MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Milwaukee Brewers

It’s simple. The Brewers have the best record in baseball for three very obvious reasons, unrelated to the fact that we’re 12 games into the season.

1) The Bullpen is untouchable.

How good has the Brewers bullpen been so far? As a group, they’ve allowed three runs. One home run, total. Milwaukee’s relief corps has thus far walked just eight batters, compared to 43 strikeouts. That’s good!

Jim Henderson, Francisco Rodriguez, Tyler Thornburg, and Will Smith have produced wonderfully at the back of the ‘pen. Considering the relatively low workload thanks to the great superlative starters.

The less a team calls on their bullpen, the better. Low bullpen workload is a sign they’re getting great starting pitching. If you’re bullpen is one of the least taxed in baseball and puts up some of the best numbers when they are called upon, it’s probably a good thing for your win/loss record.

2) Those starters

Do the Brewers have an ace? I don’t know that they do. They have a nice #2 starter in Yovani Gallardo, two mid-rotation options in Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza and two decent backend guys in Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta.

This collection of arms already claims nine quality starts to their collective name. In my mind they resemble a similar rotation to the one the Cincinnati Reds rode to the playoffs twice in the last three years – no true ace but a nice mix of guys capable of pitching six good innings on a given night.

Having only made two starts apiece in 2014, it is impossible to say if this rotation will continue pitching like the best group in the league, though informed guesses suggest otherwise.

3) Strength up the middle

Did you know Carlos Gomez was a superstar? It’s true, he really is. As Jay Jaffe lays out at SI, Gomez’s breakout puts him into some pretty elite company. His speed, defense, and power from the center field position fuel a well-oiled Brewers offensive machine that already features Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez.

Jonathan Lucroy has the reputation as one of the best defensive catchers in the game thanks to his superlative pitch framing skills. But make no mistake, Lucroy isn’t just another catch-and-throw guy hiding at the bottom of the order. Since the start of the 2012 season, Lucroy owns a 127 wRC+, better than Mike Napoli and ranking him fourth among catchers with 900 plate appearances or more.

Napoli no longer catches and is paid to smack the baseball. Lucroy is a craftsman behind the plate who also happens to be a terrific hitter in his own right. With Lucroy coaxing extra strikes out of the pitching staff while holding down a middle of the order offensive role, the Brewers are off to the races.

Maybe Milwaukee can’t keep this run of great play going. Injuries have undone plenty of great teams and this version of the Brew Crew has no shortage of risks. The great early returns do not reveal the future, but they show just how much talent the Brewers have on hand. This could be a scary team for the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds to contend with all summer long.

Building a better shift

The Yankees are a baseball team, meaning the Yankees deploy aggressive infield shifts against known pull hitters. Like most normal people, pitchers hate when shifted infielders miss balls that they would easily field from their standard defensive spot.

CC Sabathia was victimized on Friday night after a David Ortiz check swing rolled unmolested directly into the path of the Yankees third baseman — in a parallel universe in which the Yankees play Ortiz straight up. Sabathia exhibited uncommon frankness post-game, admitting he was “rattled” after Ortiz’s cheap hit.

When the Yankees built their defense on Saturday, they moved things around slightly. Rather than sending the third baseman (or shortstop) to the hole between second and third, they placed a defender all but directly on top of third base.

yankees shift nava

Baseball Prospectus recently began tracking bunts against the shift, a seemingly foolproof plan provided the batter can get a good bunt down. This added wrinkle, standing a defender on the third base, seems like the next step in the cat and mouse mind game that is the shift. More for batters to think about, thereby playing right into the hands of the defense. I think.

Pitcher bombs

On Friday night, Madison Bumgarner did this. It was, in a word, amazing.

A pitcher hit a grand slam! That’s crazy and weird, right? That almost never happens, I assume. Turns out it is not that uncommon. There have been 18 pitcher grand slams since the advent of interleague play, which is 15 more than I expected.

