Sunday, April 13, 2014

Great Eight: Eight Thoughts on the Brewers Eight Game Winning Streak

Eight and Counting
We are officially in full swing for the start of the 2014 baseball season. And what a start it’s been. After a fantastic Opening Day experience (party scene, weather, win) followed by a slight hiccup to finish the home series, the Crew decided to show their big hands early and rattle off eight wins in a row. These wins aren’t just any run of the mill fluky hot start either. The Brewers run differential (the best indicator of record legitimacy) to begin the season is a scorching +25. To put that in perspective, only four other teams have a positive run differential of double digits, with the National coming closest at +18. This essentially means that the Brewers aren’t just sneaking by with 1 run victories that could have gone either way if the ball had taken a different bounce. The Brewers have been laying the beat down on teams from bell to bell, blowing out Philly twice, showing inning to inning grit against Pittsburgh and even coming back in extras against Boston. This early into the season the Brewers are showing they can win in all sorts of manners subequently laying claim to the title of contenders. In other words, this team looks legit, son.

To celebrate the hot start and the current eight game winning streak, here are my eight favorite things about the start of the Brewer's 2014 campaign.

1. Yovani Gallardo’s Beard
Truly a thing of beauty. Long, patchy and glorious. It must be truly jarring for a batter to concentrate on making solid contact when they look out to the mound and see that thing protruding at them with such defiance and whimsy. It lets hitters know to expect the unexpected.  That somewhere behind the gaggle of facial hair lies a cold blooded killer whose sole intention is to strike you the F out, only your so busy admiring the craftsmanship and testicular fortitude that it takes to cultivate something like that, that you forgot to swing. Gallardo proves his versatility by showing that he is willing to try something new after his gigantic crop of hair failed him last year. If it first you don’t succeed try try again. Well, Yo the beard is definitely working – so don’t change a thing you beautiful, hairy, son of a bitch.

Wonderful unintended consequence – Yo’s beard makes him look exactly like a cross between a young Fidel Castro and former WWE superstar the Giant Gonzalez. Yes, these are things I’m thinking about when I watch Brewer games.

Close runner up for early season aesthetics award – Mark Reynolds shoelaces.

2. First Base Platoon
Speaking of Mark Reynolds, things at first base have gone pretty much exactly how I figured they would. I was ecstatic when The Authority made the correct decision this spring in dropping the utterly worthless Juan Francisco and sticking with both non-roster invites Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay. Despite the opening series platoon, The Crew has ridden Reynolds strong play are seemingly embracing him as more of an everyday first baseman rather than a platoon. To me, this is where we are headed all along anyway. It makes sense that the guy whose seven years younger and has averaged 33 home runs per season over his career should be playing close to every day. The thing that has sealed the deal in my opinion is that Reynolds has flashed above average defense at first base (which had been Overbay’s only real advantage going into the year) and also shown the ability to draw walks (5 in 35 plate appearances) in between home runs (3) and strikeouts (13). Don’t get me wrong, I think Overbay makes a nice bat off the bench and will continue to draw the occasional start against the tough righties, but the Brewers are certainly making the right decision by playing Reynolds almost exclusively.

3. Second Base Platoon
Well, it appears the impossible could actually happen and RJ Gennett just might beat me into submission. Despite all the numbers pointing to Gennett having a huge dropoff in production from last years seemingly unsustainable BABIP and subsequent high batting average, RJ just might be regression proof. Everything that I have been saying for months still applies: he doesn’t walk (1 in 29 PA) he doesn’t have great speed, and he has no power. But he consistently makes contact with the baseball and for whatever reason his balls seem to always find the holes (insert your own sexual innuendo). Just yesterday, Gennett swung late and made terrible contact with an outside fastball and what happened, the ball went bounding down the third base line against a slight shift for key base hit. This after a Philly series that saw him drop three Texas League duck farts into the outfield in one game, one for a hit and two for outs on incredible defensive plays. Maybe this guys eats four leaf clovers for breakfast everyday or maybe he visited the same soul reaver that Kurt Warner went to in 1999. Whatever it is, the luck does not seem ready to run out anytime soon.

Poor Rickie on the other hand falls on the opposite spectrum. He was booed at home opening day after hitting into a pinch-hit double play. He has drawn his only starts against League aces, John Lester, Cliff Lee and Francisco Liriano to limited success. And when he crushed a late inning shot yesterday that should have gone for a sacrifice fly and the go ahead run, Khris Davis made a blatant base running error that not only cost Weeks an at bat, an RBI and the hero of the game, but also delayed (an eventual) Brewers victory.

However, despite all of luck and un-luck as well as my continued push that Weeks has been historically underrated by Brewers fans, the straight platoon seems to be exactly what the Brewers need right now. With the rest of the team playing so well, the only real need out of second base at this time, is solid defense and some occasional hits. And admittedly, RJ provides these needs at a slightly more efficient rate, especially with Rickie’s hamstrings all but taking away the entirely the speed aspect of his game. The other positive though, is that with both Rickie and Overbay on the bench in most cases, it does give Roenicke a veteran power bat from each side of the plate to use at his disposal. Don’t underrate what this can mean as the games become closer and more meaningful later this season. As for RJ Gennett, as long as he keeps finding the holes and chomping on that giant wad of gum like a pitbull on a chain, he might just win me over.

