Brewers Outfielders are Chasing Pavements

The Milwaukee Brewers are the surprise team of the first month of the season. After an 88-loss season a year ago, they currently lead baseball with a 20-8 record, which includes a 5.5 game lead over the reigning NL champion Cardinals for first place in the Central division.

The team success may have come as a surprise to many, but fantasy owners were optimistic about the production of several Brewers before the season, especially in the outfield. Perennial fantasy first-rounder Ryan Braun was back from his suspension, and concerns over the effects of his banned substance use were not enough to push him out of the top two rounds in most drafts. Early returns had rewarded the owners that invested in him in spite of his persistent thumb problems, but an oblique strain has his return on hold for the time being.

Carlos Gomez made a pretty strong case to join the first round, as well, after a 24-40 season in 2013. His .344 BABIP may have scared off some drafters who felt his .284 average might tumble to the .240 range, but his BABIP and average are even higher so far this year.

Khris Davis was and is the clear third option in Milwaukee’s outfield, but his .279/.353/.596(!) triple slash over his the last third of the year—his first time in the majors, at all—made him a popular sleeper entering the season. With a small enough minimum to include Davis’s 153 plate appearances in 2013, only the other Chris Davis out-slugged him among all outfielders. For Khrush, the start of the season has been less kind, but the Brewers lack of depth behind him creates little risk of a loss of playing time. And for fantasy owners in traditional formats, a .245 average with three home runs is less of a disaster over one month than his minus-0.1 WAR suggests of his actual value to the team to date.

Taken together, much of the optimism about the Brewers’ outfield could reasonably remain after the start of the season. However, their collective tendency to chase pitches out of the strike zone dampens that spirit in me.

Team OF O-Swing%
Brewers 36.7%
Phillies 33.6%
Rockies 31.4%
Orioles 31.1%
Cardinals 31.1%

With a 36.7 percent chase rate, the Brewers’ outfield has a fairly commanding lead relative to other outfields in baseball. One might be tempted to heap all of the blame on Davis and his mind-boggling 32-1 strikeout-to-walk rate. Unsurprisingly, his 40.1 percent chase rate does lead their outfield. However, both Braun (35.3 percent) and Gomez (36.0 percent) have chase rates much higher than the 28.9 percent rate of all players, as well.

Compounding their penchant to chase pitches, Brewers’ outfielders have fared particularly poorly in their attempts to make contact on those out-of-zone pitches.  They have the third lowest out-of-zone contact rate after the first month.

Team OF O-Contact%
Twins 51.5%
Reds 52.9%
Brewers 54.8%
Blue Jays 56.4%
Astros 56.8%

This trend is not exactly new for the Brewers. A year ago, the team as a whole finished with a 33.7 percent chase rate, the second highest in baseball. Meanwhile, 45.2 percent of the pitches thrown to them were in the strike zone, the seventh highest rate in the sport.

It appears that opposing pitchers have started to take notice. With 44.5 percent of their pitches in the strike zone this season, Brewers outfielders have seen the third lowest zone rate, and I expect that number to continue to fall. That makes it difficult to believe in the Brewers’ ability to maintain their fast start, especially since their star power is so concentrated in the outfield.

As a team, Milwaukee has scored 111 runs so far this season, which puts them in the top half of all teams. However, they have accomplished that despite a .310 OBP that is 19th lowest in baseball. Last year, they had a similar lack of plate discipline and finished 21st with a .311 OBP, and that led to a bottom-11 total of 640 runs scored. As this season progresses, expect their rate of runs scored to decline to match what they did a year ago.

Individually, this does not spell disaster for the Brewers’ outfielders, but it likely will depress all of their RBI and run totals in the long run. I’m concerned their batting averages could fall, as well, and Davis and Gomez were already facing regression there because of their inflated BABIPs.

In deeper formats, I’d try to trade away Davis if I could find an owner still clinging to his power potential. In shallower leagues, I’d likely just drop him. Braun’s injuries make him difficult to sell, and Gomez has too few comparably valuable players to easily trade him for, but both players are worth keeping an eye on. Braun’s 7.2 percent walk rate is his lowest since 2008, and Gomez has struck out 28.5 percent of the time, nearly four percent more than his previous career high and inside the top 25 of all qualified hitters. I would be tempted to send out offers for first and second-round talent for both players when recent performances made those offers compelling to other owners.

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Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt

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I think you are missing something with Gomez here. In the second half last year, Gomez’s K% jumbed by 4% but his walk rate also doubled. His 7% BB rate in 2014 is far from great but is pretty solid for a player with his skill set.

It may not address the babip concern for batting average, but it will have a positive impact on his runs and SB. He just seems like a player that is getting better every day, though I’d like to see a few more stolen bases.