Are the Brewers For Real?

Sometimes I’m wrong.

In my season preview, I ranked the Brewers 22nd among all teams in terms of likelihood to win the 2014 World Series. The point I came to regret quickly was this: “ZIPS actually has the Brewers finishing above .500, but I think some of their individual projections are a little optimistic.”

Ok, and maybe this on too: “There’s not much to love on the mound, with Yovani Gallardo and Matt Garza headlining the staff.”

Let’s start at the end. Gallardo (3.34 ERA, 4.09 FIP) and Garza (4.02 ERA, 3.69 FIP) have pitched about as well as I expected them to. But this staff isn’t necessarily “headlined” by those two. Like so many in my field hobby, I’ve done a great job of ignoring Kyle Lohse for well over a decade now.

Lohse started his career as one of many uninspiring, pitch-to-contact Twins, winning 27 games between 2002 and 2003 despite striking out fewer than six batters per nine and giving up 54 homers in 381 innings. He bounced from team to team in ’06 and ’07, and was fortunate to land on the Cardinals in ’08, where he received the typical Dave Duncan bump, going 15-6 with a 3.78 ERA despite striking out hitters at an even lower rate (5.36/9 IP) than in the past. As a 33-year-old in 2012, Lohse went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA, bringing his K/9 rate back over 6, while suppressing walks (1.62/9) and homers (0.81/9) at near career-best rates. Still, when the Brewers signed him before the 2013 season, I had no expectations for him, and after a bland 2013 (11-10, 3.35 ERA, 4.08 FIP), there was little reason to believe he’d be the ace of a contending staff at age 35 in 2014.

But here we are. Lohse is striking out more batters (6.31/9) than ever, and continuing to walk no one (1.68/9). That’s led to a 9-2 record and a 3.20 ERA. With Wily Peralta (3.02 ERA, 3.93 FIP) also pitching well, the Brewers are getting quality innings from four fifths of their rotation. And while Marco Estrada has a home run problem (24 allowed in just under 90 innings), he’s also leading the team with 81 strikeouts and has posted a 6-4 record to-date.

What I really missed was that the Brewers are actually loaded with everyday players who are legitimate stars. Jonathan Lucroy is an MVP candidate- probably the leading candidate among voters who believe an MVP should play for a playoff contender. Not only is he hitting .331/.397/.520 with eight homers and 26 doubles, but he’s among the game’s best backstops, routinely among the league leaders in pitch framing.

Carlos Gomez is another two-way star, batting .317/.382/.532 with 12 homers and 11 steals and covering everything from Kenosha to Sheboygan with his glove. Throw in Scooter Gennet’s .310 batting average, Jean Segura’s 13 stolen bases, and double-digit homers from Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Mark Reynolds, and Khris Davis, and it’s no surprise that the Brewers are second in the NL with 351 runs scored. Fangraphs ranks Milwaukee fourth in offensive runs above average (11.5), fifth in defense (30.2) and first in baserunning (6.0).

Looking ahead, I’m not convinced the Brewers are better than the Cardinals, but with a 5.5-game lead, they may be good enough to hold them off and take the division. The pitching may not continue at this level- the rotation’s 3.39 ERA belies a 4.15 FIP- but it’s time to stop doubting Lohse; and Gallardo, Garza, and Peralta round out a playoff rotation that can keep enough runs off the board to win games. At least as long as Lucroy, Gomez, Ramirez, and co. keep defying (my) expectations by playing like they always have.

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