Going Low and Away with the Brewers

Back in September, Jeff Sullivan wrote on this very weblog about The Three Most Distinctive Team Philosophies. On Tuesday, I published a piece exploring why Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Wily Peralta fails to record significant strikeouts totals despite possessing elite velocity. This is the result of those posts colliding.

Jeff wrote about the Astros and their extreme use of the shift, the Pirates and their propensity for pitching inside, and the A’s and their trend of accumulating fly ball hitters.

In my piece, I speculated this, with regards to Peralta:

“Peralta, on the other hand, lives mostly low in the zone with his four-seamer and often goes low-and-away to righties — counter-intuitive for someone with the velocity he possesses. Perhaps it’s an organizational thing? Only six teams had their starters pitch to more contact than the Brewers last year, so maybe the team just values weak contact over strikeouts.”

Because our comment section here on FanGraphs is amazing and unlike any other on the internet, I received some intelligent, helpful responses to this paragraph. A couple simply wished for more content on that particular topic. User “Dayn Perry’s Dame Puree” alerted me of an interview by our very own David Laurila from November with Reid Nichols, a man who serves as the Brewers’ Director of Player Development. What follows is an excerpt from Laurila’s always superb work:

On pitching philosophy: “Early in their careers, we ask guys to throw strikes down. We don’t want them trying to throw to the corners. We want them to command their fastballs down in the zone and mostly, with very few exceptions, we don’t let them throw two-seamers. We want them to throw four-seamers with command. That makes them work on their command instead of trying to trick the hitter.”

This jibes perfectly with what I found regarding Peralta.

I should note that before Laurila’s piece was brought to my attention, BaseballProspectus author and man-who-knows-his-Brewers J.P. Breen reached out to me via Twitter and confirmed several of my beliefs re: Peralta, including that his penchant for pitching down-and-away stemmed from an organizational focus.

So I had these words from Breen and the man himself in Nichols that confirmed my suspicions, but I still needed some data to back it up. When you need data, you go to BaseballSavant. From there, I ran two PITCHf/x queries: one that netted me “low-and-away” pitches to lefties, and one that netted me “low-and-away” pitches to righties. I used these boxes to determine low-and-away pitches:

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 11.45.44 AM

Zones 9 and 14 served as “low-and-away” to righties. For lefties, 7 and 13. I thought about including 4, 8, and 6 to get more of the strike zone, but I wasn’t comfortable with the overlap that including zone 8 in both searches would give me. Besides, balls and strikes don’t really matter here. It’s the intent that matters.

Indeed, no team throws low-and-away, as defined by the parameters of this search, more than the Milwaukee Brewers. By my count, 34% of pitches thrown by Milwaukee pitchers last season were of the low-and-away variety. League average is 29%. In contrast, the Colorado Rockies went there just 25% of the time. Clearly, this is an organizational philosophy.

A heatmap of the zone pitched to against right-handed batters by the Brewers, compared to the Rockies, from last season:

MILCOL

In Milwaukee’s case, that’s a sample of 12,720 pitches thrown by 20 pitchers. In other words, that’s significant data. You’re not going to see such a concentrated area like that unless the entire staff is buying in.

As far as organizational philosophies go, perhaps this isn’t a bad one to have. Dave Cameron wrote a post back in May titled, Down and Away: The Best Location. I don’t think I have to give you more than one guess as to what that piece is about. Hitters swing less against pitches down and away. They make the least amount of contact there. And when they do, they struggle to drive the ball.

The next logical thing to do was take this organizational philosophy and break it down to a more granular level. Let’s look at more specific examples. Since this all started with Wily Peralta, let’s begin there. Here are his career four-seam fastball heatmaps, separated by handedness:

Peralta

As I noted in yesterday’s post, Peralta’s 97mph heater lives low-and-away to righties. It leaks up-and-in a bit against lefties, as we saw in the GIF of Peralta striking out Adam Lind, but the main focus is still down-and-away. This all makes sense, as Peralta was brought up in the Brewers farm system. He was likely taught to pitch this way from a young age — he was signed by the team when he was 17.

What about someone who wasn’t brought up within the Brewers’ system? Did they change their approach once they arrived in Milwaukee?

Lohse

It becomes clear why the Brewers went out and got Kyle Lohse. He already pitched according to their organizational philosophy. But there’s still a change here, and it’s still significant. Upon arriving in Milwaukee, Lohse refined his low-and-away approach. He stopped leaving pitches out over the inner-third, where hitters could turn on his lackluster 89mph fastball and do damage. This is how Kyle Lohse survives without velocity.

What about Yovani Gallardo? He’s an interesting case. He’s always pitched in the Brewers organization, though he’s dramatically shifted the way he pitched in the last two seasons. Used to be Gallardo was a strikeout pitcher. The last two years, he’s traded some of those strikeouts for ground balls. Can we see anything in his locations?

Gallardo

Kinda.

Again, Gallardo already pitched this way, which we would expect since he’s been in the organization since 2004 and Nichols since 2002. But you can see in the last two years, as Gallardo has transitioned from strikeout guy to ground ball specialist that there’s been a shift, even from where he already was. Especially towards right-handed batters, high strikes have been traded for low ones. You can see a similar effect to lefties, though more subtle. Gallardo’s problem had always been home runs, as is often the case for pitchers in Miller Park. Perhaps this was an effort to combat the dingers.

And we haven’t even gotten to the role of catcher Jonathan Lucroy. It’s been written time and time again on FanGraphs about Lucroy’s value as a receiver. He might be the best pitch framer in all of baseball. When you think of receiving, you think of the low strike. The low fastball, specifically. When you think of the low fastball, apparently, you now have to think of the Brewers. You’ve got to wonder how much these things play off each other. How much of Lucroy’s success has been dependent upon the organization’s philosophy? How much of the organization’s philosophy, particularly a seemingly increased focus in recent years, is built around Lucroy’s skillset?

Neil Weinberg looked at the changes made by Matt Garza upon coming to Milwaukee in a post from last month. Garza was moving from one of the game’s worst receivers in Welington Castillo to one of the league’s best in Lucroy. He found that, in the change, Garza began throwing to the bottom of the strike zone more often. Did Garza begin working down more because Lucroy, or because Brewers? These are interesting questions to which I don’t have a concrete answer, but I can guess it’s probably a little bit of both.

It’s interesting finding things like this because it allows us to peak behind the scenes a little bit. When we can pin down an organizational philosophy, it helps explain things. It helps explain why teams go out and get certain guys. It helps explain changes we see in players. It can also raise more questions, re: Lucroy, and more questions can never be a bad thing. But if we know one thing, it’s that the Brewers have a distinct approach. They want their pitchers to pound fastballs down and away to both sides of the plate. It seems they prefer ground balls to strikeouts, which makes sense given Miller Park. It seems they prefer low strikes to high ones, which makes sense given Jonathan Lucroy.

Makes quite a bit of sense, low and away for the Brewers.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Rotoholicmember
7 years ago

Very interesting about Lucroy. Maybe he’s getting so many borderline calls because he’s setting up outside so often. Since a higher % of those outside pitches are intended to be there, they are more likely to be called strikes. Whereas if he set up more neutral, then a greater % of the pitches on the outside corner would be when the pitcher misses his spot. We know that a pitcher missing his spot makes it less likely to get a called strike than if the catcher set up right there. We’ve all seen the time when a catcher sets up way off the plate, and the pitcher misses directly over the pate, and it’s called a ball. I don’t doubt that Lucroy is very good at framing, but maybe not quite as good as we thought. Anybody know if there’s been research into this effect?

Kevin
7 years ago
Reply to  Rotoholic

This.

There are a lot of questions around the value of pitch framing, that I’ve read at Baseball prospectus, Tango baseball and elsewhere that try to evaluate the question you’re asking, but without much success. Is a catcher’s ability to frame driven by some skill he has, or by the fact that he’s setting up in a position close to where the pitch ends up? If the data show Lucroy is a superlative pitch framer, it could very well be that most of the borderline calls that he turns into strikes are ones where the pitcher is only missing his target by an inch or two. On the other hand a pitch in the exact same spot thrown to another catcher who is set up further from where the pitch winds up may not get that call, not because he’s a lousy framer, but because the pitch just badly missed the spot he was calling for.

I think that the answer to this lies in knowing where a catcher is setting up his target, so that we may know the delta from where the pitch winds up. This would be an illuminating parameter in any conversation around pitch framing as a skill, I’d say.