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On Chris Hook and the early season inconsistencies of the Brewers’ pitching staff

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Brewers pitching was bad and now it is good. Why?

Colorado Rockies v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Right after the series with Colorado, where the Rockies scored eleven runs in each of the last two games of the series and Milwaukee’s pitching staff (outside of a few exceptions) was not being overly effective as “out-getters”, I noticed on Brewers’ talk radio and Twitter that a lot of folks (none of which were our loyal BCB readers) were beginning to question the competence of Brewers’ pitching coach, Chris Hook. With the criticism of Hook came the comparisons to last year’s pitching coach, Derek Johnson who bolted Milwaukee for Cincinnati. The reaction from those calling into question Chris Hook and pining for the better days of Derek Johnson is a natural reaction, although an unfair one.

How can we forget the amazing run the Milwaukee Brewers went on in the later part of last season? Chasing down and catching the Cubs for a division title and getting one victory away from getting to the World Series. That was a great ride, to say the least. There were a lot of reasons for the run: Christian Yelich’s MVP performance, the “Electric Dudes” shutting games down, Jesus Aguilar’s first half performance, Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley pitching beyond career norms, Lorenzo Cain’s defensive prowess and OBP, and Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Brandon Woodruff making significant contributions. In fact, pitching for the Brewers in 2018 was pretty good, especially in the bullpen. See 2018 ranking by fWAR as well as other team pitching stats below. Derek Johnson was a significant reason for the Brewers’ pitching success in 2018.

2018 team pitching rankings by WAR

In fact, a ton of credit went to Johnson for bringing a staff that was not supposed to be that good and making them a quality group. The result was an enhanced reputation among MLB front offices across the league, and rightfully so. One of those MLB front offices, Cincinnati, “stole” him from the Brewers’ organization. According to Adam McCalvy at the time: “Johnson’s departure left a significant void, since the Brewers pushed hard to convince him to stay, according to general manager David Stearns.”

When Johnson decided to leave Milwaukee for Cincinnati (can’t stress that enough), the Brewers had to scramble to replace him. Milwaukee stayed in-house and hired pitching coordinator, Chris Hook. The strong reasoning behind the hire, Hook is familiar with all of the Brewers’ young arms as he was their minor league pitching coach.

Coming into the May 3 game against the New York Mets, the pitching staff had not been faring well. There were a lot of home runs being hit off Milwaukee pitching. At times, the pitching just looked sloppy. The results were manifest and answers for why were being asked. If we take the team rankings for pitching WAR for 2019, we see a big difference from what we observe in the above list from 2018.

2019 team pitching rankings by WAR as of 5/3/2019

Brewers’ pitching went from #11 in WAR in 2018 to #27 as of May 3, 2019. That was a significant fall, and the results were showing up on the field. Whether it was Corbin Burnes giving up homers off “meatballs” getting too much of the zone, Josh Hader being hit harder than just about any other pitcher in MLB (when contact is actually made), Freddy Peralta’s inability with command early in games, or the relief corp failing to maintain leads and/or keep the opposition from scoring, Brewers’ pitching was struggling.

When something seems to be going worse than it had been in previous times, and there is a change in leadership with regard to that “something,” the new guy always gets the brunt of the blame. In this case the new guy was Chris Hook. Local media were starting to ask questions about the new pitching coach as was the fanbase.

The facts are, the Brewers were ranking in the lower portion of MLB in a lot of important pitching categories: #27 in team ERA (5.10), #28 in HR/FB% (18.5%), #26 in BB/9 (4.08), and #27 in Hard% (40%). Of course, Chris Hook is the responsible party, right? He has responsibility, but it is way too early hold him responsible. An important thing to consider, how well you think Derek Johnson would do if the following were the case?

- Three unproven pitchers would begin the season as part of the starting rotation.

- Three of the four most effective relief arms from 2018 would not be available to begin the season.

- One of the relief options was done for the year prior to the season beginning.

- One of the other relief options had a shoulder issue that might impact his future performance.

- The remaining and most valuable relief arm of the group is giving up hard contact rates in the 1st percentile in all of baseball.

- No real contingency plan was put into place, just in case the three young pitchers fail to produce well enough.

I would venture that Chris Hook, Steve Karsay, Craig Counsell, David Stearns, and a multitude of others had been and continue to work to improve pitching results and understand the reality of the situation. Since the Colorado series, things have changed. Things have improved, and were improving prior to the two games where the Rockies scored eleven runs. The improvements likely are related to four areas.

1. The Brewers’ analytics department found data that could be useful for players and coaches to build off of.

2. The pitching coaches (both Brewers and AAA coaches) did their job effectively by conveying data for impactful usage by pitchers, working individually with pitchers regarding both mechanics and mindset, and in-game planning with regard to pitch usage and sequencing.

