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,Ã‚Â 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?Ã‚Â (no such thing as too manyÃ‚Â wurst puns),Ã‚Â 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, thisÃ‚Â 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 ofÃ‚Â St. Louis.
The Brewers offense ranks sixthÃ‚Â 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.
Assuming Braun and Segura don’t play, and Aramis Ramirez does, here’s a likely lineup:
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 heÃ‚Â robbed Joey VottoÃ‚Â of a potential game-winning home run? His heroics werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 DavisÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ bat in the lineup. Braun replaces Norichika Aoki. Aoki, who was traded to the Kansas City Royals.
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 rotationÃ‚Â 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: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Yeah, it works. We wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t do it if it didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t work. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s beneficial, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no doubt about it. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s crazy.Ã¢â‚¬Â 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:Ã‚Â 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.
|Ã‚Â Marco Estrada||2.87||3.73||3.39||23.5%||5.0%||10.0%|
|Ã‚Â 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 BrewersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ starters in strikeout percentageÃ‚Â and xFIP over his 21 starts.
|Ã‚Â Wily Peralta||2.56||3.32||3.42||18.9%||5.3%||8.3%|
|Ã‚Â 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 BakerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s club on July 9. He’s off to a solid start in 2014.
|Ã‚Â Yovani Gallardo||1.91||3.85||3.99||16.6%||6.6%||5.2%|
|Ã‚Â 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. GallardoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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.
|Ã‚Â Kyle Lohse||2.70||3.37||3.33||24.2%||6.7%||9.7%|
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.
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 BrewersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ 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.
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.