A rough weekend in Atlanta for the Brewers brought out the inevitable doubt that would surround this team. The team suffered humiliating sweep at the hand of the Braves after a 8-0 shellacking on Thursday in the rubber match against the Cubs. Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson posted rough outings (13 combined runs in 8.1 innings) in the series opener and final game, respectively. The offense made a valiant effort and took Wolf off the hook Friday, but two late runs by Atlanta ultimately decided a 10-8 loss for Milwaukee. Between the two rough outings, Shaun Marcum gave up only two runs on three hits in seven innings…and came away with the loss. It was all bad for Narveson and the Crew on Sunday, falling 7-4, with the sole highlight coming on a three run Lucroy-ball in the ninth.
The doubters and the bandwagon hoppers have started to emerge after the 4-6 start (5-6 after I started the draft of this post). The obligatory “Brewers suck” calls we hear every season have blossomed again, like spring tulips. Are we surprised? No. One thing that should be made known is that it’s no time to worry.
They don’t have Prince and they lack a catchy motto like the “Our Time” Royals, but the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers are an experienced
bunch. Not only is the season still in its infant stages, but these infant stages have shown signs of promise. My sophomore year history teacher and avid Brewers fan put it this way: after 10 games (one-sixteenth of the season, for those who didn’t major in math), it’s like starting the NFL season 0-1.
To put this in perspective for you, the 2011 New York Football Giants opened the season 0-1. As did the 2008 Giants, 2003 Patriots, 2002 Buccaneers, and 2001 Patriots. What does each of these teams have in common? They all went on to win the Super Bowl after their dismal 0-1 start.
Now, there’s nothing that pleases sybarites as I like an inter-sport comparison to nail home a point, but let’s get back to the baseball.
The brightest spot of the first week-plus for the Brewers has been the play of catchers Jonathan Lucroy and George Kottaras, which has received the plaudit of manager Ron Roenicke and the fans.
With three homers, eight RBI, and a .417 average, Kottaras is off to (one of) the hottest starts of all players…and he’s the backup catcher. Last Wednesday, his two-run home run gave the Brewers a 2-1 lead in the seventh that they wouldn’t relinquish. His 0.367 win percentage added (WPA) was the highest single-game output of his career, until six days later when he had a 0.675 WPA after hitting a walk off double. Take that as you will (this coming from the RtB BABIP aficionado). I have a feeling Kottaras will be more than Wolf’s personal catcher in 2012.
Lucroy himself isn’t off to a bad start. Batting .346 with two early homers and six RBI (including one on a squeeze bunt) ties him with Kottaras for the second-highest WAR on the team.
While the two backstops are pacing the bottom of the order, Corey Hart‘s rocking out at the top. Four homers, eight RBI, seven runs, a .313 average, .436 OBP, and 0.7 WAR signify his hot start. The most promising of those numbers may be the .436 OBP; he’s finding ways to get on in the fifth spot in the order and eventually this will lead to higher run production.
The rest of the outfield, outside of the slow-started Nyjer Morgan, has been productive for the Brewers. Carlos Gomez has only one strikeout in 22 plate appearances and is hitting .350 with two steals while chasing 29% of pitches out of the zone, down 6% from 2011. The center fielder turned the tides on Tuesday night with a huge stolen base. Japanese sensation Norichika Aoki is hitting .375 and drove in his first run on Tuesday by means of a go-ahead squeeze bunt to give Milwaukee a late lead. And for anyone worrying about Ryan Braun: stop that right now. The power may not quite be there yet (one homer), but he’s squared up numerous balls and was robbed of a couple home runs by the Wrigley Field winds. A .316 average and two steals show that he hasn’t lost it at the plate or on the bases.
Aramis Ramirez is off to a slow start to say the least, but he only hit two homers through April and May of 2011 before stroking 17 over the months of June and July. And there’s no way Tony Plush–err, Morgan–can keep a .125 OBP all season long.
The pitching has shown both shades of promise and shades of gloom. Yovani Gallardo has rebounded well (three runs over 14 innings)
since his Opening Day catastrophe. Zack Greinke, who takes the mound on Wednesday night, threw seven scoreless innings of sheer dominance in his first start before the Cubs dinked-and-dunked him for eight runs. Chris Narveson and Randy Wolf have yet to throw a convincing outing, but both have carried their weight in at least one start and shown incipient signs that their form remains. The curious case of Shaun Marcum (3.52 FIP) has been the team’s most consistent starter over his first two starts, despite picking up a bad-luck loss against Atlanta.
One area either the front office or the current-roster Brewers will need to shore up is the bullpen. There are arms in the minor leagues that could help the major league club further down the road, but, for now, there are still question marks. After inking Francisco Rodriguez to a major contract, the set-up man’s walk rate (9.00 BB/9) is up. K-Rod just avoided picking up his second loss of the season on Tuesday and can gladly thank Kottaras for the stats relief. Tim Dillard, Manny Parra, and Marco Estrada have fluctuated in their appearances and we can’t read too much into that yet. The addition of Jose Veras, however, looks like a good move, though his .182 BABIP is bound to go up eventually. And John Axford‘s misleading 10.13 era is nothing to worry about: he’s two for two where it counts.
Ron Roenicke is implementing a much more small-ball approach to his team this year perforce. Prince Fielder’s first base replacement, Mat Gamel already has three steals. The team already has executed three squeeze bunts to perfection. Aramis even has two steals. Don’t get me wrong, though. With power throughout the lineup, the Brewers will still ride the long ball over the course of the season; there will just be (a lot) more small ball than in years past.
Pessimists need not worry about the Brewers yet. With proven pitching, young offensive talent, and a confident manager, October baseball is still a plausible goal. The season is only .068 of the way done, and I guarantee Aramis Ramirez’s batting average will still be above that mark when Yovani Gallardo is the NLDS Game 1 starter for the Brew Crew.