With their 7-2 loss to the Cubs in 11 innings at Miller Park on Monday night, the Brewers fell out of first place in the NL Central for the first time since May 12, while Chicago — which has gone an NL-best 21-10 since May 6 — claimed its first share of the lead since May 1. While it’s not quite as extreme as what’s going on atop the AL West, this battle for first place is another one where differing success in one-run games has helped one team keep pace despite a significantly inferior run differential:
|Team||W-L||WPct||Run Dif||1-Run W-L||WPct||Other W-L||WPct|
The Brewers have the majors’ fourth-best winning percentage in one-run games, and the second-highest win total behind only the Mariners’ 21. The Cubs, meanwhile, have the majors’ ninth-lowest winning percentage in one-run games, and are tied with the Astros and White Sox for the fifth-lowest win total in that category. (Remarkably, there were no one-run games in the majors on Monday night, so this table is a rerun save for my virtual highlighter.)
So how have the Brewers managed to stay so close to the Cubs? As noted in Monday’s Mariners piece, success in one-run games has a lot to do with sequencing, random variance, and luck. Extreme records in one-run games are prone to regression, though in recent years the 2016 Rangers (36-11, .766) and 2012 Orioles (29-9, .763) have posted the two highest winning percentages in such games since 1901. Bullpen performance has an outsized effect on a team’s record in such games, because managers have more control on when to deploy their best relievers in high-leverage spots than they do with regards to their best hitters because of the way that batting order works. Via FiveThirtyEight’s Rob Arthur, there’s a significant correlation (r = .28) between bullpen WAR and winning percentage in one-run games, and it just so happens that the Brewers own the NL lead in that category (3.5 WAR), though the Cubs rank third (2.6) — and, now that you mention it, the teams ranked second through sixth in bullpen WAR through Sunday (the Padres, Nationals, Giants and Diamondbacks being the others) were a combined 41-45 in one-run games.
That doesn’t change the fact that the Brewers do have an outstanding bullpen, one that owns the NL’s lowest FIP (3.32), strikeout rate (28.4%), K-BB% (18.8%), and the second-lowest ERA (2.70). It’s been an unorthodox bullpen at that, one where manager Craig Counsell shook things up to compensate for the five-week absence of All-Star closer Corey Knebel due to a left hamstring strain. The unit has been led by lefty Josh Hader, who has flat-out dominated in a fireman role, making 16 multi-inning appearances, striking out 53.7% of all batters and posting a 1.13 FIP en route to 1.9 WAR; all of those numbers lead the majors. The team as a whole leads the majors with 72 multi-inning appearances, with Jeremy Jeffress (the owner of a microscopic 0.57 ERA and 10th-ranked 0.8 WAR) and Dan Jennings adding nine apiece and Matt Albers eight. The unit’s eight multi-inning saves also leads the majors, with Hader tossing an eye-opening 10.2 innings in his five.
Hader did surrender the Brewers’ 2-1 lead in the eighth inning on Monday night due in part to some sloppy defense, but he and Jeffress rank first and third, respectively, among all relievers in Win Probability Added (3.07 and 2.64). That’s not to say that they, or the Brewers’ bullpen in general, have been clutch — at least with regards to how we measure it with our WPA-based Clutch scores, which on an individual level measure “how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” The Clutch measure, which factors in WPA, average Leverage Index (pLI), and context-neutral wins (WPA/LI), compares each player to himself; what Hader’s -0.03 Clutch score tells us is that he hasn’t really done any better in higher-leverage situations than overall — he’s been consistently effective regardless of leverage. Jennings (second at 0.59) and Jeffress (20th at 0.26) are the Brewers’ delegates to the NL Clutch leaderboard, but the unit as a whole was slightly in the red (-0.17) — which, again, merely underscores that their performance in higher-leverage situations has been about what you’d expect based on what are already very good numbers.
