Over the offseason, I spent a lot of time writing about situational baseball, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I wanted to get my mind around the types of approaches typically executed by good situational baseball players. Second, I wanted to see if (or how) success at situational baseball plays was repeatable. Third, I wanted to investigate avenues of production the Brewers could use to potentially help replace Prince Fielder. In that regard, I also wanted to address some of the common fan ideologies about the Brewers and situational baseball.
Overall, I began to sketch an argument that situational baseball outcomes are not entirely repeatable. Rather, MLB players stick to their particular contact (or non-contact) approaches, batting the ball in play, striking out, walking, and hitting home runs in ways that reflect their goals for driving the ball, waiting for their pitch, or simply knocking the ball in play. It is more important, it seems, to build a team that is consistently able to maintain their strike zone discipline, looking for their respective pitches, and executing their approaches according to those two principles.
One of the common complaints from Brewers fans is that their team is full of undisciplined batters. Since the Brewers largely depend on driving the ball for their offensive production, over the last few years, Brewers batters are likely to strike out (and draw walks) at rates consistent with players looking to drive specific pitches. Of course, the Brewers’ home run rates are typically strong because of these batting approaches, a strong payoff for their strike outs and relatively low contact-approach.
In 2011, the Brewers actually boasted an offense that put the ball into play at a rate consistent with the 2011 National League average.
The Brewers accomplished their home run rate with fewer strike outs (and also fewer walks), resulting in a rather wicked contact/power approach.
2012 Milwaukee: .208 K%, .083 BB%, .031 HR%
2012 National League: .202 K%, .080 BB%, .025 HR%
Surprisingly, the Brewers maintained their home run power during 2012 thus far, despite losing Prince Fielder. This, of course, since the Brewers’ core remained very similar, and the Brewers added slugger Aramis Ramirez, alongside some strong power performances by Ryan Braun and Corey Hart (just to name two).
Between this year and last, the Brewers returned to a non-contact approach, batting the ball in play at a less frequent rate (due to their strong home run rate, as well as their walks and strike outs). Over 3200+ PA, the difference between the Brewers’ batted ball in play rate between 2011 and 2012 accounts for approximately 150-to-160 fewer batted balls in play in 2012.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that despite the reputation as an undisciplined ballclub, the 2011 Brewers swung at 31.2% of pitches outside the strike zone (against a league median around 30.9%); their overall swing rate of 46.6% was basically at the league median of 46.5%. This year, the Brewers are swinging at 29.7% of pitches outside the strike zone (against a league median around 30.1%); their overall swing rate of 45.4% is just below the league median of approximately 45.7%.
The Brewers remain a relatively selective ballclub, generally laying off pitches outside the strike zone at a good rate, while swinging at a moderate rate overall. Overall, these elements of their collective batting approach suggests a team that looks to drive specific pitches at the expense of frequently batting the ball into play.
Unfortunately, for all the walks and home runs in 2012, the Brewers are approximately 13 runs off their pace from last year. Against the 2012 NL/Miller Park, the 2012 Brewers boast 384 runs scored against an average of 379. Last year, the Brewers played in a run environment that yielded an average of approximately 688 runs over 162 games; the Brewers scored 721 runs in that environment. Even though the Brewers are on pace to outscore their 2011 counterparts this season, the steadily (suddenly?) increasing run environment at Miller Park (over the last three to five years) is taking a bite out of that production.
Here is where we can scrutinize the Brewers’ situational performances in 2012. For instance, I noticed a tweet about “Stop Bunting” tee-shirts on Twitter the other day, and sure enough, the Brewers soundly hold the sacrifice bunting lead in the 2012 National League.
2012 Milwaukee: 70 attempts / 64% successful
2012 National League: 48 attempts / 69% successful
The Brewers attempt sacrifice bunts like they’re going out of style, but unfortunately, they are not successfully executing those bunts at a good rate. Not only does this result in a surrendered out, but it results in a surrendered out without the desired outcome of advancing a runner.
2011 Milwaukee: 111 attempts / 77% successful
2011 National League: 97 attempts / 73% successful
Beyond their inability to successfully sacrifice batters to advance runners, the Brewers are currently on pace to attempt at least 20 more sacrifice bunts than last season. Given their below average success rate, this means that although the Brewers are on pace to attempt 20 more sacrifice bunts, they are not on pace to produce any additional successful bunts. That’s right — at their current percentage, the Brewers might finish with 85 successful sacrifices in 133 attempts; they managed 85 successful sacrifices in 111 attempts last year.
Productive Outs / Advancing Baserunners
The Brewers’ overall performance in opportunities for productive outs has remained relatively steady from 2011 to 2012. Last year, when the Brewers had opportunities to advance any runner with an out, sacrifice the pitcher, and drive in a baserunner with the second out of an inning, they succeeded in 33% of 560 opportunities (against 32% in 585 opportunities for the NL). This year, the Brewers are on pace for 575 productive out opportunities, with a success rate of 31% (the NL success rate is also 31%).
