Brewers’ batters are searching for answers

MILWAUKEE — Johnny Narron didn’t have to do much talking on the other end of the phone Wednesday morning; after all, the caller — Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton — had plenty to say. 

The night before, Hamilton had completed one of the best single-game efforts in baseball history, tallying four home runs, eight RBI and an American League-record 18 total bases. And it was soon after the Brewers’ Tuesday night win over the Reds that Narron —Hamilton’s former coach and confidant — heard about the performance. 

The two remain in regular contact since Narron left Texas to become the Brewers’ hitting coach last offseason, and after Narron had heard the news on Tuesday night, he hurried back to see the highlights.

It was a picture-perfect day at the plate — hard for anyone not to admire, especially a hitting coach. And for a coach who hasn’t seen much high-powered offense since taking his new job in Milwaukee, Narron might have admired it even more.

The Brewers haven’t shown many flashes of perfection like that at the plate one month through the baseball season, especially for a team that has almost perennially ranked in the top five in the National League in an array of offensive statistical categories. This year, the team has the fourth-worst batting average in the NL and has struggled mightily to give run support on a consistent basis.

That can be tough on a first-year coach. But Narron has remained optimistic through the early-season slump. It’s his job to stay positive, he says.
 
“The failure is built into the game the way it’s designed,” Narron said. “You hear all the stories about if you go 3-out-10, you’ll wind up in the Hall of Fame. You have to deal with that; it’s just part of it.”
 
Certainly, this year’s Brewers offense has been a far cry from the one Narron worked with in Arlington last season. The 2011 Rangers scored the most runs in all of baseball and ended up in the World Series. Through the same 31 games, last season’s Rangers team had scored 32 more runs than this season’s Brewers.
 
But that prolonged success in the past has given Narron an obvious sense of calm when it comes to slumps like this.
 
“He came from a place that just raked,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “I know that’s not easy to do. We went through some really bad stretches when I was in Anaheim with what we thought were good teams … and I know how hard it is on the coaches. Your first year, you don’t want to do this.”
 
Roenicke says Narron has recognized points of improvement in slumping Brewers already this season. And the coach has already seen progress from center fielder Nyjer Morgan — who has a .192 average this season — and second baseman Rickie Weeks (.164).  Both are getting more of what Narron described as “team productive plate appearances” —  a stat that counts hits, walks, sacrifice plays, eight-pitch at-bats, and various other at-the-plate battles. And with those numbers improving, it’s possible the Brewers are on their way to returning to their potential at the plate.
 
Still, as easy as breaking out of slumps can be at times — players like to repeat that it can change with just a swing or two — there are others who are forced to correct and adjust certain aspects of their swing, which is more easily said than done. 
 
“Some guys have a hard time changing,” Roenicke said. “Other guys have a hard time feeling what (Narron’s) feeling. But when you don’t hit, there’s usually something funky going on. Then, it’s a matter of them getting confidence back.”
 
Roenicke or Narron won’t say who leads in “team productive plate appearances,” but it’s been Ryan Braun’s performance in the past two weeks that has lifted the otherwise struggling Brewers offense. His explosion back onto the scene has been a silver lining in the last two weeks’ box scores, as he’s hit .356 with eight home runs and 15 RBI in his last 15 games. Not many players, aside from Hamilton, can claim that type of production in the same span.
 
Braun’s power has also been indicative of another interesting statistic that seems to be bolstering the Milwaukee offense at this point in the season. While Roenicke is known for his small-ball tendencies, the Brewers have hit an impressive 35 home runs this season — good for second in the NL.
 
It’s a sign that everything’s not lost for the Brewers, as Narron’s positivity refuses to wane. But questions still remain, questions that Narron rarely had to answer during his time with Texas. Why haven’t those home runs led to other offense? The hitting coach has a theory.
 
“If you look at our batting average with balls put in play (their BABIP is .268),” Narron explained. “I think I understand it’s the lowest in major league baseball. So were putting the ball in play, so what does that tell you? We’re putting the ball in play but not getting hits. What does that tell you?”
 
Bad luck?
 
“I’ll let you say that.”
 
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