Better Brewers

For the first time in years, the big story in Milwaukee isn’t a prospect on the way, or a youngster learning the ropes at the big-league level. The major league team has the best record in baseball, and general manager Doug Melvin isn’t messing with what’s working.

At the same time, the Brewers have Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, two of the most MLB-ready prospects in baseball, biding their time at Triple-A Nashville. Gallardo is making a case for a call-up with every start this season: last weekend, he threw seven shutout innings, allowing a hit and three walks while striking out nine. He’s every bit as ready for the big time as recent debuts Philip Hughes and Tim Lincecum, but the Brewers—unlike the Giants and the Yankees—have no need for rotation reinforcements.

Third base is another story entirely. Braun knocked the cover off the ball in spring training, and hasn’t let up yet. He’s missed a few games to nagging injuries, but in about 100 at-bats thus far, he’s hitting .358/.426/.716. By contrast, the platoon of Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino that is manning the hot corner for the parent club…well, let’s just say they aren’t knocking the cover off of anything.

It’s understandable that the Brewers braintrust wouldn’t want to mess with success. Braun would surely add more pop to the lineup, but third base is the only problem spot from one through eight. Further, the longer the Crew keeps Braun in Triple-A, the longer (and more cheaply) he’ll be under the team’s control: if Milwaukee can stomach another few weeks of Counsellino, they’ll save several million bucks in the long run.

What’s the Downside?

What I want to know is this: if Braun is, in fact, so much better than the current third base platoon, how much production are the Brewers losing by keeping their prospect in Nashville? Three runs? Three wins?

Necessarily, we’ll have to ignore such considerations as the stabilizing effect of a veteran in a young infield, or the boost the rest of the lineup gets by adding yet another threatening hitter. I just want to look at two things: the offense the Brewers are missing out on by playing Counsellino instead of Braun, and the defense they are gaining by the same decision.

Offense So Far

We only have about 100 at-bats of data so far for both Braun and his major league compadres, but I’m going to figure all of these numbers over two months, or about 150 at-bats. I’m doing that because it seems a near certainty that Braun will stay in the minors until June 1. Indeed, June 8 looks to be the most likely call-up date, as the Brewers will head on an interleague road trip and may break in Braun as a designated hitter. (They did the same with Prince Fielder two years ago.)

As I mentioned above, Braun is currently hitting .358/.426/.716. It’s possible there will be an adjustment phase, like that which Alex Gordon has suffered through so far this season, but let’s assume that Braun’s adjustment is typical for players shifting from Triple-A to the majors. If that’s the case, we can translate his line to approximately .316/.369/.604. That’s still very good—almost unbelievably so. For the sake of this exercise, let’s take it at face value: maybe Braun is just on a great hot streak, and he would be riding the same wave were he starting in Milwaukee.

It’s not nearly so rosy for Counsell and Graffanino. In 109 at-bats, they’ve combined for a .220/.310/.294 line; Graffanino is a little more to blame, as he has gotten more at-bats and is hitting worse, with a puny OPS+ of 54. It’s the sort of production that makes one yearn for a miraculous recovery from Corey Koskie.

So, what does that all mean? Using the quick-and-dirty runs created formula, Braun’s production over 150 at-bats is worth about 33 runs. Not too shabby: that’s a 10-win offensive contribution over the course of the season, even accounting for a fair number of days off. The current platoon, on the other hand, is on pace to contribute about 13 runs over the same amount of playing time. This gives us a nice round number: for every month Braun’s bat is out of the lineup, the Brewers are losing out on about one win.

Defensive Considerations

Of course, Braun isn’t in the minors because his bat isn’t proven: no one doubts he’s ready from that perspective. It’s his glove that is the problem. He followed nearly every home run this spring with an error in the field. We’re not talking tough errors, either: at least once, it looked like he mistakenly threw to the other team’s first baseman in the opposing dugout.

The sample size so far is much too small to make any judgments. But we can come up with an estimate nonetheless. Both Counsell and Graffanino have good defensive reputations, but both have more experience at other positions and are playing part time. So, let’s say they are about average. I’ve watched nearly every Brewers game this year and that sounds about right to me.

For Braun, let’s say his defense is equivalent to that of the worst everyday third baseman in the majors. There are people out there who will claim that’s optimistic; others might point to his (mere) two errors so far and suggest it’s pessimistic; since there’s an argument on either side, I like the approximation.

To come with a run value for defense, let’s use David Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range. According to PMR, the worst regular (2500+ balls in play) third sacker was Aaron Boone, who made 14 fewer plays than average. Boone didn’t play full time; if he had, and if he performed for 150+ games at the same rate, that puts him at about 20 plays below average. Long story short, it’s plausible to say that Counsell and Graffanino would, over the course of the season, make about 20 plays that Braun would not.

To convert that to runs, we can assign each out a value of about 0.75-0.8 runs. So finally, with many caveats and much approximation, we can say that Counsellino’s defense prevents 15 or 16 more runs than Braun’s would over a full season. For the two-month stretch we’re concerned with here, that’s five runs, or about a half-win.

The Verdict

Based on the numbers I’ve come up wtih here, Braun’s bat would add about 20 runs to the Brewers offense over a two-month period. His glove would erase five of those. Does that mean Doug Melvin has made a big mistake leaving him in Nashville this long?

Probably not. First, we’re assuming Ryan Braun can play bad major league defense at third. I’d like to believe that, but a case of the MLB debut jitters could easily turn those three runs per month into seven or eight. It’s also possible that Counsell and/or Graffanino are better defenders than I’m giving them credit for. Second, we’re assuming he would mash in the big leagues. His Triple-A numbers strongly suggest he would, but odds are that Alex Gordon would be crushing the ball in Omaha, too. We simply don’t know how any given player will react to a new set of pressures.

Despite those caveats, I’m fairly confident that Braun would represent an upgrade over the current state of Brewers third baseman. Even then, it may not be worth it. Are two extra early-season wins worth what could be $10 million or more down the road? Especially given the Brewers record so far, it appears that Braun’s arbitration clock has more value than his bat.

That consideration disappears once we get into June. That makes the above analysis reason for celebration in Milwaukee: once the monetary aspects are taken out of the equation, the Brewers brass can focus on performance and likely make the Crew a better team with one roster move. And we haven’t even said much about Yovani Gallardo.

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