The biggest challenge for the Brewers in the NL Central seems to be themselves. Milwaukee is heavily favored to win the division and will have to take care of business and not get too complacent heading into the playoffs. We’ve seen big division favorites come up short before, though it really doesn’t happen often in baseball. The sample size of 162 games helps to separate what is real from what is not.
The sportsbooks’ position on Milwaukee makes sense. Not only are three teams in the division in various states of a rebuild, but the Brewers have reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes, another top arm in Brandon Woodruff and former NL MVP Christian Yelich. This is also a bullpen that features Josh Hader and Devin Williams, so there really aren’t any areas of weakness for the Brew Crew.
That’s how you end up with a win total in the upper 80s and a lot of expectations coming into a season.
American Family Field (it’s still Miller Park to me) is a tough hitter’s park, but that’s why park-adjusted stats like wRC + are so important. The formula for that stat recognizes that there are harder hitting environments than others and factors a park adjustment in. Even with that handicap accounted for, the Brewers posted a 91 wRC + , which means they were collectively 9% below league average. They finished 19th in wOBA at .310 and carried a low batting average with a low power output.
As great as this team was last season, it was carried by the pitching staff. Yelich was limited to 117 games and posted the worst offensive season of his career with a .325 wOBA and a 101 wRC + . Yelich only hit nine home runs in 475 plate appearances. It’s crazy to think he’s only a few years removed from hitting 80 over two seasons in 2018 and 2019. His .373 SLG really hurt as a key cog in this lineup and his .248 batting average wasn’t much better. Going into his age-30 season, projection systems are bullish on a bounce back – and so am I. Yelich had a Hard Hit% of 48.4%, which put him in the top 13% of hitters. He didn’t pull the ball enough last season and it zapped his power.
Fortunately, others picked up the slack. Willy Adames wound up being a really nice pickup from the Rays, who had a logjam at shortstop with their prospects needing a place to play. Adames played 99 games for the Brewers and posted a career-best 3.9 fWAR with a terrific slash line of .285/.366/.521 and a 135 wRC + . He was the most valuable hitter for the Brewers and paired that with solid defense.
His double-play partner Kolten Wong was second on the team in fWAR and paired an above-average offensive season with a strong defensive profile. Luis Urias came out of nowhere to post a 111 wRC + with 23 home runs. He had hit six in his first 422 MLB plate appearances, but made huge strides in contact quality with an above-average Barrel% and Hard Hit% – another developmental win for a really smart organization.
The Brewers are an excellent defensive team. Catcher Omar Narvaez actually had a down year offensively, but was one of the most valuable defensive catchers in the league. Lorenzo Cain was another player that had a down offensive year, but played a strong center field; if you’re not going to hit, you might as well field your position well. Urias, Adames and the others all play their positions well. If last season’s offensive gains are legit and the newcomers and bounce-back candidates get right, this team’s projection is much different.
Some of the changes for 2022 might be the ones to elevate this offensive profile. The universal DH is a massive win for the Brewers. They can add some legitimate offensive punch while still optimizing their defense, which is an enormous part of what makes them successful. Andrew McCutchen should get the most reps at DH, as he is a poor defensive outfielder that won’t need to play a corner with Yelich and Hunter Renfroe on the roster. Hiura is an awful defender everywhere, but he also hit well at every level of the minors.
McCutchen doesn’t have a stellar offensive profile anymore, but he’s been an above-average bat every season of his career and walks at a high rate, another key part of what the Brewers do. McCutchen had a 107 wRC + last season, but walked over 14% of the time and hit 27 homers. His .242 BABIP was on the low side and some positive regression is likely to come, which will elevate his numbers.
Along with McCutchen, the Brewers picked up Renfroe, who hit 31 homers for Boston last season and proved to be more than just a platoon bat with 20 of those coming against right-handed pitching. Milwaukee will also have a full season of Rowdy Tellez, who posted a 112 wRC + in 56 games last season after the trade deadline.
All of the newcomers could see drops in their numbers, particularly in the power department. Matt Vasgersian also noted on VSiN’s “Follow The Money” this week that pitchers get more fastball extension in Milwaukee than they do in other parks, which increases the perceived velocity of fastballs and makes them harder to hit.
If Yelich bounces back, the Brewers offense looks a lot better, but it isn’t going to impact them negatively if the offense is below average.
The Brewers have some outstanding pitching. They have a high-strikeout staff and an elite defense, which is a tough pairing for the opposition. It’s the reason why Milwaukee’s offense really doesn’t have to be that good – the Brewers simply have to score enough runs to get by, because they’re not going to allow many.
