Something Special’s Brewing: How Milwaukee Turned a Disastrous 2013 Into a Miracle 2014 Start

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The lineup the Milwaukee Brewers fielded against the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night looked like it belonged in a split-squad spring training game.

Elian Herrera, the light-hitting utility man with one career big league homer, hit second. Scooter Gennett, a decent contact hitter who, at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, would have been the perfect size for the no. 3 hole in 1887, hit third. Khris Davis, who has legitimate power but has looked lost at the plate this season while amassing a .267 on-base percentage, hit cleanup. Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds, two halves of a first-base time-share who wouldn’t see much playing time on almost any other team, both got into the lineup, hitting fifth and sixth, respectively. Jeff Bianchi, another banjo-hitting utility guy, started at shortstop and hit seventh. Martin Maldonado, a backup receiver pressed into starting duty to give All-Star starter Jonathan Lucroy a breather, hit eighth. In short, the Brewers trotted out Carlos Gomez and a bunch of scrubs against the defending National League pennant winners and Central Division perennial powers.

And it worked. Thanks to timely hitting and yet another all-hands-on-deck effort from a shockingly deep pitching staff, Milwaukee pulled off a dramatic 5-4 victory, the team’s second consecutive extra-innings win against St. Louis despite fielding a lineup decimated by injuries.

The Brewers now own a 20-7 record, the best mark in baseball. With a win today, they’ll tie the 2003 Yankees for the most wins before May in MLB history. They’re getting great starting pitching, offensive contributions from multiple sources, stellar up-the-middle defense, and the kind of bullpen work that forces opponents to obsess over getting an early lead, lest they enter the seventh inning behind and get hosed the rest of the way.

Very few people expected Milwaukee to play this well in 2014, partly because of how poorly the team played in 2013. Understanding why last year’s Brewers were so bad, though, can now help us understand how this year’s Brewers have proven to be so good.

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The ballad of the 2013 Brew Crew starts with their first basemen. Their hideous, terrifying first basemen.

Corey Hart was supposed to be the Opening Day starter at first, but knee injuries knocked him out before the Brewers even reported for camp, and he wound up missing the entire season. Mat Gamel replaced Hart and saw some spring training action, but ultimately suffered a season-ending knee injury as well. Taylor Green replaced Gamel in camp, but also failed to make it to Opening Day, as a spring hip injury forced season-ending surgery.

Those injuries left an absolute horror show in their wake. The Opening Day starter wound up being then 36-year-old Alex Gonzalez, who had played in 1,559 big league games entering 2013, though zero at first base. He was predictably awful, showing limited range and poor instincts in 16 starts at the position and “hitting” .177/.203/.230 in 41 total games, for bad measure. Yuniesky Betancourt had played 1,019 major league games entering last year, though also zero at first. The Brewers gave him 46 starts there, and his fellow infielders’ error totals spiked due to his inability to scoop balls that any half-decent first baseman would have. Blake Lalli, a 30-year-old former undrafted free agent who’d played just six games in the majors prior to 2013, started three games at first and somehow managed to make two errors. Sean Halton had ample experience playing first in the minors, though he’d never played in The Show to that point, and though the 260-pound behemoth was probably the best of an awful bunch, he hit .238 with six times as many strikeouts as walks in 111 plate appearances. The Brewers grew so desperate that they gave their two sure-handed catchers some time at first, only to find that Lucroy and Maldonado were also ill-suited for the job.

Juan Francisco might have been the worst of the bunch. Francisco offered real power on a team that sorely needed it, whacking 13 homers in 240 at-bats. He also struck out 95 times, and worse, he was a tire fire at first, committing 10 errors in 62 starts and exacerbating the problem by botching throws, failing to get to balls that most exchangers of oxygen and carbon dioxide would have, and generally setting first-base defense back 100 years. He was so bad last season that even though he was tearing up Cactus League pitching this spring, the Brewers dumped him in favor of Overbay, a 37-year-old who hadn’t really hit in four years and was in the midst of an 0-for-26 spring training tailspin at the time.

All told, Milwaukee first basemen committed 21 errors, the worst in baseball last season and seven more than the next worse team. The first-base fiasco was merely the most painful problem on a team full of them, however. The Brewers got just 153 games combined out of their no. 3 and no. 4 hitters, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez, and the combination of Braun’s debilitating suspension, a rash of injuries, lousy pitching, and too many guys playing out of position led to an 88-loss season that was the stuff of nightmares.

So when people ask what’s gone right for the 2014 Brewers (aside from Hank, of course), that’s the best place to start: After one of the ugliest seasons in franchise history both on and off the field, things were bound to get better.

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While it was hard to appreciate at the time, last season’s very dark cloud did include one shiny silver lining: Braun’s suspension and all the injuries created numerous opportunities for Brewers prospects.

Between his PED suspension and lingering thumb and hand injuries, Braun missed more than half the season. That opened the door for Khris Davis, who responded by smashing 11 homers and slugging .596 in 153 plate appearances. Rickie Weeks’s extended absence and general poor performance gave Gennett an opportunity, and the then 23-year-old hit .324 in 69 games. Tyler Thornburg made seven terrific starts, posting a 1.47 ERA with zero homers allowed in 43 innings.

