Brewers' 2009 goal: Cut down on K's
Sveum teaching potent lineup how to be less anxious at plate
PHOENIX -- In a quiet clubhouse at Miller Park after the Brewers were eliminated in the 2008 National League Division Series, a couple of guys were already looking ahead to this season."We live and die by the home run," then-manager Dale Sveum said on that October day. "We have to change that. We have to start to learn how to manufacture runs and put the ball in play and have really, really good at-bats going into next season." Ryan Braun, whose homer on the penultimate day of the season helped propel the team to the NL Wild Card, was of a like mind.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
"It's extremely difficult to rely on the home run," Braun said. "For us to get back to this position and win in the postseason, we have to do a better job of manufacturing runs."That's the goal for Sveum, who is back in a new role as the hitting coach, entering the follow-up to Milwaukee's first postseason appearance in more than a quarter century. For all of the focus on a starting rotation minus CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, and all of the doubts about a bullpen missing its five-most key contributors from last season, the Brewers' chances in 2009 to make it to the postseason and then win once they get there could hinge just as tightly on improving an all-or-nothing offense that returns almost entirely intact. The 2008 Brewers scored 39.6 percent of their runs -- 297 of 750 -- via home runs, the fifth-highest percentage in baseball. The only playoff team that was more reliant on the long ball was Philadelphia (42.7 percent). That after scoring 45.6 percent of their '07 runs on a Major League-leading and franchise record 231 home runs. With those home runs also came strikeouts. The Brewers ranked fifth in the NL -- and led NL playoff teams -- with 1,203 strikeouts in '08, and have ranked in the top six of the 16-team league in whiffs every year this decade. "We have home run hitters, but we actually have guys with good, fast hands," Sveum said last week after a long morning in the batting cage. "We don't have the guys who strike out 140 times because of a super long swing and no bat speed to catch up with a Major League fastball. We have guys with very, very quick bats, and they shouldn't tally up 120, 130, 140 strikeouts." But the Brewers did have six players with at least 100 whiffs in 2008, including four with 120: Center fielder Mike Cameron (142), first baseman Prince Fielder (134), Braun (129) and third baseman Bill Hall (124). Second baseman Rickie Weeks struck out 115, and Corey Hart whiffed 109 times. How do you fix it? "It's not something you 'work on,' per se," Sveum said. "But you emphasize certain things every day. The only way to have success is swinging at good pitches. ... How do we combat the two things that most hitters, if not all, have the most anxiety about? One of having two strikes on you, and two is when there is velocity on the mound. "We have to relax in those situations and treat it like it's not such a big damn deal." It should help Sveum's cause that the Brewers' offensive unit returns remarkably intact. All eight of the primary positional starters return, plus backup catcher Mike Rivera and utility infielder Craig Counsell. The core is Braun, 25, and Fielder, who turns 25 in May. Both are former first-round Draft picks, and the duo has combined for 155 home runs over the past two seasons. But both are also prone to the kind of hot and cold streaks common for young hitters with power. Sveum is in an interesting position because he can relate. He never struck out 100 times in the Minor Leagues, then belted 25 home runs and whiffed 133 times in 1987, his first full big league season. He slipped to nine homers the following season but still whiffed 122 times before a broken leg derailed his career as an everyday player. "Before '87, I was a guy who hated striking out," Sveum said. "I took pride in not striking out. Then I got to 25 home runs and all of a sudden I struck out 130 times, and in my mind it was like, 'It's OK to strike out, because I can [take a big swing and] hit home runs with two strikes.' "But that's not OK. Take some pride in not striking out. You're still going to hit some two-strike home runs if your hands are good and your head is on the ball and you take the anxiety out of this whole thing. We don't need to keep piling on strikeouts by taking bad swings."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.