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Know Your Enemy: Milwaukee Brewers

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The best team in the National League still has some convincing to do, apparently

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Milwaukee Brewers
Bargain Buy: Cain’s elite defense in center field has helped make him Milwaukee’s MVP over the first third of the season.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Advanced statistics don’t seem to be smiling on the Milwaukee Brewers.

At least not from a playoff probability perspective: FanGraphs gives the best team in the National League through a third of the season, Brewtown, just a 50.6% of making the playoffs. The two teams that trail the Brewers in the division fare better: the Chicago Cubs (and the advanced stats probably don’t take into account illegal slides into home injuring opponents and then staunchly defended by a hipster grandpa manager in their calculations) are four games back of the division lead but sit at 90.8%, the St. Louis Cardinals 4 12 back, and 57.2%.

Such is the burden of the Brewers, living in the stinky shadow of the Cubs, forced to be the little brother, to be mocked and teased — until the little brother rears up and punches the big one in the mouth.

That punch may be coming in 2018. Head-to-head, the Brewers have been bullied by the Cubs this season, but the North Side Bumblers can’t play Milwaukee every game — and are essentially a .500 team outside of those games.

Part of the reason for the skepticism is the Chicago’s run differential, which indicates the Cubs should be five games better than they are right now. On one hand (the playoff probability view), that means the Cubs are due for a huge finishing kick over the last two-thirds of the season. On the other (my view, the scoffer), Chicago manager Joe Maddon is ... psst ... highly overrated, and ... psst ... routinely underperforms as a manager. So, playoff prob yahoos, consider that the Cubs might not correct themselves, they may continue to find ways to lose, not win. Let’s be clear: Being five games worse than your Pythagorean record, just a third of the way into the season, is either horrible luck or horrible managing, and probably a smidge of both.

Anyway, this is a Brewers preview. Point here: Don’t sleep on the Brew.

Defense

The defense has been superb, led by Lorenzo Cain in center field and Orlando Arcia/Tyler Saladino at shortstop. Per Sports Info Solutions, Cain’s nine defensive runs saved (DRS) tops all center fielders, while Arcia’s eight DRS leads all shortstops. FanGraphs is more modest in praise, but counts Cain (5.0 DRS), Arcia (4.9), catcher Manny Pina (2.6) and third baseman Travis Shaw (2.5) all above average among Milwaukee regulars.

Key Dudes

Cain (free agency) and Christian Yelich (trade with the Miami Marlins) were the big offseason acquisitions for Milwaukee, and both have led the Brewers charge to the top. Cain has been the best all-around player in Milwaukee, with a team-leading 2.2 WAR. Yelich has poor defensive numbers but has been outstanding on offense (.863 OPS, 131 OPS+), rounding out at 1.4 WAR.

Shaw continues to impress on both sides of the ball as well, leading the team with 13 homers and 36 RBI, with an .855 OPS. Jesús Aguilar, taking over first base for the injured Eric Thames, has been phenomenal this season, leading the team with a .932 OPS, and 148 OPS+.

And us Sox fans are aware of the terrific work Saladino has done since being traded to Milwaukee, before an ankle sprain sent him to the disabled list (.981 OPS and plus-defense at shortstop over 16 games).

You might note there is no mention of Ryan Braun here, yet. Well, that’s because Braun sort of stinks now. Not badly, his OPS+ is just 93, with 0.3 WAR, and he still has a little burn (six steals, two caught). He’s getting regular play, but no longer really fits in Milwaukee’s optimal lineup.

On the Bases

The Brewers are a strong base-stealing team, with 40 steals against 10 caught, a delicious 80% success rate. Cain (11 steals, three caught), second baseman Jonathan Villar (eight and one) and Yelich (six and one) are the main hamburglars.

Rotation

Blech. Milwaukee has no pitching. The de facto aces so far this season are Junior Guerra (1.1 WAR, 2.65 ERA, 4.33 xFIP) and Jhoulys Chacín (0.8 WAR, 3.69 ERA, 4.98 xFIP). Worst in WAR among all Brewers pitchers is Chase Anderson (who starts the opener of the White Sox series), at -0.4 WAR, with a 4.42 ERA and 5.39 xFIP.

As a complete staff (not just the rotation), Milwaukee is running out a .268 BABIP, which is very fortunate and helps drive the discrepancies between starter’s ERAs and FIPs.

Milwaukee has been surging on the strength of their defense, hitting and baserunning, while the rotation is a bunch of twigs stitched together, batting ninth every game. Reinforcements will be necessary to turn their 50.6% playoff chances into 100%.

Bullpen

Flip side, there’s the bullpen, which has been outstanding. Josh Hader is a monster, tied for second with Shaw on the entire team with 1.8 WAR. For any reliever to be adding that much winning to a club is, like, Mariano territory. Hader has a simply gross 55.9 K%, with an ERA of 1.09 and xFIP of 1.24.

But let’s face it, the real anchors of this pen are ex-White Sox, Matt Alberts and Lt. Dan Jennings. Both have just been killing it under heavy workloads, with xFIPs around 3.50.

Jeremy Jeffress, Jacob Barnes, Taylor Williams, there’s just a whole mess of pretty good arms anchoring the bullpen. And with the bullpen carrying the pitching staff right now, this ragtag collection of outcasts and misfits has keyed Milwaukee’s climb.

Milwaukee seems to be the ultimate two-outcomes team: Beat the living hell out of you, or eke out a win and send you home crying. The White Sox seem to be a two outcomes team, as well: Have the living crap beaten out of you, or find ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

A combination like that sure smells like a Brewtown sweep. Oh well, it’ll make those delightful Cubs fans gnash their teeth, anyway.

Pitching Matchups

Friday, June 1, 7:10 p.m.: Chase Anderson (4-3, 4.42 ERA) vs. Hector Santiago (1-2, 4.87 ERA)

Saturday, June 2, 1:10 p.m.: Jhoulys Chacín (3-1, 3.69 ERA) vs. James Shields (1-5, 4.54 ERA)

Sunday, June 3, 1:10 p.m.: LHP Brent Suter (5-3, 4.63 ERA) vs. Dylan Covey (1-1, 3.63 ERA)