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Brew Crew Ball Mailbag #2: You get out what you put in

Answering this week’s questions for the weekly mailbag

Milwaukee Brewers v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome to this week’s edition of the Brew Crew Ball Mailbag!

The Brewers dropped the rubber match against the Mets last night, falling 5-4 thanks to some questionable defense and an ill-advised send in the bottom of the ninth.

Because the Brewers have continued to scuffle, there were not a lot of positive questions this week. Sometimes it’s the hard questions that prompt the most discussion. Let’s get to it.

davhar asks:

Why does Counsell keep playing Hiura against LHP?

The Brewers have faced three left-handed starters since Counsell was asked about Hiura’s reverse splits almost two weeks ago, and he has started against just one of them. His start Wednesday night and any others he gets against southpaws moving forward may have more to do with giving Rowdy Tellez a day off than getting Hiura’s bat in the lineup.

That said, the Hiura situation relates to what has been one of my few consistent criticisms of Counsell for some time. He seems to look primarily at handedness when playing matchups while disregarding statistical platoon splits and actual performance. I assume he is aware of such splits, but he seems to believe they do not hold much value. That’s something on which I disagree with him, but of course, he’s in charge, not me.

metalmilitia844

Do you believe Stearns addressed the offense enough in the offseason given the teams struggles last year? I personally think swapping JBJ for Renfroe was a miracle by itself

They definitely did not do enough if you were expecting a good offense. However, building a good offense was never part of the plan for this year’s team.

It was apparent that the Brewers had no serious intentions of improving their offense externally. Acquiring Hunter Renfroe and dumping Jackie Bradley’s contract was a win, even if it required parting with Alex Binelas and David Hamilton. While it was an important and necessary move, it did not make the offense better. Instead, it maintained the status quo in right field after Avisail Garcia left in free agency.

After that, the Brewers only added Andrew McCutchen once the new Collective Bargaining Agreement officially instituted the designated hitter in the National League. Even then, a contending team should strive to add a significantly better hitter than that as their primary DH (more on that later).

The front office decided to repeat last season’s formula of pairing an elite pitching staff with a below-average offense. That’s not too surprising given that most of David Stearns and Matt Arnold’s rosters have favored run prevention, but it means they made virtually no effort to improve their lineup beyond hoping for some improvement from their existing players.

The Brewers’ philosophy is to build a “good enough” lineup and let their pitching do the heavy lifting. This year’s group has performed as expected at the plate—they have a 96 wRC+ as a team—and such a performance clears that “good enough” bar.

Milwaukee reached the postseason last year with this approach. Their goal is to consistently make it to October and hope that a timely hot streak leads to a World Series championship one of those years. Given the randomness that occurs in small playoff samples, that’s a sound thought process.

However, when you build a lineup that consists mainly of solid hitters and no legitimately threatening ones, it only takes a couple of individual slumps to create some ugly offensive droughts. One such slump came at just the wrong time last October and resulted in a swift postseason dismissal at the hands of the Braves.

By failing to improve their offense, the Brewers have left themselves vulnerable to a repeat of that disappointing end to their season. Ideally, the timing will work more in their favor this time around.

Brew Crew Buster asks:

Is the deadened ball and the ever increasing level of shifting creating a different efficiency model that alters the three true outcome focus of the last few years? (Are the Mets on to something that the rest of the league will soon realize?)

Interestingly, the top two offenses in baseball are very much on opposite sides of the three true outcome spectrum.

The Yankees lead the sport in wRC+ this year. They’re doing it with a .247 batting average, 21.5% strikeout rate and a league-leading 100 home runs.

Meanwhile, the Mets rank right behind their American League counterparts with a 115 wRC+. They lead baseball with a .263 batting average, have the fourth-lowest strikeout rate at 19.7% and rank 20th with 60 home runs.

Both approaches have worked so far, but I’m interested to see which proves more sustainable throughout the year.

The Mets do certain things well to set themselves up for success, namely hitting lots of line drives (21.3%) and using their speed to leg out infield singles (league-leading 8.8% infield hit rate). However, can they sustain a .277 batting average on ground balls, which is the highest in the game by 16 points? They also have the highest average on ground balls hit against shifts even though other teams have pulled the ball less and used the opposite field more against shifts with worse results.

