In late January, the Milwaukee Brewers shook baseball by adding two of the league’s best two-way outfielders in Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. Now, they seem to be doing little but shaking themselves. But if the underlying numbers are any indicator, they should be on the road to redemption sooner than later.
After a 2017 season that left them just one game short of a Wild Card spot, the Brewers have seemed to flip the script on preseason expectations almost entirely. Despite being plagued by injuries and inconsistency, the starting rotation has managed to float to the center with a Major League-average ERA (4.05, 15th overall) and even more surprising, are now supported by the second-best relief corps in the majors (2.61) even without their lights-out closer from last season in Corey Knebel.
But what seemed like a near given — the team’s collective bat taking a step forward by building on last year’s breakouts — is now anything but, as evidenced by their 27th ranked offense in run-scoring (137), hovering just above the likes of the league’s most anemic in the White Sox, Orioles and Marlins.
While hope springs eternal in Milwaukee thanks to a resilient fan base with a tenured routine of taking loss in stride and enjoying baseball anyway, the team’s newest additions seemed to raise expectations for 2018, and with good reason.
So far, both Cain and Yelich have been doing their part on both sides of the plate, even with the latter suffering a short stint on the disabled list. Together, they represent two of the team’s top three in average and on-base percentage and have both, at times, saved a few runs with outright hustle. Unfortunately, they seem to be two of the only consistent contributors offensively.
Despite his counting stats (5 HR, team-leading 19 RBI), Ryan Braun has again been marred by injury, which may or may not be an excuse for what he’s doing at the plate overall (.243/.283/.450). But when Braun isn’t saving games in late innings, he’s doing the exact opposite by playing the rally-killer. His batting average on balls in play is the lowest its been in his entire career (.272), indicating he may just be missing the gaps, but it has little chance to correct itself when he’s also striking out at the highest rate since his rookie campaign (22.5%) while taking walks at the lowest (5.8%).
What’s more, Braun is part of a significant logjam in both the outfield and at first base, the team’s current injury plague notwithstanding, when others in his platoon have been doing nothing but holding their own.
Although currently on the disabled list, Eric Thames led the club in home runs until Travis Shaw finally tied him at seven a few days ago. This season, Thames has seen 74 plate appearances and with it, tallied 11 runs, 7 home runs, and 13 RBI. But his counting stats aren’t even the most significant part of his play. Even if still early in the season, Thames has taken significant strides at the plate. He may be walking at the same rate as last year, leading to a useful .351 OBP, but he’s striking out significantly less, and what’s more, is that his .250 average hasn’t even accounted for his .225 batting average on balls in play, meaning that by the rules of baseball averages, he should see a considerable rise in balls finding open field.
Yes, his Aprils could be called “hot” by traditional standards, but for a student of the game who holds promising underlying numbers, he should still end up being as productive, if not more so, than he was during his 2017 breakout.
Of course, it’s difficult to overshadow Jesus Aguilar as well, who in limited time has still produced at a good clip. Whether starting or coming off the bench dead cold, Aguilar is still slashing .349/.397/.508 and has also added 11 runs, 2 HR and 11 RBI. The problem is, even with the absence of Thames, Counsell still seems to prefer putting Braun at first against righties, instead of letting Aguilar work his way through his lop-sided splits, something the team benefited from greatly when doing the same with Travis Shaw (against lefties) in 2017.
But outside of taking time at first base, Braun is also keeping Domingo Santana, who also experienced a significant breakout last year, from getting more time at the plate. Although he’s off to a slow start in 2018, at least some of which can be attributed to his semi-stunted playing time, he’s walking and striking out at nearly the same rates as last year with only a slightly higher batting average on balls in play, indicating that the chances are that he’ll get back on track as soon as his eye returns to match his increasing patience. Even with some of his current ineffectiveness, he’s still getting on-base at a much better rate (.344) than Braun (.283).
But logjams and Braun’s early inconsistency aren’t the only matters holding the Brewers back from being the offensive powerhouse many predicted.
Travis Shaw is at least maintaining decent counting stats, now tied for the team lead in home runs (7) and RBI (19), but from the eye test alone, he doesn’t seem to be seeing the ball as well as he did last year. Like Thames, there is also hope to be found in his underlying numbers. While he’s only slashing .223/.308/.454, he’s currently sitting with a career high walk rate, a career low strikeout rate and maintaining nearly the same isolated power that he did last year.
Even more promising, is that like many other Brewers bats, he’s being held back by a .229 batting average on balls in play that should eventually work it’s way back towards his career average of about .300 (which is also the league average), indicating that as long as he maintains patience and stays somewhat near what he’s done in other categories, he should start producing hits at a much more significant rate.
Big bats aren’t the only victims of the BABIP issue either. Manny Piña, who is sporting one of the worst triple slash lines on the team at .212/.235/.364, is also having his potential production destroyed by chance, as he also holds a supremely low .224 batting average on balls in play. He is, however, walking at a lower rate and striking out at a higher rate than he did last year, so unless his eye and patience improve, he may only see marginal improvement at the plate.
Unfortunately, not all batters can claim that bad luck has ruined their season thus far. Jonathan Villar may look a bit better than last year on the surface (which isn’t hard to do considering his unproductive 2017) with a triple slash line of .270/.311/.330, but he’s walking at a career low pace while striking out over 30 percent of the time, a new career high at the major league level, and coupling it with an abhorrent .060 ISO.
Worse yet, is that both Orlando Arcia and Hernan Perez are following the exact same template with their walks and strikeouts, leaving several gaping holes in a lineup that looked to improve on their bottom-third offense from 2017.
So what’s this all to say? Well, when it comes to the big bats many fans expected, much of it just needs time to play out. Thames returning should help improve the lineup overall, even if his playing time is limited. Aguilar needs to see some more time, which hopefully should become more apparent with Braun’s continued shortcomings. Shaw, Santana and Piña all look primed to rebound sooner than later.
As for the rest, patience may not be the correct solution. There still seem to be issues with both middle infield positions, as evidenced by the team recently optioning Eric Sogard, who couldn’t get anything going at the plate, as well as Villar and Arcia, who currently lead the team in errors in addition to being ineffective at bat.
As baseball tends to go, the 2018 season has already taken away one of the Brewers’ best options to fill in in the form of Mauricio Dubon, who was on a tear in Triple-A before another tear (ACL) ended any chance of him seeing the Major League field this season. Fortunately, the Brewers do have additional options including the hot-hitting Nate Orf (although not currently on the 40-man roster, has become a cause célèbre with #FreeNateOrf), and the team’s most recent call-up in Tyler Saladino, who could go either way. His minor league numbers this year look promising, .295/.392/.432, but his major league track record is far from useful (.231/.281/.330). Nick Franklin, once reinstanted from the disabled list is another, but his pattern looks much like Saladino’s (good-looking MiLB numbers coupled with sub-average MLB stats).
Beyond that, the team may be left with little in the middle unless they want to reach down past Triple-A, which seems highly unlikely (Franklin did come from Biloxi but has mostly played in Triple-A and MLB in recent years). If the situation doesn’t improve, the team may again be looking to make an acquisition as the mid-season trade deadline nears.
Given the holes that exist and the potential to improve, it would be surprising if the Brewers maintained the barrel-scraping offensive status they’ve already posted early in the season, but that doesn’t mean that problems won’t continue to plague them. Already 37 games into the season, they’ll have to maintain equal parts patience and prudence if they want to improve enough to make a convincing push for postseason play. If Sogard and Drake are any indicators, they’ve set the bar close to where it needs to be.
Now all they need is time.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.
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