Brewers have real playoff shot — and 2 underrated hitters are a big reason

Brewers have real playoff shot — and 2 underrated hitters are a big reason

- in MLB Baseball

By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer

If you look around at the NL playoff contenders, nearly every lineup features a handful of high-profile, highly paid and highly decorated sluggers. Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman in LA. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado in St. Louis. Manny Machado and Juan Soto in San Diego. Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor in New York. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Austin Riley in Atlanta. Even the Phillies, who are competing for the final NL Wild Card spot, have multiple household names with ample accolades and awards in Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Kyle Schwarber.

And then there are the Brewers. Yet with six days to go, Milwaukee sits just half a game back from the Phillies for the final NL Wild Card spot. 

A few years ago, the Brewers had a superstar player of their own when Christian Yelich was at the peak of his powers. With Yelich looking more good than great in recent seasons, other Brewers hitters have needed to step up and provide the lineup with some legitimate thump to compensate. This year, it’s been shortstop Willy Adames and first baseman Rowdy Tellez.

They aren’t completely alone, of course. Hunter Renfroe and Andrew McCutchen have both been quality veteran additions to the lineup. Keston Hiura, Kolten Wong and Luis Urías had their moments. Yelich’s power might not be anywhere close to what it used to, but he’s still getting on-base at a well-above-average clip. But as far as consistent run production is concerned, Tellez and Adames have been the driving forces for the Brew Crew — and will need to continue to be should Milwaukee qualify for the postseason.

A year after being one of just nine teams without a single 30-plus-home-run hitter, the Brewers are one of five teams with multiple hitters to hit 30 or more this season thanks to the dingers provided by Tellez (34) and Adames (31).

Adames has largely carried over what he did upon arriving from Tampa Bay via trade last summer, while continuing to evolve at the plate. “The beauty of Willy is he’s maturing as a hitter, and learning how to create game plans,” Brewers hitting coach Connor Dawson told FOX Sports. “There was a period where Willy was just so talented, he could just go hit. But I think now, especially over the past month, we’re really seeing that he’s able to take some game plans that he creates and actually perform them.”

Adames has indeed heated up significantly down the stretch just as Milwaukee has needed him the most. He’s hit .313/.403/.642 with eight homers since September 9 and ranks fourth in fWAR in MLB over that span. Add in his top-notch defense, and you can see why Adames — though still far less famous than many of the other postseason-bound NL star hitters — is now considered one of the better shortstops in the game, and one who could be in line for a massive payday a few winters from now. 

Adames’ star turn arguably already happened last year during his initial run with his new team. Tellez, meanwhile, who also experienced some success after coming over from Toronto via trade about a month after Adames, has experienced his full-fledged breakout in 2022. 

For the 27-year-old lefty slugger, the key has been an increase in selectivity at the dish. “Rowdy can hit anything. Above his head, off the ground, it’s unbelievable,” Dawson said. “He knows he can hit everything – he lets me know he can hit everything – but instead of trying to hit everything, let’s hit the ones that we want to hit.”

Tellez is swinging at a career-low rate on pitches both in (60.6%) and out (30.5%) of the strike zone, down from the 67% Z-Swing (in the zone) and 37.5% O-Swing (out of the zone) rates he’d maintained over his first four big league seasons. It can be subtle, but these changes can unlock significant power surges for players with the kind of raw juice Tellez possesses. His 91.1 MPH average exit velocity places him in the 86th percentile in MLB, while his 46.2% hard-hit rate places him in the 81st. “Rowdy just hits the ball so hard,” Dawson said. “It’s really just like, hit the right one, and you’re good. That’s why I think he’s really pushed the needle on his power.”

Brewers fans are familiar with having large, lefty-hitting first baseman launching balls over the fence with regularity — they had the pleasure of watching Prince Fielder for seven seasons. While Rowdy might never hit close to .300 regularly like Fielder did in his prime, his .222 batting average is a misrepresentation of the type of hitter he is. He was a .276 hitter in over 600 minor-league games and was at .247 for his big-league career before this season. 

“He’s not a .220 hitter,” said Dawson. “He’s hitting rockets all over the yard all year that have been caught.” Though Tellez’s hefty homer total has kept his overall slash line well above league-average, the BABIP gods haven’t been quite as generous with his batted balls that have stayed in the yard. It’s not just normal bad luck, either – his .219 BABIP is tied with Anthony Rizzo for the second-lowest among all qualified hitters this season and the fifth-lowest mark this century. Tellez has put 30 balls in play with an exit velocity of 105 MPH or higher that have turned into outs, tied for the eighth-most in MLB. His ten 110+ MPH outs are fourth in MLB behind only Giancarlo Stanton (17), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (14), and Aaron Judge (14). 

Unsurprisingly, the shift is to blame for a good chunk of those hard outs, but it’s not the sole culprit. “Rowdy has hit some absolute missiles on the ground to the right side. But a lot of Rowdy’s hard outs are in the air to outfielders,” said Dawson. “He can line a ball to the left fielder as good as anybody and they’re just not moving and he’s out. I’m like, dang, what’s the guy got to do to find a hole?!”

The degree to which the shift ban in 2023 will help Tellez remains to be seen, but the changes he’s made approach-wise should continue to pay dividends no matter what kinds of defenses are deployed against him.

So, after ceding the NL Central to the Cardinals, can Adames, Tellez and Co. really help the Brewers sneak into the 2022 postseason through the Wild Card backdoor? We’ll find out over these last few days. Even if it’s not quite enough to push them into the postseason this year, Tellez and Adames, who are both under contract through 2024, are two clear pillars for Milwaukee to build around moving forward.

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.

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