3. Changing the makeup of the starting rotation and bullpen by:

- Keeping Zach Davies, Jhoulys Chacin, and Brandon Woodruff in the rotation

- Removing Corbin Burnes and putting him in the bullpen

- Bringing in Gio Gonzalez

- Mixing, matching, and using frequent flyer miles to keep bullpen fresh and utilize depth

- And possibly utilizing an opener or tandem system for the fifth spot in the rotation.

4. Pitchers executing the plan

Let’s dig deeper into why the pitching was not performing prior to May 3 and quite possibly why it has been performing so well since. An advanced pitching metric called linear weighted pitch type might shed light on things. Essentially, linear weighted pitch type is a metric that allows us to measure the value of a certain type of pitch (fastball, curve, change, slider, cutter) in relation to hitters’ performance against that pitch. For example, a hitter might hit a pitcher or a team’s pitchers really hard when he/they throw fastballs. Or those same hitters might lay off a pitcher or team’s pitchers slider. The result for the pitcher or pitching staff would be a poor score on the measure.

For the Brewers there were two glaring differences between 2018 and everything prior to May 3, 2019. The fastball and the curve were not as effective. Linear weighted pitch type in regard to these pitches is categorized as wFB and wCB. You will see the differences when you look at the highlighted sections for each chart.

2018 rankings wFB
2019 rankings wFB as of 5/3/2019
2018 rankings wCB
2019 rankings wCB as of 5/3/2019

When you see significant differences in performance in a measurement type, it might just be an indicator of something to address. In 2018, the Brewers’ pitching staff was #5 in MLB in wFB (16.8) and #4 in wCB (14.4). That means whenever Brewers’ pitchers threw the fastball or curve, they were throwing those pitches more effectively than just about everyone else in baseball. In 2019, the Brewers’ pitching staff was and still is near the bottom of the league in both. Prior to the Mets game on May 3, the Brewers were #28 in MLB in wFB (-26.2) and #26 in wCB (-5.9). Both of those values suggest that the pitchers are not executing those pitches well.

Interestingly, the Brewers throw the fastball more than just about anyone else in MLB (prior to May 3 rank #1 and currently rank #2). In other words, the type of pitch the Brewers utilized more than just about anybody else was the type of pitch that they were having the least amount of success with compared to the rest of the league. That was some telling data. So what might the Brewers do with it plus other data at their disposal? (1) They could decide to stop throwing so many fastballs. (2) They could determine why pitchers are throwing the fastball ineffectively, and determine a better way. (3) They could find other pitches that are being thrown more effectively and increase their usage.

It seems that the Brewers are doing all three. Remember, only four games have been played since the Rockies series, but we can already see some results. The results are not significant in any way, and the sample size is too small to make conclusions. Yet the data are indicative of what might be changes made since the Rockies series and maybe even just before that series.

- Fastball usage is down by 0.2%.

- wFB has improved from -26.2 to -19.5

- Slider usage is up by 0.3%.

- wSL has improved from 9.7 to 10.5.

- wCH has improved from 7.8 to 10.0.

These data improvements suggest a concerted effort at a change in pitch sequencing and usage. They also suggest the stabilization that comes from replacing inexperienced pitchers who have not performed well with veteran pitchers who have while also attempting to get those younger pitchers into situations where they can better succeed. Nonetheless the Brewers need to better command the fastball as a team. Their hard hit percentages against and HR/FB are still close to the worst in baseball and have not shown improvement. Team ERA and team BB/9 have improved. That is a telling group of stats as well that suggest that the Brewers’ pitchers are still giving up home runs and extra base hits, but they are not allowing free passes at the same clip. That means there are less base runners on when those home runs and extra base hits occur, i.e. less runs given up. That is a step in the right direction.

The Brewers have won four in a row. The Brewers have given up just nine runs over the last 45 innings. The Brewers pitching has been exceptional over this small stretch of games. I do wonder if Chris Hook will get any credit for these results, especially if they continue in this way? Will he continue to be compared to Derek Johnson who is doing a fabulous job in Cincinnati? The Reds are currently #1 in team pitching WAR and #2 in team ERA in MLB, but Johnson’s team still sits at the bottom of the NL Central standings at 15-20.

Remember, Derek Johnson decided to leave Milwaukee. Chris Hook is our guy now. He is learning and it looks like he is figuring it out. Only time will tell in the end, but the early criticism of the pitching coach was probably unmerited. If the pitching continues to trend in the positive direction, he will have had something significant to do with it. Remember to acknowledge that vociferously.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs