Go watch what’s Brewing

Five Thirty Eight:

MLB’s top three World Series contenders in our forecast — the Los Angeles Dodgers (29 percent chance to win it all), Houston Astros (14 percent) and Tampa Bay Rays (12 percent) — have all been there before, and quite recently. The Dodgers won the championship last season over the Rays, while the Astros made the Fall Classic in 2019 (losing to the Washington Nationals). But you can’t say the same for the fourth team on the list: the Milwaukee Brewers (8 percent). The Brew Crew haven’t been to a World Series since 1982, when they lost a heartbreaker to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. Since then, Milwaukee has had a few near-misses — dropping the NLCS in both 2011 and 2018 — but it hasn’t quite been able to get so close again to earning the franchise its first-ever title.

This could very well be the year that changes. Earlier in the season, we wrote about the Brewers’ dominant rotation as a secret weapon in their bid for a fourth consecutive playoff appearance. That’s still true: Milwaukee ranks first among all teams in wins above replacement1 from starting pitchers in 2021.2 But on top of that, the team has also doubled down on a familiar winning formula and shored up some of its biggest weaknesses as the season has evolved. As a result, the Brewers own MLB’s best record (45-23) since June 1 and are looking about as strong as they have at any point since that 1982 pennant-winning performance.

Last year’s Brewers had a similar pitching profile to the 2021 version, with both a strong rotation (No. 9 in WAR) and bullpen (No. 6). They also made the postseason, which is something this year’s team has a 99 percent probability of doing — but only because MLB expanded its playoff field amid a pandemic-shortened schedule. (Milwaukee became one of only three teams in league history to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record, joining the 2020 Astros and 1981 Kansas City Royals.) In truth, the 2020 Brewers were a mediocre team despite their impressive pitching, with a weak offense and an uncharacteristic lack of success in terms of defense and base running, two areas that had been hallmarks of the club’s ascendancy over the previous few seasons.

This year’s Brew Crew have rededicated themselves to those practices, and it’s paying dividends. A year after dropping from ninth in MLB in fielding runs above average3 to 24th, Milwaukee is back up to fourth — thanks in part to a much better season with the glove from left fielder Christian Yelich and to some defensive reshuffling, enabled by the acquisitions of center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and second baseman Kolten Wong before the season  …

And they’ve been even better since picking up shortstop Willy Adames from the Rays in late May, which allowed Luis Urías to move to third base and later split time there with versatile All-Star Eduardo Escobar, who was acquired at the trade deadline. Suddenly, a team whose defense had been a weakness has turned it into a strength once again.

The same applies to Milwaukee’s performance on the base paths. After falling from No. 7 in base running value4 in 2018 to No. 14 in 2019 and, shockingly, dead last (30th) in 2020, the Brewers are back up to 10th so far in 2021. Milwaukee’s opportunistic runners have a 43 percent rate of taking extra bases when chances present themselves, tying them for seventh-best in MLB, with Adames (71 percent), second baseman Jace Peterson (65 percent) and Bradley Jr. (57 percent) particularly standing out. Between their revitalized performances on defense and between the bases, the Brewers are back to following the formula that had defined the franchise’s recent rise.

Hitting remains something of a weakness for Milwaukee; it ranks just 19th in batting runs above average and 16th in weighted runs created plus. Not coincidentally, Yelich, who won the National League MVP in 2018 (his first season as a Brewer) and finished second in 2019, has now had two consecutive seasons of subpar play by his standards, the second of which has also been marred by a back injury. He had been carrying the Brewers’ offense with his bat, but Milwaukee’s output has understandably suffered without Yelich producing at an MVP level.

Other hitters have picked up the slack some, though. Right fielder Avisaíl García, catcher Omar Narvaez and Peterson all have wRC+ marks north of 120. And nobody has gotten more out of their in-season pickups than the Brewers, whose offense would be much worse without the additions of Adames, Escobar and first baseman Rowdy Tellez since Opening Day. According to WAR, batters who started the 2021 season on other teams but were later acquired by Milwaukee have produced 6.2 WAR per 162 team games for the Brewers — by far the most of any team in MLB this season, and a number on pace to be one of the highest totals of any team in the divisional era (since 1969) …

Adames in particular has been stellar after arriving in Milwaukee. The 25-year-old was already one of baseball’s best-kept secrets in Tampa, producing the full-season equivalent of 4.7 WAR last year as the Rays marched to the World Series. But after he got off to a cold start in 2021 — one perhaps fueled by an inability to see the ball at Tropicana Field, where he hit .156 this year — Tampa Bay shipped Adames to the Brewers for a couple of pitchers. The Rays’ loss has been Milwaukee’s gain, as Adames has emerged as an MVP candidate for the Brewers, with 17 home runs, a 150 wRC+ and 4.9 WAR per 162 games after the deal.

Penciling Adames into the lineup at short, the Brewers have been one of — if not the — best teams in baseball these past few months. With a dominating rotation, quality bullpen, resurgent defense, good heads-up base running and a retooled lineup, Milwaukee appears to check off all the boxes of an October contender.5 We’ll just have to see if that ultimately proves good enough to get the Brewers to greater heights than the franchise has reached in a long time.

That would be 1982 …

… Harvey’s Wallbangers, whose model to win the AL pennant was essentially the opposite of this year’s team. The 1982 Brewers finished 18th in the 26-team MLB in team ERA (despite having the 1981 and 1982 American League Cy Young winners on the team), 10th in fielding, 11th in fewest errors, and 21st in runs allowed. They were, however, number one in runs scored, second in batting average, first in home runs, first in slugging percentage, and first in a stat that didn’t exist at the time, OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging). And so the 1982 Brewers — despite, or perhaps because of, playing games like a slow-pitch softball team (average score 5.47–4.4) — were number one in another stat — wins, until they ran into St. Louis in the World Series.

How about the 2018 Brewers, which got to the seventh game of the National League Championship Series before their season ended? They were 12th in runs scored, fourth in home runs, ninth in OPS, fifth in team ERA, eighth in runs allowed, 26th in fielding percentage, fifth worst in errors, and with all that fifth best in wins.

For those not up on advanced metrics, this year’s Brewers are 11th in the 30-team MLB in runs scored, 14th in home runs, and 18th in OPS. On the other hand, they are also third in ERA (which might be their highest ranking in team history given their historically mediocre pitching) and third in runs given up, though they are 25th in fielding and fourth from worst in errors. Somehow the extra base runners that are the result of fielding failures haven’t led to giving up many runs compared with their opponents.

I am not convinced the Brewers are going very far in the 2021 postseason, largely because of the teams in their way later in the postseason — notably three NL West teams, the Dodgers, San Francisco and San Diego. The one optimistic intangible in the Brewers’ favor — and it’s really a stretch — is that finally the sports gods might have sent their Mo to Wisconsin given the Bucks’ world championship and the Packers’ being one of the next Super Bowl favorites. At least the Brewers have a better chance of winning the World Series than the Cubs do.

 

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