The Brewers were never supposed to make it this far. In BtBS’s preseason poll, all our writers picked the Cubs to win the NL Central; the most common choice for the Brew Crew was fourth place. Yet somehow, Milwaukee has surged to a 25-18 record, three games ahead of Chicago — which, somehow, is in third place — in the divisional standings.
As is the custom for a surprising early-season performance, we might be tempted to write off the Brewers’ strong start as a fluke. Indeed, according to FanGraphs’ BaseRuns, they should’ve gone 22-21 in their first 43 games, which would put them third in the Central. Baseball Prospectus’s third-order winning percentage, which is adjusted for the quality of opponents a team faces, is even less optimistic, slapping Milwaukee with a 21.2-21.8 expected record.
But it’s lazy to write the Brewers off because a couple of models don’t think highly of them. While the team probably won’t be this good all year, its underlying statistics suggest it’s actually been unlucky in a few areas thus far. If these trends turn around, Milwaukee just might make some noise in the crowded Central.
Right now, the Brewers rank third in the majors with 5.28 runs scored per game, and 15th with 4.49 runs allowed per game. According to BaseRuns, they should have scored 5.13 runs and allowed 5.03 runs per game, which would place fifth and 26th, respectively. But in this case, there’s reason to think the actual statistics are more accurate than the expected ones.
We’ll begin with the offense. Led by Eric Thames, the Brewers have hit the snot out of the ball thus far, with the highest ISO (.203) and seventh-highest BABIP (.312) in baseball. But thanks to subpar plate discipline — the team has the second-worst strikeout rate at 24.7 percent, and a middle-of-the-pack walk rate at 8.7 percent — Milwaukee is only eighth in wRC+.
Those latter two areas could improve, though. To this point, the Brewers have gotten more strikes called against them than you’d expect. Based on their O-Swing and zone rates, their strike rate should be nearly a percentage point lower:
Unluckiest strike rates
While the Brew Crew’s actual strike rate ranks 19th, its expected strike rate places 10th. Getting some of those calls back should help the squad earn a few more free passes.
The strikeout rate could come down as well. Milwaukee’s 10.9 percent whiff rate is the 10th-highest in the majors, while its Z-Swing rate is the eighth-highest; not great, but passable. This team will always strike out, but that it has the second-highest K rate in baseball testifies to the bad luck it’s experienced. Even if Thames and co. can’t continue to smack the ball into the seats, their progress with plate discipline should ensure the offense keeps rolling.
Over on the pitching side of things, the disparity between “what should have happened” and “what’s happened” is much starker. Only the Phillies have given up a worse wOBA than the Brewers, yet Milwaukee has maintained a respectable ERA. As its elevated strand rate comes down, will the team start to allow more runs?
Not if it stops giving up so many hits. The Brewers’ .317 BABIP ranks second in MLB, and that mark should start to fall. The team has induced a ton of soft contact this year:
Lowest exit velocity allowed
Milwaukee’s pitching staff has a pretty normal batted-ball distribution — it checks in at 11th in line drive rate, 18th in ground ball rate, 14th in overall fly ball rate, and 14th in infield fly ball rate. And the defense hasn’t slouched, either: The Brew Crew ranks 12th with 2 DRS. This just seems to be the fluke of a small sample size, which should regress away in time.
The pedestrian strikeout and walk rates from the Brewers’ arms should remain that way. The club hasn’t netted many swinging strikes or thrown the ball in the strike zone very often, leading to an unimpressive 11.2 percent K-BB rate. But if they can induce enough weak contact, the other stuff won’t really matter. With the high-powered offense backing them up, Brewers pitchers doesn’t need to be great.
Sustaining its current winning percentage over a full season would give Milwaukee 94 victories, which would be its best finish since 2011 and its eighth 90-win season ever. While that’s probably not feasible — this is still a rebuilding team — the Brewers shouldn’t lose 89 games again this year. Better plate discipline from the hitters, and more batted-ball luck from the pitchers, should help the Brew Crew stay in the hunt.