There was one certainty heading into the 2017 Major League Baseball season: The National League Central belonged to the Chicago Cubs. Coming into the year, you would have been hard pressed to find a projection system or analyst who disagreed.
With the All-Star Game looming, the Cubs find themselves trailing the surprising Milwaukee Brewers. After Thursday’s 11-2 thumping, the Brewers extended their lead in the division to 4.5 games.
Unless you drink out of a bubbler or pronounce the beginning of the word “bagel” like “bag” — like the fine people of Wisconsin — there’s no way you saw this coming.
Any time a team defies the odds, analysts delve into their performance looking for one magical explanation. But that’s not the case here. The Brewers’ success isn’t built on one huge discovery. They haven’t discovered “the next Moneyball,” which has become baseball’s “one weird trick” attention-grabbing headline.
No. The Brewers’ rise to prominence is due to multiple factors that, when added together, explain how they’ve turned themselves into a legitimate playoff contender.
Let’s explore each of those reasons now.
THE BREWERS HIT ON SOME KEY ACQUISITIONS
The team’s scouting department deserves a lot of credit for recommending both Travis Shaw and Eric Thames. Shaw was coming off a disappointing season in which he hit just .242/.306/.421. The Boston Red Sox, who could desperately use a third baseman now, didn’t think he would recover, so they traded him to Milwaukee.
They were wrong. Shaw has been Milwaukee’s best position player according to fWAR. He’s on his way to his finest offensive season, posting a .296/.362/.564 slash line with an already career-high 18 home runs over 318 plate appearances. Shaw has made more contact, pulled the ball with greater frequency and cut down on his strikeouts with the Brewers. They deserve credit for identifying him as a strong buy-low candidate, and getting him to make the necessary adjustments to break out.
The same thing happened with Thames. Even though he put up Bonds-ian numbers in Korea, there was still a fair amount of skepticism over whether those numbers would carry over to MLB. The Brewers were willing to take that chance, and based on Thames’ three-year $16 million price tag, it’s fair to assume other teams had some concerns. He’s already justified that contract, hitting .245/.375/.566 with 23 home runs. The batting average might be low, but his plate discipline and power are elite. Thames is second on the team’s offense in fWAR, and a big reason they are second in baseball with 133 home runs.
TWO PITCHING BREAKOUTS HAVE STABILIZED THE ROTATION
Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson haven’t received a lot of love, but both have legitimate All-Star cases. Nelson has been the best player on the team according to fWAR. His 2.8 figure ranks fourth among pitchers in the National League.
After two average seasons in the team’s rotation, Nelson has taken a huge step forward this year. He’s striking out more than a batter per inning for the first time in his career while cutting down his walk rate dramatically.
A big part of his success has been adjusting his approach against left-handers. From 2012 to 2016, lefties hit .268/.361/.352 against Nelson. That performance resulted in a .353 wOBA, an advanced stat that measures offensive performance. Basically, every lefty turned into Adrian Beltre when they stepped in against Nelson.
Those numbers have plummeted to .233/.296/.394 in 2017. Nelson has found a way to turn Beltre into Gordon Beckham. He’s accomplished that by cutting down on his sinker in favor of a four-seam fastball and mixing in more curveballs and changeups. It’s worked. Lefties are hitting the fastball for a .261 clip, but that’s an improvement over the .281 average against his sinker last year. Both his curve (.057) and change (.111) have been un-hittable by southpaws this season.
Multiple factors have helped Anderson become a better pitcher. His velocity appears to be up significantly, and while that could be misleading after MLB altered pitch tracking software, Anderson said he worked on strength training to improve his velocity this winter.
The result has been better effectiveness from nearly all of his pitches. His whiff rate on his fastball has risen, leading to a career-best 23.4 strikeout rate. His curveball has improved, and he’s using his cutter a lot more.
All three of those things have helped Anderson keep righties off balance this year. Anderson is one of those rare pitchers who actually performs better against opposite-handed hitters, likely due to his excellent changeup. Because of this, righties have hit him much better over his career. Prior to 2017, righties posted a .361 wOBA against Anderson. He’s lowered that to .305 this season.
Before his injury, Anderson was in the middle of a brilliant stretch, in which he posted a 1.56 ERA in June. While you could write that off as small-sample nonsense, Anderson also showed a change in his approach during that period.
As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs pointed out, Anderson started standing in different spots on the mound when facing lefties and righties. He stands on the third-base side of the rubber with righties at the plate, and shifts to the first base side when facing lefties. Anderson wasn’t doing that in April. Even if you wanted to write off his June hot streak, that’s at least proof that he’s actively making changes in order to try and correct flaws.
Matt Garza also deserves an honorable mention here. After being written off during 2015 and most of 2016, he’s been effective in 2017. His numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he’s already produced as much value as he gave the Brewers in 2016, and he’s done so in 30 fewer innings. He’s become a solid third option, and the team needs that after both Junior Guerra and Zach Davies failed to build on their promising 2016 numbers.
THEY EMBRACED STRIKEOUTS ON OFFENSE
Striking out isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s no different than popping out to short, really. Both plays result in an out.
The Brewers realized this, and have taken shots on some talented young players who have shown a major predilection toward whiffs. It’s not just Shaw or Thames, either. The team acquired Domingo Santana in a trade with the Houston Astros and picked up Keon Broxton from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Most importantly, though, they stuck both in their lineup and let them play. That’s been huge for Santana. He’s made strides with his strikeout rate in 2017. While he’s still whiffing 26.8 percent of the time, it’s been enough to make him a serious offensive threat.
Broxton hasn’t seen the same improvement, but his power and speed have turned him into a useful player. That’s a significant development, considering they picked him up for nothing.
While Jonathan Villar has collapsed this year, you could argue the Brewers employed the same tactic with him, and were rewarded greatly in 2016. As Villar shows, this can be a risky approach. But when it pays off, you can get superstar seasons out of guys who were thought to have limited value.
THEY DIDN’T GO FULL FIRE SALE
Stay with us on this one. While the Brewers parted with some significant talent in recent years, they never went the route of the Cubs or Astros. They kept enough valuable players around to at least make things interesting. They didn’t just deal Ryan Braun to clear salary. They waited, and now he could be a major factor for them in the second half.
The team could have tried to capitalize on the success of the number of players last winter, but chose to remain patient. In the cases of both Villar and Guerra, it hasn’t worked out, but both could get back on track in the second half. They were also wise to hold Anderson who, while under control for a long time, is already 29. To most rebuilding clubs, these players would have been shipped off for anything of value.
There are certainly benefits to both approaches. The Cubs won the World Series in 2016, and the Astros might be on the way to a championship this season.
But in the era of the second wild card, it’s not the worst idea for teams to take chances with talented players and hope for the best. While little was expected of the Brewers this year, they didn’t fully punt on the season.
THEY’VE LUCKED OUT
It’s always tough to attribute success to luck. It can be a dirty word to fans who think it means their favorite team is a fluke.
The truth is, every good team experiences luck in some way. The team took a lot of risks, and many of them paid off. They hit on Shaw and Thames, saw huge improvements from Nelson, Anderson and Santana and held firm on Braun. If one of those things went down differently, perhaps we’re not having this conversation.
The Brewers have found themselves in an enviable position of contending before anyone thought it was possible. Now, they’ll be faced with the delicate balance of trying to win the division without sacrificing significant future talent.
To do so, they’ll have to walk a thin line. That was always the case, but there’s a big difference between saying that in March and sustaining it into July.
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