It’s still the defense, Milwaukeeby Asher Chancey
April 06, 2011
There is a great scene in the movie City Slickers in which Billy Crystal is trying to teach Daniel Stern to program a VCR.
Stern says, "You're saying I can record something I'm not even watching?," to which Crystal replies, "Yes, that's the point. You don't even need a TV to record." Then Stern replies, "How would I see it?," to which Crystal replies, "Well to see it you need a TV."
At this point, a visibly annoyed Bruno Kirby explodes, yelling, "Shut up! Just shut up! He doesn't get it! He'll never get it! It's been four hours! The cows can tape something by now!"
This scene seems relevant now because it beginning to become clear that the Milwaukee Brewers may never learn to program their VCR.
For several years, the Milwaukee Brewers have been a talented team plagued to the middle of the standings in the NL Central. Some of the finest plans in all of baseball have been tossed to the curb in ruin because of the Brewers and their continually unmet expectations.
During these past three or four seasons, the Brewers have not wanted for offense, and they’ve had several talented pitchers. The problem with the Brewers, as James Carville might say, has been the defense, stupid.
It was 2007 that the Brewers first looked like they might be putting together a good team The year before, the Brewers had featured two of the most talented looking young players in all of baseball in Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks. They also had Bill Hall, who came out of no where to hit 35 home runs at shortstop in '06, and Carlos Lee, who still looked like an in-his-prime stud at that point in his career.
The pitching staff, meanwhile, featured Ben Sheets, Dave Bush, and Chris Capuano, all of whom looked solid at the very least, and enjoyed really good peripherals that foretold of great things ahead. (To this day, I will never forget how excited I was when I discovered that in 2006, Dave Bush and Roy Oswalt had the exact same strikeout-to-walk numbers, 166/38. This meant big things for Dave Bush, as I reminded anyone who would listen.) The Brewers also had help on the way in the form of prospects Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo.
This was a team full of promise. So what happened in 2007?
Prince Fielder exploded in 2007 at the young age of 23, hitting 50 home runs. Rickie Weeks continued to develop, J.J. Hardy did what Bill Hall had done the year before, coming out of no where to hit 26 home runs at shortstop. Meanwhile, Ryan Braun hit 34 home runs with 97 RBI and 91 runs in just 113 games, Corey Hart emerged, and Geoff Jenkins even had a decent year.
And yet the Brewers finished only four games over .500. Why?
Defense defense defense.
As luck would have it, the Brewers put together one of the worst defensive teams of all time (slight exaggeration). Baseball Info Solutions Plus/Minus Ratings System, which were brand new at this point, demonstrated clearly the defensive disaster that was the Milwaukee Brewers.
In the infield, Fielder finished fourth from the bottom in the majors in plus/minus, while Weeks was second from the bottom. Hardy was 11th best in the majors, which was fine, but Braun was dead last at third, with a -41, which was 12 plays worse than the next ranked third baseman (Garrett Atkins), and which he accumulated in only 113 games. Meanwhile, Jenkins and Hart actually both performed well, but Hall was simply lost in centerfield.
The effect of the defense on the pitching staff can be seen in the sheer number of hits the Brewers allowed in 2007. Ben Sheets allowed just below nine hits per nine innings, and 21 year old Yovani Gallardo was in his own league, but Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan, Chris Capuano and Claudio Vargas all allowed well over 10 hits per nine innings, which just cannot be allowed.
The Brewers staff had the second best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the NL as well as the best strikeout per nine inning rate in the NL, and yet they finished 7th in hits allowed.
In the spring of 2008, though, the Brewers seemed to have learned the lessons of 2007. They made several defensive changes, bringing in Jason Kendall behind the plate, replacing Hall with Mike Cameron, one of the elite defensive centerfielders of his generation. Hall replaced Braun at third, and Braun moved to left, where he hoped to merely do no harm. Jenkins was sent to Philadelphia, Hardy worked hard to improve at short, and the Brewers had a whole new look on defense.
And we all remember the results: Only Jeff Suppan allowed more than 10 hits per nine innings, the Brewers staff as a whole allowed only 8.7 hits per nine innings while finishing sixth in all of Major League Baseball in fewest runs. When the Brewers acquired CC Sabathia at the trading deadline, his hits per nine innings dropped from 8.6 with the Indians to 7.3 with the Brewers, and his ERA dropped from 3.83 (112 ERA+) to 1.65 (255 ERA+).
As a team, with essentially the same offense as the year before, the Brewers improved from four games over .500 to 18 games over .500 and won the NL Wild Card.
But for some reason, the Brewers still do not seem to get it.
The year subsequent to 2008 have been less than kind. After 2008, Sabathia left, Ben Sheets and Rickie Weeks got hurt, and the Brewers slumped to 80-82 in 2009. Them in 2010, the Brewers fell to 77-85, and once again an old enemy was rearing its ugly head.
Weeks had an amazing year in 2010. Finally healthy, he played 160 games for the first time and had 754 plate appearances, only the 27th time a player had finished with over 750 plate appearances in baseball history. Unfortunately, this also meant that Weeks' glove was on the field everyday, and this was not a good thing, as Weeks finished tied for last in the majors in plus/minus. Fielder was not last, but fourth from the bottom at first base, as was Casey McGehee at third base. Braun performed fine in plus/minus, which is to say he finished in the middle of the league, but in Fangraphs.com's UZR he was on the bottom end in all of baseball.
