Brewers' swing-happy ways have unlikely Milwaukee off to fast start
Nine years from now, after the best-selling book about the 2014 Brewers and how they exploited a market inefficiency to become the unexpected darlings of baseball, the IMDb entry for Brewerball might look like this:
PG-13. 133 min. Biography/Drama/Sport
Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin's successful attempt to assemble a baseball team on a lean budget by employing outdated methods to acquire new players.
Director: Mark Ciardi
Writer: Frank Caliendo
Sounds outrageous, right? It makes no sense to folks who know anything about how baseball is played these days. And that sums up just about everything regarding the 2014 Brewers. They make no sense, not when you consider that they have raced out of the gate with the best record in baseball (22-11) despite being way too right-handed and way too aggressive when it comes to swinging the bats. Milwaukee is either on the cutting edge of a counterculture -- in which running up pitch counts doesn't matter nearly as much as most people want to think -- or they are an unsustainable model off to a freakish start that is bound not to last. If nothing else, by virtue of their strange profile and 88 losses from last year, they are the biggest surprise after one-fifth of the season is in the books.
"We'd like to have guys with high on-base percentages," Melvin said, "but we don't. We're an aggressive team on the bases and as far as our offensive approach. If you don't have patient hitters, it's hard to teach them that."
Firstly, consider what Milwaukee did in March and April. They won 20 games in the baseball month (with only eight losses), becoming only the fourth team in the wild card era to win 20 games in the first baseball month. Two of the previous three teams rolled to more than 100 wins: The 2001 Mariners, who won 116 games that season before losing in the ALCS, and the 2003 Yankees, who won 101 games before losing in the World Series. The third team, the 2008 Diamondbacks, fell to the mediocrity of an 82-80 record.
How the Brewers are winning at this rate is something of a mystery, other than a very hot start by their bullpen and steady work from the rotation. Don't look for answers in that offense, as long as you regard their 8-3 win Monday night as bizarre. (The Diamondbacks somehow walked seven Brewers, or three more than did any other club this year.) Milwaukee is scoring runs at a below-league average clip, is allergic to walks and has obtained only three home runs from left-handed hitters all season.
The team's .304 on-base percentage and rate of 2.52 walks per game would be the second-worst marks in franchise history. Only the 91-loss team from 1972 had a lower OBP and only last year's 88-loss team drew walks at a worse rate. Outfielder Khris Davis and shortstop Jean Segura have combined for three walks in 236 plate appearances. The team's leadoff hitter, Carlos Gomez, looks nothing like a leadoff hitter; he loves hacking at first pitches. Gomez is hitting .520 on them and last night smacked his third first-pitch homer.
Only San Diego has fewer walks in the league this year than does Milwaukee. If you think that's not an important barometer, consider this: Of the 20 teams in the past decade to finish last or next-to-last in the NL in walks, 17 of them had a losing record, and only one of them made the playoffs (the 2007 Cubs, who should be the patron saints of these Brewers). Lou Piniella should have been Manager of the Year. The Cubs won the NL Central with the modest total of 85 wins, even though they ranked 15th in walks, 11th in homers, 10th in stolen bases and eighth in runs. Their pitchers somehow led the league in strikeouts and were second in ERA -- with a rotation of Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill, Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall. Baffling.
These Brewers could be just as mystifying if they keep this up. They do have one skill that is most obvious: They hack. The modern art of hitting, as popularized by statistical analysis and Moneyball, has become a passive-aggressive approach. Players have been trained to "take pitches" in order to "drive up pitch counts" so they can "get into the bullpen." The championship New York Yankees teams gained much of the acclaim for this approach, but the truth is that Joe Torre's Yankees never finished first or second in the league in pitches per plate appearance in any of the four seasons they won the World Series. (They ranked 13th, third, fourth and fourth in those years.)
