Previewing the 2021 Milwaukee Brewers

2021 Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers will be neither the best nor the worst team in MLB this season, but they may be the most entertaining. The best highlight clips are acrobatic defensive plays and jaw-dropping pitch gifs. Given their rededication to team defense and perpetually stellar bullpen, the 2021 Milwaukee Brewers might be MLB’s version of the AND1 Mixtape Tour.

Offseason Review

Following a 29-31 finish in 2020, there were no flashy, big-ticket free-agent signings. However, they did make a few clever acquisitions to bolster their defense. Kolten Wong, generally regarded as the slickest second baseman in MLB, signed a two-year deal. With a pair of Gold Gloves on his mantle, he’ll push Keston Hiura over to first base. At the plate, he doesn’t offer much pop, but his .356 OBP since 2017 makes him a serviceable leadoff hitter.

Outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. joined the club in early March on a two-year deal with spring training already underway. He’ll primarily man right field, flanking Lorenzo Cain, even though he’s a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder in his own right. He posted career highs in batting average (.283) and OBP (.364) last season and smashed 84 home runs over the last five years, but he’s primarily going to bat in the bottom third of the lineup.

That’s… pretty much it! Travis Shaw returns to cover third base, but honestly, did he ever really leave? Ryan Braun’s loss will be felt more emotionally than on the field. Other than losing Alex Claudio, the pitching staff remains virtually identical to the 2020 version.

Lingering Questions

Christian Yelich Rebound

In 2018, Christian Yelich won the NL MVP, then finished runner-up in 2019. In 2020, his production fell off a cliff. After two consecutive batting titles, he limped to a .205 mark. There’s no one else to carry the batting order besides him, so which version of him is the real thing?

There was nothing wrong with the way he hit the ball when he made contact. He set career highs in average exit velocity, 94.0 mph, and hard-hit rate, 55.6%. His xwOBAcon, short for expected wOBA on contact, was a stellar .486, just a smidge lower than his 2018 and 2019 marks. He also achieved a personal best 18.6% walk rate— but that may actually be indicative of the problem. 

Tagging along with those walks was a whopping 30.8% strikeout rate, which was more than ten points worse than the previous two years. Clearly, he was trying to work deeper counts instead of gripping-and-ripping when he saw a pitch he liked. In 2019, he put the ball in play on the first pitch 61 times out of 580 plate appearances, hitting .328 with eight home runs. In 2020, he only connected on the first pitch nine times in 247 trips. If he reverts back to his more aggressive approach, he should regain his status as one of the best players in the sport.

The Rest of the Offense

Unless there’s a spare Francisco Lindor or Mookie Betts lying around, the club’s emphasis on defense comes at a cost. Bradley and Wong will be beloved by the pitching staff, but they’re not middle-of-the-order bats by any definition. 

Cain is always welcome batting first or second thanks to his great on-base and baserunning acumens, but he’s about to turn 35. Hiura and Shaw could blossom into power contributors in the rosiest projections. They could even wish upon a star for Omar Narváez to rediscover his stroke. However, the odds of all these players achieving their best possible scenarios are longer than a Miller Park bratwurst.

Devin Williams Repeat Performance

Devin Williams’ numbers last season were too surreal to be fiction. In 27 innings he allowed eight hits, one home run, and struck out 53 of 100 batters faced. Setting aside all the usual 2020 caveats, it was the single greatest season by a relief pitcher in MLB history. Deservingly, it culminated in the NL Rookie of the Year Award. His 53% strikeout rate set a single-season record by a qualified reliever, joining 2014 Aroldis Chapman 52.5% and 2012 Craig Kimbrel 50.2% as the third pitcher to ever strike out more than half of his opponents.

Such an unprecedented level of success is probably not repeatable. It’s simply an unrealistic bar. Be that as it may, his Airbender changeup-screwball hybrid, which we should really call a screwup, is just as unhittable as ever. He should remain one of the elite bullpen aces in MLB, even if he can’t maintain peak Kimbrel levels over the long hall.

Projected Regulars

Much of the offense rests on the shoulders of the 3-4-5 hitters. Hiura and Shaw are keys to the success of the lineup as a whole.

Lineup

  1. 2B Kolten Wong, L
  2. CF Lorenzo Cain, R
  3. LF Christian Yelich, L
  4. 1B Keston Hiura, R
  5. 3B Travis Shaw, L
  6. CF Jackie Bradley, Jr., L
  7. C Omar Narváez, L
  8. SS Orlando Arcia, R

Rotation

Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are straight-up aces. They stack up just fine against any other team’s front two starters. In fact, they may be the best 1-2 punch in the dim pitching history of the franchise. The problem is that ballclubs really need to go at least seven starters deep these days, and after the two stallions, the pack thins out considerably. Freddy Peralta was outstanding as a multi-inning reliever last year and gets the chance to start in 2021.

  1. RHP Corbin Burnes
  2. RHP Brandon Woodruff
  3. LHP Brett Anderson
  4. RHP Freddy Peralta
  5. RHP Adrian Houser

Bullpen

The relief corps is the club’s greatest strength. Williams is in a class by himself, while Josh Hader locks down the closer role, compiling an unreal 15.3 K/9 and 0.858 WHIP over his four-year career. Beyond those two, they have several other promising arms to help bridge the gap. Josh Lindblom also serves as their sixth starter in the event of injury or ineffectiveness.

  • LHP Josh Hader
  • RHP Devin Williams
  • RHP Josh Lindblom
  • LHP Brent Suter
  • RHP Justin Topa
  • RHP Drew Rasmussen
  • RHP Eric Yardley
  • RHP J.P. Freyereison

Big Picture

The NL Central is the weakest division in MLB, but it’s also the tightest. Other than the Pittsburgh Pirates, any team could reasonably land in first place. FanGraphs projects the Brewers as the most likely team to take the division crown, albeit with an 82-80 record. Including the Wild Card, they have a 40.4% chance of reaching the postseason. Two-out-of-five playoff odds don’t exactly make them the 1927 Yankees, or even the 2019 Dodgers, make at least it should create an exciting stretch run. Failing that, there will still be plenty of awesome defensive highlights and Devin Williams gifs.

Main Photo:
Embed from Getty Images

Players mentioned:
Kolten Wong, Keston Hiura, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Lorenzo Cain, Travis Shaw, Ryan Braun, Alex Claudio, Christian Yelich, Francisco Lindor, Mookie BettsOmar Narváez, Devin Williams, Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, Orlando Arcia, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodranduff, Freddy Peralta, Brett Anderson, Adrian Houser, Josh Hader, Josh Lindblom, Brent Suter, Justin Topa, Drew Rasmussen, Eric Yardley, J.P. Freyereison


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