2012 Preview: Milwaukee Brewers, Part II | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

If you had asked me — and other Brewers fans — about the Brewers’ long term chances of competing after the 2009 and 2010 seasons, I would have said, “good luck.” Like others, I felt that the club had too many weaknesses to fill in a short time, and I favored bringing up young players and allowing the Brewers to work on their next core.

For all my research and thinking about the game, your 2009-2011 Brewers probably would have had Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain on their roster in some combination. Brett Lawrie and Jake Odorizzi would be working in the minors. I am a conservative, long-con baseball fan; this is not to suggest that Doug Melvin doesn’t have a long-term plan, but rather, he and owner Mark Attanasio should be credited for seeing several windows of opportunity and seizing them.

-After the C.C. Sabathia trade in 2008, the Brewers’ new southpaw helped to carry the Brewers’ rotation to the playoffs, as Ben Sheets had carried the club through the first half. The result may have been an early exit from the playoffs, but you can’t exit the playoffs without making ’em, and the Brewers had their first playoff baseball game in my lifetime.

-After two consecutive disappointing seasons, the Brewers used longterm deals to Yovani Gallardo and Ryan Braun (and to a lesser extent, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks) as a gauge for throwing in all of their chips during Prince Fielder‘s last season in Milwaukee. This was Melvin’s true gamble — certainly more than the Sabathia trade — because he surrendered the majority of the Brewers’ top minor league talent for pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Rallying around an improved rotation, stellar bullpen, and just-enough offense, the Brewers won their first division title in my lifetime.

-After losing Prince Fielder to free agency, Melvin used his core of Braun, Gallardo, John Axford, and company as the foundation for throwing in all of his chips for Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke’s last years in Milwaukee (as far as we know). This time, instead of making blockbuster trades, Melvin addressed offensive and defensive weaknesses on the left side of the infield. Free agents Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez joined the club, providing relatively short-term help that nevertheless opens yet another competitive window for the Brewers.

These 2012 placeholders are now working during a season that allows the Brewers to prepare a suddenly surging group of pitching prospects. It’s not just a win-now season, in an attempt to defend their National League Central division championship, but also a transitional season for the organization in terms of depth and development. If the Brewers learned anything from 2011, it is that a strong middle market ballclub can use short windows of opportunity to compete, and that they should take those opportunities.

2012 Preview: Milwaukee Brewers, Part I

The majority of this preview is going to focus on a couple of areas of defensive support and pitching performances. This is, of course, because the gang of writers here at Disciples of Uecker are adroitly covering all aspects of this club, and there is little that I can add about the character of this club that has already been stated in these pages.

Why these two pitchers? Zack Greinke and Randy Wolf represent a great set of opposites. One features a powerful fastball and breaking pitches, the other is a slower, moving fastball expert; one is a righty, the other, a lefty; one strikes out a ton of batters, the other doesn’t; one received excellent defensive support, the other did not. (Ironically, for all of their differences, Wolf and Greinke both throw their fastballs at similar percentages, using their off-speed pitches approximately 47%-48% of their selections. Both also prefer curveball–>slider–>change for their off-speed pitches).

Defensive efficiency is not evenly distributed in baseball. This is one of the places that FIP falls short as an index of pitching performances. Certainly, we can use fielding independent ratios to judge a specific pitchers’ strengths in keeping batted balls out of play (in the right manner, of course). However, FIP-based statistics typically use the same defensive assumptions to judge pitchers within a specific league, which makes it difficult to relate those expected pitching performances to pitchers’ actual relationships with their respective defenses. Each team has some differences in defensive efficiency, and within each team, defensive efficiency is not evenly distributed to each player. (Therefore, while it’s generally true to say of a pitcher switching teams and ballparks, “how will he play in front of that defense in that park?,” the truth is, there is only so far those estimates can go because teams do not consistently maintain their defensive performances for each pitcher).

(The difficulty of this picture is that even with an improved infield, Greinke could still receive poor defensive support, and Wolf could still receive strong defensive support. We might say, “well, Greinke still pitched well enough to expect X-level of performance,” but unfortunately, that’s not always going to translate to the field).

In 2011, Greinke allowed 82 runs in 171.7 IP; with the Brewers’ defensive efficiency accounted for against his FIPratio, Greinke should have allowed approximately 64 runs. Wolf, on the other hand, was expected to allow approximately 108 runs in 212.3 IP, but he only allowed 95 actual runs.

