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Milwaukee Brewers have earned the title of NL Central favorites

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Many stats and trends are leaning Milwaukee’s way.

Milwaukee Brewers v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

We’ve now reached the All-Star break and the Milwaukee Brewers haven’t stumbled (like everyone says they will), while the Chicago Cubs have shown no signs of waking up (like everyone says they will). With more than half the season gone, maybe it’s time to stop relying on the preseason narratives of the “dynasty-in-the-making Cubs” blowing past the “rebuilding Brewers.”

The 2017 Milwaukee Brewers are the favorites to win the NL Central title. When you peel back the expectations in favor of actual production, you’ll see that the Brewers are legitimately out-performing the rest of the division. Milwaukee’s 5.5-game lead on the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals is not luck or a fluke, and here are some details to back up the Brewers’ inside edge.

Best Offense and Pitching in the Division

It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear Milwaukee’s offense paces the NL Central, but the pitching is probably quite the shock. Now, calling a team the best offense or the best pitching is a bit subjective, so this is based off a pair of advanced statistics.

Using wOBA as the standard for overall offensive production, the Brewers have the 6th-best mark in all of baseball (.331), tops in the division. This stat creates a better picture of a hitter’s overall value. This has translated to the Brewers also scoring the most runs per game in the division (4.96). Keep in mind the Brewers have done much of this without Ryan Braun or an effective Jonathan Villar.

As for the pitching, ERA- takes into consideration park factors that affect performance, as well as league averages. Like ERA, the lower number is better, but it’s based on 100 being the league average ERA-. Again, by this measure, the Brewers currently have the best pitching staff in the NL with a 92 ERA-, good for 8th in MLB. Despite many question marks in the rotation and issues in the bullpen, they’ve fared well overall.

If we take an average of each team’s MLB ranking in these two categories, you can roughly see how they stack up when comparing offense and pitching in the NL Central.

Top 5 Run Differential in the NL

While a team’s season can never be broken down into a simple stat, run differential can be a telling sign of a team’s “true” performance versus luck or other random factors. At the break, the Milwaukee Brewers own the 4th-best run differential in the NL. This stat is used to create a club’s Pythagorean record - essentially, what a team’s record should be.

Milwaukee’s Pythagorean win-loss mark is 50-41. The Brewers actual record is 50-41. They’re the exact same! This would indicate, on a basic level, that Milwaukee has not been the beneficiary of luck, randomness, or any other strange outliers. Had their Pythagorean record been 43-48 for example, that would mean the Brewers had been rather lucky up to this point.

This works directly against the idea that Milwaukee is destined for a steep drop in production in the second half of the year. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but their run differential isn’t showing such a decline. It also complements the statistics noted above, as the Brewers have been rather balanced through their first 91 games. That bodes well over the course of a long season.

Nine Inning Domination

Speaking of randomness, many will point to a team’s record in one-run games as a possible cause for having a better or worse year than expected. Everyone in the NL Central except the Reds are around .500 in those games, so not much impact there. However, what happens when you look at 9-inning games versus extra inning affairs? After all, regardless of the final score, it was tied through regulation play.

Well, if you took away extra-inning games, the Brewers would have an even larger lead on each club in the division. Milwaukee owns a 47-34 record in 9-inning contests. Chicago, Cincy and the Pirates are all below .500 through 9 frames, while the Cardinals are at 39-39.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at New York Yankees
Travis Shaw has the 5th-best FanGraphs WAR among third basemen
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers record in extra innings (3-7) is certainly a direct correlation with their bullpen woes, especially early in the year. Based on this, one could argue Milwaukee has been a bit unlucky in this area and have proven how talented they are with a .580 winning percentage in 9-inning games.

Improved Pitching in the Bullpen

Despite Corey Knebel’s blown save on Saturday against the New York Yankees, the Milwaukee Brewers’ relief corps has stepped up recently. Over the last two weeks, Milwaukee’s bullpen has posted a 3.04 ERA (68 ERA-), a significant improvement from early on.

Quite simply, the group’s performance comes down to more strikeouts and fewer walks. Limiting the free passes, and how much the Brewers’ sometimes shaky defense has to make a play, has kept opposing hitters on their heels. For most of the season, the bullpen was among the league’s worst in blown saves, leading to the second-most relief losses in MLB (21). In the last two weeks, they’ve had just one blown save.

General manager David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell made the decision to get rid of Neftali Feliz (a major bust), instill Knebel in the closer’s role, and summon one of their top prospects in Josh Hader. A weapon from the left side of the hill, Hader has been a stabilizing force, allowing just one run and three hits in 12.1 innings. Jacob Barnes, Jared Hughes - and even Carlos Torres and Oliver Drake to a certain extent - have all shown improvement recently, and gotten All-Star Knebel the ball with the lead.

Still Waiting on the Cubs (or Anyone) to Make a Run

As I stated at the beginning of this, everyone has been expecting the Brewers to fall while the Cubs - and maybe the Cardinals - would make a push to the top. Yet, Milwaukee has had sole possession of first place in the NL Central since June 7th. That will reach 37 consecutive days when the teams resume play on Friday, July 14th, while holding a 5.5-game lead.

But you can break things down from almost any point in the season and you won’t find anyone making a serious run at the Brewers. It’s been a combination of Milwaukee simply playing well at times and other teams struggling. On May 7th, the Brewers were 1.5 games out of first. Since that date, the NL Central records are (minus the Reds):

MIL: 35-25

PIT: 28-31

STL: 28-31

CHC: 27-31

So from that point, Milwaukee picked up 6.5 games on Pittsburgh and St. Louis, while gaining 7 games on the Cubs. But even look more recently when things were supposed to start shifting. Since June 10th, a month of games, the Brewers also have the best record in the division.

MIL: 17-12

PIT: 16-12

STL: 16-13

CHC: 13-15

And in the last two weeks before the All-Star break, when many were wondering if Milwaukee could hold onto the top spot into mid-July.

MIL: 9-4

STL: 9-5

PIT: 7-6

CHC: 5-8

As you can see, the Brewers still eked past the Cardinals by one-half game in this final stretch. The most fascinating part of these periods of time is how the Chicago Cubs, the supposed biggest threat to the Brewers, have the worst record in each split. Perhaps all the experts have their faith in the wrong team catching Milwaukee. There’s more going wrong than right in Chicago.

But regardless of what’s happening throughout the rest of the NL Central, it’s clear Milwaukee has earned the right to be called the favorite. There are no guarantees in the second half, but this club is NOT the 2014 Brewers and in some ways, they have yet to play their best baseball this season.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com