Memorial Day serves as an important reminder of the ultimate sacrifice that many of our nation’s veterans have made. When I enlisted in the U.S. Army, one of my drill sergeants told us privates that we “wrote the United States a blank check, the amount payable being up to and including your life.” As we remember the many conflicts that have shaped our nation and the ones that continue today in the Middle East, let us not forget my fallen comrades, my brothers and sisters in arms through the years who didn’t make it home to their families and loved ones.
The annual Memorial Day holiday holds significance in the realm of baseball, as well. According to MLB.com, since the beginning of divisional play back in 1995, about 60% of the teams leading their division or Wild Card race on Memorial Day each season wind up making the playoffs. As the old adage goes, “Memorial Day is when you can start looking at the standings.” So how about we do just that?
At the beginning of May with our local nine sitting at 13-13, I posited that it was time for us as fans to re-calibrate our expectations. A little less than a month later, we have ourselves a 1st-place Milwaukee Brewers team through 50 games. The club has already weathered a few storms this year, including the loss of their recently-returned ace Junior Guerra for seven weeks, Ryan Braun’s continued absence from the lineup, Eric Thames’ own persistent health and production issues this month, and a recent five-game losing skid. But the team continues to play strong baseball overall; they are 14-10 this month, have spent 11 days in first place, and their current +21 run differential and 27-23 Pythagorean W-L support the results that have played out on the field.
Milwaukee’s offense continues to hum along at a stellar clip. They rank 4th in baseball with 257 runs scored and 71 home runs; eight of their regular or semi-regular position players (Eric Thames, Jesus Aguilar, Ryan Braun, Jett Bandy, Travis Shaw, Manny Pina, Domingo Santana, and Keon Broxton) have taken at least 90 trips to the plate and have posted a line of 100 wRC+ or better. A 9th player, super-utility man Hernan Perez (96 wRC+), is not too far behind.
For as much-maligned as the pitching staff has been, statistically they haven’t been awful either. By ERA (4.25, 18th) and FIP (4.20, 17th) the group as a whole has been solidly in the middle-third of the league. Though they haven’t exactly been eating innings, Jimmy Nelson (87 ERA-), Chase Anderson (84 ERA-), and Matt Garza (82 ERA-) have been preventing runs at better-than-league-average rates and the return of a healthy Junior Guerra (71 ERA- through 8.2 innings, 65 ERA- last season) should undoubtedly bolster the staff’s production. The bullpen has been lead by the outstanding contributions of new closer Corey Knebel (26 ERA-) along with above-average run prevention from Carlos Torres (61 ERA-), Jacob Barnes (67 ERA-), and Jared Hughes (97 ERA-).
If it’s no longer “too early” for us to write off the struggles of Jonathan Villar, then we can no longer write off Milwaukee’s hot start because it’s “too early.” Nearly a third of the season has come and gone, and here we are talking about a first-place ball club with a positive run differential, an average pitching staff, and a top-5 offense. The team has shown a willingness to demote or move on from under performing players, already cutting Tommy Milone and Jhan Marinez loose while Neftali Feliz and Jonathan Villar have both seen changes in role due to their personal struggles. Reinforcements should be on the way at some point, too; whether those come in the form of top prospects like Brinson, Hader, or Woodruff being called up from the minors or in the form of players added via trade.
Based off the current Memorial Day standings, history says that the Milwaukee Nine have better than a 50/50 chance of making the playoffs in 2017. Now we have obviously had our hearts broken by this team before, and we’ll have to wait and see how things ultimately bear out in a relatively weak National League. Still, the words I wrote a few works ago ring even more true today for our 1st-place Brewers:
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.
Why not us? Why not this year? When will you allow yourself to start believing in these Milwaukee Brewers?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs
In memory of Joshua Carter, Lonnie Montgomery, and Walter Millies, and all those killed in combat. May you rest in peace. “Honor the fallen. Remember their sacrifice. Celebrate the gift of freedom paid with the blood of heroes.”