40 Games in, 120 to Go

We're about as close to 25% of the season being done as we can possibly be right now, so it's a good time to take a look at what we've seen so far. 19-21 certainly isn't a cause for celebration, but this week's 5-1 homestand allows me to firmly state that the first quarter wasn't a disaster. Third in the NL Central and 4 games back of Reds is by no means a disaster outcome, and while no one should exactly be happy with this patch of 40 games, the sky is in fact not falling.

To the bullet points:

  • Fun fact of the day: The four best offenses in the National League by wOBA, which is a stat that doesn't take into account the situation of a batter (a solo home run up 9 counts as much as a grand slam down 3) as of May 15th: Cardinals, Reds, Cubs, Brewers, in that order. The Cards and Reds are significantly higher than the Cubs and Brewers. Unsurprisingly, the Brewers team BABIP is at .296, while the Cardinals are all the way up at .320. The Reds clock in at a more sustainable .303, but they also have hit an absurd amount of home runs: 47 (the Brewers have 39).
  • While the news in the general offense department is encouraging-- the Brewers have performed well, the other teams should come down a bit soon-- it sure seems like the first 40 games have been a struggle offensively. Sure enough, the Brewers are 10th in total runs. Why the difference? There's a lot of reasons-- poor timing for hits, home runs when nobody's on, outs on the basepaths, bad luck, and tending to get, say, 1 hit each inning instead of bunching them together in 1 or 2 innings and putting some runs on the board. The good news is that the offense has put up some fantastic, sustainable context-neutral numbers, and that the luck/timing factor tends to even out in the course of the season. If they hit, as a team, just as they did this quarter of the year I would expect them to be 4th in runs scored in quarter 2, and not 10th.
  • The starting pitching staff is fourth in the NL in FIP, right there with the offense in context-neutral production. The Phillies are tearing apart everyone, striking out 9 per 9 and walking fewer than 2 per 9. That's a Cy Young caliber pitcher and it's their cumulative staff, which is phenomenal. The Brewers, unsurprisingly, have an ERA about a half a run worse than their FIP (the second biggest gap in the NL, behind Philadelphia). Some of that can be attributed to the less than stellar defense, and some can be attributed to random variation again. The bottom line is that this staff, while missing its best pitcher and watching its best pitcher from last year struggle, was among the best in the National League. That makes me really excited for what we're going to see the rest of the year. When Marcum, Wolf, and Narveson, who have all been well above-average so far, make up the bottom half of the rotation-- things are going right.
  • Finally, the bullpen. I felt that the pen was going to be a strength for this team, but that projection of strength was based at least in part by assumptions of health by Zach Braddock and Manny Parra, as well as more than 2 innings out of Takashi Saito. Overall, the 3.81 ERA is 13th in the NL, ahead of only the horrendous pens of Houston and Los Angeles, whose ERAs are over 5. The Brewers are also tied with the Cardinals for most bullpen lost games, with 10. There are some indications that the pen has gotten a bit unlucky, mainly a pretty high home run rate and a low strand rate, indicating that teams have been better with runners on than they would be in a normal situation against the Brewers. In all, I think the worst of the bullpen is behind us, and when the rest of this pen gets healthy we're going to see a pen that may not be great, but will at least be something close to average. And with a fantastic offense and starting staff, average is all the Brewers will need to make a run at the playoffs.
  • Ryan Braun is walking a lot more. His career rate is around 8% and he's been around 12% so far this year. Right now, he's exactly matching his wOBA from his rookie year of 2007 with a .422. I think he's really taking the next step this year. His early season UZR (defense) mark isn't great, he's still solidly below average, but even so he's on pace for a 6-WAR year. That's an MVP-caliber pace.
  • Prince is on pace for a 6-WAR season as well, but he's had a bit of a strange start. His strikeouts are way down, but so are his walks. He's still hitting better than in his 2008 or 2010 seasons, but he's putting quite a few more balls in play, so the slugging is up and the OBP is a bit down. I'm certainly not concerned about it if he continues to mash, though. His UZR is slightly positive on the year. I say so far, so good. That's not to say we couldn't use 2009 Prince for the rest of the year.

This is a very good baseball team. The offense and starting pitching were in the top four of the NL in what is likely to be the worst quarter of the season, and now Greinke is here to stay. The losing streaks have been brutal, but they happen to every team. The Brewers managed to maintain near .500 in a month in which the best starter on the team (and possibly the league) and 2 of the best relievers were on the DL. I'm excited. Four games isn't much, and maybe when I check again after 81 games we'll be looking down at St. Louis and Cincinnati in the standings. Hopefully when the Brewers come back to town on Friday, they'll have climbed back to .500 and will be ready to make the move with Greinke on the mound.

(Editor's note: We've got a lot of stuff to cover today, so we're bumping this week's Tracking Poll back to tomorrow. - KL)

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