Signs of Maturity

Following a three-game sweep of the Cubs, the Brewers’ record stands at 81-54.  That is a .600 winning percentage and, if it holds up through the end of the season, would represent the best winning percentage in franchise history. The Brewers are 10.5 games ahead of the Cardinals with only a month to go, and a postseason run appears almost certain (99.9%, according to Baseball Prospectus).

The Brewers appear to have handled all of their recent success well, and have sustained it for longer than any past season I can remember.  Since July 26, the Brewers have swept six out of the ten series they’ve played, with no signs of stopping.  The bats may have cooled a bit, but the pitching has more than kept the team in games.  The 2011 Brewers appear to have found their groove, just in time for the postseason.

This team features some of the same cast members as the memorable 2008 team, but its the differences that have fans excited.  Braun and Fielder again cement the middle of the order, complimented by Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks.  Craig Counsell is still there in his utility infielder role, and Yovani Gallardo takes the ball every fifth day.  But the infield looks completely different with Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee shoring up left side.  The young catcher Jonathan Lucroy has held up well both at and behind the plate in his second major-league season.  The bullpen has been completely reworked; opponents have lockdown pitchers Takashi Saito, LaTroy Hawkins, Francisco Rodriguez, and John Axford to look forward to late in the game.

The 2011 Brewers feature bats that are, on average, slightly older (28.9) than their 2008 counterparts (28.6), and the difference shows.  Rickie Weeks is batting just shy of .40 points over his 2008 average with more pop.  Prince has raised his average nearly .20 points, and his on-base and slugging percentages should easily top his percentages from that year.  Corey Hart will almost certainly beat his 2008 batting average and on-base and slugging percentages.  But the story if you’re comparing the two years has to be Ryan Braun, who in 2008 batted only .285.  Now, he’s hitting .334, and though he will not match 2008’s 37 home-run total, he has exceeded his current slugging percentage only once, in 2007 when he won Rookie of the Year.

Contrast that with a pitching staff that is nearly a full year younger on average than it was in 2008. This was what the Brewers’ pitching looked like in the 2008 playoffs:

31 Dave Bush ………………………………….RHP
38 Eric Gagne………………………………….RHP
49 Yovani Gallardo……………………………RHP
73 Seth McClung ……………………………..RHP
58 Guillermo Mota…………………………….RHP
43 Manny Parra………………………………..LHP
52 CC Sabathia ………………………………..LHP
51 Brian Shouse……………………………….LHP
57 Mitch Stetter…………………………………LHP
37 Jeff Suppan…………………………………RHP
16 Salomon Torres……………………………RHP
12 Carlos Villanueva …………………………RHP

We all know how the Jeff Suppan and Eric Gagne signings played out; Suppan would go on to be released from his four-year contract and Eric Gagne would never pitch in the major leagues again.  Salomon Torres retired after a successful 2008 campaign.  The other pitchers have been traded, released, departed in free agency, or, in the cases of Mitch Stetter and Manny Parra, injured for the year.

The 2011 pitching staff features a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership.  Takashi Saito is the only pitcher on the wrong side of 40 on the active roster, with LaTroy Hawkins not far behind. Though both have had injury-shortened seasons, they have been excellent on the field; Saito has the team’s second-best ERA at 2.33, and Hawkins’ the team’s third-best at 2.63.  Randy Wolf is the only starter over 30, yet he and the team’s youngest pitcher, 25-year-old Yovani Gallardo, share the team’s best ERA among starters (3.37).

You won’t find any extraordinarily young pitchers shoring up the remainder of the pitching staff; a handful are nearly 30, like Shaun Marcum, Chris Narveson, and Kameron Loe.  John Axford and Marco Estrada are 28, and Rodriguez is 27.  Zack Greinke is 27, too, but, like Rodriguez and most of the staff, has ample experience under his belt.  Unlike any other member of the staff, he also has a Cy Young award.

Though many parallels will be made in coming days to the 2008 team, one thing is for certain; this team is older and far more experienced.  Though some veteran members of the team have made some rookie mistakes (for example, Betancourt and Jerry Hairston, Jr. missing bunt signs), the team as a whole has matured to a point where it should be able to handle the high-pressure and high-stakes nature of postseason play.  That’s a good thing, because the 2011 Brewers look destined to be playing October baseball for only the second time since 1982.

Magic Number Watch:  18

Shades of 2008

The Brewers dropped the finale of the four-game series against the Pirates yesterday, only their fifth loss of the month.  Shaun Marcum was the hard-luck loser, as he held the Pirates to two runs over six innings, but the Brewers just couldn’t get anything going on offense.

Thankfully, the Dodgers finished off a sweep of the Cardinals, and the Brewers still possess a commanding ten-game lead in the NL Central.  They’ve won eighteen of their August games and have just five left to play, including a series against the hated Cubs.  Not to shabby for a team that started the month up only two and a half games.

All of this got me reflecting on another historic Brewers August.

The 2008 Brewers started August off on the wrong foot.  They rode a five-game losing streak coming into the month, including a devastating four-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs at Miller Park.  During that stretch, the Crew watched the division begin to slip away, dropping from one game back to five.

The team’s fortunes began to turn during a 4-2 roadtrip to Atlanta and Cincinnati to begin the month.  The road was pretty nice to the Brewers that August, as the team compiled a 11-6 record during visits to those cities, San Diego, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. On August 13, 2008, the Brewers broke the 70-win mark in a 7-1 win over the Padres.  C.C. Sabathia was the winning pitcher, giving up nine hits in seven innings but allowing only one run to score.  The Brewers rounded out their August road games in style with a sweep of the Pirates on the last day of the month.  The winning pitcher?  Again, C.C. Sabathia, in what might be the most memorable one-hitter in Brewers history. With the victory, the Brewers had 80 wins on the season and sat 4.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs.

Sabathia was lights out the entire month of August.  He did not lose a game, compiling a 5-0 record en route to a 1.12 ERA.  Sabathia struck out 51 and walked only 8, while limiting opposing hitters to .223.  He also gave the bullpen some relief, throwing complete games three times, twice at home.

Like their 2011 counterparts, there was no place like home for the August 2008 Brewers.  Playing to sellout audiences the entire month, the Crew turned in a 9-1 home record, including sweeps of the Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates. The team ended the month with a 20-7 record, aided by Sabathia, Jeff Suppan (5-0, 3.00 ERA), and Salomon Torres (6 SV, .84 ERA).

While August 2008 was one to remember, September of that year was just as forgettable.  The Brewers went 10-16 that month, barely winning the NL Wild Card despite a 90-win season.  The quality of the starting rotation this year should prevent the kind of September swoon the Brewers endured in 2008, though.  In 2011, there’s a pretty good chance the Brewers can continue their winning ways all the way into the playoffs.

Magic Number Watch:  22

Calculating the Magic Number

I have no indication people are confused by the magic number watch appearing at the end of each recent post, but if you are, here’s the Journal-Sentinel’s Don Walker with an explanation.  In short, the lower the number, the closer the Brewers are to clinching a playoff berth.

Assuming the Brewers play .500 ball until the end of the season, the Cardinals would have to accumulate a 26-9 record over the final weeks to tie.

 

Good and Bad Omens on a Doubleheader Monday

The Brewers finished off a sweep of the Mets yesterday thanks to an excellent outing by Yovani Gallardo, and now its on to Pittsburgh where the Brewers play a twi-night doubleheader.  The late game is a makeup of a game postponed in April.

Game 1 will feature Chris Narveson’s return from a brief DL stint with a thumb injury.  He’ll go against Brewers’ nemesis Jeff Karstens, whose 2009 spat with Ryan Braun you might recall.  Its worth noting that Karstens has never won a game against the Brewers, while Narveson is 3-0 career against the Pirates.

Zack Greinke gets the ball in game 2 against Pirates reliever-turned-starter Brad Lincoln.  Lincoln will definitely be on a pitch count in only his second start of the season.  Lincoln’s first start of the year was back in July, and it was quality (6 IP, 2 ER, 4 K, 3 BB).  In his career versus the Brewers (8.1 IP), Lincoln has a 10.80 ERA with 4 strikeouts.

Doubleheaders haven’t been kind to the Brewers this year.  I’ve heard that doubleheaders are often swept, and while I have no stats to back that up, it would be true in the Brewers’ case.  The team has played two doubleheaders this year and has been swept in both:  by Washington in mid-April and by Atlanta in early May.  Both occurred on the road.

Magic Number Watch: 27

Riding the Rollercoaster

The Brewers have to be the luckiest team in baseball right now.  Their pitching finally fell apart on Saturday, but as it turns out, their record is no worse for it.

Randy Wolf allowed five runs, four of them during the seventh inning, which Wolf started by allowing three straight hits.  Wolf exited after allowing two runs, with two runners still his responsibility.  Takashi Saito, who has pitched well since coming off the DL in July, picked up where Wolf left off, walking the first batter to load the bases.  Saito allowed both of Wolf’s runs to score and one of his own before finally ending the inning.  What had been a 7-1 lead coming into the seventh became a 7-6 lead.

The Mets weren’t done, though.  Former Met Francisco Rodriguez came out to work the eighth to plenty of boos from the New York crowd, and Rodriguez gave them something to cheer about.  With two outs, Rodriguez walked Ruben Tejada, who scored on a Josh Thole double.  With the score tied at 7-7, Rodriguez threw a fat changeup to Angel Pagan, who got ahold of it and ripped it into the second deck.  All of a sudden the Brewers found themselves down 9-7.

With the Brewers having only one inning left to score, the Mets handed former Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen the ball in the ninth.  What followed was an absolute nightmare for the Mets and their fans.  Isringhausen missed with nearly every pitch to the first two batters, walking Jonathan Lucroy and Nyjer Morgan.  Corey Hart singled to load the bases.  Isringhausen walked in a run before being removed, but substitution Manny Acosta didn’t fare much better; Casey McGehee and Prince Fielder combined for 3 RBI on two singles to give the Brewers an 11-9 lead that would hold thanks to John Axford’s work in the bottom of the inning.

The Brewers are no strangers to these kind of late-inning heroics.  In late and close games, the Brewers are hitting .265, good for fifth-best in the MLB.  The team has 35 comeback wins and 7 walk-off wins.  Fortunately, they haven’t often been on the wrong side of the score lately.  But it’s encouraging to know that when they are, the team will play all nine.  Down two runs going into the ninth yesterday, the players still looked confident.  You just have to hope that their luck with these kind of things holds out the rest of the year.

Magic Number Watch: 28

Photo credit: Jeff Sainlar, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

A Strong Offensive Showing

You had to be just a little concerned about the Brewers’ offense after their 6-1 homestand.  The Brewers blew out the Pirates in their first game back home on August 12, but failed to score more than three runs a game in the remainder of the two home series.  Spectacular pitching performances from the starers, coupled with the lockdown back end of the bullpen, were the Brewers’ saving graces.  Some timely hitting by guys like Jerry Hairston, Jr., Mark Kotsay, and Nyjer Morgan led to success.

The Crew finally put a crooked number on the board last night against the Mets.  If you didn’t manage to stay up for the whole thing (and who could blame you after a nearly three-hour rain delay), you missed an excellent game from Prince Fielder (2-3, 2 BB, 2 R, 2 RBI) and Casey McGehee (3-4, 2 RBI, BB).  Nyjer Morgan and Craig Counsell both chipped in two hits, and Yuniesky Betancourt added an RBI.  The Brewers added an unearned run in the first inning on a David Wright error.

Add it all up, and the Brewers came out of Game 1 against the Mets with a 6-1 victory behind another solid start by Shaun Marcum.  And what makes it even sweeter?  St. Louis fell to Chicago, 5-4, in ten innings, pushing the Brewers’ division lead to 7.5 games.

Magic Number Watch:  30

 

On the Brighter Side

Although the Brewers dropped today’s game to the Dodgers, the Crew went 6-1 on the homestand and are 13-3 in August.  Their winning run over approximately the past month has been better than any I can remember in the years I’ve watched this team.

And so what have we learned?

Well, first, that number five starter Chris Narveson should use safety scissors.  I haven’t written a ton about Narveson this year, but I should have; Narveson is almost as good as any number five in the National League, and as my event services buddy Dennis noted today, on many teams would be a number four.*  After a little blowup against Minnesota on July 2 (4.2 IP, 7 ER, 2 HR), Narveson had settled down nicely.  In his six starts following that game, Narveson went 5-1 with a 3.50 ERA.  Opposing batters were hitting just .244 against him in that stretch.  And then, to continue the Brewers string of freak injuries this season, the guy is forced to the DL after cutting his pitching hand with a scissors trying to repair his glove.

But that leads to the second lesson:  Marco Estrada is an exceptional spot starter.  He received his first starting opportunity this year as a fill-in for Zack Greinke, who fractured a rib during spring training playing basketball.  Estrada made four starts for Greinke, two of them excellent, one decent, and one terrible.  He then went to the bullpen, where let’s just say the results weren’t impressive.  Between May 10 and August 11, Estrada’s 26 relief appearances got him a 1-6 record, 3 blown saves, four holds, and a 4.81 ERA.  There were some signs of life in all that, though; he held opposing batters to a .255 average, maintained a strikeout-to-walk ratio of roughly 2.7, and threw 62% of his pitches for strikes.  All of which set the stage nicely for his two starts in Chris Narveson’s stead.  On August 13, Estrada threw five innings of shutout ball against the Pirates, striking out five and getting the win.  Today Estrada was nearly as effective, allowing only one run over five innings.  He didn’t get the win (the Brewers’ offense was blanked until the ninth inning by Clayton Kershaw), but that wasn’t his fault.

