TORONTO -- As the Milwaukee Brewers piled up wins during a stretch of 20 games in as many days that ended on Sunday, a question started to circulate around Miller Park.
Is this the best Brewers team ever? Measured purely by wins and losses -- 51-33, the best 84-game start in franchise history, and currently the most wins in the Major Leagues with the Oakland A's -- the answer is yes. But by most other measures, the answer is a clear no.
Of the 46 seasons in franchise history, this one currently ranks 19th with 4.56 runs per game, and 11th in fielding independent pitching. Statistically and sentimentally in Milwaukee, Brewers teams from 1978-82 were stronger.
So the question moves to more recent history. How does this team compare to the Brewers of 2011? That club featured Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder leading the lineup, with Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo atop the rotation and John Axford setting records at the back end of the bullpen, and it set a franchise record with 96 wins and played to within two postseason victories of the World Series.
Braun, the left fielder in 2011 and the right fielder this season, ponders the comparison for a moment.
"This team has more depth than that team had," Braun said. "I think that's one of the biggest reasons we've been able to find a lot of unique ways to win games. We're not as dependent on a couple of guys as we were then. It seemed then it was a couple starting pitchers, a guy or two in the bullpen and a few guys in the lineup. Now, it's the depth that leads to our success.
"I think that's advantageous moving forward, because you're always going to have some guys going good, some going bad. When you have a lot of guys who have the ability to carry an offense, that's important. When you have five balanced starters, that's important."
Catcher Jonathan Lucroy also leaned toward the current club, especially its starting rotation. Offensively, he wasn't sure.
"I would be curious how we match up as a lineup now versus 2011," Lucroy said. "We had Prince [Fielder] then. Rickie [Weeks] was on fire. Braun was crazy that season. I would be curious how the numbers match up. I would think that 2011 team was better."
Or was it?
Start with the offense.
Brewers' hitting ranks in the NL
|Fifth||4.45||Runs per game||Second||4.56|
|First||1.14||Home runs per game||Second||1.05|
The 2014 team fares better in basic power numbers, but those were aided by the summer months at Miller Park, as Fielder & Co. pulled away from the rest of the National League Central. Through its first 84 games, the 2011 club's home runs per game (1.11) and slugging percentage (.417) were closer to the current Brewers.
"I think this year is better," said center fielder Carlos Gomez, one of the individual players, with Lucroy, who is undoubtedly better. In 2011, Gomez slipped into a platoon with high-energy newcomer Nyjer Morgan, and eventually saw his playing time diminish. In July 2011, Gomez fractured his left collarbone making a diving catch and was sidelined until September.
"When you look at the lineup this year, look from the leadoff to the eight," Gomez said. "We have Scooter [Gennett] swinging the bat good, Ryan, Lucroy, Aramis [Ramirez], me, Khris Davis. And then you see seven, eight -- Seggy [shortstop Jean Segura], [Mark] Reynolds. It's really scary."
Gomez's point about better balance is illustrated by the fact that Milwaukee is the only team in baseball with more than three players already with more than 40 RBIs. The Brewers have five: Braun (46), Gomez and Davis (44), Lucroy (42) and Ramirez (40). Compare that to 2011, Milwaukee had in star power in the middle of its order with Braun and Fielder, who finished first and third in NL Most Valuable Player Award balloting and accounted for exactly a third of the Brewers' RBIs.
This year, the team's top two have provided a quarter of the RBIs.
A similar case can be built about the balance of Milwaukee's current starting rotation.
"I think in 2011, there was a big difference between our No. 1 and our No. 5 starters," Braun said. "Now, I don't even know who our No. 1 is or our No. 5 is."
Here are the numbers:
Brewers' Pitching ranks in the NL
|Sixth||6.12||Innings per start||Fourth||6.28|
|Fourth||.249||Starters' average against||Fourth||.247|
|Fifth||3.62||Fielding independent pitching||13th||3.90|
The Brewers' current relief numbers are driven up a bit by seldom-used Rule 5 Draft pick Wei-Chung Wang, who has surrendered 19 earned runs in 15 innings, but overall, Milwaukee is pitching at a level equal to Gallardo, Greinke, Shaun Marcum & Co., while getting much better defense at most positions, notably Segura at shortstop, Lucroy at catcher and Reynolds at first base.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke is already looking at ways to keep the starting pitching fresh through the second half. To him, that is the most critical element of Milwaukee's bid to remain atop the NL Central.
"It's important what we are doing now, but it is important also what we do from here on out, because we know we need to stay strong," Roenicke said. "Our division is starting to play like I thought they would. Pittsburgh is playing way better, St. Louis is starting to do their thing and Cincinnati has been playing great. So these teams are all going to be all up there trying to catch us. We need to somehow stay out there and not let that happen."
Does this team have the talent to go as far as the Brewers went three seasons ago?
"Look, like I've said many times, we're excited and encouraged by how well we've played," Braun said. "But we recognize how much baseball is left. Having been to the postseason a couple of times, I know it's really difficult to get there. The challenge is to keep playing good baseball and don't look too far ahead."