A friend pointed out to me that the Brewers have blown 40 leads this season (now 42), which seems like a lot. In checking other major league teams, it is in fact a lot. My initial reaction was to blame the bullpen but that is neither warranted nor fair. The issue is that this Brewers team is simply bizarre in being outstanding early in the game, and completely incompetent in the back third, which leads to them getting tons of leads, and then going into hibernation. The Brewers average .75 runs in the first inning, well above the league average, and their .63 in the third inning is almost as impressive. Contrast that to their late game non-heroics of a .34 mark in the 9th, and a downright pathetic .20 in the 8th. While it’s true that teams tend to score more in the first due to the top of the lineup batting, and less in the later innings as they face elite relievers, no team that I’ve ever seen or researched has had such a dramatic split.
I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I have a theory. It’s a pretty good theory in that explains why they would be good early and bad late, not just one or the other. It’s a multi-part theory and there is some luck involved, but the main thing is that…
- The best Brewer hitters have big platoon splits.
Once recently in a chat, Keith Law called Travis Shaw a platoon player, which made me mad for 5 seconds, until I realized he has a point, and that point carries over to Thames as well. It’s especially telling that the Brewers are super weak in the 8th inning where managers are more willing to play match ups with pitchers as opposed to just using a closer. Shaw has an OPS of .937 (.312 TAv) against opposite side pitching while falling to .777 (.254 TAv) against same side. Thames has the biggest split on the team (outside of Stephen Vogt’s ridiculous .763 versus .220), dropping from .907 (.312 TAv) to .693 (.240 TAv) when he faces a lefty. The two best Brewer hitters become very ordinary when opposing managers play it smart.
Against right-handed pitching, Thames, Shaw, Sogard, and now Neil Walker are studs, and both Braun and Domingo Santana are still effective against same side pitching. Against left-handed pitching, especially late-in-game lefty specialists, it can get ugly for the Brewer southpaws. Platoon split issues affect every team, but rarely is the effect this dramatic with arguably two of the best three hitters on the team.
- Strikeouts and Home Runs
It is a Brewer beat writer cliche to bemoan the fact that the Brewers can only score via the home run. Hitting home runs isn’t a bad thing at all, but there is some truth to the one-dimensional nature of the Brewer attack, and it can bite them in a big way in certain circumstances. The Brewers are an extreme home run hitting team, tied for 6th in baseball with 1.44 per game.
At home, they are the National League’s most home run heavy team with 1.52 per game, but they have a fairly severe split as they average only 1.35 home runs per game away from Miller Park, 11th overall and 7th in the National League, and they have scored 24 more runs at home than away despite playing one more road game.
When the Brewers play a road game in a homer unfriendly park, as they did recently in San Francisco, they often have trouble scoring runs. Even though they won the series in Los Angeles’s hitter-unfriendly park, they only scored 7 total runs in doing so.
It’s a good thing the Brewers do hit home runs, because they don’t hit much of anything else. The Brewers strike out a ton. They have an incredible knack for swinging and not making any contact. Milwaukee is last in baseball with 9.82 strikeouts per game, one of only two teams over 9.5 strikeouts per game. The Pirates strike out only 7.31 times per game, with the Cubs and Cardinals are solidly in the eights. Strikeouts aren’t the worst thing in the world, but when you attain the Brewers’ level of futility it does have an affect on your ability to string hits together, and move runners over. Against lesser starters, or even opposite side aces, the Brewers have been more than competent on offense, but against late-inning fire-ballers and platoon specialists, the home runs go down, the strikeouts go up, and you’re left with a completely impotent lineup.
There is a certain level of consistent production necessary to score runs without the aid of a home run. Teams need to be good enough at hitting (and walking) to allow good fortune to string a few together, but this simply never happens with the Brewers late in games. If the hits are too infrequent, the streaks will also be infrequent.
- The Fix
This is a tough problem because the practical solution to the platoon issue involves more frequent pinch-hitting for Shaw, Thames, and the lefties in general, and that can always come back to bite you later should the lineup turn over. The strikeout problem is simply endemic to team composition. It’s frustrating to see a team repeatedly jump out to leads only to give them up later and the fits and spurts of a home run heavy team can be maddening. Perhaps the best strategy, as the pitching has improved in the second half, isn’t to hit more later, but to defend more later. September call-ups are almost at hand, and while guys like Lewis Brinson (hurt, unfortunately) and Brett Phillips are still working on their hitting, they remains good-to-elite fielders. Spelling Santana or Braun (or both) in the late innings for defensive purposes could pay big dividends down the stretch, especially given that the Brewers don’t score runs late anyway. The high-level Brewer prospects are almost all good defensive players, and this could very well be the perfect use for them.
Sometimes it makes sense to turn into the skid.
Photo Credit: Isiah J. Downing, USAToday Sports Images