I think the Mets are a legitimately solid offense because they hit so many line drives and have the speed to take extra bases, but I suspect they’re also benefitting from an unusual amount of seeing-eye singles that could start to dry up as the season progresses. Home runs are always hits and score at least one run every time, so I would say the Yankees’ approach is more sustainable.

However, most teams are neither the Yankees nor the Mets. From a broader perspective, I could see the deadened ball resulting in a greater emphasis on gap power and doubles hitters, but it would take more than the ball to turn back the clock of baseball’s play style significantly.

mjdietz asks:

Where is the end of the line for Cain and Cutch? Both guys are 35+ years old and clearly shells of their former selves. Both have been unlucky according to their xwOBA this year, but not to the point that a “good” second half seems to be in store for either. Yes, there is the money owed to consider. But how long can an offense starved team continue to run out two players on their active roster who have a combined OPS+ of less than 100?

Cain’s bat is dead. It’s the middle of June, and he still has yet to make any consistent solid contact. His declining bat speed makes it easy for pitchers to get ahead in the count, which forces him to always be on the defensive. That has caused his chase rate to skyrocket and his walk rate to plummet.

Counsell already cautioned Cain to expect reduced playing time in favor of Tyrone Taylor, meaning he could soon be limited to a defensive replacement if he can’t show signs of life at the plate. I think it would take the acquisition of another outfielder at the trade deadline to push Cain off the roster. In the meantime, the Brewers will keep trying to take advantage of his elite defense and leadership in the clubhouse.

There should never have been a line for McCutchen, at least not against right-handed pitching. He hasn’t been an above-average hitter against righties since 2019. He struggled to a .683 OPS against them in 2020 and a .650 OPS in 2021.

There was nothing under the hood to suggest he would turn it around, either. His hard-hit rate and average exit velocity against righties plummeted to the worst levels of his career. Players rarely improve their performance at age 35, let alone reverse negative trends.

Signing him primarily for his ability to mash against left-handed pitching and veteran presence in the clubhouse would have made sense, but the Brewers immediately made it clear that they expected McCutchen to be a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat against all pitchers at a bat-only position.

I don’t take positions like this very often, but signing McCutchen to fill such a role may be the most indefensible move made by a front office with a track record of otherwise sound decision-making. There was no reason to believe that he would be a remotely productive hitter against same-handed pitching this season, yet the Brewers signed him to bat cleanup against those pitchers. The results they’ve gotten are not surprising. They deserve to get put on blast for this.

It’s not helping that McCutchen came into the season with a plan to be more aggressive at the plate. His in-zone swing rate has increased by about five percentage points, but this aggressiveness on pitches over the plate has not helped him drive the ball. Instead, it has cut his walk rate in half thanks to more plate appearances ending on outs in play. Drawing free passes and stealing bases would be much more helpful.

I will admit, however, that I did not expect McCutchen’s performance against southpaws to crater. Statcast believes he’s encountered some bad luck in this area. I’m willing to continue giving him chances to right the ship against lefties, but batting him anywhere in the top half of the order against righties needs to stop. It should never have happened.

The problem with benching McCutchen entirely against righties is identifying someone to take his spot in the lineup. Many people have pointed to Keston Hiura as an option due to his reverse splits. I don’t think Hiura can help this team much in any role if he cannot reduce his strikeouts to a somewhat manageable level, which, unfortunately, is appearing to be the case. Even after scrapping his toe tap and dramatically shortening his leg kick, Hiura is striking out nearly 50% of the time and has the worst contact rate among all hitters with at least 50 plate appearances this season.

Captain What’s His Name asks:

I don’t think it will come to this, but how bad would it have to get for the Brewers to be sellers at the deadline?

If they somehow end up below .500 at the trade deadline, they won’t be buyers. Under this hypothetical, the Brewers would still try to contend in 2023, and nearly anyone who would draw trade interest projects to be a key member of next year’s team. For that reason, I wouldn’t expect them to become true sellers no matter what. Omar Narvaez could get moved if he continues to hit well, but that’s about it.

MrLeam asks:

Why did the Brewers season start going downhill as soon as the weekly mailbag returned?

No comment.

Thanks for your questions this week! Let’s hope that things are looking brighter by the time the next mailbag rolls around.