It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that the National League is more competitive now than it has been in years. Over in the West, the Giants and Dodgers are in one of the greatest division races in recent memory. Over in the East, a series of implosions has created an intriguing 2 or 3-way race depending on who you ask. The second wild-card spot is a fight between San Diego, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. However, amid all the intrigue, Milwaukee has dominated the NL Central all year, and they’re doing it with a payroll of just 97 million.
The Dodgers have a payroll of 267.1 million dollars this year; they are currently sitting at an 85 and 49 record with what might be the most star-studded roster in baseball history. So far, Los Angeles has spent around 3.14 million dollars per win, far and away the most in baseball. Contrast that with the Brewers and their 97.5 million dollar payroll with a 82 and 53 record, they have only spent 1.17 million per win. This doesn’t mean that the Dodgers are poorly run; their desire to win at all costs is good for baseball. However, the Brew Crew’s uphill battle makes them one of the most root-able teams in the sport.
Milwaukee’s success starts where many of the great teams of history have started, with pitching, pitching, and more pitching. The best way to explain this is that most great teams have one or two elite pitchers, the Brewers have 4. The Yankees pretty much just have Gerrit Cole, the Mets have deGrom. Only the Dodgers seem to break this convention, and they have to pay most of it an arm and a leg.
The best of Milwaukee’s best comes with strikeout maestro Corbin Burnes. Looking purely at surface level stats, Burnes has been sensational, as he has posted a 2.27 ERA and 189 strikeouts so far. However, where Burnes shines is his mastery of the three true outcomes, he is the best as striking guys out on a rate basis with 12.2 Strikeouts per 9 innings. He’s the best at walk and home run suppression as well, as he leads in both categories with 1.7 BB/9 and 0.3 HR/9, all of this makes for a 1.58 FIP, better than Bob Gibson’s 1968, arguably the greatest pitching season of all time. Best of all, Milwaukee is only paying 608,000 for his services, a steal if there ever was one.
The next of Milwaukee’s aces, Freddy Peralta, has taken the idea of allowing runs being for suckers and decided that allowing hits is for suckers. The kicker is that Freddy Peralta throws four pitches, the xBA for them all is under the Mendoza line. Leading Cy Young candidate Zack Wheeler doesn’t do that, nor does Gerrit Cole. Peralta generates bad contact better than almost anybody, and he does it for just 1 million dollars. The final ace of Milwaukee’s rotation, Brandon Woodruff, just does a bit of everything. He strikes out a respectable 10.6 per nine, he’s also among the elite at inducing weak contact. Despite not being the best at anything like Peralta or Burnes, he still gets the job done. An ERA of 2.35 and a WHIP of 0.941 are proof enough. He does all this for just 3.275 million.
No pitching staff would be complete without an elite closer, and Milwaukee certainly has that with Josh Hader, and it turns out that Hader is pretty much just good at everything. He strikes out an absurd 45 percent of batters faced; he has one of the most dominant fastballs ever with an xSLG of .238, these are video game numbers. I’m not even sure Josh Hader is human with how good these numbers are.
Of course, no team can be successful without a good offense. Milwaukee is no exception, as they have a more than respectable offensive unit. Following his spectacular 2019, the expectation is for Christian Yelich to be the focal point of the offense, he hasn’t done that, and Milwaukee has still been good regardless. After a midseason trade, Willy Adames has become that focal point, and considering how little Milwaukee gave up, they got the new production without losing any of the old. As for Adames himself, he’s been fantastic with an OPS above .900, elite production by any measure, especially for league minimum salary.
Among the supporting cast is a historically great defender in Kolten Wong. The difference for him this year is an unusually good hitting season by his standards, as his 112 OPS+ is his best. Rounding out the supporting cast are a lot of above-average, low-cost players like Omar Narvaez, Luis Urias, and Avisail Garcia. This is a true small market supporting cast, not the All-Star laden Dodger lineup where guys like Justin Turner and Corey Seager are some of the “worst” in the lineup.
The Milwaukee Brewers, in historical context, are a lot like the 2002 Moneyball Oakland Athletics in their focus on pitching, defense, and underrated hitters. That Athletics team couldn’t beat the high-budget Yankee machine, nor did they ever have much of a chance. We can only hope that Milwaukee can break through 267.1 million dollars of pure talent, but until then, it’s Milwaukee vs. Big Money.