Heading into Monday’s three-game series against the Atlanta Braves, the Milwaukee Brewers had won eight-straight and were 9-1 in their last 10 contests. They gained 4.5 games on the NL Wild Card since June 22 and suddenly looked like the team many people expected to see in 2015 — a team that scores plenty of runs, while having a decent starting rotation and an underrated bullpen. Overall, it has been an enjoyable stretch of games, something wholly foreign to Brewers fans this season.
The Brewers remain far out of contention. As of Monday, they’re 10-games back of the second NL Wild Card and 18.5-games behind the dominant St. Louis Cardinals. Despite that, the recent winning ways have proven beneficial to the club. Key trade chips — such as Gerardo Parra, Adam Lind, Aramis Ramirez, Neal Cotts, and Francisco Rodriguez — have performed well, conceivably making them more attractive to buyers at the trade deadline. As much as teams keep long-term projections in mind and want to avoid knee-jerk reactions, recent performance can’t help but factor into trade decisions. Many moves are made for the purposes of two-to-three months, not multiple seasons. Long-term projections aren’t overly useful in such small samples.
In terms of the actual performance on the field, though, the Brewers have presented its fans with a handful of pyrite, rather than something truly valuable. The eight-game winning streak largely came against the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds, who boast a combined .392 winning percentage. The Brewers may own one of the worst records in baseball; however, it’s clear — both currently, as well as in the preseason — that Milwaukee is a superior team to both Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Sweeping both teams remains impressive and should be celebrated, but the recent hot stretch is not a signal of a fundamental turnaround.
The lineup has gotten red-hot, hitting .285/.335/.417 with 128 runs scored over the last 30 days. That run production is tied for seventh-best in Major League Baseball during that time period, but the best in the National League. Still, the overall numbers mask underlying concerns. Compare their numbers of the past month to those from the entire season:
|Last 30 Days||.285||.335||.417||.334||6.5%||17.6%||.132|
The offense isn’t fundamentally different over the last thirty days, aside from the massive bump in BABIP — which is second-highest in Major League Baseball in that time. The team isn’t walking more often. The power production has also decreased, something normally devastating for an offense that rarely walks. Milwaukee has benefited from more luck on balls in play and has fortunately put more balls in play with a lower strikeout rate.
It’s exciting and comforting to watch the offense seemingly click on all cylinders as of late, but it’s recent form doesn’t suggest something transformative has occurred. It’s simply a product of the random variances that ebbs and flows throughout the course of the long season. That sort of overarching perspective is difficult to maintain in the moment, but fans should occasionally step back and take stock of the whole forest, rather than the individual trees standing before them.
A similar story can be told about the starting rotation. Their collective 3.29 ERA over the last two weeks signals something profoundly different from earlier in the year. It ranks 14th in Major League Baseball and eighth in the National League over that time. Again, not tremendous, but any positive movement for the Brewers’ rotation is a boon for the club.
Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t appear that much has changed:
|Past 14 Days||3.29||15.1%||7.3%||1.10||46.2%||.246||4.44|
In reality, the Brewers’ rotation has pitched worse during their so-called hot streak than they have throughout the whole season. The strikeouts are down, the home-run issues remain, and their FIP is markedly worse. The only difference, again, is the shiny BABIP, and that’s likely a combination of luck and facing below-average offenses.
The whole outlook isn’t bleak and depressing. As BP Milwaukee has thoroughly covered since opening our proverbial doors two weeks ago, the Brewers’ bullpen has been above-average for the first time in years. That has proven accurate over the last month. The bullpen has compiled a 2.73 ERA, which ranks sixth in Major League Baseball and fourth in the National League (with the only three better bullpens also reside in the NL Central).
Out of the three core components of the Brewers’ roster, it appears that the bullpen is the only one that made notable and sustainable progress over the last few weeks.
|Past 30 Days||2.73||21.3%||7.5%||0.33||51.1%||.288||2.82|
The solid disparity between the strikeout and walk rates have remained in the past 30 days; however, it’s the decreased home-run rate that appears to have led to better run prevention for the bullpen. That’s coupled with an increased ground-ball rate, the highest in Major League Baseball, which leads one to believe that the squad’s sudden ability to keep baseballs in the park is not only understandable, but also sustainable. Perhaps the most significant change is that Francisco Rodriguez owns a 57.1-percent ground-ball rate. Home runs have always been his bugaboo, so the fact that he’s keeping the baseball on the ground is encouraging.
A quality bullpen doesn’t get much attention, but it can often be a key cog in extended winning streaks. The Royals, Orioles, and Astros serve as recent examples of how a formidable bullpen can cover up the sins of a mediocre starting rotation. In fact, the Yankees attempted to follow suit this winter by allocating significant resources to their bullpen, signing players such as Andrew Miller, when they were unable to acquire impactful starters. The Brewers have been able to outplay their expected run differential over the past two weeks largely due to the performance of the bullpen.
Winning streaks prior to the trade deadline can often alter organizational plans, moving teams from “buyer” to “seller,” or simply shifting to a holding pattern. In that way, for a Brewers squad that has attractive trade chips and a postseason probability under one percent, such a winning streak is dangerous. It can bring false hope to a desperate organization. As shown above, though, the organization shouldn’t treat this hot streak as a positive harbinger of what’s to come. The core abilities of this team haven’t changed for the better. They’ve merely been the beneficiaries of positive variance in BABIP at the plate and on the mound. Once those normalize, the offense’s inability to walk and it’s below-average power production will likely limit the number of runs scored, once again. Simultaneously, the recent .246 BABIP suggests the starting rotation should plummet back down to earth and become below-average.
This is one of those hot streaks that every team experiences, not a transformative moment in the Brewers’ season.
The silver lining, though, is that this string of quality performances from the team’s key trade chips should bring the organization a better return, even if only marginally so. Aramis Ramirez suddenly appears to be a viable improvement for a team such as the Mets, Rays, or Tigers. Adam Lind has become one of the top bats available at the deadline. Gerardo Parra has reportedly drawn interest from the Giants, Angels, and others. The Brewers’ telephone is even ringing with teams interested in Neal Cotts, who is throwing the ball much better in recent weeks.
As such, the Brewers’ current stretch of winning baseball isn’t devoid of positive content, despite the extreme improbability of a postseason run. It’s not pointless. If anything, Brewers fans can perhaps best understand this winning streak as a means to a long-term end — an end that extends far beyond the 2015 season, rather than in short-term postseason contention.