Explaining MLB’s unlikeliest first-place team

July 22nd, 2023

The Braves and the Rangers had the two biggest division leads in baseball entering Friday. This makes sense: These are two of baseball’s best teams, playing in divisions where their competitors have been oddly disappointing -- of course they have big leads.

But do you know who had the third-largest division lead in baseball entering the weekend? It was the Brewers! Even the oxygen in the Brewers’ own division, the one they led by 2 1/2 games entering Friday, has been taken up by the excitement of the young Elly De La Cruz-led Cincinnati Reds and the mystifying performance of the preseason division favorite, the Cardinals.

It's the Brewers, though, who run this division. According to FanGraphs, they have the third-best playoff odds in the National League, with a 71.7 percent chance of winning their division. (That’s higher than any team in baseball other than the Braves.) The Brewers, quietly, even confusingly, just keep winning. Even though they, like every other team in their division other than the Cubs, for some reason, have been outscored by their opponents.

How are the Brewers doing this? What have they figured out that the rest of the NL Central hasn’t? Here’s why the Brewers are poised, against all odds, to win this division ... and maybe finally have that playoff breakthrough they’ve been waiting for.

1. Don’t overcomplicate it: It’s Craig Counsell
Everything the Brewers do this year, and have done for several years now, has to stop and start with Counsell, who has established himself as one of the most reliable, innovative and downright substantial managers in baseball. It’s easy to forget -- because Counsell has been here for a while (he’s the longest-tenured manager in the NL and the third-longest tenured, behind Terry Francona and Kevin Cash, in all of baseball) -- just how lousy the Brewers were before he got here. Counsell had only been retired as a player for three years when Milwaukee hired him as its interim manager after firing Ron Roenicke, and the Brewers, after a fourth-place finish in 2016, have been good every year since. (Their only losing season was the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, and they still ended up making the playoffs that year.)

Counsell has dealt with constant turnover upon arriving, and he has navigated it with calm and competence. So much has gone sideways for so many teams this year, and the Brewers are no different. But they have Counsell. So it all feels part of the natural course of things, and thus they’ll be fine. Counsell is as steady as they come. The Brewers trust him, and thus so do you.

2.  is looking like Christian Yelich again
It’s not quite MVP-level Christian Yelich: We’re not getting that guy back again. But this current version is the best we’ve seen since, and easily the best position player on this team, once again. His three-run homer Thursday against the Phillies marked the culmination of quite a hot streak from him, and his offensive numbers at last look All-Star-worthy again. His .856 OPS is the highest since his second-place NL MVP finish of 2019, and it’s actually above his overall numbers in Miami. He’s hitting for power -- he already has as many homers as he did last year -- and he’s stealing bases at a clip that should eclipse his career high. Perhaps most important: He’s getting on base, at a .376 clip that, while not MVP-worthy, is certainly what the Brewers had in mind when they signed him to that big contract extension. The Brewers' lineup has a whole bunch of holes in it, but Yelich is looking like the star they’ve been counting on.

3. The bullpen, again
As surprising as the Josh Hader trade was at last year's Trade Deadline, you could understand, at least theoretically, what the Brewers had in mind. They had Devin Williams to replace Hader, they had a bunch of other arms coming up in the system, and hey, they’re the Brewers: They usually figure this out. That trade may have been disastrous for the 2022 season, but the bullpen looks very Brewers in 2023. Williams has been incredible, again -- you sometimes wonder how anyone ever hits that changeup, it’s almost unfair -- but he’s got plenty of company, from Hoby Milner to Bryse Wilson to Elvis Peguero to Joel Payamps, who has nearly matched Williams’ numbers. It used to be that if you were behind the Brewers heading into the seventh, you felt cooked. It feels like that again.

4. They held down the fort until got going
One of the most surprising aspects of the Brewers’ success so far this year is that Burnes, their Cy Young winner, hadn’t been that great. He gave up a total of 10 runs in his first two starts of the season and had a 4.10 ERA as recently as June 30. That has turned around, and fast. He has won all four of his starts in July, giving up just four earned runs in 27 innings, striking out 36 batters. He sure looks like the ace again, moving forward.

The rotation hasn’t been impeccable, but Freddy Peralta, Adrian Houser, Julio Teheran (of all people) and (before he got hurt) Wade Miley have kept the Brewers’ heads above water. This is a reason to be encouraged about the Brewers moving forward: Burnes is back and, after missing all of the season other than just two starts, Brandon Woodruff is about to return, too.

5. Some "help" from the division
Let’s face it: The NL Central is not filled with juggernauts. If the Brewers were in the NL East, they’d be nine games out. There’s only one other team in the division over .500 -- the Reds, and they just lost seven of nine, including three to the Brewers. That's another reason the Brewers are in first. But you only play the teams on your schedule, and you’re only judged against other teams in your division.

One team was going to take advantage, and that team is the Brewers. With their rotation coming together, and a resourceful front office with clear holes to fill, the Brewers look to get better, not worse. It was a wobbly first half for them. But here they are. When you see them in October -- in a potentially very advantageous place -- don’t be surprised. They’re not going anywhere.