The Brewers Are Better Than This
This team must start playing to its talent level, and it needs to start now.
The 2020 Milwaukee Brewers season has hit its lowest point. The Brewers dropped their series finale against the Twins by an embarrassing score of 12–2. They followed up that performance by taking 6 1/3 innings to record their first hit against Yu Darvish in a 4–2 loss to the Cubs.
Before its implosion against the Twins, the pitching staff was holding its own. Even after that game, Milwaukee’s group of hurlers ranks in the middle of the league. The real problem has been the team’s anemic offense that did them in once again when Darvish carved them up. As a team, the Brewers have a .289 wOBA and a 27.8% strikeout rate. They entered Thursday night’s contest with the worst hard-hit rate in the league, and they are also in the bottom tier in barrels and average exit velocity.
Who’s to blame? Some of it can be pinned on Craig Counsell, who is typically an excellent manager but has made some questionable lineup decisions in recent days. Eric Sogard profiles as a glove-first utility man, yet he continues to top Counsell’s lineup card on a near-daily basis. Sogard drew walks at an impressively-high rate over his first 45 plate appearances, boasting an even .400 on-base percentage. Leading him off during that stretch was hardly an egregious decision. However, walking in a quarter of his plate appearances masked Sogard’s inability to hit the ball with any kind of authority. As his walk rate has predictably started to trend downward, he now owns an overall line of .191/.345/.234. His batting average will improve, but his walk rate will continue to trend closer to 10% than 20%, which will still leave the Brewers with a below-average hitter. Sogard, whose supposed 2019 breakout looked fishy due to the poor batted ball numbers under the hood, has the league’s lowest hard-hit rate among qualified at batters at 7.5%.
The man who ought to be taking more of Sogard’s at-bats is Jedd Gyorko, who posted a cumulative 112 wRC+ from 2016–2018 with the Cardinals before various injuries limited him last season. Instead, Gyorko has received just 23 plate appearances while Sogard has batted 58 times. He hit the game-winning home run in Milwaukee’s comeback victory on Tuesday; he has not gotten a plate appearance in the two games since.
Manny Pina, who has been swinging a hot bat, has also sat on the bench for two straight days after going deep twice on Tuesday. This is not comparable to the Sogard-Gyorko situation seeing as Omar Narvaez is a better hitter than Pina. However, Counsell ought to take advantage of Pina’s hot streak before it fizzles out, and he can easily do so by utilizing Narvaez as the designated hitter for a few games. As excellent as he typically is, the Crew’s skipper will still make poor choices on occasion, and that has happened recently.
Fans may also be inclined to blame David Stearns or Mark Attanasio for the failure to bring back fan favorites like Yazmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas, or Eric Thames. And while the front office assembled an underwhelming roster given where the team is at in their contention window, they should not be the ones blamed for the horrid offense seen to this point. The blame should be on the players themselves.
The 2020 Brewers were never going to have a world-beating lineup, but there was no reason to expect things to go this poorly. The reality is that too many players have failed to live up to perfectly reasonable expectations.
Observe some of the Brewers who have struggled this season.
- Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura both have a 94 wRC+ after posting 174 and 139 marks last year, respectively.
- Avisail Garcia, who posted a solid .288/.337/.473 line from 2017–2019, owns just a 90 wRC+ this year.
- Justin Smoak looked like a solid platoon first baseman with the Blue Jays, posting a 120 wRC+ over his final three seasons in Toronto. That included a 2019 campaign that saw him improve his plate discipline and grade out well in several batted ball metrics (in fact, he was better than Eric Thames in both of these departments). In stark contrast to his previous performance, Smoak has come out of the gates striking out nearly 40% of the time and limping to a 70 wRC+. Fortunately, he has shown signs of breaking out of his slump.
- While there were (and still are) serious questions about his defense, Omar Narvaez looked to be emerging as one of the better offensive catchers in baseball, registering a 115 wRC+ over the past three seasons. He’s now batting .158.
- In his final two seasons with the Red Sox, Brock Holt hit to the tune of a 106 wRC+, which is great for a utility man. Holt has just two hits as a Brewer.
- Ryan Braun has played in just six games and has a 0 wRC+.
That’s seven players who were reasonably expected to be above-average hitters but have instead ranged from not good to flat-out awful at the plate. That cannot be blamed on the front office. No members of a baseball brain trust can prepare for nearly an entire starting lineup’s worth of players performing well below their talent level.
The Brewers are three games under .500, and with an expanded playoff format in place for this season, a .500 record ought to be enough for a postseason birth. They are capable of doing that. If the Brewers are going to turn things around, it must start with the players, and it must start now.