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The Milwaukee Brewers ran to the NL’s best record, stealing the division in 2018

Expect more of the same strategy in 2019.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

In looking back at 2018, many wonder how the Milwaukee Brewers actually finished with the National League’s best record (96-67) and were one win shy of the World Series. Sure they were solid, but it seems their two main competitors were better overall.

The Chicago Cubs scored more runs per game and owned the better ERA, only netting them a second place finish in the NL Central after a game 163 loss to the Crew. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers led the league in runs scored (4.93 per game) and ERA (3.38) – both by rather sizable margins.

So how did Milwaukee, 7th in run scoring (4.63 per game) and 4th in ERA (3.73) outperform the favored Cubs and defending NL champion Dodgers in the regular season? With all due respect to the outstanding bullpen’s dominance, the Brewers literally stole games from their opponents – STOLE GAMES (get it?).

**Please note: I am a father of two, so dad jokes are allowed**

The Milwaukee Brewers led the NL in stolen bases last season, racking up 124 bags in 156 attempts. Their 79% success rate also topped the Senior Circuit a year ago. So they didn’t just pilfer a high quantity of bases, their thievery was the most efficient in the league, and it certainly led to a portion of victories that otherwise would not have gone Milwaukee’s way.

On the surface, stolen bases appeared to make a big difference in 2018 when it came to Milwaukee’s record. While many will proclaim that “correlation does not imply causation,” one must at least consider the positive impact of the Brewers’ game-to-game thefts.

  • Zero stolen bases = 40-40 record
  • One+ stolen bases = 56-27 record

Despite the Brewers’ success on the bases, it’s still a bit odd to see the Brewers – one of the more committed teams to the advanced analytics movement – favor the stolen base so much.

Modern day baseball philosophy sees stealing as a largely high risk, low reward proposition. With so much power potential in the game, the value of taking one base is rarely worth the chance of making an out. All 27 outs are extremely important, which is why the sacrifice bunt is mostly chastised.

But while the experts may say the stolen base doesn’t do much for wins over the course of a season, it’s more about winning the game THAT DAY by strategically and intelligently stealing a bag or two. A team can turn a loss into a win by nabbing a base – and suddenly 8 steals over the course of 4 specific games may lead to 4 wins you weren’t going to get.

Considering the Brewers needed to win eight straight games (including a one-game playoff at Wrigley) to capture the NL Central crown, I’m sure at least a few of those stolen bases more valuable than they’re given credit for.

MLB: NLDS-Colorado Rockies at Milwaukee Brewers
Yelich was 2nd on the team with a career-best 22 steals in 2018.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, if you were curious what the advanced stats say about the Brewers stealing ways, Fangraphs’ Weighted Stolen Base Runs (wSB) also puts Milwaukee as the best in the NL at 8.2 wSB, where zero is considered average. Thus, it puts the Brewers 8.2 runs above average. It may not sound like a lot, but it could have been the difference in multiple games.

For comparison’s sake, Milwaukee was far more valuable than the Dodgers (1.6) and the Cubs (-6.1) in wSB, which might be why the Brewers earned the most wins despite getting beat in many other categories.

Craig Counsell and company have shown they will do whatever it takes to find an edge and give the Brewers a chance to win on a daily basis. Most of the time that means eschewing baseball tradition while putting a major emphasis on the minutiae of analytics in today’s game.

Therein lies the irony between Milwaukee and the stolen base. Counsell is embracing baseball’s past and breaking modern “history” rules by allowing risks on the bases. Of course, they aren’t doing it with reckless abandon, but always with a measured approach to plundering.

Milwaukee’s personnel has strengths in this area. Lorenzo Cain led the team with 30 steals (career high), while NL MVP Christian Yelich took 22 bags of his own (also a career high). Ryan Braun and Hernan Perez each added 11 last year. All four remain with the club in 2019, plus prospects Corey Ray and Tyrone Taylor could see some time. They “only” nabbed 50 bases in 61 attempts in the minors in 2018.

Counsell and his staff may have also looked at the increased difficulty in getting hitting as a factor. The MLB batting average in 2018 was just .248, the lowest output since 1972 (.244).

Taking a simple, logical approach to batting average, it means it’s less likely you’ll get a couple of hits to score a run. Stealing second allows for one single to plate a runner. Swiping third with less than two outs sets up a ton of opportunities to score without even getting a hit.

Yes, I’m aware that batting average is overrated, but it still shows that getting a hit is tougher than ever. I also know that things like slugging, OPS and Weighted on Base Average (wOBA) are all higher in MLB than they’ve ever been – which causes many teams to refrain from the risk of trying to steal a base.

MLB: Spring Training-Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago Cubs
Prospects Tyrone Taylor and Corey Ray could add to the Brewers’ 2019 thefts.
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

But once again, it’s about wisely choosing certain scenarios to move up one base and increase the odds of scoring one, potentially game-changing run. It’s challenging to even get a single tally against the types of pitchers we see nowadays, so trying to steal a run makes some sense.

The value and impact of stolen bases isn’t just in the pure numbers. A swipe of second can take away the double play. The threat of a stolen base can cause a pitcher to rush his delivery and worsen his effectiveness. Or he may throw more fastballs to give his catcher a chance to throw out a base stealer, increasing the hitter’s odds of getting a pitch to hit.

While you can’t necessarily measure these types of things or other scenarios that are created by the stolen base, they do play a role in single games. When you put together 10 or 15 of those games, and realize the impact of a stolen base or two on the game, it suddenly means a lot more when it comes to playoff push.

I don’t see any reason the Brewers would pull back from their thievery attempts in 2019. Their offense appears to be potent on the surface (at least against right-handers). However, every team slumps with the bats during the season, causing teams to find other ways to produce runs.

Utilizing the stolen base was clearly a calculated, advantageous strategy in 2018 for the Milwaukee Brewers. The way the National League is stacking up in 2019, with good-to-great teams around every corner, it could mean a steal here and a steal there becomes the difference between a 92-win playoff team and a 90-win club watching the postseason from home.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference