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by Scott Spreitzer - 05/07/2007
Heading into the past weekend, the surprising Milwaukee Brewers had the best record in the National League, the second best record in the major leagues, and were the best profit team according to the Las Vegas moneylines. If you had been betting on the Brewers every game this season, they would have earned you quite a good return.
How big of a surprise is this? It's been a long time since the Milwaukee Brewers have competed for a division crown. Heck, it's been a long time since people didn't think of them as a doormat. How could a perennial doormat suddenly become one of the best teams in baseball?
I want to examine that question today. First I want to mention that one month of baseball isn't really enough time to draw firm conclusions. It's very possible that this team has been playing over its heads so far, and will fall back to earth in short order. Milwaukee was 19-10 heading into this past weekend and swept the Pirates. One bad road trip, however, would knock the record down to nothing special in a finger snap.
Also worth noting:
* Milwaukee is 17-8 vs. NL Central opponents
* Milwaukee is 4-2 outside of the division
Thatâ€™s 25 games vs. what could turn out to be a very weak division this year, and just six against anybody else. Milwaukee hasn't played the New York Mets yet, or Atlanta , or three of the four NL West teams that were over the .500 mark heading into the weekend. It's kind of amazing, but that 21-10 mark included just THREE games against a team that was over .500 through Friday's action!
It's been a favorable schedule, needless to say.
I do think this is an improved team, though. They've shored up some past weaknesses. Las Vegas oddsmakers had them ranked third in projected wins before the season started, ahead of Houston, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, and just a game or so behind Chicago and St. Louis. The NL Central is a weak division, and Milwaukee is likely to be a contender. In this grouping, being able to play .500 ball over six months makes you a contender!
With all of that in mind, let's look at what Milwaukee has been doing right this year (through Friday).
3rd in Home Runs
6th in OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage)
7th in Batting Average
8th in Runs Scored
5th in ERA
7th in Strikeouts
7th in WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning)
7th in Bullpen ERA
Talk about balance! This isn't a team that relies heavily on its pitching because the offense is weak. This isn't a team that has to outscore opponents because the pitching is weak. This is a team that's strong across the board. Yes, it's been a weak schedule. Milwaukee is clearly superior to that weak schedule! They are consistently beating inferior teams, which is something handicappers can take to the bank.
You see, the key to making money as a baseball bettor in Las Vegas is finding value. The general public has the mistaken impression that this means backing big name pitchers and hoping they throw a gem. The oddsmakers have accounted for this tendency, and have priced the studs accordingly. The value is gone. Those guys have to win 67% of their games just to break even and 75% for backers to make money. The true value is in finding consistently solid teams.
*Offenses that score runs in consistent batches rather than those that blot hot and cold. A team that gets to 4-5 runs daily will have a much better record than a team that scores the same number of runs in fits and starts (scoring 0, 1, or 2 some days, but 9, 10, & 11 on others).
*A starting rotation that gives you good innings from top to bottom. Ideally, you want five guys that can do that. In a weaker division, three-and-a-half to four is enough. Ben Sheets is the acknowledged staff ace here, but has been struggling so far. Three other guys have picked up the slack. Ranked by ERA: Jeff Suppan (2.55 ERA, with the Brewers going 4-2 in his starts), Claudio Vargas (2.89 ERA, with the Brewers going 5-0 in his starts), and Chris Capuano (2.90 ERA, with the Brewers going 6-0 in his starts) have led the Brewers to a 15-2 record in their starts. No way the Vegas lines could take that value away!
*Bullpens that protect the leads they're given. Milwaukee ranks 7th in the majors in this category, meaning they're actually picking up ground on the competition once the starting pitchers are out of the game.
These are the key areas handicappers need to focus on. Don't fall into the media trap of thinking all the high payroll teams are supposed to win. Don't give into the illusion that ace pitchers provide more insurance because they seem so un-hittable. Value in baseball wagering comes from finding situations where teams or pitchers are consistently "pretty good" when facing lines that underestimate their win potential.
And, that's what we can take from the Milwaukee Brewers hot start!