Intentionally spending less time in the strike zone is helping Milner ascend in the Brewers bullpen
The Year of Hoby is upon us.
After recording four crucial outs in Sunday’s 4-1 win over the Nationals that ended the Brewers’ eight-game losing streak, Hoby Milner now owns a 2.45 ERA and 3.22 FIP.
Those numbers alone are strong for a middle reliever. Milner has helped his cause even more by stranding all ten of his inherited runners this season, including both runners Jason Alexander left for him when he departed in the fifth inning.
Injuries and inconsistency have resulted in subpar performance from the non-high-leverage portion of Milwaukee’s relief corps, so Milner’s stock is quickly on the rise in the bullpen. He now leads the team in appearances (27) and relief innings pitched (25.2).
What is most notable about the sidearmer’s recent success is how he has arrived at it. Milner’s strikeouts are down, his walks are up and he’s throwing fewer strikes than he has in any season of his career.
Those are categories in which Milner excelled last season. In 21.2 innings with the Brewers, he posted a 30.3% strikeout rate against a 3% walk rate. That comes out to 10 strikeouts per walk, an elite ratio.
It was even more staggering in AAA, where Milner struck out 40% and walked just 1.7%, averaging 24 strikeouts per walk.
However, when big-league hitters put the ball in play against him, they teed off. Milner surrendered 30 hits, including eight home runs. Opponents hit the ball hard 43.8% of the time with a 12.5% barrel rate and an incredible 34.9% line drive rate.
The main culprit was Milner’s fastball. Previously a sinkerballer, he switched to a four-seam fastball in 2020 and continued to use it as his go-to pitch last season.
Milner may have made the switch to induce more swings and misses, but the problem was that his four-seamer behaved like a worse version of his sinker. Statcast initially classified it as a sinker last season due to the similar movement before retroactively recategorizing it.
On average, Milner’s sinker dropped 30.9 inches with 17.6 inches of run as it approached home plate in 2019. Last season, his four-seamer averaged 27 inches of drop and 15.1 inches of run.
All pitches naturally move downward as they approach home plate due to gravity, but certain pitchers throw four-seamers with less downward movement because of how they spin. This is partially why some fastballs are so effective when thrown up in the zone. The ball doesn’t travel downward to the extent the hitter naturally anticipates, leaving them more likely to swing under the ball and come up empty.
Brandon Woodruff and Josh Hader are examples of pitchers who throw such a fastball. Hoby Milner does not, but he still used his fastball as if it moved like a Woodruff or Hader four-seamer. He was aggressive in the zone with his four-seamer and specifically targeted the upper third of the zone.
Milner thought he was throwing his four-seamer in the most optimal location for missing bats, but he was really throwing a pitch that moved like a straighter sinker in the easiest locations for hitters to do damage. Opponents torched Milner’s fastball, hitting .377 with a .441 wOBA and four home runs.
This new approach was partially why Milner’s walk numbers improved dramatically. He threw 68% of his pitches for strikes and 53.7% in the zone, both of which were career-highs. The unintended side effect is that he was now easier to hit than ever before.
If anything, he was throwing too many strikes.
Milner has since scrapped the approach from 2021 and gone in the other direction. He’s back to throwing his sinker and has even added some movement on it. The pitch is averaging 35.9 inches of drop and 18.7 inches of run, both of which are above average.
Just as notable, however, is that Milner is more or less refusing to throw the ball over the plate.
Milner has honed in on a specific corner of the zone, working his sinker in to lefties and out to righties.
One of the results is fewer strikes. Milner’s walk rate has increased to a below-average 7.6%, and his 39.5% zone rate and 60% strike rate are both the lowest of his career.
All of those trends are by design. For Milner, it is better to miss the zone for a ball and issue more walks than to throw one over the plate that gets crushed.
When Milner misses, he is missing to his arm side. This is a spot where he cannot get hurt. Some opponents will take it for a ball. Those who swing at it either get jammed on the handle or hit one softly off the end of the bat.
Milner has executed the new approach exceptionally well. His percentage of middle-middle pitches thrown has fallen from 8.1% last season to a career-best 3.1%.
The other results are reflected in the batted ball metrics. Milner is now inducing ground balls at a career-high 55.4% clip, more than double his rate from last season. His line drive rate is down to just 17.6%, his hard hit rate has fallen to 34.2%, and his barrel rate sits at an elite 2.7%.
Milner’s new style of pitching has also helped him neutralize his platoon splits. He has always found success against lefties in his career, holding them to a .213/.299/.340 line with his funky delivery. Meanwhile, righties have lit him up for a .319/.390/.570 line.
Many hitters will want to pull a hittable fastball to drive it for extra bases. Righties did exactly that last season, pulling the ball 46.5% of the time against Milner. However, they can’t try to pull a sinker on the outside corner. This year, the right-handed pull rate against Milner is down to 30.6%.
Another adjustment that has helped Milner in such matchups is the emergence of his changeup. He’s throwing it a career-high 14% of the time, nearly double his usage from last season. Milner has deployed the pitch exclusively against righties, who have managed just a .247 wOBA against it with a 41% whiff rate.
By working away with more sinkers and changeups, Milner has held opposite-handed hitters to a .234 average and just two extra-base hits, both doubles.
Milner’s strikeout rate has decreased dramatically this season, but his swinging strike and whiffs rates are similar to last year, so there could be more punchouts coming in the near future.
More importantly, Milner has figured out how to manage contact after it burned him last season. It all stems from throwing fewer strikes. Opponents cannot hit Milner if he isn’t giving them anything to hit. So far this season, he has done precisely that.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and MLB.com.