Why did this happen? For starters, the Brewers’ defense hovered around average. They weren’t necessarily a bad defensive club, but what I gather is, if a team hovers around average defensive efficiency (or slightly-below it), one might expect that team’s defensive performance to vary more frequently. Therefore, while one might expect a great defensive club to efficiently turn batted balls in play into outs more consistently, one might not make that same assumption about an average defense. There will be good days, and there will be bad; that’s what makes ’em an average defense.

Furthermore, the Brewers’ defensive efficiency was distributed in different ways around the diamond. Whereas the outfield — anchored by Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan — converted batted balls in play into outs at a good rate, the infield was not as strong against league average defensive rates. While the club was strong defending bunts, they were weaker defending line drives.

Enter Wolf and Greinke. While one might say that Greinke’s groundball rate, coupled with his exceptional FIP peripherals, should make a great pitcher, his groundball rate played to the Brewers’ specific defensive weaknesses. By contrast, even though it’s counter-intuitive to suggest this, Wolf’s lower ground ball rate and higher fly ball percentage played more toward the Brewers’ strengths.

Prorated to an even 800 PA (which is close to the midpoint between Greinke’s and Wolf’s respective 2011 batters faced), here’s what the defensive differences look like for Greinke and Wolf:

Greinke (800 PA): 225 K/50 BB/21 HR; 164 BIPH (245 GB/60 H, 148 FB/23 H/19 HR, 116 LD/78 H/2 HR, 10 BT/3 H)
Wolf (800 PA): 119 K/58 BB/20 HR; 176 BIPH (230 GB/59 H, 222 FB/25 H/15 HR, 142 LD/89 H/5 HR, 17 BT/3 H)

Greinke’s defensive support resulted in 8 more hits on groundballs and flyballs, although he did allow 5 fewer hits than expected on line drives. Wolf’s defensive support resulted in 7 more hits on groundballs than expected, but 3 fewer on flyballs and 12 fewer on line drives.

Of course, anyone looking at this would say, “it’s logical to expect Greinke to improve markedly in 2012, while Wolf regresses.” I’m not entirely sure on this point. One specific reason for my skepticism on this point rests in Greinke’s and Wolf’s walk and home run rates. Notice that for a guy that does not strike out very many batters, Wolf allows a low percentage of walks, and a very reasonable number of home runs. We can say the same about Greinke’s walks and home runs, which is what makes his strike out total so good (it’s not just that he’s striking out tons of batters, but that he’s doing it without high walk or home run totals).

I’ve written this before, and I’m sure I’ll write it again: Wolf exists in a class of pitchers that are unFIPable. Wolf limits the damage, and even if we can speculate about the dangers of his flyball and line drive rates, the simple fact is, he rarely beats himself. In fact, Randy Wolf beats himself almost at the same rate that Zack Greinke beats himself — the difference is, he doesn’t have gaudy strike out rates to drive down that FIP. As a result, the expectation will always be that Wolf will pitch worse than Greinke. I’m not entirely sure that’s fair; certainly the numbers say, “buy on Greinke, sell on Wolf,” but in terms of pitching, Wolf does everything he needs to do to compensate for his lack of strike outs.

The Brewers looked to improve either shortstop or third base with a big signing during the 2011-2012 offseason. Once Melvin signed Ramirez, he agreed to a short-term deal with Alex Gonzalez at shortstop. As a result, the Brewers’ looked for offense-first at third base, and defense-first at shortstop. All things considered, that’s a strong decision by the Brewers’ front office.

One of the reasons that defensive efficiency is not evenly distributed within the same team is that a fielder’s performance can frequently change. Although overall batted ball in play trends remain consistent as a league level, at an individual level, each defensive player might see a different brand of batted balls in play over time. If we grant that players’ BABIP can shift over time simply due to circumstances or luck, we should grant that one of the reasons that occurs is because batted balls in play deal with fielders’ performances over time. A good fielder will probably fluctuate, in terms of runs prevented, much more than a good batter will fluctuate in terms of runs produced. This is because fielding only deals with batted balls in play; pitching and batting also include elements that pitchers and batters can (somewhat) control to keep the ball out of play.

