Brewers hitters are known to be an impatient bunch.
So far in 2014, the Brewers rank last in the number of pitches they see during each plate appearance. An average team lets 3.85 pitches go by before finishing the at-bat, and the most patient team, Boston, takes 4.1 pitches. Not the Brewers: they get bored after an average of 3.51 pitches. Heck, they were last in league in 2013 too. To adapt the old joke, it is the Brewers, rather than the home plate umpire, who seem to have an after-game dinner reservation.
When asked about this trend by Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke admitted that he wished his hitters would take more pitches, but stated it was more important that his players stuck to their natural, aggressive style.
Is Roenicke wrong to defer to his hitters in this way? Tom Verducci documents why many managers would say yes. The logic generally goes like this:
(1) The opposing team’s best pitchers are its starters;
(2) Therefore, the sooner a starter departs, the better it is for hitters;
(3) By taking more pitches, a starter will leave earlier;
(4) The hitters can then take advantage of the opposing team’s bullpen.
The gem of Kepner’s article, however, was a quote from Lyle Overbay, who claimed that the entrenched philosophy of taking extra pitches no longer makes sense. Here’s what he said:
When I came up in the league, “Moneyball” was big, and I understood that, because the fifth-, sixth-inning guys were not that good. Now, the bottom of our bullpen — any bullpen — they all throw 95. I’d rather face the starter four times. So it’s changed. I don’t think it’s the same game.
In the era of the flame-throwing reliever, this claim makes some sense. But is it accurate? And even if true, are the Brewers positioned to take advantage of it?
Are Batters Better Off Facing the Starter Four Times?
Let’s start with Overbay’s premise. A quality starter is expected to last at least six innings, which usually approximates to about three times through the batting order. If the pitcher does not have to throw that many pitches, he can even make it into the order a fourth time. However, on average, pitchers consistently degrade in their effectiveness each time they go through the order, as batters start to become more familiar with them. Here is the data from Mitchell Lichtman’s research, which is stated in terms of the weighed on-base average (wOBA) allowed by pitches. Lower is better:
|Time Through the Order||wOBA Allowed|
Needless to say, this data supports the idea that teams will be more productive batting against a starter the third and fourth time around. In fact, Lichtman and Tom Tango found that the first time around, starters are pitching above their true talent level, the second time at their true talent level, and the final two times, below it, as batters finally familiarize themselves with the starter’s pitch selection.
So, how does the performance of a starter in his final turns through the order compare to that of a reliever coming fresh into the game? Adapting the OPS+ metric from Baseball Reference, look at these numbers from 2013, which average all pitchers in baseball:
|3rd time through for a Starter||12% below average|
|1st time through for a Reliever||7% above average|
Lyle, you devil. On average, a hitter is definitely better off facing a starter making a third or fourth turn through the order he is facing a fresh reliever. Of course, these are just averages: individual game situations will vary, particularly when a starter is uniquely good or a bullpen is uniquely struggling. But overall, the data supports Overbay’s position.
Are the Brewers Positioned to Take Advantage of their Impatience?
So, it’s generally better to be facing a starter than a reliever as the game progresses into the mid- and late innings. But what about those early innings? The point of being aggressive with your swings is to take advantage of favorable pitches that happen to be thrown early in the count, not to write off the first half of the game in hope of a late-game rally. Put another way, if the Brewers are not thriving on the first few pitches of the count, then this is just a theoretical discussion for some other team to enjoy.
Fortunately, the Brewers’ free-swinging ways seem to be producing fruit, at least so far in 2014. There are eight pitch counts that would start with three or less total pitches, thereby allowing the plate appearance to finish with four pitches or less. Baseball Reference allows us to tabulate and weigh the Brewers’ productivity in these early counts:
|Pitch Count||PA||sOPS+||Weight factor||Offensive Production (OPS+)|
The table lists each pitch count, the comparative productivity of Brewers hitters on each count as compared to the rest of the league (by OPS+, a metric of offensive production for which “average” is 100), the weight for each count by the number of times Brewers hitters have terminated a plate appearance in that count, and finally the weighed amount of offense attributable to plate appearances terminating at that count. The total at the bottom is what matters, and the total weighted OPS+ on these pitch counts is 122. This means that the Brewers are generating 22% better production than the league average on the early pitches of their pitch counts. Overall, the Brewers going into Tuesday night’s game were 11% overall above average (by OPS+) in their offensive productivity, which means that their early swings are not only paying off, but are an important part of the reason for their early hitting success.
So what do you know? Brewers hitters are indeed being aggressive, but they are doing so with good reason. They are correctly diagnosing pitches that look hittable and refusing to pass on them simply because they are too early in the count. Furthermore, the evidence suggests there is little downside to letting the starter stay a bit later as a consequence. In fact, there appears to be a benefit to doing so.
I want to caution that this analysis is not complete by any means. We’re still very early in 2014, and we have a long way to go. These are also just team-wide average results and do not necessarily justify early-swinging by every Brewer hitter. Nonetheless, the trend seems clear to me. Lyle Overbay and Ron Roenicke are on to something. We’ll see if this trend turns into a defining characteristic of the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw.
All data from Baseball Reference.