Pitching Wins Championships? These Lopsided Brewers Sure Hope So

Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

The National League playoff race has been a frenzy in the second half. The Cubs have surged from being virtually out of the picture to probable October qualifiers. The Giants have streaked their way from a likely playoff team to one on the outside looking in a couple of times over – they’re working on their latest push now. The Phillies have risen – albeit more gradually than the Cubs – from no-man’s land to a comfortable Wild Card lead with a few weeks to go. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks, Reds, and Marlins each have a negative run differential but are still well in the mix for the final Wild Card.

Amid all the chaos, the Brewers have rather quietly risen up the NL ranks. They’ve handled their business in the Central – most crucially going 10-3 in their season series against those Reds – and on September 15, find themselves with the third-best record in the NL at 82-64, trailing only the NL East champion Braves and the Dodgers. With a 4.5-game lead in the division and a better record than any of the senior circuit’s Wild Card teams, our playoff odds give the Brewers a 94.0% chance of winning the division, with their odds of making the playoffs rounding up to 100.0%. In a year where NL teams have struggled to distinguish themselves from a busy middle of the pack, the Brewers have faced relatively little adversity in doing so:

MLB’s Near-Certain Playoff Teams
Team Win Div Clinch Wild Card Make Playoffs
Braves 100.0% 0.0% 100.0%
Dodgers 100.0% 0.0% 100.0%
Rays 39.9% 60.1% 100.0%
Orioles 60.1% 39.9% 100.0%
Brewers 94.0% 6.0% 100.0%
Twins 99.9% 0.0% 99.9%
Phillies 0.0% 97.1% 97.1%
Astros 63.3% 33.7% 97.0%

It’s a pretty remarkable achievement for a Milwaukee team that looks quite a bit different than some of its peers at the top of their divisions. The Brewers have done all of their winning on the strength of their run prevention. Their 4.11 runs allowed per game is the third-lowest mark in baseball, more than half a run better than league average and behind only the Rays and Mariners. On the other hand, their 4.45 runs scored per game rank just 18th – among teams in playoff position, only the Giants have scored fewer runs.

As of Friday, the Brewers pitching staff was among the most productive in the league, posting a major-league best 87 overall ERA-. Their top three starters – Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and the now-healthy Brandon Woodruff – are a formidable playoff trio, as my colleague Davy Andrews wrote earlier this week. Their bullpen is loaded with weapons – from All-Star Devin Williams to Joel Payamps, Hoby Milner, Bryse Wilson, and recent addition and potential postseason breakout star Abner Uribe. It’s a stocked staff, and while they’ve dealt with their fair share of injuries and performance fluctuations this season, the results speak for themselves – the club ranks fourth in the majors in ERA (3.84), 13th in FIP (4.24), 10th in xFIP (4.12), first in batting average against (.225), third in WHIP (1.18), fifth in barrel rate (7.6%), and seventh in hard-hit percentage (38.4%).

From a run prevention standpoint, it certainly doesn’t hurt that they’re pitching in front of one of the league’s best defenses. Milwaukee leads baseball with 31 OAA and 30.0 defensive runs above average, led up the middle by William Contreras, Willy Adames, and Joey Wiemer. They’ve gotten solid defensive contributions from part-timers including Owen Miller, Brian Anderson, and Blake Perkins. It’s no wonder their staff ERA looks quite a bit nicer than their FIP or xFIP – they have some serious help keeping their opposition from scoring:

MLB’s Best Defenses, 2023
Rank Team Fielding Positional Defense
1 Brewers 48.5 -18.6 30.0
2 Rangers 34.1 -18.1 16.0
3 Giants 21.3 -18.4 3.0
4 Yankees 16.9 -16.7 0.2
5 Pirates 17.1 -17.0 0.1

The offensive picture is another story. The Brewers have had a bit of a revolving door lineup, with just three hitters – Contreras, Christian Yelich, and Adames – qualifying for the batting title this season. Contreras and Yelich have been productive hitters, with a 120 and 117 wRC+, respectively, but no other hitter with as many as 200 plate appearances has had a wRC+ higher than 100. Among the 347 hitters with 200 or more PA, Contreras ranks 76th in wRC+, Yelich ranks 96th, and the next Brewer – Andruw Monasterio at a wRC+ of 100 – ranks 181st. By comparison, the Braves have had nine such hitters with a wRC+ over 100, and the Dodgers, Phillies, and Cubs have had eight.

