After sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in improbable and relentless fashion, the Brewers now have the best record in the National League at 70 wins and 55 losses, and lead the St. Louis Cardinals by three games in the National League Central.
The Brewers can go 18-19 down the stretch while the Cardinals would have to finish 22-17 just to force a tie for the division lead.
With fewer than 40 games to go, how likely is it that the Brewers make the playoffs? I compiled a handful of projections and put them in a table:
Brewers’ playoff odds, as of 08/17 FanGraphs’ projections mode 82.9% Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds report 88.4% Sports Clubs Stats’ projections 94.7%
That was on Aug. 18. The Journal Sentinel reported Wednesday:
As the Brewers wake up Wednesday morning, they have one playoff scenario:
They must finish the season 5-0, have the San Francisco Giants finish 0-5, then go to San Francisco for a play-in game for the second wild-card berth. That would send the Brewers to Pittsburgh for the wild-card game.
What is the likelihood of that happening? The Brewers’ playoff chances are now listed at 0.1%, the only fraction above zero. …
It has been an epic meltdown for the Brewers, especially when one considers they led the National League Central for 150 days. After beating San Diego, 10-1, on Aug. 25, they had a six-game lead on third-place Pittsburgh in the standings.
The Brewers have gone 7-19 since while the Pirates have gone 19-7, creating a 12-game swing between those clubs.
The Brewers last won five games in a row from Aug. 14-19, a stretch that included a three-game sweep in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. Remember how well the Brewers were playing back then? That was before the roof caved in on what has become one of the worst late-season collapses in MLB history.
The headline refers to arguably the two worst late-season collapses in baseball history, or at least the two most notorious. The 1964 Phillies had a 6½-game lead in the National League (in the pre-division days) with 12 games left, and proceeded to lose it all and miss the World Series. The 1969 Cubs were playing uncharacteristically good baseball, and led the NL East by 9½ games in mid-August. But in September the Cubs lost eight games in a row while the previously awful New York Mets won 10 in a row. The Mets — who had set a record by losing 120 games in 1962, when losing 100 games is bad enough, and were 73–89 in 1968 — won the NL East by eight games, then, even more improbably, defeated Baltimore 4 games to 1 in the 1969 World Series.
Readers know I have been skeptical of the Brewers all season long. Hank the Dog notwithstanding, the Brewers’ collapse was pretty predictable because too many players were playing over their heads, and regression to the mean predicts what happens after that. It is nearly impossible to overachieve over an entire season. In fact, I wrote one month ago: “If you believe the Brewers have been playing over their heads (suffice to say that no one was predicting the Brewers would be in first place in late August), regression to the mean predicts an ugly September, particularly given their schedule (harder than the Cardinals’ schedule) and their lack of big-game-experienced pitching.”
The what-if of the whole season probably is the deal that apparently was pursued, but never finished, for Colorado Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau, who could have been the left-handed power hitter the Brewers have lacked all season long. The Brewers did trade for left-handed outfielder Gerardo Parra, which, despite the fact he’s playing pretty well, has had little impact on the Brewers (though he’s been better than outfielders Logan Schaefer, Caleb Gindl and the now-crashing Khris Davis), and relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton.
I liked Broxton’s acquisition better than Parra’s (Broxton could be next year’s closer assuming the Brewers are tired of closer Francisco Rodriguez, even though statistically K-Rod has had a good year), but neither helped with the Brewers’ two main problems. The first, as was pointed out to me by a state championship-winning high school baseball coach, is that the Brewers have no stopper — a starting pitcher who is supposed to stop losing streaks. Pitcher Yovani Gallardo is supposed to be their number-one pitcher, but he’s really a number-three, which means they don’t have a number-one or number-two quality starter. Even though the Brewers’ starters have pitched well of late, there is no such thing as enough pitching.
