Through the Brewers’ first five contests of 2022, their pitching staff sat dead last in the National League in walk percentage (BB%) at 15%. This means Milwaukee pitchers walked opponents in 15% of their plate appearances. Keeping in mind the small sample size, it’s still quite the jump from the 9% and number six ranking in BB% last season. It was most evident among the starting rotation, where each hurler surrendered multiple walks, including three from Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser and four bases on balls by Freddy Peralta.
Many may wonder, is this a trend to be concerned about going forward?
To some extent, it depends on other considerations, such as how good has the staff’s “stuff” been, and are hitters “forcing” these walks? There isn’t a perfect way to answer these questions, especially over a five-game sample; however, a few advanced stats can help tell the story. One quick statistic to look at is strikeout percentage (K%), the complement to BB%. Milwaukee’s hurlers owned a 25.4 K% to open this season, only 1.6% below last year’s rate. That’s a quick, positive sign for the staff. FanGraphs’ “discipline numbers” are also valuable for analyzing how hitters perform against pitchers based on their swing decisions and contact. Z-Swing% represents the percentage of swings batters take at pitches inside the strike zone, while O-Swing% shows the swing percentage outside the zone. Thus, Z-Contact% and O-Contact% show the percentage of the hitters’ contact in and out of the strike zone.
There are two other important categories: Contact% (contact on pitches divided by swings) and Swing% (overall swings divided by total pitches seen). Take a look at the comparison of these stats between 2021 and 2022 for Brewers’ pitchers.
The numbers show that opposing hitters are swinging far less against the Brewers in 2022. The Z-Swing% is almost five percent lower, and their O-Swing% has a 3.4% drop. Overall, opponents have swung the bat 5.5% less often versus Brewers’ hurlers this year. If you watched the first handful of games, you should have noticed two things contributing to this: Milwaukee pitchers were missing the zone by wide margins, and many of the pitches had crazy movement. These factors look like the main reason for the lower swing metrics this season.
When pitches are missing the strike zone by a considerable amount, hitters will become more patient and force pitchers to consistently find the plate (or at least be close). Also, with pitchers falling behind in the count regularly, hitters are often more selective when they swing. For example, a batter may take a 2-0 pitch on the outside corner for a strike, knowing he still has the count in his favor. Had the count been 1-1, he might take a hack, thinking he may not get another good pitch to hit if he falls behind 1-2.
Another factor to consider is the terrific movement many pitchers have been getting on their throws. Typically, you could argue pitches that cut, tail, and drop at a higher degree will create more swings. However, movement can have the opposite effect: freezing hitters who get surprised by the break. There can also be more tentative approaches to seeing such movement with early-season at-bats. And with hitters being ahead in the count, they are more likely to check their swing at the sight of any initial movement away from their bat path. It can all create a recipe for fewer swings at the start of a new campaign.
But two stats from the chart above show why Brewers fans can be confident the five-game walk issue is likely a blip and not an alarming trend due to poor pitcher performance or an unexpected dip in their abilities. The Z-Contact% (contact within the strike zone) and overall Contact% are nearly identical to last season. In 2021, Brewers’ pitchers had the best (lowest) Z-Contact% in the NL at 82.6%. This year it’s at 82.4%. The Contact% last season was 73.6%, also the top mark in the league. Through five games in 2022, it was 73.5%. Despite the walks, opponent batters are having a world of trouble making contact with Milwaukee’s pitches, and it’s most significant that the pitches within the strike zone remain tough to hit.
Devin Williams, Wicked 84mph Airbender...and Sword. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/yskXAXrmoj— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 13, 2022
What does it all mean?
For one, the Brewers’ struggles with command are more because of a shortened Spring Training and the playing conditions in Chicago. The three contests at Wrigley Field had low temperatures and plenty of wind. The cold makes the ball slick and harder to get the proper grip and controlled release when throwing. Meanwhile, wind affects the ball’s flight between the mound and home, challenging pitchers to calculate their pitch movement with the wind’s plans.
The weather in Baltimore was much better, but the short spring was still a factor. Because pitchers only had a few outings in Arizona this year, they may not have a good “feel” for all their pitches yet. It’s also challenging to perform at a high level when you aren't adequately prepared. A pitcher’s mechanics and the stress put on their arm and body are significant concerns as they get reacclimated into their routine. Getting fewer innings and opportunities to adjust before the real games begin creates uncertainty and loss of effectiveness.
Despite all that, when you focus on the opposition’s struggle to put the bat on the ball, that should ease the mind. Milwaukee is poised to again have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, and a big part of that is their ability to create whiffs. That indicates they have terrific stuff that is hard to handle, even when they can’t command it perfectly and fall behind in counts. As Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes already showed on Wednesday night vs. the Orioles (7 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 8 K, 1 BB), as the pitchers continue to get a feel for everything once again, the walks and ERAs will drop quickly.