Over the past two years, the Milwaukee Brewers have embodied the sabermetric belief that strikeouts, while not ideal, aren’t much worse than any other kind of out. Nobody has struck out more times in each of the past couple seasons, and no team has seen a higher percentage of at-bats end with a whiff. In 2017, more than a quarter of Brewers ABs (25.6%) ended with a slow walk back to the dugout.
Like quite a few sabermetric theories, it’s a thought that has since been distorted and mocked in strawman fashion as “strikeouts don’t matter.” That’s a bit silly, since of course they do, and of course more good things can happen when you put the ball into play than when you don’t, but teams are finding it can sometimes be a fair tradeoff. The Brewers have embraced that, also ranking among the league leaders in home runs during the past two years.
It’s an approach that can be very productive, but as we saw at times in 2017 and 2016 (including virtually the entire second half of 2017), it’s one that can also lend itself to prolonged cold streaks -- especially when the big bats in the lineup all slump at the same time. A boom or bust offense is cheap to put together and fine when you’re rebuilding and not necessarily concerned with winning a large number of games. But there’s some recent evidence that when teams want to contend, a slightly more balanced approach may be needed.
Dennis Punzel from the Wisconsin State Journal notes that the Houston Astros, like the Brewers, didn’t care much about their strikeout totals during their rebuilding effort and whiffed 1,452 times in 2016. Last year, they cut down that number to 1,087 and had the lowest Three True Outcomes rate of any team on their way to a World Series title.
MLB is a copycat league, and Brewers GM David Stearns, a product of that Houston front office, may be thinking similarly this offseason, even if he isn’t specifically saying he’s working to cut down the strikeouts.
The proof may be in the additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. As I noted on the night the two moves were made, an underrated part of adding their bats to the lineup was their more contact-conscious approaches at the plate.
For those who complained about all of the Brewers' strikeouts last year, Cain and Yelich bring better contact and OBP skills to the lineup.— Jaymes L (@JaymesL) January 26, 2018
Yelich struck out in 19.7% of his at-bats in 2017, while Cain struck out in 15.5% of his. Cain would’ve had the second-lowest K% on the Brewers among those with at least 50 PA last year behind only Eric Sogard (12.4% in 299 plate appearances), while Yelich would’ve been just outside the Top 5 of Sogard, Hernan Perez (17.2%), Ryan Braun (17.9%), Orlando Arcia (18.2%) and Stephen Vogt (19.4%).
Of course, those additions aren’t just made in a vacuum -- in order to add those at-bats in the Brewers lineup next year, they’ll have to be taken away from somebody else. It just so happens that the at-bats Yelich and Cain figure to take away in 2018 will likely come from guys who had some of the highest strikeout rates on the team.
Domingo Santana, the subject of trade rumors over the past week following the trade and signing, had one of the highest strikeout percentages on the team, whiffing in 29.3% of his at-bats. Keon Broxton -- who figures to lose even more at-bats than Santana -- struck out in 37.8% of his at-bats, which would’ve been the highest in the league if he had enough at-bats to qualify. Jesus Aguilar, who would likely lose out on playing time if Ryan Braun does start at first base against left-handed pitching, struck out in 30.2% of his 311 plate appearances last year.
During a banquet in Madison, Stearns told Punzel the focus wasn’t solely on striking out less, but it could end up being a side effect of adding Yelich and Cain:
“It happens that the two players we’ve just added in Yelich and Cain are two players who don’t strike out a whole lot, but that wasn’t the objective. The objective was to figure out a way to score more runs. The fact that those guys don’t strike out and that’s how they help us score runs is a plus and should provide a little more balance throughout the lineup.”
”We don’t like outs and we do like runs. So we look for players who have the fewest number of outs and who we think are going to contribute the most runs, however they get there. If it’s through high contact and lots of singles, that’s great. If it’s through some strikeouts and some home runs, we’re OK with that, too. I do think at this point we have a balance of both on our team.”
It’s not just the new faces on the team that might take a more contact-minded approach. Brett Phillips, himself the subject of trade rumors due to the outfield logjam, was also at the same event in Madison and says he’ll make a more conscious effort to shorten up his swing on two strikes after striking out in 34.7% of his 98 plate appearances in his first taste of big league action:
“If you look at the movement of baseball, strikeouts are rising. So for us it’s getting back to the basics and a two-strike approach that we need to work on to just give the team a chance.”
Now, it’s one thing to say these things in the winter, and it’s another to put it into practice when you’re standing in the batter’s box and old habits come into play. And it’s not like the Brewers are going to suddenly turn into a small-ball minded club that will use Yelich to bunt Cain over to second base for Braun.
But at the very least, it looks like the Brewers are looking to cut down on the number of times they come up empty after promising starts to innings. Last year, the Brewers had 102 plate appearances with a runner on second base and nobody out. They struck out in 20 of those, or 19.6% of the time, and hit .259/.330/.376 in those situations. They had 159 plate appearances with a runner on second base and one out. They struck out in 42 of those (26.4%) and hit .212/.316/.365 in those situations. They had 222 plate appearances with a runner at second and two outs. They struck out in 62 of those (27.9%) and hit .197/.338/.333 in those situations.
Now, the team also suffered some bad BABIP luck in a few of those situations. But you can only have those discussions about BABIP luck if, you know, you put the ball into play. Adding the likes of Yelich and Cain to the top of the lineup should, in theory, give the team a boost by putting the ball into play more often.
Importantly, though, it’s not just any contact Yelich and Cain provide the lineup -- it’s quality contact. The indifference to strikeouts has grown across the league over the past few years because of the realization that weak contact isn’t all that much better than whiffing while trying to make hard contact. What makes Yelich and Cain stars, though, are the fact that they not only strike out less than average, but they also frequently hit the ball hard when they do make contact.
Yelich hit a line drive 19.4% of the time he made contact last year, while Cain hit it on a line 22.6% of the time. Neither are close to Santana’s line drive rate of 27.4%, but those numbers still would have been among the team’s best last year, in the neighborhood of Aguilar’s 21.3%, Jonathan Villar’s 20.8%, and the 20.3% rates put up by both Thames and Broxton.
Looking at the quality of contact another way, 48.8% of the balls Yelich put into the play last year with Miami qualified as mediumly-well hit, and 35.2% were classified as hard-hit. For Cain, those numbers were 50.2% and 31.1%, respectively. Yelich and Cain would’ve been the top two medium-hit rates among the 2017 Brewers, ahead of Santana’s 48.6% (discounting a handful of players who only played part-time or half a season like Sogard, Phillips and Neil Walker).
Their hard-hit rates don’t compare to those of Aguilar (45.2%), Thames (41.5%) or Santana (39.7%), but again, it’s a trade-off -- with the higher hard-hit rates come bigger strikeout rates. By adding Yelich and Cain to the lineup, the Brewers now have a little bit of everything from top to bottom -- much like the 2017 Astros -- and that should hopefully mean fewer stretches where the offense struggles to scratch together one or two runs.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference