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Brewers in August: Lucky or Genuinely Good?

Even if the run is finally coming to an end, August was one heck of a month for the Milwaukee Brewers.  To briefly recap, the club won 21 of 28 games, tacked 5 onto their division lead, and made the cover of Sports Illustrated, though the jury is still out on the merits of the latter.

Now that the team has cooled off as the calendar has turned, it seems like a good time to try and figure out what exactly happened over the past month, looking at some of the individual performances and good fortune that led to what will probably be known as a month to remember.

What was amazing about last month from a statistical perspective was that the Brewers were not only winning 75% of their games, but were scoring and allowing runs at a pace consistent with such a high win total. Luck was certainly a factor in the tear, but it didn’t show up in the form of a lot of cheap wins.  The Brewers scored 4.92 runs per game over the course of the month and allowed 3.5, good for a 20-8 pythagorean record — only one short of their actual total.

Also, despite an 8-3 record in 1 and 2 run games, the team won nearly as many games (7) by at least 5 runs. For a team to pull this kind of streak off, they have to hit, pitch, and field at a very high (and probably unsustainable) level. Today, we’ll look at the players that contributed the most in each department, and whether or not we can expect production even close to that of the last month going forward.

Starting on offense, it’s worth noting that not every bat in the lineup was healthy or productive. Nyjer Morgan, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Jonathon Lucroy were all worse than their normal selves over the course of a month in which Rickie Weeks and Carlos Gomez didn’t play a game, but were all picked up by some incredible stretches by their teammates. Ryan Braun (.369/.436/.621) and Corey Hart (.321/.385/.594) flat out mashed, while Prince Fielder (.284/.387/.490) and Casey McGehee (.260/.324/.480) proved solid in concert with small-sample magic by Mark Kotsay and George Kottaras.

But, as you can imagine, a lot of the offensive success isn’t really sustainable under any circumstances.  Braun certainly won’t hit .410 on balls in play this month, and don’t hold your breath in anticipation of Hart continuing to put nearly a quarter of his fly balls over the fence, just like the team as a whole won’t average five runs per game for the rest of the year, as all the guys listed in the last sentence will cool off eventually. However, that’s not a big deal right now, as the Crew’s offense will still be above average even if they regress, and in order to blow the lead the Brewers amassed while on their tear, they would pretty much have to get shut out for the next 20 games in a row.

It’s basically the same story on the other side of the ball, though the difficulties in differentiating between good pitching and good fielding. The Brewers were significantly better than usual at both in August, and by looking at the numbers, you can see the ways in which the performances are intertwined. Shaun Marcum posted a 2.95 ERA in 39 August innings, thanks in large part to the fact that the guys behind him converted 74% of the balls hitters put into play against him into outs.  On the other hand, you could also say (if you believe in such things) that by making hitters put the ball in play (only 4.7 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9), Marcum forced weak contact and kept fielders on their toes.

Chris Narveson (3.09 ERA) made his presence known with two solid starts, and Marco Estrada provided three in his absence. Yovani Gallardo was dealing and posting peripheral statistics to match, while Randy Wolf would have ended up with deceptively shiny numbers had he not gotten pounded on the month’s final day. Add in defense-supported late-inning dominance by John Axford, K-Rod, and Takashi Saito, and you have a team that was clicking on all cylinders.

Of course, the big question is just how far above the team’s true talent level all of this was. That is very hard to answer until the season is over, but let me close by saying this: The Brewers aren’t a 21-7 team now any more than they were a 14-20 team in May. Teams get hot and teams get cold, but it’s important to look at these as small samples that should be looked at within the context of a whole season, not as the absolute truth about a team. Just imagine if you had only seen, say, the first month the 2007 Brewers played or the last month the 2008 Brewers limped through. When put in the proper context, it becomes rather obvious that some regression is inevitable, but thanks to the games won during the stretch, it won’t really matter.

Ed. Note: Nick Prill also writes for the Days of Yost and will be contributing here a couple times a week. You can follow him on his new Twitter account @n_prill.