In a season of wonderful story lines on a fun, confident and winning Milwaukee Brewers baseball club, there have not been many players performing under expectations, whether modest or magnificent.
Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun are both hitting with MVP-type authority. The pitching staff, especially the starters, have been just about bulletproof since the return of Zack Greinke. Success stories and fan base cult heroes like Nyjer Morgan and John Axford have been a shot in the arm.
Carlos Gomez still plays really good defense. Yuni Betancourt, well… Carlos Gomez still plays really good defense.
But then we start thinking about third base. Casey McGehee is a fan favorite. Brewers faithful generally love his hard work, solid batting average, clutch hitter-ness, everyman attitude – and oh, that’s right, the Brewers claimed him off waivers from the Cubs.
Unfortunately, Casey has struggled mightily this year.
Coming into the season, McGehee owned a robust .288 career batting average and a nice 812 OPS. 2011 has not been kind. That OPS has taken a tumble to 607 so far in 2011. His batting average is down to .229.
To compare that with his National League peers, N.L. third basemen have a 681 OPS as a group to date in 2011, a number which is extremely low compared to previous years. In most recent years, a league average third baseman would have an OPS around 750.
What makes that offensive drought even more alarming is that McGehee does not possess premium tools elsewhere on the diamond.
His defense suffers from a severe lack of range due to (ongoing?) knee problems. His arm is adequate and generally accurate, but not good enough to make up for propensity to miss ground balls hit to either side, or even sometimes directly at him, due to his lack of flexibility. According to The Fielding Bible’s “Plus/Minus” defensive metric, McGehee has saved -25 runs since the beginning of the 2009 season, and has never been better than the 27th best third baseman in baseball. Fangraphs’ UZR treats him only slightly more kindly, putting him at 13.2 runs below replacement level since 2009. Using the 10 run rule, he has cost the Brewers between 1.3 and 2.5 wins due to his defense. Due to the inexact nature of defensive statistics, it is not possible to be precise about how bad he’s been on defense, but he has undoubtedly been below average.
McGehee is also known for being quite slow of foot, again possibly speaking to lingering knee problems. FanGraphs’ UBR baserunning metric pegs McGehee at 3.8 runs below replacement during his time as a Brewer. Baseball Prospectus’ EQBRR baserunning metric pegs him at -3.9 runs contributed via baserunning during that same time. That’s pretty close agreement, and a bit more than a third of a loss since 2009. Not a huge deal, but not any help for someone dependent on his bat to carry his value.
About his bat: the problems at the plate for McGehee seem to stem from a progressive increase in his ground ball rate coupled with a concurrent decrease in his line drive rate. Courtesy FanGraphs:
A declining ground ball rate is almost always undesirable because balls hit in the air tend to land safely for base hits more often than balls hit on the ground. This effect is exacerbated for McGehee due to his lack of foot speed. He will not leg out too many infield singles.
Line drives are very desirable because the odds of a fielder catching a line drive are more remote than a standard fly ball. Good hitters usually rely on line drives for a high batting average. McGehee is hitting about 34% fewer line drives that he was a few years ago, suggesting that that he’s not making the solid contact he was. His slugging has suffered too, with his ISO (isolated slugging: slugging percentage less batting average) dropping from a career .182 to a near-halved .092.
Why the drop in line drives and power? Using FanGraph’s pitch type data, we see that McGehee has seen a precipitous drop in his ability to hit fastballs, sliders, cutters and change-ups this year. McGehee had been a relatively strong fastball/slider/change-up hitter previously. In other words, it seems that McGehee is not making the solid contact that he used to make on those pitches. Whether that boils down to declining pitch recognition skills, injury, a less effective batting stance, simply the league’s pitchers adjusting to him, or whatever combination thereof, it is clear that McGehee is having a very rough go of it this year.
The question then becomes, what do the Brewers do about it? McGehee had been a good hitter coming in to the year. His 273 plate appearances in 2011 are not a large enough sample to say that his bat is, without a doubt, kaput. One could even make the case that McGehee has been very unlucky so far, and could put up big (or at least, better) numbers the rest of the way to bring his year-end season numbers closer to his short career’s standards. He has had better at-bats recently, driving the ball with more authority. That may be a sign of things to come.
Removing McGehee from regular playing duty would also be an unpopular move in the clubhouse. It would not be good internal P.R. for the Brewers to remove a popular teammate from the lineup after struggling for the first 40% of a season after being such a solid hitter for the past year and a half.
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That’s where Taylor Green comes in. Never heard of him? Here’s his story.
Green was drafted by the Brewers out of Cypress Community College in the 25th round of the 2005 draft as a Canadian-born 19-year-old left-handed hitting second baseman. He had an ineffectual 636 OPS at the plate that summer in rookie league Helena and was not well known or well regarded as a prospect going into the 2006 season.
Late in spring training of 2006, he was told that West Virginia, then the Brewers’ A-ball team, needed a third baseman and that if he could get ready for the position, the spot was his. He not only took to third base, but he took to hitting, too. He stayed with West Virginia all summer and posted a 922 OPS, with a .327 batting average, in his first full year of pro ball. Scouts raved about his sweet left-handed swing and the hard line drives it created.
Green played almost as well the following year in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, managing an 825 OPS. That July, he was almost dealt to the Cleveland Indians in the Sabathia trade, though Cleveland took Michael Brantley instead.
