(Image: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE)
Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune had an excellent piece Tuesday about Carlos Gomez and his emergence as an All-Star caliber player in 2013, in which Gomez attributes his success largely to the lack of restraint on his swing and approach to the plate. Gomez, a former Minnesota Twin, found that swinging harder rather than swinging calculatedly for base hits or going to the opposite field allowed him to boost his production at the plate. The Milwaukee Brewers led the NL in 2012 in home runs, finishing 4th in all of MLB in that category. Looking at the 2008-12 regular seasons, the Brewers finished within the top 10 in MLB in home runs in each year, and finished 5th or higher in three of them.
That’s a lot of home runs. The question is: what’s the point? Sure, Milwaukee baseball in the MLB Brewers era and probably before as well has been fixated on the beauty, strut and swagger of the long ball. But games like Monday’s versus the Twins don’t really count for anything other than an L in the win-loss column. Carlos Gomez bashed two glorious home runs off his former team, and Jean Segura contributed his eighth of the year, but that was all the Brewers could muster, despite chances to move runners over and score ‘manufactured’ runs via walk, base hit, fielder’s choice, etc. The opposition will allow Milwaukee to homer all day long if the end result is the Brewers have fewer runs. The Brewers’ homer-happy approach is certainly a cultural, institutional thing with this franchise that would be hard to reverse or change. It’s unclear to me how this came about, but even now you hear things like: ‘This is really an American League club disguised as a National League one; they like to wait for the home run’. I usually smirk at that comment, but that latter part is true in a lot of ways. Just when I think the Brewers are being really crafty and stealing a lot of bases and doing the little things, the script is flipped and they’re all out there trying to crush one into the seats.
Gomez is a great case study of the benefits and detriments of this tactic. He has flourished with the Brewers in part because they’ve unleashed his furious swing and let him hack away. He nearly hit more home runs in 2012 than he had in the years 2008-11 combined. That power surge has been brilliant and Gomez may be the rare player where it truly does no good to try to teach a hitting method of taking the ball the opposite way, hitting for the gaps or hitting it on the ground. He’s the perfect Brewers player and it’s no surprise he’s found a well-suited home here. In contrast to other current and former Brewers hackers, though, Gomez has shown that with a lot of plate appearances, he can put up some good overall numbers. In 2008, Gomez had 614 plate appearances with the Twins and slugged 7 homers with 59 RBI and 33 stolen bases. Those RBI and SB numbers were not approached or surpassed in his career until he again received over 400 plate appearances in 2012. The difference this year, so far, is that Gomez is hitting for average as well (.331), whereas in the past he’s never hit higher than .260 (2012). Whether Gomez can keep raking and ‘accidentally’ get the base knocks when he’s not pummeling balls into the bullpen remains to be seen.
As for other Brewers players, some players have the gift of home run power, and are truly good hitters (Braun, Ramirez, Lucroy when he’s right), while others perhaps shouldn’t try to hit the home run every time at the plate. Segura has shown some flashes of great power early this year and that’s really been amazing to see. Occasionally his homers appear to be aided by smaller ballparks (seven of eight of his homers have been at Miller Park or GABP in Cincinnati). He’s also hitting the ball well overall and doesn’t normally pull the ball, so his propensity to sometimes try to jack one out of the ballpark can be overlooked, for now. But what about the others…does every Brewers player try to hit the home run more times than not? If you watch Nori Aoki, you can see he’s trying to uppercut the ball a lot of the time. Alex Gonzalez, Yuni B, Martin Maldonado and Corey Hart all seem to prefer trying to hit the long ball rather than spraying base hits. Trying to hit a homer is not always bad by any means, but when it’s the preferred method of approaching at-bats, it can be dysfunctional at best and disastrous at worst. It’s largely a one-note negotiation, and when every player in the lineup attempts to one-up each other with home runs, the result is a very uneven offensive display night in and night out. Unlike Gomez this year, many hitters end up with a failed at-bat when trying to hit the home run and missing it (fly ball, pop-up, strikeout, etc).
The Brewers’ track record speaks for itself: two playoff appearances since the 1982 season, and the majority of that time has been filled with poorly played, fundamentally flawed baseball. There have been many, many home runs in that time, including some memorable moon shots by Russell the Muscle Branyan, Richie Sexson, Geoff Jenkins, Rob Deer…the list never ends. It’s a beautiful thing to watch when it works, to be sure. When the whole team is in a groove, the Brewers can flatten opponents. But the odds of regression are high. The Crew is the kind of team that will beat an opponent 15-2 in the opening game of a series and then score 3 runs in the remaining games (due to a power outage most of the time) and lose two out of three. Ultimately, a strategy that leans too heavily on the home run is a strategy for losers. If you can’t figure out how to score runs in other ways and, of course, properly execute on the field when presented with those opportunities, the house eventually pulls an ace and you lose. These guys can’t hit home runs every night, no matter how hard they try. All of this reminds me of infamous hacker Chuck Carr. The outfielder reportedly was questioned by Milwaukee’s then-manager Phil Garner in 1997 after popping out to third on a 2-0 count after being instructed to take a pitch. He replied about himself in the third person: ‘That ain’t Chuckie’s game. Chuckie hacks on 2-0’. Carr was soon released by the Brewers, although it’s a miracle he wasn’t put in the cleanup spot, the way this franchise adores hacking away. Maybe someday, maybe with a new regime in charge of personnel, this team will at least sway toward filling in the lineup gaps between true power threats with guys that can hit for average and make the smart baseball plays when presented with men on base. Sometimes a grounder to the right side is all you need, and all you should try to accomplish.