The Brewers have been on a roll since early April and now lead the NL Central, but will they be able to carry their success in the second half?
It hasn’t been easy, nor was is it anticipated: with the season’s halfway point eclipsed and All-Star Game ads running nonstop on ESPN, the Milwaukee Brewers sit atop the tightest division race in baseball.
Yup, the same division the Cubs won by 17.5 games last year.
When attempting to pinpoint the spark which turned the Brew Crew from 89-game losers in 2016 to being on pace to win 89 games in 2017, it’s easy to fixate on free agent firebrand Eric Thames. While he has cooled from his early season rampage, the 30-year-old is still amongst the league leaders in home runs and is grinding out a team-leading .369 OBP. Thames, however, is but one member of the two-headed monster that dwells in the midst of Craig Counsell’s lineup.
Travis Shaw, a recent All-Star Snub, was acquired in an offseason trade with the Boston Red Sox. Pushed into action by Boston’s lack of alternatives to Pablo Sandoval, Shaw hit solidly below average in 2016 and played uninspiring defense at third. While Shaw is still far from a stellar defender in the infield, so far in 2017 he has matched Thames’ numbers almost beat for beat. Where Thames has a wRC+ of 130, Shaw has slightly outperformed him at 131. Weighted on base average is a similar story, with Shaw competing at a .380 clip and Thames just behind his teammate at .379. Take away Thames’ advantage in walks, and it would almost appear as if the Brewers copied and pasted their most dangerous hitter into the same lineup twice.
And while he has not accrued enough at-bats to reach qualified status, it would be imbecilic to ignore the contributions of former Oakland Athletic Eric Sogard. Through 162 at-bats, Sogard has stung National League pitching to the tune of .331/.438/.485 since being promoted from Triple-A Colorado Springs in May.
Even players such as Jonathan Villar and Keon Broxton, who have disappointed at the plate, have found other ways to support the offense. The duo has combined for 30 stolen bases (more than the totals of five teams), which has jettisoned the Brewers into fourth in steals in all of baseball.
Milwaukee’s pitching has more or less been on parity with the rest of the league in 2017 – a comparative improvement from 2016 when they finished near dead last in baseball with a 4.42 team xFIP.
After years of toiling in mediocrity ranging on inadequacy, Jimmy Nelson is pitching better than ever thanks to a mastery of his new compact delivery. Seen below are Nelson’s mechanics from 2015 (top) and 2017 (bottom).
The first observable change is Nelson starting himself parallel to the plate as opposed to facing it at an angle. He still takes a stutter step to begin his delivery, however, and now his front leg travels a much shorter distance to its apex. While also easier to repeat, the adjustment trims away unnecessary momentum that carries Nelson away from the batter. The second change is how far Nelson raises his hands in the windup. Before, Nelson brought his hands completely behind his neck, whereas now he raises them just to his chin before driving down and delivering the pitch.
Nelson debuted his new delivery in 2016 to less than stellar results – a career-high walk rate of 4.32 and a career-low strikeout rate of 7.03. With a year of experience under his belt, however, Nelson has been able to reverse his fortunes, achieving career highs in both BB/9 (2.16) and K/9 (9.69). Furthermore, Nelson has been able to improve the velocity on all of his pitches, particularly on his slider and curveball, where he has been able to pick up more than a mile-per-hour.
Fellow starting pitcher Chase Anderson and closer Corey Knebel have also been standouts for the Brewers. Like Nelson, Anderson has been bolstered by new mechanics thanks to Brewers pitching coach Derek Johnson, which has led Anderson to nearly double his career WAR in 16 starts.
Knebel, meanwhile, has been a dominant force out of the bullpen, averaging 1.7 strikeouts per inning. While he does own a worrisome 4.87 BB/9, when Knebel can keep the ball in the zone, he is among the league’s best at inducing weak contact, where his 24.3% soft contact rate is good for 17th out of 192 pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings.
However, despite Milwaukee’s first half success, midnight may be fast approaching for their Cinderella story.
While Eric Thames’ transfiguration appears as solid as the wood in his bat, how Travis Shaw was able to transform into a premier slugger as well is largely a mystery. Other than a 4.6 percentage point reduction in his strikeout rate from 2016 to 2017, it’s easy to see how Shaw’s current power trend could disappear by flipping a page on the calendar.
Unlike other players who have burst onto the home run scene in 2017 thanks to “the fly ball revolution” (e.g. Yonder Alonso), it’s Travis Shaw’s ground ball rate that has increased this season. Shaw’s fly ball rate, meanwhile, has dropped by 9.2 percentage points – a figure that ought to make any other power threat attach a rabbit’s foot to their keychain in hopes of breaking out of such a shift in direction. The third baseman’s inclination to hit the ball on the ground is so profoundly antithetical to his home run surge that it has culminated in an unsustainable, Backyard-Baseball-esque HR/FB rate of 22.8%.
Almost the opposite of Shaw’s comically high home run/fly ball rate is starting pitcher Chase Anderson’s 7.8% HR/FB. While Anderson has reinvented his mechanics somewhat, his current production appears untenable given that the 7.8 figure is 4.5 percentage points below his career mark. Additionally, his 4.34 xFIP sits an uncomfortable distance from his 2.89 ERA.
Lest I forget to mention Eric Sogard’s .372 BABIP in spite of an average exit velocity of 83.2 MPH – a figure that ties him with San Francisco Giants’ outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, who has cultivated a 71 wRC+ in 2017.
And not to discredit the Brewers’ performance thus far, but discussions surrounding their playoff potential would be much quieter had the Chicago Cubs continued their sovereignty over the NL from 2016. Currently under .500, the Northsiders are on pace to finish with 23 more losses than in their championship season and have underperformed at both the plate and the mound, eking out a positive run differential of just 13. Should Cubs players find the root of their misfortune, or club President Theo Epstein venture into the trade market, trouble could be forthcoming for Milwaukee.
Luck will have to be on the Brewers’ side as they make their final push toward the playoffs in the remaining two and a half months of the season. While the reinvented Eric Thames and Jimmy Nelson are likely to continue their success going forward, much of the Brewers’ first half success can be pinned on players whose peripherals would make OSHA squirm. Adding a player or two at the trade deadline will be a must for Milwaukee, and while their quest for October may be turbulent at times, it should be plenty fun for the rest of baseball to watch.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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