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The Brewers Aren’t Swinging Anymore

It’s like Rob Deer and Gorman Thomas don’t even know this franchise anymore.  What happened to our free-swinging Brewers, the same ones that just two seasons ago had Carlos Gomez remarking, “It has to be, like, wayyy a ball for us to not swing…everybody here has the green light?”

Well, for one, a small sample size.

But, through mid-April in 2016, the Brewers have swung less than any other team in baseball.  This, after swinging the second-most in each of the past two seasons.  They’re swinging less at pitches out of the zone, and they’re swinging less at pitches in the zone, leading to sequences like this from Monday:

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And then Domingo Santana also struck out looking to lead off the sixth!

So, to recap: we’re less than two weeks into the season and not even at the point where swing rate has stabilized.  But it sure looks like the Brewers are making a concerted effort to swing less, given the drastic fluctuations in their swing rates from the past couple of years:

Year O-Swing Rate(MLB Rank) Z-Swing Rate (MLB Rank) Swing Rate (MLB Rank)
2014 34%  (3) 69%  (2) 50%  (2)
2015 35%  (1) 69%  (10) 50%  (2)
2016 22%  (29) 60%  (30) 41%  (30)

Part of that must be the overhaul the organization has gone through in the past year.  Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez both swung at over half the pitches they saw in 2015, and their O-Swing% was north of the team average.  Adam Lind and Gerardo Parra also chased and drove the team’s O-Swing% up.  So it’s partially a function of a new team with a new front office that may place a higher premium for on-base guys.

But the holdover hitters from last year have also seen their swing rates decrease both outside the zone and overall.  Ryan Braun, Scooter Gennett, and Domingo Santana have thus far decreased their O-Swing% from last year’s totals by 10% or more in the early going.  Brewers beat reporter Tom Haurdicourt reported Manager Craig Counsell saying, “It’s an everyday message (to the hitters) and it’s really about swinging at good pitches.  It’s discipline. (Hitting coach) Darnell (Coles) is preaching that every day.”

This mix of the front office acquiring more on-base players and the on-field management working with the players on adjustments seems to be making an impact.  The Brewers are fifth in walk rate, after finishing in the bottom third each of the previous three seasons.

Whether this is an organizational philosophy change, or more a function of the players on the current roster remains to be seen.  Or, given the small sample size, this could look completely different in May, with the Brewers back to their free-swinging ways and me wondering why I didn’t use this time instead to plant those jalapenos I’ve been meaning to get around to, but now it’s too late and the harvest won’t come until at least September.

In the meantime this is something to watch for a young team with more organizational talent than Milwaukee has seen in a while, and that is sure to go through rough stretches in a rebuilding year.  The new and veteran Brewers are watching pitches, and we’ll watch with them, watching pitches.


Evaluating Players in the Dark and Scooter Gennett

To make it as a big-league ballplayer, you have to do very hard things well, like hitting a very fast-moving baseball.  You also have to be able to do some reasonably easy things well, like see the baseball.  Why, then, couldn’t Brewers second baseman Scooter Gennett see the ball in the minor leagues?

In a recent Brewers broadcast, tv announcer Brian Anderson relayed a story about Scooter Gennett and his somewhat surprising performance in the majors (149 wRC+ and 1.4 WAR in 49 games so far).  Gennett claimed that he was just seeing the ball so much better in the majors due to poorly-lighted minor-league ballparks.

While minor league plate discipline data may not be a reliable comparison, if he was able to see the ball better in the majors, you would expect certain things to happen.  He’d make contact frequently, and probably solid contact.  Take a look at his contact numbers now 51 games into the majors:

Team

PA

OCon%

ZCon%

Milwaukee

162

77.1%

94.6%

His contact numbers so far are comparable to Matt Carpenter’s.  What we don’t see in Scooter’s major league data, however, is a real solid line drive rate to indicate he’s able to better put the barrel of the bat on the ball.  In fact, he ranks just 28th out of all second basemen this season with at least 150 plate appearances  with a slightly-above-league-average 22%.  He doesn’t appear to actually be recognizing pitches any better– his walk rate is actually down from his time in the minors, and his strikeout rate is up.  But there seems to be something to indicate that he’s seeing the ball well–he’s swinging and making contact on plenty of the pitches, and he figures out where the ball is and puts his bat on it.

Which bring us to the question:  What the hell is going on in minor-league ballparks, if in fact Scooter Gennett’s contact rates are really closer to Matt Carpenter’s and he feels the ball was harder to see in Nashville?

If you’re the Brewers, or any team really, wouldn’t you want to know that difference?  Especially when your other second base options this year have been Rickie Weeks (86 wRC+), Jeff Bianchi (57 wRC+), and Yuniesky Betancourt (Yuniesky Betancourt)?  I don’t know much (anything) about exterior lighting, but I would think that if there was a possibility that field conditions were affecting a team’s player evaluations, teams could reasonably justify investing some money into the lights for the minor-league affiliates.

“Seeing the baseball” seems like it’s discussed for well over half of players’ and managers’ attributions of a hitting streak or an unexpected jump in power, and this may account for Scooter Gennett’s explanation of his success with the Brewers in 2013. But with the margins for error and to gain a competitive advantage so small in the majors, these kind of anomalies may be well worth the attention of baseball ownership and their affiliated clubs.


The New Golden Age of Cuban Baseball in MLB

When I lived in Miami, I often wondered how delicious food like puerca frita and croquetas jamon served in Cuban restaurants around the city weren’t more widespread elsewhere in the US.  Soon, baseball GMs may be asking themselves the same thing about Cuban players.

The history of baseball in Cuba goes back an almost astonishingly long time.  Baseball has been played on the island since the 19th century, but with rising stars Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, and now Yasiel Puig making headlines, we may be entering the golden age of Cuban baseball in MLB.

Cubans have played in the major leagues since 1911, though those opportunities were obviously limited before 1947.  The discussion here will focus only on those post-integration years, but Cuban legends such as Dolf Luque and Jose Acosta certainly made their mark in organized baseball in the 1910s and 20s.

The number of Cuban-born players in the majors spiked right after Castro’s revolution, reflecting both the wave of Cuban immigrants to the U.S. as well as Cuba’s decision in 1961 to ban professional baseball on the island.  These boom years brought players like hall-of-famer Tony Perez, and the 1965 Minnesota Twins, led by Zoilo Versailles, that year’s Most Valuable Player.

The fluctuations in the graph above also seem to mirror current government policy decisions and cultural and political exigencies.  The early 2000s, for example, show a slight dip at the same time the U.S. tightened its travel restrictions on the Cuba trade embargo.  Recent developments such as President Obama’s easing family and cultural travel with Cuba and Fidel Castro’s declining health may also be leading to the current rise we’re seeing.

But how are these players performing in comparison to the boom years of 1962-1967?  Yuniesky Betancourt notwithstanding, very well.

 

Years Cuban Career Average wRC+ Cuban Career Average FIP-
1962-1967 79.04 111.75
2008-2013 102.94 103.09

 

Acknowledging a small sample size here, but today’s Cuban-born major league hitters are producing well above the MLB average.  Yasiel Puig’s career wRC+ will likely not stay at 185, but even looking at the number of players within those 5-year spans, you get almost double the number of players from 2008-2013 that produced above 100 wRC+, despite that several more Cuban-born players appeared in the majors between 1962-1967.

The upward trend of players defecting to the states and the way rising stars like Cespedes, Puig, and Jose Fernandez have performed indicates that we may in fact be heading for a golden age for Cubans in American baseball, along with highly anticipated prospects like Jorge Soler and the recently defected Misael Siverio.  And if cafecitos and media noche sandwiches follow behind in the cultural expansion, well, ok.

Country of birth data is from baseball-reference.com.