By Murray Chass

July 3, 2014

With the best record in the majors and the biggest improvement over a year ago, the Milwaukee Brewers look pretty good as the major leagues head into the second half of the season.

However, before the Brewers get too cocky and look too far ahead, they might want to look back at last year and see what happened to the team that had the best record after each team had played 81 games, half of its schedule.Brewers 2014 Win 225

That team was the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates, who emerged from a record 20 consecutive losing seasons and shocked the National League and everyone else by compiling a 51-30 record halfway through the season.

The Pirates didn’t play badly in the second half, but their 43-38 record wasn’t good enough to prevent St. Louis from winning the N.L. Central title. The Cardinals, not the Pirates, wound up in the World Series, where they lost to Boston.

This, on the other hand, is a new season, and the Brewers a new team. They are a mix of established and young players and pitchers, accumulated by General Manager Doug Melvin in a variety of all ways available to him.

Melvin, in his 12 years at the head of the Brewers’ baseball operations:

  • drafted right fielder Ryan Braun, second baseman Scooter Gennett, left fielder Khris Davis, catcher Jonathan Lucroy and starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo (“We were told we had a weak farm system,” Melvin said.)
  • traded for shortstop Jean Segura, center fielder Carlos Gomez and reliever Will Smith
  • claimed starting pitcher Marco Estrada on waivers
  • signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez, closer Francisco Rodriguez, first basemen Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay and starters Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse and Wily Peralta as free agents.

“We’re good up the middle, and we have steady starting pitching,” Melvin said by telephone from Toronto Wednesday. “We thought we had a good team. We’ve won some close games. If your star players are playing well, that’s a difference maker and our star players are playing well.”

The Brewers have the second best offense in the National League with many contributors.

Lucroy (.331), Gennett (.311) and Gomez (.306) are among the league’s top 10 hitters, five players have hit more than 10 home runs and five have driven in 40 or more runs.

This past off season Melvin added Garza to the starting rotation, Reynolds and Overbay to first base and designated hitter and Rodriguez and Smith to the bullpen. Smith was the only one of the group whom he didn’t sign as a free agent. The general manager acquired him in a trade with Kansas City for outfielder Norichika Aoki.

Doug Melvin2 225Melvin said he considered that transaction the best he made all winter.

“I consider that a 2-for-1 deal,” Melvin said. “We traded Aoki to Kansas City, and people asked how could we trade him; he’s our leadoff hitter.

We got two players back, one a left-handed reliever. We never had a left-hander like that.”

The second player Melvin referred to was one of the Brewers’ own, the rookie outfielder Davis. “We inserted Davis in Aoki’s place,” Melvin said. “If Aoki was here we’d still be looking for a left-handed reliever.”

Last season Aoki batted .288 with 8 home runs and 37 runs batted in for the Brewers in 155 games. In 78 games this season, Davis is hitting .260 with 14 homers and 44 r.b.i.

The rookie is one of those responsible for the Brewers’ impressive improvement. Here is how the Brewers fared in the first half of the season compared with the other 29 teams (as broken down by divisions:

Chart2 (2014-07-03)

The Brewers’ first-half success is welcomed by those of us who have not become wild-eyed fans of analytics. Melvin doesn’t disdain new-fangled statistics, but he keeps them in perspective.

“I use certain numbers,” he said without identifying them. “We use them internally. We don’t advertise them. Some are useful, some aren’t.”

Melvin said he doesn’t use them for minor leaguers. “The minor leagues are for development,” he said. “You can’t analyze players in the minor leagues. You develop players and until they get through the teaching process it’s hard to analyze the numbers. The minor league numbers don’t always relate to major league success.”

One of the reasons minor leaguers can’t be judged on the new statistics, Melvin said, is the intangibles. “Who are the players willing to take instruction,” he asked, citing one intangible that can’t be determined by a sabermetric formula. Á lot of players have early success but don’t develop,” he said.

Melvin also said new statistics can be costly to teams that live by them. He cited the Boston Red Sox signing of Carl Crawford as an example. The Red Sox gave Crawford $142 million “because he had a 6 ½ WAR number,” then couldn’t wait to trade him.

“There’s a spot for analytics,” he said. “You can put a certain percentage of weight on them. But some of the analytics have a high cost.”

Putting my view in perspective, Melvin said, “A scout once said ‘I may not be educated but my eyes are.’”

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