Ever since the Zack Greinke acquisition and the swap of spectacular glove-man Alcides Escobar for the statue known as Yuniesky Betancourt, the Brewers defense was defined as the one obstacle to success in 2011. Jonah Keri of FanGraphs even went as far as titling a post “Brewers Defense: Roadblock to a World Series.” And it was hard to find counter arguments — by many measures, the Brewers defense was one of the worst in the league last year, and one of its only good defenders in Escobar was about to be replaced by one seen as the worst defender at his position by many around baseball.
Naturally, then, it will come as no surprise that according to Defensive Efficiency Rating — the percentage of batted balls turned into outs by the defense — the Brewers are a vastly improved defensive team in 2011. After posting a .692 DER in 2010, a whopping 15 points below the MLB average, the Brewers are up to a .706 DER this season. The average DER is also up to .713 this year, but Milwaukee is no longer multiple standard deviations worse than the league. And although you can’t completely discount it, removing the 23-hit game against San Diego raises the Brewers DER all the way to .712, roughly average for all intents and purposes.
So, what’s the deal? I don’t think anybody is going to accuse anybody that’s not Carlos Gomez or Nyjer Morgan of being a talented defensive player, and outside of a couple of games only one of them is in the lineup at a time. I do, however, think there are rational explanations for this phenomenon.
— The most obvious, I think, is that the improved quality of pitching on the Brewers staff this year has resulted in lower quality contact from hitters, resulting in easier plays for the defense to make. Pitchers like Jeff Suppan, Trevor Hoffman, Claudio Vargas, and Dave Bush are out in favor of Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, and I don’t think it takes too much to imagine that having an effect on a defense as well.
— Ron Roenicke’s shifts might be working. Given the league splits on ground balls — a very high percentage of grounders are pulled — I think it makes a lot of sense to shift to the pull side more than we typically see. This could also help hide the defensive weaknesses of the infield, particularly on the left side, by putting Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee in better positions to actually field the ball. These two players have decent hands, but their range is atrocious, so proper positioning should make the defense look better than it’s talent, so to speak.
Of course, luck is a possibility as well. But I think these two explanations are enough to say that the Brewers defense could be close enough to average as to not be a complete roadblock in the team’s battle for the playoffs. If the defense can indeed help out this new, excellent pitching staff, Milwaukee will be in fantastic shape to make a run at either the NL Central crown or the Wild Card and reach the postseason for the first time since 2008.