Despite the tough losses to end the month, it's hard to look at April as being anything other than positive. Among the reasons why we should head into May encouraged about this team's chances:
- A lack of blowout losses. Losing close games is always going to be hard on the stomach, but the Brewers have been in just about every one of the 26 games they've played. Only one loss -- the 12-3 drubbing in Cincinnati -- has been by more than 4 runs. Of their 13 losses overall, 6 have been decided by a single run. You can point to bullpen failures in those games if you wish, but records in one-run games tend to fluctuate quite a bit and aren't totally indicative of a team's success. Last year, the Reds were exactly .500 in one-run games (27-27) and were able to win the division comfortably. Keep most of your games close, and you'll have a chance at being a really good team.
- The offense did fine without Corey Hart and Jonathan Lucroy for much of the month. Until a few days ago, the Brewers weren't able to put out their "true" starting lineup, and the Brewers were able to tread water until they were back to full strength. A lot of this has to do with the month-long hot streaks of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, but the team was able to get some unexpected OBP from Mark Kotsay (though much of it came from intentional walks) and some hard-hit balls from Yuniesky Betancourt when they needed a sac fly. The home run pop hasn't been there yet, but Yuni's 3 sac flies in April is tied for second-most in the majors. Hey, it's something coming from a guy a lot of us weren't expecting to do much of anything.
- Marco Estrada was great as a spot starter. It seemed like a lot of people wrote the Brewers off the second news about Zack Greinke's broken ribs broke, and while a lot of us who follow the team on an everyday basis weren't too concerned, I do get it. Things could have been a lot worse for the Brewers, but they got a bit lucky with the way the schedule fell in April, and with a well-placed rainout or two, the Brewers only had to start Estrada in three games. There's a lot to like about Estrada, but if you would have told me at the beginning of the year that he'd give up a total of 7 ER in 19 IP as a starter -- and only 3 ER in the last 13 IP -- I would've been thrilled. The Brewers went 2-1 as a team in Estrada's starts, and the lone loss was one of the better starts of his career: 6 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K in Washington.
- Speaking of the pitching while missing Greinke, the fact that the Brewers are entering their first week with him at .500 despite Yovani Gallardo not pitching like himself is a testament to the rest of the rotation. Among the Brewers' starters, Gallardo has the highest ERA, highest WHIP, highest H/9, lowest strikeout total, lowest K/9, and lowest K/BB ratio. Again, if we knew that Greinke would miss all of April and Gallardo would pitch this way, would you think the team would be at .500 and only 2.5 games back in the division? Randy Wolf has been throwing zeroes up on the scoreboard like it's 2009, Chris Narveson is leading the league in just about every swing-and-miss category, and Shaun Marcum has been very good despite walking more batters than he usually does.
- Part of the reason the pitching has been better than expected without Greinke is that the defense has been better than expected. I was as guilty as anyone when it came to the doom-and-gloom stuff with this team's defense, especially when it came to Betancourt. Defensive stats through one month of the season should be taken with a huge grain of salt, but they do show that to this point, the defense has been right around average. That's pretty impressive considering the lack of gifted defenders the team has playing every day, and really a testament to how good Carlos Gomez (7 DRS) and Nyjer Morgan (5 total DRS between CF and RF) were in April.
Betancourt probably hasn't been as bad as advertised, but he hasn't been very good, either. His UZR to this point is -0.9, translating to a -10.4 UZR per 150 games played. Break down the separate components of UZR, and while he's been average or slightly above average when it comes to double play runs (0.2) and error runs (0.0), the range is what's killing him (-1.1). Of 76 balls hit into his zone so far this year, he's only made 53 plays -- that's 69.7%, good for last among Major League shortstops. Still, he's done fine when positioned well by Ron Roenicke's shifts, and has shown off a strong arm without getting lazy on his throws.
All things considered, it's hard to get discouraged about a .500 month to start the year, especially considering the number of games the team played against the likes of Cincinnati, Atlanta and Philadelphia despite not being full strength. I'm not saying we should be happy about the way many of the losses happened, but it could certainly be worse -- Boston is 11-15, Minnesota is 9-17, and Atlanta is 13-15. There's a lot of baseball left, and the Brewers needed to tread water until Greinke came back. They've done that, and are setting themselves up nicely for the rest of the year.