Before the 2014 season, conventional wisdom pointed to this weekend’s series between Cincinnati and Milwaukee as likely between two teams headed in opposite directions — one confidently surging to the front of the NL Central while the other struggled toward mediocrity.

It turns out, as Marty loves to say, that’d be a big ol’ bingo.

The impressive 20-8 start for Ron Roenicke’s team has surprised most folks who didn’t begin as paper boys for the Milwaukee Journal. The Brewers, coming off a fourth-place finish in 2013 (74-88), not only boast the best record in baseball, but have opened up a 5.5 game lead over St. Louis and a 7.5 game edge over Bryan Price’s lifeless Reds.

Raise your stein of Rhinegeist if you saw that coming.

Milwaukee has a 3-3 record against the Cardinals and 1-2 against the first-place Atlanta Braves. The Brewers have feasted, however, on the Pirates (6-1) and swept the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies on an early-April road trip. Read Nick Kirby’s summary of the Brewers’ fast start in his column, Central Intelligence, from Monday morning.

But while the Brewers lofty record may raise eyebrows, their turn-around from last year shouldn’t. Milwaukee is just two years removed from a 96-win season and in 2013 they were rocked by an improbable series of injuries and misadventures even before the PED-related suspension of superstar LF Ryan Braun for the final 65 games. You don’t have to live on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan to have expected significant improvement. As I wrote in my season preview Fear the Wurst? (no such thing as too many wurst puns), when the Brew Crew is healthy, they’ve got the players to contend.

But Milwaukee arrives to the Queen City decidedly far from healthy. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez missed Tuesday and Wednesday’s games against St. Louis with an injured elbow after being hit by a pitch. Ramirez is expected to play against the Reds. An MRI revealed on Monday that Ryan Braun, who was off to a blazing start (.318/.361/.591), has suffered an oblique strain and he hasn’t played since. While Braun hasn’t landed on the DL, he’s considered day-to-day this weekend.

Also, this happened:

That’s Jean Segura, the Brewers shortstop who hit .338/.388/.514 against the Reds last year, on the receiving end of Ryan Braun’s presumably unjuiced, but weight-enhanced, practiced swing. In the aftermath, Segura hasn’t yet played the field, although he did pinch hit in the Cardinals series. He’s reported to be likely to play this weekend. Yesterday, the Brewers played without Ramirez, Braun and Segura in their 9-3 beating at the hands of St. Louis.

Run Production

The Brewers offense ranks sixth in the National League – sixth in runs scored, sixth in wRC+, sixth in isolated power and sixth in on base percentage. (My grad school labor econ. professor said the correct answer was always six. Hmm.) They are dead last in drawing walks, however.

Projected Lineup

Assuming Braun and Segura don’t play, and Aramis Ramirez does, here’s a likely lineup:

1. Carlos Gomez (R, 28) CF
2. Scooter Gennett (L, 23) 2B
3. Jonathan Lucroy (R, 27) C
4. Aramis Ramirez (R, 35) 3B
5. Khris Davis (R, 26) LF
6. Mark Reynolds (R,30) 1B
7. Jeff Bianchi (R, 27) SS
8. Elian Herrera (S, 29) RF
9

Carlos Gomez (.284/.338/.506 in 2013) blossomed into a truly elite player last season (7.6 fWAR) with 24 homers and 40 stolen bases. Remember the game he robbed Joey Votto of a potential game-winning home run? His heroics weren’t limited to that play. Gomez won the NL Gold Glove for CF. He’s off to a brilliant start in 2014 (.296/.354/.574) with seven homers.

Jonathan Lucroy (.280/.340/.455 in 2013) was fourth among NL catchers in wRC+ and hit eighteen home runs and stole nine bases. He also plays 1B to keep his bat in the lineup. Lucroy has picked up in 2014 (295/.362/.432) where he ended 2013.

Khris Davis, who took over in LF for the suspended Braun in 2013, was so impressive in his 150+ plate appearances (he slugged .596), that the Brewers moved Braun to RF to keep Davis’ bat in the lineup. Braun replaces Norichika Aoki. Aoki, who was traded to the Kansas City Royals.

