Explaining the Brewers' hot start, and why it's not as big a surprise as you think
The Brewers won just 74 games last year and finished fourth in the five-team National League Central, but two weeks into this season they are off to the best start in the game. They enter the new week at 10-2 and carrying a nine-game winning streak that began with three straight victories against the defending world champion Red Sox in Boston and includes a three-game sweep this past weekend of their division rivals from Pittsburgh.
Milwaukee is already three games up in the NL Central and a game and a half ahead of the next best team in the majors, the 9-4 Dodgers. With six of their wins coming against 2013 playoff teams, one can't write off the Brewers' early success as the product of an easy schedule, which means the question must be asked: Are the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers for real?
First, let's take a quick look at the significance of a team winning 10 or more of its first dozen games. Since 2000, 11 teams have done so, including this year's Brewers. Of the previous 10, five went on to win 93 or more games and make the playoffs. Three finished with 74 or fewer wins, while the other two, the 2003 Royals and 2009 Marlins, greatly exceeded preseason expectations but fell short of both 90 wins and the postseason. Here's the full list:
All that really tells us is that the Brewers' 10-2 start is no guarantee of success over the full season. On the whole that list is encouraging for Milwaukee, as those 10 teams averaged 87.5 wins, a total that would represent a 13-game improvement for the Brewers this year. Still, even rounding up to 88 wins would hardly guarantee them a playoff spot. In the two years with two wild-card teams in each league, only one of them (the 2012 Cardinals) reached the postseason with that many victories.
Milwaukee is strong up the middle with catcher Jonathan Lucroy, shortstop Jean Segura and centerfielder Carlos Gomez and has two big bats coming back from seasons cut short by injury and suspension in third baseman Aramis Ramirez and rightfielder Ryan Braun. General manager Doug Melvin added depth to the team's pitching staff by signing Matt Garza, and the club had reason to expect better things this season from Yovani Gallaro, after an uncharacteristically poor 2013 season that started with a DUI arrest, and sophomore Wily Peralta.
Thus far, it has been the pitching that has been powering the Brewers' success. No team in baseball has allowed fewer runs in total or on a per-game basis (29 and 2.42, respectively). The starting pitching staff has a 1.80 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP and a robust 3.67 K/BB ratio. Gallardo has allowed just two runs through three starts and leads the National League with a 0.96 ERA. Kyle Lohse's 3.05 ERA is the highest of the team's five starters, and the bullpen has been untouchable. The top four Milwaukee relievers -- veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez, deposed closer Jim Henderson, lefty offseason addition Will Smith and converted starter Tyler Thornburg -- have combined to allow just two runs, one unearned, in 24 1/3 innings while striking out 27 and have stranded their only three inherited runners.
Regression, though, is coming. To begin with, the Brewers' bullpen lacks depth behind that top four. Brandon Kintzler, who posted a 2.69 ERA in 71 games for Milwaukee last year and hadn't allowed a run in five innings this season, is on the disabled list with a rotator cuff strain. He joins utility lefty Tom Gorzelanny, who had shoulder surgery in December, on the shelf, leaving the Brewers with a trio of replacement-level pitchers to flesh out the 'pen. That lack of depth will be exposed as the season progresses. Also, opponents have hit just .254 on balls in play against Milwaukee, a figure sure to increase (no pitching staff in the majors had a BABIP below .277 last year).
As for the Brewers' hitters, what they have done so far as a group is very sustainable. Gomez, Lucroy and first baseman Mark Reynolds are off to hot starts, but Segura and sophomore Khris Davis have done the opposite, and the bench isn't contributing at all. Given that, it is entirely possible that things could even out without radically altering the team's overall scoring rate. Thus far, Milwaukee has scored 4.75 runs per game on the young season, a big improvement over its 3.95 R/G from last year, but one that is right in line with its NL-leading rate of 4.79 runs per game from 2012.
The big difference between 2012 and 2013, of course, was the health and availability of Ramirez and Braun, who combined for 1,307 plate appearances in '12 and just 604 last year. Both have been typically productive in the early going this season -- Ramirez is hitting .380 with 11 RBIs while Braun is at .295 with three home runs -- which is no surprise given the team's success. However, continued health for Braun, who has been playing through nerve damage in his right thumb, and Ramirez, who turns 36 in late June, is no guarantee, and it's difficult to envision the Brewers reaching even 88 wins without them. So are the Brewers for real? Not at an .833 winning percentage and a 1.80 staff ERA they're not, but then again no team would be. However, they are also not a fluke, at least in the sense that it's not difficult to see how they are winning. There's not much that this team can't do well. It has a solid rotation, a strong end-game in the bullpen, a powerful lineup, speed on the bases and good defense. What Milwaukee lacks is roster depth at both the major league and minor league levels. As a result, every injury cuts deeper, and if a key player, such as Braun or Ramirez, goes down it could prove crippling to the team. If the Brewers can stay healthy, they could remain in the mix right through to October, but there is no bigger if in sports than that one.