The Brewers also managed to overrate their offense when they were winning games earlier this season. The best leadoff hitter is probably center fielder Carlos Gomez, except for his low on-base percentage, high strikeout totals, and ability to provide examples for the next How Not to Run the Bases video. Neither right fielder Ryan Braun nor third baseman Aramis Ramirez have had good years, perhaps due to injury. The entire roster outside of Parra (who doesn’t hit for power when the Brewers need a lefty who does), second baseman Scooter Gennett and catcher Jonathan Lucroy is a bunch of swing-for-the-fences would-be sluggers who are unable or unwilling to adopt a different approach.
If you look at successful Brewers teams — the two obvious examples are 1982 and 2011 — this team falls far short. The 2014 Brewers had no one who could hit for average like Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Cecil Cooper. It seemed predictable that 2011 first baseman Prince Fielder would indeed balloon up and lose effectiveness as a hitter, but the problem is the Brewers have never replaced Fielder with a power-hitting left-handed first baseman who was a good hitter as well. This team has a horrible bench, and apparently lacked the leadership provided by Nyjer Morgan and Jerry Hairston Jr. on the 2011 team and nearly everybody on the ’82 Brewers.
The usual response in such cases as this is to fire people, and not surprisingly Brewers fans have called for the heads of general manager Doug Melvin (who I interviewed once) and manager Ron Roenicke. Melvin doesn’t appear to be leaving since he apparently is interviewing candidates for the team’s farm director position. In fact, if you want to blame anyone, this season is probably the fault of the people responsible for talent acquisition and development. Being a small-market team, the Brewers do not have the ability to fill holes by throwing money at free agents. Melvin has always developed the Brewers’ talent from within, with selected acquisitions (pitchers C.C. Sabathia and Zach Greinke, for instance) in promising seasons. If the Brewers have too many free-swinging, undisciplined hitters, that’s how they were allowed to develop.
Maybe Roenicke didn’t manage well this season, but I’m unconvinced a new manager would make a difference with fundamentally unsound players. I’ve read a lot about the Brewers’ failure to play small ball when needed, but there’s probably a reason for that. Gomez is already a potential rally-killer on the bases, and you can probably count on one hand the number of Brewers who could successfully execute a bunt or suicide squeeze.
I’ve read online calls to replace Roenicke, who apparently has become too buddy-buddy with players in some fans’ view, with a hardnosed field general type of manager. (The only name that came to mind was Larry Bowa, who got run out of San Diego not even halfway into his second season there. There was also Bobby Valentine, who succeeded during a surprisingly long major league managing career to turn off nearly everyone who had to work with him.) Such people who want the next Billy Martin don’t understand that that approach doesn’t really exist anymore for a reason. The Brewers have enough problems convincing players to come to Milwaukee without the prospect of playing for an asshole.
The Brewers lack a balanced offensive lineup. There is a huge gap between the starters and the bench, and not all the starters are necessarily starter quality. First base has been a disaster all season. I remain unconvinced Davis is a major league starter-quality player. The Brewers could dump all their bench players and you’d never notice. Roenicke came to the Brewers from the Angels, who when they won the 2002 World Series had a bunch of high-on-base-percentage hitters. That is certainly not the Brewers. (If you play in a hitter’s ballpark, as Miller Park apparently has become, you need not have guys in the lineup who hit 500-foot home runs; you need guys in the lineup to get on base, because eventually they will come home.)
I felt at the start of the season that this was no better than a .500 team, and quite possibly far worse. The problem is this team will get no better than this. The farm system has become depleted, as shown by the failure of anyone from the minors to help the offense this season, and the lack of minor-leaguers to package in a deal for someone like Morneau or a quality starting pitcher.
When you develop from within, you have to make almost all the right decisions, and the Brewers evidently haven’t done that. If you want to wait a half-dozen years, they could trade everybody and start over, but do you want five years of 100-loss seasons?
The person I feel worst for is not anyone on the field. It’s announcer Bob Uecker, who really deserves to get to announce a Brewers World Series while he still can, given the thousands of bad baseball games he’s had to announce since the early 1970s.