Therefore, when considering the Brewers’ defensive improvements in 2012, we should think of those improvements as a part of a continuum:

Y. Betancourt (6 1000+ INN @ SS): -24 to 0 DRS range; -19.7 to -0.1 UZR/150 range (1175 INN, -11.67 DRS, -8.1 UZR/150 average)
A. Gonzalez (5 1000+ INN @ SS): -3 to 21 DRS range; -2.4 to 8.5 UZR/150 range (1153 INN, 4.22 DRS, 6.3 UZR/150 average)

C. McGehee (2 1000+ INN @ 3B): -13 to 1 DRS range; -4.0 to 7.3 UZR/150 range (782.8 INN, -4.75 DRS, -2.1 UZR/150 average)
A. Ramirez (9 1000+ INN @ 3B): -17 to 12 DRS range, -10.9 to 14.0 UZR/150 range; (1405 INN, -4.30 DRS, -3.7 UZR/150 average)

P. Fielder (6 1000+ INN @ 1B): -16 to -2 DRS range; -11.6 to 1.8 UZR/150 range (1187.3 INN, -8.86 DRS, -6.4 UZR/150 average)

Overall, the Brewers clearly have a strong potential to improve their infield defense, especially considering the aggregate defense of Yuniesky Betancourt and Prince Fielder. However, we should keep an open mind about how extreme these numbers will look; overall, it might look like Gonzalez could clearly improve shortstop by a large margin, as could the Brewers’ first base collective. That improvement might not show up in gaudy stats, given the penchant for fielding performances to change over time. The point is that the potential for a very good infield defense exists; but, even an average infield defense would get the job done.

Yes, I know that I picked Jaime Garcia to breakout for the Cardinals last week, and I know that after my analysis above, you must be saying, “so, Zack Greinke must be the breakout candidate. What, do you just hate Greinke?” On the contrary, when I lived in Chicago I avidly watched Greinke each time I could, when he faced the White Sox, and I like the kid a lot. BUT, (a) everybody and their mother thinks that Greinke is going to dominate this year, and (b) if you hold the truths by which Greinke improves in 2012 to be valid, then Chris Narveson is poised to be the best 5th starter in the National League.

Narveson improved his home run rate in 2011 — his flyball/PA rate dropped below 25% from 28%+. His groundball rate also improved, although he did receive better-than-average defensive efficiency from the Brewers’ fielders on groundballs. Even though his strike out and walk rates were not as strong in 2011, both of those rates remained right around average.

I’m taking the strong position on Narveson for 2012: continual improvement with his groundball rate + average or better strike out and walk rate + continual decline in flyball rate = average starter (=extreme advantage for 5th rotation spot).

Example: 675 PA, 125 K/53 BB/15 HR; 480 BIP/148 BIPH+E/332 BIPOuts/5 random outs; 220 GB (48 BIPH+E) / 155 FB (20 BIPH+E) / 108 LD (77 BIPH+E) / 14 BT (3 BIPH+E); 154 IP, 73-79 runs allowed w/ defensive efficiency and LOB%; 71 FIPruns allowed

Like the St. Louis Cardinals, I am not sure that there is an organizational silver living should the Brewers fail to make the playoffs. Their farm system is improving, their next batch of prospects nearing the majors, but make no mistakes about it, this 2012 team is built to contend. The Brewers will have a new look offense, thanks to Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Braun working together in the middle order. Manager Ron Roenicke will be able to more aggressively run his top order due to the increased contact rates from his clean-up spot. Furthermore, the Brewers’ return all the pieces from one of the most consistent, healthy rotations in the 2011 NL. With the potential for an improved infield defense added to those elements, as well as two of the best active relievers in the division, this team has the elements to compete.

As a long-term Brewers fan, I am happy to know that the Brewers’ have the best player in the division locked up for a very long time, and that they also have a strong, serviceable core of MLB players lined up for several seasons. I am also cheering along those new prospects, who can be added to the mix at just the right time for those open rotation spots in 2013. But, in terms of overall success, organizational advances in the minor leagues do not offset a failure to make it to the playoffs on the big club.

I certainly hope you like this as much as I do; for the first time in my life, the Brewers are defending a divisional championship. Everyone talked about ’82 in the past, but the ’11 squad is going to have to get used to some continuous verbal praise. For now, they’re the greatest ballclub in Brewers’ history, the best of the franchise’s NL efforts, and it’s time for them to win another division championship. One thing’s for sure; it’s way better writing a preview and saying, “boy, it’s going to be a disappointment if the Brewers lose the division,” instead of, “boy, I hope this club can compete throughout the season.” Thanks to the gambles of Doug Melvin and Mark Attanasio, we can say those words for years to come.

Statistics from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.

Reference made in “Part 1” to debate with MikeyJay from Badger State Sports Discussion.
Zettel. “Playoff Sushi: Cardinals/Brewers Defensive Support.” 10 Oct 2011, jsonline.com. Journal Sentinel Inc., 2012.

Image: http://www.faniq.com/blog/The-original-Brewers-logo-must-have-been-a-delight-for-all-drunks-to-see-Blog-36140

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