With the 2012 campaign in the books for the Brewers, I will look back and analyze the season this week in three different parts: position players, starting rotation, and bullpen. The purpose of these articles is not to look forward and project future performance. Instead, it is simply meant to evaluate the key components of the ’12 Brewers.
Let’s look back and shine some light on the Brewers’ position players.
Perhaps the brightest spot on the diamond for the Brewers lies behind the plate. Jonathan Lucroy had shown flashes of the promise with the bat that he possessed in the minor leagues, but he appears to have blossomed into an All-Star caliber backstop in just his third season in the majors. Only a freak injury to his hand kept him from being a top five catcher in all of baseball this year, as his .377 wOBA ranked second to only MVP-candidate Buster Posey. The Brewers can champion the five-year, $11M option he signed at the end of March as one of the most team-friendly deals in the league.
If you have followed my thoughts over the past two years, you readily know my feelings about Martin Maldonado. I have long believed that his skills profile as the prototypical backup catcher. His plus-defense, legitimate pull power, and questionable approach at the plate all speak to that point. He played his way into a starting role when Lucroy was on the disabled list, though, compiling a .739 OPS between June and July.
The organization displayed their whole-hearted support of Maldonado when they traded George Kottaras to Oakland prior to the July 31 deadline. Kottaras provided some heroics early in the year, including a dramatic walkoff against the Dodgers, but his inability to make consistent enough contact with the baseball (along with his below-average defense) eventually made him the odd man out. Milwaukee moved forward with Lucroy and Maldonado, while Kottaras was sent to Oakland for hard-throwing reliever Fautino De Los Santos.
Milwaukee also acquired Yorvit Torrealba late in the season, though he went hitless in six plate appearances and was ultimately an exceedingly trivial part of the Brewers’ season story.
It’s somewhat difficult to understate just how much Corey Hart stabilized the Brewers’ first base situation when he transitioned to the corner infield over the summer because the organization was beginning to throw everything at the wall and simply hoped something would stick. After Mat Gamel went down with a torn ACL, Milwaukee trotted out lineups with Travis Ishikawa, Taylor Green, and Brooks Conrad at first base — and only Ishikawa was able to compile an on-base percentage above .300.
Before Gamel’s injury, however, the Brewers still lacked production at first base. Gamel has displayed an ability to hit in Triple-A over the past few years, but it has never translated to success at the major league level. Part of that is due to a lack of regular at bats. This year, though, he received the everyday duties at first base and was only able to hit .246/.293/.348 prior to injuring his knee. The biggest surprise was the utter lack of power Gamel was showing at the plate, as he only managed a .101 ISO in 75 plate appearances.
Hart turned the position around for the Brewers. In 416 plate appearances, he hit .275/.339/.492 with 21 doubles, two triples, and 19 home runs. His .359 wOBA on the season ranked fourth in the National League. He settled into the fifth spot in the batting order and became one of the anchors of the entire batting order. Defensively, the 30-year-old showed some range and solid instincts at first base. He was ultimately an average defender at first base — though that’s all the Brewers needed him to be to allow his bat to play.
Overall, the Brewers experienced very mediocre production from the first base position. Teams like the Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics, Baltimore Orioles, and Arizona Diamondbacks compiled higher team wOBAs. Still, Corey Hart helped push the Brewers to the sixth-best wOBA in the National League from first basemen, which is leaps and bounds better than most would have predicted after the first couple months of this season.
Rickie Weeks’ first-half struggles have been well-documented. Credit the organization for sticking with the 30-year-old second baseman, as his talent level and history of production suggested that he wouldn’t continue his utterly putrid performance throughout the entire year, and he didn’t. Weeks turned around his season and ultimately hit .230/.328/.400 with 29 doubles, four triples, and 21 home runs. After June 1, though, he hit .260/.344/.445 and was much more like the Rickie Weeks we all remember.
The issue was his ability to make solid contact with the baseball. His timing and mechanics were off, and his pitch recognition also became spotty. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the two points is to simply compare his heat maps.
