For Brewers Batters, Impatience is an Unexpected Virtue | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

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
1 .340
2 .350
3 .359
4+ .361

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:

Role Performance
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+)
1-2 Count 97 88 0.193 16.970
First Pitch 92 136 0.183 24.875
0-2 Count 80 166 0.159 26.402
1-1 Count 74 83 0.147 12.211
0-1 Count 58 79 0.115 9.109
1-0 Count 51 138 0.101 13.992
2-1 Count 37 147 0.074 10.813
2-0 Count 14 259 0.028 7.209
TOTALS 503 122

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. Cory D says: April 23, 2014

    Was hoping someone would check this out after I read Curt’s article on the 15th. I had the same curiosity. It was a great read, and I plan to share. Thanks.

    • L says: April 23, 2014

      I had the same thoughts.

      However, I would like to add something in regards to the evidence suggesting there is little downside to letting the starter stay a bit later as a consequence of being more aggressive and that’s that it’s also important to remember being able to get to a starter’s 3rd or 4+ time through the lineup can occur with patience at the plate too but it’ll occur earlier in the game; plus, within a series match-up with another ball club being able to tax their bullpen by forcing them to pitch more often can also lead to multiple opportunities to see certain reliever’s pitch selections. Lastly, I think this can be even more important in regards to divisional teams where being able to get into their bullpen can be taxing on that particular team in not only the series your team is playing them in but also in any immediately following series that opposing team may have — for example: look at what the Brewers are currently dealing with in regards to trying to find rest for their better relievers after taxing match-ups against division foes (the Pirates and the Cards).

      • matt says: April 24, 2014

        The only flaw in your theory there (and its a big one) is that they will get good AS good of pitches to hit later in the count as they do early in the count. That just doesn’t pass the eye test to me. On a batter by batter basis, the pitcher gains the advantage seeing more swings and adjustments, also as the pitch count gets later in each at bat, the batter sees fewer good pitches to hit as pitchers are more apt to either walk, or strikeout the batter, than the batter getting a decent pitch to hit.

        In short, your theory that batter will see the pitcher a 4th time around earlier in the game, by the batter waiting until later in the pitch count , doesnt hold weight, as the pitchers will only see the batters the 4th time around IF batters get their hits at the same rate as an aggressive one does early in the count AND the pitcher has an extremely high pitch count…….. in this day and age of baseball, those chances are slim and none.

        • L says: April 24, 2014

          I should have stress the term “patience” as simply being more critical with watching the incoming pitches.

          If they’re seeing meatball pitches coming on the first throw then I agree and support they’re willingness to go after them rather than sitting back and letting them go by for strikes just to re-enforce the concept of forcing the pitcher to throw more pitches (this is a good type of aggressiveness), but if those throws are not obvious meatball pitches then by all means let it go by.

          Ideally, the batter who is constantly anticipating certain types of pitches in specific pitch counts will continue to look for specific pitches to come into the strike zone, but if they’re not seeing what they’re expecting to see then their mindset should be on continuing to work the pitch count into either a hitter’s count where you (as a batter) will likely have a higher chance of seeing a specific pitch that will probably come across the plate or until a walk is a possible outcome. This means that at times a batter will need to have a more defensive approach with their swing verses a blindingly aggressive one.

          I only mention this because what I’m hearing (such as the comment from Gomez about a ball has to be “…like really a ball” for him not to swing at it) and at times seeing; players are being ubber-aggressive with pitches that end up well outside the strike zone and worse yet in pitch counts that are not favorable to the batter.

          My biggest concern deals with the situations where it leads to some questionable or stupid strike-outs when the batter should have been more defensive with their approach; I’ve seen this ubber-aggressive approach ruin some real scoring/RBI opportunities.

