Before we begin, I should note: If you haven’t yet purchased a copy of the 2016 BP Annual, do that now. You’ll get statistics and projections and blurbs and essays and it’s a really good book so you should buy it. Got it? Good. (If you have purchased it, awesome! Now go leave a review, ingrate.)
For whatever reason, I wrote the team preview essay for the Brewers in this year’s Annual. Although the piece broadly analyzes the nature of innovation in baseball as a whole, the nominal topic is bases on balls, something which Milwaukee has lacked in recent years. Over the four seasons since Prince Fielder left via free agency, the Brewers rank 26th in the majors with a 7.0 percent walk rate. This alone hasn’t doomed them to obscurity — just read the damn essay already, if you want to know why — but it hasn’t helped their cause.
Things could change in 2016, however. According to the most recent iteration of PECOTA, the Brewers should garner free passes at an 8.0 percent clip — which would catapult them to 14th in all of baseball:
Milwaukee hasn’t ranked in the top half of the majors in walk rate since 2010, which would make this a pretty big development if it happened. But will it? Can the Brewers fulfill this projection, or will they fall short?
Well, these figures are incomplete — they don’t include pitchers. If Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta & Co. maintain their 1.9 percent walk rate from 2015 (which placed 13th in the National League), the Brewers will tumble a few spots in the major-league ranks. So perhaps we should temper our expectations a bit. Still, the players Milwaukee has acquired in the offseason, along with those they’ve sent away, suggest a legitimate change in approach.
Last July, Doug Melvin traded star center fielder Carlos Gomez to Houston. While the decision obviously hurt, it helped the team’s plate discipline. In his Brewers career, Gomez walked only 6.2 percent of the time. Meanwhile, the major-league-ready outfielder that the deal brought back, Domingo Santana, has the opposite skill set. Across his 145 Milwaukee plate appearances last season, Santana walked 12.3 percent of the time, after doing so in 10.8 percent of his chances as a farmhand. With Santana indirectly replacing Gomez, the Brewers should earn a few more bases on balls (and cost them many runs elsewhere, of course, but that’s beside the point).
After the season, David Stearns started some wheeling and dealing of his own. One of the players he sent away, first baseman Adam Lind, actually took a lot of walks last year. His 11.5 percent free-pass rate finished 21st among qualified hitters. That didn’t match up with his past accomplishments, however — before 2015, he’d walked in just 7.3 percent of his plate appearances — which explains why PECOTA projects a mere 8.5 percent figure for 2016.
Chris Carter, who should man the position in 2016, has a much rosier outlook, at least in terms of walks. PECOTA expects him to cruise down to first in 11.2 percent of his plate appearances, which jives with his career clip of 11.5 percent. While Carter clearly has his offensive flaws, of course, he possesses the ability to lay off pitches, which means he should take his share of free passes.
Perhaps the most intriguing piece of this puzzle came to the team in the Rule 5 Draft. Utility player Colin Walsh has even more warts than Santana or Carter — that explains why he’ll be a 26-year-old rookie this season, and why the Brewers were able to acquire him in the first place. Based on the direction of this article, you can probably guess where he excels. The extent of it, however, might surprise you.
Walsh has gone to the dish 2,452 times in his minor-league tenure. A total of 377 of those — or 15.3 percent — ended with a base on balls. For comparison: Joey Votto walked 13.4 percent of the time when he was in the minors. Obviously, Walsh won’t hit at that godlike level, nor will his plate discipline reign supreme above his contemporaries (and frustrate mythical executives). In fact, PECOTA thinks he’ll accrue only 98 plate appearances in 2016. If he does receive more playing time, though, he could make it count. For a club that has struggled to accumulate free passes, a 13.3 percent projected walk rate looks quite appealing.
We should make the distinction between taking walks and reaching base. PECOTA currently thinks the Brewers will rank 22nd in the majors with a .308 OBP, chiefly because they won’t earn too many hits (it predicts a 24th-place finish in batting average). Like many of their teammates, Santana, Carter, and Walsh each have problems with strikeouts, which have somewhat negated the walks and kept them from becoming truly valuable players.
With that said, a few more bases on balls do have some worth, especially for a franchise that has sorely missed them. Many fans would love it if, facing off against Jon Lester or Adam Wainwright, Brewers hitters took a more patient approach. The team has fallen behind the curve to a degree, but they still have time to catch back up.