Years ago, I remember that Brewers fans gave their beloved Milwaukee Nine the reputation of an undisciplined, strikeout prone club. Our 2008 Wild Card favorites included a gang of bats that might strike out more than 20% of plate appearances, but also hit home runs at a good clip. One of my favorite Brewers, Mike Cameron, might have been the poster player for that club: in 508 PA, Cameron blasted 25 homers (and 25 doubles!), alongside 142 strike outs (and 54 walks!). I vividly recall the cries — with two strikes, none of these batters look to go with a pitch, but they simply swing for the fences.
One might mistake the 2012 Brewers for a similar type of club; this club knocked more homers than anyone in the National League. Afterall, in Cameron’s place was the suddenly surging Carlos Gomez, who coupled a career-high 19 homers (and 19 doubles to boot!) with 98 strike outs in 452 trips to the plate. Surrounding Gomez and 2008 mainstays Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, and Corey Hart were a gang of new batters that were much more likely to knock the ball into the field of play. That’s right Aramis Ramirez is one of the best contact/power hitters in baseball, Norichika Aoki quickly established himself as a contact hitter (and then developed a dangerous power streaks), and youngsters Jonathan Lucroy and Jean Segura also tended toward the “contact” end of the spectrum.
Brewers analysis during the 2012 offseason typically focuses on the offensive strengths of the 2013 club. The typical line is something like, “hey, even if these Brewers don’t have reliable pitching, they still have a monstrous offense.” And they do — after the replacement shuffle (and slumps) that occupied early portions of the 2012 season, the Brewers batting order produced runs like they were getting paid for it. Their late season runs scored totals in the months of July, August, and September/October place the team on a good pace for 800 runs (capping that ceiling at around 860 runs). This is a ballclub that will steal bases and slam homers to score runs; but, it is also an offense that will tend to knock the ball into play more than Brewers fans might expect. The result is one of the most legitimate offensive threats in the National League, and perhaps the most well-rounded offense that Doug Melvin has assembled in Milwaukee (their franchise targets are the 2007 club’s total of 801 runs scored, mid-to-late 1990s totals of 815 and 894 runs scored (respectively), and of course, almost all of the “Wallbangers” totals and the 1987 club):
That said, we can ask a boatload of questions about our 2013 Brewers bats, too. One might wonder whether the top 3-4 combination of Braun-Ramirez can keep their magic for another season; one might wonder whether Gomez, Lucroy, and Aoki can match (or improve) their performances; one might wonder whether a healthy ankle for Weeks means more consistent production; one might ask about the progression of Hart’s discipline profile.
Batted Balls In Play
One way to attack these questions is to approach the Brewers’ batted-ball-in-play profiles over the last few seasons. On the pitching side, we use Fielding Independent Pitching stats to frame the pitcher’s performance absent his fielders; the idea is that a pitcher’s ability to strike out batters while limiting walks and home runs will frame his eventual runs allowed (or at least allow us to determine whether his defensive support was good or bad).
On the batting side, we can use a batter’s strike out, walk, and home run totals to see how frequently he’s knocking baseballs into the field of play. After all, if the basic assumption is that pitchers want to limit walks and home runs, while striking batters out, on the other side, one might assume that batters can limit the damage of their strike outs by walking frequently and hitting bunches of homers (or, by relying on contact). Just as a pitcher cannot simply rely on one aspect of his profile and approach to prevent runs from scoring, a batter cannot simply rely on one element to produce runs. Rather, we can look at a batter’s types of batted-balls-in-play alongside their “Fielding Independent” profile to determine trends in their batting approaches.
2010-2012 Batting Profiles
One of my favorite features of Ryan Braun’s development is that although fans or analysts frequently note his consistency throughout his seasons, Braun’s batting profile has significantly changed throughout his career. While Braun started as a high strike out/low walk batter to accompany his early, elite power performances, he slowly morphed into a contact hitter by limiting his strike outs, and increasing his walks. Of course, he’s not a traditional contact hitter, given that he slams so many home runs, but we might call him a contact/power hitter. For instance, here is Braun’s percentage of batted balls in play throughout his career ((PA-HR-BB-K-HBP)/(PA)):
2007: .630 BIP% (.069 HR%, .059 BB%, .228 K%, .014 HBP%)
2008: .677 BIP%
2009: .685 BIP%
2010: .720 BIP%
2011: .700 BIP%
2012: .641 BIP% (.061 HR%, .093 BB%, .189 K%, .016 HBP%)
It is clear that Braun’s progression throughout his first four seasons showcased development from a non-contact, all-power hitter, to a rather disciplined, contact-oriented, all-power hitter. While we might be tempted to argue that Braun’s shifts in 2011 and 2012 show that early development to be a false trend, we should note that (a) Braun’s ability to walk more and hit significantly more home runs in 2011 than 2010 resulted in fewer BIP (but he remained a basic-contact hitter), and (b) Braun’s 2012 discipline profile is nothing like his 2007 profile; he strikes out significantly less, walks significantly more, while maintaining elite power numbers. Frankly, it’s going to be difficult for any batter to knock the baseball into play during 68% to 72% of his plate appearances when he hits homers in more than 6% of his plate appearances.
2010 (685 PA): .153 K%, .082 BB%, .036 HR%; .362 GB%, .244 FB%, .143 LD%
2011 (629 PA): .148 K%, .092 BB%, .052 HR%; .320 GB%, .262 FB%, .165 LD%
2012 (677 PA): .189 K%, .093 BB%, .061 HR%; .309 GB%, .261 FB%, .129 LD%
What’s more interesting to note is that Braun produced significantly fewer line drives in 2012 than in his previous seasons. His strong fly ball percentage allowed him to maintain his high home run rate, and his batting average on groundballs helped him to maintain his overall production. It’s interesting to note, for 2013, that Braun could become an even better hitter if he translates his contact approach into more line drives, while maintaining his flyball rate. One wonders whether his strike out rate can improve once again without Prince Fielder batting alongside him (although, Ramirez is no slouch as far as myths of “protection” go).
Lucroy and Gomez
Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez are arguably on two different ends of the spectrum of up-and-coming Brewers bats. While Gomez notably improved in 2012, he did so without altering his high strike out to low walk ratio. Rather, as noted by Rotographs and others during the season, Gomez continued a trend of hitting the ball in the air, rather than on the ground, with his strongest results yet in 2012. On the other hand, Lucroy morphed into a strong contact hitter in 2012, nearly knocking his strike outs in half while hitting the ball into the air and batting line drives at a much higher rate. Together, Lucroy and Gomez might have two completely different discipline approaches, but both boast the Brewers’ strongest line drive, fly ball, and, therefore, power improvements.
2010 (297 PA): .148 K%, .061 BB%, .013 HR%; .354 GB%, .296 FB%, .138 LD%
2011 (468 PA): .211 K%, .062 BB%..026 BB%; .299 GB%, .250 FB%, .156 LD%
2012 (346 PA): .127 K%, .064 BB%, .035 HR%; .338 GB%, .286 FB%, .171 LD%
2010 (318 PA): .226 K%, .053 BB%, .016 HR%; .296 GB%, .201 FB%, .119 LD% (.094 BT%)
2011 (258 PA): .248 K%, .058 BB%, .031 HR%; .267 GB%, .267 FB%, .085 LD% (.066 BT%)
2012 (452 PA): .217 K%, .044 BB%, .042 HR%; .270 GB%, .290 FB%, .122 LD% (.040 BT%)
Notice that one reason Gomez’s power profile is improving is that he is bunting less frequently while he is also batting the ball in the air more frequently. Stated simply, as much as we might be tempted to romanticize Gomez’s ability to bunt, he is a much more valuable batter when he swings that bat and gets the ball into the air.
Ramirez, Weeks, Hart
Filling out the Brewers’ infield are three veterans with rather consistent trends throughout their careers. Early questions about Corey Hart’s discipline forced the slugger to change aspects of his approach (culminating in his claims that he followed organizational orders to walk more or work on his discipline in 2009). Since then, Hart’s discipline totals have not been as good, but they are better than his early career profile — and, with discipline followed power. Weeks joins Hart as the Brewers’ two most stringent non-contact bats; together, these two batters will do everything they can for their power, which results in notably low percentages of batted balls in play.
2010 (507 PA): .178 K%, .068 BB%, .049 HR%; .199 GB%, .428 FB%, .122 LD%
2011 (626 PA): .110 K%, .069 BB%, .042 HR%; .275 GB%, .340 FB%, .190 LD%
2012 (630 PA): .130 K%, .070 BB%, .043 HR%; .303 GB%, .316 FB%, .162 LD%
2010 (754 PA): .244 K%, .101 BB%, .038 HR%; .305 GB%, .206 FB%, .111 LD%
2011 (515 PA): .208 K%, .097 BB%, .039 HR%; .330 GB%, .229 FB%, .118 LD%
2012 (677 PA): .250 K%, .109 BB%, .031 HR%; .282 GB%, .226 FB%, .114 LD%
2010 (614 PA): .228 K%, .073 BB%, .050 HR%; .262 GB%, .282 FB%, .117 LD%
2011 (551 PA): .207 K%, .093 BB%, .047 HR%; .312 GB%, .245 FB%, .131 LD%
2012 (622 PA): .243 K%, .071 BB%, .048 HR%; .264 GB%, .270 FB%, .124 LD%
On the hot corner, Ramirez is indeed a veteran with consistent trends, although these trends are of a different kind than Hart and Weeks. Ramirez is a contact-oriented power hitter, focusing on batting the ball in play and knocking the ball around the ballpark. He slams flyballs and line drives, and simply doesn’t strike out. Even his comparatively poor 2010 season featured a better-than-average strike out rate. Perhaps the biggest questions are whether his decreasing flyball rate and line drive rate between 2011 and 2012 spell trouble for 2013; if Ramirez bats the ball in play consistently, his value is not connected to groundballs.
Segura and Aoki
Opening 2012, the focus for shortstop and right field looked completely different than the season’s close. Yet, the Brewers’ new faces at these two positions solidify aspects of the club’s overall approach, and ground that approach in strong contact trends. Perhaps the most important aspects of Aoki’s and Segura’s respective contact approaches are their respective abilities to get on base via walks. Alongside their high groundball (and bunt) rates, and their solid line drive performances, Segura and Aoki will also draw bases on balls at respectable clips.
2012 (588 PA): .094 K%, .073 BB%, .017 HR%; .429 GB%, .222 FB%, .122 LD% (.037 BT%)
2012 (166 PA): .139 K%, .078 BB%, .000 HR%; .494 GB%, .127 FB%, .133 LD% (.030 BT%)
If Segura and Aoki can maintain their discipline profiles, and also continue to smack line drives, they offer distinct contact approaches to the Brewers. These approaches almost perfectly counteract those of Hart and Weeks, which is something that the Brewers have never truly had in their batting order. With contact (/power) allies in Braun and Ramirez, and another potentially strong contact batter in Jonathan Lucroy, the profile of the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers could be one of power, speed, and contact.
Segura (US presswire): http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/fantasy/printarticle/nl-waiver-wire-week-161/