By: Chris Larson
The Milwaukee Brewers are one of those teams on a tear right now, winning 8 of their last 10 games, and showing the rest of baseball that they are legit once again. Heading into play today, Milwaukee is in first place in the NL Central with a 31-19. The Brewers have a three-game lead over the second place Pittsburgh Pirates, while the Cardinals are currently in third and the Cubs in fourth.
Going into this season, we all knew that the Brewers were going to be good, but it was almost a slam dunk by many around the industry that the Chicago Cubs would automatically win the NL Central. Up to this point, that assumption has been proven wrong and almost no one would have expected the Central to be a four-team race, for first place, at this point of the season.
To date, the Brewers have not only hung in there despite experiencing injuries, particularly in their starting rotation, their bullpen has also been extremely valuable as has their run differential. As it stands right now, the Brewers have a run differential of +25, which isn't even the highest run differential value within the NL Central. That title belongs to the Chicago Cubs, who currently have a run differential of +62, despite being in fourth place.
Considering that, the Brewers currently have the best pitching staff ERA in the National League and the second best in all of baseball, with a cumulative ERA of 3.34 over 447.2 innings of work. In addition, the Brewers pitching staff is tied for third in baseball in Opponent Batting Average Against (.221), with the division rival Chicago Cubs, and have the fourth best WHIP (1.20) in the league as well.
More specifically, Milwaukee's starting rotation, which has been without Jimmy Nelson all season and was without Chase Anderson for a while, has put together a 3.96 ERA over 259.0 IP, good enough for 12th place in baseball. Over that span, the starting rotation has recorded 114 earned runs and recorded 209 strikeouts, the fifth fewest in baseball. Of bigger significance, the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen has really been the glue that has kept the team together thus far. Since the start of the year, the Brewers pen has posted a 2.48 ERA over 188.2 IP, allowing the team to have the best bullpen in all of baseball. In that span, the bullpen has an Opponent Batting Average Against of .203 and a 1.09 WHIP.
Looking back at the starting rotation, which was probably the biggest concern for many heading into this season, the Brewers have been able to string together quality starts and basically have the entire rotation hand the baton off to the next guy with each passing start. Off-season free agent acquisition, Jhoulys Chacin, has been the biggest contributor to the Brewers starting pitching success, putting up a 3.32 ERA over 57 innings of work so far with 42 strikeouts. Chacin is one of those guys who has had an up and down career, but experienced an abnormally unusual 2016 season with an ERA over 4, before rebounding last season with the San Diego Padres and seeing those results carry over to this year with the Brew Crew.
Furthermore, Junior Guerra has been a great stability force for the Brewers with the absence of Jimmy Nelson. Through 42 and 1/3 innings pitched, Guerra has a 2.98 ERA with a strikeouts-per-9 rate of 8.72 and is averaging 91 pitches per start. Here is Guerra's pitch type chart dating back to the 2015 regular season:
As you can see from the chart, a big reason why Guerra has been so successful is because he is relying on his fastball more often compared to last season and his fastball-sinker less often. In addition, Guerra has seen the velocity on his fastball raise from 91.9 MPH last season to 92.9 MPH and his slider from 81.5 MPH last season to 83.7 MPH this season. Furthermore, while Guerra is relying on his split-finger fastball less (18.8% last year compared to 14.0% this season), he has seen the velocity on that pitch raise to 86.1 MPH compared to 84.2 MPH last year.
Turning to the bullpen now, the Brewers experienced a scare early on in the season when their All-Star closer from last season, Corey Knebel, hit the disabled list with a hamstring injury. Luckily, the injury wasn't as bad as initially thought and Knebel was able to return back to the mound earlier than anticipated because he only add's extreme talent to an already impressive bullpen group.
Beyond Knebel, the guy that everyone talks about, but probably not enough, around baseball is Josh Hader. Hader has been talked about in length on this blog before, but heading into play today he still has an extremely impressive strikeouts-per-9 rate of 17.80, a 0.58 WHIP, and a 1.23 ERA over the span of 29.1 IP. Earlier in the year, when there was some uncertainty within Milwaukee's starting rotation, there was some thought that Hader could convert to being a starting pitcher, but that would take away from the ability to use him multiple times in a series, which is something that Craig Counsell & Company have said that they like to do.
Also, you can't go wrong with the 0.35 ERA that Jeremy Jeffress has so far this season over 25.2 IP or the impressive 0.91 WHIP and 1.17 ERA that Matt Albers has put up either. Albers was another offseason acquisition and has done everything the Brewers could want and more so far this year. Albers, who turned 35 in January, has the 15th lowest left on-base percentage (93.8%) among qualified relievers and does very well with runners in scoring position as illustrated by his .176 Opponent Batting Average Against during those situations.
Looking back on the aforementioned Jeremy Jeffress now, it's been remarkable what Jeffress has been able to do so far this year as well. Among qualified relievers, Jeffress ranks third in Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) (.169) and has a 0.00 home runs-per-9 rate along with a 0.00 home runs-to-fastball ratio. For Jeffress, a big recipe to his success this season has been his based on his reliance of the three pitches that he throws. Here is his pitch type chart for illustration comparing last season to this year:
As shown by the chart, Jeffress is relying on his fastball a lot less (66.4% compared to 58.9%), his curveball more often (18.9% compared to 21.9%), and his changeup more (14.7% compared to 19.2% of the time). In addition, the amazing thing is that Jeffress is doing this while keeping nearly identical velocity on all three of his pitches. The only slight change was the velo on his fastball which averaged 94.5 MPH last season compared to 94.2 MPH this year. Just goes to prove that a pitcher can maintain his velocity and still have success, it just comes down to throwing pitches that each individual pitcher can develop confidence in.
In the end, the Milwaukee Brewers are a team that is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future and one that has their eyes set on making it to another World Series for the first time since 1982 when the team was a part of the American League East. Are the Brewers perfect? No, but no team in baseball is right now as everyone has their flaws. For Milwaukee, that flaw might be in the form of missing another legitimate starting pitcher, but given that Jimmy Nelson is expected back mid-season, that may not be that big of a need. Still, Milwaukee could always elect to survey the market for a starting pitcher come the Trade Deadline, which will only boost their chances of maintaining their first place lead in the NL Central and improve their chances of playing as deep into October as possible.