After the Milwaukee Brewers won 96 games and reached the NLCS in 2011, not a lot people predicted they would make the playoffs last season, primarily because they had lost first baseman Prince Fielder.
I wrote before the season that the Brewers' offense would be fine and that their rotation and bullpen would get them back into the postseason. In fact, I picked them to win World Series. It was a bit of a wild-card pick, yes, but I believed it was grounded in solid analysis and not pulled out of thin air.
Well, I was right about one thing: Even without Fielder, the Brewers scored 55 more runs than the year before. But here's what happened to the season-opening rotation:
Yovani Gallardo: Made 33 starts and was fine with a 3.66 ERA.
Zack Greinke: Made 21 starts and was traded July 27 with the Brewers 10 games under .500.
Randy Wolf: Went 3-10 with a 5.69 ERA in 24 starts. One of the worst starters in the league.
Shaun Marcum: Was effective (3.70 ERA) but made just 21 starts.
Chris Narveson: Tore his rotator cuff after two starts.
And then there was the bullpen. Closer John Axford had been dominant in 2011, saving 46 games in 48 chances, including 43 in a row. He was terrible in 2012, lost his job temporarily to Francisco Rodriguez (who was even worse), and the Brewers lost 11 games they were leading heading into the ninth inning, most in the majors.
But in the midst of this, there was some good news. The Brewers finished strong, going 36-23 over the final two months, and even got to within 1.5 games of the second wild card with 12 games left to play. A big reason they finished strong was a bunch of new guys in the rotation who pitched well: Mike Fiers (9-10, 3.74 ERA), Marco Estrada (5-7, 3.64) and late-season call-ups Wily Peralta (2-1, 2.48 in five starts) and Mark Rogers (3-1, 3.92 in seven starts).
Those are solid ERA totals for a group that included three rookies pitching in one of the best hitters' parks in the league. Here's a stat that may surprise you, however: Brewers starters had the best strikeout percentage in the National League.
Brewers: 22.0 percent
Nationals: 21.5 percent
Phillies: 21.5 percent
Mets: 20.7 percent
Giants: 20.4 percent
No, they didn't necessarily give that away by walking a lot of guys; the Brewers rotation actually had a slightly better strikeout-to-walk ratio than the heralded Nationals rotation. Of course, some of that was due to Greinke and Marcum, and those two are no longer here. But here are the strikeout percentages of the projected Milwaukee starters from last season:
Estrada: 25.2 percent
Rogers: 24.9 percent
Fiers: 24.8 percent
GREINKE: 24.2 percent
Gallardo: 23.7 percent
MARCUM: 20.7 percent
Peralta: 20.4 percent
Peralta is Milwaukee's top prospect, a big 23-year-old with a big fastball, clocking in over 95 mph in his short stint with the team. Rogers is a former first-round pick who has battled injuries and is now 27 years old, but he still throws 93-95. The guys a lot of people are skeptical about are Estrada and Fiers, since neither lights up the radar gun.
Estrada throws 88-92, but what he lacks in velocity, he makes up for in location. Look at how he painted that outside corner against left-handed batters:
Lefties hit just .203 with two home runs off his fastball in 139 plate appearances.
Fiers' fastball is even less impressive velocitywise, averaging 88.1 mph, but he changes speeds, throws strikes and his funky delivery makes it hard to pick up the ball. He dominated throughout his three-plus seasons in the minors, so there is a track record here. Some will point to his 7.09 ERA in September as a sign that the league was catching on to him, but he also may have just tired out after a career-high 180 innings. I like him in 2013.
Then there's staff ace Gallardo, who has never quite put together that all-around dominant season, but he's matured into one of the most consistent starters in the league: 30-plus starts each of the past four seasons, with an ERA ranging between 3.52 and 3.84.
The key guy will be Peralta. He averaged 4.8 walks per nine innings in Triple-A, so he needs to curb his wildness, but the mid-90s fastball is top-shelf material.
Considering that the Brewers still aren't known for their defensive prowess, having a strikeout staff is important. The Milwaukee staff may not impress on paper, but I think it's going to surprise. And if Axford and the bullpen bounce back, the Brewers will end up as sneaky playoff contenders.