Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell has a pretty simple formula for boosting a lineup that struggled throughout the abbreviated 2020 season.
His hitters just need to produce the way they typically have throughout their careers.
“We had guys that just didn’t perform last year offensively,” Counsell said Thursday in his first media session since Brewers pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Phoenix. “It was puzzling. It was out of the norm.”
The most notable case involved 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, who hit just .205 last year after winning batting titles in 2018 and 2019.
But he wasn’t the only Brewers hitter who failed to perform up to expectations.
The Brewers scored 4.1 runs per game to rank 27th out of 30 MLB teams last year as they slipped into the playoffs with a 29-31 record. Their .223 team batting average placed them 26th. Their 582 strikeouts were the second-highest total of any MLB team, behind only the Tampa Bay Rays.
Keston Hiura batted .212 and had an NL-high 85 strikeouts last year after posting a .938 OPS as a rookie in 2019. Omar Narváez batted .176 with a .562 OPS last year after hitting .278 with 22 homers and an .813 OPS in 2019 with the Seattle Mariners. Avisaíl García batted .238 with a .659 OPS last year after hitting .282 with a .796 OPS in 2019 with Tampa Bay.
“We had some tough seasons and some of the most down seasons that some established players have had,” Counsell said. “You’re hoping, you’re planning on them getting back to norm, and that’s going to create a pretty big improvement in our offense. That’s a big part of this.”
That starts with getting Yelich back to his usual form.
Yelich had a respectable .356 on-base percentage last year thanks to his 46 walks in 247 plate appearances. But he struck out 76 times. His .786 OPS was his lowest since 2014, a dramatic fall for someone who led the NL in that category in 2018 (1.000) and 2019 (1.100).
His .205 batting average was the first time he’d ever hit below .282 in a season.
“I think we’re going to see a very motivated player,” Counsell said. “He was disappointed in the results last year, disappointed in his performance. He wants to be better, and he’s going to be better. I think (from our) offseason conversations, I’ve found Christian has been in just an incredibly optimistic place. That’s kind of the thing that’s struck me about him. Eager and optimistic, I guess would be the best way to say it.”
The Brewers should get a boost from the return of center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who played just five games before opting out of the 2020 season. Newly acquired Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong has posted an on-base percentage of at least .350 each of the last two seasons.
The biggest key to improving the offense is getting better performances from the guys who slumped last year.
Any improvement from the lineup could go a long way toward helping the Brewers earn a fourth straight playoff berth because their pitching should rank among the best in the NL Central. Counsell confirmed Thursday that the Brewers have brought back free-agent pitcher Brett Anderson, though the team still hasn’t officially announced the signing.
Anderson, who went 4-4 with a 4.21 ERA last year, will be part of a rotation that’s headed by Brandon Woodruff (3-5, 3.05) and Corbin Burnes (4-1, 2.11).