So! The MLB season is more than halfway over — today, in case you don’t own a calendar, is the 13th day of July. The Brewers wrapped up their third month a couple of weeks ago; over the course of 26 June contests, they notched 12 wins to 14 losses. That makes for a slightly worse record than they had in May (15-14), yet still a much better mark than their April one (8-15).
What brought the Brewers to that level? What granted them those dozen victories, and what forced them to swallow those dozen-plus-two losses? About a month ago, I evaluated their statistics from May; today, I’ll do the same for June. (This time, instead of including my judgment in the subheads, I left them more fact-based, as some of these are a bit less subjective.)
Their walks started to dissipate
Through the first two months of this campaign, a number of people noticed something: Hey, the Brewers take walks now! In April and May, 10.9 and 10.8 percent, respectively, of their plate appearances ended with a free pass. That clip fell off in June, however, when they earned a base on balls just 8.2 percent of the time. Their strikeout rate remained above 25 percent for the third straight month, and their BABIP and ISO didn’t change much from their May figures. That absence of walks, though, took them from 4.45 runs scored per game in May to 3.81 in June.
In the previous issue of this column, I noted that Milwaukee’s plate discipline got a lot worse in May. They started chasing a lot more often, and their opponents targeted them more frequently in the zone; that combination typically decreases bases on balls. Once again in June, the Brewers swung at more pitches, spiking their O-Swing rate to 29.7 percent. While they compensated for that with a higher Z-Swing rate of 64.2 percent, the higher strike rate ultimately sunk them.
Before 2016, the Brewers had become known for their aggression at the plate. The departure from that early on was a welcome sign for many exasperated fans, who had grown sick of their players swinging at everything within a foot of the strike zone. But as we move further from the spring and into the heart of the summer, that trend has looked more and more like a fluke. Without their free passes buoying their on-base percentage, the Brewers will probably sustain the low scoring from June.
They saw a lot fewer fastballs
One of the other, more interesting offensive changes comes in an area the Brewers don’t control: opponent pitch usage. FanGraphs’ PITCHf/x data go into a number of categories for pitch types; here, I’ve grouped them by the Brooks Baseball classifications*, to make three broad categories. Take a look for yourself:
*Hard: Four-seam and two-seam fastballs, sinkers, and cutters. Breaking: Curveballs, knuckle curves, and sliders. Offspeed: Changeups and splitters.
In the first two months of the year, the Brewers received a lot of heaters. In April, their hard pitch rate led the majors; in May, they ranked seventh. Then in June, their adversaries started hitting them with more breaking balls, dropping them to 21st in hard pitches seen. For whatever reason, fastballs didn’t come their way quite as often later in the season.
Across both April and May, the Brewers struggled to hit fastballs. Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Linear Weights have them as a -20.8-run team versus heaters in those two months. By contrast, they were only 1.4 runs below average in this regard in June. And this coincided with a decline in ability against softer pitches: Breaking and offspeed offerings were worth -7.6 runs for the Brewers last month, compared to 0.8 runs in the previous two months.
With the club struggling to square up fastballs, opponents targeted that area heavily; now that the Brewers have gotten their rhythm back, the league has adjusted in turn. A squad that can’t keep up with the heat won’t get anywhere, nor will a team full of Pedro Cerranos score many runs. Milwaukee needs to hit whatever the competition throws at it, or it won’t touch four runs a game that often.
Their pitching stayed pretty much the same
Although you may not remember by now, April saw the Brewers hurlers melt down spectacularly. By May, however, they’d returned to satisfactory play. The results from the latter month, in many categories, have carried over into June. The club-wide strikeout rate dipped from 20.5 to 19.3 percent, but a similar decrease in walk rate (from 8.1 to 7.8 percent) negated that. Their rank in strikeouts minus walks — a very effective estimator of ERA — fell two slots, from 17th to 19th in the majors.
On a peripheral level, even less changed. By the PITCHf/x plate discipline metrics Fangraphs provides, the Brewers had a 62.8 percent expected strike rate**, a 17.2 percent expected looking-strike rate**, and a 9.2 percent swinging-strike rate in the month of May. Come June, those marks went to 62.9 percent, 16.8 percent, and 9.0 percent, respectively. Milwaukee threw just as many pitches in the strike zone, made hitters swing just as often, and got just as many misses on those swings.
**Expected strike rate: 1 – (1 – Zone%) * (1 – O-Swing%). Expected looking-strike rate: Zone% * (1 – Z-Swing%).
The respectable plate discipline numbers weren’t the only thing to stay the same. Brewers pitchers continued to have problems with limiting contact — for the third straight month, they allowed a hard-hit rate above 33 percent. Because of that, they had a mediocre BABIP (.298) and home run rate (2.8 percent), as they did in May. Still, with a decent amount of strikeouts and walks, they managed to hold their own as a whole.
The Brewers weren’t as awful as they appeared to be when April concluded. Their subsequent performance occurred because they regressed toward their true talent level. In May, they allowed 4.59 runs per game; in June, 4.38 runs per game. For the remainder of the season, PECOTA projects them to give up 341 runs across 75 contests, or an average of 4.54 — fairly close to those marks. This staff won’t win any awards, but it now seems to be able to prevent runs at an acceptable level.
They continued to overperform
Here, we really enter the realm of subjectivity. Everyone can agree on one thing: Based on their underlying production, the Brewers have gotten lucky this year. While they’ve gone 38-49 to this point, BP’s Pythagenpat model thinks they should have a 35.5-51.5 record. In the month of June, they encapsulated that fairly well, with 12 actual victories and 11.3 predicted victories. The pitching, as stated above, won’t win any awards, and neither will the hitting (when adjusted for park factors).
From there, reasonable minds can and will disagree. The extra wins are a bad thing, in my opinion. Winning a few extra games in 2016 won’t make things much better for Brewers fans — the club won’t make the playoffs regardless, or even be respectable overall. But when it comes to draft position, the gap between, for instance, 92 and 95 losses looms pretty large. Plus, on the off chance that the Brewers decide to expedite things and buy this offseason, they’ll still retain their first-round pick after signing a player with a qualifying offer.
Nevertheless, other Brewers fans might think differently. The goal in this sport, now and forever, is to win. Teams will avoid defeat in any matter possible, deserved or not. For the fringe baseball fans in Wisconsin, long-term plans likely don’t make much difference. They just want to know that they’ll catch a good game when they take a trip to Miller Park, and hey, who doesn’t like a thrilling one-run win?
So that, for me, wraps up June. When baseball picks up again on Friday, we’ll see if the Brewers can regain their plate discipline, pound slower pitches, maintain their semi-reliable pitching, and squeak out some more close wins. If I overlooked any other significant numbers from the season’s third month, let me know in the comments.