The Milwaukee Brewers managed a two-game series split at home with the Indians despite scoring only five total runs in both contests, and the offense has by and large been a disappointment so far this season. Our local nine is off to a 21-16 start and began the day only a half-game back of the Cardinals for first place in the division, but the club is sporting a run differential of -3 and the lineup has looked positively anemic at times early on. Only Miami is scoring less on average than Milwaukee’s 3.70 runs per game, and only two teams in the NL have a lower OPS+ than Milwaukee’s mark of 85. Fortunately, the pitching staff has been able to pick up the slack - the team’s collective 3.44 ERA ranks fifth-best in all of baseball, buoyed by the league’s second-best bullpen (2.61 ERA).
The Brewers were shutout eight times during all of 2017, but so far have been shutout a league-high seven times through their first 37 contests in 2018. The lineup has certainly been difficult to watch at times, including their five hit, 14 strikeout performance in Carlos Carrasco’s complete game yesterday. But through the eyes of at least one metric, bad luck may be playing a larger factor in Milwaukee’s offensive struggles than we may realize.
Weighted on-base average, or wOBA, is an all-encompassing offensive metric that attempts to describe how effective a hitter is at the plate. It is one of the main factors used when calculating a given player’s Weighted Runs Created Plus, or wRC+, which is a statistic that we reference often here around Brew Crew Ball. Expected weighted on-base average, or xwOBA, is a Statcast metric formulated using exit velocity and launch angle with the purpose of describing how effective a hitter should be at the plate based on the quality of their contact. By focusing on expected outcomes versus what actually happened, xwOBA is thought to be more indicative of a player’s skill because it removes defense from the equation. As they state on the Statcast site, “[h]itters, and likewise pitchers, are able to influence exit velocity and launch angle but have no control over what happens to a batted ball once it is put into play.”
Below, you’ll find a chart of Milwaukee’s xwOBA totals less their actual wOBA marks to show the difference between the actual and expected outcomes so far this season (for reference, the league-average wOBA for non-pitchers is .320):
|Player||Results||xwOBA - wOBA|
|Player||Results||xwOBA - wOBA|
|Ji-Man Choi||0.591 - 1.232||0.641|
|Jonathan Villar||0.239 - 0.283||0.044|
|Lorenzo Cain||0.348 - 0.356||0.008|
|Orlando Arcia||0.233 - 0.239||0.006|
|Domingo Santana||0.304 - 0.297||-0.007|
|Jett Bandy||0.262 - 0.253||-0.009|
|Brett Phillips||0.158 - 0.135||-0.023|
|Hernan Perez||0.283 - 0.255||-0.028|
|Ryan Braun||0.335 - 0.307||-0.028|
|Travis Shaw||0.353 - 0.320||-0.033|
|Christian Yelich||0.385 - 0.350||-0.035|
|Eric Thames||0.434 - 0.394||-0.04|
|Jesus Aguilar||0.424 - 0.381||-0.043|
|Manny Pina||0.288 - 0.236||-0.052|
|Jacob Nottingham||0.263 - 0.198||-0.065|
|Eric Sogard||0.255 - 0.159||-0.096|
|Nick Franklin||0.106 - 0.000||-0.106|
According to xwOBA, only four of the 17 position players that have appeared for Milwaukee this season are over-performing based on their quality of contact. One of those players is Ji-Man Choi, who has logged only one plate appearance this season, and two others - Lorenzo Cain and Orlando Arcia - are within less than a 10 point difference of their actual wOBA. On the other side, 13 of Milwaukee’s offensive players have produced results that are less productive than their expected outcomes suggest.
A couple players - Domingo Santana and Jett Bandy - come in slightly only below their expected results. But for the other 11 hitters, there are differences of between 20 to over 100 points between their actual wOBA totals and the expected marks. Eric Sogard sticks out as someone specifically who dealt with poor luck before accepting a demotion to Colorado Springs; he hit only .100/.194/.150 in 68 plate appearances with a .140 BABIP despite hitting the ball hard in 31.8% of his plate appearances, far-and-away a career high. Sogard, Hernan Perez, and Manny Pina are all still seen as below-average in the eyes of xwOBA, but there is still a big difference between a hitter being simply below-average versuses almost totally useless.
Eric Thames, Jesus Aguilar, and Christian Yelich have been three of Milwaukee’s most effective batters in 2018, but xwOBA thinks they should each be between 35 and 45 points higher than where they are at right now. Travis Shaw and Ryan Braun have both shown in the past that they are capable of carrying a lineup, but so far their results haven’t exactly shown that in 2018; according to xwOBA, however, they both should be performing at well above-average rates based on the contact they’ve made this season.
When compared to last year’s squad, the Brewers are taking a similar amount of walks (8.7% vs. 9.2%), making a similar amount of hard contact (35% vs. 35.4%), and are actually striking out quite a bit less (23% vs. 24.9%). Two notable differences between the lineups stand out. First is their lack of thump this season, with a collective .147 Isolated Power mark in 2018 versus a .189 ISO last year. Part of this drop could be attributed to a near-four point decrease in HR/FB rates (13.9% vs. 17.7%) across the two seasons. But it probably also has a lot to do with point number two - the team’s .286 BABIP from their non-pitchers, which is the 21st-worst mark in baseball and a 26 point drop from their .312 total last season. It’s impossible to ignore that statistics when questioning why the club’s cumulative wOBA has dropped from .330 in 2017 to .303 in 2018. At the very least, Sogard, Pina (.158), Perez (.224), Thames (.225), Shaw (.229) and Braun (.272) can all point to their paltry BABIP totals as part of the reason why the offense isn’t generating more runs.
Scoring is down across the league in 2018 (4.34 R/G versus 4.58 R/G in 2017), but Milwaukee’s struggles can’t be attributed to a slight change in the run-scoring environment. Really, what it may come down to is as simple a long string of bad luck, at least if you’re willing to buy into xwOBA. Hopefully a trip to Coors Field will be medicine this team needs to turn their luck around and get their offense going at a rate closer to what the numbers say it should be this season.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball-Savant