It’s easy to find the problem with the 4-6 Milwaukee Brewers. The team has allowed a National League worst 50 runs, and although some of that can be attributed to playing the Cardinals for three games — St. Louis has scored a league-high 47 runs, including 20 against the Brewers — Milwaukee’s run prevention has been unacceptable for a supposed contending squad.
I use the term “run prevention” instead of “pitching” or “defense” because the two are both separable and separately significant. The Tampa Bay Rays are the ultimate illustration of this fact. Although they have their share of pitching talent — David Price and James Shields chief among it — they also ran out a rotation with much lesser pitchers like Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis. Every single year, Davis and Niemann have had an ERA superior to their FIP, pitching as roughly average pitchers where their underlying skills suggest otherwise. Much of this can be attributed to the Rays’ superior defense. The Rays converted 73.5% of balls in play in to outs last season per Baseball Prospectus, and the difference between them and the second-ranked Rangers was greater than the difference between the Rangers and the 16th-ranked Blue Jays.
Few would accuse this Brewers’ team of being a great defensive squad, but there was (and is) reason to believe it will be superior to last season’s. Alex Gonzalez should outplay Yuniesky Betancourt even if age does begin to set in and players like Mark Kotsay and Erick Almonte will see less time in the outfield. Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan dealt with injuries last season and their speed can greatly impact the game in the outfield. The Brewers did bring in liabilities in Aramis Ramirez and Mat Gamel, but it is difficult to see them as much worse than Casey McGehee (now a first baseman in Pittsburgh) or Prince Fielder (somehow still a first baseman in the American League).
And as much as the Brewers pitchers’ have struggled on events we know they control — a 4.12 FIP ranks third-to-last in the National League — the team has been slaughtered on the more nebulous balls in play. The Brewers have allowed a .342 batting average and a .428 slugging percentage on balls in play, each total ranking second-to-last in the NL to the Braves*. This is what has resulted in the Brewers’ 5.65 ERA, easily the National League’s worst, just under a full run higher than the Rockies.
*Entering Sunday’s game
Unfortunately, the task of assigning responsibility to this point is a difficult one — if not impossible. Pitches have missed their spots. Defenders have booted balls. Some luck is involved as well — Zack Greinke’s start against the Cubs, for example, was plagued by broken bat bloops and shift-beating dribblers.
Personally, I do not yet doubt the talent on this team’s pitching staff. This same exact squad was able to miss bats for much of the season and posted a 3.64 ERA (with similar peripherals) even after struggling through April. The defense, however, was a question for much of last season and will remain one this season. There simply are not many players who have earned the reputation (nor do the numbers see) as plus defenders.
The Brewers begin a series Tuesday against the Dodgers, a team which has excelled early on but does not have an offense (outside of Matt Kemp) who would strike the fear into the hearts of opponents. With the friendly walls of Miller Park surrounding them, at least both sides of the run prevention squad will enjoy a favorable situation in which to get back on track.