best the team has ever had.

For now, however, it’s pretty easy to say that this is not likely to be the best team in franchise history. That distinction rests securely with the 1982 version, the only Brewers club ever to make the World Series, where it lost in seven games to the Cardinals. Simply winning the pennant might seem like enough to earn the "best ever" designation, but Harvey’s Wallbangers, who won 95 games that year (tied with the 1979 team for second-most in franchise history), come out on top by a couple of other metrics I concocted for this conversation, as well.

It’s easy to rank teams by how deep they got in the playoffs or by regular season wins, but there are plenty of clubs that over- or underperform both in the regular season and the postseason. To get a better sense of how well a team actually played, one place to look is its run differential -- how many runs a team scored and allowed and thus by how much it out-scored its opponents. Those figures can then be translated into wins and losses using Bill James’ Pythagorean formula. Ranking clubs by Pythagorean record, however, is also needlessly narrow in focus. A quick and dirty way to consider both actual and Pythagorean records at the same time is simply to average the winning percentages of the two. If you do that, the list of the top 10 Brewers teams ever looks like this:

 
Year W-L Actual Pct. Pythag. PCT. AVG. PCT. Finish
1982 95-67 .586 .598 .592 Lost World Series
1978 93-69 .574 .596 .585 3rd, 6.5 GB
2014 --- .605 .555 .580 ---
1992 92-70 .568 .592 .580 2nd, 4 GB
2011 96-66 .593 .556 .575 Lost NLCS
1979 95-67 .586 .551 .569 2nd, 8GB
1980 86-76 .531 .579 .555 3rd, 17 GB
1981 62-47 .569 .533 .551 Lost ALDS
2008 90-72 .556 .539 .548 Lost NLDS
1987 91-71 .562 .525 .544 3rd, 7 GB

The 2007 team is notable by its absence. Though it started 47-34, as mentioned up top, it finished with just 83 wins, and the average of its actual winning percentage of .512 and Pythagorean mark of .515​ ranks 15th by the above method. Meanwhile, we see above that the 2014 team, while significantly out-performing its run differential, is quite comfortably in the top five with an average winning percentage of .580.

I next wanted to look at the run scoring and prevention as a percentage of league average for each of the above 10 teams, as well as the 2007 squad. The result here, which I’m calling runs scored plus (RS+) and runs allowed plus (RA+) is similar to OPS+ and ERA+ but without the adjustment for park factors. In both cases, 100 is average and higher is better. I then added the number of points by which each team exceeded 100 in both categories to create a single figure representing the degree to which they were a better-than-average team. Here’s that list:

 
Year W-L RS+ RA+ Above Avg. Finish
1982 95-67 122 102 24 Lost World Series
1978 93-69 118 105 23 3rd, 6.5 GB
1992 92-70 106 116 22 2nd, 4GB
1980 86-76 111 107 18 3rd, 17 GB
2011 96-66 108 106 14 Lost NLCS
2014 --- 113 100 13 ---
1979 95-67 107 104 11 2nd, 8 GB
2008 90-72 102 109 11 Lost NLDS
1981 62-47 111 97 8 Lost ALDS
1987 91-71 109 97 6 3rd, 7 GB
2007 83-79 105 100 5 2nd, 2 GB

Again, 1982 comes out on top, with 1978 and 1992, two seasons in which Milwaukee fell short of the postseason, once more finishing high on the list. This year’s squad just misses the top five, but looking at the two above charts together, it seems reasonable to think that it is on pace to be one of the five best Brewers teams ever.

One thing the above list allows us to do is to see how these teams won. True to their name and reputation, Harvey's Wallbangers -- an offense-first group featuring the likes of Robin Yount, Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor and Gorman Thomas and nicknamed in honor of manager Harvey Kuenn -- simply crushed the ball at the plate, carrying a barely-better-than-average pitching staff. The 1992 team was the rare Brewers club to be led by its pitching, something also true of the 2008 squad, which picked up CC Sabathia for the stretch run and broke a quarter-century long playoff drought as a result.

This year’s Milwaukee team is more like its '82 forebears. It has the third-highest RS+ on the above list and trails only the park-assisted Rockies in runs per game and home runs among NL teams this season, but its pitching staff is merely average. That said, the Brewers' staff this season would be greatly improved by replacing Marco Estrada in the rotation. Estrada has posted a 6.94 ERA in his last eight starts, allowing 14 home runs over that span at a pace of 2.7 per nine innings and surrendering a major-league-high 24 homers for the year. The Brewers could choose to insert lefty swing man Tom Gorzelanny or righty prospect Jimmy Nelson into the rotation, but Estrada's solid, homer-free win against the Nationals on Wednesday seems to have earned him at least one more turn.

Incidentally, here are how each of the above teams did through 81 games, along with their records in their second 81 games and final results:

 
year first 81 pct. last 81 pct. final w-l pct. finish
2014 49-32 .605 --- --- --- --- ---
2007 47-34 .580 36-45 .444 83-79 .512 2nd, 2 GB
1979 47-34 .580 48-33 .593 95-67 .586 2nd, 8 GB
1982 46-35 .568 49-32 .605 95-67 .586 Lost World Series
1980 46-35 .568 40-41 .494 86-76 .531 3rd, 17 GB
1978 46-35 .568 47-34 .580 93-69 .574 3rd, 6.5 GB
1981 45-36 .556 17-11* .607 62-47 .569 Lost ALDS
2011 44-37 .543 52-29 .642 96-66 .593 Lost NLDS
2008 44-37 .543 46-35 .568 90-72 .556 2nd, 4 GB
1992 43-38 .530 49-32 .605 92-70 .568 2nd, 4 GB
1987 40-41 .494 51-30 .630 91-71 .562 3rd, 7 GB

*Because of the strike, the 1981 Brewers played just 109 games. They were 31-25 (.554) before the strike, three games behind the first-place Yankees, and 31-22 (.585) after, 1 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox, thus clinching a berth in the temporarily expanded postseason field.

The prominent placement of the 2007 and 1980 teams on that list is a reminder that a great first half doesn't ensure a great second half. Both of those teams struggled in July and August before rebounding too late in September. The 2007 team had a brutal 18-34 (.346) record in July and August, wasting what had been an 8 1/2-game division lead on June 23. Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo and Rickie Weeks remain from that year's club to remind their teammates that not even the best 81-game record in franchise history is a guarantee of anything.

That said, the Brewers got to this point by rebounding from a losing May, during which both Braun and Aramis Ramirez spent time on the disabled list, to go 19-10 (.655) since May 27, scoring 5.66 runs per game over that stretch. Their strong play in that time has proved that, while they are vulnerable to injury like any team, their April success (20-8) was not a fluke. If the players can stay healthy, it wouldn’t be a shock if Milwaukee is actually a bit better in the second half than it was in the first. If so, this could be the first Brewers team to win 100 games and may yet prove to be the best team in franchise history.

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