2013 Preview: Milwaukee Brewers Situational Baseball | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

According to The Bill James Handbook, the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers scored 168 manufactured runs, and they allowed 151 manufactured runs from their opponents. This was one of the better figures in the National League, although their differential was not as strong as 2011; during their division championship season, the Brewers once again scored 168 manufactured runs, this time allowing only 138 (only the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds allowed fewer manufactured runs from their opponents). This isn’t necessarily an important commentary on the Brewers’ inability to compete in 2012 (after all, those bullpen meltdowns that featured solo home runs hardly contributed to the increase in manufactured runs allowed). It is a trait; it is a constellation of certain elements of the ballgame, and Ron Roenicke‘s Brewers generally manipulated these elements to their advantage during his first two seasons.

Since I just finished my best-case scenario projections of the Brewers’ NL Central competition, it’s time to work on the Brewers’ best-case scenario for 2013. And yet, I feel like I’ve already been pretty high on this ballclub all winter. One of the reasons, of course, is that for all the question marks and inexperience in the starting rotation, and all the question marks about the rebuilt bullpen and closer John Axford, the Brewers have an offense that can shred opposing pitching. Not only can the Brewers slug the ball around the ballpark, but they have speed fit for the bases, and a manager that uses aggressive strategies to deploy his bats (even his propensity to bunt is a weapon, here). Beyond the Brewers’ respective ceilings for power and speed, we can gauge the success of the offense by analyzing their situational traits: how can the Brewers maximize their ability to score runs?

From Run Differentials to Dsirtibution
Baserunning is a strange element to baseball. Taken on its own, comparing individual players, one might not prefer a particular player simply because he does things well on the basepaths. One probably would place baserunning behind plate discipline, power, contact, fielding, etc., when analyzing individual players, because there are offensive and defensive elements that can impact the game more consistently than baserunning. On a team level, things change completely, it seems; this isn’t to say that a team’s baserunning approach is its most important element, but rather, that teams have the ability to build a systematic approach to baserunning throughout their batting order. Here we might consider baserunning to be one of the contextual, situational elements of the game that help offenses distribute their runs. This is important to preview because teams can produce winning seasons simply because of their run differential (that is, overall Runs Scored / Runs Allowed), but they can also win more games than expected (or lose more games than expected) due to their run distribution. When we’re projecting the 2013 Brewers’ performance, we use their run differential to build a general picture of the club (i.e., will they score more runs than they allow?), and then we can look at the different elements that allow the Brewers to distribute their runs. No matter how much we might protest that Team A isn’t as good as Team B in terms of their differential, if Team A makes the playoffs instead of Team B because they systematically run the bases better, have a better bullpen, or play better situational baseball, no one is going to take that playoff appearance away from Team A.

Distributing runs, then, is an attribute of context and situations. While a club’s general ability to score more runs than they allow give us an abstract idea of how good they should be, we can use their concrete performances in certain contexts, as well as their general distribution of their runs scored (and allowed) to determine their ability to win games.

Baserunning Shifts
Situational baseball, in general, is a tricky idea because all a baseball player is is his mechanics and characteristics. A batter approaches the game for specific outcomes — since most batters don’t hit for contact, hit with discipline, and hit with power (well, hello there, Ryan Braun), most batters exercise traits and mechanics that allow them to capitalize on a few elements. Here we can survey a whole bunch of league average (or below average?) players, noting that some players sacrifice some discipline to gain power, some batters place an extreme focus on discipline instead of contact, while others still focus on contact, throwing power and discipline to the dogs. No matter how much we idealize the idea of a player changing his approach, or doing specific things for the situation, the reality is that the vast majority of the time, ballplayers are approaching the game with their skills, mechanics, and characteristics, and those elements of their game allow them to succeed or continue playing in the big leagues. In this regard, situational baseball is more of an accumulation of players’ characteristics and traits than it is an exercise of players changing their traits for specific situations.

