The longest winter

The 2018 Milwaukee Brewers went from being an oversight to one-seed to underdog falling one game shy of a National League pennant and their first World Series appearance since 1982. There’s a lot to unpack.

At the beginning of the season, I wrote three bold predictions for the Milwaukee Brewers, and they didn’t turn out to be so out there. First, I wrote that the Brewers would finish ahead of the Chicago Cubs. And, while the Cubs didn’t regress as I thought they would, they did blow a six-game division lead, dropped Game 163 and then out of the Postseason at the hands of the Colorado Rockies, who in turn got swept by the Brewers in the NLDS. If the Cardinals hadn’t gotten Matheny’d in the first part of the season, they would have been right there as well.

Secondly, that the rotation wasn’t going to be a problem, but that Zach Davies would be. The much-maligned rotation ended up being a strength for the Brewers pretty much the entire way. Davies was injured, then remained generally ineffective, then was only involved in the postseason when Gio Gonzalez got hurt.

Finally, if Ryan Braun played in more than 125 games, the season would have been a failure. He played in exactly 125 games and enjoyed a relatively-healthy campaign. By the letter of the law, Braun played in 125 games and the season wasn’t a failure.

Or was it?

The Brewers finished 96-67, won the NL Central, swept the Rockies and were four or five bad breaks away from winning the NL pennant. They didn’t play poorly aside from Game 5 of the NLCS. There is a very real alternate timeline where the Brewers are readying to take on the Boston Red Sox Tuesday. It’s not that far-fetched.

So when Brewers fans started going into expectation management mode, as many on social media did as it became more and more apparent that the Dodgers were going to claim the pennant at Miller Park, it was a strange dichotomy to see so many who were hard-charging toward the World Series suddenly pivot toward future is bright-type takes.

Yes, the Brewers are now and the window is open. 2019 should be the Brewers moving from a tent in relevance country to building a foundation. Hope, though, is for those who tend to neglect the past and present in favor of an unknowable future. Left unchecked, hope can be the narcotic for those in denial, ones who choose to neglect the present context in favor of a rosy future. They can be found watching public access half-hour apocalypse-mongering, 2 am infomercials for prayer blankets and miracle water, the cable news networks or, for roughly 16 Sundays a year, filling faux wood-paneled basements and rickety taverns throughout Wisconsin. Those people delude themselves and then are able to be fleeced outright in kind.

All that to ignore the blatant truth: for 29 major league teams, the season ends by losing.

When the Brewers found themselves in first place and well-positioned to push for a division title, our ideas for the future–ideas forged in years of futility and disappointment, and otherwise justifiable–should have been shelved. The Milwaukee Brewers are no longer a team with a bright future, but a force with which the league must reckon now.

What made this season fun was that hope being actualized in real-time, the numerous obstacles that came up were overcome in big ways:

  1. Early injuries to Eric Thames and Christian Yelich;
  2. Jett Bandy, Jonathan Villar and Eric Sogard playing their way off the team;
  3. Chase Anderson and Davies underwhelming;
  4. Jimmy Nelson being shelved for the entire season;
  5. Struggles from Corey Knebel, Domingo Santana and Orlando Arcia resulting in being shipped to Triple-A.

None of this stopped the 2018 Brewers. In fact, Craig Counsell‘s club seemed to relish the heightened degrees of difficulty and one could plausibly and compellingly argue that the Brewers ultimately became a better team after being faced with the potholes that come up with any season. A deep, bountiful farm system was tested and found to be viable both in terms of being good for what ails and in developing prospects for the future. To wit, the Brewers don’t get Yelich, Gonzalez, Mike Moustakas or Jonathan Schoop unless there are players in the pipeline other organizations covet. They were able to make moves in an effort to improve themselves with minimal impact to both the major league roster or sacrificing too much of their ascendant minor league talent.

In this respect, David Stearns was executive of the year before we even reached Opening Day. The season in this respect, an underscore, footnote and exclamation point.

Combine Stearns’ shrewdness with the actual data, and the Brewers naysayers on social media ought never dare to touch their keyboards again.

Brewers pitching, much-maligned after offseason inactivity with regard to the big names, ended up anchored by Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley. Brewers pitching as a whole was better than league average in home runs surrendered (173), strikeouts (1428), FIP (4.01) and fourth-best in ERA (3.79) while giving up the second-fewest hits in the league (1259, only Atlanta was better), fifth-fewest runs (659) and shutout opponents 14 times, good for fifth-best league mark. WHIP was 1.24, also ranking second in the league. Derek Johnson, who has been the subject of skepticism and scrutiny in the past by this writer, has been acquitted.

