On a team scale, the offense this year was atrocious. It is a miracle they even made the postseason. There are a couple of things to look forward to immediately, but otherwise a decidedly terrible year at the plate for the brewers. Among all NL teams, they were ranked 12th in runs scored, 11th in Hits, 8th in Homers, 15th in strikeouts, 12th in Batting Average, 11th in on-base percentage (OBP), 11th in slugging percentage (SLG), and 13th in on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS). Considering only five teams in the NL make the postseason (8 in the expansion) ideally the offense should be much better; however, there is plenty to look forward to next season.
Perhaps the weirdest part of the Brewers 2020 season was not just that the offense was bad, but that it was abysmal. Christian Yelich, after leading the National League in weighted On Base Average (wOBA) for two straight seasons – garnering an MVP award in 2018 and making quite a run in 2019 – put up a .339 wOBA in 2020. The .365 expected wOBA (xwOBA) is promising, but the strikeout rate jump is a bit worrisome. What is more promising, however, is his walk rate also jumping, pointing towards the conclusion that Yelich was watching too many pitches go by. We can determine this by comparing his in-zone (zSwing), out-of-zone (oSwing), and general swing percentages (Fangraphs).
Yelich could not get the bat off his shoulder and was not utilizing the tool that has brought him so much success in his career. He was still crushing the ball when he was making contact though, as he was in the 99th percentile in average exit velocity (AEV) and 98th in Hard-hit rate (HH%). He likely will not be able to keep his walk rate as high as it was in 2020 while also dropping his strikeout rate back to where it was in 2019, especially because of how much his hitter profile changed.
In 2019, he created thirty runs by swinging at pitches in the heart of the zone, and only lost 6 runs on “takes.” In 2020, he lost five runs on “takes” and gained no runs on “swings,” and that prorates out to ~14 runs lost by taking pitches in the heart of the strike zone with no runs gained. The shadow portion of the strike zone also caused Yelich problems, but due to the number of pitches he was taking (44% in ’19 versus 58% ’20), he ended up costing much less on take runs, but costing them 14 runs by swinging and missing, which prorates out to an abysmal ~38 runs LOST by swinging and missing. The whiffs also killed him in the chase and waste zones but again, not swinging a lot made up for it a bit.
The Brewers also lost a very important piece of their team for 2020 Lorenzo Cain. Since the beginning of Baseball Savant’s outs above average (OAA) stat’s inception in 2017, Lorenzo Cain is second among all players. The only potential concern in that regard is age. 2021 will be his age-35 season, so his longevity as an elite defender is suspect, but it is something quite necessary because of Yelich’s own shortcomings. Yelich has finished in the 13th and 11th percentiles of OAA in 2019 and 2020 respectively, ranked 32nd at his position each year. Cain’s sprint speed is down a bit, but hopefully, he can still maintain his defensive prowess. He is also an above-average hitter which is great at the CF position. His opting out was a detriment to the team this season, but having him back will be great for improvements. The Milwaukee Brewers were 24th in Centerfielder Wins Above Average (WAA) across all of baseball this season after being 12th in 2019 and 2nd in 2018.
Omar Narváez is such a weird piece of this team. The Brewers lost Yasmani Grandal last offseason (they were lucky to have him in the first place), but President of Baseball Operations David Stearns felt that Narváez was a worthy replacement. In 2019, he was a fantastic hitter, with his offense disappearing in 2020. In 2019, he was fourth among catchers in wOBA with at least 400 PA, but in 2020 he was near the bottom of the bunch. While some of this can be explained by regression (.313 pwOBA and .334 xwOBA), I’m not sure that can be blamed for his second to last performance by wOBA among catchers.
Rather, I would look to his increased strikeout and walk rates to solve that. He, like Yelich, increased both. But for some reason, he was not taking more pitches, he was taking fewer. He was also whiffing a great deal, so overall a very confusing year. I would not put stock into it; however, Narváez may have been the best framing catcher in baseball in 2020? Narváez was first in “strike rate” and “runs extra strikes” according to Baseball Savant. This is coming consecutively after a season where he was one of the worst framers in baseball by these same metrics. He was dead last in Fangraphs FRM metric in 2019, but third in 2020! (You can read more about catcher defense here.) Great defensive improvements he can hopefully combine with a slightly stronger bat.
The youth of this team is quite impressive. Devin Williams was just filthy this season, and Corbin Burnes has to have one of the best repertoires in baseball. He literally can throw the kitchen sink, boasting a sinker, cutter, slider, changeup, curveball, and four-seamer. His fastball averages around 96 mph, with a slider/changeup combo he platoons at 86.7 and 88.9 mph, respectively. That’s ridiculously hard for a guy that throws six different pitches and three different fastballs.
Brandon Woodruff, while he is 27, also finished just his fourth season and proved that he can be the ace for this team. Among pitchers with at least 250 PA against them, he was fifth in xwOBA, behind Trevor Bauer, Shane Bieber, Jacob deGrom, and Dinelson Lamet, and well ahead of Gerrit Cole, Aaron Nola, Max Scherzer, Lucas Giolito, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. He also had a 3.14 Forecasted Run Average (FRA), a statistic manufactured by Dan Richards this June. In MaxSportingStudio’s own brand new predicted ERA (pERA) metric, Woodruff is listed as FOURTH among starting pitchers, behind just deGrom, Bieber, and Kenta Maeda. That is some very elite company to be in for a guy that hasn’t received so much as a Cy Young vote.
Freddy Peralta is a pitcher I have wanted to talk a lot about, I am a huge fan and he’s easily one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. He posted a 3.00 FRA and a 4.21 pERA. While pERA is less confident, I’m very confident in Freddy Peralta this season. He’s going to be in his age-25 season, and while he’s not the biggest guy on the field at 5’11” 199 lbs, he makes his money on a 93 mph fastball that lets him do this:
I suppose I will shift to the bullpen, but there’s really not much to be said about Devin Williams. He has arguably the nastiest stuff out there on the mound. He gets spin on his changeup most yearn for in a slider; he is out there throwing frisbees the other way. Seriously, he was first in changeup spin by FOUR HUNDRED RPM. Among all qualified changeups by Baseball Savant, he was fourth in vertical movement above average, and second in horizontal movement above average. If that terminology is confusing, just look at it:
That’s not all, he also throws a fastball that gets up to 99 miles per hour. So excited to watch this phenom take the mound for the Brew Crew in the future. Of the other arms to look forward too, here they are with a quick note about their biggest bonus:
–Drew Rasmussen throws a 98 mph fastball and pairs it with this slider
–Justin Topa who… I will let the video talk
–Angel Perdomo is a left-handed pitcher. He did not do much in the innings he got, and he does not throw too hard right now, but he is 6’8″, 265 lbs. That is a big, big boy. Every fan should hope the Brewers can do something with that physical prowess.
On the offensive side, Luis Urías and Keston Hiura were definitely underwhelming in 2020, to say the least, but Hiura looks like he could break out nicely in 2021. You might not call it a breakout after his stellar 2019 campaign, but a return to form should be in order. Almost all of his offensive numbers were down, so that can probably be blamed on the short season.
Luis Urías, while not performing well in any of his three seasons thus far, has good prospect grades listed on his Fangraphs page, and still solid defensive numbers as he was in the 82nd percentile in Baseball Savant’s OAA and he only appeared in 41 games. Right now his future is a utility infielder for the Brewers, with the potential for more.
The Brewers also traded Corey Knebel, which I thought was a very strange decision. I definitely had them trading Josh Hader, but I suppose Knebel was a much higher risk reliever, only question is now, what is Hader to the Brewers, and by extension what is Devin Williams? I think most fans and people would agree that Devin Williams, assuming he keeps this up for a full season, is probably one of the three best relievers in baseball with Liam Hendriks and some choice of Edwin Diaz, James Karinchak, or Josh Hader. This would come with the expectation he is going to be responsible for locking down the Brewers’ most important innings going forward.
I like Knebel, I like his name and I like his stuff, but keeping both Hader and Williams seemingly creates a logjam of two closers, so one of those guys isn’t gonna get the innings they want. My guess was that the guy getting moved was going to be Hader, with Knebel slotting into the setup role he had already stepped back into. I fully expect Josh Hader to be the go-to guy for the ninth, but I also expect every Brewers fan is crucifying me for not being familiar with Counsell’s managing strategies with pitchers, he calls them “out-getters,” and roles are a social construct. That makes sense, but there’s a certain amount of “best pitcher, best outs,” so who is going to be called on in those situations? I guess some combo of the two, so who knows, but it’s definitely something I’ve been wondering about.
Lastly, in 2020 in review, the Brewers still made the playoffs! That is huge, especially for team morale. Not much to say there, but the NL Central is very weak, so that is a nice bonus of giving them a better shot to make the playoffs.
(All Video is from Baseball Savant)