Are Milwaukee Hitters Brewing Something Sustainable?

Can the Brewers' bats hang onto the NL Central?

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is look at MLB power rankings, aggregate them in April or May and compare them to the final outcomes in October. I’ve never done it. But in the rankings at CBS Sports this week, Matt Snyder noted the following, from this time last year:

Pirates, 16-7 (best record in NL). They would finish 76-86. 
Yankees, 13-9 (playoff position). That’s a 96-win pace. The Yankees would finish 82-80 and miss the playoffs. 
Mets, 14-9 (playoff position). They’d finish 75-87. 
Dodgers, 12-11. Despite what appeared to be a middling start, the Dodgers won 100 games. 
Phillies, 11-12. They’d end up 90-72. 
Reds, 7-15. No, the Reds didn’t make the playoffs, but after a terrible start to the season, they’d sit in first place for 32 days, as late as Aug. 2. They finished 82-80. 

This speaks to just how far we still need to go in order to gain any real clarity on the 2024 Major League Baseball season. Power rankings now might look hilarious by the end of September. We can glean some legitimate information, sure. But in the broader context of the full year, we still have a ways to go before trends and numbers begin to stabilize.

The Milwaukee Question

The Milwaukee Brewers land smack dab in the middle of that sustainability type of conversation. It’s not that the Crew were expected to fall back into the depths of the National League standings. Five postseason appearances across six seasons earns you a certain level of respect. Even if they did lose manager Craig Counsell. And trade away Corbin Burnes. With Brandon Woodruff on the shelf for the entire season. Milwaukee lost perhaps the best manager in baseball and two frontline starting pitchers. But caveats abound, also.

For one, new manager Pat Murphy was Counsell’s bench coach going back to 2016. There was stability in their new choice to man the bench. This is also an organization that develops alongside some of the best teams in the league. The chances of younger arms or position players coming up and contributing seems higher for the Brewers than for most teams. They also play in the National League Central. It’s an intriguing division apparently on the rise, but with no clear front-runner. With the infrastructure in place, nobody was ready to bail completely on the Brewers’ prospects of contending in ’24.

Redefining Contention

So the Brewers’ start to the season, at 14-6, is not surprising. Given the murky division picture, a historic contender topping the division as we approach the end of April isn’t shocking. Not in the way that, say, Cleveland might be. What is interesting about their start to the year, though, is the way in which they’re doing it.

Because the Brewers have reached the playoffs on the back of their pitching staff. Last year’s staff led the league in ERA (3.73) and finished in the top half of the league virtually everywhere else. Similarly, their 2021 squad was third in ERA (3.50) and featured a similar trend in finishing upper half around the stat sheet. Even beyond the rotation stalwarts and a bullpen headlined by Devin Williams, they were able to continually be effective on the bump.

To clarify this conversation further, this isn’t about whether the Milwaukee Brewers can continue to contend big picture. They probably can. It’s not even about their pitching. In contrast to recent years, that aspect has been essentially mid-tier just about everywhere. Instead, this is about their bats. Because while we’ve become accustomed to the Brewers scratching postseason appearances thanks to the efforts of their arms, it’s the young group of hitters carrying them thus far.

As of this writing, the Brewers are fourth in the league in runs per game (5.70). They feature the fifth-best team ISO (.166) and are reaching base at a rate that trails only Atlanta (.348 team OBP). Only two teams (Atlanta & Baltimore) have a team wRC+ higher than that of the Milwaukee Brewers‘ 120 figure. There’s no doubt it’s a strong start. But given the composition of the roster, it’s difficult to state whether it’s sustainable with any level of confidence.

The Young & the Resurrected (?)

There are two distinct groups of hitters to be included in this conversation. Hitters on the younger side, who have yet to truly establish their upside, are one. The other are the bounce-back types or those that refined a particular facet of their game in order to reach a new level. Neither one presents any future certainty. Which is why the current output of the Milwaukee bats remains a question.

Within that, it’s a pretty clear list of names that merit inclusion. For the younger hitters, we’re looking at William Contreras and Brice Turang in pondering sustainability. On the veteran side, it’s the currently injured Christian Yelich and Willy Adames. This is almost half of the regular Milwaukee lineup we’re pondering.

