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Close win against Phillies exemplifies Brewers’ blueprint for success

Their below-average lineup makes Crew tough to watch at times, but leaning heavily on run prevention for success could pay off

Milwaukee Brewers v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Eric Lauer had the best start of his career. He got a no-decision.

The southpaw continued to demonstrate improved velocity on Sunday night, striking out 13 Phillies over six scoreless innings on national television. Sure, Angel Hernandez’s wide zone only helped, but Lauer’s stuff was strong.

Unfortunately, Aaron Nola was also great. He fired seven shutout frames, allowing just one hit and striking out nine.

That said, Nola had an easier matchup. Lauer went up against a Phillies lineup that entered the night with the seventh-best wRC+ in baseball. Nola was tasked with handling a Brewers offense that ranked 24th.

It was an easy job for Nola. The Brewers managed just three hard-hit balls against him, and 10 of their 12 batted balls had an expected batting average of .150 or lower. The Brewers did not make him work for those outs, either. Nola threw just 89 pitches over his seven innings.

As Lauer continued to deal and the offense did nothing to support him, a scenario seen many times last season appeared to be repeating itself. An unproductive lineup was wasting an excellent performance on the mound. After Lauer capped his career night with a three-strikeout sixth inning, the heart of Milwaukee’s lineup went down in order to keep the score deadlocked at zero.

The Brewers would eventually scratch across a run in the top of the ninth, and Josh Hader slammed the door for his eighth save of the season in as many chances. Devin Williams got the win, not Lauer.

No one should care which pitcher got the win. They should care which team got the win.

That’s what the Brewers’ front office and management care about. Sunday night’s win was a great example, albeit an extreme one, of their strategy for putting together a successful baseball team.

David Stearns took over as general manager of the Brewers ahead of the 2016 season. Since then, their 94 wRC+ ranks 18th out of 30 teams. On the flip side, their team ERA of 3.95 is tied for sixth.

This is how the current front office rolls. The Stearns regime has never put a great offensive unit on the field. The best one they constructed was in 2018, and that group posted a 100 wRC+, exactly average.

Last season, the Brewers had the worst wRC+ of any playoff team. Since they largely maintained the status quo with their offseason moves, that was never likely to improve much. That’s been the case so far.

Instead, the Brewers lean heavily on their ability to keep runs off the board. Their pitching development pipeline has emerged as one of the best in the sport, and they have premium defenders up the middle in Kolten Wong, Willy Adames, Lorenzo Cain, and Tyrone Taylor.

Do the Brewers deserve some criticism for failing to put together lineups that get nowhere close to what one would expect from a World Series contender? Probably. At the very least, they deserve it for trying to pass off 35-year-old Andrew McCutchen and his heavy platoon splits as a marquee acquisition. The Brewers would put themselves in an even better position to win if they added a legitimate heart-of-the-order bat.

However, they also deserve some credit. The pitching-first philosophy has won two division titles in the past four seasons and got them within one game of a World Series in 2018. While it may be easy to point toward a disappointing NLDS performance last fall as evidence that the strategy does not work, every hitter except Rowdy Tellez going cold at the same time was the kind of worst-case scenario that sometimes occurs in small samples. The onus falls on the players for failing to perform.

Fans hoping for the offseason addition of a big bat to complement a core of young and talented pitching were left disappointed. This roster is built in the same vein as last season’s. The offense will not be good because the front office did not try all that hard to make it good. The pitching, however, is going to be fantastic, meaning that mediocre offense will be enough more often than not.

There will be some wasted pitching performances, quite a few shutout losses, and no shortage of maddening at-bats. Stearns and Craig Counsell will face questions about their lackluster offense various times throughout the season. However, when the dust settles on the regular season, the Brewers will finish with one of the better records in the National League and make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.

They would probably prefer more comfortable victories to tight 1-0 ones, but such a win exemplifies what it will take for the Brewers to be successful with this roster. One run will not be enough on most nights, but three to five will. This lineup should at least be capable of that as the weather starts to warm up. The pitching did the heavy lifting last season, and they’re being asked to do it again this year.

Eric Lauer did not get a win on Sunday, but the team did. The team shut down a potent offense. The Milwaukee lineup had a poor showing, but the little they contributed was just enough. Just like it did in 2021, the blueprint worked and it’ll work again and again this season.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs