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Milwaukee Brewers offensive struggles start at the top of the lineup

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Brewers’ leadoff hitters rank near the bottom of MLB

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at New York Mets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

In case you haven’t noticed, the Milwaukee Brewers offense has become a frustrating shell of itself over the past couple of months. In their last 45 games, the Brewers have scored less than four runs 24 times (53% of the time). That percentage goes up to 62% when you take out the games against the Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies, because everyone scores on Cincy and everybody hits at Coors.

The problem for the Milwaukee Brewers and the club’s lack of consistency lies in the leadoff position. Through Wednesday’s games, the Brewers’ leadoff men rank 27th in OPS (.687), 22nd in OBP (.314) and have scored the fourth-fewest runs in all of baseball. Yes, Jonathan Villar’s major struggles early on earned a big chunk of that, but he’s not alone. Milwaukee hasn’t figured out what to do there, with the exception of Eric Sogard’s mid-season hot streak, which effectively ended once he got hurt.

Even with the boom in power numbers this season, the key to consistent offense remains: have as many runners on base as often as possible. You only get 27 outs to work with, so the more you avoid them, the better off (pretty basic, I know). It also keeps the pitcher in the stretch, creates additional defensive pressure, and turns those almost-benign solo home runs into damaging multi-run blasts.

That is what makes the leadoff hitter so imperative. Over the course of the season, that spot in the order racks up the most plate appearances and often dictates the volume and success of at-bats from guys in the middle-to-bottom of the lineup. For example, the first spot in the order this season has 54 more plate appearances than the five hole and 67 more than number six.

Manager Craig Counsell, who often eschews the value of batting order, has certainly tried a number of different guys there, but only Sogard and Villar have seen more than seven starts in that spot. Villar owns a .301 OBP hitting first and has simply looked rough all season. Sogard has a .364 OBP in the leadoff spot, but as noted, since coming off the DL, he has not been the same. He is 9-for-51 with a .535 OPS since July 22.

In the first month or so Milwaukee got away with poor production at leadoff because Eric Thames was blistering hot batting second. Once he cooled, the offense had some periods of being stagnant until Sogard stepped into that role. Now, here the Brewers are again needing to find ways to ignite the offense.

Three players have each had a shot, getting seven starts at leadoff: Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, and Thames. Those are clearly small samples, but nobody has stood out during their brief auditions. Each of the trio have an OPS below .700 hitting first, with Thames and Santana sporting OBP below the .275 mark.

Broxton would make some sense there if you care about speed at the top. When he’s swinging a hot stick, Counsell can drop him into any spot in the order. However, his bat is rather inconsistent and his .307 OBP is less than ideal. The problem, besides making so little contact at times, is that you are never quite sure when he’s actually in a cold spell and need to give him time off again.

The Thames thought also had logic behind it. Even though he struggled to hit well after April, he still found his way on base and showed plenty of plate discipline early on. His overall OBP still sits at a terrific .357 mark, but he owns a .308 OBP since June 1 and is swinging (and missing) at way more pitches in recent months.

Then there is Santana. A patient hitter with a sparkling .365 OBP and the apparent ability to hit wherever you put him. In 25 starts in the leadoff spot last season, Santana posted a .352 OBP and a .783 OPS. This year, the young right fielder has 12 strikeouts to just one walk in that spot with a .273 OBP and .660 OPS. Again, small sample size, but the more one watches, the more he fits that two spot better. His numbers there back up this theory (as you’ll see in a moment).

So what can the Milwaukee Brewers do in the all-important leadoff spot for the stretch run? Two players come to mind, but in their combined 20 years of MLB experience, they’ve combined to make three starts in the leadoff hole. Those guys are Ryan Braun and Neil Walker.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Would Braun agree to it for the betterment of the team? Does Walker have some anxiety or issue hitting first? Those are internal questions I don’t have answers to. However, there are both quality, “professional” hitters who could certainly provide a spark for the offense while getting some additional at-bats over the next month.

Let’s start with Braun. He has started one game in his career as the leadoff man back in April of 2015. He got off to a horrible start (.476 OPS), but went 2-for-3 with a run scored and a HBP in that contest. Braun is just a pure hitter, so it shouldn’t do anything to him mentally. He’s run into some bad luck recently with hard hit balls finding gloves, but he also has just one home run since July 23. It could even help him and the club psychologically with his willingness to do it a way to be a leader.

vs. RHP

  1. Braun
  2. Santana
  3. Walker
  4. Shaw
  5. Thames
  6. Broxton
  7. Pina
  8. Pitcher
  9. Arcia

vs. LHP

  1. Braun
  2. Santana
  3. Aguilar
  4. Shaw
  5. Broxton
  6. Walker
  7. Pina
  8. Pitcher
  9. Arcia

Some quick notes on the lineup logic:

  • Santana has a career .398 OBP and .913 OPS batting second. His patience, power and sweet right field stroke all play extremely well in this spot as well.
  • In his career, Walker is a much better hitter from the left side. Thus, he fits great in the three-hole against righties, but would serve as a valuable hitter lower vs. lefties.
  • Some may not like the Shaw-Thames order vs. righties because of late-game moves by the opposition. I say, it’s the best starting lineup and Counsell should be quite liberal in pinch-hitting Jesus Aguilar for Thames late in games if a lefty is in.
  • Broxton has destroyed left-handed starters in his short career (.893 OPS), so put him in a run-producing spot there. Against rightes, the six-hole is a perfect spot for his power-speed combo.
  • I personally love hitting the pitcher eighth, especially when you have power in the first two spots in the order. Arcia like a second leadoff feels right.

With less than 40 games left, it would be nice to see some consistency with the lineup, especially at the top. However, with Braun’s scheduled off days, maybe that’s an issue or he simply doesn’t want to bat there. Fine. What would the Walker-led orders look like? Against righties, you’d simply swap Braun and Walker. When facing a lefty, you’d have the same lineup as with a right-hander, but replace Thames with Aguilar.

Perhaps this is much ado about nothing, but the leadoff spot has absolutely killed the Brewers in 2017. While I understand the thinking that order matters little, it has to account for something, both in statistical terms and in human terms. The leadoff man is vital and the mental/psychological part of the players does exist.

Can a permanent switch at the top be enough to ignite a sleepwalking offense? Is there time for the bats to carry the club to a playoff spot? Maybe. Maybe not. The key, truly, is what puts this team in the best position to score more runs. Success in the leadoff spot is where it will begin and end.

Statistics courtesty of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com