Run Prevention

It’s been a while since one could say this, but the Brewers’ outstanding record in 2014 has more to do with their quality starting pitching than their powerful offense. Their rotation is third in the National League in ERA, following the Braves (ugh) and Cardinals (ugh) and just ahead of the Reds. The underlying numbers, however, don’t quite back up their early success in run-prevention. The Brewers are 9th in xFIP, for instance.

In terms of defense, Milwaukee is one of the more aggressive teams at implementing position shifts. Watch where they deploy 2B Scooter Barnett this weekend. First base coach Garth Iorg shared this insight: “Yeah, it works. We wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. It’s beneficial, there’s no doubt about it. It’s crazy.” The 2014 Brewers rank third in defensive efficiency, behind the (ugh) Braves and the Reds.

PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS

The key, which includes the current NL average for starting pitchers, for the stats in the charts:

  • ERA (average number of earned runs given up over nine innings, NL: 3.59);
  • xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching, assumes normal BABIP and home runs based on fly ball rates, scaled to ERA, NL: 3.60);
  • SIERA (skill-interactive ERA; further refinement of xFIP taking into account hit-ball percentages, weights strike outs, NL: 3.68);
  • K% and BB% (percentage of strikeouts and walks per plate appearance, NL: 20.4% and 7.1%);
  • SwStr% (percentage of total pitches the batter swings and misses, NL: 9.2%)

The Reds will miss Matt Garza, the Brewers’ key off-season free agent signing, who was shelled by the Cardinals yesterday.

THURSDAY, 7:10pm

PITCHER ERA xFIP SIERA K% BB% SwStr%
 Marco Estrada 2.87 3.73 3.39 23.5% 5.0% 10.0%
 Homer Bailey 6.15 3.12 3.20 23.8% 6.6% 10.9%

Marco Estrada is vastly under-estimated as a starting pitcher, mostly because he hasn’t stayed healthy for a full season. Last year, Estrada led the Brewers’ starters in strikeout percentage and xFIP over his 21 starts.

FRIDAY, 7:10pm

PITCHER ERA xFIP SIERA K% BB% SwStr%
 Wily Peralta 2.56 3.32 3.42 18.9% 5.3% 8.3%
 Mike Leake 3.82 3.69 3.56 14.4% 4.3% 6.6%

24-year-old, Wily Peralta, had a solid rookie season, starting 32 games and finishing with a 4.13 xFIP and 4.37 ERA. Peralta had some mediocre-to-poor starts against the Reds, but did turn in a sparkling 3-hit shutout against Dusty Baker’s club on July 9. He’s off to a solid start in 2014.

SATURDAY, 7:10pm

PITCHER ERA xFIP SIERA K% BB% SwStr%
 Yovani Gallardo 1.91 3.85 3.99 16.6% 6.6% 5.2%
 Johnny Cueto 1.15 2.79 2.89 28.3% 7.9% 10.4%

Yovanni Gallardo actually had a better 2013 than Kyle Lohse, ERA notwithstanding. Gallardo’s FIP has remained below 4.0 since 2009. One warning sign for the veteran pitcher is a drop in his strikeout rate (from 25.7% to 18.6%), mostly attributed to a decrease in fastball velocity from 92.6 mph to 90.7 mph over the past two seasons. His K% in 2014 (16.6%) shows continue decline.

SUNDAY, 4:10pm

PITCHER ERA xFIP SIERA K% BB% SwStr%
 Kyle Lohse 2.70 3.37 3.33 24.2% 6.7% 9.7%
Alfredo Simon 1.60 4.27 4.32 16.4% 8.2% 9.1%

In March 2013, Milwaukee signed 34-year-old SP Kyle Lohse to a 3-year/$33 million contract. The signing also cost the organization their 2013 first-round draft pick, which went to the Cardinals. Lohse had an excellent 2013 season for the Brewers and is off to a good start in 2014.

