Is this the best Milwaukee Brewers team ever?

Friday June 27th, 2014

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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