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Diving into the Brewers’ early-season home run woes

The Brewers have allowed the most home runs in the National League through the season’s first dozen games. Is it bad pitching, bad luck, or just a statistical fluke?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret Brewers pitchers have struggled with allowing home runs in the first dozen games of the 2019 season.

The game has changed as more hitters are selling out for power, but the Brewers have allowed home runs at a pretty alarming rate, even by present-day standards. Their 23 homers allowed are tied for second-most in the majors with Boston. Those two teams trail only Baltimore, who has allowed 27 home runs in 11 games. It’s not just the Brewers, either, as home runs are up as a whole across the board. Chris Sale has allowed 4 home runs already this year after giving up 11 all of last year. Jacob deGrom gave up 3 home runs to the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night, a part of the 6 that the Twins hit during the contest.

It’s almost impossible to draw conclusions from just 12 games, but it’s probably safe to say teams won’t continue to hit homers off of Brewers pitching at the current pace. The pitchers the Brewers are employing are too talented and the early numbers are simply too ridiculous.

As it stands, about 24.2% of all hits the Brewers have allowed this season have gone for home runs. That’s the highest rate in the league, and Baltimore (23.9%), Philadelphia (22%), Arizona (21.4%) and Boston (20.1%) are the only other teams above 20% at this point in the year. That will ratio eventually come down one way (allowing fewer home runs) or another (just allowing more hits) — last year, the Brewers allowed 173 home runs, but those accounted for only 13.7% of the hits they allowed that season.

The Brewers’ organizational pitching philosophy of pitching high in the zone leads to fewer hits overall — as of now, the team is in the middle of the road in terms of hits allowed — but also generates the risk of some of the fly balls carrying out of the park. When the league average home run-to-fly ball ratio is about 10-12%, that’s generally a risk worth taking. But to this point, the Brewers are sitting at twice that mark at 20.9% — again, almost assuredly unsustainably high. Last year’s Brewers wound up with a 12.5% HR/FB rate with a fairly similar pitching staff.

It’s probably no surprise that Corbin Burnes has been bitten by this the most. Despite otherwise pitching well with 18 strikeouts in 2 starts, he’s been tagged for 6 home runs in his first 10 innings of 2019 after giving up a grand total of 4 in the 38 innings pitched during the regular season last year. Half of the hits and 3/4 of the fly balls he’s allowed this year have carried out of the park. Everything we know about Burnes as a pitcher would seem to indicate this is just a cluster of bad outcomes — even pitching in Colorado Springs last year, he only gave up 7 home runs in 78.2 innings, and in 2017 he only gave up 3 home runs in 145.2 innings. Of this year’s home runs, 2 of the 6 came on high fastballs that may not have even been called strikes if Jason Heyward or Paul DeJong didn’t swing at them.

Some of it comes also comes down to the competition they’ve faced so far, and possibly the ball they’ve been pitching with. The Brewers are playing one of the toughest April schedules in the league, and a bulk of the home runs — 18 of the 23 — have come at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, who are likely two of the three best offenses the Brewers will see this year (of course, the third, the Los Angeles Dodgers, are next on the schedule). Paul Goldschmidt, a player who has historically done significant damage against the Brewers, accounts for 4 of those home runs. Heyward, taking advantage of the left-hander-friendliness of Miller Park, accounts for another 3.

Compounding matters, about a week ago Baseball Prospectus used radar readings to measure the amount of “drag” on the baseball over the years and found so far this year, the baseballs themselves are possibly more aerodynamic than they’ve ever been — something that leads to more balls carrying into the bleachers instead of the warning track. We could be in for another year of record-breaking home run totals across the board, which would mean the Brewers aren’t the only team that will struggle with bouts of tater-serving.

That doesn’t change the fact the Brewers have given up more home runs than just about everyone else, but we’re also less than two weeks into the season and we’ve already seen extremes on both ends — both with the home run binges in the Cardinals and Cubs series, and with only allowing a single home run in 3 games in the bandbox that’s Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

It doesn’t make it any less frustrating to see Tommy La Stella go deep 3 times in 2 days, but the odds are this won’t continue. Even simply giving up home runs at a slightly above-average rate (where the team could realistically end up, given the youth of the rotation and their bouts of iffy command) would be a pretty significant improvement and put the Brewers in a position to succeed, given the strength of their own offense.

To some, this may come off as excuse-making. The home runs are what actually happened, after all, not what should have happened, and discussions about xFIP and normalized home run rates will likely have to change sometime soon if home runs keep getting hit at their current rate. In the end, Brewers pitchers — and Burnes specifically — need to do a better job of locating and limiting hard contact.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs