Milwaukee Brewers Under Craig Counsell Are Swinging Less Than Ever


Now beginning his first full season as the Brewers skipper, Craig Counsell has greatly altered the Brewers’ hitting philosophy.

Today, Fangraph’s August Fagerstrom released an article discussing the immense improvements Domingo Santana has made early in the season with the Milwaukee Brewers.

I urge you to check out what he had to say, as it inspired my research here.

As has been said numerous times on the Brewers  TV broadcast, the Milwaukee Brewers are swinging at fewer pitches under Manager Craig Counsell. Color commentator Bill Schroeder has been quick (some would say repetitive) in saying that this leads to two things: Increased walk rates, and increased rates of striking out, specifically striking out looking.

So I wanted to take a look at that claim, given the fact that some players, like Santana and Scooter Gennett, have noticeably different hitting profiles versus last season. What I found was that it is not isolated to certain players. The entire team is swinging at fewer pitches than any other Milwaukee Brewers team in (recorded) history.

Luckily, that claim only has to reach as far back as 2002, when FanGraphs began recording statistics for their “plate discipline” categories. Let’s take a look at those now, keeping in mind that “O-Swing%” is pitches swung at outside of the strike zone, “Z-Swing%” is pitches swung at inside of the zone, and “Swing%” is every pitch swung at total:

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Look at that. What a beautiful table. Let’s turn it into a chart.

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As you can see from both the table and the chart, the percent of the time the Brewers are swinging at pitches in the strike zone, and pitches in general, are the lowest they have been since Fangraphs began recording these statistics.

Pitches outside of the zone are being swung at by the Milwaukee Brewers at the lowest rate since 2004, with Counsell giving the club that owned the highest O-Swing% in the Majors in 2015 (34.7%) to the lowest so far in 2016 (21.5%).

But what does this mean? It could mean that the Brewers just happened to pick up a bunch of players who don’t swing at pitches as much as the 2015 Brewers players, but that isn’t the case. Chris Carter swung at 69.8% of pitches in the zone last year with the Astros. That number is at 58.6% in 2016. His O-Swing% also dropped from 24.7% to 21.4%.

Fellow newcomer Aaron Hill, formerly of the Diamondbacks, has changed little in terms of O-Swing% in 2016, but dropped his Z-Swing% from 65.3% to 55.1%. Hill’s previous low mark for Z-Swing% in his career is 61.4.

In terms of returning Milwaukee  Brewers, Santana’s Z-Swing% is similar to last season, but the percentage of the time he has chased pitches outside the strike zone in 2016 is down to just 10% after sitting at over twice that (24.7%) last season.

Even Ryan Braun, who likely doesn’t require much hitting advice, has dropped his O-Swing% from 37.1 in 2015 to 21.3 so far this year, easily the lowest mark of his career. Jonathan Villar‘s swing percentage on pitches both outside and inside the zone dropped nearly 10 percent from 2015.

The only stick in the mud among Milwaukee Brewers’ starters is Jonathan Lucroy, who has seen no significant changes in his swing percentages from 2015 to ’16. The remaining players, including Ramon Flores and Keon Broxton, had little or no 2015 statistics to refer back to.

So as a team, the Milwaukee Brewers are swinging much less, particularly at pitches outside of the zone. But, as Bill Schroeder says, that doesn’t come without watching pitches go by for strikes.

So let’s take a look at the most important plate discipline statistics, strikeouts, and walks. Unfortunately, I don’t have stats on striking out looking, but strikeouts, in general, paint the picture well enough:

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Compare that to the last graph. Sure, it could all be a correlation, but there is no denying that both the Brewers’ strikeout and walk rates have spiked dramatically early in the season, as the swing rates have dropped.

And this isn’t just because hitters and pitchers are getting warmed up in April. I went back and looked at the Aprils from 2002-2015, and no Brewers team walked or struck out as much as this team has so far.

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So what does this all mean for the club? Well, the Milwaukee Brewers are second in the league in walk percentage to the (vastly) offensively superior Cubs, and are third in K% behind the Blue Jays and the notoriously whiffing Astros.

The Milwaukee Brewers are also in the bottom third in slugging, wOBA, and wRC+ but this isn’t a surprise, given the personnel.

With such a noticeable change coming to the Milwaukee Brewers, there will inevitably be players whose performances aren’t improved under Counsell’s strategy, and maybe over time, Counsell will let those players return to their free-swinging ways. But, early on, he has brought positive change to the profiles of players like Santana, Gennett, and Carter.

These players, plausibly, are experiencing the ideal results of Counsell’s tactic. They are swinging less at pitches they don’t feel they can hit well, and are punishing those pitches they are comfortable with. And this is made possible when your manager and hitting coaches are telling you that striking out looking is not worst thing in the world.

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.