For some reason, the Brewers have often, and recently, had a reputation as a subpar defensive team. I really don’t know why this is.
There are two reasonably-advanced systems that can be aggregated to measure overall team defense: Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). In fact, the two systems are separately relied upon by Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, respectively, for their defensive value / WAR calculations.
For the last three years, regardless of which system you consult, the Brewers have been consistently decent as compared to the 29 other major league clubs:
|Season||DRS Ranking||UZR Ranking||Average|
Averaging the two systems is generally a good idea, and aggregating multiple years of data is an even better idea. When you do that, one thing is quite clear: the Brewers have consistently been a decent defensive team, solidly in the top third over the past several years.
That matters quite a bit this year, during which the Brewers’ lineup has been generally sub-par at producing runs. Before the season started, I talked about how being a playoff contender last year required you not only to be above-average with either your rotation or lineup, but at least average with the other.
Fortunately, the Brewers’ pitching has been unexpectedly sublime: the rotation has been solidly above-average, and the bullpen has been terrific. Following the rough formula, then, the lineup needs to be average to keep the Brewers’ competitive. And that is where the defense comes in.
According to Fangraphs data, the average team offense this year so far checks in at a 96 wRC+. (As many of our readers know, wRC+ is the premier offensive statistic, because it weights each offensive effect by its run value, and also adjusts run values for the parks in which the events took place). So far, the Brewers have posted 92 wRC+. That’s not terrible, although it is below average. Taken alone, the Brewers’ offense would be costing the Brewers at least a win, and perhaps more (-11.9 runs, to be precise), which would put even greater pressure on a pitching staff that is already giving more than anyone expected.
But, that picture changes when you bolster the Brewers’ quiet bats with the defense that limits the accomplishments of opposing bats as well. Again according to Fangraphs, the typical team has saved just over two runs over average at this point, while the Brewers have saved 15.1 runs, or about 1.5 wins, after adjustments. The Brewers’ very good difference not only offsets their offensive struggles, but makes them overall a solid-average, and just slightly above-average lineup (12th in the league). The resulting combination of above-average pitching with a solid-average lineup is a sufficient formula for postseason contention.
Notably, some of these defensive contributions are coming from players who have also been struggling at the plate, and who further were not expected to be defensive contributors. Khris Davis has spent most of the season looking lost at the dish, but has surprisingly provided positive defensive value in left field. The same is true for Scooter Gennett and Mark Reynolds, players who, like Davis, were widely (and by all appearances incorrectly) derided as second-rate defenders. Even Aramis Ramirez has demonstrated that, when healthy, he can hold his own at the hot corner. While Davis and Reynolds can certainly be derided for their offensive shortcomings, their defensive contributions still allow them to be contributors in the everyday lineup.
While the Brewers’ defense is an important part of their success so far, what’s more important is the floor it sets for their accomplishments going forward. Defense is a skill with less random variation than offense, and I strongly suspect that the lineup’s offensive production to date underperforms its true talent. Given the reasonable likelihood that the Brewers’ offense will improve, particularly as we settle into summer, their defense provides a solid cushion upon which to consolidate their accomplishments to date, and should also provide continued support for the team’s surprisingly robust pitching staff.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw.