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

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