          Lastly, I’d like to address a specific comment you made. You said, “On a batter by batter basis, the pitcher gains the advantage seeing more swings and adjustments, also as the pitch count gets later in each at bat, the batter sees fewer good pitches to hit as pitchers are more apt to either walk, or strikeout the batter, than the batter getting a decent pitch to hit.” and I have to disagree with that whole-heartedly.

          I would argue on the basis of the evidence presented in the article above that the batter is the one who gains the advantage as a pitcher goes through the order multiple times. The get that advantage because not only are they seeing the pitcher’s full arsenal of pitches and are therefore able to make the necessary adjustments to them, but also arm fatigue begins setting in for the pitcher where they become more liable to make pitching mistakes. Also, in regards to the pitch count that’s accumulated in a specific match-up with a batter the manner of how that pitch count builds factors significantly in regards to the types (strike/ball) of pitches a batter will see.

          For example: If a pitcher finds themselves down 2 balls, 0 strikes then there’s going to be a lot more pressure on that pitcher to get a pitch into the strike zone or they risk a 3-0 count where they’re either going to throw a meatball-like pitch or likely walk the batter. Now as a batter that’s obviously a really good situation for you, but of course you won’t find yourself in that situation often if you’re going to swing at any and every first pitch that comes your way or anything that you think might reside in the strike zone.

          I can’t stress enough that there’s a fine line as to maintaining an aggressive approach without becoming overly aggressive and vise versa. My point is that it’s certainly okay to be aggressive with your at-bats but it needs to be balanced by having batter’s who have good eyes and can assess whether a first pitch is worth swinging at verses letting go by; otherwise, the league will adjust and if the Brewers try to maintain a ubber-aggressive approach they’ll be finding a lot less offensive success then what they’ve achieved thus far.

  2. Jim says: April 23, 2014

    The evidence on the First pitch success is compelling. Am I reading this correctly that they are also having success at 0-2? That would seem to be something that opposing pitchers could adjust to if the Brewers are hacking on 0-2.

  3. Logan says: April 23, 2014

    Is that for all relievers or were the best relievers taken out? Take out the top 1-2 guys in any bullpen and I imagine things shift a bit. I think the batter has to swing at any pitch they think they can drive. If you don’t get that pitch and you strike out, so be it.

  4. Luke says: April 23, 2014

    Great post–been wondering about this all season. I love an aggressive offense, but those days when it doesn’t seem to be working can be awfully frustrating. Of course, they seemed to be a lot more patient against Kennedy last night, and it didn’t really get them anywhere. I’ve also been wondering about the Brewer’s aggressive baserunning–Roenicke’s Brewers have always been a good running team, but so far it seems like they’ve been getting gunned down an awful lot. Segura, such a good runner last season, seems especially unsure of himself on the bases, with that epic clusterf*** of a double play between him and Herrera the other day as a nice cherry on top. While I can’t think of a time yet this season when it has really cost them, I also can’t think of any where it has really helped them, either. But I’m not sure about the numbers–are the Brewers giving away more outs or getting caught stealing at higher rates than usual (for them or for MLB)? And if so, is that because their opponents are more aware/better prepared for their aggressive baserunning habits?

  5. matt says: April 24, 2014

    To me this is an early season thing…… pitchers will adjust as the season goes on and the scouting reports develop. Its a wait and see when the pitchers start adjusting, will the brewers hitters adjust accordingly? But for the beginning of the season and getting off to a great start, I’m all for it! Lets just NOT repeat May, ok?

  6. don says: April 24, 2014

    I’m confused by something on your chart. If you have 92 first pitches, how can you have 97 pitches at a 1-2 count?

    • Luke says: April 24, 2014

      With foul balls, a count can remain 1-2 for multiple pitches.

      • Luke says: April 24, 2014

        Sorry, cut myself off there. With foul balls, a count can stay at 1-2 for multiple pitches. But in this case, the chart is counting plate appearances that end at the given count, and how productive those plate appearances are. So those first pitch plate appearances never become 1-2 counts b/c they’re ending in outs, hits, or whatever after that first pitch.

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