While the 2017 Milwaukee Brewers had their share of strong individual performances, they ended up 20th out of 30 MLB teams (10th out of 15 in the NL) in runs scored at 4.52 runs per game. Considering they finished just one game out of a Wild Card spot, it’s safe to say some slight improvements at the plate and on the bases would’ve made a difference.
The acquisitions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain should be enormous factors in a run-scoring boost for the 2018 Brewers. Additionally, should a few players step up their games in a statistic or two, the cumulative effect should mean a better, more consistent offensive output - and ideally - a few more wins.
There are four specific areas where Milwaukee can take strides from last season to develop into a playoff-ready offense from Opening Day to game 162.
On-Base Percentage (OBP)
The 2017 Brewers ranked 17th in baseball with a .322 OBP - 10th in the NL. Although OBP is a fairly basic stat, simply put, getting on base regularly creates more runs. Three players with more than 400 plate appearances - Keon Broxton, Jonathan Villar and Hernan Perez - were below the .300 mark.
Domingo Santana (.371) and Eric Thames (.359) paced Milwaukee and earned spots in the top 45 in MLB, but there were too many guys who struggled to reach base. Though there will likely be regression from Santana, the additions of Cain and Yelich will more than make up for that - and vastly improve the team OBP over the likes of Perez and Broxton.
Yelich (.369) and Cain (.363) were 31st and 36th respectively in OBP in 2017, which would have put them second and third on the Crew. With Yelich owning a .369 career mark and Cain sitting at .342, both are proven commodities despite playing their home games in pitchers’ ballparks.
Two other intriguing on-base percentages to watch are Ryan Braun’s and those at second base. Braun finished last season at .336, nearly 30 points below his .364 career OBP. Health and a better lineup around him will certainly help. Meanwhile, the potential timeshare at second could mean a boost in OBP if Villar can push closer to his 2016 numbers (.369 OBP) and Eric Sogard can remain effective in a part-time role.
Walks per Strikeout (BB/K)
Milwaukee finished tied for 24th in BB/K ratio at 0.35 in 2017. It was also the second straight season the Brewers set the MLB record for strikeouts. And though the Brewers’ 8.9% walk percentage was respectable (11th in MLB), it wasn’t enough to offset the whiffs. One interesting thing to keep in mind - the top seven teams in baseball in BB/K ratio all made the playoffs last year.
If you’re looking for returning players taking some steps forward in this area, Orlando Arcia and Thames are intriguing. Arcia ranked 102nd in MLB at just 0.36 BB/K on the year. He is still a developing hitter, has almost nowhere to go but up, and he had some big months in this area. Arcia posted a 0.58 BB/K in May, 0.54 BB/K in July, and 0.67 in September/October in 2017. He will never be a patient hitter, but he shows promise here.
Thames saw varying levels of success throughout the season. Overall, Thames was 75th (0.46 BB/K) in baseball - the top Brewers’ hitter among qualified batters. Thames was phenomenal in April and May (0.75 BB/K), which coincided with his best months as a hitter as well. His BB/K rate slumped in the middle months, but bounced back in September.
As for the newcomers in Yelich and Cain - once again, they boost the club in this statistic. Yelich was 39th last season (0.58) while Cain ranked 55th in MLB (0.54). Those two would’ve easily been the best two hitters on the Brewers in 2017 in terms of walks per strikeout.
Swing percentage outside the strike zone (O-Swing%)
Unsurprisingly for a team that strikes out so often, the Milwaukee Brewers swung at the eighth-highest percentage of pitches outside the strike zone (31.0%) in 2017. Of course, swinging at so many pitches outside the zone doesn’t only rack up punch outs, it also results in more frequent weak contact and outs on balls in play.
Hernan Perez was the biggest culprit among Brewers with 300+ plate appearances. Perez swung at 41.3% of pitches out of the zone - the eighth-highest percentage in MLB. With Perez getting 458 plate appearances in 2017, Milwaukee should benefit from giving Perez less playing time with their glut of outfielders (Perez played in 88 games in the outfield last season).
Arcia finished second among Milwaukee hitters in highest outside-the-zone swings based on percentage (38.7%). As noted above, he should make at least small strides in his plate discipline as he enters his second full season at 23 years of age. Travis Shaw will be another returning hitter to watch. He ended 2017 at 29.3% - an improvement on his 32.7% in Boston - but saw a big spike upward in August and September (34% and 33.6%). If he stays closer to the 27% mark he was at from April-July, his performance will continue to drive the Brewers.
And of course, again, the trade for Yelich will pay dividends in this area. Yelich had an O-Swing% of just 25% in 2017, good for 26th in all of baseball among qualified hitters. His approach at the top of the lineup will help the rest of the guys behind him over the course of the season.
Extra Bases Taken Percentage (XBT%)
This statistic measures the percentage of times a base runner advances more than one base on a single and more than two bases on a double (when possible). It’s a bit niche, but it does give you an idea of a team and player’s ability to safely and aggressively run the bases.
Last year, the Milwaukee Brewers tied for 26th in MLB (tied for 13th in the NL) at 35%. Only the Cincinnati Reds had a lower XBT% in all of baseball. While some of this is about speed, it’s not the only factor. Thames and Shaw were at the lower end at 27% and 26% respectively. Braun also didn’t do very well, taking just 36% of extra bases available. Meanwhile, a speedster in Villar was at 42% - tied for 91st in MLB (minimum 400 plate appearances) with Joey Gallo and Daniel Murphy, who are not fast...at all.
So how does Milwaukee improve in this area? Santana was 22nd in baseball (54%) and Arcia ranked 35th (51%) - they were the top Brewers in 2017. It’s difficult to see them improve on those numbers. However, one last time, Yelich and Cain benefit the Crew. They bring strong base running tools with them on top of everything else. They sat at 51% (35th) and 48% (51st) in XBT%, both better than Broxton (43%) and Perez (40%).
Small jumps by the guys with lower XBT% can low-key add value to the Brewers’ base running in 2018. But the one guy who could truly tilt the field remain Villar. In 2016, when he posted a .369 OBP, Villar took the extra base 56% of the time to rank in the top-20. His dip to 42% last season is partially attributed to simply not being on base as often. If Villar can push his OBP back toward even .330-.340, he will make a large impact on the bases.
The Milwaukee Brewers have a tremendous opportunity to climb the charts in these four offensive areas. With boosts in a few of these statistics, it will make the Crew’s offense more consistent, more dangerous, and better prepared to win games when the pitching falters.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.