It’s Not Time to Talk About the Brewers

On Tuesday, I wrote about the surprisingly strong early play of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and whether it was time to talk about them as potential contenders, at least for a Wild Card spot. Of course, Arizona isn’t the only expected also-ran to be playing well. It’s May 25th, and the Milwaukee Brewers are in first place. But despite thinking the second-place Diamondbacks may have put themselves in a position where going for it could make sense, I don’t think the Brewers have yet played themselves into being a buyer.

As it stands at the moment, the Brewers are 25-21, a half-game ahead of the Cardinals in the NL Central. And they’ve gotten there by slugging their way to the top of the standings; they are fifth in the Majors in runs scored (240) and tied for third in home runs (68). Eric Thames, of course, has been the big catalyst, putting up monstrous numbers early in the season, but the team’s entire line-up has shown power up and down the order.

The Brewers have given nine hitters at least 100 plate appearances this year, and six of those nine are running an ISO over .200, including the likes of Jett Bandy and Hernan Perez. Those guys won’t keep hitting at their current levels, but the team’s outfield has power in all three spots, and with Travis Shaw showing some pop at third base, this is a line-up that can drive mistakes.

Of course, the downside of power is often a lack of contact, and the Brewers have the second-highest strikeout rate in MLB to date, at 24.3%. And that’s why, despite the serious thump the team has assembled, this probably isn’t a truly elite offense. The Brewers team wRC+, to this point, is 101, and even if you exclude pitchers to focus just on the position players, they only rise to 108, tied for seventh-best in baseball.

And that’s with most of their hitters performing better than you’d expect to this point. If you look at the underlying Statcast numbers, the Brewers are almost at the very top of the list when it comes to expected production versus actual production.

Team wOBA and xwOBA
Team xwOBA wOBA Difference
COL 0.299 0.332 0.033
MIL 0.309 0.338 0.029
TB 0.301 0.328 0.027
ARI 0.317 0.343 0.026
NYY 0.324 0.347 0.023
WSH 0.336 0.355 0.019
HOU 0.317 0.335 0.018
CHC 0.313 0.328 0.015
CIN 0.324 0.337 0.013
PHI 0.303 0.316 0.013
BOS 0.320 0.331 0.011
ATL 0.319 0.330 0.011
MIA 0.308 0.315 0.007
SD 0.283 0.289 0.006
SEA 0.313 0.317 0.004
LAD 0.331 0.333 0.002
MIN 0.329 0.330 0.001
TEX 0.320 0.318 -0.002
NYM 0.323 0.320 -0.003
LAA 0.312 0.308 -0.004
PIT 0.309 0.305 -0.004
BAL 0.327 0.322 -0.005
STL 0.331 0.323 -0.008
SF 0.292 0.283 -0.009
CLE 0.332 0.321 -0.011
OAK 0.332 0.320 -0.012
CWS 0.321 0.309 -0.012
TOR 0.322 0.307 -0.015
KC 0.305 0.287 -0.018
DET 0.347 0.323 -0.024
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Now, MLB’s expected wOBA calculation doesn’t take park factors into account, which is why the top of the list is generally filled with teams in good hitting parks, and the bottom of the list is teams who play in bigger ballparks. Miller Park is friendly to offense, so we shouldn’t expect the Brewers to regress all the way back to their xwOBA, but the current magnitude is probably unsustainable; they only beat their xwOBA by 11 points last year and 10 points in 2015. Coors Field is pretty much the only place in MLB where a 30 point spread between xwOBA and wOBA might be a sustained park effect; the Brewers are probably not going to keep getting results like this unless they start hitting the ball better or more often.

And unfortunately, if the offense stops scoring runs at quite the same pace, it’s going to be difficult for this team to win games, because the run prevention side of things is still pretty rough. The Brewers have allowed a .344 wOBA, the worst in baseball, and their 4.33 ERA is nowhere near the marks being put up by teams with similar wOBAs allowed. The Phillies (.341 wOBA allowed, 4.93 ERA) and Mets (.339 wOBA allowed, 5.11 ERA) are a better representation of how many runs a team should allow at this level of offense.

