The Milwaukee Brewers are no strangers to being written off.
It could be argued it has been a part of their identity since 2011 when they won the division and slowly watched a car with failing brakes roll down the mountain into baseball oblivion.
In recent years they’ve suffered numerous significant injuries, departed with some of their most well-known, talented and tenured players, changed managers, general managers and other personnel and even seen the nauseating reality of an epic mid-season collapse more than once.
But this year is different.
While getting the public brush-off was once a regular feature of Brewers baseball over the last half decade, 2017 has seen significant strides in a rebuild that wasn’t perceived to reach an upswing for another year or two.
More than all else, the quick turnaround has caused a change in both perception and performance on the field — and it’s already translating to the fanbase. But despite the shift, some pundits still seem keen on placating the masses with undue arrogance and misinformation rather than facing the reality of doing their homework.
While this type of public positing may have irked both Brewers fans and players alike in the past, the players have not only taken it in stride, but have embraced it in the most constructive way — as motivation.
Whether it’s their newly-adopted ethos or the impending coalescence of young talent that is the catalyst for the team outperforming preseason expectations, may forever remain a mystery, but whatever the cause, the numbers seem to support it in numerous ways.
In reality, the write-offs may persist until the postseason is days away and likely even into the offseason as postmortem reflections of what went wrong and when, but just over two weeks removed from the All-Star break, the trends and stat lines seem to indicate that October may not be as far out of reach as some would like to make it seem.
And here’s why.
The offense has already established a baseline
To be clear, there is little denying the odds stacked against them.
The Chicago Cubs are defending World Champions with boatloads of both young and experienced talent, the National League Central is already a tight division race, the team is sliding at 5-11 since the break, the middle of the field has been a black hole of inconsistency and the bullpen has seemingly seen more implosions than astrophysicists this year.
But the Brewers do also have some odds in their favor. They are currently only 2.5 games behind the Cubs and only 5.5 games back from a Wild Card spot behind the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, who have both played only .500 baseball in their last 10 games.
Most importantly, they’ve established a good offense, and the numbers don’t disagree.
Two-thirds of the way through the regular season and despite the recent offensive skid, the Brewers are still ranked fifth in the NL in runs with 507, compared to their greatest division rival, the Cubs, who have 484 (8th). While Milwaukee’s lineup leads the league in strikeouts and takes walks at a league-average rate, they’ve still so far bested Chicago in on-base plus slugging, even if just barely, thanks to a surprisingly powerful roster that still has them second in home runs (156) and fourth in extra-base hits (358).
While a month of hot-hitting like Eric Thames’ April could be chalked up to a hot streak, four months of this type of baseball has been bucking denial convincingly. The home runs may sometimes turn the rushing river into a dry bed, but if the team’s recent history of small-ball has anything to prove, it’s that they can still win games without the long ball — even if it hasn’t looked that way recently — and the having the league lead in stolen bases and a versatile bench sure don’t hurt either.
The underdogs are still overachieving
The Brewers had few notable names on their roster coming into the regular season outside of Ryan Braun, leaving the team’s lesser-known players to be a driving force — and they’ve done so admirably.
Last season, the Boston Red Sox were quick to dismiss Travis Shaw as a minimal casualty for an effective relief pitcher in the Tyler Thornburg trade, but eight months later, may be doing their best not to curse the transaction, as Thornburg has not yet thrown a pitch in a major league game and Shaw has so far outperformed last year’s runner up to the AL MVP, Mookie Betts — let alone the rest of the team — in nearly every category besides stolen bases.
More importantly, Shaw has set new career highs in nearly every offensive category while out-excelling both last year’s NL MVP winner, Kris Bryant, and stud first baseman Anthony Rizzo, giving the Brewers a largely unanticipated leg up on their division rivals, as evidenced by his No. 19 NL ranking 3.3 wins above replacement value.
Shaw: .294/.366/.571, 60 R, 24 HR, 74 RBI, 8 SB
Bryant: .279/.396/.524, 67 R, 20 HR, 45 RBI, 7 SB
Rizzo: .257/.387/.509, 60 R, 24 HR, 67 RBI, 6 SB
But Shaw isn’t the only underdog to find significant success this year. Domingo Santana, the team’s second-most tenured position player who arrived as recently as 2015, has also quieted skeptics by not only staying healthy, but playing well enough to command the lion’s share of starts in right field.
So far through his 2017 campaign, Santana is sporting a healthy .285/.374/.494 triple slash line with 59 runs, 18 home runs, 57 RBI and nine stolen bases.
Despite having inconsistent production coming from second base and center field, the team has also received notable offensive contributions from Thames, shortstop Orlando Arcia, who seems to be finding his place at the plate in his second year of major-league play, backup first baseman and clutch-hitter extraordinaire Jesus Aguilar and maybe most importantly, catcher Manny Pina, who is not only one of only four NL catchers batting .300 or better, but has been nothing short of a lifesaver behind the plate. All of this with the team’s top prospect, Lewis Brinson, yet to hit his stride in major league ball — which is already on the horizon.
The rotation will be healthy soon, and better yet, may feature young and promising arms in the near future
Since 2011, Milwaukee’s starting rotation hasn’t ranked better than 8th in the National League in ERA, and that was just last year. In 2017, they’re ranked fifth, and there are a few reasons why they could improve on what they’ve already established.
While the Brewers have gone a second straight year of demoting their Opening Day starter to Triple-A (Wily Peralta in 2016, Junior Guerra in 2017), the team doesn’t seem to be anywhere near short on starting pitching or pleasant surprises on the mound.
After years of middling numbers capped off by a season in which he lead the league in both hit batters and walks, Jimmy Nelson has finally come into his own in a big way, pitching his way to a 3.38 ERA and 1.198 WHIP with stretches of outright dominance. He’s improved both his strikeout rate (10.0 K/9) and walk rate (2.2 BB/9) to career bests and his fielding independent pitching (FIP, 3.20) and expected FIP (3.15) indicate he’s been even better than his earned run average shows.
If Nelson was a complete turnaround, Chase Anderson’s change was just as miraculous, especially considering how his transition into the 2017 season started — not only did he fail to win his arbitration hearing in the offseason due to career-worst numbers in 2016, but nearly missed being a part of the starting rotation in April.
But after four starts, he held a 1.12 ERA and had struck out 22 and walked only six in 24 innings of work. He did suffer through a rough five-start stretch from April 28 to May 21 in which he gave up 20 earned runs in 24 2/3 innings, but rebounded admirably, giving up six earned runs in 41 2/3 innings over his next seven starts (1.30 ERA) while striking out 44 and walking only eight before hitting the disabled list with a strained oblique.
He’s currently already ahead of schedule for his return, which looks to be mid-August, and he could provide huge help back in the starting rotation.
In his absense, the Brewers found another surprise, namely left-handed swing-man Brent Suter, who has been one of the team’s greatest assets over the last month. While a majority of his time out of the bullpen earlier in the season produced only modest results (3.48 ERA, 1.548 WHIP), his last five turns in the rotation have been phenomenal. Since his latest call-up in early July, Suter has pitched to a clean 1.50 ERA while striking out 25 batters and walking only five in 30 innings of work.
Even when Anderson does return, there’s a chance Suter could stay in the rotation for the foreseeable future, or at least until the rest of the league catches up, and combined with Anderson and Nelson, could make a formidable 1-2-3 punch on the front end.
Toward the back of the rotation, Zach Davies may not be the pitcher of the year, but he has been able to turn around what’s looked like a disastrous season into one that is much more serviceable. He hasn’t yet brought his ERA below 4.00 at any time this season, but he has gone more than seven innings in his last three starts and given up only three earned runs in those 21 2/3 innings of work — impressive, considering they were against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nationals and Cubs.
He may still sport some eyesores on his stat sheet, but Davies has proven himself enough over the last few seasons to assume his notoriously slow start may be kicking into a higher gear, which could be another asset down the stretch.
In a similar fashion, Matt Garza has also been a pleasant surprise this year and despite his injuries, has still managed to start 15 games, post a 3.83 ERA and kept the team in competitive shape even with their aging veteran on the mound. When he returns from the disabled list (10-day, retroactive to July 23, leg strain), he will provide one more option for the team to consider.
And while the rotation has already maintained their potential in the top third of the league, the most exciting arms have yet to see a major league start.
Josh Hader, the team’s top pitching prospect has already thrown 20 innings of major league ball out of the bullpen and has an impressive 0.90 ERA and dead-even 1.000 WHIP to show for it. He may still be struggling with walks, giving up 12 in that span, but has already collected 24 strikeouts, proving his minor league numbers many translate better than many originally thought.
General manager David Stearns has already come out saying the team sees Hader’s future in the rotation, but whether that will occur this year or next remains to be seen — the same goes for Brandon Woodruff, another top prospect on the 40-man roster with the potential for lights-out stuff who posted a 1.83 ERA in Double-A last year (but has struggled in Triple-A this season with a 4.46 ERA).
The bullpen has nowhere to go but up
The bullpen has easily been Milwaukee’s greatest weakness this season, as evidenced by their league-leading 27 losses, but there is still time and personnel to improve.
While the bullpen still holds four players with ERAs north of 4.00 and keeps longer leashes than many fans prefer, the team has been active with showing the door to those who aren’t up to the task, including former-closer Neftali Feliz, Jhan Marinez, Rob Scahill, Tyler Webb and Wily Peralta, and have already begun to move players with higher potential into more prominent positions.
Corey Knebel has been one of few to step forward this year and rewarded the team greatly by going 18-for-23 in save opportunities, keeping a cool 1.68 ERA and establishing a new MLB record for most consecutive appearances with a strikeout in the process.
Hader has already begun to prove his worth but he’s also not the only young gun who has recently graced the Brewers’ major league roster either. Wei Chung Wang, a 21-year-old Rule 5 pick from 2013, also joined the team on Sunday after an impressive run of relief work in Triple-A (2.09 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 44K, 12 BB, 47 1/3 IP).
The team still may not have any easy answers in this department, but they are still exercising their options with regularity, including signing veteran reliever Jeanmar Gomez and former-Brewer Jeremy Jeffress and trading outfield prospect Ryan Cordell for Anthony Swarzak, who is having a career-best season in relief.
With a position in the bottom-third of the National League in ERA as a precedent, along with a laundry list of those already designated for assignment, the Brewers bullpen has more than enough room to show some much-needed improvement.
Of course, there is no guarantee that any of this will come to fruition. It is, after all, still baseball. But if consistency and potential intersect at any point for any length of time down the stretch, there’s a good chance Milwaukee will be pushing for their first playoff berth in six years.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.