The Milwaukee Brewers keep finding ways to win. On Tuesday, they beat the Cardinals for the second straight game in extra innings with a lineup that was missing Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, Aramis Ramirez and Jean Segura. Elian Herrera was batting second. Khris Davis and his .267 OBP hit cleanup. Jeff Bianchi played shortstop.
With a win against the Cardinals this afternoon, the Brewers can tie the 2003 Yankees for the all-time record for most wins by the end of April, with 21.
Now, that’s a little misleading, as for much of MLB history, teams didn’t start the regular season until later in April, back when there were 154 games or more doubleheaders were played.
If the Brewers win, they’ll be 21-7, a .750 winning percentage. Here’s another list of the teams that had a winning percentage of .750 or higher at the end of April with at least 20 games played:
BEST APRIL STARTS
Older Brewers fans will undoubtedly remember that 1987 team that started 13-0, 17-1 and 20-3. That was followed by a 12-game losing streak and 18 losses in 20 games; and by May 29, the Brewers were 22-21. They recovered to win 91 games, but they finished seven games out of first place.
What’s perhaps most interesting about these 2014 Brewers is that they rank last in the majors in walk rate at 6.3 percent -- and you know how much I love walks. Walks are baserunners, and baserunners lead to runs. Walks run up pitch counts and force opposing managers to dig deeper into their bullpens. The Twins lead the majors in walk rate at 12.9 percent; and because of that, a no-name lineup has been one of the best offensive teams in the majors. The Brewers also have the second-highest chase percentage -- swinging at pitches out of the strike zone -- in the National League, behind only the Rockies. The Brewers go up there hacking; no team in the NL swings more often.
Davis has 32 strikeouts and one walk. Carlos Gomez has 35 strikeouts in 28 games with just nine walks. Braun’s walk rate is his lowest since 2008. Segura has two walks in 23 games. Mark Reynolds has 31 strikeouts in 82 plate appearances.
This approach hasn’t really hurt the Brewers much yet; they’re sixth in the NL at 4.11 runs per game. It hasn't hurt because outside of the Coors-fueled Rockies, no offense in the NL is doing a ton of damage.
The question is whether this approach is sustainable for a playoff team or if it will inevitably lead to an offensive collapse or an overreliance on the pitching staff.
In 2013, the teams with the seven lowest walks rates in the NL were the Padres, Giants, Cubs, Marlins, Rockies, Phillies and Brewers. All finished under .500; and only the Rockies, playing in Coors Field, scored more runs than the NL average. Of the playoff teams, the Pirates had the lowest walk rate at 7.6 percent.
In 2012, the Brewers actually led the NL in runs scored, despite ranking just 13th in the league with a 7.5 percent walk rate. The Reds had the worst offense of any of the playoff teams and had a walk rate of 7.9 percent.
The Brewers won the NL Central in 2011 with a 7.9 percent walk rate, 12th in NL. None of the teams below them in walk rate made the playoffs.
In 2010, the lowest walk rate of the playoff teams was the Giants, who ranked 13th in the NL at 7.9 percent. At 4.30 runs per game, they were just below the NL average of 4.33.
In 2009, the Cardinals ranked 12th in the NL in walk rate (8.6 percent) but still had an offense better than the league average and won the NL Central.
Anyway, you get the idea. You’re not going to have a great offense without drawing some free passes.
Still, as the Brewers run into the inevitable regression from the pitching staff -- Yovani Gallardo has allowed eight runs in six starts despite a low strikeout rate, and the bullpen is 8-2 with a 2.16 ERA -- the offense is going to have to improve. Davis and Segura are the big concerns, as the Brewers traded away Norichika Aoki to clear room for Davis, depleting their outfield depth, and Segura has struggled going back to the second half of last season. Ramirez isn’t going to hit .500 all season with runners in scoring position.
Once you get past Gomez and Braun, there are still a lot of question marks with this lineup. It’s been a great April, but we’ll learn a lot more about the Brewers in May.