|Run For Your Lives! Here Come the Brewers!!!||| Print ||
Written by Justin Zeth (Contact & Archive) on May 09, 2007
Quick: Who has the best record in baseball right now? Why, that would be – you're going to love this – those lovable Milwaukee Brewers, who are, as of this writing, a nifty 22-10, and the Cubs' 5 game winning streak (playing the Nationals will do that for you, don't you know) isn't really helping them catch the Brew Crew.
So, how much can we read into this? Let's open the books and have a look for ourselves...
First, a look at the schedule, because that's usually the easiest way to explain hot streaks (and that goes double for teams fortunate enough to be part of the NL Central, baseball's Third World.) Their schedule's been almost entirely contained within that fun-loving division, with only a three game series against the Dodgers at home (that was the season-opener, and they took two of the three, Jeff Suppan getting smacked around for the loss) and at... that mighty powerhouse, the Florida Marlins (again, they took two of three, with – stop me if you've heard this before – Jeff Suppan getting smacked around for the loss.) Over against their 5-2 record outside the NL Central, they're 17-8 within it. Here's another breakdown for you: 5-1 against the Pirates, 17-9 against everyone else. But then, everybody goes 5-1 against the Pirates.
One might, then, look at the Brewers' schedule and figure they've just been loading up on the soft underbelly of the NL Central, which, upon closer investigation, turns out to be all soft underbelly. Just like most of us expected, the NL Central is a two-horse race, and unless one team or the other becomes significantly injured (more on this in a moment), we're looking at two teams around 90 wins and four teams around 70 wins, and I'm going to get out front on suggesting that, just maybe, the NL Central could produce the wild card.
How are the Brewers doing this? They're all healthy. Take J.J. Hardy, for instance, who's hitting the snot out of the ball right now with a .336/.392/.595 line. He's on pace to hit 52 doubles and 42 home runs – and he's good shortstop to boot. Those are positively Rodriguezian numbers, and you can bet your last milk cow he isn't going to sustain that, but the talent is there. If he could stay healthy all year, a .310/.370/.510 line isn't out of the question, and that's one of the best shortstops in the game.
If he could stay healthy.
Then we can talk about Prince Fielder. Fielder's a different case, in that he isn't (yet) especially injury-prone, even though of course scouts are always going to deride him for being overweight. Fun fact: The Brewers give Fielder's weight as 262, leaving open the question (to evoke Bill James on Fielder the Elder) of what he might weigh if he put his other foot on the scale. Right now, Fielder's hitting .288/.375/.560. The thing about him is, that's not unreasonable for him; he well could put up that kind of line over the full season, and his doing so is a key cog in the Brewers plans for world domination, or at least a world championship. Remember: This guy just turned 23. He, um, might be good.
That's the thing about the Brew Crew right now: Apart from Hardy hitting out of his mind, no one's really posting an out-of-character stat line: Bill Hall's been struggling, Tony Graffanino (.275 slugging!) and Craig Counsell are doing excellent impressions of themselves, and Jeff Suppan's hitting .118/.211/.118 just like we expected him to. What I really admire about the Brew Crew, as with the Angels and the Braves, is when they get their hands on talent, they know what to do with it, and they're creative in ensuring their best players see the field. On a team like the Dodgers (who are maliciously ignorant) or the Pirates (who are sincerely stupid), a guy like Corey Hart could find himself eating greasy hamburgers in the minor leagues for quite some time to come, but the Brewers are making it a point to find him some playing time. When they traded Carlos Lee and ended up with Kevin Mench, everyone assumed they now would unload Geoff Jenkins, but the Brewers realize that lefthanded hitters who rake don't grow on trees, and they've set up a very nifty platoon that serves the dual purpose of putting a good hitter in the lineup and putting a good hitter on the bench. The Brewers don't overpay relievers, generally funnel the best starters in their organization into their major league rotation, and even the Jeff Suppan signing looked good to me – they have a chance to win, and Suppan does represent a 2-3 win improvement over J. Random Fifth Starter.
The precautionary tale here is that the Brewers are getting better work from several of their pitchers than they can expect. Ben Sheets isn't going to pitch all that much, or if he does he isn't going to be Ben Sheets; that ship seems to have pretty much sailed. But Chris Capuano is flashing a 2.90 ERA, Claudio Vargas a 2.89, and Jeff Suppan (who's won 5 straight since dropping his first two decisions) sports a nifty 2.63. All three are good pitchers, but these guys aren't Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Of the three, only Vargas has ratios that suggest he could keep up this high a level of performance. Suppan's not walking anybody, and the 3:1 K/BB is good, but with only 5 strikeouts per nine, he relies heavily on his defense and won't keep his ERA below about 3.60 for the season, as a minimum. Capuano's ERA is all luck. You're going to see him get shellacked a few times in succession in the near future as his ERA corrects itself to his problematic peripherals. And as a final shot, Francisco Cordero is, um, unlikely to keep the ol' ERA at 0.00 or the WHIP at 0.66, and Derrick Turnbow's unlikely to continue striking out 14.85 hitters per nine innings; those stats are just a small sample-size thing. Again, both of these guys are good pitchers, but Mariano Rivera and Goose Gossage, they are not.
On one hand, then, the Brewers are raking and will continue to do so all year. On the other hand, the pitching is not quite as good as it's looked so far (although feasting on NL Central lineups will continue to help). On the third hand, though, there are two elephants in a room, and here I'm thinking of the Batman building's upper room in Nashville. Their names are Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, and they'll be in the Land of Cheese and Beer soon, and they represent, um, a little bit of an upgrade over Tony Graffanino (.275 slugging! .275!!) and Dave Bush (a well-earned 6.03 ERA as of this writing.)
Conclusion: The continued good health of Hardy, Weeks, and their other young stars is the decisive question, of course, but realistically, the Cubs also can't expect to keep the whole team healthy all year, and injuries are a question for all teams, all the time. The Brewers hit, and they play good defense in front of a pitching staff that's at least acceptable, even without Ben Sheets doing his thing. And they have Braun and Gallardo coming. I think the Brewers are a better team than the Cubs right now, and that the two are equally good bets to come out on top of the Central. The NL as a whole is pretty weak this year, and the two both making the playoffs with around 90 wins isn't out of the question, not with the Astros, the Reds, the Cardinals and the Pirates to beat up on all year.
P.S. Since you asked: The Yankees are really where Roger Clemens, the mercenary's mercenary, belongs, aren't they? I'm happy to see him go back home. They needed a proper villain.