The Milwaukee Brewers have been maddeningly inconsistent at the plate this season. For the first half of 2017, the Brewers were in the top-10 in baseball in home runs, runs scored, and non-pitcher wRC+. That production has cratered since the All-Star break, as Milwaukee ranks last in the league with just 177 runs scored, 2nd-last in non-pitcher wRC+, and tied for 21st in home runs in that time. Thankfully the pitching staff has helped pick up some of the slack, but still, the Brewers are only 22-27 since this year’s Midsummer Classic and have seen what was once a 5.5 game lead in the NL Central evaporate into what’s currently a 4.5 game deficit behind the Cubs. They trail the Rockies for the 2nd Wild Card by 2.5 games at this point, as well, so if the season ended today the Brewers would be on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.
One narrative has risen above the rest regarding Milwaukee’s offense this season: they strike out too much and need to put the ball in play more often instead of relying on home runs.
Brent Suter on to pitch for #Brewers. Reds show value of putting ball in play with RISP rather than striking out.— Tom (@Haudricourt) September 6, 2017
It is true that Milwaukee whiffs like no other team. This is the club that set a major league record by striking out 1,543 times in 2016, or 25.5% of their team plate appearances. This season, Milwaukee is striking out at an even higher collective rate of 25.9%, which once again leads the big leagues.
The major league average strikeout rate so far in 2017 is 21.6%. 11 of the 18 position players that have taken at least 30 trips to the plate for the Brewers this season are K-ing more than that:
Kirk Nieuwenhuis || 31 PA || 48.4% K
Brett Phillips || 45 PA || 42.2% K
Keon Broxton || 431 PA || 37.3% K
Lewis Brinson || 55 PA || 30.9% K
Jonathan Villar || 422 PA || 30.1% K
Jesus Aguilar || 274 PA || 29.9% K
Eric Thames || 489 PA || 29.9% K
Domingo Santana || 532 PA || 28.8% K
Jett Bandy || 176 PA || 28.4% K
Travis Shaw || 515 PA || 22.9% K
Manny Pina || 327 PA || 22.0% K
As Craig Counsell said back in August, though, this is the way the team was built. He acknowledged that this team was built to hit home runs and not for the type of “small ball” that is extolled by many fans and even beat writers. These Brewers aren’t going to suddenly change with less than a month left in the season and start swinging for more contact; this club needs to hit for power in order to win ballgames.
It may grind your gears to see the Brewers strike out so often at the big league level, but don’t expect any changes to that philosophy in the near future. Looking beyond just the players that he’s assembled at the big league level, it becomes even more clear that Slingin’ David Stearns and company simply do not care all that deeply about strikeouts. Milwaukee’s top prospect list is littered with players who have above-average power and speed, but questionable hit tools. Let’s explore, using MLB Pipeline’s top 30 prospect list:
AAA Pacific Coast League (avg. K rate: 19.8%)
Lewis Brinson || 18.2% K
Mauricio Dubon || 13.9% K
Brett Phillips || 29.9% K
Colorado Springs Sky Sox || 19.5% K
AA Southern League (avg. K rate: 21.5%)
Mauricio Dubon || 13.8% K
Jake Gatewood || 29.0% K
Jacob Nottingham || 22.6% K
Biloxi Shuckers || 22.1% K
A+ Carolina League (avg. K rate: 21.8%)
Corey Ray || 31.0%
Isan Diaz || 26.6%
Lucas Erceg || 17.7% K
Trent Clark || 24.8% K
Monte Harrison || 27.4% K
Jake Gatewood || 28.1% K
Carolina Mudcats || 24.2% K
A Midwest League (avg. K rate: 22.2%)
Keston Hiura || 20.9% K
Monte Harrison || 26.8% K
Mario Feliciano || 16.1% K
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers || 24.8% K
Rookie Pioneer League (avg. K rate 19.9%)
Tristen Lutz || 18.9% K
KJ Harrison || 25.0% K
Helena Brewers || 22.8% K
Rookie Arizona League (avg. K rate: 23.3%)
Keston Hiura || 18.1 % K
Tristen Lutz || 27.6% K
Je’Von Ward || 29.5% K
AZL Brewers || 22.4% K
The 15 players listed above combined for 20 full or partial seasons between minor league levels in 2017. 60% of those samples featured strikeout rates that were higher than the league average. Only two of Milwaukee’s six stateside affiliates - the AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox and the Rookie Arizona Brewers - struck out less on average than the rest of their respective leagues. That’s a lot of punchouts.
Baseball is changing before our eyes. Hitters are no longer simply trying to put the bat on the ball and spray line drives around the field. Today’s game has become about uppercuts, launch angles, and home runs, living by the mantra “elevate to celebrate.” JD Martinez may have put it best, if not the most eloquently, in an interview with Fangraphs earlier this year:
“People talk to me and I tell them straight up. I don’t bullshit. In the cage, I talk about it all the time. I’m not trying to hit a fucking line drive or a freaking ground ball. I’m trying to hit the ball in the air. I feel like the ball in the air is my strength and has a chance to go anywhere in the park. So why am I trying to hit a ground ball? That’s what I believe in.
You still talk to coaches ‘Oh, you want a line drive right up the middle. Right off the back of the [L-screen in batting practice].’ OK, well that’s a fucking single. To me, the numbers don’t lie. The balls in the air play more.”
The Milwaukee Brewers are on their way to setting another record for most strikeouts in a season in 2017. Maybe they’ll set another record next year, and perhaps again the year after that. The point is, for as long as David Stearns is general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, the swings-and-misses aren’t going to go away. Stearns and his staff have built high-strikeout offenses that are centered around power and speed in each of his 2 full seasons as GM. Most of the talented prospects that he’s stuffed the various levels of the minor leagues with fall in the same vein of low-contact hitters with power and speed potential. It’s not always aesthetically pleasing to watch, but that’s the way the game is trending and perhaps no organization embodies this philosophy top-to-bottom more so than the Milwaukee Brewers.
The new regime has quite plainly placed a low priority on having a strong hit tool so long as a player has other skills to contribute. If that’s something that bothers you as a fan, well, then you’re either going to need to find a new team to root for or get over it.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs