Every now and then, I have vivid dreams that foretell future events. Of course, none of them have happened yet, but that’s what’s fun about the distant future. Just the other night, I had an amazing dream about the Brewers winning the World Series — they were playing the Rays for the Championship, and I was roaming around Tropicana Field. Yovani Gallardo was working a masterful campaign in the decisive game, leading the Brewers to their first ever championship. Unfortunately, I awoke.
Divinations of championships might be a bit far from our beloved Milwaukee nine’s 2012 campaign, but that doesn’t mean that the Brewers can’t close the season with quality play. After their dreadful roadtrip to Houston and Colorado, the Brewers swept the Cubs at home and played spoiler to the Pirates at PNC before moving to the Friendly Confines. Last night, the Brewers took a one-run advantage into the 8th inning, and it looked like it could be one of “those” infamous 2012 contests. Instead, the Brewers took out some Badger Mutual Insurance in the 8th inning — thanks to smoking hot Carlos Gomez — and threw the whipping into overdrive in the 9th inning. Not only did Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, and Corey Hart hit consecutive home runs, but Braun himself batted in 4 runs. Quite an offensive show from a club that has every reason to play hard and prepare for 2013 — or, to convince the front office that this club has more competitive elements for 2013 than their record might show.
If your feeling is that the Brewers are a better club than their record shows, the club’s run differential surely agrees with you. For the season, the Brewers scored 591 runs while allowing 583; unfortunately, they managed a 60-67 record with that performance. Fortunately, the Brewers boast a winning record in August, which matches their 121 RS / 105 RA production for the month. This is a welcome change in fortunes, as the Brewers outscored their opponents in May, June, and July without posting a winning record in any of those months.
Certainly one gets the feeling that if the elements of the club were a bit more balanced, and the team performed better in close games, we’d be singing a different tune right now. Instead, the Brewers can only claim a 36-44 record for their 368 RS / 356 RA performance from May through July. If the Brewers close the season with a losing record — they’re on pace to win 76-77 games in 2012 — it’s certainly not because they were overmatched. Rather, we have a group of elements to analyze to determine what turned a club that outscored their opponents into a losing club.
Go Go, Gomez!
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve questioned Carlos Gomez’s abilities to produce as an everyday player during his tenure with the Brewers. So, it’s great to see Gomez hitting the ball during his extended tryout for the 2013 centerfield starting role.
On June 29, Gomez pinch hit for Manny Parra, striking out in the 9th inning. That 0-for-1 capped a stretch of 15 plate appearances in which Gomez collected one hit and one walk. Gomez’s season batting line bottomed out at .243/.291/.429.
On June 30, Gomez started against Arizona, collecting two hits — a triple and a home run. From that day forward, Gomez has been a power hitting machine: 11 of Gomez’s 179 PA from June 30-through-August 27 were home runs, and 42% of his hits went for extra bases. Overall, Gomez’s batting line over those 179 PA is .273/.316/.533 — certainly production worthy of a starting role in centerfield.
One of the most striking feats during Gomez’s hot streak is his plate discipline. Specifically, Gomez has not really changed his approach against pitches outside the zone, and he swings aggressively against the pitches he sees. By my count, approximately 270 of the 607 pitches Gomez saw from June 30-to-date were outside of the strike zone; against those pitches, Gomez swung approximately 110 times. This high swing rate — 40.7% on pitches outside the zone — should not necessarily be surprising. Gomez swung at more than 35% of pitches outside the strike zone in each of his seasons with the Brewers.
Eno Sarris at Rotographs caught this trend early. He offered a plausible explaination, so I’ll quote him directly:
Once again, Gomez might have achieved this improvement by embracing who he was instead of trying to change. Players with his kind of walk rate (5.2% career) and speed have it drummed into them: get on base, take advantage of your wheels. Show patience. Be discerning. (Look for a pitch you can slap on the ground and burn your way to first.)
But seeing more pitches isn’t always the best idea. Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero have had low strikeout rates paired with high swinging strike rates before, and the trend among such players seems to be an aggressiveness. It makes sense from a game theory standpoint: If you aren’t excellent at discerning balls and strikes, waiting on pitches might just mean more strikes.
Sarris points out two interesting trends in Gomez’s career: (1) Gomez’s Isolated Slugging percentage consistently, progressively increased with each MLB season, and (2) Gomez’s pitches-per-plate appearance have decreased in each of his last three seasons.
One of the most straightforward explanations is that Gomez is flat-out finding results with his aggression. Over his hot 179 plate appearances, Gomez struck out 41 times while walking only 8 times.
