The 2020 Milwaukee Brewers owned the highest strikeout percentage (K%) offensively in the NL, punching out in 26.6% of their plate appearances. That lack of contact was a major reason Milwaukee ranked 27th in runs scored in all of baseball at 4.12 runs per game.
While a high offensive K% doesn’t ensure a poor season (the AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays had a higher K% than the Brewers), it often leads to greater challenges to score consistently and a heavy reliance on outstanding performances elsewhere for success. For Milwaukee, it wasn’t just about the team whiff rate, it was a concern with too many hitters coming up empty.
The Brewers had 5 of the bottom 11 hitters in K% among players with at least 120 plate appearances in 2020 - easily the worst:
Keston Hiura (34.6%): 2nd-worst in the NL
Justin Smoak (31.7%): 7th-worst
Omar Narvaez (31%): 9th-worst
Christian Yelich (30.8%): 10th-worst
Ben Gamel (30.7%): 11th-worst
Four of these hitters were seen as regular starters that the offense was going to rely on for production. And if you look to the 40-worst hitters in the NL by K%, you can add Jedd Gyorko (22nd) and Luis Urias (36th) to give the Brewers 7 of the bottom 40 (most in MLB).
Herein was the main issue. With so many men failing to put the ball in play, you can’t help but cluster lots of strikeouts and useless outs together. That usually results in many empty innings, consecutive unproductive at-bats with runners on base, and the propensity suffer through slumps on a regular basis.
An ideal lineup mixes in a variety of hitters, where some higher contact bats can complement the power/whiff guys. We know that more home runs and extra-base hits are the tradeoff for more strikeouts; however, it’s a big ask for players to produce at high power levels day in and day out. Some balance is necessary for success.
As an example, let’s look at the Rays. As noted above, as a team they had a higher K% than the Brewers. However, Tampa scored 4.82 runs per game (more than half a run better) and ranked 12th in baseball (15 spots better). One big reason for this: only 2 Rays were among the worst 40 hitters in K% in the AL. Again, compare that to the Brewers who had SEVEN.
I’m not here to argue that “all strikeouts are bad” or that Milwaukee should sign a bunch of slap hitters. At the same time, it feels like the Brewers (and MLB) have crossed a line where strikeouts are completely overlooked from an offensive standpoint. That has to change.
The strange paradox I have always found is that teams and experts alike laud big-time strikeout pitchers, stressing that by allowing fewer balls in play, it limits defensive issues and luck as a way to stamp down an offense. Well, then, shouldn’t the opposite apply to your own offense? Perhaps 20 more productive outs that move a runner or plate one equals a few more wins - which could be vital in a close playoff race.
So, can the Brewers collect a few more contact hitters and/or improve internally in 2021? We know that 2020 was a unique year for many reasons, including playing just 37% of a normal schedule. Perhaps in a regular 162-game season, some of those numbers balance out over time.
For example, Yelich had a 20.3 K% in 2019 that ballooned up to 30.8% last year. With a 21.2 K% in his career, that definitely seems like an outlier (we hope). Narvaez is another strange one who has a 19.1 career K%, but saw it rise to 31% in 2020. If those two just come back to their averages, improved production will follow.
Meanwhile, Smoak, Gamel, and Gyorko are gone (for now), so a lot may depend on Urias and especially Hiura - a hitter with tremendous potential, but valid concerns over his whiff rate. Both of these players are young and have the chance to develop into more complete hitters, which would go a long way toward future success.
So, maybe the offense isn’t in such dire straits headed into the new year. Can they - will they - add a piece or two that fit a more contact-focused profile? Lorenzo Cain is a contact hitter, boasting a 17.8% career K%. If the 34-year-old opts to play this season, that could be a quick boost for the club.
A lot remains to be seen this offseason and how the regular season will be laid out. Regardless of the length of the 2021 campaign, the breakdown of opponents, or any other factors, if the Brewers want to score more runs this season, they MUST put more balls put in play - period.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference