On Sunday, the Brewers wrapped up their fourth month of the 2016 campaign. July saw them compile a 13-14 record, their third straight month of respectability — in May, they worked their way to a 15-14 mark, and they put together a 12-14 run in June. To check out some captivating stats from those months, take a look at the respective recaps. I’ll take a look here at what they accomplished in July, whether it’s good, bad, or just strange.
Their walks returned, because of fear
The Brewers, to kick off the 2016 season, took walks — quite a few walks, in fact. 10.9 percent of their April plate appearances, and 10.8 percent of their May ones, ended with a base on balls. They began to lose that patience in June, as I noted in my recap of that month. Their O-Swing rate rose to 29.7 percent, which sunk their walk rate to just 8.2 percent. It looked at that time like they had regressed to their old, aggressive ways.
Last month, the free passes came back: Milwaukee’s walk rate jumped to 9.9 percent, a triumphant return to early-season levels. But the club chased about as often as they did in June, swinging at 29.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. The step forward came from a decrease in zone rate — whereas the Brewers saw the third-most pitches in the strike zone in June, they had the sixth-lowest zone rate in July. For some reason, opponents started to pitch around Brewers hitters.
Compared to the prior months, the Brewers offense appeared to perform the same everywhere else. They had a .151 ISO and .314 BABIP from April to June, which translated to respective figures of .148 and .315 in July. That stability may have belied an improvement elsewhere, though: The Brew Crew made solid contact 34.5 of the time in July, a level far above their earlier hard-hit rate of 31.5 percent. Perhaps adversaries could sense this and decided to play it safe.
This could reverberate elsewhere if the Brewers maintain it. A 29.7 percent O-Swing rate, while not as impressive as the marks that preceded it, is still better than average. Paired with a below-average zone rate, that’ll sustain that high walk rate. Plus, when those hard-hit balls start to amount to something, the BABIP and ISO will spike in turn. It looks like the remainder of the 2016 season could feature a few more runs in Milwaukee.
They became much better on the basepaths
In the first three months of the 2016 campaign, Milwaukee totaled 2.6 baserunning runs, according to FanGraphs’ calculation. They nearly equaled that in the fourth month, when their 3.6 BsR ranked third in the majors. That improvement didn’t come from advancing extra bases on hits or fly balls, nor did they progress by avoiding double plays: The Brewers had -0.6 Ultimate Baserunning Runs in July and -0.1 Double-Play Runs. Instead, they became a force when trying to steal: No team in baseball had more Stolen-Base Runs, at 4.3.
Three players, pretty much by themselves, contributed to that mark: Jonathan Villar, Hernan Perez, and Ryan Braun. After some sloppy decisions in the early going of the season, Villar cleaned up his base stealing in July. He swiped 12 bags in 15 tries, which translated to 1.8 runs above average. Perez and Braun, meanwhile, had spotless records: The former went 9-for-9 in his attempts, the latter 6-for-6. That earned them 1.1 and 1.0 runs, respectively. This trio helped the Brewers steal 38 bases in July, which led the majors by a lot — the runner-up Reds notched a mere 27.
This kind of success screams “fluke;” no team can accrue 25.8 Stolen-Base Runs over a full season in this era. On the flipside, though, the Brewers seem to be more talented than their Ultimate Baserunning and Double-Play Run totals would suggest. Hitters with this much speed — and in Villar, Perez, and co., Milwaukee definitely has speed — will probably move ahead a few extra bases and leg out a few fielder’s choices. All in all, I’d expect the Brewers to remain at least an above-average team on the basepaths.
The pitching was deceptively mediocre
Did Brewers pitching turn a corner in July? Only Washington had a better team ERA than Milwaukee’s 3.18 figure for the month. A stunning absence of home runs helped the Brew Crew’s cause — I wouldn’t expect them to allow the fewest long balls in the majors again in August — but overall, their peripherals seem pretty normal. The team’s BABIP was tenth-highest in the majors, while they stranded the ninth-fewest runners in baseball. Since those luck-indicating metrics don’t stand out, that means they deserved their success, right?
Nope. (We can’t have nice things.) Although the Brewers looked good in July by Earned Run Average, their Run Average took away the shimmer. They allowed 4.14 runs per nine innings last month, which dropped them to 15th in the majors. What caused the disparity? A ton of unearned runs:
The team’s fielders struggled a bit in July, costing -2.7 runs by FG’s calculations. Still, with this many runs allowed — nearly one unearned run per game! — a lot of the blame has to fall on the pitchers. Had the club’s hurlers not suffered with defense-independent metrics (more on that in a moment), they might have bailed themselves out. Thad didn’t happen, and since the gloves probably won’t get any better with Jonathan Lucroy gone, the runs will probably keep coming, earned or otherwise.
The rotation and bullpen went in opposite directions
Let’s move on to defense-independent metrics. By strikeouts and walks, the pitching staff continued something of a downward trend from the previous two months:
The July struggles weren’t across the board, however. Brewers starters didn’t have anything going for them last month — they fanned only 17.3 percent of the batters they faced, while doling out free passes to 9.2 percent. The 8.1-percentage point difference between those two beat only the Rangers. By contrast, the relievers struck out 24.2 percent of opposing hitters and walked 8.3 percent. The resultant 15.9 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate placed them eighth in the majors.
On the one hand, pretty much every starting pitcher struggled. Junior Guerra and Jimmy Nelson saw their strikeout rates plummet and their walk rates climb, although their sub-three (and in Guerra’s case, sub-two) ERAs for the month didn’t show it. Chase Anderson completely lost control — he gave out a base on balls to 14.4 percent of the batters to step in against him in July, the third-worst clip in baseball. And Matt Garza, well, he was himself.
On the other hand…hey, those relievers! Tyler Thornburg kept on chugging along in his breakout year. Jeremy Jeffress and Carlos Torres supported their sub-one ERAs with solid peripherals. Corey Knebel made his triumphant return from a stint in the minors. And Jhan Marinez and Jacob Barnes, while inconsistent, held their own as they built up their workloads.
The rotation doesn’t look like it can get much better. Zach Davies hasn’t missed a beat, but Guerra has shown some signs of wear, and beyond those two it’s a wasteland. As happened in 2015, though, the bullpen could sooth the pain. Even with Jeffress and Will Smith departing for greener pastures, those secondary pieces — and Thornburg, whose greatness I really can’t overstate — look like they could fit together snugly.
That’s all for July. Here’s to hoping that the new prospects from the various trades excel with the Brew Crew, and that the last two months of the season give us something to look forward to. Or, failing that, let’s pray that August brings us some more interesting statistics to delve into.