Monday, August 29, 2011

Brewers First to Be Assigned a Magic Number

Every major news site has its advantages. From Yahoo to Fangraphs to to to ESPN and, yes, Each site has strengths and weaknesses and to this Fan's simple way of looking at things, all are necessary stops in the baseball journey. As such, a stop was made to Yahoo's standings this morning and Lo and Behold (!), the Brewers have a magic number in parenthesis next to their name. They are the first team to get assigned a magic number this season. That number is at eighteen. Any combination of nine wins by the Brewers and nine losses by the Cardinals and the Brewers win the division. Isn't this amazing?

Everyone knew that the Brewers were going for it before the season started. They made the Zack Greinke trade (though that trade came anchored with the worst shortstop in baseball). They made the Shaun Marcum trade. They fought the thoughts of trading Prince Fielder. But did anyone really think they would be this good? Well, let's put that thought another way: Did anyone think they would be this much better than the rest of their division? Hardly. We knew the Brewers had three stars in Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Richie Weeks. They had the potential for a much better pitching staff than last year. But there were a lot of questions marks. 

Only Braun, Fielder, Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee have played 125 games or more. Richie Weeks lost significant time to injury. McGehee has fielded well but his offense has been a real drag. And let's not ask about his base running. Betancourt is at 0 fWAR, which is actually comforting that he at least isn't in the negative numbers this year. But the guy still walks only 2.9 percent of the time and his fielding has always been suspect. So how did this team get so far ahead?

There are a couple of factors. First, they started matching their home success with road success. In the beginning of the year, they couldn't buy a win away from home. But since early July, they've done much better on the road. Secondly, love him or hate him, Nyger Morgan has added significant and surprising value to the Brewers. Corey Hart is having a valuable season despite some missed time.

Okay, here is another obscure stat you might not know and it helps this team in an invisible sort of way: Every single member of the starting rotation (pitchers) has a positive batting fWAR. Show this writer another team that can say that. That means they don't just give away the ninth position in the batting order.

But it is also that starting rotation that has buoyed this team with their arms. They aren't the Phillies rotation. They aren't much better than the Yankees' rotation (such as it is). But they are good enough and that basically is the difference between this year's Brewers and last year's. They are tied for eighth in the majors (30 teams) in fewest runs allowed as a rotation compared to last year's 27th place in that category. Greinke and Marcum have provided the stability needed to move Yovani Gallardo and Chris Narveson to their proper spots in the pecking order. Randy Wolf is a quality pitcher for a fifth starter. The rotation is allowing almost a full run less this year per game than last year. That's a major difference.

Last year's bullpen featured the unfortunate end of Trevor Hoffman's great career. That bullpen was the 26th most effective bullpen in baseball last year. That's not good. This year, that same bullpen is ninth in effectiveness. That's a big improvement. That bullpen was bolstered by what this writer feels was the biggest in-season trade this season by obtaining Francisco Rodriguez.

The Brewers have taken care of their rivals. The Reds are the only team the Brewers haven't played well in their division. Even with their losing record against the Reds, the Brewers are 32-18 against opponents in their own division. That's getting it done.

The Brewers' rise to the top has coincided with surprising collapses in St. Louis and Cincinnati. Both those teams were supposed to be strong this season. The Reds won the division last season but stood pat in the off season and that proved to be unwise. The Cardinals made fundamental flaws in their team make up (most notably on defense) and lost Adam Wainwright to injury. All these forces have combined to give the Brewers the third most wins in the majors and there is little or no chance they don't win the National League Central. Anything that happens after that in the post season is a crap shoot as always. Bottom line: If they are in it, they can win it. Anything can happen in the post season.

The Brewers have to be near the top of this season's top stories. They have buried their division and have earned the distinction of the first team to have a Magic Number for us to look at.

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