Hitters typically perform better with men on base as the pitcher works from the stretch, has more pressure to throw strikes and can be distracted by the runners. The 2014 Milwaukee Brewers have been the opposite, putting up dreadfully poor numbers with ducks on the pond.
The Brewers are a top tier offensive team in the NL with the bases empty when measuring by their .256 batting average (fourth), combined .427 slugging percentage (third) and their fourth-best OPS of .728 with the sacks clear.
Those stats take a horrifying turn for the worse when a man reaches base.
While the Crew’s .302 OBP remains the same in either situation – mainly because they don’t concern themselves with walks – the rest of the slash line puts them in the bottom tier of the NL.
With runners on base, the Brewers rank 13th in average (.231), 14th in slugging (.343) and 13th in OPS (.645) out of the 15 clubs in the senior circuit. With those dips in production with men aboard, it’s no surprise Milwaukee has averaged a shade more 3.5 runs over the last 17 contests.
One has to wonder why this is happening.
The first thought is that pitchers are taking advantage of their over-aggressive style at the plate, causing hitters to chase more bad pitches in high-leverage situations. Essentially, the guys on the mound would give them fewer fastballs and quality pitches to hit while the Brewers would be even less disciplined knowing they can drive in a run.
This would lead to more strikeouts and poor at-bats, but according to the statistics, that’s not the case.
The Brewers are actually striking out less frequently and taking more walks when there are men on base. With the bags empty, Milwaukee hitters are going down on strikes 22 percent of the time compared to 18 percent with runners aboard.
The next assumption is that the Brewers are chasing pitches out of the zone, resulting in poorly-hit balls that lead to easy outs. Again, that’s not accurate.
Their line drive percentage, the best indicator of hits and runs scored among batted balls, is identical whether someone is on base or not. They’re still stinging the ball 20 percent of the time, in spite of the differing scenarios.
Milwaukee batters are also hitting more fly balls with men on base, which produces more runs per out than ground balls. At the same time, they’re hitting fewer infield flies, which are nearly always turned into outs.
The only negative in their batted balls with runners on base is in their home runs per fly ball percentage. With the bases empty, about 15 percent of the Brewers’ fly balls result in a home run; it drops to seven percent if someone is on base.
That disparity is significant and would indicate an element of bad luck involved; consequently, that might be the biggest factor in the Brewers’ struggles with men on base – simple bad luck.
A team or player’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) can be a sign that an unusual amount of luck – good or bad – is messing with the expected results of those batted balls. A normal BABIP generally rests between .290 and .310 overall.
In 2014, the Brewers’ BABIP with no one on base is at .301, which fits perfectly into the average result. With runners on base this season their BABIP is a measly .269 through 35 games. As a reference point, the Crew’s average BABIP with men on base during the last four seasons is .294, with a high mark of .298 and a low mark of .287.
That unlucky drop is more than enough to destroy a club’s run production, and it certainly appears to be the case here.
I’ll still contend Khris Davis’ over-anxiousness at the dish is a big reason for his .193 average with guys on base. I also believe part of Carlos Gomez’s 492-point drop in OPS with runners on base is because of his tendency to ferociously swing at almost anything.
However, it appears Milwaukee’s early problems hitting with men on base is mostly due to bad luck over a short period of time. When comparing the historical numbers and their performance without runners on base, you can expect huge outputs in the near future thanks simply to better luck.
Of course, it won’t hurt to have Ryan Braun back in the lineup either.