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Weekend Recap: Villar, Jeffress

The Brewers took three of four games from the Washington Nationals this weekend, pulling to within half a game of the second wild card spot. The pitching had another strong weekend, holding the Washington offense, which is 3rd in MLB with a .276 TAv to eight runs across the four games. Unfortunately, with the Cubs also winning three of their past four games, no ground was made up in the division race; however, the Brewers did gain two games on the second Wild Card spot (currently held by the Rockies).

Jonathan Villar helped propel the offense over the weekend, going 6-for-15, including a home run and a double. Villar has unquestionably had a disappointing season after his performance in 2016 made him look like a building block for the future. However, his bat has shown some signs of life over the last three weeks. Going back to August 10, which covers sixteen games (arbitrary endpoints alert!), Villar is hitting .400, with three home runs and three doubles, but only two walks.

Villar opened and closed the series in the leadoff spot, but also batted 6th and 7th, showing that manager Craig Counsell hasn’t fully bought into a Villar resurgence. This weekend showed why it’s smart to be skeptical. One of the reasons Villar has struggled so much is that he swinging at more pitches than ever (46.79 percent), while his contact rate has dropped to 69.50 percent, and his swinging strike rate has crept above 30 percent (30.50 percent).

During the four game series, Villar faced sixty pitches and swung at twenty seven of them. VIllar has been so intent on swinging the bat that he hasn’t drawn a walk since August 13, which spans twelve games, an unacceptable rate for a player at the top of the order.

For the good news, during this hot streak, Villar has been keyed in on pitches in the bottom of the zone, which are the pitches he hit with a lot of success in 2016. The biggest difference is his swing rate at the top of the zone. In 2016, he swing at pitches in the top third of the zone 60.38 percent of the time. In his recent streak, his swing rate in the top third is 69.23 percent, which is in line with his season numbers. Until he can lay off that high strike at least a few more times per week, VIllar is likely to continue to be inconsistent.

When Jeremy Jeffress was traded to the Brewers, he was in the middle of his worst season since 2012, with a DRA 6.31. Since his return to Milwaukee, his results have superficially been better with a 3.00 ERA, but he’s actually been worse. After Sunday’s two scoreless innings, he’s allowed four runs in twelve innings with the Brewers, allowing eight hits and nine walks, while striking out ten batters. DRA hasn’t been updated yet for Sunday’s outing, but Jeffress had a 7.18 DRA before the game, worse than his Texas stint and easily the worst in his career.

Since coming to Milwaukee, the team has changed his pitch mix:

2017 w/ Texas 2017 w/ Milwaukee
Fourseam 18.93% 21.83%
Sinker 50.27% 42.64%
Curve 21.07% 15.74%
Split 9.73% 19.80%

The effect of those changes is that he’s increased his splitter usage at the expense of his sinker and curveball. The splitter was a pitch he would occasionally tossed in the past two years, but only in 2017 has it become a regular part of Jeffress’ arsenal. Jeffress has never been a reliever who generated huge strikeout numbers; his career K/9 Is only 7.8, which is low in this high strikeout era.

However, that splitter may be his key to higher whiff rates and increased strikeouts. With Texas, Jeffress got whiffs on 23.29% of his splitters, by far his best pitch for a swing and miss. That rate has increased to 28.21% since he was traded to Milwaukee. (Also of note, it’s his only pitch where batters swing more than half the time when they see the pitch.) Since coming to Milwaukee, the splitter has been his go to pitch when ahead in the count and with two strikes against both righties and lefties.

So Jeffress has found a new pitch, it gets whiffs, and is a weapon against both sides, yet he’s been worse than ever. This chart tracking Slugging Percentage helps explain the problem:

Slugging PCT Fourseam Sinker Curve Split
2014 0.500 0.374 0.105 0.000
2015 0.320 0.393 0.273 0.000
2016 0.435 0.331 0.250 0.714
2017 0.516 0.539 0.526 0.244

 

Batters are killing all of his other pitches. Part of the explanation here may be a velocity dip. Last year, both his four seamer and his sinker were averaging more than 96 MPH. Each of them have lost around 1.5 MPH off their average this season.

Jeffress’s other potential problem is that batters aren’t hitting mistake pitches. This chart is his pitching pattern since 2014, when he stuck in the big leagues. Here is his 2017, which looks fairly similar. The problem lies in that batters are looking for those pitches and can handle them. His new splitter may help alleviate the problem by diving out the zone. It looks like one of his hittable pitches until the bottom drops out. While there’s some evidence this is already happening, we’ll need more of a sample to know for sure.  The usage of Jeffress has been conservative; he hasn’t pitched past the 6th inning in a close game, so there’s time to see if he can be another real end of the game weapon.

Up Next: The Brewers are on the road for the full week, with a slate of division games. Milwaukee starts the week against the Reds, and then has a day off before a big three game series against the Cubs. The Brewers have an advantageous schedule in September as most of their opponents have already fallen out of the playoff race. Aside from two series with Cincinnati, Milwaukee’s schedule is filled with St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Miami, all teams at least three games out of wild card. The last unmentioned series is four games with the Cubs in Milwaukee in two weeks. With seven games against the division leader, the Brewers will control their own destiny.

Brewers Reds
Monday September 4 Chase Anderson (4.32 DRA) Homer Bailey (8.14 DRA)
Tuesday September 5 Zach Davies (4.26 DRA) Robert Stephenson (5.79 DRA)
Wednesday September 6 Matt Garza (5.38 DRA) Luis Castillo (3.49 DRA)

 

Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USAToday Sports Images

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