Defense Loses Games

Posted by Steve

I first want to gloss over this week’s draft. In case you weren’t aware, the Brewers have pitching problems. That’s directly reflected in their draft this season, as four of their first five picks were pitchers. As always, I’ll link to brewerfan.net’s amazing Draft Page, where you’ll find all you need to know about the Brewers’ draft.

The first round pick is a boom or bust type, which frankly is just fine with me. They need to get impact pitchers into their system. High school right-hander Dylan Covey from Pasadena was the first pick. He’s known for his hammer 12-6 curveball, which of course evokes images of Ben Sheets. Of course it’s impossible to know how he’ll turn out, but most of the draft geeks (and I mean that as a compliment) seem pleased with the pick.

I won’t bother saying much else about their draft, because anything you’d want to know is found in the link above.  I’ll just mention that three of their next four picks were college pitchers, so you can see they’re looking to find players who might be able to move quicker through the system. That certainly doesn’t always work out, as last year’s first rounder Eric Arnett was a college pitcher who’s had his struggles so far this season.

————

On to the main act. If I asked you what the biggest weakness of the 2010 Brewers is, I’m guessing you’d say starting pitching. That certainly wouldn’t be a bad answer, but believe it or not, it may not be the most accurate. One thing that can make pitching better or worse than it really is is team defense. And by all accounts, the Brewers have terrible team defense.

It’s not something you hear too much about, but it’s true. The numbers don’t lie.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is something I look at quite a bit. The league average is generally around .300. Certain pitchers are above or below that mark due to pitching style, but league average is around .300. When one pitcher is far above .300 in one season, a lot of times it’s due to luck at least in some margin. But when an entire team of pitchers are well above .300, it’s more than just luck. It means his defense are converting an abnormally low amount of batted balls into outs.

What was the point of that whole song and dance? My point is Brewer pitchers have an incredibly high BABIP–.344, to be exact. That’s dead last in MLB. It’s so high, the second worst team is the Astros–at .330!

Another stat I like, which is fueled by Baseball Info Solutions and Fangraphs, is Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). UZR is the number of runs below or above average a player is in combined factors of range, errors, outfield arm, and double plays.

The Brewers as a team sit at 25.4 runs below average, second only to the Dodgers (-27.3). The worst offenders are Ryan Braun (-9.2, dead last LF), Prince Fielder (-2.7, sixth worst 1B), Corey Hart (-4.3, fifth worst RF), Alcides Escobar (-0.3, ninth worst SS), Rickie Weeks (-4.9, third worst 2B), and Casey McGehee (-4.2, sixth worst third baseman). And no, those rankings are not in the National League… They’re in all of MLB.  If it seems like I named the entire team, it’s because I pretty much did. How about that? Each starting infielder, along with the left and right fielder, are below average fielders! Many are downright bad! Couple that with George Kottaras being unable to throw out anyone, and it’s no wonder the defense is so bad. The only plus defenders on the entire team are likely Craig Counsell and Carlos Gomez!

But wait! There’s more! Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) measures home runs, strikeouts, and walks allowed. It’s a truer reflection of pitching performance than ERA. The Brewers have an awful team ERA of 5.25, good for third worst in the majors. That would lead one to believe they have terrible pitching, correct? Well, not when you look at FIP. The Brewers’ FIP is 4.41. Still not good, but a heck of a lot better than 5.25. That indicates the Brewers are giving up almost a full run per game more than what they “should” be allowing.  That once again points to a terrible team defense.

Again, the blame here needs to be placed on Doug Melvin and the front office for assembling a team of such poor defenders. Whether it was be design (choosing to ignore the bad defense) or miscalculation (assuming the team would defend better than it has), it’s still his responsibility to field a better defensive team than he has. This is particularly alarming because, as I’ve discussed in the past, team defense has more or less replaced on-base percentage as the new “Moneyball” area in the last couple seasons. It’s reflected in the standings, too. It’s no coincidence that out of the top ten teams in UZR, eight of them are over .500.

A huge emphasis has been put on acquiring pitching, but here’s hoping that team defense, a culprit at least as much to blame as pitching for the struggles this season, is not ignored much longer.

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3 responses to “Defense Loses Games

  1. I’m no expert– so please forgive my naiveté– but can you please explain to me the reasoning behind drafting more heavy hitters who can’t field?
    If defense is, as you say, our biggest issue– why don’t we draft some big defenders?

    I mean, our 4th round pick’s scout report says it plain as day– Hunter Morris: “As good as his bat is, his glove makes him somewhat of a liability in the field. He doesn’t have much range, and overall needs to commit himself to defense to avoid becoming a one-dimensional player.” -Brewerfan.net scouting report

    And the same for our 6th round pick– Cody Hawn: “…was considered one of the better pure hitters available this year. There isn’t much past the hit tool, and his future likely lies at first base or possibly left field.” -Brewerfan.net scouting report

    Even down to our 10th round– Rafael Neda: “Defensively, Neda needs work. …his throwing is hindered by bad footwork.” …bad footwork? Really?

    Like I said before, I am new at this– but it seems to me that we’re setting ourselves up for some more defensive issues by drafting power hitters who can’t back it up in the field.

  2. Very good observation. The Brewers as an organization have largely ignored defense. The point can certainly be made that it has paid off in many ways–Fielder and Braun are still both bad defenders, but their bat more than makes up for it. Plus, they play less important positions.

    Rickie Weeks, on the other hand, is a perfect example of someone who was rushed. His defense was always considered a liability in the minors, yet they rushed him to the big leagues for no real reason. They certainly weren’t contenders at the time he was brought up, and there wasn’t any reason not to leave him in AAA to work more on his defense.

    The one that irritates me is Alcides Escobar. All we’ve heard the last few years is how amazing his defense has been. We heard how, sure, J.J. Hardy made the routine play, but Escobar makes spectacular plays. Well, all I’ve seen is someone who struggles with the routine. I can count on one hand the number of times Escobar has wowed me with a defensive play this season. That really needs to improve if he’s going to be a valuable player.

    As far as the draft, you make a good point I can’t really defend. The only thing I’ll say is that these players can be traded. Matt LaPorta is a good example of a slugger who had defensive limitations, and he was the main piece for CC Sabathia.

    If they aren’t going to draft players with defensive ability, they need to be more patient bringing them up through the minors.

    A point I should have made in the post: Defense was a very overlooked part of 2008’s playoff team. That team had plus defenders in center (Mike Cameron), shortstop (J.J. Hardy), third (Bill Hall), and catcher (that was the year Jason Kendall randomly threw out 43% of base stealers).

    4 plus defenders in 2008 vs. 1 in 2010. Just food for thought.

  3. Pingback: 500th Post | Brewers! Brewers! Keep Turnin' Up the Heat!

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