Other youngsters contributed without the aid of injuries or fortuitous circumstances. Shortstop Jean Segura delivered a breakout season, earning an All-Star berth on the strength of an incredible first half, and Gomez made his first All-Star Game while establishing himself as one of the NL’s 10 best all-around players.

It was the kind of player development the Brewers needed to see. “We can’t spend $18, $20 million a year on free agents,” said general manager Doug Melvin, “so we have to embrace young players. And they have to capitalize on their chances. We haven’t had a top-10 pick in seven years. We’ve had our hits and misses on draft picks like everyone else. But what we’ve done is develop some quality players — maybe not superstars, but good major league players. I don’t think Lucroy was ever rated a top-50 prospect. Neither was Scooter, [Wily] Peralta, Davis.”

Melvin, a native of Chatham, Ontario, cited the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos as models of great scouting and player development. Like the Brewers, those Canadian clubs lacked elite revenue streams, but made up for it by turning kids into quality big leaguers. “Reid Nichols is our farm director; he played for the Expos,” Melvin said. “Someone once asked him, ‘Why did that team develop so many great young players?’ He said it was simple: They had to play them. You’ll be surprised, if you play younger players, what they’ll do when given the chance.”

Thornburg has been one of the biggest revelations on that front. The Brewers entered the offseason confident he could nail down a job in the rotation, but circumstances — namely, signing Matt Garza (more on that soon) — prompted the team to slot Thornburg in the bullpen instead, giving him the kind of high-leverage relief assignments he’d never had over any extended period of time.

They gave him help, too. With Braun returning this year and Davis deemed ready for an everyday job, Nori Aoki became expendable. In his two years as a Brewer, Aoki had proven to be a consistent on-base threat, hitting at the top of the order, stealing bases, and playing every day. He was also a popular player among teammates, management, and fans, making trading him a tough decision. But Aoki was 32 years old entering this season, and in the walk year of his contract. If the Brewers could land a talented young player with more controllable service time, they’d have to make the deal. They found that player in Will Smith, a 24-year-old lefty who’d had some success in the Royals’ minor league system as a starter, plus good results during a 19-appearance major league cameo while working mostly as a reliever. In Smith, the Brewers saw another potential source of quality innings in big relief spots, and a chance to roll out one of the best young righty-lefty relief duos in baseball.

It’s worked better than Milwaukee could have dreamed. Thornburg has dominated, striking out 17 batters and allowing just a single run on six hits over 14.2 innings, nullifying batters with an explosive fastball-curve combination. Smith gave up a run in Tuesday night’s win in St. Louis, which is notable because it was the first time a team had scored on him in 15 appearances this year. In 12.1 innings, Smith has struck out 18 batters, 12 of those coming on his “slider of death.”

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All told, the Brewers own the third-lowest bullpen ERA and second-highest bullpen strikeout rate in baseball. They can credit some shrewd moves — and non-moves — for that success. Milwaukee built the meat of this year’s pen by trading for Smith in December, then re-signing veteran Francisco Rodriguez right before the start of spring training for the bargain price of $3.25 million. Jim Henderson, a quality right-hander who saved 28 games for the Brewers last year, was expected to close again this year, but has instead become yet another high-strikeout setup man in a pen full of them. Meanwhile, K-Rod is putting up the kind of numbers that would make vintage Mariano Rivera jealous: 16 innings pitched, 23 strikeouts, four walks, seven hits, a 0.00 ERA, and 13 saves, tying the all-time record for most saves before May 1. Throw in the dirt-cheap January signing of supremely effective veteran lefty Zach Duke, and the Brewers made three wildly successful bullpen moves. And their best decision might have been a deal they didn’t make: When the Mets shopped Ike Davis around this winter, the Brewers went after him hard, but they stopped short of meeting New York’s final asking price: Thornburg.

“We’ve always believed you can’t make decisions on young players until their development process is over,” said Melvin. “Last year, Thornburg was in the developmental stage, but people didn’t give him a lot of credit because of how we played as a team. We wanted to give him a chance to complete his development, so we could see what we had. We’re happy we did.”

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It’s much easier for a bullpen to have success when the starters are pitching well and going deep into games, which is exactly what Milwaukee’s rotation members have done. The Brewers have rung up 22 quality starts in 27 games this season, including nine in a row. Yovani Gallardo, the team’s de facto ace, has gone six innings or more and allowed three runs or fewer in each of his six starts, posting a 1.91 ERA. Marco Estrada, owner of the third-best strikeout-to-walk rate among starting pitchers since the start of the 2012 season, is finally healthy and sports a 2.87 ERA. Twenty-four-year-old right-hander Peralta has slashed his walk rate to career-low levels and put up a 2.56 ERA. “How many teams have a no. 5 starter who can throw a 97 mph sinker in on the hands against right-handed hitters?” team owner Mark Attanasio said of Peralta.