Bullpen

In 2013, the Brewers bullpen had the third lowest ERA in the NL, but that success was belied by a closer look at the fundamentals. The Brewers pen had the fourth poorest strikeout rate and benefitted from a low BABIP. That translated to an eleventh-best FIP out of fifteen teams. But so far in 2014, they have bounced back to post the second highest strikeout rate in the NL, behind the (ugh). And they have the second lowest walk rate, behind the San Francisco Giants.

Jim Henderson entered the 2014 spring training as the incumbent Brewers’ closer. He had recorded 28 saves in 32 opportunities (87.5%) last year and his 11.25 K/9 was one of the highest among NL relievers. But Henderson lost the job to veteran Francisco Rodriguez, who has converted on all 13 of his 2014 save opportunities. (So yes, he is due, really due, to blow one this weekend.) Henderson is now one of the Brewers’ set-up relievers, along with 25-year old Tyler Thornburg.

As far as lefty match-ups against Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, the Brewers have Zach Duke (remember him?) and Will Smith, who are both having excellent LOOGY starts to the 2014 season.

Conclusion

If you’re a discouraged Reds fan, desperately looking for a silver lining this morning, here it is: Despite how utterly awful the Reds have performed throughout April, they are only two games behind the Cardinals and, believe it or not, are actually 1.5 games ahead of the Pirates. That leaves only the Brewers way out there, if you don’t care about the Wild Card. And, of course, the Brewers aren’t going to play .700 baseball all season, or maintain their .846 road record.

Behold, here swaggers Milwaukee, right into our town, for the first four of 19 games the two teams play against each other this year.

That makes this series crucial for Bryan Price’s club, which has so far been the opposite of relentless.

21 Responses

  1. Steve Mancuso

    Brewers beat writer Adam McCalvy confirming this morning: Ramirez and Segura likely back in the lineup, Braun not expected to play.

  2. doublenohitter

    My faith has been shaken…
    No, not my faith in God. That is as strong as ever.
    What is shaken is my faith in the Reds and the organization.

    The bullpen has been one of the worst in baseball. I realize that Chapman has been out but Chapman alone cannot fix this bullpen. Walt needs to find some answers.
    Where are all the power arms? It seems like every team the Reds play have multiple power arms in their bullpen. The Reds have Chapman (injured), Hoover (maybe) and that is it. All the other bullpen arms are average velocity wise or soft tossers.

    The starting has been great. However, you have to worry about the long term use of Cingrani as a starter. If and when Latos comes back, would it be smarter to send Cingrani to the bullpen and leave Simon as a starter? An injury to a starter could completely derail the rotation as there are no real options in the minors.

    The offense is in another one of their funks. Not as bad as earlier in the season but the lack of power is striking. In the last 9 games, the Reds have 2 home runs. Both were hit by guys who had not hit one all year. Again, with no help in the minors (the high minors are virtually barren of any major league talent), the Reds need to look outside the organization for help.

    The fact that Walt Jocketty hibernates during the season is an immense source of frustration. The lack of moves by this organization during the season last year cost the Reds. The lack of moves in the off-season is costing the Reds now. I’m sure we won’t see any significant moves during this season either. It is Jocketty’s “modus operandi”.

    Price said the Reds would be a team “no one would want to play”. I certainly don’t see that. In fact, I think most of the Reds opponents think of the Reds in the way the Reds think of the Cubs. Oh, we’re playing the Reds? Yeah, we should beat them.

    Price said he would hold players accountable. Have we seen any of that? Last night was a good example. On a wild pitch, Cozart stood at first daydreaming when he should have easily been at second. As manager, I would have immediately yanked him out of the game. Sometimes you need to send a message. When Phillips didn’t hustle on a ground ball in Atlanta, he should have been benched for the rest of the game.

    I realize it is a long season and there are 130 games left but at some point you have to wonder if this team can really change and put it all together. This team looks like the same team we saw at the end of last year. This tells me it isn’t necessarily a manager issue as much as it is a player issue. There doesn’t seem to be any real leadership.

    All that being said, Go Reds!

    Also, anything less than 3 of 4 from the Brewers would be a disastrous home stand. They have to start winning games at home.
    The Reds only won 5 games at home in April.

