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Hard-hitting Milwaukee Brewers offense just as hard to figure out

The pieces appear to be there, so will the struggle continue?

Colorado Rockies v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

With all the numbers and analysis in baseball these days, there are often countless ways to break down a team’s strengths, weaknesses, and reasons for their results. Then you come across a club like the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers, where it’s tough to figure out what they are as an offense – and how to predict success.

Many figured the Brewers would be among the top offensive teams this season, especially adding Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to the fold. Add in Jesus Aguilar’s All-Star first half, and one would have thought the 2018 run production would have easily out-paced last year’s club. Instead, the Brewers are averaging 4.39 runs per game – down from 4.52 in 2017.

Even now, you’ll hear plenty of experts and pundits talk about the strength of the Brewers being the offense. With so many people believing this, it’s certainly been frustrating to watch so many struggles and an often feast-or-famine offense.

Multiple injuries and regression have played a major role. Between Ryan Braun, Manny Pina, and Orlando Arcia, the significant dips in offense have hamstrung a chunk of the lineup. Especially in the first half of the season, Milwaukee’s order felt like it was four hitters deep at most – and that was when key players weren’t on the disabled list.

In fairness, the Brewers are averaging 5.17 runs per game since August 1st, the first game with both new acquisitions in Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop. Of course, the latter has done next-to-nothing so far. The additions have created more potential and a deeper lineup, so hopefully that trend continues.

And yet, the Brewers still appear to be a tough-to-figure out offense – at least based on some of the numbers they’ve posted. There may not be any final analysis to render from some of these stats, but they are interesting.

The Positive: Hard Hit Balls

Generally speaking, the harder you’re hitting baseballs, the more difficult it is for the defense to record outs. The Milwaukee Brewers rank 4th in all of baseball with 38.4% of balls considered “hard hit.” Of course, sometimes those hard hit balls also find gloves, and it definitely feels like the Brewers have hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

So, are they simply hitting balls “too hard” many times, where a ball carries to an outfielder instead of dropping in front? Or hit a rocket directly to an infielder, instead of dribbling them to an open spot on the diamond?

Well, the Brewers’ .298 BABIP doesn’t give much credence to the idea the Brewers have been unlucky. The .298 mark is three points higher than the MLB average and almost 10 points better than the three clubs that hit the ball hard more consistently. However, certain players appear to be victims.

Many have expressed concerns about Travis Shaw, but many numbers show him hitting the ball extremely well – with worse results. Shaw’s 38.1% hard hit ball percentage is the best of his career, but his BABIP is just .247, which is 31 points below his career average and 12th-lowest in MLB among qualified hitters.

Thus, Shaw could certainly fall into the unlucky category. He may also be the victim of aggressive shifts by the defense. That would definitely put a dent in his numbers, assuming Shaw hasn’t changed his tendency. He is also hurt by a much higher percentage of infield fly balls this year (12.7%), more than two percent higher than his career.

Braun is another player who people feel is getting robbed more often than not. The numbers bear that out. He is at 38.6% hard hit balls (2.3% above his average), while his BABIP sits at .274, a full 55 points under his career norm, and an 18 point drop from last season.

Considering Shaw and Braun (when healthy) have mostly hit in the middle of the order, these stats would explain some of the limited run production they would normally give the Brewers, specifically from an RBI perspective.

While Shaw’s hard hit percentage is a career high, there are five current Brewers with at least 120 plate appearances who have an even better percentage. Eric Thames has the fewest PAs of the bunch, but he delivers a hard hit ball 50% of the time. He would be 3rd in MLB with enough plate appearances.

From there you have Yelich (46.6%), Aguilar (43%), Braun (38.6%), and Cain (38.3%). Yelich is 10th in baseball, with Aguilar 28th. Of course, we’ve all seen what Yelich’s hard hit balls have produced this season, posting a .393 wOBA (10th in MLB) and 145 wRC+ (12 in MLB). Aguilar’s production follows right behind Yelich.

Unlike Shaw, Yelich has enjoyed the best BABIP in baseball (.394), easily the best in his career. Cain sits at .345, good for 19th in MLB. Both of these guys are boosted by their ability to run and beat out infield hits. Meanwhile, Aguilar’s .295 BABIP is right at league average. So, you can see how the hard hit percentage doesn’t necessarily correlate with BABIP or the perceived existence of luck.

Interestingly, near the bottom of MLB in BABIP with Shaw, lie Moustakas (.246) and Schoop (.259) with the 11th and 20th-lowest BABIP. For Moustakas, that sits close to his career norm, but Schoop’s current mark is nearly 40 points lower than his average. Perhaps it’s because he is hitting the ball hard only 27.4% of the time, three percent lower than in his career.

On the flipside, why isn’t Moustakas having better luck? He’s at 43.9% hard hit balls, more than 13 percent better than his career average and six-and-a-half percent higher than his best season. Well, like Shaw, shifting and a career high percentage of infield fly balls may be the culprits.

So maybe part of David Stearns’ desire to bring in these two hitters was a belief that Moustakas’ luck would turn around in a different hitting environment and that Schoop would return to his hard hit percentage norms.

As you can see, the Brewers as a team and individually are hitting plenty of balls on the screws with varying degrees of success. What’s odd is this: Despite ranking 4th in hard hit balls, the Milwaukee Brewers also hit the 5th-most balls softly. Among the top 12 teams in hard hit percentage, only the Brewers have a soft hit percentage of 18.3% or higher. Milwaukee sits at a stunning 19.4% this year.

The Negative…Mostly: Ground Balls

To produce the most runs on a consistent basis, teams want to keep the ball off the ground. Line drives create the most runs on average, followed by fly balls. Especially with all the shifting now, ground balls are death for hitters – usually.

If you want to find at least one reason for the Brewers’ offensive struggles, look to their 47.4% ground ball percentage (GB%). That ranks as the 2nd-highest mark in MLB and is two percentage points higher than last season. Thus, despite a slew of hard hit balls around the diamond, if they’re on the ground, they are easier to corral and if they do get through, mostly end up as singles.

Ground balls can also be the biggest rally killer when they result in double plays. The Brewers have hit into the 6th-most twin killings this season (93). Pina (12) and Aguilar (10) lead the way in double plays, followed by the severely struggling Arcia and former Brewers Jonathan Villar.

Villar and Arcia had the highest GB% at 63% and 60.2% respectively – not too surprising. They would be in the top four in baseball if they qualified. This could be another reason for the Moustakas and Schoop moves. Moose has a 36.8 GB% in his career, while Schoop who is above league average, still comes in well below Arcia and Villar at 44.8% in his career.

Of course, ground balls aren’t always necessarily evil when it comes to production. Cain has the 6th-highest GB% (55.6%) in MLB, but still owns a .390 OBP and 122 wRC+. Yelich, true to his career norms, hits lots of grounders too (54.8%) and ranks 8th in baseball. It hasn’t seemed to hurt him too much.

Meanwhile, the top five scoring teams in MLB are all over the map in terms of GB%. The Chicago Cubs hit the 6th-most groundballs. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are right in the middle, while the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians have some of the lowest ground ball percentages.

Two Areas of Concern – Still

They seem simple and obvious, but two major deficiencies the Brewers have compared to the top-scoring clubs in baseball lie in OBP and strikeouts.

Despite guys like Cain (.390) and Yelich (.385), Milwaukee ranks 18th with a .315 team OBP. That is actually five points worse than a year ago. Some of those OBP issues relate to the stats noted above, and some players have been not just bad, but awful and getting on base. The top five scoring offenses are all in the top six of OBP, between .345 and .329 this year.

As for the strikeouts, when looking at strikeout percentage (K%), it tells a similar story. The Indians, Astros, and Red Sox are the three best teams in K%, all whiffing under 20% of the time. The Cubs rank as 9th-lowest at 21%, while the Yankees are the outlier among the best offenses at 22.9% (9th-highest).

Milwaukee is sitting at 24.1% (5th-highest), and it definitely seems like they usually come at the worst time. Yes, there are simply more strikeouts in baseball now and many teams don’t care what the numbers balloon to overall. However, avoiding strikeouts – especially situationally – do play a role in scoring more consistently.

Teams are all similar in the amount of plate appearances they have with a runner on 3rd base and less than two outs. The Milwaukee Brewers have the 5th-most strikeouts in that situation. Meanwhile, the Cubs have 102 more plate appearances in the same scenario and yet have 11 FEWER strikeouts.

The Indians have nine fewer plate appearances with a man on 3rd and less than two outs, but they have struck out 38 fewer times. Putting the ball in play does matter at times.

What Does It All Mean?

The 2018 Milwaukee Brewers are tough to figure out offensively. They have a number of positives going for them, but also seem to be counteracted by major flaws. Some of it relate to the struggles of the entire bottom half of the lineup most of the season. Their issues were compounded by regression in areas like ground ball percentage as a whole.

On the flip side, it is fair to give some of the blame to bad luck and the impact of injuries. Shaw fighting a wrist injury didn’t help his performance. Thames’ as a platoon option with his power and OBP ability was missed. And as you saw, some of the batted ball numbers for players aren’t resulting in the expected outcomes.

Their OBP and strikeout issues will continue to haunt them, and it doesn’t seem like the additions of Moustakas and Schoop will improve in those areas. However, the key will be stretching the lineup and providing additional power where the OBP and contact is lacking.

From the looks of it, the Brewers are due to have a hot offensive streak or two down the stretch. Some luck is bound to come their way and an extended lineup with hard-hitting bats will lead to more power. A part of it will depend on the matchups with certain pitchers, and some will depend on manager Craig Counsell finding the right combination of players and batting order on a nightly basis.

Again, in the small sample we have since August 1st, the Brewers are averaging 5.17 runs per game. The pitching has shown some wear lately, so the club needs the offense more than ever. Let’s try to enjoy the ride, no matter where it takes us.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference