Where must the Brewers improve? Part 1: Defense

Posted by Steve

Even a casual observer would be able to say that the Brewers’ defense was a huge weakness in 2007. Everyone knows about Ryan Braun’s massive error totals, Rickie Weeks’ shaky play and Prince Fielder’s suspect judgment at first.

But I’m willing to be that most people do not realize just how bad the Brewers’ defense was. In fact, it is my belief that poor defense was more responsible for the Brewers missing the playoffs than any other facet of the game (and yes, that includes managing).

In this post I will try to show just how terrible the Brewers’ defense, primarily their infield defense, was. I’d like to first throw out a disclaimer: quantifying defensive performance is inexact and flawed, but these statistics are far more telling than fielding percentage (which are based on judgment calls by a home-town scorekeeper).

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A quick aside: I was watching the Yankees-Indians game with my dad on Sunday. In the first inning, Jeter charged in on a ball and launched it past first base. The New York scorekeeper inexplicably ruled the play an infield single, even though the throw would have beat the runner to the base by about three steps.

I thought my dad made a great point when he said, “You know, Major League Baseball is a multi-billion dollar industry. You’re telling me that instead of having a home scorekeeper for each team, MLB can’t pay 15 people 70 grand a year to be official MLB scorekeepers? Heck, even pay them 100 grand, what does it matter? They could easily afford it, it would be a great job and it would eliminate home-town scoring biases.”

I can’t believe I never thought of that before, but that just makes too much sense. How has this not happened yet? Someone needs to get Bud on the phone. Ok, back to the show…

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Before I get into defensive stats, I’ll just mention something quickly to illustrate the poor defense in another way: Pitching stats. Here’s how the Brewers pitching staff ranked in the three areas that are completely independent of defense.

Walks Allowed: Fourth fewest

Strikeouts: Third

Home Runs Allowed: Fourth Fewest

Those three stats show that the Brewers overall had a solid pitching staff. Ready for the scary part?

Runs allowed: Ninth

If you want to look on the bright side, it’s that the Brewers’ pitching was better than it seemed. If you wanted to draw a conclusion from this, it’s clearly that the Brewers’ defense has significantly hurt their pitchers.

I’m going to focus on infield defense, since that is where the Brewers were especially poor. There are problems with these stats, which I’ll get into, but they’re more telling than error totals or fielding percentage.

Range Factor

We’ll start with range factor. Range factor is calculated by dividing putouts and assists by number of innings. Here’s how Brewer infielders stacked up.

Ryan Braun: 2.11 (Dead last among MLB third basemen… by a ton, leader is Abraham Nunez at 3.27)
J.J. Hardy: 4.00 (Dead last among MLB shortstops, leader is Troy Tulowitzki at 5.39)
Rickie Weeks: 4.74 (19th out of 24 second basemen who qualified, leader is Ian Kinsler at 5.69)
Prince Fielder: 8.49 (Dead last among MLB first basemen, leader is Lyle Overbay at 10.75)

Problems with range factor: It is affected by pitching (i.e. flyball pitchers giving infielders less chances at putouts than groundball pitchers) and performance of other infielders. Example: Fielder’s low rating is partially because of his fielding, and it’s partially because the rest of the infielders are pretty bad. Also Range Factor does take errors into account, so this number doesn’t strictly speak for the player’s range (if you make an error on a ball it means you reached it, but you don’t get an assist or putout for it).

Another interesting point here: J.J. Hardy is often touted as a good defensive shortstop. This is likely because he is pretty solid on balls he is able to reach. While he generally doesn’t make a ton of errors, his range is actually quite poor (same thing with Derek Jeter, yet how many gold gloves has he won?). The problem with judging by errors is that you can’t make an error on a ball you can’t even get to, or especially, on one you should get to.

Zone Rating

Basically, zone rating considers the percentage of balls a player reaches within his “zone.” There is a thorough explanation of zone rating, including a description of each zone, here.

Braun: .697 (again, by far the worst among MLB third basemen, leader is Pedro Feliz at .852. To reiterate, Braun missed thirty percent of balls hit to his zone.)
Hardy: .797 (20th out of 24 shortstops who qualified, leader is Omar Vizquel at .897)
Weeks: .737 (Dead last among MLB second basemen, leader is Mark Ellis at .887)
Fielder: .813 (17th among 21 first basemen who qualified, leader is Casey Kotchman at .918)

Problems with zone rating: One problem is that zone rating does not factor in defensive shifts; if you watched more than a few Brewer games in 2007 you know that the Brewers employed defensive shifts excessively (perhaps to compensate for poor range?). Another problem is that a player can actually be punished in zone rating for making a play outside of his traditional zone.

There are other measuring tools that are more telling than RF and ZR, such as Ultimate Zone Rating (which measures how many runs a player saves on defense) and Fielding Runs Above Average (which considers outside factors such as ground ball/fly ball ratio, park factors, balls in play). These ratings are difficult to find for each player, however, and Baseball Prospectus’ 2008 manual won’t come out for a few months yet. Finally, defensive metrics are constantly being tweaked and improved.

Conclusion

How-EVAH (Stephen A. Smith style), despite the flaws of these tools, you’d never want your entire infield to be at the bottom of these lists. This pretty much supports the claim that the Brewers have the worst defensive infield in baseball.

Now obviously, you take the good with the bad. Each infielder is above average offensively for his position. Prince is an offensive superstar, and in my opinion, Braun and Weeks will join him shortly (if Braun hasn’t already). Most of the players who top those defensive lists are well below average offensively. I’d also like to add that I definitely prefer good offense and bad defense to the other way around; it’s much more difficult to find good hitting middle infielders than it is to find elite defensive middle infielders.

