It took me a little bit of study to understand why the Brewers are 18-13 and how that seemingly good and obviously better-than record could be a big problem for the 13-17 San Francisco Giants this weekend. I’ve settled on this: they are good, but probably not the feeling that accompanies “five games better” than the Giants.
You think the Giants are bad against left-handed pitching (.226 - 24th) ? The Brewers are worse (.208 -26th)! Only the Yankees (.320) have a worse slugging percentage against lefties than the Giants (.342) and Brewers (.332), and if you change the measure from batting average and slugging percentage to wRC+, it gets worse for both teams: the Giants fall to 28th (75 wRC+) and the Brewers are dead last (66 wRC+).
The Brewers do not thrill on either side of the ledger. Their lineup is 15th in MLB (4.1 fWAR) and their pitching is 20th (2.4 fWAR). The three best hitters by fWAR (Thairo Estrada, LaMonte Wade Jr., and J.D. Davis) would be the three best hitters on their team. William Contreras, the 25-year old catcher, leads Milwaukee with 0.9 fWAR. Their rotation is virtually all of their fWAR total, with the bullpen contributing just 0.1 fWAR — better than the Giants’ -0.6 fWAR, but still only 23rd in baseball.
So, how are they doing it? It all comes down to their defense. By FanGraphs, they lead MLB with 13.5 Defensive Runs, which might just account for one full win (if 10 runs still equals a win in sabermetrics). There’s not one aspect of their defense that is average or negative. Positives across the board. Contreras doesn’t lead the league in caught stealing (Shea Langeliers of the A’s does with 10 CS), but he has thrown out 7 baserunners in 12 attempts (58%).
Contreras isn’t wowing in the catcher framing metrics, and the Brewers aren’t at the very top of Statcast’s OAA leaderboard, but most of the lineup is on there. Willy Adames (SS), Owen Miller (2B), Brice Turang (2B), Joey Wiemer (CF), Christian Yelich (LF) are all there at +2 Outs Above Average. Garrett Mitchel (CF), and Brian Anderson (3B) show up as well at +1.
They’ve managed to platoon, scout, and scheme there way to a strong team. The Brewers are an odd duck, though. Their opening day payroll was $118.8 million, down from $131.9 in 2022, which had been a massive increase over 2021 ($99.3 million). They’re getting by with their smarts and playing in, perhaps, a weaker division — or, at least, a division that is slightly underperforming this year (go look at the Cardinals’ record!). In these ways, they’re where the Giants want to be, but the underlying numbers suggest that the gap isn’t all that wide and the Giants are very close to emulating the Brewers.
I think they have the potential to surprise the Brewers this weekend in this very specific way: it’s tough to field the hell out of the ball if there are a lot of home runs. The Brewers are just 19th in groundball rate (42%), the Giants are basically tied for 12th in MLB with a 38% flyball rate. The Rockies, who just swept the Brewers in Colorado, are just after the Giants with a rate of 37.2% flyballs. The Giants are third-best in baseball when it comes to their flyballs being home runs (18.4%).
Who: San Francisco Giants vs. Milwaukee Brewers
Where: Oracle Park, San Francisco, California
When: Friday (7:15pm PT), Saturday (4:15pm PT), Sunday (1:05pm PT)
National broadcasts: MLB Network simulcast (Sunday)
Friday: Sean Manaea vs. Corbin Burnes
Saturday: Alex Cobb vs. Colin Rea
Sunday: Ross Stripling vs. TBD
Where they stand
Record: 18-13, 2nd in NL Central
Run differential: +18, 5th in NL
Postseason standing: +1.5 games in Wild Card, 1.5 games out of the division
Momentum: 4-game losing streak; 3-7 in their last 10 games
Record: 13-17, 4th in NL West
Run differential: -18, 9th in the NL
Postseason standing: 3.0 games out of the Wild Card, 5.0 games out of the division
Momentum: 2-game winning streak; 6-4 in their last 10 games
Three Giants to watch
Alex Cobb: He pitched a shutout the last time he was in Oracle Park. The Brewers’ lineup has the 4th-highest groundball rate in baseball (47.1%). Alex Cobb is second in MLB — #1 in the NL — in inducing groundballs (60.8%). I’m not saying there’s going to be another shutout, just... watch his start, okay?
Michael Conforto: The largest free agent signing of the offseason (Joc Pederson’s qualifying offer aside) has had just one extra base hit (a double) in his last 12 games. In fact, going back to the series against the Mets, he’s 7-for45 (50 PA) with 4 walks against 17 strikeouts and a slash line of .156/.240/.178. The Giants will need him to get it going.
David Villar: There’s a nonzero chance he could be optioned down as soon as I hit publish on this post, but his defense has been so excellent that the Giants still might think twice, despite his season line of .145/.242/.325. If we go back to the Mets series like we did for Conforto, the situation is even more bleak: .074/.161/.185 (31 PA). The Brewers are 13th in the NL (25th in MLB) in K/9, and even their presumptive ace, Corbin Burnes, is down to a career-low 7.2 K/9 so if he helps him out there, he might need to make his adjustments in Triple-A.
Three Brewers to watch
Corbin Burnes: The Corbin Burnes saga will be an interesting one to watch come the August 1st trade deadline. He felt disrespected by the arbitration process, which is understandable given that it’s an adversarial system and the entire design of management versus labor is for management to demean labor in order to extract maximum value. After getting off to a rocky start (9.64 ERA / 7.11 FIP in his first 9.1 IP), Burnes has regained his Cy Young form: 24.1 IP in 4 starts, 21 K/6 BB, 1.85 ERA, 3.04 FIP. Most impressive was eight shutout innings in Arizona along with 8K and zero walks on April 11. He’s 3-1 with a 2.25 EA in 40 IP against the Giants with six walks against 57 strikeouts. If the Giants can get to him, it means the lineup is starting to click.
William Contreras: I mentioned his defense in the intro, but offensively, he’s one to watch. He looks to be a beneficiary of the shift limitations, as his .388 slugging percentage doesn’t scare; but, he has 24 hits in 97 PA and 12 walks against 17 strikeouts. His 90.2 mph average exit velocity is in the top 100 of MLB. A lot of hard groundballs. Will be a great test for the Crawford-less infield.
Christian Yelich: There was a time when everybody wanted Yelich and then his star seemed to fade. Indeed, his career OPS+ from 2013-2019 was 137. Since: 106. His Statcast numbers still show a lot of red in his age 31 season (a 51.9% Hard Hit rate that’s in the top 9% of the league) and he still has enough speed to get on base. He’s hit .297/.375/.498 in his career against the Giants (235 PA in 54 games) and has a career .899 OPS at Oracle Park (126 PA).
Giants vs. Brewers - How will it go?
This poll is closed
Giants win, 2-1
Brewers win, 2-1