Between the bullpen, the rotation and the lineup, the Brewers don’t fare all that impressively in terms of Clutch in the manner of their AL counterparts, the Mariners:
|#||Team||Bat Clutch||SP Clutch||RP Clutch||Total Clutch|
Where Seattle led the AL with a combined score of 5.5 through Sunday, nine wins ahead of the 14th-ranked Astros (-3.5), the Brewers are a modest 10th in the NL. They’re still 2.2 wins better than the Cubs in that category, which is about half the distance between the two teams in terms of either PythagenPat or BaseRuns. Clutch performances have narrowed the gap between the two teams, but haven’t eclipsed it.
Elsewhere, the Brewers’ offense doesn’t stand out, ranking eighth in the NL in terms of both scoring (4.33 runs per game) and wRC+ (95). When broken down by position, they have some serious sinkholes in the lineup, namely left field (combined 84 wRC+), second base (85), catcher (81), and shortstop (33). That said, Christian Yelich (126 wRC+) has split his time between the outfield corners, with Ryan Braun (101) in left and Domingo Santana (83) in right, and Braun has spent time spotting at first base, where Jesus Aguilar (136) has done an admirable job in expanding his role from the short half of a platoon with Eric Thames to something closer to full-time duty since Thames went down with a torn UCL in his left thumb in late April (he was activated on Monday). Shortstop Orlando Arcia and backup catcher Jett Bandy a were bad enough to be farmed out; the former was optioned to Colorado Springs on May 25 but returned less than a week later when Tyler Saladino sprained his ankle, while the latter was outrighted and replaced by Eric Kratz, who has punched three homers in six games, including one on Monday night.
As disappointing as some spots in the lineup have been offensively, the Brewers have flashed the leather. The team’s 30-point improvement in defensive efficiency from 2017 (.684, eighth in the NL) to 2018 (.714, second behind the Cubs’ .719) is the league’s biggest jump. Newcomer Lorenzo Cain, the key to the team’s defensive turnaround, leads all center fielders in both UZR (4.7) and DRS (12), while Arcia is second among NL shortstops in UZR (3.8) and tied for first in DRS (9). Travis Shaw is tops among NL third basemen in DRS (7) and, in right, Santana has improved from -4.9 UZR and -5 DRS to 2.9 UZR and a league-high 7 DRS. With strong defensive contributions such as those, the position players’ standing in terms of WAR (9.3, fourth) is higher than in terms of wRC+ or scoring. Cain (2.5) ranks third in the league behind Freddie Freeman (3.2) and Nolan Arenado (2.6), while Shaw (2.0) is tied for 14th with Max Muncy (!).
The rotation — which keyed the team’s quick turnaround from 2016 rebuilder to 2017 contender — has been nothing special, ranking 12th in the NL in FIP (4.49), 10th in WAR (3.9), and ninth in ERA (4.12). Junior Guerra (2.71 ERA, 3.65 FIP, and a team-high 1.3 WAR) has rebounded from a dreadful 2017, free agent addition Jhoulys Chacin has been solid, and Brent Suter about average, but both Zach Davies and Chase Anderson have been dreadful, with FIPs north of 5.00 and WARs south of zero. Davies is currently amid his second DL stint due to rotator-cuff inflammation, and both Wade Miley (oblique strain after two starts) and Jimmy Nelson (out since labrum surgery last September) are on the 60-day DL, which is to say that it could be a while before any of them provides help. Freddy Peralta, a 22-year-old righty who made an extraordinary debut on May 13, throwing 5.2 shutout innings at Coors Field on a nearly all-fastball diet (90 out of 98 pitches) with tremendous extension and deception, is a better candidate to help soon.
The Brewers are certainly not a powerhouse, but thanks to their one-run success they’ve stayed close to the top in the NL Central, and with something of a soft schedule between here and the All-Star break — only 13 of their next 32 games are against teams with a .500 record or better, and just eight of 27 after they clear the Cubs and Phillies this week — they’re likely to stick around.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.