Knowing those three pitchers wouldn’t be enough, the Brewers committed a total of $83 million this year and last to reel in two veteran right-handers: Kyle Lohse and Garza. Lohse logged 198.2 quality innings last year, and he’s pitched even better this year, striking out a batter an inning over his first six starts while throwing a slider that ranks among the league’s best. Lohse, Melvin, manager Ron Roenicke, and several of Lohse’s teammates cited his late-2013 signing (the Brewers inked him on March 25, after other teams passed due to his attached draft pick compensation) and the World Baseball Championship as factors in the team failing to jell as hoped in 2013.

“We never really had the time to come together last spring as a group,” said Lohse. “This year, those of us in the rotation made sure we were going to be a tight group, and that went all around the clubhouse. [Sunday] night, 18 of us went out to dinner together. I think that says something about what we have here.”

Garza’s name came up even more frequently than Lohse’s during several conversations with current Brewers players and staffers. One of the most outspoken pitchers in the league, Garza recently talked about wanting to make the Cubs regret not keeping him. He even urged former teammate Jeff Samardzija to pitch his way out of Chicago. Garza’s mouth (and Twitter fingers) have gotten him in trouble before, but in Milwaukee, the veteran right-hander is seen as someone who helps keep everyone loose, and as someone who can, and has, stabilized the rotation.

“He’s a real talkative guy, upbeat, seems pretty happy all the time,” Lucroy said. “He injects some life into the clubhouse. It’s something that we needed.”

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Those of us in Hard Evidence Land might turn a skewed eye toward all this “Kumbaya” talk. For one thing, any group of players will smile and crack jokes when the team is 20-7. For another, even the biggest team-chemistry advocate would concede that clubhouse sunshine and lollipops mean nothing absent talent. Fortunately, there’s some real talent in the lineup to back all this up.

Gomez has evolved into a superstar, blessed with tape-measure power, terrific speed, highlight-reel defense, and some savvy baseball instincts. With the Brewers down 3-1 in the seventh inning on Monday, he came to bat with two men on and a chance to grab the lead. And man, did he go for it, swinging so hard at a Michael Wacha pitch that he fell to one knee on the follow-through. Figuring Gomez would continue to swing for the moon, the Cardinals’ infielders played way back. So, Gomez dropped a perfect bunt down the third-base line and beat it out, loading the bases and setting the table for two more runs to score. Of course, Gomez is also one of the most divisive players in the league. He’s flashy, loud, and demonstrative, often annoying opponents to the point of seething rage. No one in his clubhouse seems to mind one bit. (I’m compelled at this point to note that Gomez can elicit far more positive reactions, too, and not just for what he does on the field.)

The other player who’s far more beloved in Milwaukee than in the rest of the baseball world is Braun, whose reputation was tarnished due to the Biogenesis saga and his eventual suspension. If the emotional impact of last year’s suspension and vilification, or the presumed physical impact of going from being juiced to clean, is affecting Braun, it’s pretty hard to tell. He’s been a bit dinged-up this April, but he’s still managed to hit .318/.361/.591 so far (he’s a career .312/.374/.565 hitter), and he’s maintained a cheerful disposition when dealing with reporters.

“For me, and the players in the locker room, it’s the same as it’s ever been,” said Braun. “For the media, and for everybody else, it enables you guys to have a fun story to talk about. Everybody here treats me the same as they ever have. It was nice to come back and not have to deal with the distraction and the drama. Other than that, everything’s great.”

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This isn’t going to last. The Brewers aren’t going to win 120 games, as they’re currently on pace to do. Some of their stellar pitching efforts will normalize due to so-so peripheral numbers, starting with Gallardo and his poor strikeout rate. K-Rod’s split-change is a bitch to hit when he’s pitching well, but it’s a stretch to expect him to actually deliver the best season ever by a relief pitcher. And after excellent early health, the Brewers are again getting a taste of the injury bug that plagued them in 2013, as Braun suffered an oblique injury (to go with his lingering thumb injury), Segura got drilled in the face by a Braun practice swing in the dugout, and Ramirez was forced to miss time after getting hit by a pitch square on the elbow. Segura and Ramirez are due back sometime this week, while the team is awaiting word on Braun.

Still, for a club that plays in the smallest metro market in the league, the Brewers don’t feel poor. They’ve shown a willingness to give out big free-agent pitching contracts, as they did for Garza and Lohse. They spent $105 million to extend Braun, years before his existing contract was up, and showed no interest in dumping that contract when the PED mess hit the fan. They’ve traded an armada of talented prospects to acquire win-now players; imagine if Milwaukee still had Michael Brantley, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Brett Lawrie, and Jake Odorizzi on board. And after their worst attendance results in seven years, the Brewers are back to ranking among the league’s elite in that department, sitting fourth in the NL by drawing more than 31,000 fans per game.

So while the Brewers have surprised, it’s not really fair to call them the little team that could. Given all the talent at their disposal and their track record of going all in when needed, they’re more like the legitimate team that very well might.

Filed Under: MLB, Milwaukee Brewers, NL Central, Ryan Braun, Francisco Rodriguez, Yovani Gallardo, Tyler Thornburg, Matt Garza, injuries, St. Louis Cardinals, Jonah Keri

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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