Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 5/16/12
After winning the National League Central title last season and establishing themselves as contenders in the National League for the foreseeable future, the Brewers' start to the 2012 season looked, to many, like a colossal disappointment. A 16-20 start through May 16 certainly wasn't ideal. And losing three important pieces to the puzzle in the first month or so of the season wasn't exactly what Brewers fans would have hoped for, either. Lost in that early season concern, however, is the fact that last year's team the team that came close enough to smell a World Series berthstarted the 2011 season with the exact same record through 36 games. Those Brewers were second-to-last in the NL Central at that point as well. They lost seven in a row from April 30 to May 6. And right fielder Corey Hart hadn't even played 75 percent of those games. Yes, it's true that there are some parallels between this season and last season. And having gone through those kind of early struggles before, it's right to conclude that the team is better built to deal with a slump through April and May. But do the two teams' parallel records indicate more than simple coincidence? Is it right to expect this season's Brewers to go on a run similar to last season's? Well, considering how insane the Brewers' run in last season's final 126 games was, that would be highly improbable. Milwaukee had the best record in all of Major League Baseball through that period, finishing out the season an outstanding 80-46. That'll be difficult for a team this year that lacks an elite power bat like Prince Fielder and has already experienced three season-ending injuries to major contributors. And losing an effective bat that has power potential like shortstop Alex Gonzalez will surely knock the Brewers' offense down another notch. But it's the Fielder absence that, as expected, hurts production between the two seasons. Despite the team's inconsistencies through 36 games last year, Fielder still managed a .289 average with seven home runs and 27 RBI. In that period, Fielder's wins probability added (WPA) checked in at 1.722 (or 9.2 wins added over the course of a 162-game season). Fielder actually finished the season with three of the top-100 game performances of the season, using WPA, according to Baseball Reference. Those numbers prove, as we already know, that Fielder is one of the best players in the game. No one besides Ryan Braun on this year's team has the potential for that kind of statistical production. It's not just Fielder's inclusion that makes an 80-46spurt less possible this year than last though. Adding a productive Corey Hart to the mix after missing all of April made a notable difference in the final 126 games of 2011. And of course, having Rickie Weeks at an All-Star pacea .260 batting average, 13 homers, and 36 RBI certainly helped. Through 36 games this season, Weeks batting average is the lowest of any player in baseball with 100 or more at-bats. Still, the 2011 edition of the Brewers didn't score as many runs as their potential showed through 36 games, resulting in their middling record. The team's run production was tenth-best in the National League in that period, surprisingly, two spots worse than the 2012 Brewers in that category. That similar run production through the season's first two months is a big reason why both teams struggled. But even in their struggles, the 2011 team showed greater potential for a breakout, especially considering the relative health of the roster to this season's team. However ineffective the offense was in either season though, it seems that effective pitching remains the biggest difference between the two slow starts. This season's Brewers' pitching staff ranks second-worst in the National League in ERA through 36 games (4.63) despite showing a serious improvement in the team's past five starts. Last season, the staff's ERA was almost a full point below that, registering at 3.87. And that was without ace Zack Greinke, who had just made his second start of the season when the Brewers were playing their 36th game of last season. After the team's 16-20 start, the Brewers' team ERA improved steadily for the rest of the season. If that's the case for this year's team, like the last two weeks have shown, an improvement like that on the mound isn't impossible. No degree of improvement is impossible at this point. But the potential in last year's team, at least on the offensive end, was undeniably different. And the results were also undeniably lucky for a team that didn't have many brushes with injuries for the remainder of that season. This season, that luck hasn't been there through 36 games. But the expectations for the Brewers organization have changed. A 16-20 record this season is different from a 16-20 record last season when the expectations weren't nearly as sky-high. Now, the Brewers are expected to make the kind of turnaround they did last season because, well, that's what good teams do. And for the next 126 games of the 2012 season, the Brewers will do their best to prove that they are just as good as their 2011 counterparts. But, as the stats show, that's going to be one heck of a challenge. Follow Ryan Kartje on Twitter.
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