MLB’s top three World Series contenders in our forecast — the Los Angeles Dodgers (29 percent chance to win it all), Houston Astros (14 percent) and Tampa Bay Rays (12 percent) — have all been there before, and quite recently. The Dodgers won the championship last season over the Rays, while the Astros made the Fall Classic in 2019 (losing to the Washington Nationals). But you can’t say the same for the fourth team on the list: the Milwaukee Brewers (8 percent). The Brew Crew haven’t been to a World Series since 1982, when they lost a heartbreaker to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. Since then, Milwaukee has had a few near-misses — dropping the NLCS in both 2011 and 2018 — but it hasn’t quite been able to get so close again to earning the franchise its first-ever title.
This could very well be the year that changes. Earlier in the season, we wrote about the Brewers’ dominant rotation as a secret weapon in their bid for a fourth consecutive playoff appearance. That’s still true: Milwaukee ranks first among all teams in wins above replacement1 from starting pitchers in 2021.2 But on top of that, the team has also doubled down on a familiar winning formula and shored up some of its biggest weaknesses as the season has evolved. As a result, the Brewers own MLB’s best record (45-23) since June 1 and are looking about as strong as they have at any point since that 1982 pennant-winning performance.
Last year’s Brewers had a similar pitching profile to the 2021 version, with both a strong rotation (No. 9 in WAR) and bullpen (No. 6). They also made the postseason, which is something this year’s team has a 99 percent probability of doing — but only because MLB expanded its playoff field amid a pandemic-shortened schedule. (Milwaukee became one of only three teams in league history to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record, joining the 2020 Astros and 1981 Kansas City Royals.) In truth, the 2020 Brewers were a mediocre team despite their impressive pitching, with a weak offense and an uncharacteristic lack of success in terms of defense and base running, two areas that had been hallmarks of the club’s ascendancy over the previous few seasons.
This year’s Brew Crew have rededicated themselves to those practices, and it’s paying dividends. A year after dropping from ninth in MLB in fielding runs above average3 to 24th, Milwaukee is back up to fourth — thanks in part to a much better season with the glove from left fielder Christian Yelich and to some defensive reshuffling, enabled by the acquisitions of center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and second baseman Kolten Wong before the season:
|2020 season||2021 season|
|C||Omar Narvaez||+5||Omar Narvaez||+6||+1|
|1B||Justin Smoak||-4||Daniel Vogelbach||-1||+3|
|2B||Keston Hiura||-16||Kolten Wong||+6||+22|
|3B||Eric Sogard||-1||Luis Urías||-4||-4|
|SS||Orlando Arcia||-5||Willy Adames||+1||+6|
|LF||Christian Yelich||-13||Christian Yelich||+0||+13|
|CF||Avisaíl García||-1||Jackie Bradley Jr.||+11||+12|
|RF||Ben Gamel||-4||Avisaíl García||+6||+10|
And they’ve been even better since picking up shortstop Willy Adames from the Rays in late May, which allowed Luis Urías to move to third base and later split time there with versatile All-Star Eduardo Escobar, who was acquired at the trade deadline. Suddenly, a team whose defense had been a weakness has turned it into a strength once again.
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The same applies to Milwaukee’s performance on the base paths. After falling from No. 7 in base running value4 in 2018 to No. 14 in 2019 and, shockingly, dead last (30th) in 2020, the Brewers are back up to 10th so far in 2021. Milwaukee’s opportunistic runners have a 43 percent rate of taking extra bases when chances present themselves, tying them for seventh-best in MLB, with Adames (71 percent), second baseman Jace Peterson (65 percent) and Bradley (57 percent) particularly standing out. Between their revitalized performances on defense and between the bases, the Brewers are back to following the formula that had defined the franchise’s recent rise.
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Hitting remains something of a weakness for Milwaukee; it ranks just 19th in batting runs above average and 16th in weighted runs created plus. Not coincidentally, Yelich, who won the National League MVP in 2018 (his first season as a Brewer) and finished second in 2019, has now had two consecutive seasons of subpar play by his standards, the second of which has also been marred by a back injury. He had been carrying the Brewers’ offense with his bat, but Milwaukee’s output has understandably suffered without Yelich producing at an MVP level.
Other hitters have picked up the slack some, though. Right fielder Avisaíl García, catcher Omar Narvaez and Peterson all have wRC+ marks north of 120. And nobody has gotten more out of their in-season pickups than the Brewers, whose offense would be much worse without the additions of Adames, Escobar and first baseman Rowdy Tellez since opening day. According to WAR, batters who started the 2021 season on other teams but were later acquired by Milwaukee have produced 6.2 WAR per 162 team games for the Brewers — by far the most of any team in MLB this season, and a number on pace to be one of the highest totals of any team in the divisional era (since 1969):
|Season||Team||Acq.’s Total WAR/162||Player||WAR/162|
|1970||Senators||6.69||3B Aurelio Rodríguez||5.22|
|2021||Brewers||6.21||SS Willy Adames||4.89|
|1969||Dodgers||6.11||SS Maury Wills||3.99|
|2000||White Sox||5.65||3B Herbert Perry||2.96|
|1975||Phillies||5.27||CF Garry Maddox||3.42|
|1989||Athletics||5.19||LF Rickey Henderson||5.15|
|1976||Twins||5.14||SS Roy Smalley||2.92|
|2000||Yankees||5.12||OF David Justice||3.23|
|1989||Yankees||4.87||OF Jesse Barfield||3.97|
|1971||Brewers||4.86||OF John Briggs||3.67|
|1978||Rangers||4.85||RF Bobby Bonds||4.04|
|1982||Yankees||4.75||SS Roy Smalley||2.82|
|1979||Pirates||4.68||SS Tim Foli||2.35|
|1988||Mariners||4.64||OF Jay Buhner||2.63|
|1979||Indians||4.55||LF Mike Hargrove||3.21|
Adames in particular has been stellar after arriving in Milwaukee. The 25-year-old was already one of baseball’s best-kept secrets in Tampa, producing the full-season equivalent of 4.7 WAR last year as the Rays marched to the World Series. But after he got off to a cold start in 2021 — one perhaps fueled by an inability to see the ball at Tropicana Field, where he hit .156 this year — Tampa Bay shipped Adames to the Brewers for a couple of pitchers. The Rays’ loss has been Milwaukee’s gain, as Adames has emerged as an MVP candidate for the Brewers, with 17 home runs, a 150 wRC+ and 4.9 WAR per 162 games after the deal.
Penciling Adames into the lineup at short, the Brewers have been one of — if not the — best teams in baseball these past few months. With a dominating rotation, quality bullpen, resurgent defense, good heads-up base running and a retooled lineup, Milwaukee appears to check off all the boxes of an October contender.5 We’ll just have to see if that ultimately proves good enough to get the Brewers to greater heights than the franchise has reached in a long time.
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