The Milwaukee Brewers ranked 5th in OBP in the NL this season, due in large part to their league-leading 629 walks. Typically, those stats go hand-in-hand with plenty of run production, and requires consistent patience from many hitters in the lineup. However, if the Brewers are going to win their do-or-die Wild Card matchup, they could benefit from being LESS patient.
Milwaukee is facing the Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer, one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. Despite some struggles in the second half of the season, he still finished the year 4th in fWAR among pitchers (6.5), 7th in WHIP (1.03), 7th in ERA+ (157), and 8th in ERA (2.92), He features an overpowering fastball and nasty slider to go with his intimidating bulldog mentality.
Many times, teams will go into a battle with this type of hurler with a plan to take pitches, hope to get into hitters’ counts, and get into the opposition’s bullpen by driving up the amount of pitches he throws. Tuesday night isn’t the normal situation – and Scherzer isn’t the type of power arm that will fall behind in counts due to a hitter’s patience.
Looking at Scherzer himself, there is a flaw in taking too many pitches – he doesn’t walk guys. Scherzer finished 8th in MLB in fewest walks per nine innings (BB/9) at 1.72 over 172.1 innings pitched. And once he jumps in front of hitter, he will often take care of the batter himself with a 12.69 strikeout-per-nine inning (K/9) rate, second in all of baseball to only Gerrit Cole (the likely AL Cy Young winner).
Letting Scherzer get ahead with a first-pitch fastball (or get-me-over slider) feels like a death sentence. Speaking of that first pitch, Scherzer is throwing 70.3% of first pitches for strikes – the second-highest mark of his career and his highest percentage since 2015. On the flip side, he is throwing among the fewest amount of pitches in the strike zone in his career, with just 45.6% in the zone.
That certainly indicates his game plan is to get ahead on that first pitch, then get hitters into swing mode with fastballs and sliders (maybe a few changeups) in the dirt, above the hands, and off the plate. As a batter, it’s an uncomfortable feeling falling behind Scherzer on a regular basis. That is especially true for a team like the Brewers who struck out 1,563 times (2nd-most in the NL) or 9.65 times per game.
With all that as the backdrop, Milwaukee might as well hack away like they’re the antagonist in a horror film (it is October after all). Hunting first-pitch strikes - particularly fastballs - and looking to drive the ball is likely the Crew’s best chance.
Scherzer has allowed an .871 OPS on the first pitch in 2019, and sure, many pitchers’ numbers on that opening delivery of an at-bat are worse than other counts; however, banking on getting ahead 1-0 and putting a ball in play on that count is highly unlikely. It’s only happened 25 times all season vs. Scherzer (out of 693 total plate appearances). If you get to that count and hit a playable ball, now it’s up to a .920 OPS. But again, you have a 3.6% chance of that happening in 2019.
Keep in mind, an 0-1 count against Mad Max hasn’t been horrible, either. Hitters have an .871 against him on that count as well, meaning (again), keep hacking away. He has actually given up more home runs on an 0-1 count (3) than he has in a 1-0 count (1). Stay aggressive - he’s mostly attacking the zone before he gets to two strikes.
Realistically, if you don’t put the ball in play within the first two pitches of an at-bat against Scherzer, you’re in big trouble. And if you think you’re going to see a three-ball count more than a couple times in a game, good luck with that. Scherzer has pitched with three balls on a hitter 118 times this season - a mere 17% of opponents’ plate appearances.
If he seems wild from the start or the zone is tight, then maybe the Brewers can take advantage of a few counts in their favor. If - and that’s a big if - they can put themselves in a 2-1 or 3-1 count, the Brewers need to do damage. The OPS on Scherzer for balls in play on those counts rises to more than 1.400 and 1.500 respectively. Again, the problem is, it’s a rare occurrence.
So what about the “grind it out” strategy that gets the starter out of the game and into the opposition’s bullpen? Normally against the Nationals, that would be a fantastic way to expose a weakness. Washington’s usual relief options are an enormous weak link for a 93-win club. Those aren’t the first options out of the 'pen Tuesday, however.
Stephen Strasburg, who has been among the top starters in the NL this season, looks to be the first arm in relief. His numbers aren’t too far off from Scherzer’s, making the Brewers’ lives tougher than usual if they get into the pen. The second option is another starter in Patrick Corbin. While he isn’t quite up to par with the other two, he’s a high-end arm who boasted a better ERA+ than Strasburg. Plus, he’s a lefty that could potentially neutralize Mike Moustakas, Trent Grisham, and Eric Thames.
The one saving grace is that, perhaps, these guys’ inexperience pitching out of the bullpen will render them less effective - not that the Brewers shouldn’t count on that. All this still seems to point to an aggressive game plan against Scherzer being the best option.
He’s been far from ace-like late in the year, particularly after coming back from an injury. In his last five starts, Scherzer has a 5.16 ERA and a .725 OPS against - so the Brewers have an opportunity to put up a few runs. If they are going to get to Scherzer, however, it likely needs to be early in the game and early in counts.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference