As August began, the Milwaukee Brewers were three games ahead of their peers in the NL Central.
At that time, they had led the division for all but about 10 of the previous 100 days. They looked like they were about to earn their fifth consecutive postseason bid, just as most expected at the season’s outset. PECOTA projections, for example, pegged the Brewers as their division’s best team by 12 games — by far the sport’s largest divisional margin.
Then, on the first morning of the month, the Brewers traded Josh Hader. The next night, they started losing. And they haven’t stopped.
The Brewers entered Wednesday’s series finale against the L.A. Dodgers some 5.5 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals in the Central race. They are very much still in the NL wild-card hunt, but their road to the playoffs has gotten much murkier this month.
Here are three reasons the Brewers have disappointed in 2022, particularly in August.
1. Christian Yelich is still not playing like a star, and neither is anyone else in the lineup.
In the three seasons since he signed a $215 million extension one week before the March 2020 pandemic shutdown, Yelich has been a far different player than he was in the two seasons before he signed that deal. Across 2018 and ’19, when he batted a combined 1,231 times, Yelich had 80 homers and a 1.046 OPS — 71% better than average.
Since then, he has batted 1,233 times, homered 30 times and logged a .747 OPS — 6% better than average. It is not awful, merely middling. But because the Brewers devote a full one-fifth of their payroll to Yelich’s $26 million salary, his non-performance hits particularly hard.
Around Yelich, the Brewers have constructed a competent offense on a budget. In terms of OPS+, 11 Milwaukee hitters have been roughly average or better this season. The 10 not named Yelich are making about $38 million combined. Their production would look much better if it were buttressed by one star. The Brewers lack that player.
They thought Willy Adames might emerge in that role after his play following his May 2021 trade. But like Yelich, Adames has been just fine. He has hit for power but chased too much to get on base at a useful rate. The Brewers don’t have a hitter who has consistently done both this season.
Lately, former top prospect Keston Hiura has flashed the two abilities. If he can continue to establish himself as an elite hitter, Milwaukee’s chances could look significantly better.
2. The starting pitching has fallen off from 2021.
Ace Corbin Burnes has again been great, but even he has been unable to replicate his dominant 2021. His strikeouts are down, his walks are up, and homers against him are way up. He has kept his ERA within a half-run of his 2021 mark, but the Brewers have won only 15 of his 25 starts in 2022, compared to 19 of 28 in 2021.
Beyond Burnes, the regression has been more extreme. Adrian Houser’s underlying numbers are the same or better, but his ERA is 1.5 runs worse. Brandon Woodruff, essentially a second ace in 2021, has been more like a No. 2 or No. 3 in 2022, wilder and more homer-prone. Eric Lauer, too, has surrendered far more homers. Freddy Peralta has been injured.
All told, the Brewers’ starters have logged a 3.83 ERA in 2022, up from a 3.13 mark a year ago. They remain effective, but not effective enough to counteract the club’s star deficiency on offense.
Cardinals will win the NL Central as Brewers continue to decline
Ben Verlander breaks down how the St. Louis Cardinals were able to pass the Milwaukee Brewers for first in the NL Central, questions the Brewers’ trade deadline moves and explains why he thinks they will miss the playoffs.
3. The vibes have been off.
It is not particularly difficult to understand the Brewers’ decision to trade Hader. He had long been baseball’s best closer, but he had not been that great in 2022, and in parting with him on Aug. 1, Milwaukee netted Taylor Rogers, a reliever who projected to be nearly as good over the final two months, as well as prospects who could help the team come 2023.
But where the Brewers clearly erred is in explaining that trade to their players. Hader, Burnes’ best friend, was beloved in the clubhouse. Immediately, player after player criticized club executives to reporters. When that negativity coincided with a losing streak, the team spiraled further.
Even now, it remains a topic of conversation. Lauer told MLB.com over the weekend that he disliked general manager David Stearns’ characterization of the trade to the public. Stearns said the trade “furthers our aim to get as many bites out of the apple as possible,” which he argued would best help bring the Brewers a championship.
“I’m not trying to just get a bunch of bites of the apple,” Lauer said in summarizing how his teammates reacted to the trade.
Lauer noted that the Brewers are not necessarily in any worse position to contend without Hader. That, he argued, does not negate the need for a conversation the club has not yet had. He spoke of an erstwhile vibe within the clubhouse.
“And when a dynamic like that changes,” he told MLB.com, “it’s something that needs to be addressed. And it just never was addressed to us.”
It’s not too late, but it’s getting close.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic and, before that, the Angels and Dodgers for five seasons for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. His first book, “How to Beat a Broken Game,” came out this spring. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.
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