After a near trip to the World Series last year, the Milwaukee Brewers entered 2019 full of expectations. Despite what some might think, the Brewers aren’t that far off of where they were at this point last year.
It’s May 22nd, 2018. The Milwaukee Brewers just won a close 1-0 game against the Diamondbacks, their second in a row to start the series. The win moved Milwaukee’s record to 30-19, making them the first team in the National League to hit 30 wins.
Most experts picked the 2018 Brewers to finish middle of the pack in the NL Central at best. Thus, few expected that, after their first 49 games, the team would be leading the entire National League, let alone that they would fall just one game short of having a chance to compete for a World Series title.
Fast forward to last Sunday. The Brewers beat the Atlanta Braves, 2nd in the NL East, to wrap up a 10-game road trip and 23 games in the last 24 days. Mostly due to increased expectations, many fans feel like the Brewers are under-performing at this point. Yet, that win brought Milwaukee’s record to 28-21, just two games off of last year’s pace after the same amount of games.
In terms of run differential, the two Brewers teams look very similar. Last Sunday’s win over the Braves bumped the 2019 team’s differential up to a +14, similar to last year’s +18 after 49 games. However what’s impressive is that it came against a bit different competition. The 2018 team’s first 49 games came against 12 different teams with a combined record that was 32 games under .500.
So far this year, the Brewers have played their games against 10 different teams whose record combines to reach 11 games OVER .500. So this year’s squad has reached nearly the same result against a much tougher schedule.
More bang for the buck
To survive a tougher schedule, you need to bring a hefty offense and that’s exactly what the Milwaukee Brewers have done so far. Some of the offensive numbers look pretty similar to last year. The Crew’s batting average has only increased from .242 to .247 this year, 5th in the NL at this point last year and 6th so far this year.
They’re also striking out at roughly the same rate (24.0% in 2018 vs 24.5% in 2019) and are still bashing homers with the best of them – 60 in 2018 had them tied for 2nd at this point whereas 78 currently paces the NL (Thank you, Christian Yelich!).
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But there are reasons why the team has increased their offensive output nearly a full run per game (up to 4.88 runs/G from 3.98). One of the most noticeable improvements has been in walk rate. This year’s squad is currently 4th in the NL with a 10.2 BB%, quite a bit better than last year’s 8.2% (12th in NL). That, as well as more of a propensity for extra base hits, has bumped the team’s OPS from .709 to .763 (9th to 5th).
Milwaukee’s offensive boost is all the more impressive considering the slow starts by some of their hitters. Players like Travis Shaw, Jesus Aguilar, Orlando Arcia, and even Ryan Braun are currently or were at some point mired in extended hitting slumps this year.
Pitching still a work in progress
2018’s team relied heavily on a better-than-advertised pitching staff. Led by starters Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, Brent Suter, Junior Guerra, and Zach Davies, as well as an incredibly solid bullpen that placed two pitchers (Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress) in the All Star Game, the Brewers were 2nd in the league with a 3.36 ERA through May 22nd.
This year’s team has had well-documented struggles. Only Chacin and Davies from the aforementioned group were still in the rotation as of Opening Day this year. Three young first-time starters, as well as some bullpen struggles led to a rough start. But the pitching staff as a whole has recovered lately and currently place the Brewers 7th in the NL with a 4.24 ERA.
There are certainly areas that can still be improved. Milwaukee is still giving up far to many long balls (1.5 HR/9, 2nd worst in NL) and though their 3.6 BB/9 is identical to last year, their WHIP has still gotten worse as well (1.21 last year to 1.32 this year, 8th in the NL). Brewer pitchers are making up for that by striking batters out at a higher rate, increasing from a 8.5 K/9 (10th in 2018) to 9.0 (currently 5th).
Relief, as well as an opportunity to further climb the standings, is coming for the Brewers. Milwaukee will play teams currently in last place of their respective divisions in 6 of the next 13 series. Jumping back into first in the NL Central may placate the critics who think the team is so much worse than last year.
Increased expectations can be difficult for a team to handle. Considering the turnover in the pitching staff from last year, as well as the slow starts by some of the team’s more important hitters, the Brewers seem to have handled them well so far. Perhaps completing another 49 games will give an even better glimpse into how the team will fare in 2019.
With the difficult schedule early on, the Milwaukee Brewers weathered a tough storm. They’re still in a good position, and it’s a clear sky ahead.