Toward the end of the 2008 season, he was hit on his left wrist by a pitch. However, it took until almost spring training of 2009 to find that he had a broken bone in his wrist that required surgery. When he came back midway through the season in Huntsville, he was not the same hitter. As is common with wrist injuries, his power was sapped and his confidence at the plate dropped due to nagging wrist pain. He finished the season with a 716 OPS and that left-handed line drive swing was nowhere to be found.
The left wrist continued to be a problem through the 2010 season, which saw Green’s formerly top prospect status begin to bottom out. He was OK for Huntsville, but just OK. He managed a 773 OPS and a modest .263 batting average. During offseason workouts, he even started getting some time in defensively at catcher in an effort to increase his appeal to the big league team.
Green was eligible to be selected by another team in the Rule 5 draft last winter, but the Brewers chose not to protect him by adding him to the 40-man roster. All the other teams passed him over and he remained Brewers’ property. Baseball America didn’t even bother putting him amongst the Brewers’ top 30 prospects in their offseason rankings. Bottom.
Now 24 years old at the outset of the 2011 season, Green was nearing make-or-break territory for a big league career. He needed to prove that his wrist was healthy and that he could resume driving the ball. Green started the year back with class AA Huntsville for a third time.
His luck changed quickly. Due to the need for a bat in AAA, Green received his first promotion to Nashville after just three games with Huntsville. His bat, especially his batting average, started slowly. He hit only .222 in April. But as he spent more time there, Green’s confidence grew. He hit .268 in May, with a 775 OPS.
Now in June, Green’s bat has exploded to the tune of a 1574 OPS during the month. With his left wrist now back to near 100%, Green finds himself with a 970 OPS in AAA and on the cusp of the big leagues.
Green is hitting right-handed pitchers especially well, to the tune of a 1089 OPS on the year. He even posted an 837 OPS against righties last season, when he struggled overall.
As an aside, it is true that Green’s numbers are slightly inflated by playing in the Pacific Coast League, one of the more hitter-friendly minor leagues. On the other hand, Green plays half of his games in Greer Stadium in Nashville, which is a pitcher-friendly park. According to numbers compiled from 2006-2008, Greer was the 9th-most run suppressing park in the minor leagues.
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The title of this piece is “The Case for Taylor Green.” But, really, this is about how to make the Brewers’ third base situation better. Despite their solid play as a team, the Brewers are not in a position where they can get away with such sub par performance at third base for the remainder of the season. It may only mean a game or two in the standings, but the Brewers are on a very steep place in the playoff curve – a game or two could make all the difference between playing in October or lamenting Prince Fielder’s final games in September.
As I mentioned before, I don’t think it would be wise for the Brewers to just take McGehee out of the lineup, or even option him to AAA, and replace him with Green. They have to be sensitive about how the clubhouse works and it may create a newly reticent atmosphere if McGehee is suddenly removed from the lineup after a few bad months.
Green does possess a few advantages over McGehee, however. First, he’s left-handed and more likely to hit right-handed pitching with more success than McGehee over the long term. Second, Green has been a much better hitter in the minors than McGehee – Casey’s career best minor league OPS was 776 at AA back in 2005. Green has eclipsed that twice, by large margins (922 in 2007, 825 in 2008) and is once again well above that this year. With a healthy wrist and that track record, the odds are in Green’s favor to be a better hitter than McGehee going forward.
I say that not just based off the statistical record. Green has a nice, smooth line drive swing that can hit and drive baseballs at the big league level. Green did not fluke his way into the big seasons he’s had in the minors. He is a Major League hitting prospect.
In addition to those advantages at the plate, Green is more athletic in the field than McGehee. He’s more agile at third base and his skills shouldn’t erode as quickly as McGehee’s have. And while he isn’t a burner on the basepaths by any stretch of the imagination, Green is not the plodder than McGehee is, either.
So how do the Brewers give themselves a shot at a production increase at third base, and keep everyone’s egos intact as much as possible? A soft platoon. Casey McGehee should start against left-handed pitchers. His career OPS is 66 points higher against lefties than righties. Taylor Green has usually had trouble with them in the high minors and while he may hit them eventually, the Brewers don’t need Green to hit them now. McGehee should also start against right-handed pitchers often enough where the playing time between McGehee and Green is split about 60/40 in favor of McGehee, at least at the outset. It would give Green a chance to get his feet wet and mash against righties for awhile, and also give McGehee a chance to find his swing again and build confidence by having him face a majority of lefties.
The perfect time to begin the Green experiment is during the upcoming interleague series. The Brewers are looking to bring up an extra bat for those games anyway, and have already stated that the extra bat won’t be Mat Gamel. McGehee could also get playing time at first base when the Brewers move Fielder to DH, if they want to keep his bat in the lineup.
I have no idea whether or not the Brewers are planning on calling up Green any time soon, or if they’d rather wait until September and hope that McGehee pulls out of his slump. McGehee could quite plausibly hit decently the rest of the way.
If they wait on calling up Green, though, the Brewers are missing a good chance to have a good opportunity to improve a position on their team. The worst thing that could happen is that Green would flop, but then they’d still have a month to find a replacement if McGehee also continued to struggle.
Taylor Green and Casey McGehee have both been great stories for the Brewers, coming through adversity to get their chance at the Major League level. McGehee took advantage of his opportunity a few years ago. Now they should let Green try his hand, too.