Plenty has been made of the apparent bump in Milwaukee’s plate discipline already this season. A couple of Steves discussed it this week: Mr. Altstadt at Disciples of Uecker talked about it at length yesterday and Mr. Jewell at Reviewing the Brew talked about it on Tuesday. The change is stark, but the question remains: is it working?
Milwaukee’s O-Swing percentage (the rate at which they swing at pitches outside the strize zone) is 21.7 percent in 2016. That’s the lowest percentage in the league by a healthy margin, and a massive drop from their 34.7 percent rate last season, when they had the highest rate in baseball. That’s great! One fun fact about pitches that are thrown outside the zone is that if you receive four of them in a single at bat that you don’t swing at, you get to go to first base for free. It’s totally free! It’s in the rules and everything, and you don’t even have to use your bat.
This accounts for the hike in Milwaukee’s walk rate from a year ago. Last season the Brewers posted a 6.8 BB percentage, which has jumped to 11.4 percentso far in 2016, the second-highest rate in the league. Hooray! Walks are good. The only way to score runs is to put folks on base, and the only way to win the baseball game is to score runs. That’s the name of the game, folks. Get with the program.
Let’s drop the other shoe. Milwaukee’s Z-Swing percentage (the rate at which – you guessed it – they swing at pitches in the zone) is 60.6 percent. That’s the lowest in the league and a significant dip from last year’s 68.5 percent. That’s bad! You’re supposed to swing at the balls that are in the strike zone: if you don’t, you will probably be called out eventually (after an undetermined amount of time, the umpire is allowed to decide that you have seen enough strikes and must let the next player try).
Which brings us to the biggest problem the Brewers’ bats are facing so far in this young season: a massive strikeout rate. Their 25.7 K percentage is fourth in the league and a spike even from their already-high 21.6 strikeout rate a season ago. Some of this is small sample size noise that will normalize: simply removing Keon Broxton’s disastrous start, in which he struck out 11 times in 18 at bats, drops Milwaukee’s K percentage by over a point. Similarly excepting Milwaukee’s anomalous 10 walk game against Pittsburgh last week, the Brewers’ walk rate drops by nearly a point.
The cause and effect here isn’t earth shattering: swinging less leads to more strikeouts and more walks. Is this a new coaching philosophy that the Brewers have embraced, or is this simply a matter of new personnel doing their thing? To find out, I compared this year’s numbers to the career norms of the current squad, rather than the numbers of previous incarnations of the Milwaukee Brewers. Here’s the squad’s O-Swing numbers:
|Name||Career O-Swing%||2016 O-Swing%||Difference|
And here are the Z-Swing numbers:
|Name||Career Z-Swing%||2016 Z-Swing%||Difference|
So the team is swinging at pitches outside the zone less across the board, and nearly everyone is swinging less at pitches over the plate as well. The notable exception is Ryan Braun, who is off to a fantastic start with a .329 TAv, his highest since his MVP season in 2011. While Maldonado’s 13 plate appearances this season make it difficult to draw any conclusions, he has drawn three walks in 13 at bats to combat his dismal BABIP luck that has thus far left him without a base hit.
On the flip side of the coin we have Aaron Hill, who has decided to only swing less at strikes. Presumably he has his reasons for continuing to wave at pitches out of the zone – perhaps a ball in the dirt once kicked his dog, and he is trying to extract vengeance by smacking one with his baseball bat. I don’t pretend to know what goes on in the mind of a professional athlete. I’m just One Online Blogger.
Craig Counsell has stated that there is no official organizational philosophy change regarding patience at the plate. He told Tom Haudricourt earlier this week, “There is no message to not swing; there is no message to walk. Just have good at-bats. That’s the message. It’s as simple as that. Called third strikes are a function of hitting with two strikes a lot, and pitchers making good pitches.” This echoes the hitting philosophy of Rule 5 pick Colin Walsh, which he shared with FanGraph’s David Laurila during Spring Training. However, there is an obvious trend toward taking more pitches – and laying off balls – that goes beyond a change in personnel: The Brewers’ current roster has a combined career O-Swing percentage of roughly 3 percent, which is about league average.
Obviously, this new focus on patience doesn’t work if the team just stops swinging at everything all together. Ideally, as players continue to be taught by coaches who are focusing on plate discipline, the O-Swing rate will stay down while the Z-Swing rate will stabilize. So is it helping? Not yet. Let’s check in with a look at the overall offensive output:
|Name||Career TAv||2016 TAv||Difference|
Meh. Some guys are up, some guys are down, and this, much more than the swing rates, is still subject to #SSS as early season batting averages begin to level out. For now, the overall offensive production has not been improved, and the increased patience at the plate has not resulted in improvement in the only column that ultimately counts: Milwaukee’s runs scored per game is down by a quarter run from a season ago (3.75 from 4.04).
They are certainly working deeper counts so far this year: Milwaukee is seeing 3.97 pitchers per plate appearance in 2016, the eighth highest average in the league and a notable bump from last season’s 3.74, which ranked 25th. The key now is for Milwaukee’s hitters to not just swing less, but swing smarter. Patience at the plate is good, up to a point, just as there’s a fine line between the laid-back dater and the wallflower. For the Brewers to take things to the next level, they’ll need to put themselves out there when the right pitch comes along.
All pitch data courtesy FanGraphs