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A deep dive into the pitching troubles for the Milwaukee Brewers, part three: pitcher execution

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Chacin, Jeffress, and Hader are all less effective in 2019

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

As I mentioned in part one of this three part series examining why the pitching is not as strong in 2019 as 2018 (at least to this point), the reasons are multifaceted. The loss of key pitchers due to free agency or injury have taken a toll on overall pitching results in 2019. Decreases in defense across the board, but especially from the up-the-middle positions (centerfield, shortstop, second base, and catcher) have resulted in Milwaukee pitchers not getting the same level of support in 2019 as they enjoyed in 2018. With all of that in mind, the pitchers that the Brewers send out to the mound still needs to execute pitches. They have not done as well as they should in this capacity.

Pitcher Execution: As a Team

While Zach Davies and Chase Anderson have improved on their 2018 performances, and Brandon Woodruff has emerged to a potential front-of-the-rotation starter, many of the Brewers’ pitchers have regressed in performance from 2018 to 2019. What is surprising is that as a team, most of the pitching statistics are remarkably similar or at least not significantly different from 2018 to 2019. Based on my research, I could only find five outcome statistics and two pitch value statistics that have enough variance between the two seasons, that might shed any light on why Brewers’ pitching is not as effective this season as it was last season. Those stats are ERA, WHIP, HR/9, HR/FB, batting average against, wFB and wCB.

The outcome statistics really only tell us something is different, wrong, or not as good as it once was in this case. It is well known that the team ERA and WHIP in 2018 (3.75 #5 in MLB and 1.24 #7 in MLB) was better than it currently stands in 2019 (4.65 #19 in MLB and 1.36 #17 in MLB). Those numbers just tell us the Brewers are not as good at pitching as they were.

It looks like, unsurprisingly, that other teams might be doing a better job of hitting and hitting home runs against them. In 2018 Milwaukee pitchers gave up 1.07 HR/9 which was #8 in MLB. Compare that to 1.38 HR/9 in 2019, which is #16 in MLB. Milwaukee pitchers have a HR/FB percentage of 15.6% in 2019 (#21 in MLB). In 2018 they had a HR/FB percentage of 12.5 (#14 in MLB).

Opposing hitters are getting more base hits as well. Batting average against in 2018 was .229, which is very good (#5 in MLB). In 2019, the results are not as good. Opposing hitters are batting .252 (#18 in MLB) against Brewers’ pitching.

So Brewers’ pitchers are not pitching as well as they were in 2018. Why? From a team perspective it is difficult to tell from the limited data available to the public. However pitch values tell us a bit about pitch execution. The pitch usage among Brewers’ pitchers is not that much different between the two seasons. Brewers’ pitchers throw fastballs about 59% of the time, which is about top 5 in baseball in terms of fastball usage. Slider usage is about 14-15%. The only real difference comes from curveball and changeup usage. Curveball usage went 10.4% to 9% and changeup usage went from 7.3% - 12.5%.

What becomes interesting is that fastball and curveball execution has floundered between the two seasons. wFB illustrates fastball value in terms of runs above average. In 2018 Brewers’ wFB pitch value ranked #5 in MLB at 16.8. This season wFB ranks #14 at -11.7. Brewers’ pitchers threw the curveball much better last season as well. The wCB pitch value ranked #4 in MLB at 14.4. This season it ranks at #26 at -14.2.

Unfortunately, we still do not know an answer or answers to why pitch execution has been less effective in 2019. Is it Hook? Is it Grandal? Is it the defense? At best those reasons are only a portion of the answer. The pitchers still have to execute the pitches they throw, and several of Milwaukee’s pitchers just are not as good as they were last season.

Part of this lack of execution is the result of throwing young pitchers like Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta into the mix quite possibly before they are ready. Even with Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser who have pitched really well, the Brewers’ staff, overall, has had issues executing pitches. However when we look at three pitchers who were supposed to be pitchers to lean on and see that they have not executed pitches as effectively as they did in 2018, we can see another reason why the pitching as been less than ideal in 2019. Those pitchers are Jhoulys Chacin, Jeremy Jeffress, and Josh Hader.

Pitcher Execution: Key Individuals

Jhoulys Chacin

Of all the pitchers on the Brewers’ staff, Jhoulys Chacin may have been the biggest disappointment this season after such a strong 2018 campaign. After a bit of a slow start, he provided solidity and effectiveness throughout the year. This season has been something totally different. As you can see for the graphic below his ERA and batting average against are just not in line with previous performance.

ERA and Batting Average Against Chacin

Jhoulys relies on his slider to be effective. In fact, Chacin has been noted for his ability at throwing that very pitch. Chacin’s slider was considered one of the best pitches in all of baseball; up there with Justin Verlander’s four seamer and Patrick Corbin’s slider. In fact, between 2016 and 2018, Chacin’s slider had the fifth best pitch value of any other pitcher in MLB. The slider is still easily Chacin’s best pitch this year, but in overall effectiveness it is nowhere near the level that it was last season. As you can see below the drop off from 2018 to 2019 is huge.

Pitch values career Chacin

His fastball has never been that good, but the slider certainly made the fastball as well as all other pitches in his repertoire play up. With the fall-off in slider effectiveness, he is not just a pedestrian pitcher, he is a bad pitcher. As you can see below, it seems he is not getting the pitch over for strikes in 2019 as he did in 2018. That likely means he is falling behind in counts, and that is always dangerous.

Chacin sliders 2019

Chacin slider usage 2018

Obviously there is the injury he suffered to his lat, but how long has that been a problem? There could be other injuries involved as well. Regression was a possibility for Chacin, but that regression should have approached career norms as opposed to a career-worst season.

