As I mentioned in today’s Power Rankings comment on ESPN.com, center field was supposed to be a position of weakness for Milwaukee entering the season. Instead, defensive wizardry from Carlos Gomez and the remarkable beginning to Nyjer Morgan’s Brewers career has turned that weakness into a strength. Now, with Morgan healthy, the Brewers appear poised to implement one of the most productive, flexible platoons in recent franchise history.
Ron Roenicke recently said, in reference to Gomez, “The defense makes it hard to get Gomez out of the lineup.” That’s certainly true when the next best option is Mark Kotsay. The presence of Morgan, with his great speed and solid glove, significantly lessens that blow, and will allow the Brewers to maximize the production from their high-energy center fielders.
Gomez is pretty clearly a bad MLB hitter. His career on-base percentage sits at .292, and this year it has fallen all the way to .280 (consistent with the offensive drop-off from the rest of the league). For his career, he hasn’t been markedly better against lefties — a slightly lower OBP and a slightly higher SLG, leading to a .289 wOBA against lefties vs. a .283 wOBA against righties. However, given Gomez’s inability to win a job at the Major League level, we’re talking about a small sample: only 506 plate appearances against southpaws for his career.
There is reason to believe that, going forward, Gomez would exhibit typical platoon splits and hit lefties significantly better than his career marks. He has hit lefties for more power and struck out far less often. The only reason his career line against them is so poor is a .287 BABIP, 43 points lower than his BABIP against righties. With less than a full season’s worth of plate appearances under his belt, it is far more likely that this is random variation rather than some inherent part of Gomez’s game or swing. We shouldn’t expect Gomez to keep up this year’s torrid line against southpaws (.341 OBP, .452 SLG), but there’s a good reason to expect competence. Most likely, Gomez’s line against righties will sit around .260/.310/.390 — still poor, but for a player with such good defense, it’s acceptable.
With Morgan, it’s a little more clear. Again, with platoon samples, it’s a little dangerous to make sweeping judgments, but Morgan’s splits are pretty cut-and-dried: .199/.291/.273 against lefties and .311/.363/.393 against righties. Morgan’s slap-hitting swing will likely keep a similar, although dampened, split going forward, making him essentially the perfect left-handed side of a platoon. L
Put it all together, and you have a centerfield platoon that can give you a batting line only slightly below the league average along with impeccable defense. The team currently has a .299 OBP and a .379 SLG out of its center fielders. With the platoon in place, it’s not hard to imagine that OBP rising to .310 or even .320, even though the power numbers remain low. Overall, this hypothetical .255/.315/.390 line is insignificantly lower than the line of the average hitter. Throw in the defense — conservatively, this platoon should be roughly 10 runs better than the average center fielder — and we have a platoon that should be worth about three wins above replacement to close out the season. Not bad for a position from which people didn’t expect much from.
Also, this platoon gives Roenicke a great deal of freedom in the later innings. Gomez and Morgan are both fine choices to pinch run or pinch hit against opposite-handed relievers, and either could be used as a defensive replacement for Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, or, if he’s out there for some reason, Mark Kotsay. And, of course, the depth will allow the team to replace any short-term injury much easier.
Doug Melvin’s acquisition of Nyjer Morgan is just one in a long list of under-the-radar, low-risk moves. You can see them featured everywhere on the diamond, from the infield (Casey McGehee, waiver claim) to the rotation (Chris Narveson, MiLB free agent) to the bullpen (John Axford, MiLB free agent) and now the outfield. Between Morgan and Gomez, don’t be surprised if the Brewers continue to run out one of the National League’s best center fields from here on out.