The Brewers ranked third in ERA and FIP last season, trailing the Dodgers and Giants in both categories. Only the White Sox punched out a higher percentage of batters. The five best pitchers for the Brewers (not in this order) are Josh Hader, Devin Williams, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff. Those guys posted K% marks of 45.5%, 38.5%, 35.6%, 33.6% and 29.8%. Those would be Milwaukee’s top two relievers and top three starting pitchers.
The Brewers had the second-best starting staff by fWAR and ERA and the league’s best by FIP. Even though Milwaukee’s starters posted a 3.13 ERA and a 3.29 FIP, they were just 51-43 in terms of pitching wins and losses. That speaks to the lackluster offense, but also speaks to how much of a weapon the bullpen is, given that the Brewers won 95 games. Burnes was responsible for 11 of those wins across his 28 starts with a 2.43 ERA and an absurd 1.63 FIP. He put up deGrom-ian stats with a 234/34 K/BB ratio and only allowed seven home runs. Home run prevention is a big reason why the Brewers fared so well, along with the fact that Burnes kept the ball on the ground at a 48.8% clip. It’s harder to get hurt with ground balls.
Interestingly, Woodruff didn’t have as much success keeping batted balls on the ground at 41.5%, but still had a career-best 2.56 ERA and 2.96 FIP. Woodruff was at 49.4% in 2020 and 44.6% in 2019, so there’s some room for growth here. Frankly, between the two, I’d rather gamble on Woodruff as the potential Cy Young Award winner. He’s 12/1 as opposed to 9/1 for Burnes, whose workload dramatically increased last season. Woodruff at least threw 121.2 innings in 2019 and 73.2 in 2020. Woodruff also showcases elite command with outstanding contact management metrics. He’s an outstanding pitcher.
Another pitcher that had a big workload bump is Peralta, who went from one start and just 29.1 innings in 2020 to 27 starts and 144.1 innings in 2021. The Brewers have been very careful with the 26-year-old, so I’ll be curious to see how he bounces back health-wise. Assuming he doesn’t have any major troubles, his .230 BABIP will go up a little and he’ll probably see a mild reduction in his 33.6% K%, but he’d still grade as one of the best No. 3 starters in baseball.
Milwaukee’s embarrassment of riches continues with its starting depth. Adrian Houser is a regression candidate with a 3.33 ERA and a 4.34 FIP, but I’d also expect his walk rate to improve. He is an extreme ground ball guy with a low strikeout rate, so FIP won’t like that profile. Eric Lauer had a 3.04 ERA with a 3.90 FIP in his 20 starts. Aaron Ashby (nephew of Andy Ashby) is a top-50 prospect and the best one in this system. He’ll get some starts at the outset as teams take it easy with their starters, and may end up sticking around. Jean Carlos Mejia will end up in the bullpen, but he’s a multi-inning option alongside Luis Perdomo for early piggybacks.
Hader and Williams, whose “Airbender” changeup might be the single most effective pitch in baseball, anchor a solid bullpen. Brad Boxberger and Brent Suter both had strong seasons last year and return, along with Jake Cousins, another high-strikeout arm with potential. The bullpen will be a strength for Milwaukee again.
Player to Watch
SP Freddy Peralta: Peralta is 5-foot-11 and under 200 pounds. With a big arm and a lot going on in his delivery, I am really curious to see how the increased workload impacts him. In the second half last season, he had a drop in K% and also had his innings severely limited. The Brewers were in a position to do that with a nice lead in the division. I will be watching early in the season for any velocity or spin rate decreases that might indicate injury or a dead arm period, which will probably happen to a lot of pitchers this year.
I’m a little worried about Burnes. I’m not worried about Woodruff. I am worried about Peralta.
I know that the Cardinals are priced around 2/1 to win the division and have a win total line only a few games behind the Brewers, but I’m not sure how much opposition they’re going to provide. While I’m higher on the Cubs than the market seems to be, the Brewers have no excuse for falling short of expectations, unless a rash of injuries takes them down several pegs.
The nice thing for Milwaukee is that it is very top-heavy on the pitching side, but the Brewers have developed talent well and should be fine if one or two long-term injuries arise. I’m more excited about the offensive projection for the team than I figured I would be. The park factor is still a detriment, but the lineup looks stronger and a little more powerful. I couldn’t take the Brewers under their win total – I could only take the over. I wish we were getting more on a World Series future with a very likely division winner and an elite staff built for the playoffs, but we’re not. I will be looking for an in-season price on Milwaukee. Hopefully, they start slow and the Cardinals start fast.
Win Total Lean: Over 89.5
Brewers to Win NL Central -165