Jackson Chourio isn’t part of the current discussion. Despite flashing both the power and speed tools, he’s struggled at the plate, to the tune of a 91 wRC+. Rhys Hoskins is much the same player we saw for a long time in Philadelphia. His walk & strikeout rates come out the same, and the power is only a touch lower. His numbers aren’t terrific, but a .229 BABIP is likely a heavy factor there. So since Chourio is still working on realizing the upside, and Hoskins is still Hoskins, we’re leaving them out of the “can the Milwaukee Brewers maintain this level of production?” question.

Sustainability at the Plate

In the interest of brevity (for — as our friend Polonius said almost 1,000 words into his article about the Milwaukee Brewers — it is the soul of wit), we’ll be concise with the approach here. We’ll look at the general output (including wRC+ from FanGraphs) and then some of the underlying trends. We’ll then come to a conclusion as to whether those two lineup in order to form something sustainable.

William Contreras

  • The Numbers: .354/.426/.561/.987, 23.4 K%, 9.6 BB%, .207 ISO, 172 wRC+
  • The Trends: 45.7 Swing%, 15.3 SwStr%, 66.5 Contact%, 29.8 IPA%

It’s been since 2018 Christian Yelich that the Milwaukee Brewers have had a legitimate star. While he’s still around, it’s actually their backstop that could be ready to assume the mantle. Only a dozen qualifying players have a higher wRC+ than Contreras. He’s maintained a steady approach and has shown, so far, that his ability to cut strikeouts wasn’t limited to last season. At an ISO over .200, he’s the most legitimate power threat this team has. He does have at least one trend that’s a little worrisome, and it’s the one we always worry about with a hot start: the BABIP.

Contreras’ BABIP sits at .439, second highest in the league. That’s with a GB% touching almost 60. He’s making hard contact, as a 44 percent Hard% is the highest of his career. So it stands to reason that he could continue to experience good fortune on balls in play. But if that contact quality wanes, so will the overall production. It’s important to note that it’s not entirely unusual for him. His GB% was at 55 last year, and the BABIP did stay up. But the numbers are at least something of an early-season aberration.

Brice Turang

  • The Numbers: .333/.384/.500/.884, 13.7 K%, 8.2 BB%, .167 ISO, 144 wRC+
  • The Trends: 47.7 Swing%, 5.1 SwStr%, 89.4 Contact%, 26.0 IPA%

Turang’s first crack at the top level in 2023 was unkind. He hit only .218, reached base at a rate under .300, and wRC+’d only 60 across almost 450 PAs. He still stole 26 bags, but when your wheels are your weapon, you need to be on base more consistently. Turang has done that in ’24. He’s vastly improved his discipline, with one of the highest contact rates in the league against a very low whiff rate. His IPA%, which takes into account the quality of contact against total swings, showcases a player who is experiencing more fortune on balls in play as a result. His BABIP last year was only .268. He’s at .364 thus far.

What feeds into confidence in Turang’s sustainability is that he’s not doing anything super different; it just boils down to more contact and, subsequently, more contact quality. He’s walking at a similar rate. The rest of what we’ve seen of his skill set was always there. Perhaps he just needed those first 448 plate appearances before adapting.

Joey Ortiz

  • The Numbers: .306/.432/.389/.821, 15.9 K%, 18.2 BB%, .083 ISO, 138 wRC+
  • The Trends: 36.7 Swing%, 5.5 SwStr%, 84.9 Contact%, 20.5 IPA%

The most notable thing in Ortiz’s output so far against his previously-defined skill set is his walk rate. Elite contact hitters don’t always feature top tier plate discipline. The fact that Ortiz currently leads the Crew in walk rate certainly stands out, even if it’s only across 44 plate appearances. His O-Swing% (17.9) is the 21st-lowest mark among those with at least 40 PAs, and his overall Swing% is the 11th lowest rate. He isn’t quite as elite with overall contact rates, but those look strong as well. As satisfied as the Brewers have to be with his early production, you do wonder about two things. The first is whether the discipline will hold up as the sample increases. The second is whether Ortiz offers enough upside with the bat to get playing time over Oliver Dunn or Sal Frelick or Brice Turang once this lineup is completely healthy.