Solution

My main concern is the defense at third base. Obviously Braun can rake, but his defense just killed the Brewers. He was far and away the worst defensive third baseman in baseball. One likes to think that he’ll get better with time–he’s only played third base for a few years. On the other hand, you wonder how much a player will improve defensively after age 24. Obviously it’s safe to say he probably won’t always be as bad as he was in ’07, but it’s anything but a lock to say Braun will eventually be serviceable defensively.

I did a quick search on some third basemen who struggled early in their career but stuck at third base nonetheless. I looked at their age 23 season, three seasons later and then 2007 to see if we might be able to get some indication of where Braun might be in the future. I would have liked to go back and get a larger sample, especially on players like Wade Boggs and George Brett (both players struggled mightily on defense when they entered the league), but zone rating and range factor really only date back to 2000 or so.

Aramis Ramirez

2001: Range Factor 2.86 Zone Rating .745

2004: Range Factor 2.24 Zone Rating .755

2007: Range Factor 2.87 Zone Rating .780

Adrian Beltre

2002: Range Factor 2.72 Zone Rating .766

2005: Range Factor 2.79 Zone Rating .794

2007: Range Factor 2.87 Zone Rating .766

Garrett Atkins

2005: (He was 25 but this was his first full season at third): Range Factor 2.63 Zone Rating .808

2007: Range Factor 2.20 Zone Rating .722

Miguel Cabrera (only 24 right now so I could only do one year’s difference)

2006: Range Factor 2.56 Zone Rating .748

2007: Range Factor 2.51 Zone Rating .714

Edwin Encarnacion (same as Miggy)

2006: Range Factor 2.62 Zone Rating .741

2007: Range Factor 2.50 Zone Rating .777

David Wright (ditto)

2006: Range Factor 2.60 Zone Rating .754

2007: Range Factor 2.73 Zone Rating .771

There aren’t many that fall into this category, unfortunately, so I wouldn’t really be able to draw much of a conclusion from this. Aramis Ramirez has turned himself into a serviceable defensive third baseman, and the same goes for Adrian Beltre. Atkins actually had a worse year this year than 2005, his first full year at third base. Encarnacion and Wright have improved, but Miggy is still awful. Many of them are still below average today, which doesn’t bode well for Braun either.

I was trying to illustrate a point by doing that, and I guess I kind of did: There is no guarantee that Braun will get better just from gaining experience playing third base. 23 is still young, but as far as skills go, it’s not that young anymore. Another crucial point to make: while some of these players were bad defenders entering the league, none of them came close to being as bad as Braun was in 2007.

The Brewers are in a very tough situation. The only option besides third would be moving Braun to an outfield spot. It’s obviously in the Brewers’ best interest to keep Braun at third base if he can play it; his offense is more valuable there than at a corner outfield position. Thing is, I’m pretty doubtful that Braun will ever be an average defensive third baseman.

My solution would be one that several bf.netters have already suggested. Starting in 2008, I’d move Braun to left field, Bill Hall to third base and Corey Hart to center field. It’s definitely a bold move, and it makes 2007 seem like a waste as far as the Bill Hall to center field experiment is concerned, but it improves two positions defensively.

Hall was understandably shaky in his first year in center, but the bottom line is he was easily last in the MLB in zone rating among center fielders. Meanwhile, Corey Hart was an elite defensive right fielder. And in 34 games in center, Hart rated among the top half of full time center fielders.

Furthermore, Bill Hall was average defensively at third base in 2005 and 2006.

If you’re into math, it looks like this.

Third Base: Bill Hall>Ryan Braun

Center Field: Corey Hart>Bill Hall

Corey Hart>Bill Hall>Ryan Braun

Putting it back into words, instead of a terrible third baseman, a bad center fielder and a great right fielder, you have an okay third baseman, a solid center fielder and an unknown in left field. Offensively, you have an average hitting third baseman in Hall, an above average hitting center fielder in Hart, and probably an above average hitting left fielder in Braun.

Sure you’d love to be able to keep Braun’s great bat at third, but his offense will play at any position. Braun will probably be poor in left field at first, but a team can afford poor defense in left a lot more than it can at third base.  Braun’s a pretty athletic guy as well, so it’s not difficult for me to imagine him becoming a pretty good left fielder.

The downside to this is that Braun goes from an elite offensive third baseman to a good offensive left fielder.  The upside is that the Brewers vastly improve upon their 2007 defense.   To me, the positive outweighs the negative.

The Brewers, in all likelihood, will not make this move.  Doug Melvin drafted Braun as a third baseman, so you can bet he will give Braun time to pan out there.  I fully understand hoping Braun becomes decent at third, but I also think the Brewers need to be realistic.  Keeping Braun at third base will hurt the team in 2008 and is probably a mistake.

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3 responses to “Where must the Brewers improve? Part 1: Defense

  1. The MLB does all the hiring of official scorekeepers through the commissioners office.

  2. Well sure, but the whole hometown scorekeeper thing just seems biased to me. For example, Milwaukee’s scorer has lived here for years. I imagine it’s the same with a lot of teams.

    I’d rather see more of a fifth umpire, kind of like the instant replay official in the NFL. At the same time, though, it’s not a huge deal because errors aren’t all that telling anyway. A guy can make a great diving play and then throw the ball away and receive an error, yet an outfielder can misjudge a fly ball and have it go over his had and it will be scored a hit.

  3. A final test of your leader is the fact that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction along with the will to keep.
    Whales only get harpooned whenever they visit the outer lining, and turtles is only able to progress after they stick their neck out, but investors face risk it doesn’t matter what they certainly.

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