Jeremy Jeffress

Jeremy Jeffress was just so good last season. His 1.29 ERA and 2.78 FIP were remarkable. His left on base percentage 92.9% was out of this world. When J.J. inherited runners, they did not score. That was absolutely huge in relation to Milwaukee’s success in 2018. It would be heated argument, but it could be argued that he was the Brewers’ most important reliever last season.

Unfortunately for Jeffress, he was not himself in October. He also was not himself coming into Spring Training as he pitched in just one game and only threw three pitches. He missed much of April due to his shoulder not responding properly. When he came back, he did not have the same velocity he’d shown previously. In fact, his fastball velocity has been 2 mph less this year (94.3 mph) as opposed to last year (96.2 mph). That is a primary reason why his 2019 looks nothing like 2018.

The results show up in the pitch values. His fastball grades well below last season as do his curveball and changeup.

Jeffress pitch values

The good news is that he is seems to be regaining some of his form. The bad news is that the Brewers have yet to enjoy the certainty that Jeremy Jeffress once provided for them in the bullpen. The results demonstrate his impact positively in 2018 and less so in 2019 (ERA - 1.29 vs. 4.75, WHIP 0.99 vs. 1.33, K/9 10.45 vs. 8.18, average against .181 vs. .259, and LOB% 92.9% vs. 66.1%).

Jeffress was critical to Milwaukee’s success in 2018. This season he has just been “a guy” that other teams might have released. He has begun to throw his split-change more over the past few games. That was a pitch he did not throw much at all earlier in the season. While he is hitting 96 mph on the gun occasionally, his velocity is not back, although in his second to last outing he did have an average fastball velocity of 95.5 mph. That was his best of the year to date.

Josh Hader

Josh Hader is relying too much on his fastball. 87.2% of the time he is letting his vaunted fastball fly. He threw the fastball 79% of the time in 2018. There has been a strategic move made to throw fastballs when Hader pitches. That is with good reason. It is one of the best pitches in baseball. With that fastball heavy strategy, he is striking opposing hitters out 48.4%. He is in the 100th percentile in baseball in K%. At times this season, he has been unhittable.

Unfortunately he has had two occasions this season where he has been hit, and hit hard. The first time was from April 15th through April 30th. He was striking out hitters 55.8% of the time at that point. He was also getting hit hard. He had given up home runs in 4 of 5 games between April 15 and April 30. I wrote about it in fact if you would like to read the article again.

Going into May, Hader locked in. In the months of May and June, Hader posted the following: ERA 0.69. WHIP 0.54, batting average against .074, HR/9 0.69. During this stretch, he threw his fastball 91.8% of the time and his slider just 8% of the time. Hader has been criticized for not throwing his slider (I am guilty of doing this myself). However, during this two month period, Hader was as dominant as he ever has been.

Coming out of his trouble April, it looks like Hader and Brewers’ coaches focused on keeping the ball out of the air as often (70% fly ball percentage vs. 57.1% fly ball percentage), and the results were less home runs per fly ball (10%) and hard contact (22.9%). Fastball location was likely the key to his two month success. You can see below how he located his fastball during that two month period.

Hader Fastball Heatmap May and June

Things changed going into July and continue to be concerning. Since the calendar turned in July his stats are alarming — ERA 6.00, WHIP 1.33, batting average against .270, HR/FB 35%. What changed between the end of June and first of July?

Believe it or not, he started using his slider more. Since July 1, Hader has used his slider 18.5% of the time and his fastball only 81.2%. For those of us (including me) calling for him to use the slider more, he and the Brewers’ coaches listened. That is not the problem. He is not throwing his fastball effectively (wFB -5.9) during this span, and it has nothing to do with velocity (vFB 95.8).

It has everything to do with command. He said as much recently.

Below you will see how and where he is locating his fastball for July and August.

Hader Fastball July and August

Compare the image above to the image for May and June. He is getting a lot more of the plate lately. Recently Travis Sawchik wrote an article arguing that Hader’s fastball is so difficult to hit because his arm angle is so low, and yet, he is able to achieve the “Magnus Effect” which pushes up on the baseball making the ball appear to rise. The effect that Hader achieves befuddles opposing hitters.

Matt Olsen took Hader deep in Oakland for a walk off home run on July 30. He said the following, “I was just trying to get a fastball down from him,” Olson said about Hader, the hard-throwing left-hander. “I’ve faced him since Low-A and might have one hit off the guy. He’s had my number for multiple years now.” He had said on in an interview immediately after the home run on Oakland’s telecast that he was trying to hit on top of the ball as well. To Sawchik’s point, if hitters understand how Hader’s fastball rises from his low arm slot (and believe me, they know this), it makes perfect sense to target the top of the ball when trying to get the barrel to the pitch. This might be an adjustment made to Hader coming into this year.

If this is the case, fastball location is even more important for Hader. Hitter are looking for something lower in the zone that they can get on top of and drive. Hitters have made adjustments to Hader, he and the Milwaukee coaching staff need to counter or Hader-aid is not going to taste very good down the stretch for the Brewers.

While the execution of other pitchers has been problematic as well (Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Taylor Williams, etc...) the three pitchers mentioned in this piece were arguably the most important pitchers on the staff in 2018. The significant drop-offs in performance by Chacin and Jeffress over the entire season have influenced Milwaukee toward mediocrity as opposed to excellence regarding pitching.

Hader’s struggles since the All-Star Break might be the most troublesome. While not an absolute, confidence was extremely high that when Hader pitched, the game was in control. That level of confidence is way down, and I fear it might be way down for Josh Hader as well. Without Hader performing at his elite level, the Brewers will struggle late in games as has been the case of late. The good news is that Brewers’ pitchers have been more effective of late (outside of Hader) and Woodruff and Davies should be back for the stretch run.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant