Today is May 1st. That means that we have officially completed the first month of the 2017 Major League Baseball season. Went by pretty quick, eh?
In each of the past two years, the Milwaukee Brewers have pretty much been able to wave the white flag by this point in the season. The disaster that was April of 2015 saw the Milwaukee Nine go 5-17 and get outscored by nearly 50 runs, which lead to the firing of their manager and the kickstarting of the great Brewers’ rebuild. Last April wasn’t much of an improvement, as the club could muster only an 8-15 record while again being outscored by almost 50 runs. Those two Aprils would set the tone for non-competitive seasons of 68 and 73 victories.
This year, however, things have gone quite differently for our local nine. After one month of play, the Brewers sit with an even .500 record at 13-13. That places them just one game back of the Cubs for first place in the NL Central and one game back of the Dodgers in the National League Wild Card standings. Even in their losses the Brewers have stayed quite competitive, losing only two games by a total of four or more runs. When taking Milwaukee’s +7 run differential into account (135 scored, 128 allowed) the Brewers’ Pythagorean W-L looks even better at 14-12.
It feels weird to say this, but so far this year’s iteration of the Milwaukee Brewers might actually be...good?
Hard to believe, I know. But this offense looks like the real deal - they rank 3rd in the MLB with 135 runs scored, first with 45 home runs, and second with 32 steals. Only two teams (Washington, Arizona) have have scored more runs per game than Milwaukee’s average of 5.19, and just one NL club, the Nationals, has a better collective OPS+ than the Brewers’ total of 105.
And for as good as Eric Thames has been, earning national notoriety (and plenty of drug tests) with his 219 wRC+ and 11 home runs, he’s been far from the only major contributor. Ryan Braun is once again off to a tremendous start (7 home runs, 146 wRC+), Jett Bandy and Manny Pina have been perhaps the best catching tandem in baseball, and Travis Shaw (5 home runs, 111 wRC+) has hit the ground running during his first season in Milwaukee. Even guys like Hernan Perez, Orlando Arcia, Jonathan Villar, and Domingo Santana have started to pick up the pace over the past two weeks or so. Lewis Brinson’s big league debut should happen at some point in the near future and could provide another shot in the arm to an already dangerous collection of bats. The Brewers have enough credible threats in their lineup that the offense should remain a strength as the season wears on.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the pitching staff has been a bit of a liability thus far, but collectively they have been far from a disaster. True, Milwaukee’s cache of arms ranks only 22nd in ERA (4.43) and 21st in FIP (4.28) when looking at the league-wide rankings. But there have been several bright spots, including Chase Anderson’s hot start in the rotation. He’s throwing harder and mixing his pitches differently than he did in his first season with Milwaukee, and the results have been an increase in strikeouts and swinging strikes, a reduction in free passes and hard contact allowed, and a stellar 2.10 ERA along with a shiny 2.85 FIP. We shouldn’t expect Chase to continue preventing runs at that high of a level, but if the steps forward that he’s taken are for real, an ERA somewhere in the 3’s certainly isn’t out of the question.
Zach Davies has started to pick things up lately after a few poor starts to begin the season and if his 4.16 FIP is any indication, he should improve upon his current 6.57 ERA. Junior Guerra’s recovery from a strained calf is reportedly going quite well and the rotation should get a nice boost from having its ace back in the fold later on this month. Further reinforcements could come down the line as well in the form of promising arms like Josh Hader, Jorge Lopez, Brandon Woodruff, Aaron Wilkerson, and Paolo Espino, among others, all of whom are pitching well in the upper levels of the minor leagues. With that much legitimate depth, the leash is getting shorter for guys like Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, and Matt Garza should they continue to pitch below expectations.
In the bullpen, Corey Knebel and Jacob Barnes each are off to strong starts, have filthy stuff, and appear capable of handling high-leverage innings. Oliver Drake has looked like another waiver wire victory for Slingin’ Stearns in the early going, as well. It’s fair to say that things look a bit dicey beyond that group, however. The club has already moved on from the struggling Tommy Milone and recalled Rob Scahill, and solid depth arms like Tyler Cravy, Brent Suter, Michael Blazek, Wei-Chung Wang, Forrest Snow, and Stephen Kohlscheen (not to mention whoever may be available as a waiver claim at any given time) stand at the ready if they are called upon. Jhan Marinez, Carlos Torres, and Jared Hughes shouldn’t feel too comfortable given their current results.
The National League itself is in a bit of a flux, too. The Mets, Pirates, and Giants were all thought of as legitimate contenders to begin the season but have ran into serious issues (injuries or otherwise). The Philles, Braves, Padres, and Reds are all still in rebuilding phases and don’t figure to have the firepower to stay competitive all season. The Nationals, Dodgers, and Cubs will probably stay strong throughout the season with the Rockies and Diamondbacks making some early noise as well, but there could be a real opportunity for the Brewers to surprise here.
Now, am I saying that the Milwaukee Brewers are legitimate World Series contenders right now? No, of course not. Do I think that it’s especially likely that they make the playoffs in 2017? I won’t go that far, either. But if you were among the contingent that was prognosticating 90+ losses for the 2017 Brewers, it looks like you were sorely mistaken. The org has already seen the “bottoming out” phase of this rebuild come and go. Gone are the days where journeyman and AAAA types like Jake Elmore, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Andy Wilkins, and Ramon Flores are getting meaningful playing time at the big league level. The roster has already been almost completely turned over, and now we’re watching mostly young, talented players fight for spots and come into their own against major league competition.
I know we’ve all been conditioned to expect losing over the past couple of years, but those days are over. It’s okay to start being mindful of where the Brewers are in the standings. It’s okay to be psyched after a big victory, and it’s okay to be frustrated after a demoralizing loss. It’s okay to be invested in how your favorite team is playing at the major league level again, instead of focusing solely on what’s coming up through the farm system.
The 2017 Milwaukee Brewers have a dangerous lineup and an admittedly middling pitching staff, albeit one with reinforcements on the way. Though the playoffs may not come this year, we’re well on our way to at least enjoying meaningful ballgames come September. After two years of rebuilding, this is an organization that should now be considered “on the rise,” and the time has come to re-calibrate our expectations to reflect having a competitive ball club to follow.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference