The Milwaukee Brewers currently stand with a 12-16 overall record and are five games out of the lead in the National League Central.
I don’t think I’d be breaking any news if I said the start of the season hasn’t gone the way Brewers fans were hoping. A combination of shoddy play and injuries have put the Brewers in a position where they will have to battle just to make it to the .500 mark by Memorial Day.
Milwaukee is without 1/2 of its opening day infield for the rest of the season as first baseman Mat Gamel and shortstop Alex Gonzalez are out for the season. Second baseman Rickie Weeks has been struggling from the start of the season. Free agent signee Aramis Ramirez seems to be coming around with his bat and is a notorious slow starter, but is currently hitting just north of the Mendoza Line.
In the outfield it doesn’t get much better. Slugger Ryan Braun has put up decent numbers so far, but is struggling with an achilles injury and hasn’t been as good as he has been in recent years. The three-headed center field monster of Nyjer Morgan, Carlos Gomez and Norichika Aoki is either injured (Gomez), struggling (Morgan) or still getting acclimated to the game in the United States (Aoki). Corey Hart started the season white-hot, but has cooled since then.
The Brewers offense was expected to take a step back this year with the loss of Prince Fielder, but nobody expected this type of struggle. Milwaukee currently ranks 28th out of 30 teams in the majors with a .228 batting average, 26th in on-base percentage and midpack in runs scored. But a few numbers show that this trend should not be expected to continue.
Milwaukee is currently second lowest in the majors in BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Simply put, that means that of all the balls Brewers hitters are putting in play, they are reaching base at a .262 clip. The league average for this number is around .300, so this is a quick way to see the Brewers have been a tad unlucky so far this year. Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Aramis Ramirez and Nyjer Morgan among others have BABIP marks below their league average, showing that they appear to be due for an upswing on basehits. On the other side of the fence, a big .351 BABIP number for catcher Jonathan Lucroy suggests that his current batting average .306 will probably take a hit from here on out.
As unlucky as hitters for the Brewers have been, their counterparts have had the proverbial four-leaf clover in their back pocket thus far. Hitters currently have a .336 BABIP against Brewers pitching, the highest of any team in the majors. Brewers pitching is third in the majors in strikeout % and has peripheral numbers (Fielding Independent Pitching and xFielding Independent Pitching stats, these stats are like earned run average, but take other things into account. For more on FIP and xFIP, click here) that would suggest the Brewers are pitching much better than the numbers indicate. Zack Greinke, John Axford, Yovani Gallardo, Jose Veras, Randy Wolf and Manna Parra (which batted balls are becoming base hits a robust .389 clip) all have numbers that suspect a few more of those hits could find their way into fielder’s gloves in the future. In contrast, Francisco Rodriguez’s BABIP (.282) as well as his increased walkrate (5.02 per nine innings, up over a run from his career average) and decreasing strikeout rate (8.16 per nine innings, down over 1.5 from last year) suggest that it may not get that much better for K-Rod. Also, Marco Estrada's .238 BABIP says he may be due for a few more basehits off him.
So what do these numbers mean? Am I saying that in due time everything will be perfectly fine for the Milwaukee Brewers and they’ll be immediately back in contention for a National League Central title?
No. BABIP numbers fluctuate from year-to-year. Last year the Tigers were the “luckiest” team in batting average with a .318 BABIP and the Chicago White Sox were the “unluckiest” with a .280 BABIP. But those numbers (as well as those in between) are spread pretty evenly around the .300 mark.
Milwaukee will have to fill in holes at shortstop and first base and find a way to get their own struggling stars going. All I’m saying is that sooner or later, a few more balls of Brewers bats should be finding their way away from opponents gloves and the pitchers should be getting more help. But what happens beyond those plays, is anyone’s guess.