    • Steve Mancuso

      I hesitate to get too far into this in the Brewers series preview thread. You wrote 500 words about other stuff. But, my two cents on the Cozart failure to run last night (with benefit of proximity and drawback of no replay) are that I didn’t see it as a big mistake. The ball didn’t bounce that far away from the catcher. Cozart couldn’t anticipate the catcher would have trouble finding the ball. The situation warranted caution. Getting thrown out is a lot worse of a downside than advancing is an upside. You have to be about 70% sure of success to risk giving up both the out and the base runner.

      • doublenohitter

        My apologies for rambling. I had some things on my mind while doing my morning constitutional. I just glad there is a place like redlegnation where one can vent/express one’s self. It sure does help.
        Thanks for making this such a great site.

        Most of what I wrote isn’t worth the paper it is printed on (or should I say the hard disk space it is stored on).

        🙂

      • lwblogger2

        I agree with Steve. Also, as a catcher, I’ve pretended to lose track of where a ball was in the hopes of luring a baserunner into an easy out. I don’t think that was the case on the ball last night but I don’t think you can scream at Cozart for not going there anyway. It wasn’t a sure bet, just like Steve said.

  3. preacherj

    Maybe Braun will beat more of his teammates with bats before first pitch.

  4. Steve Mancuso

    More from Brewers beat writer Adam McCalvy about Milwaukee’s roster moves today and Braun’s chance of playing. Read the entire article here.

    “The Brewers recalled right-handed reliever Rob Wooten from Triple-A Nashville on Thursday in a move that was expected to help bolster a hard-worked bullpen.

    The corresponding move was the interesting part: The Brewers optioned out utility man Elian Herrera, choosing to hold onto Rule 5 Draft pick Wei-Chung Wang and second baseman Rickie Weeks, the two members of the Opening Day roster who have played the least so far this season.

    Herrera had been starting in right field while Ryan Braun recovers from a right rib-cage strain. Barring a surprise early return for Braun on Thursday night in Cincinnati — “He’s closer. He’s not going to play [Thursday],” manager Ron Roenicke said Wednesday afternoon — Mark Reynolds appears to be the top option to start there. He has appeared in right field three times in the Major Leagues, but never as a starter.”

    • doublenohitter

      Weeks has been a major bust. 3 or 4 years ago, he looked like a superstar in the making.

      Biggest series of the year, by far, for the Reds.

  5. Josh Mohr

    The Brewers are for real. Offense is solid, rotation is good and BP is great.

  6. ToddAlmighty

    So has anybody asked Price yet why the .255/.272/.318 guy is still hitting third and maybe that might be part of the reason for the offense’s recent struggles? I saw he’s still hitting there for today.

      • ToddAlmighty

        “….It will be something special when he warms up and does what he’s capable of doing.”
        That almost seems like a “Get him going” type comment from Price.

        30: .810 OPS, 118 OPS+
        31: .750 OPS, 99 OPS+
        32: .706 OPS, 92 OPS+
        33: .590 OPS, 63 OPS+

        How is it so easy for me to look and see that BP’s best baseball is behind him and he’s probably not going to be an average major league hitter again… yet Price still thinks it’s a good idea to bat him third? His AVG, OBP, and SLG have all been on a four year decline.

      • the next janish

        Nice link! I liked Price’s “We just want him to hit not necessarily to the spot in the order, but just to hit,” Price(I mean Joey Votto) said. “Get a good pitch to hit and hit it. Don’t worry about whether you’re hitting first, second or third, fourth or fifth.”

        That quote just seemed Votto-esque as for approaching an AB.

  7. preacherj

    When Phillips is/was at his best, he still should never hit 3rd for any MLB team. That’s trouble with a capital BP.

    • lwblogger2

      I don’t care where he hits. I just know he sure isn’t hitting. I hope he comes out of it soon and at least provide some marginal hitting. I projected a bit of a rebound from BP, although not a huge one. He’s proving me way optimistic though. For the Reds’ sake, he, Bruce, Ludwick, and Cozart all need to swing a better stick.