The Milwaukee Brewers Aren't Terrible, and It's a Miracle

Expected to be one of baseball's worst teams, the Brewers sit in first place in the National League Central. How have they done it, and are they contenders or pretenders?

The Milwaukee Brewers were bad last year (73-89), and they were expected to be terrible again this season. So of course they have a better record through 60-plus games than the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, last year's World Series combatants.

That's baseball.

Prior to the season, our models gave five teams basically no chance of winning the World Series.

Team Playoff Odds World Series Odds
San Diego Padres 1.4% 0.0%
Cincinnati Reds 3.2% 0.1%
Minnesota Twins 4.5% 0.1%
Philadelphia Phillies 4.1% 0.1%
Milwaukee Brewers 5.3% 0.1%

Two of those teams -- the Brewers and the Minnesota Twins -- are in first place.

But we can't completely write off the Brewers' start as a fluke. They haven't lucked their way tino a 35-32 record. The Brew Crew has a +15 run differential, so they should be a few games over .500. (Minnesota, on the other hand, has been a bit more fortunate, sporting a -28 run differential, even after winning by 13 runs earlier this week.)

They've been really good at the plate, and they've received better-than-expected production on the mound. In fact, it seems like everywhere you look, there's a Brewer having a breakout season.

They Can Mash

Let's get this out of the way first -- the Brewers ain't afraid to strike out. Their 25.1% strikeout rate is the third-highest clip in baseball, but everything else about their offensive profile is pretty dope.

Stat Performance Rank
wOBA .326 11th
On-Base Plus Slugging .763 8th
Isolated Power .187 8th
Walk Rate 8.9% 12th
Hard-Hit Rate 34.1% 7th
Doubles 126 5th
Home Runs 92 7th
Runs 328 6th

While they aren't necessarily elite in any one area, they're pretty good at most everything.

The Eric Thames Experience has been in full effect. In his first year back in the bigs, Thames is straight killing it, and in a lot of ways, he epitomizes the Brewers' offense; he's not allergic to whiffs, but when he makes contact, look the heck out.

Thames has pummeled his way to a .404 wOBA, 17.2% walk rate and 17 jacks -- ranking in the top 15 among all qualified hitters in each category -- in 250 plate appearances. He owns a 42.4% hard-hit rate and 42.0% fly-ball rate, so this is legit.

It's far from a one-man show, though.

Travis Shaw has looked like a great offseason pickup, posting a .373 wOBA with 11 taters. Shaw's 1.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), per FanGraphs, is only slightly ahead of Hernan Perez's 1.2 WAR as Perez is on his way to setting career-best marks across the board with a .332 wOBA, 9 homers and a 33.3% hard-hit rate.

Domingo Santana is starting to put it all together, owning a .367 wOBA with 11 dingers and a 12.9% walk rate. Jesus Aguilar -- a soon-to-be 27-year-old who was picked up off waivers -- is putting up a .378 wOBA and 43.7% hard-hit rate in 143 plate appearances in his first full season at the big-league level.

All these breakout seasons cast the team's front office in a nice light. Thames, Shaw and Aguilar are each in their first years with the Brewers organization, and Santana came to the club in 2015 as part of a deal which sent Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers to the Houston Astros. Plus, Milwaukee just called up top prospect Lewis Brinson, who they snagged from the Texas Rangers in a trade which sent Jonathan Lucroy the other way and is starting to look like quite a coup for the Brew Crew.

And They Can Pitch, Too

Milwaukee's strength is its offense -- no question -- but they've been solid on the mound, getting a trio of surprising performances.

Chase Anderson leads the way there. Anderson has racked up 2.1 WAR through 76 1/3 innings. Prior to 2017, Anderson had amassed a total of 3.0 WAR in 418 2/3 career innings, so he's figured something out. His 22.8% strikeout rate and 10.5% walk rate are both career-high marks, and he's generating a 19.2% soft-hit rate, another career-best clip.

Jimmy Nelson -- after being a pretty "meh" pitcher the past two seasons, which is putting it nicely since he finished 2016 with a 4.92 SIERA -- has come on, as well. There's something in the cheese up there, because he's pitched his way to career-best numbers in strikeout rate (23.4%), walk rate (5.9%) and SIERA (3.74).

The rest of the rotation has been a little weak, with Zach Davies (4.83 SIERA) failing to deliver on the promise he showed last season, but Corey Knebel and the Brewers' bullpen has picked up some of the slack.

Falling in line with Nelson and Anderson, Knebel is another one of these "I guess he's good now" guys.

Season Strikeout Rate Swinging-Strike Rate Walk Rate Soft-Hit Rate SIERA
2016 26.2% 7.7% 11.0% 16.7% 3.71
2017 44.7% 13.9% 12.1% 25.0% 2.22

The league averages for relievers in 2016 were a 3.87 SIERA, 23.4% strikeout rate and 9.2% walk rate, so Knebel has gone from an average arm out of the 'pen to a real weapon. Among relief pitchers with at least 20 innings thrown this season, Knebel is 11th in SIERA and 5th in strikeout rate.

He is benefitting from some good luck, however. Knebel's 96.2% strand rate is unsustainable, and while his 44.7% strikeout rate is a world-beating number, his 13.9% swinging-strike rate -- which ranks 44th among the aforementioned subset of relievers -- tells us some negative strikeout regression is coming.

But Can They Last?

While Milwaukee's record accurately reflects how the team has played, there are still plenty of reasons to be skeptical. The most glaring one is the same reason people were expecting them to be bad before the season -- they don't have a ton of talent.

They have some players performing at a high level, as we just covered, but most of them are producing way beyond anything they've done up to this point in their careers. No one stands out as a guy with an unsustainable BABIP, or anything like that, but it's fair to wonder if all these breakout studs can keep this up.

Our models are skeptical. Despite their dreamy start, the 5.3% playoff odds we gave them in the preseason aren't all that improved as our models see Brew Crew making the postseason just 15.8% of the time.

They probably aren't going to win the division, even though National League Central is down. The Cubs are still a significantly better squad despite their slow start, and the Cardinals are the Cardinals. We give both the Cubbies (54.6%) and Cards (29.6%) a much better chance to win the division than we do Milwaukee (11.4%).

Regardless of how the rest of this season plays out, things are looking up for the Brewers. Not only are they not terrible -- which seemed like a very real possibility a few months ago -- they're a really fun group with some more young talent on the way.