Brewers hitting provided the sixth-most hits in the NL (1398, and the entire Central division finished better than league average) and the second-most home runs (218, second only to the Dodgers.) Tellingly, the Brewers hit only 252 doubles (sixth-fewest) and 24 triples (tied for second-fewest), well below league averages. (St. Louis, outlier of outliers, managed only nine triples all season.) The Brewers got their base knocks and they got their dingers, but they didn’t get the XBH that really get a lineup card rolling and chase pitchers. They also hit into 128 double plays (tied for highest with the Reds) and only 29 sacrifice hits, only one better than the Mets at the bottom of the ranks. The Brewers were the league average for walks (537), fourth-best in OPS (.747) and BAbip (.302, t-4th) and right there amongst the NL’s best for adjusted OPS (99).

The Brewers also led the league in stolen bases (124), one of only two NL clubs to break 100.

What are we to make of this?

  1. Brewers pitching was very good. It wasn’t just the bullpen. Even considering the hard regression of Anderson and Davies, late-season struggles from Junior Guerra and cameo appearances by the likes of Mike Zagurski and Oliver Drake, criticisms of Brewer hurlers turned out to be, charitably, silly talk. (While here, I should note that we at BtB are proud to have maintained a steady, bullish view on the pitching staff.) Given that league average for hitting was .247, being a very good pitching staff in a season that was very favorable to pitchers is something more than notable.
  2. Brewers hitting wasn’t as good as we think. Brewer batters struck out 1458 times, above the mean and fifth-highest in the league. To be so effective in OPS and strike out so much speaks both to how heavy the lumber was and how much feast or famine actually was occurring in 2018. They showed more patience, which suggests a level of maturity at the plate, but execution and sustaining rallies remained elusive and is the next step this club needs to take toward becoming dominant.
  3. The Brewers have three legitimate Gold Glove candidates. I haven’t dug into defensive metrics, many of which are imprecise at best and don’t necessarily tell an accurate story, but the Brew Crew has legitimate claim to having a Gold Glove-caliber catcher, shortstop and center fielder. One area of emphasis rightly underscored in the Doug Melvin years was the importance of being effective up the middle.

Manny Pina, Orlando Arcia and Lorenzo Cain are all worthy for the award; it’s probable only Cain will win hardware, which will inexplicably be his first.

Pina is amongst the league’s best pitch-callers and threw out a league second-best 41% of would-be stealers with tremendous instincts and a massive arm. Pina also boasts a sparkling .995 fielding percentage.

Arcia wasn’t sent to Colorado Springs because of his glove. With tremendous instincts and athleticism as well as a powerful arm, Arcia could not be replaced in the field when he was demoted to work on his plate approach. Arcia’s return tightened down the defense, which allowed Counsell and Stearns to be defensively experimental when they went out and got Moustakas and Schoop and moved Travis Shaw to second.

Cain has been widely-regarded as a premier center fielder with excellent range, instincts and arm. The fact he hasn’t won a Gold Glove already is a miscarriage of justice, particularly after having been on display in a pitcher’s paradise like Kauffman Stadium. Cain finished second in dWAR with 2.4, started three double plays and garnered 11 assists. Let’s be honest, though: defensive stats and metrics aren’t the biggest reason Gold Gloves are issued: it’s all about the highlights. Here, have fun.

Already, but not yet

The 2018 Milwaukee Brewers finished one game shy of a National League pennant and, contrary to popular opinion, they earned their success with pitching and defense rather than a high-octane offense (Yelich’s MVP campaign notwithstanding.) For all the upgrades throughout the lineup, the team actually remained flat at the plate:

2018 Brewers slash: .252 / .323 / .424 / .747

2017: .249 / .322 / .429 / .751

The only glaring difference is in over 100 fewer strikeouts in 2018. Where it seemed they took more walks, it was actually ten fewer than the year before. While the team undeniably took a major step forward, the sum was greater than its parts. Credit for that can be attributed to a high-character clubhouse and Craig Counsell’s player-friendly leadership. Counsell has earned the right to be the unquestioned leader the franchise needs to forge ahead in this new era.

Moreover, this team still has room to grow: the National League runners-up have not yet peaked and should be considered short list favorites to get back to this point and perhaps beyond in 2019.

For now, this season ended as the one before, only later: the Brewers need to go into the offseason angry, hungry and driven by the memory of Yasiel Puig crushing their championship aspirations with a decisive home run in their house. This year’s success over 2017 shortens the time between now and Spring Training, but this will be prove to be a much longer winter knowing what was left on the table. The great run still ended with a loss, but it showed them, and us, something else:

The Milwaukee Brewers not only belong on this stage, but they can win on it as well.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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