So here we have the Brewers challenging conventional wisdom as much as they do any pitch within their area code. Milwaukee is last in the majors in pitches per plate appearance and first in the majors at swinging at the first pitch. In fact, the three most aggressive teams in baseball, at least as measured by fewest pitches per plate appearance, all have winning records: Milwaukee, Colorado and Baltimore. There is, Melvin said, a method to this apparent madness.
"Most of your good hitters have plate discipline," he said, "but it's plate discipline to get yourself in good hitters' counts. It's not to get walked. It's designed to get yourself in good hitters' counts. Too many times these days you see a hitter get to a 2-and-0 count with runners on base and just take a good pitch to hit. "
Apparently a good hitters' count to the Brewers is 0-0. They have the fourth fewest 2-0 counts and the third fewest 3-1 counts in all of baseball.
But what if the true genius to the Brewers' hack-tastic start is that they understand better than anyone else what specialized bullpens and increased velocities have done to the game? "Getting into the bullpen" is not what it used to be. Bullpens are much tougher to face (3.71 ERA, .240 batting average and 22 percent strikeout rate) than are starters (3.89, .255, 20 percent). The endgame to modern baseball is an often boring parade of pitching changes - the manager slowly trudging to the mound, the meeting on the mound to waste time, the reliever jogging from the bullpen, another meeting on the mound, the manager trudging back, and an entirely unnecessary period in which the guy who has been warming up in the bullpen now gets to warm up again on the game mound while everyone stands around -- designed not only to blunt platoon advantages and prevent runs but also to keep the ball out of play.
"Running up pitch counts was far more sensible years ago," Melvin said. "With a lot of these bullpens, I don't want to get into them. My best chance is sometimes against that starting pitcher. Scoring early is just as important, if not more so. You'll always have your blown save occasionally, but for the most part there's more of a fear in facing the eighth or ninth inning guys than there is most starting pitchers."
As for hacking at first pitches more than other teams, Melvin offered this visual example as a way of explanation. Before a game, the typical hitting coach gathers his hitters in a room and is telling them to "get a good pitch to hit." Meanwhile, the typical pitching coach for the same team is in another room at the same time telling his pitchers, "Get ahead. Throw first-pitch strikes."
"So doesn't it make sense for the hitters to hit first pitches?" Melvin said. "[Third baseman] Aramis Ramirez has hit a ton of home runs on first pitches."
Ramirez has hit 74 first-pitch homers in his career, representing 21 percent of his career total, which doesn't sound too extraordinary. Noted first-pitch hackers Freddie Freeman (24 percent) and Delmon Young (26) have a greater percentage of quick strikes. But in the previous three years, Ramirez did hit 29 percent of his homers on first pitches.
Here's another factor Melvin sees in the Brewers' favor: While strikeouts keep going up, walks are going down. The NL per-game rate of walks has been 6.02 or less for three straight years -- the first time that has happened since 1966-68, the dark days of hitting. Long counts have a tendency to end badly more often these days.
"You maybe see two or three guys with 100 walks now," he said, "while there are many guys who think nothing of striking out 150 times. The one thing you learn over time about walks is that hitters essentially have that skill or they don't by the time they get to the big leagues."
Finally, Melvin said, maybe walks aren't the best way to measure hitting skills, anyway.
"We did some research," he said, "and found that many of the guys who walked in A-ball, when they got to Double-A, they couldn't hit. As they moved up a level and the pitchers could command the ball better, guys struggled."
Melvin then rattled off the names of players who were highly regarded in the minor leagues in part because of good walk rates but never met expectations in the big leagues: Bret Barberie, Donnie Hall, Doug Jennings, Warren Morris, Hee-Seop Choi. Could it be that -- hang on to your Blu-Ray, directors' cut edition of Moneyball -- walks are overrated in today's games? Well, no. Melvin did say his preference is still a lineup stacked with high on-base percentage guys. But maybe, just maybe, given how baseball has evolved since the Athletics and Moneyball brought great acclaim to the base on balls, the free-swinging ways of the Brewers are not as doomed to fail as they appear.