Yr# Date Batter Tm Opp Pitcher Score Inn Out Pit(cnt)
1 1995-05-29 Chris Hammond FLA HOU Shane Reynolds down 2-0 b2 1 3 (1-1)
2 1995-06-27 Denny Neagle PIT @CHC Jim Bullinger tied 2-2 t6 2
3 1995-08-25 Jeff Juden PHI LAD John Cummings ahead 2-10 b4 2 5 (2-2)
4 1996-09-07 Donovan Osborne STL SDP Andy Ashby tied 1-1 b5 1
5 1998-07-20 Kevin Tapani CHC @ATL Denny Neagle ahead 0-1 t3 2 3 (1-1)
6 1998-09-02 Kent Mercker STL @FLA Jesus Sanchez ahead 0-3 t4 0 3 (1-1)
7 2000-05-24 Shawn Estes SFG MON Mike Johnson ahead 0-7 b5 2 1 (0-0)
8 2001-09-29 Denny Neagle COL MIL Jimmy Haynes ahead 6-9 b4 2 2 (0-1)
9 2002-06-02 Robert Person PHI MON Bruce Chen ahead 0-3 b1 2 2 (1-0)
10 2006-07-07 Dontrelle Willis FLA @NYM Jose Lima ahead 0-3 t4 0 1 (0-0)
11 2008-06-23 Felix Hernandez SEA @NYM Johan Santana tied 0-0 t2 2 1 (0-0)
12 2008-09-22 Jason Marquis CHC @NYM Jon Niese tied 2-2 t4 0 1 (0-0)
13 2009-10-01 Chris Carpenter STL @CIN Kip Wells ahead 0-1 t2 1 1 (0-0)
14 2010-05-21 Brad Penny STL LAA Joel Pineiro tied 4-4 b3 2 1 (0-0)
15 2011-07-04 Shaun Marcum MIL ARI Daniel Hudson ahead 1-2 b4 2 4 (0-2)
16 2011-08-31 Jake Westbrook STL @MIL Randy Wolf tied 2-2 t4 1 1 (0-0)
17 2013-05-30 Travis Wood CHC CHW Jake Peavy ahead 1-2 b4 0 4 (2-1)
18 2014-04-11 Madison Bumgarner SFG COL Jorge De La Rosa down 3-2 b4 2 1 (0-0)
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 4/13/2014.

Look at all those pitchers going deep! And so many (eight) on the first pitch. I suppose it makes sense: the pitcher doesn’t want to walk or screw around with his opposite number at the plate, and the non-traditional slugger just sits fastball and swings from the heels.

Two important notes: Robert Person also hit a three-run homer and just missed a second grand slam during the same game as his tetra-tot, hooking one just foul in another at bat with the sacks juiced.

Felix Hernandez is the only pitcher on that list who hit his grand slam as a member of an AL club. A grand slam he launched off Johan Santana to the opposite field!!! The king stay the king.

Run Billy run (to the bottom of the order)

Billy Hamilton is a very exciting baseball player. He runs like few others in the game right now. He tags up and scores key runs on shallow pop flies and provides game-breaking speed when he gets on base.

The problem is…he can’t really hit. At all. Not so far this year and barely at all last year in triple-A. This was the knock on him as he got closer to the majors, scouts feared his bat just wasn’t up to the task.

This lack of offensive output hasn’t stopped the Reds from sticking at the top of their lineup every time he starts, which is pretty much the silliest thing they could possibly do.

Much was made this week about moving Joey Votto, the Reds best player and the best hitter in the National League, into the number two spot in the batting order. Quibble with Votto’s approach as many fans might do, there is little question that he’s almost an ideal number two hitter (if hitting him cleanup is not your cup of tea.)

Moving Votto to #2 is fine but what on Earth is Hamilton still doing at the top of the order? If ever there was a guy built to hit 8th for an NL club, it’s Hamilton. Accept all those free passes he gets with the pitcher batting behind him and let him run wild during an essentially useless plate appearance (previously mentioned grand slamming company excepted.)

If the Reds offense needs a jumpstart (they rank 26th in runs scored so let’s say they do), moving Hamilton out of the leadoff spot is the first step to take. Hit Votto up top if you must, just get Hamilton’s meagre bat fewer at bats, not more.