One gratifying first half is in the books for the Milwaukee Brewers. One three-month obstacle course of heat, fatigue, trade deadline speculation, attrition and National League Central “gut checks" awaits.
With a 7-4 victory over the Colorado Rockies at Miller Park on Thursday night, manager Ron Roenicke’s Brew Crew completed the first 81 games of the schedule with a 49-32 record. That’s the best first half in the 45-year history of the franchise -- ahead of the 1979 George Bamberger team and the 2007 Ned Yost squad, both of which failed to make the postseason after going 47-34 through their first 81.
The Brewers have been in first place for 84 of 88 days this season and enter the second half with a 5½-game lead over St. Louis. History says that bodes well for July, August and September. Since the advent of the wild card in 1995, teams in first place through 81 games have made the postseason 82 of 118 times (69.5 percent) and won their division in 72 of 118 tries (or 61 percent). Entering Milwaukee’s four-game series with the Rockies, FanGraphs gave the Brewers a 72.7 percent chance to qualify for the postseason and 46.6 percent odds to capture the Central.
It’s been an encouraging show of staying power for a team with a relatively low national profile. Since Ryan Braun arrived in spring training and said he was sorry about his past PED transgressions and wanted to move on, the Brewers have been noteworthy primarily for 1) a torrid 20-7 start; 2) the addition of Hank the Dog bobblehead night to the schedule; 3) a few obligatory flare-ups involving their high-energy, combustible center fielder, Carlos Gomez; and 4) a good-natured All-Star Game video promoting catcher Jonathan Lucroy that irritated a few people in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization.
The Brewers’ record is more a product of stability and a balanced roster than star appeal. Lucroy, who has worked his way into the National League MVP debate, has spent much of his career attracting attention for being underrated. The Milwaukee rotation is solid, but more noteworthy for its depth and consistency than the presence of a Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez-caliber dominator. And the bullpen is headed by closer Francisco Rodriguez, a master of reinvention whose fastball clocks in at 90 mph on the radar gun.
In an age of prospect-mania, even Milwaukee’s budding big leaguers tend to escape notice. As general manager Doug Melvin points out with a discernible sense of pride, the homegrown component has played a significant role in the team’s success this season. Lucroy, a third-round draft pick in 2007, leads MLB catchers with a 3.9 WAR. Scooter Gennett, Rickie Weeks’ platoon partner at second base, leads the majors at the position with a .487 slugging percentage. Khris Davis is tied for third among NL outfielders with 14 homers, and Wily Peralta is tied with Kyle Lohse for the team lead with nine victories.
Of those four players, only Gennett was highly-regarded enough to appear in an All-Star Futures Game.
“We’ve heard in the past that we don’t have a good farm system and we don’t have any young players in the system," Melvin said by phone Thursday. “But I think a lot of that criticism is unfair."
With a healthy mix of young players and veterans, the Brewers have gone from an April curiosity to a June staple to a team that has to be taken seriously for several reasons:
• They have no discernible weaknesses. The offense is second to Colorado in the NL in runs scored and OPS. The Brewers are sixth in the NL in starting pitchers’ ERA (3.65) and eighth in relief ERA (3.44). They’re 22-17 at home, 27-15 on the road and are tied with San Francisco and Los Angeles for first in the NL with a plus-42 run differential. They also have yet to lose more than four games in a row all season.
Milwaukee is middle-of-the-pack in the field with a plus-8 in Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved rankings. That doesn’t compare to last year’s plus-58, which was fueled by Gomez’s amazing plus-44 DRS in center, but they’re a heck of a lot better with Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay at first base than they were last season, when Alex Gonzalez, Yuniesky Betancourt and seven other first basemen combined for a whopping 21 errors.
• If it’s an article of faith that winning teams are strong up the middle, the Brewers certainly qualify with Lucroy and Martin Maldonado behind the plate, shortstop Jean Segura and the Gennett-Weeks platoon combo in the middle infield, and the multitalented Gomez in center.
• The Brewers appeared to have sleeper potential in spring training because of the addition of Matt Garza to a rotation that included Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Peralta and Marco Estrada. But the big question was how much of a workload the starters could handle.
That question appears to have been answered. After ranking 14th among the 15 NL teams with 918 innings from the rotation last year, the Brewers lead the league in that category and are on pace to surpass 1,000. That’s helped take the load off K-Rod, Will Smith and friends in the pen.
• Melvin has shown in the past that he’s willing to act boldly when a window of opportunity presents itself. In 2008 he shipped Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley to Cleveland for CC Sabathia, who went 11-2 as a Brewer and helped pitch Milwaukee to the playoffs. But it’s unlikely Melvin will do anything close to that significant this season. The Brewers’ rotation is probably built more for long-haul survival than October dominance, but don’t expect them to be dabbling in the David Price or Jeff Samardzija sweepstakes in July.
If the Brewers make a move, Melvin said, it will most likely be to add bullpen help. Relievers Jim Henderson and Tyler Thornburg are expected to come off the disabled list soon, and Melvin recently visited Triple-A Nashville to get a look at some potential call-ups. The list includes former Brewers first-round pick Jeremy Jeffress, whose professional odyssey has included stops in Kansas City and Toronto and multiple suspensions for marijuana use. The Brewers picked up Jeffress in mid-April and sent him to Nashville, and he’s 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 31⅓ innings in the Sounds’ bullpen.
“Any players that can make us better, we’ll look at," Melvin said. “The bullpen is always an area that has a tendency to get overworked in today’s world because starters don’t pitch complete games anymore. We feel like we have some pitchers in the minors who can help us, but sometimes an experienced bullpen guy can be helpful."
The other item on Melvin’s agenda is remaining vigilant in case of an injury to one of his regulars. If Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Lucroy, Gomez or Segura goes down, the Brewers might suddenly be in scramble mode. And the GM will be making phone calls.
In the meantime, the Brewers will continue to enjoy that view from the top of the division standings. The first half has been so much fun in Milwaukee, they can hardly wait for the second half to begin.