This is one strength of the Milwaukee Brewers roster. With Roenicke at the helm, the team is notably more aggressive with the bunt and baserunning than Ken Macha (or even some of the Ned Yost clubs), and yet, the club still slams the ball out of the ballpark on a frequent basis, doesn’t do a terrible job walking, etc. Doug Melvin equipped his manager with a more characteristic ballclub for his manager in 2011, especially given the surprise break-out of Norichika Aoki (and, maybe even Carlos Gomez). Not surprisingly, the 2012 Brewers were a stronger baserunning club than the 2011 version, both in terms of running the basepaths on hits and other plays, and stealing.

2012 NL:
Outs at 1st: 9
Outs at 2nd: 13
Outs at 3rd: 12
Outs at home: 19
Pick-Offs: 22 (9 CS)
Bases Taken: 134

1st to 3rd: 81 / 282 (.287)
1st to Home: 36 / 81 (.444)
2nd to Home: 100 / 170 (.588)

SBO, SBA: 2207, 148 (.067)
SB2: 91 / 125 (.728)
SB3: 17/21 (.810)
SBH: 1/3 (.333)

2012 Brewers:
Outs at 1st: 8
Outs at 2nd: 15
Outs at 3rd: 14
Outs at Home: 23
Pick-Offs: 29 (13 CS)
Bases Taken: 129

1st to Third: 56 / 245 (.229)
1st to Home: 36 / 83 (.434)
2nd to Home: 98 / 177 (.554)

SBO, SBA: 2222, 197 (.089)
SB2: 134 / 166 (.807)
SB3: 24 / 29 (.828)
SBH: 0 / 2 (.000)

2011 NL:
Outs at 1st: 9
Outs at 2nd: 15
Outs at 3rd: 15
Outs at Home: 20
Pick-Offs: 20 (9 CS)
Bases Taken: 135

1st to 3rd: 86 / 296 (.291)
1st to Home: 34 / 79 (.430)
2nd to Home: 104 / 176 (.590)

SBO, SBA: 2250, 145 (.064)
SB2: 92 / 127 (.724)
SB3: 13 / 17 (.765)
SBH: 1 / 2 (.500)

2011 Brewers
Outs at 1st: 9
Outs at 2nd: 17
Outs at 3rd: 21
Outs at Home: 27
Pick-Offs: 17 (8 CS)
Bases Taken: 146

1st to Third: 73 / 272 (.268)
1st to Home: 34 / 77 (.442)
2nd to Home: 109 / 182 (.599)

SBO, SBA: 2254, 125 (.055)
SB2: 83 / 105 (.790)
SB3: 12 / 17 (.706)
SBH: 0 / 3 (.000)
Note: The counting versions of some of these situations and stats are different in The Bill James Handbook, but the basic idea remains the same: the 2012 Brewers were approximately 14 bases better when advancing on various plays, and they were nearly 50 bases better when stealing.

I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to say this, all week it’s been on my mind, so I’ll just ask it as a question first, to explain my thinking: are the Brewers so good at attempting to steal bases that their steals have a detrimental effect on their other baserunning opportunities? This is something I noticed with certain players on the roster, such as stolen-base wizard Gomez. The Brewers attempted steals much more frequently in 2012 than in 2011, which leads me to wonder if that leaves their least capable baserunners in the position to actual go from 1st to 3rd. When you go through the Brewers’ batting order and separate the stealers from the non-stealers, you end up with a clear profile of strong baserunners versus less-strong baserunners. I think we can see this through two other questions:

(a) Did the Brewers’ attempted steals of 2nd base limit the opportunities to run from 1st to 3rd on singles?
(b) Did the Brewers’ attempted steals of 3rd base limit the opportunities to run from 2nd to home on singles?