None of them are entirely different offensive profiles, but each offers either more power or more speed. The contact skills make Ortiz an effective big league bat, but if this plate discipline is real, then he becomes more valuable as a potential regular.

Christian Yelich

  • The Numbers: .333/.422/.744/1.166, 17.4 K%, 13.0 BB%, .411 ISO, 210 wRC+
  • The Trends: 45.5 Swing%, 11.5 SwStr%, 74.7 Contact%, 37.0 IPA%

Christian Yelich won the NL MVP in 2018, hit 44 home runs in 2019, and then…something happened. His hard contact plummeted (49.2 Hard% in 2018-19 vs. 36.9 from 2021-23). He began driving the ball into the ground (56.8 GB% from 2021-23). A series of nagging injuries didn’t help, especially as most of them were back injuries. And he’s still only at 46 plate appearances thus far as he resides in the IL due to more issues there. In those 46 PAs, though, Yelich was able to do something he hadn’t shown us since 2019: elevate. He had cut his GB% by 12 (45.2) and lifting the ball at a 35.5 percent rate. That would be his highest since 2019. That year, Yelich swung at more breaking pitches than any other pitch type, with elevation coming primarily off that pitch. This year? You guessed it.

The back is a concern. But if Yelich can tap into that breaking pitch-flyball dynamic further, we could continue to see that resurgence upon his return.

Willy Adames

  • The Numbers: .313/.389/.500/.889, 18.9 K%, 11.1 BB%, .188 ISO, 148 wRC+
  • The Trends: 44.7 Swing%, 12.3 SwStr%, 72.5 Contact%, 25.6 IPA%

Adames is the most unique of the five names listed here, since it’s not as if the Brewers were getting negative value out of his bat. He’s brought more consistent power than any other Milwaukee hitter since his trade from Tampa Bay in 2021. The big change this year, though, is in his plate discipline. His susceptibility to strikeouts has earned him more of an erratic hitter label than he’d otherwise have. But the patience appears to be there. For now, anyway. He’s cut his O-Swing% by eight points from last year; this is clearly being aided by the fact that he’s cut his Swing% against offspeed pitches by almost 17 percent & breaking pitches by 11. Everything else is largely the same.

It’s a long season, so we’ll need far more time to see if the improved approach sticks. If it doesn’t, he’s still a decent enough power bat with a great glove.

“Remember That Word: Discipline”

(An aside: There will come a day where I inundate an entire article with quotes from the Back to the Future trilogy. That day is not today, although the above subhead does come from the third film in the franchise.)

The Milwaukee Brewers aren’t doing anything outlandish in turning in strong offensive production. It’s all in the approach. But at some point, you wonder when patience leads to regression. An O-Swing% of 43.0 trails only the New York Yankees as the league’s lowest at present. However, their Z-Swing% is also only 61.0. That’s the lowest in the league. Their 3.91 pitches per plate appearance is only barely above league average (3.90). At this point, you wonder how much of their approach is intentional versus the simple state of being patient.

Especially since it hasn’t necessarily translated to contact. The 77.4 percent figure is only the 13th best. They’re also BABIP’ing .332, trailing only Atlanta, despite a 29.3 percent hard contact rate is only the 18th best mark. It’s just not adding up in the way that it probably should. Patience, yes. Results, yes. But is a process being reflected that draws a clear bridge between the two? Not quite yet.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

One response to “Are Milwaukee Hitters Brewing Something Sustainable?”

  1. Chris D says:

    Great article, Randy. Yeah, I think this is the question most of us brewer fans have. Things are humming, but the offense (as far as hitter makeup) isn’t that different than what they’ve put on the field the last five or so years. Success always feels dependent on everyone clicking AT THE SAME TIME. from lineup staples to plug-in/young guys. Do agree that turang can keep it up. Hoping that Jackson just gets a tick better every month.

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