Written by Rachael McDaniel, Jenn Smith, and Gideon Turk
The Brewers are Striking Out Less and Winning More
No one really expected the Brewers to be all that good this year. Interesting, maybe, for their youth and their signing of Eric Thames, but certainly not a team that would contend in the division wherein the Chicago Cubs reside. But here we are on May 23rd and the Brewers are sitting atop the tightly-bunched NL Central at 25-19. With pitching that’s been largely mediocre, the Brewers’ success thus far can be attributed to their powerful offense which leads the major leagues in home runs and isolated power and trails only the Nationals in slugging percentage.
The thing is, despite the powerful offense, the Brewers ended the month of April at an even 13-13. Their gains in the standings have come in this month of May, during which they are 12-6. With this increase in wins has come an improvement in their already-potent offense: a significant decrease in strikeouts.
That’s not exactly saying a lot, considering the team we’re talking about. The 2016 Brewers set a major league record for strikeouts. This year, with a lineup which has largely carried over, they’ve still struck out in almost a quarter of all plate appearances and have played a whopping 19 games in which they had ten or more strikeouts. Of late though, the Brewers have cut down on their strikeout rate considerably. They struck out 206 times over their first 20 games, at a rate of 10.3 strikeouts per game; over the last 24, they’ve struck out 200 times, cutting that rate down to 8.3 strikeouts per game.
This is largely due to improvement by young hitters Jonathan Villar and Keon Broxton. In April, Villar and Broxton had strikeout rates of 31.9 and 40.8 percent, respectively, and accounted for over a quarter of the Brewers’ strikeouts. In May, these percentages have dropped to 24.3 and 37 percent and both players have improved their performances at the plate immensely. Broxton, who was slashing .191/.276/.324 in April, has performed at a .348/.384/.580 clip in May. Villar hasn’t broken out to quite such an extent, but has raised his OBP from .267 in April to .315 in May. Such marked increases in performance, especially Broxton’s, can only bolster a lineup that was already scoring a lot of runs.
When the Jays faced the Brewers in April and were swept at home, they lost because of their offense. The Jays’ pitching was actually pretty impressive, managing to hold the Brewers to only six runs over two games and racking up 17 strikeouts, but the offense scored only three runs in support. The Jays offense has come around somewhat in this month of May, but they now have to reckon with a Brewers offense which has itself improved – the Brewers, with their decreased strikeout rate, have scored in the double digits three times already in May.
A Tale of Two Teams on Different Trajectories
The Blue Jays roll into Milwaukee to face the Brewers for a two-game rematch of the Jays’ home opening series. After a disappointing start to the season when they 1-5 start on the road, the Brewers should have been the welcome home the Jays needed to turn things around. Instead, they dropped both games, managing just nine hits between the two contests.
The two teams entered the season with vastly different expectations. Baseball Prospectus’ writers selected the Jays to finish second in the AL East and earn a wild card berth, while the Brewers were predicted to finish fourth in the NL Central division. The young Brewers should have been a relatively easy matchup for a team the Jays, but thus far neither team has performed to expectations.
Toronto is 19-26 and last in the AL, eight and a half games back of the division lead. Their .422 win percentage puts them on pace for a 68-win season (preseason PECOTA predictions had the Jays finishing the season with 81 wins) – which at the outset of the season represented a disappointing 2017 campaign.
The Brewers, meanwhile, have had a surprisingly good start to their season. The Brewers begin tonight’s series having won seven of their last ten games and, based on their win percentage (.568), are on pace to win 92 games this season.
Obviously, both teams ought to regress towards their projected outcomes at some point. Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings suggest the Jays have been a bit unlucky thus far. Based on run differential, the Jays should have won two more games than they have to date. Adjusting for quality of opponents, the Brewers should be below .500, suggesting they’ve played above their heads to this point.
Of course, none of this actually matters at the moment. What does matter is that the Jays, who really need to string together a few wins, are running into the Brewers at the wrong time. The Brewers are hot and the Jays are, well, not. Both Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki had been expected to have returned to the struggling lineup by now, but both are still rehabbing in Florida. The loss of the DH at Brewers Park also means that either Justin Smoak or Kendrys Morales – both of whom are hitting the ball well in May – will be forced out of an already depleted lineup.
How Will the Blue Jays Get Eric Thames Out?
Eric Thames returned to Major League Baseball in April and immediately laid waste to the league, giving a little more weight to his Korean statistics from the past three years. His performance has dropped off since then due to a combination of injuries and general regression, but the Blue Jays will still have to be wary of him when he comes to the plate.
In April, Thames did most of his damage against fastballs and oddly, sliders. As a result, he has seen many fewer sliders in the month of May, a grand total of 14, and has yet to register a hit against one. The Blue Jays could continue this style of attack, which has seen opposing teams use the sinker and change up more often against Thames. This month he has yet to show he can make the necessary adjustments. With Joe Biagini on the mound on Tuesday night, that may be the smart play, as his best pitches as his change and sinker. However, on Wednesday night, going back to the slider with Marcus Stroman on the mound could be an interesting idea, even though Thames has shown the ability to have success against it.
Thames spoke to the Brewers media on Sunday and told them that “a lot of the pitches I’m getting to hit, I’m fouling off. I’m missing them.” Because of the injuries he has sustained to his legs, he has less mobility in the box and is fouling off pitches he would normally be able to drive. Thames may not be able to get to the sliders like he was in April, and taking advantage of his injured state could be an interesting style attack for the Blue Jays, specifically Stroman, in this series.
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