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No worries about Brewers beating up bad teams

After the Brewers’ recent bad week (five straight losses and several games lost in the standings), many uppity fans have pressed the proverbial panic button, predicting a collapse like the one that killed the 2007 team’s playoff hopes. While the Brewers are still a near lock to reach the postseason, the teams the recent losses came at the hands of have elicited some concern among the team’s followers.

The Brewers dropped two of three to the again-hot St. Louis Cardinals, then where offensively stifled by the Phillies trio of aces, raising questions among many if the Brewers were a team ill-suited for success in October: able to post a shiny record by beating up on the Astros and Pirates of the world, but overmatched when dealing with top-notch competition.

At first, this would seem as easy to dismiss as so many things that come from Bill Schroeder’s microphone, but after seeing a sweep of the aforementioned Astros be followed by an uninspired pair of series against two playoff-caliber teams, the insecurity that comes from finally seeing a division winner after so much losing is starting to kick in. Today we’ll examine the “pick on someone your own size” theory, see if it has legs, and most importantly, try to figure out if it does have any bearing on postseason success.

The first part of the proposition is certainly correct. A quick look at the numbers shows that the Brewers are doing their best work against weaker teams.  The Brewers have faced nineteen teams this season, and I split the teams they faced into three groups based on their record.  Against the six winningest clubs (Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, D-Backs, and Braves), the Brewers are 10-20 with a .315 pythagorean winning percentage. Against the bottom of the barrel (Pirates, Cubs, Astros, Twins, Marlins, and Padres), their record spikes to 42-13 and .709, respectively. They are 33-29 against the remaining seven teams.

First, you’re probably wondering why the Brewers have played (and won) so many more games against the weakest competition. The answer is simple: Half the teams from that bottom group are in the Brewers’ division, and half the teams from the top group are from the AL East who the Brewers only faced once this year. Depending on your point of view, this is either just another perk of being in the NL Central or a disquieting figure which suggests that come October, the Brewers are likely to collapse under the burden of consistently facing higher-quality clubs they were unable to beat during the regular season. 

This doesn’t appear to be true.  Among the World Series teams of the 2000s, there are clubs who did most of their damage against bad teams (Last year’s champs, the 2010 Giants went .446 against teams with winning records.), and clubs who stomped on the best of the best (the 2004 Red Sox, .575). The distribution of a team’s wins has a lot more value when looking back at a team’s regular season than predicting the postseason. The AL East’s representative(s) to the playoffs inevitably have to win more games against good teams to clinch a postseason berth than a team like the 2006 Cardinals, who won 83 games in a weak division, but there isn’t a big difference as to how often each type of team has gone deep into October.

Another unfounded worry circling around the collective minds of Brewer faithful is that the club’s inability to beat a team like the Phillies will ensure a quick one-and-done should they face them in the playoffs. However, this theory also doesn’t look to be of much merit. I looked at every division series matchup since 2005, and compared the teams’ head-to-head regular season record to the result in the postseason. There was no evidence that beating a certain team in the regular season had any value towards predicting the outcome of a playoff matchup against them. Of the last 24 division series played, exactly half were won by the team with the better head-to-head record.  In fact, the teams that won the regular season series actually had a losing record in the postseason matchup, going 85-91.

Even though a decade of World Series winners and the past six sets of division series aren’t a big enough sample to draw any bold conclusions from, it is (and should be) enough to  debunk any fears about the Brewers’ recent failures dooming them to another 2008-style postseason one-and-done. These five recent games aren’t any more reason to panic than the four losses the club started the season with. The club rebounded from those losses, and the Brewers’ upcoming schedule makes for smooth sailing the rest of the way. Relax long-suffering Brewer fans: It’s going to be all right.