Baseball gets serious at the All-Star break, which is not until July 17.
Baseball is, however, already past the halfway mark, so Jay Sorgi suggests:
Yes, the Milwaukee Brewers’ latest video discussing “expectations” has gone viral as it showcased how the team is focusing on the task of making the postseason for the first time since 2011.
But it also uncovers a precedent from incredible circumstances that could be a portent of really good things to come.
The Brewers shared this video in recent days about the team’s expectations and focus on making 2018 all it can be, and they are getting the job done so far as the National League’s No. 1 seed for playoff positioning as of this writing.
But notice the moment of the first scene in the video: The dejection of losing the second-to-last game of the 2017 season on September 30 to the St. Louis Cardinals in walk-off fashion by one run. That one run that cost the Brewers the postseason, as Milwaukee finished one game out of the NL Wildcard.
OK, Brewers fans, it’s now way-back-machine time for you…to 1956. September 29, 1956 to be specific.
On that day, the second-to-last game of the regular season, the Milwaukee Braves played the St. Louis Cardinals. In Busch Stadium. (The first edition, of course. They’re in the 3rd edition now.)
The Brewers entered that must-win game against St. Louis in the midst of a race for the postseason with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Warren Spahn threw an absolute gem of a 12-inning game, but lost in walk-off fashion – yes – by one run.
That one run cost the Braves the NL pennant. Just like the 2017 Brewers, despite a last-game victory, they lost out in the standings by one game.
What did they do the next year?
Well, they rededicated themselves like never before under the drive of Fred Haney, used the most prolific home run hitting lineup in baseball that year and the National League’s second-best pitching staff (by team ERA) to earn that spot in the postseason.
Fast forward to now, and the continued list of similarities between Aaron, Spahn and company and these Brewers.
Just like the 1957 Braves , Milwaukee is currently second in the NL in ERA. (The Brewers are No. 2 in the NL in home run hitting.)
Just like the 1957 Braves on July 6 of that year, these Brewers currently own a small lead over their nearest pursuers.
Just like the 1957 Braves who picked up Red Schoendienst to bring added bat, defense and experience, the Brewers made massive moves to grab Lorenzo Cain & Christian Yelich (and may have another move up their sleeve).
Part of my skepticism is the fouled-up mess that is Major League Baseball management. It is ridiculous and insulting to the paying customers for teams to deliberately tank — that is, fail to put a competitive product out on the field every day of every season. (See Brewers, 2015 and 2016 seasons.) The grotesque competitive imbalance baseball’s finances have created means that some teams are literally out of contention for the playoffs on Opening Day, while big-market teams can just open the checkbook and buy what they want from the non-contenders right about now.
Sorgi’s comparison to 1957 is a bit of a stretch. The 1957 team included the National League Most Valuable Player, Henry Aaron, and Cy Young Award winner, Warren Spahn. The 1957 team may have been sparked by their new manager, Fred Haney, who perhaps unlike his predecessor wasn’t there to be liked. Hazle, one of the great stories of Milwaukee baseball history — he was a midseason callup and, yes, hit .401 in less than a half-season — wasn’t on the radar at the start of the season, while people knew who Aguilar was, even though he couldn’t regularly play due to Eric Thames. The ’57 Braves also were helped tremendously by a midseason trade for second baseman Red Schoendienst.
What about 1982, the second greatest moment in Milwaukee baseball history? That team had the American League MVP, Robin Yount, and Cy Young winner, Pete Vuckovich. For most of the season it also had the previous year’s Cy Young winner and MVP, relief pitcher Rollie Fingers. That team was sparked by a midseason managerial change, with Bob “Buck” Rodgers, who piloted the team to its first playoff berth one season earlier, dumped one day before my 17th birthday in favor of hitting coach Harvey Kuenn, who got the team to relax and play to its potential. That team was helped tremendously by a late-season trade for starting pitcher Don Sutton, without whom there would have been no playoffs.
Coming into tonight, here is the National League Central standings:
The Brewers have the best record in the entire National League, and are on pace to win 97 games. In the (over)expanded baseball playoffs it’s hard to imagine not getting a playoff berth with 97 wins. There are four American League teams with better records — Boston, the Yankees, defending champion Houston and Seattle (see previous comment about big-market teams) — but to get your league’s number one postseason seed you need not top every team, only the teams in your own league.
Is a 97-win season reasonable? The first baseball stats junkie, Bill James, created the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, which posited that a team’s win percentage could be determined by dividing the square of the team’s runs scored by the sum of the square of runs scored and runs allowed. That projects the Brewers to win 94 games, which if correct still makes the Brewers likely to get in the playoffs if they keep playing like they’ve been playing.
