One of the unhappy byproducts of the revolution in the understanding of baseball over the last 40 years is that, as the knowledge first shouted from rooftops by outsiders has suffused front offices and ownership suites and trickled down to dugouts, the game has been reduced to fit into the neat boxes required by analytical thinking. One of the old saws of sabermetric writing is that, while technically a team game, baseball is made up mostly of atomic, isolated duels between individuals. The pitcher and the batter are the soul of the game, to many of the people who happened to accidentally remake the game by talking about it in a new way.
It's an easy mistake to make. Once the math disproves the virtue of the sacrifice bunt and gives the lie to a pitcher's ability to limit hits on balls in play, why bother focusing on team baseball? If balls in play are so inextricably mired in the quagmire of chance, why spend time wallowing in them? That's been the bent of baseball men (and it has, mostly, been men) looking for a competitive edge over the last few decades. Those people have been given free rein to change the way players are scouted, developed, and evaluated, and as they've done so, they've systematically molded the game to suit their economic approaches.
This is why there are many more home runs and many more strikeouts in the modern game. It's why, until an invasive rule change was finally made to shake things up, the stolen base was in its dying throes. Executives trained to relentlessly optimize and iterate have streamlined the game as much as they possible can, and that endeavor leaves little room for the trust between teammates or the interaction factors that make two players better than either would be alone. The math says, stop betting on concatenations of singles and hit dingers. Now, every hitter in all 30 lineups can hit dingers. The math says, there's almost no diminishing return point on strikeouts for pitchers. Now, every pitching staff chases strikeouts, often at considerable cost in other areas.
Partially by loving and brilliant construction, and partially by the sheer serendipity that gives the game its most vivid color, the 2023 Milwaukee Brewers buck all of that a little. They're a championship-caliber team, even if their record is less gaudy than those of the Atlanta and Los Angeles Goliaths, but they're not dominant in the hypermodern sense. They win with team baseball.
Only six teams have hit home runs in a lower share of their plate appearances than have the Brewers this season. None of the six will finish with a winning record. On the other hand, only two teams have drawn walks at a higher rate than have the Brewers this season. This lineup trusts in each other. They don't press in the big moment. They take their free pass, toss the bat aside, and wait for the big blow to be struck by whichever teammate first gets a mistake. It's been their approach all season. It's not well-suited to the base rates of the modern game. It might be riskier in October. When it works, though, it's beautiful, in a way that (say) the Braves' offense isn't.
Nor do the pitchers dominate in the way teams most prefer their hurlers to do, these days. They're 10th in the league in strikeout rate, and 23rd in home-run prevention. Yet, they have the best, most productive pitching staff in the big leagues. They have allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play (.269) in MLB, and their advantage over the Yankees and Dodgers is 10 points. That's partially because they have smart, dedicated catchers--including a relatively inexperienced starter, learning the way they like to plan and call games on the fly--who help their talented pitchers seek weak contact. It's also partially because they have an excellent team defense.
In an era increasingly focused on individual greatness, the Brewers have won the NL Central without a player who ranks in the top 50 position players in Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. (William Contreras comes in 53rd.) They've had the best pitching staff in the game, without a pitcher who ranks in the top 25 for WAR. (Corbin Burnes is 26th.) This team has had to weather significant injuries, such as to Brandon Woodruff, Garrett Mitchell, and Christian Yelich. They've had players on whom they were heavily depending as of Opening Day return virtually no value. They've had to remake their bench and the supporting cast to Devin Williams in the bullpen. With depth, aggressive front-office moves, superb administration by the field staff, and a bit of good luck, they've done all of that.
Craig Counsell should be the National League Manager of the Year. It's the only award any Brewer has a credible chance to win, but it would be the fitting one. There hasn't been a playoff team quite this extreme in its interdependences and reliance on coaching as this one since before the pandemic. Counsell and his cohort have empowered rookies and newcomers, stabilized struggling veterans, and extracted every scrap of spare advantage opponents left lying around, all season. They couldn't have done it without the talented players and the impressive number of valuable reinforcements that Matt Arnold and his charges found, but nor could the players or the front office have done this without the coaching staff.
The work is far from over, of course. The Brewers have a minor playoff monkey to get off their backs. They'll host the Wild Card Series starting next Tuesday, and no extra credit will be given for the special pleasure an old-fashioned baseball aesthete might have felt in watching them throughout the regular season. Before this year, I predicted that this team would win the division, and that it would get to the NLCS. Had I known about some of the adversity they would encounter, I don't know if I would have made that pick. Now, though, I feel that it's more within their reach than ever. Counsell has done an exceptional job. Unfortunately, he gets no reprieve now. It's time to do another exceptional, difficult thing, and the work (even if it be the work of minimizing some guys' work) needs to start right away.