Do The Brewers Have An On-Base Problem? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

The core point of the seminal Sabermetric book “Moneyball” is the value of hitters getting on base. At least that’s what a lot of people took to be the main thesis of the Apple IIGS that wrote it. In reality, it was more about finding value in players that was being overlooked at the time, and the ability of a hitter to get on base just so happened to be undervalued when the book was written. In the decade* since the book’s release, most teams have become well aware of the importance of getting on, though some seem to focus more on it than others.

A good friend of mine never misses an opportunity these days to claim that the Brewers haven’t kept up with the times on this count. He looks at the team and what stands out for him is the free swinging styles of hitters like Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez, Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett. In the midst of the Brewers’ hot April start, I actually had a rather long conversation with him about how much he truly loathed watching the Brewers’ offense, despite the fact that they were scoring some runs and winning lots of games. Aesthetics aside, I wondered how legitimate his claims about their failures in the on base department are.

To determine this, we need to start by going back and looking at just what matters in scoring runs. The two key components of  run scoring are getting guys on and then having people who can advance those runners around the bases with extra base hits. It’s often said in sabermetrically inclined circles that on-base percent is the single most important “rate” stat and that slugging is behind it in importance. Sometimes, it seems that slugging gets neglected in these conversations for one reason or another.

Digging around a bit, I found this post that quite succinctly discusses the relationship between run scoring and some of the basic rate stats (batting average, on base percentage, slugging and OPS). The upshot is that both on base and slugging are important, much more so than batting average, but that it’s not a simple linear relationship. How often a team gets on base is quite important , but so is how they get on base.  A home run is obviously more valuable than a single, but on base percent (like batting average) treats both equally.

This is why both on base and slugging matter. The rate at which a team makes outs is very important, and like the post said, small changes in OBP can lead to larger changes in runs scored than similar changes in slugging. But effective offense also generally requires guys who can move base runners around the bases with big hits. So how do the current Brewers really stack up in this department?

The Crew are currently getting on base at a .311 clip, which is just shy of the league mark of .313. So, yes, they’re a bit below average in terms of getting on base, at least at the moment. On the other hand, they’re quite good at slugging the ball, with a .412 slugging percent being well above the .390 league average. Add it up, and they’re just a bit above the league average of 3.97 runs scored per game with a 4.07 mark.

Here is a chart showing how the Brewers have fared versus the league average in on-base, slugging and runs scored per game since the 2005 season when Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and JJ Hardy first saw regular action in the Brewers lineup.

  Brewers OBP League OBP Brewers Slug League Slug Brewers Runs/G League Runs/G
2014 0.311 0.313 0.412 0.390 4.07 3.97
2013 0.311 0.315 0.398 0.389 3.95 4.00
2012 0.325 0.318 0.437 0.400 4.79 4.22
2011 0.325 0.319 0.425 0.391 4.45 4.13
2010 0.335 0.324 0.424 0.399 4.63 4.33
2009 0.341 0.331 0.426 0.409 4.85 4.43
2008 0.325 0.331 0.431 0.413 4.63 4.54
2007 0.329 0.334 0.456 0.423 4.94 4.71
2006 0.327 0.334 0.420 0.427 4.51 4.76
2005 0.331 0.330 0.423 0.414 4.48 4.45

First off, it’s pretty clear how OBP and SLG relate to runs scored per game. In the years where they were above average on both counts, like 2005 and 2009-2012, they were above the league average each and every year in runs scored. What’s more, if you look at how those numbers relate to each other, you’ll see that the better they were in comparison to the league average at those things, the better they were at scoring runs versus the league average, at least roughly. In that dreadful year of 2006 when they were below average in both getting on base and slugging, they were quite far below the league average in runs scored.

The key years to look at, though, are 2007-08 and 2013-14. In those years, the Brewers were below the league average in OBP, generally just slightly. They were also above the league average in terms of SLG, generally by more than they were below average on OBP. Only in 2013 were they not able to overcome their on base deficiency and score runs at a rate better than the league average.

So what can we conclude from all of this? Being above average in getting on base is a very good thing to be, but it isn’t necessary to being an effective offense in terms of scoring runs if the team can slug the ball around the park on a regular basis. The Brewers proved that in 2006 and 2007. For the Brewers to improve their offense this year, it would definitely help if they could get on base a bit more, but it would also help them to slug the ball more often.

It could be argued that the Brewers offense is somewhat under-performing on the on base side of things, because teams that slug should inspire at least some fear in pitchers from throwing inside the strike-zone. Theoretically, at least, that should lead to more opportunities to walk, yet they are 12th in the NL in free passes. According to Fangraphs.com, the Brewers are seeing the fifth fewest balls in the zone of any offense, so they almost certainly are missing some opportunities to walk.

That’s unfortunate, but fixing it isn’t as simple as it might seem. Yes, the team probably could stand to walk more, but asking hitters to drastically change their approach runs the risk of hurting their ability to continue to do what they’ve done so well. The best way to improve the offense without running the risk of diminishing what they do well is probably to try and find personnel upgrades. Left field and first base both stand out as places where the team could benefit from a left-handed power bat with an idea of the strike zone.

At the end of the day, this isn’t a hopelessly flawed offense just because they don’t walk a lot. It would be better if they did, but it would also be better if they hit some more doubles and home runs. There is more than one way to score a run, and focusing just on the shortcomings of one thing is bound to make one miss the big picture. Walking and getting on base matter, but they aren’t everything.

*Just typing that made me feel very old.

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. Evan (Maryland) says: May 30, 2014

    I side with your friend on this one and read the stats a little differently. I guarantee if our hitters didn’t swing and miss at so much stuff the pitchers would be more inclined to be careful with their pitches. An aggressive approach is great but Khris Davis has 8 BB / 49 K in 48 games. That’s terrible. The one thing high OBP prevents is horrible team slumps. When KD stops his hot streak he won’t have anything to fall back on. A sub .300 OBP is pretty terrible. You could equate relying on slugging to something more akin to being a 3PT team in basketball. When your shots don’t fall you become atrocious. Having Braun and eventually Ramirez (healthy) will hopefully improve our lot. If anyone is happy with 4.07 runs at this point please realize that the pitching has carried this team. You can’t expect them to do that the whole way and the offense needs to carry its weight. We can add seeing pitches to the list of offensive problems. I’m all for Gomez’s aggressiveness because he’s playing like an MVP but a lineup that sees 2 or 3 pitches an at bat is going to get CG shutouts from teams like Cincy and St. Louis. You can’t contend in the playoffs when the pressure is amped up with this style. You need to apply pressure on pitchers and get people on base.

    Secondly I realize we’re going Scooter Gennett over Rickie which is an improvement somewhat in defense but let’s not forget how much better Rickie truly is/was offensively. I am not ready to throw in the Rickie towel because at least he sees pitches and gets on base. Scooter apparently is following the KD approach of sub .300 OBP. This is something the Brewers need to address. What does he need to be aggressive for… more bloop singles? He’s a modern day slap hitter which was probably the most over valued type of past generations. Hopefully the love affair for Gennett can end soon and realize he’s just an okay 2nd Basemen nothing more.

    • L says: May 30, 2014

      I agree 100% with your first point, but Gennett’s defense is quite noticeably better than Weeks’; plus, while Weeks does indeed have more power and can actually work a pitch count into favorable situations such as a walk he’s not a consistent contact hitter which lowers his offensive value and especially when he’s able to work pitch counts into favorable hitter counts because he’s not (at least on a consistent basis) taking advantage of those opportunities for a base hits.

      I do wish his (Weeks) willingness and ability to work a pitch count during an at-bat were traits that K.Davis, C.Gomez, M.Reynolds, and S.Gennett would develop as you’re absolutely correct – it would help reduce the team-wide offensive slumps the Brewers are very prone to suffer from.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: May 30, 2014

      4.07 R / G is pretty good in this league. The Brewers could very well have a park / league environment that is lower than 660 runs this year. So, one can be happy about the offense in the sense that it is hanging tough with the league and certainly an improvement over 2013.

      We are going to have to rid our minds of those PED/juiced baseball/small park OBPs, and embrace the new era of baseball. A .290 OBP is not great, to be sure, but it’s a lot closer to league average than one might have previously expected. We’re now in territory where a .330 OBP is GREAT. So, that’s not to say that the Brewers don’t need to improve, but that we should be extra mindful of their context.

    • Ryan Topp says: May 30, 2014

      Evan, first off, thanks for reading. Always appreciated.

      I would need to see some numbers about some of the stuff you brought up. Not that you’re for sure wrong, because I honestly don’t know for sure, but I do wonder.

      Like when you say “high OBP prevents is horrible team slumps” I’m just not sure if that is really true or not. Seems to me all teams go through ups and downs, and if a team has a high OBP won’t they probably go through some really ugly LOB stretches, especially if they’re not real good slugging? Like I said, I don’t have the numbers on that, but I would be interested.

      Ideally, an offense would do both things. They would get on base a lot and slug the ball all over the place. When your farm system produces Fielder, Weeks, Hardy, Hart and Braun in the space of a few years, stuff like that becomes a lot easier. More often, though, concessions need to be made because it’s hard to have everything all at once.

      The other thing I think they have going for them is that I actually expect this team to slug even better as the weather turns warmer and Braun and Ramirez (hopefully) get healthier. The Brewers have tended to hit better in the summer months the last decade or so, which makes sense for a team built around power.

      Finally, as to the point about the playoffs, again having not seen numbers on this I wonder how true it is. Sure, pitchers in the playoffs tend to be better and not allow as many homers, because they’re good pitchers. But good pitchers also tend to allow fewer walks, so is relying on that to score any more reliable? I don’t know, but would be interested in seeing numbers.

