Brewers Set The Early Pace In The National League

There’s one team in the National League that’s on a pace to win 100 games this season and it’s not any of the usual suspects, from the Dodgers to the Cubs or the Nationals. Nope, it’s the Milwaukee Brewers who are setting the tone in the NL. The Brewers have a win percentage of .632 (.617 being the baseline for 100 wins on the season) and lead the Central Division by 4 ½ games heading into the weekend.

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How are they doing it and is it sustainable? Those are the questions we’ll look to answer here.

The answer to those questions start with a bullpen that has been spectacular, leading the NL in ERA. Even better for the Brewers, that’s been accomplished despite an early portion of the season that should have been a little rocky. Corey Knebel, their fine closer, had a DL stint and has otherwise struggled to a 5.07 ERA and two blown saves in only seven opportunities.

But there have been plenty of arms to pick up the slack. Names like Jeremy Jeffress, Josh Hader and Matt Albers aren’t marquee. But they all have sub-2.00 ERAs. Even serious baseball fans outside Milwaukee might struggle to know names like Jacob Barnes, Dan Jennings and Taylor Williams. They’re ERAs are all under 3. And those six arms are the single biggest reason the Brewers are playing the best baseball in the National League.

Offensively, Milwaukee has done it in a way that wakes up the echoes of the best teams in franchise history, the 1978-83 run that produced a pennant in 1982. That’s hit home runs. These might not be Harvey’s Wallbangers or Bambi’s Bombers of days gone by, but they are second in the National League in going deep. Travis Shaw is the team’s best offensive player, hitting 13 home runs, slugging .518 and further underscoring what a steal the front office pulled off in getting him from Boston in exchange for reliever Tyler Thornburg.

The pitfalls that may lie ahead for the Brewers include other facets of the offense. The reliance on the long ball is a little excessive. To put it in perspective, while Milwaukee ranks fourth in the NL in runs scored, there is no individual statistical category, other than home runs, where they rank that high. That can be a very unstable way to live as we move into the long summer months.

But the big concern is starting pitching, where the Brewers rank 10th in the NL in rotation ERA. This is not a surprise—staff ace Jimmy Nelson went on the disabled list late last season and is yet to return. The organization is hoping he makes it back by the All-Star break. Zach Davies, the 25-year-old with two good, full major league seasons under his belt has also struggled. The ERA is 5.23 in eight starts and he just hit the DL with shoulder problems.

Earlier this week, when writing about the Chicago Cubs, I said they were the best team in the National League. I suppose that gives away where I think this division race will eventually end up. But that’s not out of a lack of belief in the Brewers. Craig Counsell was a brilliant find as manager four years ago. The Brewers have some trade pieces, as Eric Thames comes off the disabled list and a numbers problem crops up at first base and in the outfield.

The possibility of getting Nelson back in late July would be a de facto trade deadline addition for an organization that’s not flush enough with cash to get in the bidding for the highest-profile late summer targets.

So do all these positive add up to at least a wild-card game appearance? That will come down to whether Nelson can give this team two quality months down the stretch. Since I’m not a doctor, I’ll be able to bail on a straight Yes/No answer to the question. But simply by surviving the early part of the season with him gone is a big step forward for Milwaukee.