Years ago, in what was undoubtedly one of the worst trades in Doug Melvin‘s tenure as Brewers’ GM, Melvin traded Carlos Lee to the Rangers around the trade deadline. In return, the Brewers received Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix. Mench went on to a mostly terrible run as a Brewers outfielder, a time during which he became known for two things: his abnormally large head and his penchant to swing early and swing often. I have been unsuccessful in locating the source for this quote, but I distinctly recall Mench saying, when asked about his low walk rate, something to the effect of, “I’m not a postman. They don’t pay me to walk.” With that comment, Mench cemented himself on my short list of least favorite Brewers of all time.
Mench was far from the only hacker the Brewers have had in the last decade or so. As far back as Mench or Johnny Estrada (another player on that short list), or as recent as Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, Aramis Ramirez, and Scooter Gennett, the Brewers have had more than their fair share of impatient hitters.
That is why this year, as young as the season may be, has been shocking to watch.
Let’s take a look at last year’s plate discipline numbers against this year’s. Note: These figures do not include the number’s from today’s game against Minnesota.
If that chart doesn’t shock you, it’s only because of my abysmal chart-making abilities (wasn’t able to reverse the y-axis, so the shorter bars are actually “better”).
That info in text format:
In walk rate, the Brewers have gone from 25th last year to 2nd.
In pitches per plate appearance, the Brewers have gone from 25th last year to 7th so far this year.
And the most drastic change: last year, the Brewers ranked dead last in percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone. This year? They lead MLB!
They also went from the highest overall swing percentage last year to the lowest this year.
Of course it is quite early in the season, but these differences are simply too drastic to ignore. Sure, it’s unlikely that the Brewers finish this high in these categories, but considering where they came from–arguably the least patient offense in baseball in 2015–to this, it is worth a closer look.
So, what has allowed this change to occur?
Sometimes, answers are fairly obvious. Last year, Segura had the lowest walk rate of any qualified player in MLB, but he wasn’t the only problem. Gerardo Parra, Ramirez, and Gennett all had walk rates under 6%. Segura, Parra, and Ramirez have all been replaced.
But this is not just a matter of removing impatient hitters from the lineup. A number of players, two in particular, have exhibited incredible turnarounds to this point from last year.
Fangraphs has already covered Domingo Santana‘s transformation from 2015 to 2016 in an excellent post from a few days ago that is definitely worth a read. For now, though, I’ll quickly sum up his adjustments. Last year, Santana swung at 26.3% of pitches outside of the strike zone. This year? 15.2%, good for seventh-best in baseball. As a result, he has upped his walk rate by almost 4% to 14.3%. This is an extremely impressive show of plate discipline, and it’s worth speculating on whether this has anything to do with his new role as lead-off hitter.
The other player who has shown an incredible turnaround to this point is Gennett. Last year, Gennett had one of the worst walk rates in baseball at 3.1%. This year? He’s 15th in MLB with a rate of 16.4%! This is partly due to him being more patient in general (P/PA went from 3.5 to 4.2 this year), but also largely because he’s laying off many more pitches out of the strike zone. Last year, he swung at 43.8% of pitches out of the zone (!), but this year, he’s cut that to 25%.
These have been the two most apparent changes, but Jonathan Villar, Ryan Braun, and Chris Carter are all on pace to have by far their best O-swing % in their careers.
The “I actually watch the games” crowd must have noticed this trend, too. It was truly bizarre watching Dallas Keuchel, last year’s Cy Young winner and holder of one of the lowest walk rates in baseball, labor through an outing with six walks in six innings against the Brewers. There have of course been other instances, but that was the most stunning.
This all of course begs the question: Why is this happening? If this trend continues with this many players (it’s possible it doesn’t, but the longer it lasts, the more it seems like there’s something to this), how do we pinpoint the cause of this? It doesn’t seem to be simply adding more disciplined hitters, because as I’ve pointed out, newcomers Villar and Carter are both far above their career norms. The most likely answer is a new philosophy being spread through the organization. Is it new hitting coach Darnell Coles? Is this being stressed from the top down from the new front office? This is something I expect to get a better answer to if the encouraging trend continues, as it will be sure to get more attention from local and even national media.
In the meantime, I sure won’t miss what I found to be the most frustrating thing about the Brewers over the last few years: their horrible plate discipline.