When we at Wisconsin Sports Heroics rolled out our Brewers’ season preview article, most of us predicted a 1st place finish in the NL Central. Three weeks into the season, the Brewers are indeed in 1st place, although not in the way any of us expected.
Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Kolten Wong have all landed on the IL. Keston Hiura is still scuffling at the plate, batting just .118, while also looking bad at times adjusting to playing first base. Devin Williams hasn’t looked as sharp as he did in his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2020. The setup spot, in general, has been a bit of a revolving door with plenty of ineffectiveness to go around.
Yet, here we are. Baseball is often strange like that.
Pitching is the Key
So while the Brewers expect at least Wong to return from the IL for the weekend series at Wrigley Field against the rival Cubs, we shouldn’t expect this early season winning formula to change much. That formula starts with the starting pitching.
Brewers’ starters have an otherworldly combined ERA of 1.99, the best mark in the majors. Their 0.89 combined WHIP and .173 batting average against also lead the bigs.
In their recent three-game sweep of the vaunted Padres, a team many pegged to compete for the pennant this year, Brewers’ starters allowed only three runs.
Three of the Brewers’ top four performers in WAR are all starters (Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta).
Bench Stepping Up
The next part of the formula is rife with all the “next man up” cliché one can muster. Only 18 games into the season and not a single Brewer has played in every game. Yet, contributions from unsung additions to the roster like Billy McKinney and J.P. Feyereisen have buoyed the team in the early going.
With the exception of Omar Narváez, no Brewer is particularly tearing the cover off the ball at present time. Still, they’ve scored enough runs (4.4 per game) to propel themselves into the division lead.
Surprisingly, the 4.4 runs per game is only a shade above last season’s mark of 4.1. However, the key has been the timeliness. The Brewers rank 4th in the majors with a .274 team average with runners in scoring position.
Let’s be frank, it was not a terrific start for a bullpen that was expected to be among the league’s best.
Indeed, the offseason release of Corey Knebel, the early season struggles of Williams and Eric Yardley, and the injury to Justin Topa could have easily sent the bullpen—and the chance of a successful April—into a tailspin.
However, the aforementioned Feyereisen (0-1, 0.00 ERA in 10 appearances) and the steadiness of Brent Suter (1-1, 3.09 ERA in eight games) have provided stability.
Even Williams was markedly better against the Padres than in previous appearances. He showed flashes of the truly devastating “Airbender” changeup that had been hit hard in the season’s early going. He struck out two of the three batters he faced in the series finale, albeit outside of his normal setup role.
Overall, the bullpen did not allow a single run the entire series, providing some optimism that they may have righted the ship.
Brewers-Cubs: The I-94 Rivalry
Tempers have already flared once this season between these two teams. Back on April 6, Cubs’ catcher and chronic hot-head Willson Contreras took exception to being hit with a Brad Boxberger pitch and benches cleared. Though no punches were thrown, Contreras unflinchingly laid down the gauntlet for what could be a long and bitter season between the two teams.
After getting hit in the helmet yesterday, Willson Contreras gets hit again tonight and he is not happy. Multiple #Cubs hitters have been either hit or thrown at during the series so far.
— Cubs Zone ™️ (@CubsZone) April 7, 2021
Though Contreras’ beef may be somewhat justified—he’s been hit 12 times by Brewers’ pitching in his career—it doesn’t appear that the Brewers intend to change the way they pitch to him. Not that this series needs any more intrigue.
The two teams, as a whole, could not have started their seasons any differently. The Cubs, who sit two games behind the Brewers in the NL Central, have had plenty of offense but faltered due to their starting pitching.
While Contreras, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant have combined for 15 homers on the young season, Cubs’ starters have the 2nd worst combined ERA in the majors (5.46). The Crew certainly hopes that trend continues.
Game One: Brett Anderson (2-1, 2.65 ERA, 8 Ks) vs. Kyle Hendricks (0-2, 6.92 ERA, 12 Ks)
Anderson’s only rough outing of the year so far came against these same Chicago Cubs. In his first start of the year, Anderson was tagged for four runs in five innings in a 5-3 loss. However, he responded by shutting down both the Cardinals and Pirates in consecutive starts.
Hendricks was uncharacteristically atrocious in his last start, giving up seven runs and four homers against the Braves in only four innings. He seemingly always brings his best for the Brewers. That was the case in his first start against the Crew back on April 7, when he held the Crew scoreless over six frames in a game the Brewers still eventually won, 4-2.
Game Two: Freddy Peralta (2-0, 2.00 ERA, 31 Ks) vs. Adbert Alzolay (0-2, 6.12 ERA, 10 Ks)
Peralta entered the season as a last minute addition to the rotation and has rewarded manager Craig Counsell with a spectacular start. He has struck out 42.5% of the batters he’s faced and is sporting a ridiculous 15.5 K/9. This marks his third start against the Cubs already this season, which could pose an issue. But in his first two starts combined, he allowed only one run on three hits in 11 innings with 18 strikeouts.
Whatever familiarity the Cubs have with Peralta, it is matched by the Brewers and Alzolay, whose only other two starts this season have come against Milwaukee. Both games yielded similar results with the Brewers tagging Alzolay for four runs on four hits in the first meeting and three runs on three hits in the second.
Game Three: Brandon Woodruff (1-0, 1.96 ERA, 26 Ks) vs. Jake Arrieta (3-1, 2.86 ERA, 18 Ks)
Woodruff finally got his first win of the season in his last start, despite pitching exceptionally thus far. He struggled through the first inning but ultimately settled in for a quality start. He has yet to allow a home run and has yet to even allow what Statcast considers a barreled ball. This, similar to Peralta, will mark Woodruff’s third start against the Cubs already.
The Brewers were responsible for the only blemish on Arrieta’s record this season. Other than that, he’s been very good, allowing two runs or less in his other three starts. Even in the loss to the Crew, he gave up only three runs in five innings.
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