Prior to June 1:
After June 1:
Much better plate coverage after June 1, which is why he started to perform like the Rickie Weeks that Brewers’ fans have grown accustomed to over the past few years. The crazy thing is that despite his early season struggles, he still posted a league-average season at the plate, which is evidenced by his 101 wRC+.
Don’t allow Weeks’ terrible first two-and-a-half months cloud your opinion of him over the entire season. You’ll miss one of the most underreported turnarounds in the league.
Throughout the month of April, it appeared the shortstop position would be in very capable hands with the veteran Alex Gonzalez patrolling the left side of the infield. His .259/.326/.457 slash line through his first 24 games paired nicely with a slick glove (though an admittedly limited range), but that was cut down when he tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the season.
That left the organization with Cesar Izturis, Edwin Maysonet, Cody Ransom, and Jeff Bianchi to pick up the slack. None of them were able to post a wRC+ higher than 78 — which means the Brewers’ best option at shortstop was still 22% worse than the league average at the plate. And, unfortunately, than 78 wRC+ belonged to Edwin Maysonet, who played in Triple-A for the vast majority of the season.
Quite simply, shortstop was a wasteland for the Brewers this season. Izturis and Ransom handled shortstop adequately with the glove, but their ineptitude at the plate could not make up the difference. That left the organization looking outside their own walls for a replacement, which they found in the Zack Greinke trade.
22-year-old Jean Segura was the prize of the Greinke trade, and the Brewers surprisingly promoted him to the big leagues despite no more than eight games of experience above Double-A. He did not produce much better at the plate, hitting .250/.297/.350 with a 78 wRC+. The difference, however, is that the physical skills are present to a quality big league hitter. Perhaps the most promising aspect of his approach at the plate — which is largely overaggressive and lacking pitch recognition — is his ability to use the entire field, as seen in this hit chart:
He ultimately improved his performance in September, hitting .309/.378/.407 and giving the Brewers hope that shortstop could be locked down for the next half decade.
The Aramis Ramirez contract was panned by some for its length and the fact that its extremely backloaded — all of that criticism had legitimate standing before the season, too — but Ramirez essentially made the entire three-year deal worth the investment in his first year.
He compiled the highest wOBA (.384) in the entire National League and threatened Brewers’ franchise records for the most doubles in a single season, as well as the most extra-base hits in a single season. If one uses FanGraphs’ monetary valuation models, his +6.5 WAR season was worth $29.1M on the open market, which is the vast majority of his three-year, $36M contract.
Defensively, Ramirez was surprisingly solid at third base. His range will always limit his value with the glove, but he has a strong arm, did not make mistakes, and proved unexpectedly adept at charging the baseball on bunts and swinging bunts up the third base line. Championing him for a Gold Glove may be a little overzealous with David Wright in the National League, but that does not diminish the fact that Ramirez surprised with the glove.
Cody Ransom, Taylor Green, and Jeff Bianchi also saw time at third base. The overall impact, however, was negligible because neither received much playing time nor did much with the bat when they did receive that playing time. None of those three ended the season with a batting average north of the Mendoza Line.
It’s not very often a defending MVP improves upon his previous year’s performance, but Ryan Braun came damn close. He launched a career-high 41 home runs in 2012 and also compiled the highest WAR of his career at +7.9 thanks to improved defense in left field. The 28-year-old will be a contender for the National League MVP this season once again and would stand a very good chance of winning the award if it weren’t for his unfortunate PED battle over the offseason.
Braun is a complete hitter at the plate. He utilizes the entire field, possesses plus game power to all fields, and possesses incredible plate coverage. Just take a look at his strike zone chart from this season:
Where do you pitch him? Nowhere in the strike zone, if you can help it, I guess.
Note: Braun is putting up historic numbers. Of all players in baseball history through their age 28 season (min. 500 PA), Braun has the 36th-best wRC+. That’s better than Reggie Jackson when he was 28, better than Manny Ramirez, Honus Wagner, Rickey Henderson, and Ken Griffey Jr.
It’s often said with trepidation that Braun is currently on a Hall of Fame trajectory, if injuries or unexpected declines don’t get in his way, but there’s no need to be shy about the fact. Ryan Braun is a tremendous hitter who is placing his name amongst some of the all-time greats.
Though the year started with a platoon between Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan, one of the main stories of the season was the development of Gomez in the second half of the season. Reports of mechanical adjustments surfaced around the All-Star Break, and the Dominican Republic native surprised many with a .278/.321/.488 second half, including 14 home runs and his usual plus-defense in center. He took over the everyday role in center field both due to his improved play and the ineffectiveness of Morgan.
Note: To read more about Nyjer Morgan, I highly recommend Jack Moore’s piece from last week.
Though it’s been mentioned on this website many times this season, it bears repeating one more time. Carlos Gomez is only 26 years old and on the cusp of his prime years. The second half of the 2012 season could be a mirage, or it could be legitimate development that would be well within the realms of a normal career arc of a player who was brought up to the big leagues too early.
Logan Schafer also saw some playing time in September and showed why he will almost certainly be the fourth outfielder for the Brewers next season. He hit .304/.320/.522 in a very small sample, but he plays an above-average center field. He’s also left-handed, which allowed Ron Roenicke to sit Gomez down the stretch when the matchup presented itself.
When the Brewers signed Norichika Aoki this winter, they didn’t expect him to be anything more than a reserve outfielder who could handle all three outfield positions and put together quality at-bats off the bench, and that’s the role he occupied early in the year when Corey Hart largely patrolled right field. Hart certainly has the bat to play right field, but his mobility in the outfield has degraded to the point that he has become below-average in the outfield — especially going back on the baseball.
It was partially that defensive shortcoming that moved Hart to first base, but the organization also felt comfortable moving him to a different position because Aoki had proven himself capable of an everyday role in right field. He ended the season with an impressive .288/.355/.433 with double-digit home runs. Overall, Aoki was a three-win player with a $1M salary.
The development of Aoki throughout the season was intriguing. He began the season slapping the baseball to left field with almost no power. Teams started cheating their left fielder in toward the foul line in April and May because Aoki seemingly seemed content to shoot the baseball the opposite way for a single. Once that became his modus operandi, however, opposing pitchers started to pitch him inside. Aoki then responded by pulling the baseball and showing surprising power to right field.
This approach culminated in a September, in which he tied a Brewers’ record for most extra-base hits (18) in the month of September. He hit .295/.362/.536 in September and made a late push for some recognition in the NL Rookie of the Year race. It proved to be a memorable year for a player who didn’t come to the United States for the money, but to prove that he could produce against the best talent in the world — and he didn’t disappoint.
The Milwaukee Brewers had some holes in their batting order from time to time — especially early in the season — but they ultimately righted the ship and scored more runs (776) than any other team in the National League. Their team .331 wOBA was tops in the National League and fourth in all of baseball, behind the Yankees, Rangers, and Angels. They stole more bases (158) than anyone in baseball. They also hit the most home runs (202) in the National League and had the second-most WAR from their position players in all of baseball, behind only the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Needless to say, the Brewers’ offense was better than anyone could have expected, and it carried them into an improbable postseason hunt this past September. They weathered the loss of Prince Fielder, overcame the significant injuries Alex Gonzalez and Mat Gamel, and even compiled ridiculous numbers despite horrid starts by Rickie Weeks and Aramis Ramirez. No one could have predicted that the Brewers would be as good at the plate as they have been this season.
The Brewers may have not made the playoffs this season, but the culprit was not the bats. Their ability to score runs gave them a legitimate chance at the postseason after being left for dead in July and August and was also one of the reasons why the bullpen had so many leads to blow throughout the first three-quarters of the season, anyway.
So, as we say goodbye to the 2012 season in Milwaukee, let us say goodbye to the best overall offensive team in the National League.