      • Evan (Maryland) says: May 31, 2014

        Sorry for the long reply… and thank you for all the disagreement

        So much fire from the Weeks haters… haha. I see I stirred the pot a little but and kept the conversation going which is a good thing. I guess I should have said the Weeks of old and not the overpaid version of today. I’m living in the past somewhat with what he was doing from 2nd base early in his career although diminished some by his defense and his partner in errors and lack of range Prince Fielder. I personally agree with the platoon and not straight starting for Gennett. Let’s not ink him to an extension just this second. When I say he’s a slap hitter I’m not putting him in Darwin Barney purgatory. He’s not fast and doesn’t have skills that translate to much more than the occasional gapper or rare homer down the line. At best I see Gennett as around a 3 WAR kind of guy with a max ops of .750 (12HR/30 2B’s) over the course of a season. That’s a fine second basemen.

        (Sorry I haven’t compiled any stats to support my theories :) )

        Ryan I thought about what I wrote and agree in some (many) of the holes in my argument. While it would be awesome to have a Shin Soo Choo in the lineup I do realize we have something more akin to a few more of the Adam Jones type of players with a caveat that you aren’t running a fantasy team but have to play the hand you’re dealt. In the end getting a healthy Ramirez back may balance some of the lineup more as you said. We have the uber aggressive Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis and hope that the summer leads to some real offensive tears. I would love to see more people on base so we can do the whole walk/walk 3 run homer trick. I’ll try my hardest to appreciate the lack of patience for positive aggressiveness. On the bright side it’s not often you see a perfect pitch to hit and they take it early in the count.

        I agree at some point that in the playoffs you’re dealing with superb pitching and the end of the day hopefully yours is shutting down the opposition as well. When you’re not worrying about a guy’s arm for the rest of the season managers make more decisions on winning than those based on pitch counts. If and when the Crew gets back to the post season they should just do what gets them there and not totally change. It’s not like the A’s have done much of late in the post season with their money ball teams. The playoffs are such a small sample size and how hot you are at the time is probably more important than the logic behind your approach.

        Being out in Maryland in the military I see how local fan bases react to things. I worked Memorial day when the Crew lost and my heart sank behind their gloating but retribution was sweet the next two days. Their fanbase is “fed up” with their closers and consistent starting pitching. They let me know how great Nelson Cruz is (he was a Brewer for a few days at least). Baseball is not meant to be a roller coaster but it’s easier to feel like you’re on one when your team is contending. I really appreciate the articles you guys post on here as it’s one of my most reliable links back to Brewers baseball. I have MLB.tv which allows me to watch Rock and Brian Anderson comment on how tight Gomez’s pants are as well as show the big crowds in Milwaukee. Hopefully this is a great year!

        Lastly with the draft coming up the Brewers appear to be in a 4 team race for Kendrys Morales. I’d love to read you guys revisit this and theorize what the Brewers might do with or without signing Morales. Surely we can’t go a full season with Overbay on the 25 man roster can we? 1st Base right now is a black hole… again (2013 anyone). Mark Reynolds is a strong power bat and will probably be the main option at first once Ramirez comes back. I can’t help but wonder if he’s truly a starter or if a switch hitter like Morales could provide a more steady hand. When I see Reynolds I think of Russell Branyan and can see him pinch hitting with a few home runs in the spot and the occasional starts at 1st and 3rd to spell Morales and Ramirez in my highly hypothetical optimistic scenario. .

  2. Lucas Chariton says: May 30, 2014

    Evan I don’t agree with how you can say that Rickie Week’s offense is that much better than Gennett. Looking at the stats Weeks isn’t any better than Gennett. Expecting Weeks to have the same type of years he did in 2010 and 2011 isn’t going to happen.

    Weeks has half as many at bats than Gennett. Weeks strikes out about 27% of the time where Gennett strikes out at 17% of the time so far this season. Weeks does normally draw twice as many as Gennett which is where the difference in OBP is coming from.

    Your comment that Gennett is only a slap hitter is laughable. Gennett does have 20 doubles in 42 hits so far this year. Even their OWAR is the same for both players so far this year. So I’m just trying to show that Gennett isn’t as bad of a hitter as you make him out to seem.

    I would rather sacrifice a dip in OBP and be better defensively. Gennett isn’t going to be an All-Star but he is a slight upgrade over Weeks.

  3. Okinawa Gorman Hai says: May 30, 2014

    It maybe obvious, but it is worth explicitly saying it: adopting a more patient approach to raise OBP will affect slugging. If you want more walks, then you will sacrifice extra base hits. Khris Davis might be able to bump his OPB up by 30 or 40 points, but doing so would result in a lot less 2B and HR. If you dial back aggressiveness, its not limited just to pitch selection – it affects your entire approach at the plate. Very few guys can be more discerning with pitch selection and maintain their power production. Those who can are all-stars. Thus, I agree with Ryan’s main point – there’s more than one way to score runs.
    I”m more concerned with driving in runners from 3rd with less than 2 out. I don’t know the stats, but it sure seems like we are terrible at that. This type of situational hitting is where you can ask for adjustments.

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