Do the Brewers Struggle to Hit Bad Pitching? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Last night, some guy named Kyle Hendricks shut out the Brewers 3-0. The night before, the Brewers had faced Jake Arrieta, one of the best pitchers in baseball this year. They stayed with him, scored three runs, and won the game.

Few things are more frustrating than the thrill of having your team figure out an elite pitcher, only to be flummoxed the following day by some no-name guy. Often enough, we hear fans complaining that their team can hit the good pitchers, but not the bad or simply ordinary ones. Another version of this complaint is that certain teams cannot hit so-called “AAAA” pitching.

Do the Brewers suffer from this problem, or was last night an aberration? I decided to take a look.

Because these complaints usually surround the ability to hit starters, I put my focus there. To evaluate starters, I chose something simple: Game Score. Game Score was invented by Bill James, who wanted to improve on the concept of the “quality start,” which traditionally refers to a start that lasts at least six innings, in which the starter is charged with three or less runs. The Game Score system awards points to pitchers for each out they get, each strikeout they achieve, and for each inning they survive after the fourth. It deducts points for runs, walks, and hits. Any start above 50 is considered above average. If you want the full explanation, you can look it up here.

Game Score is somewhat arbitrary, and doesn’t inherently account for competition, park, the number of starts, or the pitcher simply having an off day at any given time. On the other hand, it’s tough to argue with the general results. According to Baseball Reference, which keeps track of these, the highest average Game Scores for the 2014 season belong to, in order, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Johnny Cueto, Chris Sale, and Masahiro Tanaka. I think this’ll play.

To determine how the Brewers have fared this season against different levels of pitching, I averaged all game scores for major league starting pitchers, and used standard deviations to sort them into four bins. (The average Game Score this year is 51). The categories are:

Pitcher Quality Game Score Statistical Basis
Excellent 61+ Greater than +1 SD
Average Plus 51–60 MEAN to +1 SD
Average Minus 41–50 -1 SD to MEAN
Bad Less than 49 Less than -1 SD

From there, I added up the average Game Score for each starter the Brewers have faced this year, and totaled the differences between how the Brewers did versus each starter’s average for the 2014 season. Positive total scores mean that the Brewers hit better than average against that category of pitcher, and a negative score means that they did worse. Here’s how it came out:

Category Brewers Plus or Minus Representative Pitchers
Excellent Plus 5.2 Wainwright, Kershaw, Price
Average Plus Minus 0.1 Lackey, Niese, Cole
Average Minus Plus 2.5 Kelly, Peavy, Bolsinger
Bad Plus 3.0 Wolf, Friedrich, W. Rodriguez

Bad news for the haters: the Brewers hit bad pitchers quite well. They also do well against average to below-average pitching, and so far have killed elite pitching: certainly something you like to see for a team with its eye on the postseason. (That number is probably a bit fluky; be happy it is positive at all and move on). The one bracket the Brewers have been more challenged by is the average-plus category, but that’s basically even: the Brewers have hit these pitchers the way most people do.

In sum, there is no evidence the Brewers struggle hitting any particular category of pitcher, and they have generally feasted on below-average pitching. So if you were under the impression that the Brewers can’t hit bad pitchers, or are hitting the bars instead of preparing for the no-names, I’m afraid the evidence just doesn’t support it. On to the next conspiracy theory!

Follow Jonathan on Twitter at @bachlaw.

All statistics from Baseball Reference.

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. Jeremy says: August 13, 2014

    My thought on this watching last night wasn’t the struggling against bad pitching but rather struggling against pitchers that are new to them, especially those w/ a limited amount of experience from which to draw scouting reports on. My memory may be flawed but it seems like that type of pitcher has caused this team some problems, though I’m sure any “result” will suffer from SSS either way. Thanks for the analysis on this though!

    • Jonathan Judge says: August 13, 2014

      I think there is something to that. Hitters do struggle sometimes with an unfamiliar pitcher, particularly if that pitcher has a good game plan and doesn’t make too many mistakes. That seems to explain a lot of what happened last night.

  2. Samcam says: August 13, 2014

    Thanks for this analysis! My co-workers are constantly talking about how we are crushing the elite pitchers (which we are) and how we are getting run over by a bunch of 5th starters. I can now point to stats… and start a new argument.
    If the average game score is 51 so far this year, does that mean pitching is better than normal (or batting is worse)? I guess the real question is: What are the average game scores over the last few years?

    • Jonathan Judge says: August 13, 2014

      Pitchers are definitely getting more successful. You can go back 5 years (before we reached this new low-run environment) and the average Game Scores are already dipping below 50. It does move back and forth though sometimes from year to year.