What the Brewers did in 2010 was take an elite offensive team, which finished fourth in the NL in runs scored per game behind the Reds, Phillies and Rockies, and paired with with adequate pitching and simply horrendous defense. As a result, the pitching staff gave up the third most hits and runs per game in the NL, behind Pittsburgh and Arizona. And once again, the Brewers pitchers had great strikeout numbers—fourth in the NL in strikeouts per nine innings—but their hits allowed just killed them.
We all know the addage that offense wins games, but pitching wins championships. Well, the 2010 Brewers did everything they could to prove that addage wrong. More importantly, the Brewers proved that there is a missing element in that equation. Indeed, the motto of the 2010 Brewers could have been, "offense wins games, pitching wins championships, unless your defense keeps you from doing either."
Which brings us to 2011.
What the Brewers have done this off-season is truly remarkable. In a relatively tight pitching market, the Brewers added one of the best young pitchers in the game in Zack Greinke, as well as an underrated Shaun Marcum from the Blue Jays who should be rejuvenated by escaping Toronto and the American League.
The Brewers add Greinke and Marcum to one of the most well-kept secrets in baseball in Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo was the lone bright spot on an otherwise miserable rotation in 2011. Gallardo struck out 200 batters in 185 innings pitched and was the only Brewers starter to allow fewer than 9.0 hits per nine innings pitched. Even Gallardo had trouble succeeding in Milwaukee, though, posting a 3.84 ERA that belied his talent.
Fangraphs.com's FIP, which measures a pitcher's performance independent of the defense and ballpark around him, put Gallardo at 3.29, which was just behind Cole Hamels and Mat Latos, and just ahead of Roy Oswalt and Jered Weaver. Gallardo also had the seventh largest differential between his real ERA and his FIP, putting him just ahead of Chris Narveson, also of the Brewers and, ironically, Zack Greinke. The Brewers also hold over Randy Wolf from the 2010 season, who also pitched admirably amidst the conditions.
While it would appear that the Brewers are ready to pair World Series pitching with a World Series offense, the problem, of course, is that pitching was not really the problem in the first place.
Apparently ignorant to the lessons of 2007 and 2008, the Brewers have built themselves a 1995 Atlanta Braves rotation and paired it with a 1962 Mets defense. For as great as the Gallardo-Greinke-Marcum-Wolf rotation looks on paper, Fielder is still at first base, Weeks is still at second base, Braun is still in left field, and Hart is still in right.
And, and, the Brewers have doubled-down on the bad-defense bonanza by acquiring none other than Yunieksy Betancourt, who may very well be the worst regular everyday player in any of our lifetimes.
In 2007, Betancourt started 155 games for the Seattle Mariners. He posted a .289 batting average, a 725 OPS, and drew 15 walks in 559 plate appearances.
Not bad for a shortstop. Except . . . by BaseballReference.com's defensive runs saved and Fangraphs.com's UZR, Betancourt was a below-average fielder.
In 2008, Betancourt's offensive numbers slumped. He hit .279 with a .300 on-base percentage, drawing 17 walks and scoring 66 runs in 590 plate appearances. On defense, his defensive runs saved plummetted, and he had the second worst UZR in all of baseball.
In 2009, his offense dropped again. Now his on-base percentage was .274, and he managed only 115 hits and 40 runs in 508 plate appearances, with an OPS+ of 66, which generally means it is time to check your pulse. Meanwhile, his defensive runs saved dropped again, and he was now dead last in all of baseball in UZR, by a wide margin.
At this point, Betancourt was playing like he was being paid by gamblers.
In 2010, his numbers improved somewhat; his on-base percentage was .288, but he did hit 16 home runs and drive in 78 RBI. And, in a startling development, Betancourt was only the third worst defender in baseball according to UZR, just ahead of Hanley Ramirez and Jason Bartlett (whose demise has been under-chronicled).
Keep in mind, we just remarked upon the improvements of a player who got his on-base percentage "up" to .288, and who improved his defense so dramatically he is now only the third worst defender in baseball at his position.
And this is the player to whom the Milwaukee Brewers are entrusting their World Series pitching staff.
There is a very good chance that Yuniesky Betancourt and Rickie Weeks are going to form one of the worst defensive double-play combinations of all time. And on the rare occasion that they actually make the turn at second, it is 50-to-1 and pick'em whether Fielder will be able to finish the job at first base.
Obviously, the Brewers are in a tough spot, and I do not envy them. Weeks, Braun, Hart and Fielder are the core of the Brewers lineup, and they cannot just go out and replace those bats for the sake of improving their defense.
But they could have replaced McGehee, and they could have found themselves a legitimate defender at shortstop, like, for example, the player that the defensive metrics tell us was the game's best defensive shortstop in baseball in 2010, Brendan Ryan of the St. Louis Cardinals (who admittedly couldn't hit his way out of a wet paper bag).
But on this Brewers team, that probably would not matter. Brendan Ryan could have been for the Brewers what Adam Everett was to the Bagwell, Biggio and Berkman Astros. If you have world class offense at other positions, you can afford an offense-liability shortstop if he is the best defender in the game. In 2005, the Astros took that philosophy to the World Series.
At the end of the 2011 season, when the Milwaukee Brewers and their amazing offense and amazing pitching staff have won between 85 and 88 games and just missed making the playoffs, there are going to be a lot of people in the front office standing around looking at each other with befuddled looks on their faces.
And the reason will be that they still don't get it.
It's been four years. The cows could have built a playoff contender by now.
Asher is a founder of Baseball Evolution and a regular writer for Bleacher Report.