Third, there’s some confidence to be had on this ballclub.  Up and down the lineup, every player is contributing, not just the usuals like Braun and Fielder.  Yesterday Jerry Hairston Jr. came up with the big hit to give the Brewers a 3-1 lead against the Dodgers.  On Tuesday Mark Kotsay chipped in with a pinch-hit, walk-off RBI single.  Nyjer Morgan came up with a sac fly in extra innings to win the game on Sunday against the Pirates.  The pitching has been excellent; the Brewers’ staff owns the second-best National League August ERA at 2.51.  Incidentally, the Dodgers, with whom the Brewers just finished a four-game series, have the best NL August ERA (2.38), which might explain why the Brewers were able to muster only nine runs.  But what matters most are the wins, and there have been plenty of those lately.

The Brewers now hit the road to take on a few sub-.500 opponents in the 60-63 Mets and the 58-64 Pirates before returning home to face the Cubs beginning August 26.

Magic Number Watch: 32.

*There are a handful of guys in the NL I’d take over Narveson; Bud Norris or Vance Worley, for example.  And of course Brandon Beachy from the Braves in a heartbeat.

A Neat Look at the Brewers’ Triple Play

You might have to puzzle through it a bit, what with all the arrows and players, but the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has a pretty neat visual representation of the Brewers’ triple play turned on Monday night against the Dodgers, the first in the National League this season:

As the telecast crew repeatedly noted, the 4-6-3-2- triple play is pretty unconventional; most common are 5-4-3.  The 4-6-3-2- triple play on Monday was due entirely to Matt Kemp pushing for home plate instead of staying at third.

Make sure you check out the Journal’s Brewers section here, and the Brewers blog here.

True Believer

Can we all agree that Zack Greinke is pitching like an ace now?

I thought he was back in late May and early July, when Tom Haudricourt wrote that Greinke was failing to meet expectations.  At that time, Greinke’s proclivity for giving up the long ball seemed his only real blemish; his peripheral stats were all at least respectable, if not amazing in the case of his K:BB ratio.  His high ERA gave a few people fits but, as I explained then, that was a combination of bad luck and poor defense that would likely correct itself as the season wore on.

Last night, Greinke absolutely dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates for seven innings before finally giving up two runs in the eighth.  Greinke scattered only six hits, stuck out nine, and walked one batter.

The start builds on what has been an excellent past 30 days for the former Cy Young winner.  Since his start on July 16, Greinke is 5-1 in six starts with a 1.56 ERA.  He’s throwing over 60% of his pitches for strikes over that span and has 44 strikeouts, an average of about seven per start.  Hitters are batting only .210 against him.  What more can you ask for?

Greinke’s recent success has lowered his ERA from 5.23 in mid-June to 4.08, though his expected ERA, which attempts to account for variables out of the pitcher’s control,  is much lower.  He’s gone at least six innings in his last eight starts, which helps the bullpen stay fresh.  And Greinke’s WHIP has dropped to 1.16.  He’s still striking out a career-high 11.22 batters per nine innings.

This is not the train wreck that many people saw at the beginning of the season.  This guy is going to take the Brewers to the playoffs, and beyond.

Sky’s the Limit

Brewers fans have come to expect substantial drop-offs in performance after good stretches of Brewers baseball.  That’s understandable, given the way the team has performed in the clutch in recent seasons (2008 excluded), and may have some questioning the Brewers’ recent offensive success.  Over the last 30 days, the regular cast* in the Brewers offense has done remarkably well, as the following batting averages indicate:

  • Yuniesky Betancourt:  .371
  • Ryan Braun:  .346
  • Nyjer Morgan:  .318
  • Prince Fielder:  .310
  • Corey Hart:  .295
  • Casey McGehee:  .291
  • Jonathan Lucroy:  .284

Unbelievably good, right?  Well, there’s every reason to expect it to continue.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is one measure often used to identify when a hitter is headed for a correction.  Without getting into all the math involved, it is the percentage of plate appearances that result in a hit, except for home runs; that means it does not factor in things like strikeouts and walks.  If we assume that, over the course of a season, about 30% of the balls a given batter puts in play will fall in for a hit, we can roughly determine how dumb luck factors into a batter’s success or failure over a given stretch of time.  A high BABIP means the batter is likely headed for a correction in the future; a low BABIP means the batter will probably come around.  This is not universally true, and BABIP can’t measure all of the subtle things that impact a batter’s performance (better defenses, mechanical adjustments, etc), but its useful as a rough stat if you keep those qualifiers in mind.