But because the Brewers have specialized in allowing rallies to start (.359 wOBA with the bases empty), they’ve managed to wiggle out of a lot of jams by allowing just a .325 wOBA with men on and a .317 mark with the bases empty. This kind of “clutch pitching” is enjoyable while it lasts, but generally not predictive of how the future will go, and the Brewers shouldn’t count on putting out fires at the same rate over their next 116 games.

And as those baserunners turn into actual runs allowed, the losses are likely to start to pile up. By BaseRuns, we have the Brewers as a team that has played more like a team that would go 22-24 in their first 46 games, so they’ve picked up an extra three wins through sequencing. Teams with dominant bullpens can sustain a bit of an advantage over their BaseRuns record, but that’s not really the Brewers, who have already swapped out Neftali Feliz for Corey Knebel in the closer role, and rank in the middle of the pack in most of our bullpen metrics.

That’s a few of the reasons why, despite a strong start to the season, our projections aren’t really buying into the Brewers early success; we have them posting just a .451 winning percentage over the rest of the season, the fifth-worst mark in baseball. That is up from the .435 expected winning percentage our forecasts gave them before the season started, but that means our projections thought they were a 70 win team before the year started, and think they’re more of a true talent 73 win team now.

Of course, by playing over .500 for a few months, they’re now likely to finish north of both of those numbers. Even with a forecasted .451 winning percentage from here on out, we expect the Brewers to finish around 77-84. But that still puts them nine games behind where we expect Arizona and St. Louis to finish, and both of those teams have more incentive to upgrade their roster at the trade deadline in order to make a run at the postseason. While the Brewers have played better than expected, they are still pretty clearly in the beginning stages of a rebuild, and don’t have the roster of aging stars or guys nearing the end of their contracts that help encourage a team to make win-now moves at the deadline.

In reality, a June and July fade from postseason contention is probably in the organization’s best interests anyway. Making the buy-or-sell decision easier should give the team another opportunity to turn some present value pieces into things that can help more in 2018 and beyond, and given how well the team has made out in their present-for-future trades so far, that’s an exciting opportunity to give this front office.

This doesn’t mean they should tear the team down and trade for prospects, of course. The Brewers probably are close enough that, with some improvements to the rotation over the winter, they could be interesting Wild Card contenders next year. I would think the team’s moves this summer probably look more like the Travis Shaw trade (swapping a big leaguer for a less-valued big leaguer and some stuff) than the Jonathan Lucroy trade, where they acquired guys who wouldn’t help for a while.

Ryan Braun is the obvious trade chip, a 33-year-old who can still hit well enough to help a contender, but has less value to a team looking at 2018 and beyond. Beyond him, and maybe another reliever trade — though after they sold high on Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress, and Tyler Thornburg, I might be a little reluctant to buy an RP from David Stearns — I don’t think the Brewers need to have any kind of fire sale this summer. There’s the core of a long-term winner coming together, but right now, they’re just a few arms short. So see if you turn Braun and maybe Knebel into some arms for 2018, see what Lewis Brinson can do in the second half, and generally stay the course.

The first few months of 2017 have gone pretty well for Milwaukee, but unlike Arizona, I don’t think they should be changing plans just yet. This is an interesting young team with a lot of good pieces, but it doesn’t look like a legitimate contender just yet.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

Man, this article is a lie. I thought it was not time to talk about the Brewers, but the whole article does just that!

5 years ago
Reply to  radivel

It’s Time to Talk About Not Talking About the Brewers

5 years ago
Reply to  deltaclown

Professor Oak: Dave, now is not the time to talk about that!

5 years ago
Reply to  EonADS

I wonder how many people will understand the genius of this reply.