Recapping the Brewers’ Month of May

The Brewers are in rebuilding mode, as we knew before the year and we know currently. Even the most optimistic of fans didn’t think they would vie for a spot in the playoffs. Still, when the team flopped their way to an 8-15 record in April, onlookers felt disappointed. With abjectly horrible play like that, it looked as though the 2016 campaign would be a long slog to the finish line.

But May brought brighter shores. The Brew Crew fought their way to a 15-14 record in the second month of the year, right around the level of the Cardinals (16-13) and Pirates (14-13). Does this represent their true talent level? Probably not. Did they improve in several meaningful ways during the month, and might they sustain that improvement? Certainly. Let’s look at some of the good and bad developments from May for the Brewers.

GOOD: More hits on balls in play

The Brewers offense didn’t live up to expectations in April, scoring just 3.87 runs per game. While they took a lot more walks, they paired that with a heavy dosage of strikeouts and not enough quality contact to compensate. During May, their walks and strikeouts stayed the same, and so did their power. The difference came with BABIP:

Month BB% K%  ISO  BABIP
April 10.9% 25.9% .148 .284
May 10.8% 25.5% .156 .327

With more balls finding holes, the Brewers increased their run production to 4.45 runs per game. And it looks like they deserved that, too — their peripherals back it up. In April, the Brewers made hard contact 29.7 percent of the time, along with an even 50.0 percent ground ball rate. They started to square the ball up in May, when they pumped their hard-hit rate up to 34.8 percent and trimmed their grounder rate to 44.8 percent. Perhaps most importantly, they changed from a pull-happy approach (41.2 percent pulled balls in April) to a more even one (34.5 percent in May).

This progress didn’t come from the stars, either. Jonathan Villar (.327 to .481), Hernan Perez (.200 to .370), and Aaron Hill (.182 to .385) ratcheted up their BABIPs in the season’s second month. All of them made solid contact at least 35 percent of the time in May; Villar and Perez improved their hard-hit rates by at least 10 percentage points. Obviously, none of them will maintain those levels of production throughout the rest of the season, but if they keep their BABIPs from fading to ugliness — and if Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, and co. continue to chug along — the offense won’t miss a beat.

Bad: Declines in plate discipline

With that said, the offense had some shortcomings. Despite their stability from April to May, the strikeout and walk rates should have gotten worse for Milwaukee. Based on the way the club’s plate discipline trended across those months, it might have some rough times ahead.

The big story from April was the Brewers’ patience. They swung at only 24.0 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, one of the lowest marks in the major leagues. Offsetting that, though, was a subpar 60.2 percent zone swing rate. The Brewers took a lot of called strikes along with their balls, and in May, the former began to drown out the latter. That month saw the team’s O-Swing rate climb to 26.5 percent, while its Z-Swing rate didn’t move from 60.0 percent.

Plus, pitchers didn’t avoid Brewers hitters as much — their zone rate went from 48.8 to 50.8 percent, the second-highest mark in the league. And to top it all off, their contact rate dropped off as well, from 77.3 to 74.9 percent. In short, the Brewers piled up many more strikes, called strikes, and swinging strikes in May; their ability to escape strikeouts and take walks masked this, but it might not continue to do so.

The principal culprits here were the veterans, particularly Braun and Scooter Gennett. During April, those two chased 24.4 percent and 32.6 percent, respectively, of the pitches they saw. Those figures spiked to 38.6 percent and 35.4 percent, respectively, in May. Meanwhile, Gennett didn’t shift his Z-Swing rate at all, and Braun increased his by only four percentage points, from 70.1 to 74.2 percent. (Giving 160 combined plate appearances to Perez and Alex Presley didn’t help, either.)

This isn’t to say the Brewers will stop working free passes. They still don’t chase very many pitches, and that composure will aid them. They will, however, see their walk rate fall off from this pace unless they switch back to their April strategy, fleeting though it was. If they don’t, the surge in strikeouts might sink them.

GOOD: Better control

Virtually everything just said about the Brewers hitters applies to their pitchers as well. From April to May, their plate discipline metrics got better across the board:

Month O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% Zone%
April 26.6% 62.3% 80.6% 45.7%
May 29.2% 63.8% 79.9% 47.6%

The first month of the season was a ghastly one for the Brew Crew’s staff, which posted an MLB-worst 5.68 ERA in the month. After that, they improved to a 3.95 ERA, the 11th-best  in the majors. Better strikeout and walk rates drove that rise — the squad cut its free pass rate from 11.3 to 8.1 percent and kicked its fan rate up from 17.3 to 20.5 percent. The biggest factor behind that? Throwing strikes. A significant jump in zone rate, in addition to some more chases, gave the Brewers everything they needed.

Junior Guerra warrants most of the credit for this. He made his first start on May 3rd, and from there he’s taken off. Jimmy Nelson has also taken a step forward, reducing his walk rate by more than two percentage points while packing on a few more Ks. And led by Tyler Thornburg, the bullpen has done a complete 180. Despite the inexplicably continued presence of Wily Peralta, Brewers pitchers have made something out of themselves, by (relatively) pounding the zone and fooling batters when they don’t.

BAD: Good luck with batted balls

No one — in the sabermetrics community, at least — likes a lucky team. Some clubs are just ripe for regression, and we don’t take joy in dashing people’s hopes. So believe me when I say that I take no pleasure in what I say next: The Brewers will probably allow a lot more hits in June and beyond.

Let’s back up to April. Then, the Brewers had the third-highest BABIP in the majors, at .326. They progressed from there all the way to .291 in May, dropping them to 17th. But their background metrics didn’t back that up: For each of those months, they had one of the highest hard-hit rates in the majors, without enough soft contact to negate it. Nor did the defense behind them improve by much — the Brewers’ gloves cost them 7.1 runs in April, and 3.7 runs in May (per FanGraphs). The hurlers just got lucky, and they most likely won’t keep that up.

No one pitcher has benefited from this, either — pretty much everyone has dodged the BABIP dragons. Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, and Nelson each had hard-hit rates above 38 percent in May, yet they all posted sub-average BABIPs. Thornburg was fortunate, and so was Guerra, and on and on. Maybe something’s in the air in Milwaukee that forces opposing hitters to target fielders; the likelier option, though, is that their luck will run out.

That wraps up my observations from the second month of the 2016 Brewers season. Did I miss any major team-level developments? Let me know in the comments! And let’s all hope that the rebuild never returns to the awfulness of the season’s first month.

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