The “Three True Outcomes Era” may be over in Milwaukee.
At least that’s what the Brewers are hoping after making a couple of lineup-altering acquisitions last week.
The phrase “three true outcomes” refers to plate appearances that result in walks, strikeouts and home runs — the three offensive results that eliminate the defense.
Always a part of the game, the three true outcomes have flourished in the sabermetric era in which the value of walks has grown as the shame of striking out has diminished.
Last year the Brewers led all of major league baseball in the three true outcomes, with 37.4 percent of their plate appearances producing either a walk, strikeout or home run. That was well above the National League average of 33.8 percent.
The Brewers are counting on the addition of outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to help balance out their offensive approach.
“We’ve had a lot of strikeouts in our lineup offensively the last couple years,” manager Craig Counsell said at the Brewers On Deck event on Sunday. “We’re bringing in two guys that are going to play a lot that are below average guys (in strikeouts). I think that’s going to change offensively our profile as a team and hopefully help us score more runs.”
Last year the Brewers ranked 20th in the majors in runs scored, while leading the way in strikeouts for the second consecutive year. They had an MLB record 1,571 whiffs, accounting for 25.6 percent of their plate appearances.
General manager David Stearns said his priority was more on increasing runs than reducing strikeouts as he set out to construct his 2018 roster. But the two can go hand in hand.
“We looked at our offense and we were looking for ways to score more runs,” said Stearns, who was in Madison for the annual Dugout Club banquet at the Marriott Madison West. “That’s the objective. There were a number of different ways we could go.
“It happens that the two players we’ve just added in Yelich and Cain are two players who don’t strike out a whole lot, but that wasn’t the objective. The objective was to figure out a way to score more runs. The fact that those guys don’t strike out and that’s how they help us score runs is a plus and should provide a little more balance throughout the lineup.”
Last year with the Kansas City Royals, Cain struck out just 15.5 percent of the time, down from his career average of 18.6 percent. Yelich, with the Miami Marlins, struck out in 19.7 percent of his plate appearances, also an improvement from his career average of 20.6 percent.
Those numbers would rank among the best among the Brewers. Cain’s rate, for example, was less than half of last year’s primary center fielder Keon Broxton (37.8 percent). Other strikeout rates for regulars: Eric Thames (29.6), Domingo Santana (29.3), Travis Shaw (22.8), Orlando Arcia (18.2) and Ryan Braun (18.2).
Stearns, part of the analytics-driven wave of young baseball executives, isn’t ready to throw out the home run-or-bust mentality.
“I think you can construct an offense and a team in a number of different ways,” he said. “We don’t like outs and we do like runs. So we look for players who have the fewest number of outs and who we think are going to contribute the most runs, however they get there. If it’s through high contact and lots of singles, that’s great. If it’s through some strikeouts and some home runs, we’re OK with that, too. I do think at this point we have a balance of both on our team.”
There’s good precedent for the effort to cut down on strikeouts.
The world champion Houston Astros had the lowest percentage of three true outcomes (29.2 percent), largely the result of reducing their number of strikeouts from 1,452 in 2016 to 1,087 in 2017.
Rookie outfielder Brett Phillips, who also appeared at the Dugout Club banquet, struck out in nearly 35 percent of his 98 plate appearances after being called up to the Brewers late last season.
He fully embraces the team’s efforts to improve the contact rates.
“If you look at the movement of baseball, strikeouts are rising,” Phillips said. “So for us it’s getting back to the basics and a two-strike approach that we need to work on to just give the team a chance.
“For me, that’s something I’ve been working on this offseason, to cut down on those strikeouts, having an approach with two strikes, trying not to do too much. Make the other team get you out. When you strike out you can’t give your team a chance.”
Following the acquisition of Yelich and Cain, expectations have risen that the Brewers will make a similar big splash with a starting pitcher.
Reports Tuesday afternoon had the Brewers pushing toward a possible deal with free agent pitcher Yu Darvish. Stearns didn’t deny that, but he sidestepped any direct comments.
“We’re actively engaged in both free agency and trades,” Stearns said. “There’s a lot of speculation this time of year. Some of it has some truth, some of it doesn’t. I shy away from commenting on any specific rumors. But we are active and we’ll see if we can pull anything off between now and spring training or Opening Day.”