Cubs: Why do the Brewers keep drilling Willson Contreras?

Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports /

A chilly Opening Day at Wrigley Field heated up in a hurry during the bottom of the seventh when Milwaukee reliever Jake Cousins beaned Willson Contreras with a fastball. Only the calm and physically imposing presence of umpire Ted Barrett and Brewers catcher (and ex-Cub) Victor Caratini staved off a brawl. Taylor McGregor of Marquee Sports Network was quick with this damning statistic: out of Contreras’ 58 career hit by pitches, 14 have come from the Brewers.

In just the last two seasons alone, Milwaukee has hit Contreras eight times, twice as much as the next two teams (the Cardinals and Pirates are each tied with four). Given the unbalanced league schedule over the last two years it is no surprise that NL Central teams are at the top of the list, but the Brewers lap the field.

The Brewers are a well-run, analytically cognizant organization. They present themselves as the Tampa Rays North, getting more out of a smaller payroll than almost any other team. If you were to rank MLB franchises on a list of “most likely to carry out a psychotic vendetta” the Brewers would be near the bottom. And, as any good seamhead will tell you, intentionally hitting a batter is simply stupid baseball: trading a possible out for a certain baserunner is almost always a bad idea (we can debate intentional walks another day).

So what might Milwaukee be up to? Looking at another frequently-drilled player, Anthony Rizzo, may provide some clues. Over the last two seasons, Rizzo is second in the majors with 33 HBP; Contreras is fourth with 28. Yet Brewers pitchers have hit Rizzo twice over that period – and didn’t do so even once in 2021.

Statcast’s xwOBA statistic provides one possible explanation. Rizzo famously does not like inside pitches, but his xwOBA zone chart from last season (click on 2021 and scroll down to the lower right) shows that the safest place to pitch him was across the lower third of the zone. In short, based on this chart at least, pitchers didn’t need to go inside last year to get Rizzo out.

On the other hand, Contreras’ chart from last year shows the best area to pitch him was inside, although he did turn on up-and-in pitches pretty well. The Brewers might be pitching him inside frequently because they think that’s the best way to get Contreras out, which would naturally lead to more beanings.

Cubs: Frustrations have to be mounting if you’re Willson Contreras

If this was the only explanation, then every team would be drilling Contreras as often as the Brewers do. Look again at those Statcast zone pages: there are an awful lot of charts there, and not all of them suggest going inside is the best way to approach Contreras. Moreover, every pitching staff has to balance pitching to its own strengths against pitching to the opponents’ weaknesses. Some teams may wish to emphasize what their pitchers can do rather than what the other squad’s hitters can’t.

That said, it’s possible the Brewers’ serial beaning of Contreras has inadvertently disclosed part of their pitching strategy: attack hitters where their xwOBA is weak. OK, this isn’t as bad an intelligence failure as using your operational plan to wrap cigars, but any insight into Milwaukee’s pitching approach is useful, since cracking the Brewers means cracking their loaded pitching staff.

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It would take a lot of work to verify this, but the effort may be worth it. The best way to avenge Contreras isn’t to drill Milwaukee’s hitters, but to drill Milwaukee’s pitches in the general direction of Kalamazoo. If Cubs hitters go to the plate knowing more about how they will be attacked, they can make adjustments designed to make that outcome more likely.