There’s always more to a baseball game than two plays, but there is also no denying the importance of two specific plays in Monday night’s Brewers victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. First, in a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the fifth, Nyjer Morgan capped off the biggest inning of the Brewers second half to date with a three-RBI double to center field. Then, thanks to a questionable (read: blown) call at first base, the Brewers turned an inning ending double play in the following inning to escape a bases-loaded jam.
In sum, these two plays contributed +31.4% in terms of win probability for Milwaukee. And regardless of your point of view, defense clearly played a huge role in both.
To be sure, there is a level of snark hurled squarely in the direction of Tony La Russa when we ask “Would Colby Rasmus have cut off (or even caught) Nyjer Morgan’s double?” But it is of La Russa’s own actions we have come to this point. Rasmus is considered one of the better outfield defenders in the game — and I tend to buy league-wide opinions and scouting reports over 100 games of UZR data. Jay has plus speed, a favorable reputation by his own right, and gets generally good reviews from those who watch the Cardinals, but…
But watching this play live, and then watching it over and over again, it’s hard for me to find something good to say about Jay’s defense. The crazy amount of spin Nyjer Morgan’s inside-out swing puts on the ball makes it look at catchable at first and then drift towards no-man’s land in left-center, but Jay never looked like he had a chance at catching the ball. Once the ball dropped Jay made an immensely unathletic pickup and throw to the infield, allowing Corey Hart, a man who can almost remember what speed is, to score all the way from first base.
Of course, the Brewers are no strangers to poor defense. This is a team employing Prince Fielder, Casey McGehee, Corey Hart, and, most infamously, Yuniesky Betancourt. So, naturally, Betancourt would be involved in the biggest (and, again naturally, the most controversial) defensive play of the night. Although it was Felipe Lopez who actually fielded the broken bat grounder off the stick of Skip Schumaker, first base umpire Rob Drake isn’t even given the opportunity to blow the call at first base if Yuniesky Betancourt doesn’t release the ball as quickly and as sharply as possible.
Betancourt took full advantage of the neighborhood rule in retiring David Freese at third, and a strong throw at least made the play close enough for Drake to reward the Brewers with an out call. It’s not completely obvious from the live feed or the replay on MLB.com, but a slow-mo replay on the FSWisconsin broadcast clearly showed Schumaker touching first before the ball hit Prince Fielder’s glove. Still, some amount of credit goes to Felipe Lopez and (mostly) Betancourt for getting the ball in and out quickly.
There can be healthy debate on which team is more talented overall; there can be none on which is superior defensively. Surely Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman didn’t make themselves look great tonight, but the Brewers have major issues defensively that simply don’t exist for St. Louis. According to Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, the Cardinals make plays on just under 2% more balls in play than the Brewers. That doesn’t sound like much, but considering that each team has played 100 games, with many going to 40 or 50 at-bats, we’re talking about a very large sample. The difference comes out to 48 plays made in the Cardinals’ favor, or about one extra play made every two games.
Things were different on Monday night, as the Brewers hit the Cardinals in what just might be their trouble spot in the outfield, and Milwaukee’s own trouble spot up the middle came up big when it counted. Let’s just hope the Brewers don’t count on a repeat showing over the next two days, because they’re not likely to be quite so fortunate again.