22 games into the regular season, the Milwaukee Brewers sit four and a half games ahead of the reigning National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Their record is 16-6, the best in the Major Leagues. Going into the season, experts predicted another three-horse race between the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds in the NL Central, but few people expected the Brewers to contend. However, three weeks into the season, the Brew Crew seems legitimate, as they are second in the National League in both ERA and OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging), signifying that they have been dominant on offense and defense. Nevertheless, there are reasons to be skeptical about Milwaukee’s hopes of contention in 2014.
In 2013, Milwaukee finished only above the Cubs in the Central, compiling a 74-88 record, good for a .457 winning percentage. Their pitching staff compiled a 3.84 ERA, which ranked ninth out of 15 teams in the National League. Although they were basically out of contention, the Brew Crew suffered a blow on July 22 when superstar outfielder Ryan Braun was suspended for the rest of the season due to his involvement in the Biogenesis steroid scandal. Braun had been on MLB’s hit list ever since he avoided suspension in 2011 after a positive test because of a technicality. Nevertheless, the Brewers received a breakout performance from 27 year-old center fielder Carlos Gomez, who hit 24 home runs, stole 40 bases, and accounted for a 128 OPS+, meaning that he was 28 percent better than the average player in terms of on-base and slugging percentage. He accounted for a ridiculous 8.9 WAR, which usually puts a player in the MVP conversation. However, Gomez finished just ninth in the NL MVP voting, although he did make his first All-Star team and win his first Gold Glove.
In the offseason, the Brewers signed veteran Matt Garza to help the rotation led by Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse. This acquisition surprised baseball fans around the nation, as it seemed like a very “win now” move for a team that seemed to be in the process of rebuilding. Nevertheless, Milwaukee’s rotation of Lohse, Gallardo, Garza, Marco Estrada, and Wily Peralta actually seemed rather legitimate. Throughout the first few weeks of the young season, the Brewers have exceeded nearly all expectation with their rotation and virtually every other facet of the game.
Ryan Braun has rebounded well from his suspension with a .300/.348/.600 slash line through the early going. Carlos Gomez is proving that last season was not a fluke, as shown by his 144 OPS+ and five home runs. Beside from their superstars, the Brewers have gotten other contributions from guys like Jonathan Lucroy, Mark Reynolds, Aramis Ramirez, and no-name second baseman Scooter Gennett. Just 24 years of age, Gennett made an impression in 69 games last year, posting a .324/.356/.479 slash line. This season, Gennett has put up similar numbers, accumulating a 118 OPS+ so far, which is incredible for a middle infielder.
The pitching has also been unbelievable, as all starters besides Matt Garza have an ERA under 3. Garza’s ERA stands at a mediocre 4.50, but the complex statistics imply that he has been subject to some bad luck. In the bullpen, 32 year-old Francisco Rodriguez has shown up as his dominant self of old, as he has not allowed an earned run in twelve appearances and has already racked up 9 saves, leading the Major Leagues.
Right now, everything is clicking for the Milwaukee Brewers. However, it still seems unlikely that they will be a legitimate playoff contender in such a difficult division. In reality, Scooter Gennett is not a top-five second baseman, and Francisco Rodriguez is far removed from being the best closer in baseball. Nevertheless, the Brewers will be an interesting team to follow throughout the season. If Braun and Gomez continue on their respective paces, they will both be in the MVP conversation come September. The Brewers have undoubtedly been the biggest surprise in the early going of the 2014 season, but they have a tough test in the NL Central and the next few weeks will be a test of the their true ability.
Commentary By: Jough Brasch