Welcome to Rounding the Bases, a weekly column where writers Ryan Topp and Steve Garczynski participate in a discussion on one baseball topic. This week, the two tackle the Brewers’ outfield and catchers.
When the Milwaukee Brewers started the 2012 season, their outfield consisted of reigning MVP Ryan Braun, veteran slugger Corey Hart, and a speedy platoon in centerfield with Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan. Braun did his best to replicate his 2011 numbers, but by mid season Gomez had taken the center field job full-time from an underperforming Morgan, and Norichika Aoki was forced into full-time duty when Hart moved to first base to cover for an injured Mat Gamel.
Aoki was really a pleasant surprise. His bat played in right field even though he’s not a power hitter, and he is a good glove in the outfield (as long as he’s left in a corner. His centerfield defense is brutal). Also, Aoki gave the Brewers a simple answer at leadoff while Rickie Weeks struggled for the first half of 2012.
Carlos Gomez has always had tools to dream on. He’s a 6’4” centerfielder who plays plus defense, has elite speed and plenty of power potential. The tools came together in 2012 and Gomez popped a career high 19 home runs (previous high was 8), boosting his ISO to .202 (career .133). He’s only 27-years-old, so a breakout at this age could be sustainable.
Then of course there is Ryan Braun. He’s a machine in left field, hitting for average, hitting for power, plus baserunning, and…not terrible defense. He keeps hitting even when there is controversy swirling, which gives me faith that he’ll be fine again in 2013.
So what do you think Ryan? Is this outfield as strong as it showed in 2012, or are we due for some regression from this group?
Yeah, some regression seems pretty likely. Given the over/under for the three primary starters based on last year’s OPS+, I would have a really tough time feeling good about taking the over for any of the three. At the same time, I wouldn’t predict anything like a collapse for any of them either.
Aoki surprised just about everyone, including the Brewers front office, by putting up the numbers he did. Honestly, it all looked pretty legit and he excelled at adjusting to how pitchers attacked him through the year, so regression isn’t preordained. Ultimately, it was just one year and he’s going to be 31, an age where players numbers tend to do more slipping than climbing.
Clearly, the Brewers think Gomez’s breakout last year was sustainable enough that they made him the proud owner of a three year extension this week. I’m not so sure that’s true, though. The improvement was driven by a .278/.321/.488 second half, but he hit just .233/.280/.423 in the first half. Did he really make that much progress in his game, or are we looking at a case of a player enjoying an unsustainable hot streak? He is only headed into his age 27 season and it is quite possible this is all real, but I’m not so sure I would bet on it.
As for Braun, it’s really hard to complain about a guy who found a way to better his MVP campaign in a lot of categories. He’s a superstar in the prime of his career. Still, even superstars go through ups and downs. Don’t believe me? Check out Albert Pujols year-to-year OPS+ and then compare them with Braun’s. While even his bad years were pretty good, there was quite a bit of up and down for Pujols. At some point soon Braun is going to have another year like 2008 or 2010 again, the question is really more about when than if.
This should be a pretty good group, both in the field and at the plate, but I think expecting them to repeat or better their 2012 seasons collectively would probably be a bit much. Is that too negative?
It turns out that Gomez’s contract is an extension and not a deal that reworked 2013. The initial number being thrown around was $27 million, but it turns out that it’s $7million, $8 million and $9 million covering 2014-16. That $24 million plus that $4.3 million owed this year mean that Brewers committed $28.3 million over the next four years.
Is a $7 million average per season too much for Gomez? I’m inclined to say no. He plays a premium defensive position, and is an excellent defender. The light hitting Gomez of 2011 was valued at $9 million by Fangraphs, and 2012 was worth $15.8 million. This money isn’t misspent, even if we don’t get as many bat flips as last season.
I shouldn’t forget to mention the Brewers catching situation, since we’re lumping the backstops in with the outfielders. Jonathan Lucroy had a breakout at the plate last year, hitting .320/.368/.513. There has always been the sense that Lucroy would hit in the majors, but that triple slash was pretty crazy. The only thing that slowed him down was a broken hand that happened in a freak hotel accident.
Even if Lucroy doesn’t hit like an All-Star again this year, he brings a lot of value behind the plate. I don’t have the 2012 numbers on hand, but Baseball Prospectus had Lucroy as the 4th best pitch framer in 2011 with 38 runs saved. That’s the kind of production that can help out a young pitching staff.
Martin Maldonado did a nice job of filling in for Lucroy during his stint on the DL. He got off to a pretty good start at the plate, though he’s never been known as a hitter in the minors. Still, he is a solid defensive presence behind the plate.
I know you’re a Lucroy fan, Ryan. Do you think he has any chance to repeat his success from last season?
I do really like Lucroy, he’s one of the better all around young catchers in the game, both offensively and defensively. As you pointed out, he had a really remarkable season with the bat last year and it’s really only natural to wonder if he can keep that sort of thing up long term.
I think what we saw from him was a really solid step forward offensively dressed up as a giant leap courtesy of a .338 batting average on balls in play. BABIP gets overused, especially when it comes to hitters, but in this case it seems pretty clear that Lucroy got a boost from some extra balls falling in. His line drive percent actually dropped from 24.2% to 21.1%, which you don’t generally see with a sustainable uptick in BABIP.
That being said, I was sort of waiting for his power to pick up based on what he did at times in the minors. His improved home run pop last year was driven mostly by an improvement in the number of fly balls he hit, with only a modest 1.0% increase in HR/FB ratio. So while the triple slash lines should all see some BABIP related decline, I think he’ll sustain a lot of his 67 point increase in isolated power.
As for Maldonado, I’m not sure exactly what to expect offensively, but it’s well south of .266/.321/.408. Yes, he’s made adjustments since most of that .236/.313/.333 career minor league line was wracked up. As we saw with Casey McGehee, though, even dramatic adjustments can prove to be ephemeral.
Defensively, they’re a more than adequate duo. Maldonado is pretty good at shutting down the running game while Lucroy struggles a bit at times, but both do a solid job of handling most non-Randy Wolf pitchers. As you mentioned, Lucroy does a good job framing pitches and it sure seems that Maldonado is just as good, if not even better.
Going back to the outfield for a moment, the backup spots should see an interesting combination of homegrown players over the course of the year. Logan Schafer is in line to get his first extended run in MLB and should be a useful defensive replacement and contact hitter at a league minimum salary. At some point or another, Caleb Gindl figures to see some big league action, as well as possibly Khris Davis if the need arises due to injury. If the team does jump into contention, the 5th OF slot seems like an ideal spot for a late season veteran pickup.
Overall, the outfield and catchers should be a well above average group, even if they’re not quite up to the high standards they set for themselves last year.