Let’s start with Yuniesky Betancourt, who as it turns out might be the one regular hitting over his head.  Betancourt is a career .271 hitter.  Over his career, about 28 percent of balls he puts in play have fallen for hits.   After his recent hot streak, Betancourt is approaching those averages this season (.268 BA/.275 BABIP).  But there’s simply no way that Betancourt can continue to have the kind of success he has recently enjoyed at the plate.  Over the last 30 days, Betancourt has a shocking .390 BABIP, nearly a full .100 points over his career number.  Now, there’s no denying Betancourt has looked much better at the plate lately; his approach, as Bill Schroeder has repeatedly noted on telecasts, has changed dramatically from the first half of the season when he hit only .237.  We suspected then that Yuni was not that bad, and with good reason given his 2010 numbers with the Royals.  But the point here is that Betancourt is nowhere near as good as he has been over the past month.  His plate discipline and balance may have improved (and I’m just going by observation on that), but that isn’t enough to account for the kind of numbers he’s putting up.  Regression is in the air, which is why I suggested that it might be worth it for Doug Melvin to overpay for a guy like Jamey Carroll.

Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, of course, are not in the same boat.  Over the last 30 days,Braun and Fielder have BABIPs of .371 and .333, respectively, but they’ve always been skilled batters who can find gaps (career BABIPs: .337 and .300).  We already know that these are elite hitters, and their recent production is certainly not uncharacteristic of what they’ve done in the past (though Prince’s 2011 slash line of ..304/.420/.571 is a welcome improvement over last year’s near-career low of .261/.401/.471).  You could reasonably expect Braun and Fielder to continue on this way the rest of the season.

Nyjer Morgan is an interesting case because he had some success with the Pirates/Nationals  in 2008-09 but very little success with the Nationals in 2010.  In 2011, he’s showing what a fluky year 2010 was by hitting .324 with a .387 BABIP.  Over the last 30 days, Morgan is batting .318, with about 39 percent of balls put in play falling for hits.  While those certainly looks better than his 2010 numbers (.253 BA, .304 BABIP), they are not far off from what Morgan did in 2008-09 (2008: .294 BA/.364 BABIP; 2009: .307/.355).  The likelihood of regression here is tough to measure; it’s not likely that Morgan will fall back on tough times the remainder of the season, but there is some room for him to cool off.

Corey Hart is sporting a warm .295 BA and .319 BABIP over the last 30 days, and those numbers are pretty legit.  Hart has career averages of .276 and .311, but has replicated his recent success in several past years (2006:  .283 BA/.337 BABIP;  2007:  .295/.321;  2010:  .283/.324).  Hart may well be able to sustain his recent performance.

Casey McGehee’s career numbers (.273 BA/.300 BABIP) suggest he might continue to hit around his 30-day averages of .291/.333.  And after a ridiculous slump in the first half in which McGehee hit only .223, the guy is definitely due for some upward adjustment.  Although he’s not going to come near his 2010 batting average of .285, there’s every reason to believe McGehee will not finish the season at his current average of .237.

Jonathan Lucroy is the final regular I want to profile, but assessing the role of luck in his recent success is difficult given his lack of a track record.  Lucroy hit a disappointing .253 in 2010, but it was his first big league experience and he had to cope with the mental challenge of becoming the starting catcher mid-season.  Lucroy has taken the reigns this season and over the last 30 days has hit right in line with his 2011 averages (.284 BA/.345 BABIP vs. .283/.341).

With the exception of Yuni B, there is a good chance that the Brewers’ recent offensive success is not a fluke.  Very rarely have Brewers fans had the pleasure of seeing all players in the lineup contributing at the same time.  If this is the way it will go for the rest of the season, Brewers fans are in for a real treat.

*Yes, I know that technically Nyjer Morgan remains in a platoon.  Also, there’s really no regular right now at second base with Rickie Weeks out; if I had to pick one, it would be Felipe Lopez, who is only batting .233 in the past 30 days