The Brewers Are Happening

I’ve noticed a recurring question in most of my chats. For the past several weeks, a similar query has shown up time and again, and that query is, to paraphrase: “where do the Brewers actually have to be in order to be a deadline buyer?” And I’ve mostly ignored the query, or brushed it aside, because while in one sense it was a worthwhile question, I didn’t think it was going to matter. I assumed the Brewers would fade away. I imagine nearly all of us assumed the Brewers would fade away. No reason for them to change the course of their rebuild.

I can tell you this: there’s still time. Still time for the Brewers to collapse, or regress, or do whatever might be your preferred word for the action. Still time for the Brewers to stop being good. But on Thursday, the Brewers went into Chicago and they throttled the Cubs so badly that Jon Jay was asked to handle the ninth. Importantly, the Brewers added to their lead in the division. No less importantly, the Brewers closed in on the second wild-card slot. The Brewers have played more than half of their games, and they’ve won more than half of the games that they’ve played. The Brewers have indeed positioned themselves to buy.

If I can speak for myself, I am aware of one bias I have. The way it works is, say there’s a situation that isn’t going how I expected. I remain pretty anchored to that expectation, and so I need little evidence in order to be convinced that the situation is correcting. I’ve been waiting for the Brewers to get passed, as I’ve been waiting for the Cubs to get hot. It wouldn’t take much for me to feel like things are normal again. It’s a helpful bias in that it keeps me from overreacting to anomalous blips, but it also means I haven’t given the Brewers enough credit. I’ve just been sitting here, waiting. Waiting for the reigning champs to climb back into first.

Again, they still could. They still could! Most would figure they will. No one would blame you for picking the Cubs. But the Cubs have yet to get on track, and the Brewers have yet to cool off. The Brewers are currently clear of the Cubs by four and a half games. They’re also only two back of the Rockies, and while division leaders aren’t typically playing for the wild card, it means there’s another option, another path. Over the last 15 games alone, the Brewers have gained four games on the Cubs, and seven games on the Rockies. The situation is getting serious. Narrowing to just Milwaukee and Chicago, here’s a running plot of wins to this point:

You don’t see any sign of a fade, not yet. As such, and relatedly, here are the expected win totals over the course of the season, which considers both games already in the books, and the rest-of-season projections:

The Cubs still have a lead on the Brewers, but look at how the gap has shrunk. And I should also tell you that this image is as of Thursday, and doesn’t yet take into consideration the Thursday result. The Cubs are now projected to edge the Brewers by just a few games. Months ago, the projected gap was 26. So this plot of division odds shows how the Brewers have come alive, while the Cubs have wound up threatened:

Once again, this doesn’t include the Thursday blowout. In reality, the Brewers’ situation is even better. There are other teams in the National League Central, and you can’t just completely dismiss the Cardinals or the Pirates, but for the most part, this is about the Brewers and the Cubs. By the best math, the Cubs are the favorites, but they’ve lost a lot of ground.

Just before the season began, the Cubs were projected to be only a hair worse than the Dodgers. They also stood as one of the best preseason projected teams since 2005, and nobody found that controversial, given what the 2016 Cubs had accomplished. Between 2005 and 2016, there were 28 teams projected before the year to end up at least 20 games over .500. Of those, 16 teams actually finished at least 20 games over .500. Three teams finished under .500. The most disappointing team of the lot was the 2012 Red Sox, who went from a 91-win projection to a 69-win reality. These Cubs might have a little more in common with, say, the 2015 Nationals.

Meanwhile, just before the season began, the Brewers were projected to be a hair worse than the Phillies. Nobody found that too controversial, either, since last year’s Brewers lost 89 times. It’s a rebuilding organization, and rebuilds take time. Between 2005 and 2016, there were 33 teams projected before the year to end up at least 20 games under .500. Of those, 23 teams actually finished at least 20 games under .500. Three teams finished over .500. The most surprising of the lot was the 2012 Orioles, who went from a 70-win projection to a 93-win reality. I don’t know if they work as a Brewers parallel, but they could, at least, on this level.

Think about all of the information we’ve picked up. Before the year, I imagine every last one of us would’ve put the Cubs well in front of the Brewers. Now the Brewers are in front of the Cubs, and it hasn’t just *happened.* It hasn’t all been luck. By the underlying metrics, like BaseRuns, the Brewers have played no worse than the Cubs. That factors in. On the Cubs’ side, Jake Arrieta looks worse than expected, and so do Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey. Kyle Schwarber was briefly dropped to the minors, and Jason Heyward hasn’t had his big offensive bounceback. Addison Russell hasn’t broken out. The Cubs have had some trouble, and they even admitted recently, after the Miguel Montero incident, that the clubhouse hasn’t come together the same. In their own words, they’re still searching for their own 2017 identity. The Cubs are worse than we thought they’d be.

And the Brewers? The Brewers are seeing a possible breakout from Jimmy Nelson. They’re seeing a possible breakout from Travis Shaw. Corey Knebel has found a new level, and the same could be said for the presently sidelined Chase Anderson. Brewers position players rank higher than the Cubs in WAR. Their non-pitcher wRC+ is eighth-best in baseball. It’s a team that also runs the bases. The Cubs have had their bad news, and the Brewers have had their good news.

As far as the division goes, it’s no longer about simply saying the Cubs are the better baseball team. On talent, the Cubs probably are the better baseball team, but now it’s all complicated. The Cubs don’t just have to play better than the Brewers do. The Cubs have to make up multiple games of ground, over less than half of the schedule. Are the Cubs, say, five games better than the Brewers? That’s not enough. Now they have to play like a team that’s about 10 games better. Which isn’t extreme, given how the teams were projected only a few months ago, but new information has dropped the Cubs’ projection while lifting the Brewers’ projection up. The Brewers might not be for real as a league elite, but they’re for real as a 2017 contender, just because of the position they’ve achieved.

If you’re curious, I examined the biggest first-half overachievers from 2005 to 2016. I looked at the teams whose first-half winning percentages topped their preseason projected winning percentages by at least 100 points. The Brewers are at +111. On average, the teams had a preseason projected winning percentage of .472. They had an average first-half winning percentage of .595, and then they had an average second-half winning percentage of .504. Heavy regression. You’d assume heavy regression. But if the Brewers played .500 ball the rest of the way, they’d finish 85-77. They’re capable of better than that. Not that much more has to go right.

The Brewers could conceivably fend off the Cubs. Even if they come up short there, they’ve gained an opportunity to pass by the Rockies. The Brewers can think, very legitimately, of a playoff berth, and so shorter-term prioritization becomes an option. I can’t imagine the Brewers would want to disrupt the whole rebuild process. I can’t imagine the Brewers would consider their 2017 selves a World Series favorite. So I don’t think it would make tremendous sense for the Brewers to unload for, say, Sonny Gray or Jose Quintana. However, there would be some sense in that, if they figure they’ll be solid again next year. The window might just be opening sooner than thought. We saw when the Astros made the transition from trying to win later to trying to win right away, and now they’re a juggernaut.

I don’t think the Brewers will or should make a massive splash, but they can buy. Even weeks ago, we thought about them selling, but that almost certainly won’t happen, barring a sudden collapse. There are tweaks to be made, helpful tweaks, and they wouldn’t require the Brewers to give up too much. They seem mostly set on the position-player side. There’s more of a need within the pitching staff, and especially in the rotation with Anderson sidelined on account of his oblique. One thing the Brewers don’t have is pitching depth. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them add a guy like Trevor Cahill. Could even try to get him in a package with Kirby Yates, or — aiming higher — even Brad Hand. The Brewers could add a mid-rotation starter, because the Brewers could use a mid-rotation starter. And there’s always bullpen help available. The front office has demonstrated its ability to identify undervalued talent. This trade deadline could pose a new twist on the challenge.

But it’s a challenge that ought to make them ecstatic. Unless something goes horribly wrong, then over the coming weeks, the Brewers will discuss among themselves how aggressively they want to add for the late-summer stretch run. A team like that couldn’t ask for anything more.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Taking a quick look at Cots, the brewers only have like 60mm of payroll commitments next season. Could they take a chance on fixing Verlander?

5 years ago
Reply to  j6takish

The price for that fix would have to be awfully cheap. The rebuild will continue, and an aging Verlander isn’t helping them 1-2 years from now when they really plan on being noisy. That unicorn of MLB trades – the top prospect for top prospect swap – would seem to make a lot of sense here. Give from the glut of young, elite OF prospects to get a young, elite arm? That combined with an affordable arm as outlined above for this year would make a lot of sense for the Crew.

5 years ago
Reply to  chuckd45

It sure would make sense, but it is a unicorn. Maybe Corey Ray for Brent Honeywell or something like that? Not sure that the Rays would pull the trigger on that.