Unfortunately, the Brewers’ overall performance advancing runners has also declined in 2012. With less than two outs and a runner on 3B, the 2011 Brewers scored 166 runners in 311 opportunities, for a 53% success rate that was better than the NL percentage. This year, with a runner on 3B and less than two outs, the Brewers scored 78 in 171 opportunities, posting a 46% success rate that is behind the NL rate of 49%. Despite a pace that gives the 2012 Brewers approximately 14 more runners at 3B with less than two outs, the Brewers are on pace to score 15 fewer runners from 3B (with less than two outs).
Similarly, the 2012 Brewers are on pace to have approximately 17 more baserunners at 2B with no outs. However, their 50% rate of advancing runners from 2B (with no outs) means that they are likely to advance fewer runners from 2B than in 2011. Last year, the Brewers advanced 132 of 232 runners from 2B with no one out; this year the Brewers have had 131 runners at 2B with no outs, advancing 66 (below the NL rate of 54%).
If you thought the 2011 Brewers were aggressive on the basepaths,
you’d better lace those spikes tight this year! Ron Roenicke’s 2012 squad is running in nearly 7% of their stolen base opportunities, compared with a 5.5% rate in 2011. Their success rate is also a fine 77% in 2012, making those extra stolen base attempts worthwhile.
Baserunning on base hits is a different story this year. The 2012 Brewers have had 121 runners on first when the batter hit a single, but only 26 of those runners safely reached third base (the 2012 NL would have advanced 34 runners safely, the 2011 Brewers 32 runners). Similarly, the 2012 Brewers have had 41 runners on first base when a double was hit, with 13 of those runners scoring from first on the extra base hit (the 2012 NL and the 2011 Brewers both would have scored 18).
This is one area that the extra stolen base attempts might impact; if the Brewers are stealing bases more frequently, that might mean that a disproportionate percentage of runners remaining at 1st base are slow runners. Not only would those runners not attempt to steal, but they also would not advance to 3rd on a single or score on a double. Ironically, in this regard the Brewers might be handcuffing one element of their situational baseball strategy due to their aggression in another department of baserunning.
Further evidence for this explanation is that the Brewers are advancing fewer baserunners, but they are also making fewer outs on the bases while attempting to advance, which simply suggests that Brewers runners at first base are either attempting a steal or staying put (that’s a bit extreme, but you get the picture). Another potential explanation is pick-offs; the 2012 Brewers have almost matched last year’s pick-off total halfway through the season. (This indirectly affects the potential number of baserunners that could be advanced by base hits by removing some baserunners from first base).
The 2012 Brewers offense is certainly not bad; we might call them average, and they have a pace that should get them nearly 10 more runs than their league and park this season. By comparison, however, the Brewers’ offensive club is coming up short compared to last year’s squad. One might not be surprised by this fact, given their replacement roster and a few other declining performances on top of the loss of Prince Fielder. Oddly enough, the Brewers are falling short in the run scoring department despite a very strong home run rate, and solid discipline.
The 2012 Brewers are not as good against their run environment as the 2011 Brewers for a combination of reasons. Here we can see that situational baseball is more than simply repeating fundamentals or making productive outs (that is to say, it’s not that the core that made the 2011 Brewers a great situational team is suddenly bad at situational baseball this year; it’s that their approaches have systematically changed the types of situations they enter). If a team combines fewer batted balls in play, advancing fewer baserunners on productive outs or base hits, along with a failure to execute sacrifice hits despite attempting an inordinate number of sacrifices, that team will hinder their ability to score runs by adding extra outs and subtracting batted balls in play in a strange proportion. Therefore, the 2012 Brewers can walk at a strong rate and hit home runs at a strong rate without maximizing their production, because their 2012 club is not executing their situational outcomes in a prudent manner.
If situational baseball is simply the sum of a team’s batting approaches, we can see that there is a disconnect between the Brewers’ ability to control their own strike zone and swing at their pitches (successfully driving the ball around the ballpark) on one hand, and their desired aggression on the other. The trouble with solving these types of disconnects is that a team’s aggression and a team’s plate discipline often run to the core of how they approach the game (and how their manager and organization approaches the game).
Once again, we get the picture of a Brewers club that is not firing on all cylinders.
Carlos Gomez: Associated Press / Jeffrey Phelps: http://www.beloitdailynews.com/sports/gomez-s-dash-gives-brewers-victory/article_828efec6-c459-11e1-aff5-0019bb2963f4.html
Ryan Braun: Associated Press / Jeffrey Phelps: http://gazettextra.com/photos/2012/jun/02/50723/
Rickie Weeks: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/475524-the-100-best-players-in-baseball-today-part-2