Obviously, the answer to both of these questions is “no,” in some way, shape, or form. We cannot simply go back and construct ballgames to say, “if Carlos Gomez didn’t steal that base, Jonathan Lucroy would have hit a single to advance him to 3rd.” Baseball simply doesn’t work that way; Roenicke can’t simply call the “hit a single to advance a runner from 1st to 3rd” play. However, I believe the answer to these questions can be “yes,” insofar as the balance and flow of the entire batting order is concerned. Basically, the idea is, by attempting more steals, the baserunners remaining on 1st and 2nd base when singles are hit are not as strong as those stealing bases.

In 2012, Brewers fans made a lot of noise about whether Rickie Weeks‘ ankle injury affected his batting approach and ability to swing. One element of the game his ankle might have influenced was his baserunning. Ironically, Weeks made fewer outs on the basepaths in 2012, but he also advanced less frequently; this made a positive impact on the bases in terms of outs, but also resulted in fewer first-to-third and second-to-home plays. Weeks was on first most frequently when a single was hit, and although his 8 advances in 30 tries was not necessarily bad, it was not as strong as some of his previous performances. After Weeks, Ryan Braun was the next Brewers bat on first for a single, which should make sense given the percentage of time Braun spends on base. Then, we have Aramis Ramirez Ramirez is the opposite of Weeks; not only does he not make a lot of outs on the bases, but he doesn’t advance frequently, either. When Weeks, Braun, and Ramirez were on first base, the Brewers gained 20 extra bases taken; however, they had 82 opportunities as a trio.

As for a player such as Gomez, and his outfielder colleague Aoki, one wonders whether it is more beneficial for those players to remain on first for a potential single. Gomez attempted 36 steals of second (with quite a strong success rate), but he was only on first for a single 10 times. Aoki, interestingly enough, was quite a solid base stealer, without a strong performance in other areas on the bases. He attempted 27 steals on second, and was on 1st for a single 21 times; he only advanced to 3rd on five of those singles. So, long story short, perhaps we should not assume that (1) a player that is a good baserunner in one regard will be a good baserunner in another area, and (2) a player that steals successfully at a high rate will be more valuable advancing on base hits. After all, if Gomez didn’t attempt to steal second so frequently, he might have been on 1st for a few more singles; but, if he was not so good at stealing second, would he have been on 2nd base for a single 20 times?

Context, Context, Context
After fielding, baserunning is one of the developing areas of analysis. As Bill James notes,

We haven’t yet measured everything involved in baserunning. If one runner moves second-to-third on an infield out while another runner stays at second on a similar play, our system does not capture that. If one runner makes a groundout a 4-3 advance, while another runner makes the same play a 4-6 forceout, our system does not pick up that difference. We’re still not capturing everything. But we’re working on the problem like busy little beavers, and we’re making some progress (James, 2012: p. 318).

Much like fielding analysis has deepened the analytical community’s ties to the scouting community and observations of baseball, baserunning will benefit from a similar relationship between analysis and observation. The benefit of baserunning, on a team basis, is that a group of batters can systematically approach the basepaths in a way that maximizes their potential to score runs. In this relationship, an offense moves slightly beyond their basic discipline, contact, and power abilities and approaches. It is precisely this relationship that gives the 2013 Brewers one advantage over their divisional foes: it is not simply that the Brewers have a powerful, run-scoring offense, but it is how they have such an offense. Between the contact and power of Braun and Ramirez, the contact and patience of Aoki, the discipline and patience of Weeks, and the general power/speed ceiling of the ballclub, there is a group of batters that can influence the game in a variety of contexts. There is a manager that can tie it together by unleashing his players in an aggressive way. As much as Brewers fans might curse their club’s ability to play situational ball when they fail to hit behind the runner, or something like that, Brewers fans should revel in the fact that they have a multifaceted offense that can get itself into a lot of situations. By getting themselves into situations, the Brewers can find more ways to play situational baseball, and, score a boatload of runs.

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
James, Bill. The Bill James Handbook. Chicago: Acta; 2011 and 2012 seasons consulted (copyright 2011 and 2012, respectively).

IMAGE: http://www.frontdoor.com/city-guide/milwaukee-wi-usa/local-life-and-lore-in-milwaukee

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