In all sports, good teams tend to have an opponent that they just own. Whether it is the Red Auerbach-era Boston Celtics beating the Los Angeles Lakers in seven different NBA Finals, or the 1927 Yankees going 21-1 against the hapless St. Louis Browns, teams often match up well against a given rival. In recent years, the Milwaukee Brewers seem to have Pittsburgh’s number. Milwaukee has posted a .700 record against the Pirates in three of Ron Roenicke’s four seasons as manager. The Brewers are off to a nice start against Pittsburgh this season, with a 6-1 record against the Bucs so far. This year’s series with Pittsburgh has already featured a benches-clearing brawl, making it even more intense than most matchups between division rivals. The Brewers free-swinging offensive strategy works particularly well against the Pirates. However, Milwaukee’s pitching has not been any more dominant against Pittsburgh than against other teams.
The Brewers aggressive approach at the plate is a key factor to their success against Pittsburgh. Pirates pitchers tend to pound the strike zone. Over the past four seasons, Pirates pitchers have thrown in the strike zone 45.4% of the time – tops in the NL Central. In the same time period, Milwaukee’s hitters have been among the least patient in baseball. Over this four-year span, the free-swinging Brewers have offered at 47.4% of pitches, the third-highest rate in the majors. This strategy works very well against a team that throws strikes like the Pirates. Since so many pitches are in the strike zone, taking an aggressive approach to the plate is advantageous against Pittsburgh. As a result, free-swinging Brewers like Aramis Ramirez (career .892 OPS against Pittsburgh) and Carlos Gomez (.853 OPS) have had more success against the Pirates than patient hitters such as Jonathan Lucroy (.806 OPS). The fact that Pittsburgh throws so many strikes plays directly into the Brewers’ free-swinging strategy.
In contrast, the Brewers’ pitching really has not been dominant against the Pirates this season. Overall, the Milwaukee pitching staff has been terrific in 2014, posting a 2.66 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. However, against Pittsburgh those numbers jump to a 3.22 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP. These statistics against the Bucs are certainly still impressive. However, the jump reveals that the Pirates are actually having more success against Brewers pitching than the rest of the league. Part of this trend could be chalked up to familiarity. The fact that the two teams play each other so often tends to benefit the hitters. Since the Pirates lineup sees Brewers pitching so often, they are more comfortable in the box against the Brewers rotation.
After a one-year hiatus, it is nice for Brewers fans to see their club return to beating up on the Pirates. Given the team’s penchant for free-swinging, it is reasonable to assume they will continue to score runs against the Pirates. However, as noted, the pitching has actually done worse against the Pirates than against the rest of the league. The fact that Milwaukee’s dominance has stretched over four years is little consolation. In 2011 and 2012, the Brewers were good and Pittsburgh was sub-.500. It stands to reason that the Brewers would succeed against the Pirates during those years. Even this season, with the 6-1 record, the Brewers have only outscored Pittsburgh by one run in their head-to-head matchups. Unfortunately, it is tough to conclude that there is any real substantive reason for the Brewers to continue to dominate the Pirates. However, especially following the brawl, it should at least be exciting when the teams square off again on May 13 in Miller Park.