At the risk of sinking into diamond nerddom, let’s look at how the Brewers are doing compared with everyone else. Their offense is actually below average — they are 17th in the league in runs scored per game, in part a result of their all-or-nothing offensive approach — they are eighth in baseball in home runs, but 15th in runs scored. They have been shut out 10 times this season, so Harvey’s Wallbangers this team is not.
But here is a stat that someone familiar with the Brewers’ dreadful pitching history may not believe: The Brewers have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball right now. (I’ll pause to let that sink in.) They are second in runs allowed per game, 3.72; fourth in earned run average, 3.53; and sixth in WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched), 1.206. They have eight shutouts this season, even though they have no complete games pitched by their starters.
Statistically their starting pitchers are average. Their relievers are not. For one, the bullpen is 20–10, which is fourth best in baseball. They have three relievers — righthander Jeremy Jeffress (6–1, 3 saves, 1.07 ERA), lefty Josh Hader (2–0, 7 saves, 1.21 ERA, and averaging almost two strikeouts per inning) and righthander Corey Knebel (2–0, 10 saves, 3.32 ERA after a slow start) — who turn games into six-inning games, like the 1990 Cincinnati Reds “Nasty Boys” trio of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers did. (That team swept the 1990 World Series, by the way.)
Aguilar is the best offensive Brewer right now, and he might get MVP consideration if he keeps hitting at his present pace (.299, 19 home runs, 57 RBI and a .958 OPS, all of which lead the team). The offseason pickups of outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich have immeasurably improved the team, which is fortunate given that two of last year’s starters, right fielder Domingo Santana and shortstop Orlando Arcia are in Class AAA because of their bad hitting, and that no other regular could be considered to be a complete hitter in terms of average and power. (For instance, third baseman Travis Shaw has 15 HR and 49 RBI, second best on the team, but is hitting .244.)
If you compare this year’s offense to the ’57 Braves and ’82 Brewers, there really isn’t much comparison. Besides Aaron the Braves had Eddie Matthews (32 HR and 98 RBI) and seven other regulars bat over .270, and besides Yount the Brewers had Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, Ted Simmons, Ben Oglivie and Gorman Thomas — basically, until the World Series not a weak spot in the lineup. This year’s Brewers aren’t at that level on offense.
Pitching-wise is a more interesting question. The ’57 Braves were second in the NL in ERA. The ’82 Brewers were sixth in the AL in ERA, which I guess you can get away with if you are number one in your league in runs scored. (If you’re second in ERA and first in runs scored, well, you win the 1957 World Series.)
If you believe in the aforementioned Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, by the way, and assuming everyone scores and gives up runs at their current paces, the Brewers won’t win the NL Central; they will end up with 94 wins, nine games back of the Cubs, though that would give them the top wild card spot. (Said theorem would make, in the AL, Houston, Boston and Cleveland as AL division champions, with the Damn Yankees and Arizona the wild cards, and in the NL, the Cubs, Dodgers and Atlanta as division champs, with the Brewers and Arizona as wild cards. Check back in three months to see if that’s correct.)
That brings up one flaw in the previous paragraph of this long treatise — the assumption that everyone would stand pat, when in fact they certainly will not. Contenders will made deals to augment their rosters from those whose motto is “Wait ’til (insert future year here).” It’s only one opinion, but Bleacher Report‘s ranking of the six teams in best position to make a deal doesn’t include the Brewers.
On the one hand, the Brewers did pick up Yelich and Cain in the offseason to improve the team, and they certainly have improved the team. On the other hand, there seems skepticism among the baseball experts on Facebook Brewers pages that the Brewers would make a Sutton-like trade, or a deal like the 2008 deal that brought pitcher C.C. Sabathia to win a playoff berth.
Rather than list who might come to Miller Park, click here for the current rumormongering, which still includes Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado and Toronto starting pitcher J.A. Happ but does not include Mets’ starters Noah Syndergaard or Jacob deGrom, nor a player I’d like to see the Brewers get, Miami catcher J.P. Realmuto.
The likelihood of a big deal depends on whether Brewers management thinks they can go deep in the playoffs this year, and whether they’re willing to risk becoming a future non-contender. That’s how the stupid economics of baseball works. The likelihood of whether the Brewers can remain a contender if teams around them — particularly the Cubs and Cardinals — make deals and the Brewers don’t seems pretty low, particularly if the few hot hitters stop hitting and the bullpen starts getting worn out.