When the Kansas City Royals made back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015 — coming agonizingly close in the former and winning the latter — they launched a thousand think pieces about whether manager Ned Yost’s brand of small ball would spread throughout the game. But then it looked like it might never get the chance: Right after the Royals’ revival, baseball embarked on a record-setting home run explosion, and the appeal of a team built primarily around speed, defense and a lights-out bullpen seemed to wane.1
One of 2018’s top teams is taking a page out of K.C.’s championship playbook anyway. It isn’t just that the Milwaukee Brewers share the same center fielder with those Royals — although another All-Star caliber season from Lorenzo Cain hasn’t exactly hurt the comparison. The Brewers are also leading the NL Central with a strikingly similar combination of fielding, relief pitching and clever base running, even as the advanced metrics remain skeptical. (Sound familiar, Royals fans?) All that’s left is for postseason history to repeat — assuming Kansas City’s winning formula still works in a game that looks very different than it did just a few seasons ago.
Going into the season, the Brewers were not expected to build much on last year’s surprising 86-win performance, despite loading up on players such as Cain and Christian Yelich over the winter. In fact, both the Vegas bookmakers and computer projections such as FanGraphs’ depth charts and Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA picked Milwaukee to take a step backward, averaging out to about 83 wins for the season with only a meager chance of making the playoffs. In theory, the 2017 Brewers had gotten slightly lucky both in terms of wins and losses — they overshot the record their statistics predicted2 by a couple of games — as well as in career seasons from both batters (Eric Thames, Domingo Santana, Travis Shaw) and pitchers (Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson, Corey Knebel). So it wasn’t too hard to argue that a tumble would be on its way this summer.
But remember, Milwaukee wasn’t supposed to be very good last year, either; all it proceeded to do was hang around the NL Central race far longer than anyone in the media — or on the presumptive division-favorite Chicago Cubs — thought possible. The Brewers led the Central well into late July before the Cubs (along with the Diamondbacks and Rockies) overtook them down the stretch. It was a good enough showing to convince general manager David Stearns to accelerate the club’s recent rebuilding project and raise the franchise’s expectations sooner than originally anticipated. And the result has been the best record in the National League through the season’s first two months.
The Brewers aren’t alone in beating projections this year, but what stands out is how they’ve done it. Despite the new firepower in the lineup — and the emergence of hard-hitting first baseman Jesus Aguilar — Milwaukee ranks in the middle of the major league pack in runs scored, with middling numbers for both power and walks. Their starting rotation has also slipped, from ninth in MLB in wins above replacement3 per game in 2017 to 20th this season, with Anderson struggling to replicate last year’s form and Nelson missing the entire season to date because of injury.
Milwaukee is making up for the difference, though, with the majors’ 10th-best base running WAR per game, along with the third-best WAR per game from both defense and relief pitching. It’s a combination of metrics eerily similar to the one Kansas City produced during its own championship run three years ago:
|MLB Ranks in WAR from…|
|Season||Team||Win %||Batting||Base Running||Fielding||Starters||Relievers|
On the basepaths, the Brewers have the majors’ most successful rate of taking extra bases, a category the famously aggressive Royals also excelled in. Milwaukee’s ability to track down balls in the field, led by Cain in the outfield and Orlando Arcia at shortstop, easily recalls the rangy Royals of, well, Cain and Alcides Escobar. And with reliever Josh Hader rewriting the all-time strikeout record book (to say nothing of the 0.60 ERA season Jeremy Jeffress is having), the Brewers have been even more unbeatable with a lead in the late innings than the Royals were in their Wade Davis-led heyday. So far this season, Milwaukee is a perfect 27-0 when leading through six innings, making it the only team in baseball that can say it hasn’t blown such a situation yet.
|2018 Season||2014-15 Seasons|
|Team||Wins||Losses||Win %||Team||Wins||Losses||Win %|
Kansas City combined for a staggering 150-10 mark across those situations in 2014 and 2015, including the postseason, so the Brewers still have some work to do before catching up to their doppelganger. And the Royals comparison isn’t 100 percent perfect — Milwaukee isn’t quite the batting average machine K.C. was, for instance, because the Brewers strike out at a normal clip, not the freakishly low rate Kansas City did at its peak. But the Brew Crew might be the closest thing we’ll get in the homers-and-strikeouts world of 2018 baseball.
Questions also remain about Milwaukee’s place among the pantheon of 2018 contenders. According to The Baseball Gauge, only the Seattle Mariners have gotten luckier this year, in terms of sequencing and winning close games (although the latter can be explained in part by the Brewer bullpen’s aforementioned dominance). After the Brewers dropped two of three to the lowly Chicago White Sox over the weekend,4 our Elo forecast now thinks Milwaukee will go 54-48 over the rest of the season and be caught by the Cubs in the Central before too long — though it does give the Brewers a 67 percent chance of making the playoffs. (That projection is also on the high side; FanGraphs thinks the Brewers will go 48-54 from here on out, with less than a coin flip’s shot at the postseason.)
But that’s just another way in which the Brewers evoke memories of Kansas City’s World Series-era teams. With their unconventional mix of strengths and weaknesses, those Royals squads spent multiple seasons bucking the odds and poking holes in the statistical arguments against them. Maybe now it’s Milwaukee’s turn to do the same.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.