Along with the rest of the National League, the Milwaukee Brewers’ run environment has declined, meaning that from their Wild Card appearance through their Division Championship, the Brewers’ offense remained consistently above average.
2008: 750 RS (Brewers) / 721 RS (league/park)
2009: 785 RS (Brewers) / 703 RS (league/park)
2010: 750 RS (Brewers) / 701 RS (league/park)
2011: 721 RS (Brewers) / 689 RS (league/park)
The Brewers’ offense slightly regressed each season from 2009, however, which may not come as a surprise. After all, if the overall environment of the league shifts towards fewer runs, there may be some chance that teams play for fewer runs (this sounds counter-intuitive to some, I suppose, as one might argue that teams continue to play for as many runs as possible, regardless of the run environment. I am not entirely sure of this; certainly, luck corresponds heavily with circumstance, meaning that there might not be many good reasons that runs scoring declined in the National League. However, the increase in strike outs as home runs decrease suggest that there are specific trends driving the declining National League run environment).
Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder arguably had their most productive seasons of their respective careers in 2011. They were undoubtedly the driving force of a Brewers’ offense that also featured strong role performances from Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, and to a lesser extent, Nyjer Morgan and Yuni Betancourt (I raised a couple of eyebrows the last time I said something nice about Betancourt, so, I’ll stop this comment here).
One of the driving forces of offseason discussion was, “how can the Brewers replace Fielder?,” which is, of course, a rhetorical question. One doesn’t replace a player that has the potential to walk in 15% of his plate appearances while hitting home runs in another 5% of his plate appearances. The Brewers seemed hellbent on upgrading either shortstop or third base (or both), and they settled on an offensive upgrade at the hot corner and a defensive upgrade in the middle of the diamond. Given the fact that 2011 NL shortstop was the least productive batting position in the MLB, that was a smart decision by the Brewers to place defense at a spot where offense need not be expected. While some are critical of the Brewers’ backloaded contract to Aramis Ramirez, it is undeniable that the Brewers have one of the most underrated MLB bats of the last decade on their club.
BATTED BALLS IN PLAY
First and foremost, one of the very best defenses against concern about how the Brewers will produce runs in 2012 is to point out that even if the Brewers retained Fielder, there was a chance that he might not produce up to his 2011 standard. This possibility exists with each ballplayer, of course, as players’ batting performances are a continuation and development of approaches and contact profiles over time. There is, of course, a chance that the Brewers could have a worse offense for losing Fielder; there was also a chance that in 2012, both Braun and Fielder would be unable to repeat two of the very best single season performances in Brewers history. The third possibility is, obviously, that they would have improved in some combination, resulting in some of the greatest batting performances in any single MLB season.
Compared to Fielder, Ramirez’s bat is slightly less powerful, and a lot more oriented to contact. I’ve been writing about this for weeks, but as far as total bases, times on base, and batted balls in play are concerned, I don’t believe I’ve simply charted the differences (this idea came thanks to MikeyJay at Badger State Sports).
Over the course of 162 games, on average, Fielder will get on base nearly 40 more times than Ramirez, creating fewer outs. However, for those extra outs, Ramirez will knock the ball in play much more frequently, and produce nearly as many total bases. Fielder hits more home runs than Ramirez over the course of 162 games, but Ramirez almost perfectly matches that lack of production due to his singles, doubles, and triples (well, not so much for the last one, but he might yield 3 extra bases than Fielder in that regard).
With Ramirez working in the batting order, the Brewers simply have a different style of baseball in the works. Those extra times on base are almost fully accounted for by walks, as Ramirez collects hits at nearly the same rate as Fielder (and probably slightly better). If the Brewers can’t get back those 40 extra times on base, at least Ramirez will provide them with a chance at more singles and more doubles.
The biggest difference is between Ramirez’s best and worst seasons, and Fielder’s best and worst. Looking at each of these players’ most recent “poor” season, and their best season, it is clear that Ramirez’s recent drop in production was much more extreme than that of Braun and Fielder. While Ramirez remains a decent bat even at his worst, his range of production is much wider than that of Fielder and Braun.
Furthermore, Fielder appears to be the more durable player, appearing in no fewer than 155 games from 2006-present; since Ramirez reached 157 games in 2006, he has only made it as high as 149 games, dropping below 130 games twice.
While there are potential drawbacks with Ramirez’s range of production and durability, the Brewers took a strong gamble in shaping their batting order around a contact-oriented power hitter that can match Fielder’s total bases, even if he makes more outs. The latter part of this equation should be expected, as Fielder’s high-walk profile is such a rare batting trait; failing that, Ramirez will allow the top of the order (including Braun at 3) to run wild.
In recent weeks, I worked on a few brief studies of situational baseball. I attempted to argue that there’s not necessarily one correct way to expect ballplayers to play situational ball, changing their approaches by situation; rather, situational ball results from players repeating their approaches over time and working on their abilities to drive their pitches and recognize their pitches.
I believe this is how the Brewers will account for some of Fielder’s lost production during 2012. It’s not that situational baseball can account for the loss of Fielder, but it’s that the specific batting approach of Ramirez, coupled with that of Braun, will allow the team to exaggerate other traits that they would not have focused on with Fielder in the batting order.
2009: .266 1st/3rd single; .445 1st/home double
2010: .269 1st/3rd single;.422 1st/home double
2011: .292 1st/3rd single; .426 1st/home double
Carlos Gomez: .397 1st/3rd single; .538 1st/home double
Rickie Weeks: .360 1st/3rd single; .509 1st/home double
Nyjer Morgan: .327 1st/3rd single; .462 1st/home double
Ryan Braun: .301 1st/3rd single; .659 1st/home double
Corey Hart: .301 1st/3rd single; .512 1st/home double
In some combination, Rickie Weeks, Carlos Gomez, Nyjer Morgan, Corey Hart, and Ryan Braun will bat ahead of Aramis Ramirez in 2012. While the Brewers are not necessarily a great baserunning team overall (their players have been pretty inconsistent in execution, overall, from 2009-present, ranging from great-to-below average (and in between)), their top-order players have certain baserunning strengths. With Ramirez bringing more singles and doubles (and batted balls in play) behind Braun, there will be more opportunities for the Brewers to exploit these particular strengths.
If you look through these players’ baserunning logs, year-by-year, running from 1st to 3rd on singles and 2nd to home on doubles, there are a few opportunities each season for each of these players. This is not going to be a huge advantage for the Brewers; rather, it’s a note that a specific combination of production and batting traits will allow these players to grab an extra base here and there. This is especially important on doubles, as any of these players has a strong chance of scoring from first on a double.
One of the hidden advantages of picking up Ramirez’s bat in the Brewers’ order is that it will allow Ron Roenicke to expand on the team’s situational strengths from 2011. If the club continues to play in close games within the declining National League run environment, these slight advantages can recover some of the runs that the Brewers lose with Fielder out of the order. Certainly, there will be some outs on the basepaths, and no one should argue that this club’s aggression will always work. However, there is something to be said about a team batting identity, and Roenicke will arguably have a ballclub in 2012 that fits his managing style more than the 2011 roster.