Our very own Alex Poterack provided what may prove to be the image of the year, as he summarized the fan experience of Yuniesky Betancourt. While J.P. Breen gave Our Beloved Yuni his due just the other day, the most stubborn shortstop in baseball helped the Brewers win yet another game last night. If it seems like Betancourt is white hot, well, he is: the diamond-wide replacement collected hits in four consecutive games, almost all of them for extra bases. As a result, Betancourt is not only hitting .385, he’s slugging 1.000 over the last four games — that’s right, Betancourt boasts one total base for every at bat in the last four games. Not surprisingly, he can claim seven RBI (alongside two runs), giving him some action in half of the Brewers’ runs scored over that timeframe. Overall, Betancourt is batting the ball into play during 76% of his plate appearances, and he also drew three walks (one intentional) alongside his slugging swings.
One of the best aspects of last night’s thrilling 4-3 walk-off against the Giants was the final inning dramatics produced by new Brewers faces. If Betancourt set the tone earlier in the game, knocking in two runs thanks to a home run and sacrifice fly, Josh Prince and Blake Lalli contributed the final blows to the Giants.
Prince entered the game as a pinch runner, giving Jonathan Lucroy‘s feet the night off after he opened the ninth with a single. After advancing to third on a Carlos Gomez groundball and questionable throw by Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, with a Betancourt intentional walk to load the bases, Prince scored on Lalli’s first hit of the year. With the Giants outfielders playing a bit more shallow than usual, setting up a potential play at the plate following an outfield out, Lalli simply hit it beyond the outfielders, scoring Prince on a long fly ball to left.
The Brewers bats were aggressive in the bottom of the ninth, capitalizing on first pitch offerings after Lucroy worked Santiago Casilla to the limit for his single. Both Gomez and Lalli attacked the first offering they saw in the ninth, Lalli’s a fastball at the knees, in the middle of the plate. These strong replacement performances are crucial for the early-season Brewers, who need to tread water while they await the return of their middle-order bats. It might be hard to get angry with replacements when they don’t win, but it’s certainly harder not to love their efforts when they win. In this regard, it’s great to see Lalli’s first hit of the year in such a crucial position, and it’s equally exciting to see Prince score his second career run on a game-winning play. Go Brewers!
One conceivable argument against the analysis community’s preference for judging players against a replacement at their position is, “replacement value is an abstract idea that doesn’t capture how teams use their rosters.” Perhaps the emphasis would be more on the abstract idea part, than the “MLB roster theory” argument, but the idea is, some might dislike the idea of replacement value theory for its measurement of performance against less-than-ideal players. One could further argue that judging players against replacement value obscures expectations for regular players, and holds them to lower standards than one might expect from a starter. MLB starters should be judged against other MLB starters, not their entire position, and certainly not against part-time roster filler, according to this line of thinking.
One of the elements this argument misses is the prevalence of replacements on MLB roster. My favorite example is the non-existent five-man pitching rotation; while fans cling to the ideal that their club will be able to consistently send five arms to the rubber on regular rest, the reality of injuries, ineffectiveness, call-ups, other organizational decisions, and, of course, sheer scarcity ensure that just about every club will use more than five starting pitchers in a season (already, this year, the NL has two replacement starters on the books, thanks to the Dodgers and the Pirates; the Brewers may be next if they determine that Fastballer Mike Fiers is unable to move from his relief outing to a start on Saturday). Overall, the truth rests in the numbers; in 2012, the NL teams used an aggregate of 724 players, compared to 718 in 2011, 695 in 2010, 710 in 2009, and 720 in 2008. Odds are not simply that each ballclub will need numerous replacements during a season, but that a team will exhaust a 40-man roster’s worth of playing options during a season.
Since the Brewers are experiencing their own replacement revival this April, I thought I’d check in on the other NL clubs. Not even three weeks into the season, only three of the NL’s clubs have used 25 players: Rockies, Giants, and Phillies. Otherwise, four clubs used 26 players, three used 27 (including the Brewers), and five used 28 (Reds, Pirates, Cubs, Dodgers, Padres). As a result, 25 of the NL’s 400 players thus far are replacements; though these players comprise only 6.25% of the total NL players employed by their clubs thus far, that percentage will only increase as the season progresses. (Interestingly enough, there are so many replacement players employed by National League clubs that one could write a column documenting the trials of at least one replacement player for every day of the week).
In terms of analyzing production, the reason performing at a serviceable level as a regular is valuable is because that playing level ensures that the front office needs to make fewer transactions during the season; that type of performance level also ensures that the team doesn’t need to cobble together other options. While one can argue how that performance level ought to be measured, and one might be skeptical about judging regular players against a gang of roster filling options, the fact remains that there is considerable value in simply finding someone that can consistently fill one roster spot and play every day. Certainly, we will raise our standards while determining whether a player’s value is elite, but the first step in that equation is finding guys that can play every day and therefore make life easier for front offices.
While the first two games of the Cardinals series leave sour memories in the minds of Brewers fans for their offensive ineptitude, the bullpen quietly began a series of effective outings. Their effectiveness in the shadow of the Gateway Arch was capped by their excellent scoreless outings on Sunday, allowing the Brewers bats a chance to win the game after they awoke from their slumber. Their scoreless outings on Sunday underscored the importance of putting up goose eggs even when the team trails, and those outings are even more impressive given the relievers’ ability to work into and out of some trouble. Certainly, one might not expect a bullpen to be consistently clean in their outings, but even working through troubled spots with limited damage is a preferable to the big inning blow-ups earlier in the year (Fiers’s inherited runners stop is one example of an important sequence of limited damage allowed by the bullpen).
In the Giants series, the Brewers relievers have continued their ability to limit the damage and produce largely effective outings.
April 12: 1 IP, 0 R, 0 K / 0 BB / 0 HR
April 13: 2.7 IP, 2 R, 2 K / 0 BB / 0 HR
April 14: 4 IP, 0 R, 2 K / 3 BB / 0 HR
April 16: 5 IP, 1 R, 4 K / 2 BB / 0 HR
April 17: 2 IP, 0 R, 1 K / 1 BB / 0 HR
All things considered, 14.7 IP, 3 R, and 9 K / 6 BB / 0 HR is not a bad bullpen performance over a five day stretch.