The Milwaukee Brewers have been one of the biggest disappointments of the 2012 season, underperforming expectations that had them contending for back-to-back divisional crowns in the mediocre NL Central. The bullpen imploded in spectacular fashion, Alex Gonzalez suffered a season-ending knee injury early on, Zack Greinke is now pitching in Los Angeles, and Shaun Marcum threw for the first time in more than two months on Saturday.
Despite all of those misfortunes, the Brewers’ starting rotation has not been part of the problem — well, other than the recently-released Randy Wolf — and owned a combined 3.78 FIP coming into Sunday’s games. That’s only ticks above their 3.75 FIP from last year, when they reached the NLCS.
The unit as a whole has improved in some aspects, though. Coming into Sunday, Milwaukee’s starting rotation has compiled the best strikeout rate in all of baseball.
Huge strikeout numbers for the Brewers should not come as a surprise. Their starting rotation in 2011 ranked third in all of baseball with a 7.78 K/9 strikeout rate, and the 2012 rotation began the year with the exact same pitchers throwing one through five.
Instead, it’s the increase in strikeouts despite losing Chris Narveson to a season-ending shoulder injury in April, missing two-plus months of Shaun Marcum, and trading away Zack Greinke in late July that serves as a the real shocker in this story. Milwaukee has needed to replace 40% of its starting rotation for major stretches this season, including a three-week stint that saw them with three pitchers in their rotation that did not begin the year in that position.
Few teams withstand that level of turnover within a season — without adding pieces via the trade market — and the Brewers are on pace to post the highest K/9 for a starting rotation since the 2003 Chicago Cubs ended the year with an 8.62 K/9 strikeout rate. In fact, the Brewers’ rotation currently owns what would be the fourth-highest strikeout rate in Major League Baseball history, behind the aforementioned Cubs, as well as the the 2002 and 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks with 8.43 and 8.37 strikeouts per nine innings, respectively.
If you feel a disconnect between the teams mentioned above, you’re likely not alone. The 2003 Cubs had Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. The 2001 and 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. The 2012 Milwaukee Brewers have posted those numbers throughout all of August with a one-two punch of Yovani Gallardo and Mike Fiers.
Do not make the mistake of ascribing the high strikeout rates solely to the departed Zack Greinke. The former Cy Young Award winner may have anchored the Brewers’ starting rotation for the first four months of the season, but he has only the fourth-highest strikeout rate on the team and the strikeouts haven’t significantly declined in his absence. Throughout the month of August — without Greinke and Marcum (until Saturday) — the Brewers’ rotation still has posted an 8.18 K/9 strikeout rate, with Gallardo, Fiers, and Mark Rogers all striking out more than a batter per inning in that time frame.
This is all happening without an overpowering starting rotation. The Brewers’ average fastball velocity has been 90.3 mph this season, with the league-average velocity being 91.1 mph. They do not induce many swings at pitches outside the strike zone compared to the league-average O-Swing%, and their swinging strike percentage is a middling 8.3%.
So, how do Brewers starters generate so many strikeouts?
They appear to be embracing the old adage: effectively wild. Brewers starting pitchers only throw strikes in the zone 42.7% of the time, which is by far the lowest percentage in Major League Baseball. Their inability (or unwillingness) to throw pitches in the zone causes opposing hitters to not swing as often as they might against other teams in the league. Opposing hitters swing only 43.5% of the time, which is the second-lowest number in the league. Add those two facts in with the rotation’s better-than-average 2.64 BB/9 walk rate, and it seems we may have a recipe for a high number of strikeouts looking.
Yovani Gallardo is a great example of that. He has long given opposing hitters fits on the mound. They only swing at 39.4% of his offerings, which is by far the lowest number in the league amongst qualified starters, and his swinging strike rate is thus only 7.8% — extremely low for a pitcher striking out more than a batter per inning on the year. A significant portion of his strikeouts must be of the looking variety.
The fact that the Brewers’ starting rotation has continued to find success without Greinke and Marcum is significant, too, because the Brewers could be looking to rebuild 60% of its rotation (if you include the departure of Randy Wolf) for the 2013 season. Instead of scouring the free agent and trade markets for multiple starting pitchers, the continued success of the makeshift rotation into the month of August can make GM Doug Melvin feel relatively confident that a large portion of that potentially-rebuilt rotation can be filled via cheap, internal channels and still have a legitimate chance to be above average.
That could give the organization a chance to land a top-tier starting pitcher this winter to pair with Gallardo atop the rotation, as well as address their beleaguered bullpen, in an attempt to bring the Brewers a step closer to contention in 2013.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).