With just two wins in their first 14 games, what's behind the Brewers' franchise-worst start to the year, and is it already too late to save the season?
No team has been anywhere near as lousy this season as the Milwaukee Brewers. On Tuesday night, they lost their seventh straight game to fall to 2–12, the worst record in the majors and the worst start in the franchise’s 47-year history. That record is just one loss worse than the 3–11 Marlins, but Miami's -19 run differential is nowhere near as bad as Milwaukee's -46. With a third of the Brewers' starting lineup—including their two best players, Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez—on the disabled list, there’s little reason to expect anything to change for them in the near future.
As troubling as those injuries are to centerfielder Gomez (right hamstring strain), catcher Lucroy (broken left big toe) and second baseman Scooter Gennett (left hand laceration), and as weak as the lineup has been to this point in the season, Milwaukee's offense has not been the primary reason for the team's struggles. Rather, it is the pitching that has led to its wretched start.
To date, the only game this season in which the Brewers have given up fewer than four runs was the first of their two wins: April 11, when they shut out the Pirates, 6–0, behind a strong seven innings from Jimmy Nelson and a scoreless inning each from relievers Will Smith and Jonathan Broxton. After Tuesday night’s 16-10 pummeling by the Reds, Milwaukee has allowed a whopping 6.2 runs per game this season, the worst mark in all of baseball, leaving the second-place Mariners (5.4) in the dust.
The bulk of the blame falls on the Brewers' starting rotation, which has contributed just two quality starts in 14 opportunities: one by Wily Peralta in the third game of the season (a 5–4 loss to the Rockies in 10 innings) and the aforementioned turn by Nelson two days later. Peralta has since compensated for his tidy season debut by allowing 10 runs in 12 innings over his last two starts. Thus, even with Peralta’s quality start included, the top four men in the Milwaukee rotation—Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Peralta and Mike Fiers—have combined to go 1–10 with a 6.40 ERA and 1.58 WHIP, allowing 11 home runs in a dozen starts despite averaging fewer than six innings pitched per appearance.
Among the troubling signs for the staff are an apparent drop in velocity for 36-year-old Opening Day starter Lohse (whose fastball is averaging just 89.8 miles per hour, per brooksbaseball.net); control problems for Garza, who has walked as many men (nine) as he has struck out and already matched his 2014 total for wild pitches with three; an extreme fly-ball rate (48.9%) for Fiers, who gave up two grand slams on Tuesday; and a significant drop in velocity for Peralta. All of which is to say that there are reasons to doubt the ability of each of those pitchers to round into shape any time soon.
Of those four, Peralta, who will turn 26 in May, might be the largest concern. He was the third-hardest-throwing starting pitcher in the majors last year at 95.6 mph on his four-seam fastball, according to FanGraphs' Pitch f/x leaderboard, trailing only Garrett Richards (96.4) and Yordano Ventura (96.0). But after three starts this season, FanGraphs has Peralta’s velocity down by two mph on average, as does brooksbaseball.net. According to the latter, Peralta hasn’t hit 96 mph with a single pitch this year; last season, he topped 98 in each of his first two starts and regularly reached 99 by midseason. Peralta is still throwing plenty hard, and pitchers with such extreme velocity do tend to slow down a tad in their primes. Still, given Peralta’s results—which include a steep drop in strikeouts (from 7.0 to 3.8 per nine), an increase in home runs (1.0 per nine to 1.4) and a major league-leading hit total (25) with a less-than-extreme batting average on balls in play (.324)—he merits careful observation.
The other culprit behind Milwaukee's terrible start, of course, has been the offense, which has outscored only the Giants and Phillies on a per-game basis, plating 2.93 runs per game to San Francisco’s 2.87 and Philadelphia’s 2.79. The Brewers' figure was largely compiled with Lucroy, Gennett and Gomez in the lineup (for 12, nine and eight games, respectively), though those three contributed little before getting hurt, combining for a .194/.261/.278 line, with Lucroy hitting a miserable .156/.235/.200 in 51 plate appearances.
Still, there was at least some hope that those three would round into shape. The 24-year-old Gennett is the youngest member of the lineup and Lucroy and Gomez are All-Stars still shy of their 30th birthdays. Instead, the team is back to hoping for rebounds from 31-year-old Ryan Braun, who hasn’t been the same player since injuries and a performance-enhancing drug suspension derailed his 2013 season, and 37-year-old Aramis Ramirez, who said before the season that he would retire this fall and is hitting like he already has, posting a -6 OPS+. Milwaukee did get a strong start from new addition Adam Lind at first base, but he is now just 2-for-his-last-34, and while 25-year-old shortstop Jean Segura appears to have rebounded from his dismal '14 (.308/.345/.423 in 55 PA this year), his bat is not capable of carrying a lineup.
The injuries to Lucroy and Gomez have also deprived the team of their defense. Gomez is a legitimate Gold Glove centerfielder (he won his first and only in 2013), and Lucroy is among the best pitch-framers and pitch-blockers in the game. Both have capable backups in Gerardo Parra and Martin Maldonado, respectively, but with the possible exception of arm strength, those two are markedly inferior to Gomez and Lucroy in every facet of the game. And while Gomez should be back soon, Lucroy is expected to be out for four-to-six weeks, which means he may not return until the end of May. By that point, the Brewers' season could already be over, given the strength of their division.
As it is, Milwaukee is already seven games out of first place in the Central and 6 1/2 out of the second wild card spot after just 14 games, and it only seems likely to fall further behind in the coming weeks. On Wednesday night, the Brewers face Reds ace Johnny Cueto, needing to win that game and the next just to split their current series against Cincinnati. Milwaukee then plays four of its next five series against the Cardinals, Cubs and Dodgers, each of whom currently sport a winning percentage in the .600s. The one series not accounted for there is a rematch with the Reds in Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, where, despite its overall losing record in 2014, the home team played .543 ball last year and went 4–2 in its first homestand this season. As Yogi Berra would put it: It’s getting late early in Milwaukee.