  3. Adam says: August 14, 2014

    For the next conspiracy theory: In 2011 the Brewers subverted roster rules by re-inserting starter Shaun Marcum back into games’ late innings wearing a wig & a different jersey with the name McClendon across the back. Mike McClendon was, in fact, Shaun Marcum. Go ahead, google “Mike McCLendon Brewers Pitcher 2011″… it’ll be like taking that pill in The Matrix.

  4. airfigaro says: August 14, 2014

    Good work at summing this up and making accessible. I think that when a team struggles against any replacement level or lower value pitcher, there are a lot of factors at work, and it’s difficult to quantify and identify exactly what is causing the problem for the hits. A good performance by “bad” pitcher happens, and whether it’s just statistical noise or an outlier, it’s what makes baseball so fascinating.

  5. Evan (Maryland) says: August 14, 2014

    It is frustrating on the outset seeing them crush former Cy Young award winners and struggle against relative no names but the season is 162 games long and a 2 week span doesn’t encapsulate everything correctly. My gut says the Brewers hit lefties well (obvoiusly) and have trouble against righties that throw sinkers. I still feel like they threw away that game against Kershaw. The Crew could have beaten former Cy Young winners Wainwright, Price, Lincecum, Peavy, Greinke, and Kershaw but it didn’t happen. A Couple of those guys (Lincecum & Peavy) are shells of their former selves but still a neat thing to see during the dog days of summer.

  6. Jason says: August 15, 2014

    I just got back from vacation and thought I’d offer this one critique of your premise. Your data assesses whether they struggle against “bad” pitchers. I didn’t think so and your data is unambiguous that it just isn’t so. The problem with your analysis is that it isn’t “bad” pitchers that give the Brewers problems, but pitchers of different calibers whose one common trait is that they use command and deception to get batters to chase “their” pitch. Colloquially they are known as “junkballers”.

    That would be a more interesting and enlightening study. Perhaps you could redo your study looking specifically how they perform against junkball pitchers? Perhaps a study comparing the Brewers against other teams regarding propensity to create outs against pitches out of the strike zone? Either one of these have the potential be very interesting and enlightening to me.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: August 17, 2014

      I don’t think there’s a clear way to classify “junkball” pitchers by using the phrase “pitchers of different calibers whose one common trait is that they use command and deception…”

      By this definition, Clayton Kershaw is a junkballer, because he uses command to get batters to chase pitches, and he uses timing-disruptions in his delivery to deceive batters.

      A “junkball” pitcher is better defined as a pitcher who throws his change up more than any other pitch. In this case, one might be able to look for “change up” pitchers in general and follow success rates — but, even this is not concerning for the Brewers, since there are very few change-up first pitchers in the MLB.

      • Jason says: August 17, 2014

        Kershaw’s fastball is a mid 90′s fastball ( http://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfxo.aspx?playerid=2036&position=P&pitch=FA ) Too much power to classify him as a junkballer. A junkballer has to use command and deception because he can’t blow his fastball by major league hitters. A classic junkballer’s fastball can top out at 90-91but mainly lives in the 80s.

      • Nicholas Zettel says: August 18, 2014

        That’s not a suitable definition, either — if you classify pitchers by fastball velocity, pitchers who are not junkballers (like Travis Wood, who is a fastball-specialist that happens to throw slow, or Mike Fiers for that matter) are included, but pitchers like Edinson Volquez (actually a junkballer — works change up first some seasons) are not.

        • Jason says: August 19, 2014

          OK. So instead of quibbling on taxonomy, what do we know about the Brewers and their hypothesized tendency to chase pitches. Is there a statistic tracking outs from pitches outside the strike zone? If so, how are the Brewers rated? Is there a statistic regarding pitchers who get outs from outside the zone? Who would be considered especially good at generating outs from outside the strike zone?

        • Nicholas Zettel says: August 19, 2014

          Pitch f/x databases would have that type of “outside of zone” data, but I’m not sure anyone tracks outs on that.

          I would be willing to bet that hard-breaking ball pitchers have a better rate of outs on pitches outside of the zone.

        • Jason says: August 20, 2014

          Hmmm…I would think otherwise. If you throw a hard-breaking pitch, you probably throw a hard fastball as well and only use the benders to keep hitters from sitting on the fastball. They would probably establish the mean, since they would feel more comfortable throwing in the zone on 2 strike counts.

          I am betting slower pitchers that rely on movement and batters “guessing wrong” would get more outs on pitches outside the zone.

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