2014 Brewers Position Preview: Left Field | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Starter: Khris Davis
Backup: Logan Schafer
AAA depth: Caleb Gindl, Kentrail Davis
The Future: Victor Roache

If Ryan Braun’s suspension brought anything positive to the Brewers last season, it was an extended look at their young outfielders. Khris Davis, Logan Schafer, and Caleb Gindl were all given more than 150 PA and a shot to prove themselves at the major league level. Khris Davis emerged from the group and inspired enough confidence in Doug Melvin to trade Norichika Aoki, shuffle Ryan Braun to right, and let Davis and his thunder stick roam left. Question marks still remain, however, making left field one of the most intriguing areas for the Crew going into the 2014 season.

In 2013, Khris Davis bashed his way into the consciousness of Brewers fans during spring training. His power impressed the coaches enough to earn him a spot on the opening day roster. It was a move that surprised some because of Davis’ lack of defensive versatility. With Ryan Braun still around, Davis struggled coming off the bench. In 17 ABs, he managed only three hits against eight strikeouts. In May, Davis was sent to Nashville to receive regular playing time and stayed until late July, when, suddenly, regular playing time became available at the big league level.

Davis hit .294 AVG / 1.004 OPS with 11 HR during the second half. That level of power translated to 12.4 AB/HR – an elite rate on par with Miguel Cabrera (12.6 AB/HR). Davis’ .316 ISO was second only to Baltimore’s Chris Davis and, amongst players with at least 100 PA, they were the only two whose ISO surpassed .300. Though he has a long swing and aggressive approach at the plate, Davis has decent plate discipline. His walk rate (7.2%) was just below league average and his strikeout rate (22.2%) only two points above. So, with numbers like that, why are there questions about him this season?

The first two reasons would be perception and the infamous “small sample size”. Davis was never considered a top-tier prospect, even after tearing the cover off the ball through three minor league stops in 2012 by posting a .350 AVG / 1.055 OPS. Apparently, the Brewers valued Davis, and his power potential, more than others. Second, Davis can be streaky. Some believe he’ll struggle to repeat the numbers from last season’s second half. Davis’ monthly split for September and October hint at possible regression.

The topic of regression brings me to point three: Davis’ production over the last month of the season — .237 AVG / .852 OPS with a 27.9 K%. The power still played, but a full season with an AVG and K% in that range would deflate Davis’ OPS. Davis experienced a similar late season slide in 2011, while still in the minors, only to come back with a vengeance the following season — another a hint at Davis being streaky. Let’s hope that fatigue and exhaustion were more to blame and not that opposing pitchers found an exploitable hole in his swing. Which brings me to the fourth, and most important, point — the success of Davis’ 2014 campaign could hinge on how he handles sliders.

According to Brooks Baseball, here’s how Davis handled various pitches last year –

4-seam 212 .290 .632 .342 .348
Sinker 152 .333 .641 .308 .313
Slider 113 .111 .222 .111 .125
Change 55 .214 .714 .500 .100
Curve 58 .333 .800 .467 .333
Cutter 55 .444 .778 .333 .429

It’s pretty easy to see what pitch Davis will get a steady diet of in 2014.

This issue also plays into Davis’ interesting RHP/LHP splits. He hits RHP for a better average but LHP for more power –

RHP .297 .549 .253 .328 19.4
LHP .244 .689 .444 .200 28.0

The unusual split can be explained this way – Davis only struggled with sliders from RHP (.118 AVG / .118 SLG / .000 ISO / .182 BABIP) but had problems with 4-seam fastballs, sliders, and cutters from LHP.

To illustrate, here’s how Davis handled the different pitch types only from LHP –

4-seam 75 .167 .417 .250 .167
Sinker 44 .333 .917 .583 .286
Change 33 .300 1.000 .700 .167
Slider 27 .100 .400 .300 .000
Curve 14 .333 .333 .000 .500
Cutter 16 .000 .000 .000 .000

If this trend persists, even though he’s a right-handed hitter, it might be better to bench Davis against certain types of LHP (Clayton Kershaw, Tony Cingrani, Chris Sale, etc).

Finally, Davis’ fielding leaves much to be desired. Last year, he mustered a -3.1 UZR in only 265 innings. That is why he will play left, and only left, and why Logan Schafer has the inside track to being the Brewers’ fourth outfielder.

Logan Schafer raked up a 3.6 UZR in 663 innings last year. His defensive prowess makes him a plug-and-play option at any of the three outfield positions, and a likely late inning defensive replacement for Davis. Last season, Schafer struggled at the plate – hitting .211 AVG / .601 OPS for a 65 wRC+. Reportedly, Schafer packed on 20 pounds of muscle to combat the season’s wear and tear. With any luck, the extra muscle will keep his legs under him all season. His speed, both in the field and on the base paths, is probably his most valuable asset.

Caleb Gindl will, most likely, be the odd man out to start the season. Last season, his bat played better at the big league level than Schafer’s. Gindl hit .242 AVG / .779 OPS for a 115 wRC+. Gindl also exhibited strong plate discipline by drawing walks at a rate of 12.9% (5% more than league average) and striking out in only 16.1% of the time (almost 4% below league average). But, like Davis, Gindl is a below average fielder who should only play the corner outfield positions. While Gindl may not make the opening day roster, he should spend some quality time with the big league club this season.

Left field will always be the last refuge of the offensively gifted yet defensively challenged. A few of the Brewers’ offensive prospects may be eased into the majors by punching the clock in left, but one sticks out as a prototypical left fielder – Victor Roache. A first round pick in 2012, Roache’s raw power is undeniable and could produce 30-40 HR a year. Two concerns about him are his ability to stay healthy, after fracturing his wrist in 2012, and his tendency to swing and miss. In the end, Roache’s power ceiling is too high to be ignored but his defense will probably limit him to left.

Best Case Scenario:

Khris Davis and his thunder stick make Miller Park their best friend. He mashes 30-plus taters, a ton of RBIs, and keeps his average around .280. Logan Schafer is used as a late inning replacement to tighten up the outfield defense.

Worst Case Scenario:

The book on how to pitch Khris Davis goes on blast and is effective. His K% rises into the mid-20s and he starts swinging like a right-handed Juan Francisco. With Davis struggling, left field becomes a revolving door of players providing minimal offensive value from a prime offensive position.

Most Likely Scenario:

Davis hits 20 bombs and maintains a decent but pedestrian average. Logan Schafer plays solid defense when called upon and improves his offense. Together they combine for a WAR slightly higher than the 1.7 that Norichika Aoki posted last year, making the Brewers’ outfield better overall.

Davis PECOTA projection: .255/.337/.465
Davis ZiPS projection: .249/.330/.450

Schafer PECOTA projection: .247/.297/.374
Schafer ZiPS projection: .243/.300/.358


Last week on Disciples of Uecker:

3/10: Ryan previewed the catcher position

3/11: Curt previewed first base

3/12: Jonathan previewed second base

3/13: Steve previewed third base

3/14: Vineet previewed short stop

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