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Finding ways to spark the Milwaukee Brewers’ offense

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In a world of statistics, maybe it’s the mental game that is playing a big role

Pittsburgh Pirates v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Through the Milwaukee Brewers’ first 35 games, the offense has posted a putrid 3.77 runs per game. That makes Milwaukee the 2nd-worst NL team in runs scored, behind the Miami Marlins (3.38). Tuesday night’s moonshot not withstanding, I don’t believe Brent Suter is the answer.

It wouldn’t seem anyone saw this type of impotent performance coming in 2018, but something clearly isn’t clicking, so a change or two might do some good. Sometimes it just takes the bats a while to heat up. Other times it is an adjustment of thought.

Here’s a look at three possible ways the Brewers can awaken from their offensive slumber.

Swing More Often...After the First Pitch

A quick look at the numbers indicates the Brewers are simply taking too many pitches in the strike zone. Entering Tuesday night’s game, Milwaukee batters were swinging at only 63.9% of pitches in the zone, the 6th-lowest percentage out of 30 MLB teams.

It stands to reason that clubs are exploiting the Brewers’ lack of aggressiveness in the zone. Milwaukee is seeing the 3rd-most pitches over the plate at 44.6%, essentially challenging them on a regular basis. And yet, the Brewers keep watching - either causing them to fall behind in counts or not taking advantage when they’re ahead.

The good news is that they are in the middle of the road in terms of swinging at pitches outside the zone (29.6%), 18th in baseball. Continuing to lay off balls at that rate - while increasing their quality hacks at strikes - will certainly improve production.

However, those swings within the strike zone should rarely be on the first pitch. When the Brewers offer at the opening pitch of an at-bat, the result is a .632 OPS overall, the 6th-worst mark across MLB.

On the flip side, whether a Brewers’ batter falls behind 0-1 or gets ahead 1-0 in the count, the difference in production on that pitch is negligible. Milwaukee owns a .900 OPS and .896 OPS respectively on those second pitches.

Rearrange the Lineup

Yes, I’m aware that the sabrmetric belief is that the difference between the optimal lineup and the worst lineup is only about one win over the course of 162 games. While the value of advanced statistics are inarguable, this theory feels empty for two reasons: 1) This can’t actually be proven, and 2) It takes out any human factor.

Perhaps some guys hit worse - or better - in certain spots. Maybe a particular grouping of hitters together creates more problems than solutions. Some players’ skill sets over time might also require an adjustment in thinking.

For example, Ryan Braun simply isn’t the same everyday, savant hitter he was a few years ago. He shows flashes of brilliance, but he shouldn’t be given his “guaranteed spot” in the three hole.

Meanwhile, Domingo Santana was an absolute stud when hitting second in 2017. Yes, it was a small sample size (29 games), but it’s hard to argue with a .438 OBP and .570 slugging for a 1.009 OPS in the two spot.

Considering the struggles thus far in 2018, what could it hurt to rearrange the regular lineup a bit and give it a chance to see if it sparks anything. It can’t get much worse. Here’s a couple of thoughts.

Vs. Right-Handed Starters

  1. Christian Yelich (LF)
  2. Domingo Santana (RF)
  3. Lorenzo Cain (CF)
  4. Travis Shaw (3B)
  5. Ryan Braun (1B)
  6. Jonathan Villar (2B)
  7. Manny Pina (C)
  8. Pitcher (P)
  9. Orlando Arcia (SS)

First of all, Yelich and his career .368 OBP makes for a fine leadoff man. Cain has spent most of his career hitting third.

As for second base, at worst, Villar should get a more consistent look without a better option ready. He might surprise if he doesn’t feel like every mistake leads to a benching. Plus, putting him in front of Pina and the pitcher should be a free pass to run at will.

As for Arcia, put him in a spot where he can just worry about hacking. Placing a free-swinger in front of the pitcher is a recipe for disaster. Instead, make him a second leadoff hitter of sorts where it could help him relax and become a dangerous bat ahead of your best guys. He will certainly get better pitches to attack.

Vs. Left-Handed Starters

  1. Lorenzo Cain (CF)
  2. Domingo Santana (RF)
  3. Christian Yelich (LF)
  4. Jesus Aguilar (1B)
  5. Travis Shaw (3B)
  6. Nate Orf/Jonathan Villar (2B)
  7. Manny Pina (C)
  8. Pitcher (P)
  9. Orlando Arcia (SS)

Jesus Aguilar has destroyed left-handed starters (.898 OPS). Sure, Braun has, too - but he needs some days off. Aguilar really shouldn’t start against righties if you can avoid it (.718 OPS).

Yes, I snuck in a potential Nate Orf role at second base against lefties. He only has a .389 career OBP in the minor leagues, including a .455 mark in Triple-A Colorado Springs this year. Plus, he is generally regarded as a solid defender.

Meanwhile, against a southpaw, Yelich and Shaw should take a slight step back in their roles. With Cain, Santana and Aguilar creating big production, Yelich and Shaw need only to contribute situationally.

Just Try a Bit More Consistency

Again, I understand the modern thinking of giving guys extra days off and trying to keep your bench fresh. Joe Maddon recently discussed the virtues of almost never having the same lineup, while being quite condescending toward those who think some consistency has value itself.

As with everything, it might just depend on the type of players a club has to work with. There may be a handful of Brewers - perhaps most of them - who truly feel they need regular work to get into a groove.

Craig Counsell has done a fabulous job with the bullpen this season. However, it’s starting to look like his “position-player group” isn’t actually too effective with this particular set of men. Since taking over early in 2015, Counsell’s offenses have been lacking.

2015 – 4.04 runs per game (22nd in MLB, 9th in NL)

2016 – 4.14 runs per game (25th in MLB, 11th in NL)

2017 – 4.52 runs per game (21st in MLB, 11th in NL)

2018 – 3.77 runs per game (27th in MLB, 14th in NL) - through May 7

It’s possible there is just too much “in-and-out” for the best options on the team to contribute as much as they can. Meanwhile, many of the reserve players aren’t doing much anyway.

Once again, there is a human element to all of this. Of course, there will be plenty of times certain guys need a day off; however, it seems like Counsell over-emphasizes the amount of time his (traditionally) bench players need on the field.

Giving a core group of 8-10 guys a normal routine with a consistent lineup for righties and a regular lineup versus lefties, might get something going in a positive direction. A manager should do whatever he feels is necessary to help his players succeed - even if moves like this seem to contradict his general belief.

In the end, what do the Brewers have to lose? Their pitching - especially the bullpen - is almost exclusively responsible for their record. If the bats continue to run cold, the losses will soon outpace the wins.

With the offense scoring a measly 3.77 runs per contest, there would appear to be very little downside to mixing things up a bit. And if it’s “confidence” and “egos” they’re worried about - take a look at the facts. Those should be damaging their psyche plenty these days.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference