I have this theory. Well, it’s not a theory so much as a hunch on the verge of becoming a hypothesis. If the Milwaukee Brewers win the World Series, they’ll do so with the worst defense between second and third of any champion team in recent memory.
Here’s the meat of it. Casey McGehee is really slow, or at the very least his reaction time with seemingly catchable line drives and grounders is terribly erratic. Once he actually gets a hold of the ball, he does alright, rarely throwing it away these days… but it’s that getting it thing that seems to trouble him. Anyway, he’s made quite a few errors and some of them have been at particularly sensitive moments.
Yuni is bad, as pretty much everyone knows by now. As with McGehee, he just doesn’t get to stuff that even a below average infielder routinely does. He makes the occasional spectacular play, but it’s hard to say how much this has to do with innate skill or with overcompensating for catches he should’ve made sooner and more easily. His UZR/150 has hovered around -10 since 2007. This means, more or less, that his fielding has cost teams something like 10 runs a season for the last 4 years.
My theory, then, is this: when a team has two slow, crappy defenders between second and third, it’s really hard for it to win the World Series. They might do well in the regular season, while playing a mix of great, good, and mediocre teams, but once the mediocre are taken out of the mix, subpar fielding becomes even more glaringly so. (To make sample sizes large enough, I’ve combined fielders’ TZR and UZR to get to 1000 cumulative innings. I figure if there’s a platoon, or a backup fields a significant number of innings, it has to be taken into account.)
Playoff games are often won on the margins. You break another maybe equally good team down by playing against their weaknesses.
So if you’ve got a slow but otherwise decent fielder at third and a defensive powerhouse at shortstop, my guess is that they cancel each other out. The guy with the better-than-average zone will at least occasionally get to balls that Mr. Heavyfoot can’t reach. Moreover, shortstops are given a larger, more important area to cover. Their mistakes are bigger and more costly.
The data bears this out, to some extent: only one champion team from the last six years has had a shortstop with a negative TZR or UZR (the 2007 Red Sox).
Unfortunately, two slow dudes with bad zones and average arms leave a large swath of ground unguarded. Surely, the better teams know this about their foes, and react accordingly. Left-handed hitters can swing away, and righties who can consistently pull the ball will do so. Hits that shouldn’t be hits will surely come into being, like manna from baseball heaven.
A really crappy shortstop just doesn’t bring home trophies. Great teams sniff out weaknesses and play to them. Yuni’s cost the Brewers at least ten runs over the course of the season, and something tells me he won’t have an easier time against playoff-tested NL teams. (Also, incidentally, can we agree that “The Commissioner’s Trophy” is a totally awful name for the thing you give to the best baseball team in the world? It sounds like something you give to the best high stepper at band camp. Let’s rename it after Branch Rickey or Paul Giamatti’s dad.)
And as it turns out, only four championship teams in the last ten years have fielded either a third baseman or shortstop with less than average fielding zones. Of those teams, only the 2002 Angels had a cumulatively negative UZR between SS and 3B. The 2009 Yanks had pretty bad fielding courtesy of ARod, but they obviously made up for it with scary pitching and hitting. An .839 team OPS will make up for a lot.
I really hope I’m wrong about this. Luckily, I only half understand the stuff I’m talking about here, and I’d love for someone to tell me I’m stupid and full of crap. Go for it, guys!