4. Braun beginning his FU North American Tour
We all know what happened on Opening Day in Milwaukee when the Brewers prodigal son returned to baseball after his 50 game PED ban. But after the hometown fans got down with their FU to the National Media, Braun began his FU campaign to the rest of the league. After struggling in Boston with an injured thumb, the trainers found the right combination of padding and he entered the unfriendly confines of Philadelphia with a vendetta. Whilst getting hammered by the Phillies fans worst, Braun went 6 for 12 with 10 RBI, 5 Runs, and a 3 Homer game. My favorite play happened to come in the form of an RBI triple directly amongst the shrieking of two awful harpies behind home plate. With the taunts still ringing in his ears, Braun gave the Philly fans a little FU on third base like only Braun can.

The other part I loved about Philadelphia and Braun (other than the sweep) was how fans were giving him the full business every time he came up to the plate and how Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, also suspended 25 games last year for his own PED use, was standing right next to him every time. I just assumed that all the "steroid" and "cheater" chants were actually directed at Ruiz, because according to the National media, that is how home fans should treattheir own players who were caught using banned substances. Right?

5. The Bullpen
Teams that win a lot of games inevitably have solid bullpens. This is why the Braves make the playoffs almost every season, they always have solid bullpens. Right now that Brewers on the verge of having the strongest bullpen in team history. I was one of the few people this offseason who considered the Nori Aokie for Will Smith a good deal for the Brewers. With the outfield depth for Milwaukee and the pristine numbers that Smith put up with Royals when they took him out of the rotation and put him in relief, it seemed like a proper fit for the puzzle The Authority was building for. And boy is that puzzle coming together. Not only has Smith been lights out with is filthy stuff from the left side of the mound but the entire bullpen sans Zach Duke (Duke is like that middle puzzle piece that is part of a giant blue sky scene that looks exactly like every other piece yet just doesn’t fit anywhere) is rolling:

Jim Henderson
Brandon Kintzler
Frankie Rodriguez
Will Smith
Tyler Thornburg

So even though the Architect, Tyler Thornburg has looked arguably the best of all of them with shades of future closer written all over him, he still gets the short end of the stick for being the only one to give up a run this year. Not bad.

The other fantastic thing to note is that not only have these guys not given up runs or even many hits, but look at the strikeout numbers. Everyone other than Kintzler has shown the ability to whiff any given batter at any given time. Exactly what you’re looking for out of a relief pitcher. And K-rod is most certainly living up to his moniker thus far with 11K’s in only six innings. Hell, at this point you might as well “K-if-aye” the entire bullpen: K-Rod, K-Hend, K-Will, K-Bran and K-Thorn (and if he ever pulls it together, the magnificent Dukie-K). Anyway, I don’t see these guys dropping off anytime soon, so continue to expect big things to come from this group going forward.

6. Khris Davis is good! Khris Davis is good!
I’ll be honest with you. This was one of my biggest worries going into the year. I was terrified that after trading Aoki, moving Braun to right field and fully committing to a guy who had only a few strong weeks in the Majors under low pressure circumstance that we might be in for a bad case of Fiersitis (when the aforementioned circumstances from an unproven players lead to major regression the next season, as in the case of the infamous AAAA pitcher Mike Fiers in 2013). But after a slow start at home, Davis has proven so far in 2014 that the second half of last year was no fluke. He ranks second and third on the team respectively with 5 doubles and 12 hits in 43 at bats thus far. He’s also shown decent glovework in left and even made a couple of highlight real plays of his own.

Davis still needs to learn some plate discipline. He has yet to draw a walk and he leads the team in strikeouts with 14 (which is a pretty big accomplishment on a team with Mark Reynolds). But he has certainly not come close to busting yet. His power potential and above average speed will keep him as an important part of the lineup as long as he continues to hit at a reasonable rate. So far, so good.

7. The Matt Garza signing has FIRED UP the Brewers pitching staff
By bringing Matt Garza to the team this offseason, not only did the Brewers get a top shelf starter, but it revamped the entire attitude of the pitching staff. Last year, Lohse had joined the team so late into spring that he may not have had enough time to really gel and establish leadership with a new team. Yovani, being always soft spoken anyway, had his own troubles with the law and injuries last year that also cut into the leadership aspect of the rotation. But with Garza, described everywhere he’s been as  a “fiery competitor” seems to have provided the spark that the pitchers were so desperately missing. Lohse and Garza who both had great success elsewhere in the League, have bonded and brought the winning formulas from past experience to the Brewers. Whether it is Lohse  introduction of the “Cardinal Way” (yeah it sucks, but its effective) of making all of the other starters attend each other’s bullpen sessions in a sort of peer coaching sessions, Garza’s fire and clubhouse pranks, or awesome stories like this, the rotation looks close and confident and the reults have backed it up: no starter has given up over 3 runs in a start this year. Serial-Killer-Yovani Gallardo is definitely back after a year (2013) spent at the bottom of Crystal Lake and iffy 5th starter Wiley Peralta is pitching with more confidence than Brewer fans have witnessed in his young career.

For all those that complained about the biggest free agent contract in Brewers history going to Garza this year, remember that bringing in a player with the right intangibles can do more for your team than just lower it’s ERA. It can be the missing ingredient to a formula that help builds the perfect team chemistry and that, in the words of American Express, is priceless.

8. Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucccccccc!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And in closing I’ll add a ninth tidbit for good karma in today’s game (nine in a row, anyone?). The ninth point is this: I just went through my eight favorite things to start the Brewers season without even mentioning Carlos Gomez or Aramis Ramirez, to this point, the two best players on the team. And if the two hottest players on the team can’t make the top eight things to get excited about that could be a good indication that we may be in for a fun ride this. Buckle up .