It is no secret that the Brewers are looking at Gomez as their everyday centerfielder for 2013. Adam McCalvy reported that manager Ron Roenicke said “the jury is still out” on whether Gomez can serve as the team’s starting centerfielder. Thanks to McCalvy, I’ll quote Roenicke:
“Defensively, I know he dropped the one ball [in Tuesday's loss to the Pirates], but we know he’s going to play good all the time. Baserunning, he’s really good stealing bases. But the offensive part is the part we’ve always wanted him to be more consistent, and that’s what we still would like to see, a little more consistency.”
One might argue that Gomez is indeed consistent. Certainly, his actual production over the last 7+ weeks is something completely new to his career, but his plate discipline and aggressive swinging has not changed. So, the question is, can Carlos Gomez maintain average or better production without average plate discipline, contact, or “aggression”?
By ranking of plate appearances and production, Gomez’s July 2012 campaign is one of the very best in his career. Here’s a look at Gomez’s busiest months (in terms of PA) as well as his most productive (better-than-.700 OPS) months:
May 2008 (115 PA, .796 OPS)
July 2012 (83 PA, .881 OPS)
Sept/Oct 2008 (91 PA, .800 OPS)
March/April 2010 (74 PA, .773 OPS)
June 2007 (74 PA, .754 OPS)
July 2009 (64 PA, .733 OPS)
March/April 2012 (47 PA, .893 OPS)
Sept/Oct 2010 (39 PA, .827 OPS)
Sept/Oct 2011 (25 PA, .970 OPS)
July 2011 (17 PA, .910 OPS)
This list of 10 months comprises more than 31% of Gomez’s career, and the 629 total PA in these months constitute 31.4% of his career PA. One of the basic issues with Gomez is his consistency on a month-by-month basis; if he is to serve as an everyday centerfielder, he will need to produce a .700 OPS in more than 1/3 of his months. By comparison, even an average-to-slightly above average everyday player like Rickie Weeks produces a .700 OPS more often than not. For instance, Weeks produced a .700 OPS or better in 27 of his 38 career months. That count is indeed influenced by his 2009-2011 stretch, but even early in his career, Weeks posted a .700 OPS in 13 of 20 months from 2005 through 2008. It is this type of ratio that makes an average (or better) player valuable throughout the course of a season.
I don’t think we need to ask exceptional production from Gomez, and I think that our analysis of his production needs to take his plate approach into consideration. I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that Gomez needs to change his plate approach to become a regular player (or a productive player). However, we can ask: given Gomez’s plate approach, aggression, and discipline, can he improve his production to produce a .700 OPS more often than not?
One significant factor for the Brewers’ future centerfield considerations should be the shifting importance of the position itself. As the “steroids/small-park” era slowly deflated the National League runs environment, the production from the fielding positions also shifted. Last decade, one might find production by CF, SS, and 2B bunched together, and generally closer to 1B, LF, RF, and 3B in offensive production. Certainly, those four corner positions maintained a monopoly on offensive production, even if the other positions were also yielding relatively strong production.
Over the course of the last five years, while the runs scored deflate in the National League, centerfield appears to be overtaking third base in batting production. While centerfield is not always finishing in the top half of NL batting production (from fielding positions), the position ranked 4th in productivity in 2009 and 2011. Despite a slight drop in OPS in 2012, the position’s production of R and RBI remains strong, keeping the position much closer to RF and 3B than, say, 2B and SS:
Note: These numbers are league totals, and are not park adjusted for the Brewers. I used a harmonic mean between R and RBI to produce “RRBI” ((2*R*RBI)/(R+RBI)).
2007 NL CF: .762 OPS, .1162 RRBI/PA (5th) (league: .1183 RRBI/PA)
2008 NL CF: .759 OPS, .1190 RRBI/PA (5th) (league: .1147 RRBI/PA)
2009 NL CF: .762 OPS, .1109 RRBI/PA (4th) (league: .1125 RRBI/PA)
2010 NL CF: .736 OPS, .1101 RRBI/PA (5th) (league: .1108 RRBI/PA)
2011 NL CF: .742 OPS, .1066 RRBI/PA (4th) (league: .1055 RRBI/PA)
2012 NL CF: .736 OPS, .1076 RRBI/PA (5th) (league: .1091 RRBI/PA)
While National League third basemen have fallen further from the elite production of 1B, LF, and RF, a relatively strong class of centerfielders is driving that position into a more productive offensive range. Although the position is traditionally viewed as a defense-first place on the diamond, with smaller ballparks it is reasonable to expect CF to morph into an offensive position on the diamond. Even with some larger parks entering the National League over the last few years, the position does not seem to be as defensively demanding as older parks required.
The Brewers need to consider this positional shift when they consider the potential of starting Carlos Gomez everyday. Certainly, his defensive value is unquestionable, but one must wonder, can the Brewers afford to keep CF a defense-first position?