Walk, Whiff, Smash, Swipe!

In September of 2015, the Milwaukee Brewers hired David Stearns to give direction to what had recently been a rudderless franchise. The move was well received by industry analysts and casual fans alike. Stearns was a rising star in the Houston Astros front office, and that franchise had just emerged from years of futility in dramatic, youthful fashion. Who better than to helm a rebuilding Brewers club?

Like any new employee, Stearns eased himself into his new position by playing to strengths. Many of his early moves were for players who were or had recently been members of the Astros organization; Stearns knew exactly who he was getting. It’s tempting to see this as somewhat meek behavior. The new guy quietly goes about his business, steadfastly refusing to set out on a limb. In reality, it was anything but. Stearns acted quickly and decisively to target certain players for a simple reason: He has a type.

Last year, Brewers batters collectively whiffed in a stunning 25.5 percent of their plate appearances. An additional 9.9 percent of Brewers plate appearances ended with a free pass. The team bopped 194 home runs and stole 181 bases, coming within arm’s reach of posting just the second 200/200 season in major league history. This was no accident.

Here are the Brewers’ last three seasons by walk percentage (BB%), strikeout percentage (K%), home runs, and steals. Remember, the first two lines were produced by rosters assembled by Doug Melvin.

Team BB% K% HR SB
2014 Brewers 7.0% 19.7% 150 102
2015 Brewers 6.8% 21.6% 145 84
2016 Brewers 9.9% 25.5% 194 181

And here are the Houston Astros over that same span:

Team BB% K% HR SB
2014 Astros 8.2% 23.8% 163 122
2015 Astros 8.0% 22.9% 230 121
2016 Astros 8.9% 23.4% 198 102

The Brewers’ 2016 line, and its big spikes across the board, looks an awful lot like the Astros lines from 2014-2016, with the bonus of a few more walks and extra stolen bases. Meanwhile, Stearns’ departure from Houston corresponded to a 16 percent drop in stolen bases from the two previous Astros squads. That could be a coincidence, but it’s not unreasonable to think that Stearns may simply value stolen bases more than his former boss. And it’s clear that he’s a fan of patience and homers, even if it comes with a few extra Ks.

Milwaukee, of course, is no stranger to dingers, walks, and whiffs. It’s kind of our thing. But the speed? That’s pretty new. Add speed (and often, by extension, athleticism) to that cocktail, and you have a pretty dynamic ballplayer on your hands.

Say we apply the general statistical profile of the 2016 Brewers to all of baseball. Last season, eight players ran a walk rate of at least 9 percent, a strikeout rate of at least 20 percent, swiped 10 or more bases, and posted an ISO at or above the Brewers’ team mark of .163 over at least 400 plate appearances. Every one of them netted their teams at least 2.5 WARP. Those eight players? Dexter Fowler, Mike Trout, Jonathan Villar, Paul Goldschmidt, Carlos Correa, Wil Myers, Gregory Polanco, and Todd Frazier. Imagine that lineup for a moment. Imagine that Wil Myers, in his journey ‘round the diamond, has agreed to suit up behind the plate. That’s a killer offense. Collectively, those players combined for 37.1 WARP last season. Brewers batters as a team managed just 22.1 WARP in 2016.

Stearns is betting on that to change. In 2017, Milwaukee alone could have five players who match the statistical profile above, if Keon Broxton, Jonathan Villar, Ryan Braun, Eric Thames, and Domingo Santana all perform to expectations. Three of those players – Broxton, Villar, and Thames – were arguably undervalued by the rest of the league, no doubt in part due to their propensity to swing and miss. Sensing an inefficiency, Stearns brought all three to Milwaukee for a song. And more are on their way.

Of the prominent minor league hitters drafted or acquired by Stearns, Isan Diaz, Corey Ray, and Lewis Brinson, whose minor league career 8.2 BB percentage belies his general refusal to take a walk in 2016, all look as though they may someday fit this profile. Even Jacob Nottingham swiped 9 bags last season while struggling with the stick. Meanwhile, Brett Phillips, one of the players Stearns and the ‘Stros agreed to deal to the Brewers at the 2015 trade deadline in exchange for Mike Fiers and Carlos Gomez, also flashes power-speed-patience-strikeout potential.

Intriguingly, projection systems reveal an organizational shift taking place in Houston ahead of the 2017 season (first noted by Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs). Here’s what PECOTA predicts for the two clubs in the coming season:

Team BB% K% HR SB
2017 Astros 8.0% 18.6% 191 121
2017 Brewers 7.9% 24.7% 187 148

The additions of Nori Aoki, Yulieski Gurriel, and Josh Reddick over the last year help transform the Astros into a top-flight contact squad, an interesting balancing move as strikeouts continue to rise across the league. The Brewers, meanwhile, will whiff as much as ever. Charting the performances of these two organizations over the next several years should make for fun comparison. Once the Brewers have the requisite talent to make a playoff run, Stearns, too, could bring in some contact machines to balance his roster. In the meantime, the Brewers appear set to mash, miss, walk, and run their way to a brighter future.

Related Articles

Leave a comment