Things have looked a little better recently – September has been their strongest month by wRC+, though they’re still merely average at 100 wRC+. Some help came at the trade deadline in the form of Mark Canha, who has led the team with a 134 wRC+ and a .371 wOBA in his 36 games (while Carlos Santana, their other offensive deadline acquisition, has yet to have much of an impact). Rookie outfielder Sal Frelick has not only impressed with acrobatic, no-hitter-saving catches but also with a strong approach at the plate, so far the most consistent of a young outfield trio alongside Wiemer and Brice Turang. The team is hoping to get another offensive jolt from Josh Donaldson, who smoked a go-ahead homer in his second game in a Brewers uniform on Tuesday:

Still, as a club, the Brewers have a 90 wRC+ on the season, good for 24th in the majors. In other words, while their pitching has been about 13% better than average by ERA-, their offense has been about 10% worse than league average by wRC+. No other team has had such polarized phases of the game:

That a team would have such strong run prevention and such weak run production is rare in its own right. No team has finished a 162-game season with both a wRC+ and an ERA- at 90 or lower since the 2013 Royals, amid a famously pitching-and-defense oriented era of Kansas City baseball. But that such a team would be playoff bound is another thing altogether. No such team has made the playoffs in a 162-game season with that type of profile since 2007, when the Cubs and Diamondbacks each represented their divisions in October with lopsided rosters. The Brewers would be the fifth such team to do so in the 21st century:

Most Recent Teams With ERA- and wRC+ <=90
Season Team ERA- wRC+
2023 MIL 87 90
2020 CLE 74 90
2020 CIN 82 87
2013 KCR 85 89
2012 LAD 88 90
2011 SFG 89 88
2009 CHC 88 90
2009 SEA 90 89
2009 SFG 86 83
2008 ARI 88 88
2007 CHC 88 90
2007 ARI 88 82
Yellow = made playoffs

That isn’t all that surprising – it’s quite hard to make the playoffs without good pitching and good hitting. Just take another look at the scatter plot above – there’s a quadrant where all the balanced, playoff-bound or nearly-there teams are, and then there’s Milwaukee. When you’re falling that far short of average in one of those two facets, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find your way to October, let alone win a division title. That makes the Brewers’ ride all the more curious.

Of course, some of the factors leading to the Brewers’ unlikely success are a matter of circumstance, or luck, or whatever you choose to call it. They happen to be in the National League’s least top-heavy division this season, beneficiaries of the face plant of a season the Cardinals have had and of the chance not to compete in close proximity to the Braves or Dodgers. And their own run distribution has worked in their favor – Milwaukee’s +50 run differential ranks sixth in the National League, and Bill James’ pythagorean win-loss formula would expect them to be about four wins behind their current total. But again, this team isn’t exactly sneaking its way into the postseason. To the contrary, they’ve survived a season during which each one of their non-Cardinal division rivals has had a stint as the hottest team in baseball, and instead it’s the Brewers who are cruising into a home Wild Card Series, with a three-headed monster at the front of their rotation:

As threatening as the trio of Burnes, Peralta, and Woodruff are, I wouldn’t count on a deep playoff run from a team with as little offensive firepower as Milwaukee. The Brewers have struggled against the Braves and Dodgers, and one of those two will be waiting should they make it through the Wild Card round. But the funny thing about defying expectations is that it necessitates a bit of a recalibration. If a lopsided, pitch-well-or-bust formula has worked well enough to get the Brewers near the top of the league over a 162-game season, who’s to say it won’t get them 13 more wins when it matters most?

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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8 months ago

Over the past 20 champions, eight have had a wRC+ below 100. Of those, seven were at 98 or 99 and were still in the top half of baseball. The 2005 White Sox were the worst at 95.and finished 17th.

The Brewers offense is so far below the standard that I don’t really believe they, or any other team as offensively anemic as them, are serious threats in the postseason until proven otherwise.

8 months ago

Brewers season long numbers are bogged down by two months (May/June) where they put up a wRC+ of around 80, they’ve been much closer to average for most of the season.

Guys like Tellez (326 PA of 75 wRC+), Wiemer (410 PA of 75 wRC+), Anderson (356 PA of 84 wRC+), Winker (197 PA of 65 wRC+), and Miller (314 PA of 81 wRC+) aren’t going to be receiving nearly as many postseason PAs as they did during the RS. They combined for about -39 batting runs.

Guys like Voit, Singleton, Urias, Brosseau, Tapia and Ruf that are no longer on the roster are another -19 batting runs.

Adames, Turang and Taylor have all seen an uptick in their recent performance compared to earlier in the season.

Frelick and SantanCanha added three cromulent bats to the lineup where previously there were blackholes.

Obviously they are still well short of the Braves lineup (or even the Dodgers or Cubs lineups), but they are also better now than their season long numbers indicate.

8 months ago

It’s hard to know until we see it, but I find it very difficult to understand how they are going to score runs on the top starters they see in the playoffs with this punchless group. You don’t get to face Edward Cabrera in the playoffs.

8 months ago

the current Brewers lineup (after deadline trades) is at 95wRC+. Still not good, but not that far below standard as the first half (88wRC+).