Speaking for the Defense
I was going to continue my report cards today with the offense, but the games over the weekend got me to thinking about how exactly¬†a team can be built for both the regular season and the postseason. The answer I came up with is that it’s really, really hard. You see, the key to winning in the postseason is a combination of strong starting pitching, at least a couple of guys who can hit a ball to the moon and good defense. And in a short series, good starting pitching can slump and power hitters can lose their swing for a few days, which leaves just one constant that sample size doesn’t typically mess with too much and that’s defense. Yes, guys can go in defensive slumps, but for the most part, what someone can do in five games, they can do in 162 and vice versa.
So it came as no shock to me that the Brewers defense was positively awful in the postseason, especially in the last two games which spelled the end of their season. While errors are an imperfect statistic (of course, all statistics are imperfect), they do tell the tale of a Brewers team who might be heading to the World Series if it wasn’t for their defense. According to the statistic called UZR/150 (it’s the ultimate zone rating per 150 games), the Brewers had two guys who would be considered big time assets on defense and they both played the same position and platooned with each other. Casey McGehee was pretty good a third base at 7.3 UZR/150, but he barely played in the playoffs as Ron Roenicke decided to play Jerry Hairson, Jr. who was pretty hot heading into the playoffs. Hairston had too limited of a sample to determine if he’s an upgrade or downgrade at third, but from having watched him play, I’d assume at least a bit of a downgrade.
Everywhere else around the diamond, the Brewers were lucky to be average defensively. In Rickie Weeks, they have a second baseman who is getting better defensively every day, but he’s still never going to be much more than average. Add to it that he’s playing on a bum ankle, and you can see why his range was so poor in the playoffs. We all know about his double play partner, Yuniesky Betancourt. I’ll get back to him in a minute. Prince Fielder is much better defensively then he looks like would be, but he also looks like he’d play first base like a hockey goalie, so that’s damning with faint praise. In the outfield, we already talked about center field with Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan. Flanking him are Ryan Braun and Corey Hart. Both are just average defenders at best, but can get by with that because of their strong center fielders.
Before you jump on what I’m about to say, keep reading because I’ll explain it in a little bit. I wonder if the Brewers right now are regretting the trades for Greinke and Marcum. I’ll assume they aren’t because those two were huge parts in pitching them to the playoffs, but I wonder if they’re rethinking how those two were acquired at the very least. Let’s start with Marcum so we can end with our old friend. The trade was Brett Lawrie straight up for him. I’m not going to pretend to know enough about the Brewers farm system to know who they should have given up for him, but don’t you think they could have used a .293/.373/.580 line from third base where they got .223/.280/.346? I know this post is all about defense, but you can make up for some bad defense with a line like Lawrie had. He’s going to be a star in this league for quite some time and the Brewers gave him up in an even swap for a guy who is a number two or three starter. I’d like to make an addendum now that I still hope the Royals go after Marcum after next season. I’ll also add that report on Lawrie were that his defense was way better than expected at third.
As for the Greinke trade, I don’t think the Brewers regret that one bit. And I don’t think they’ll regret it next year when he puts it together and has what I’m predicting to be a Cy Young caliber season. What I do think they regret is the decision to take Yuniesky Betancourt as part of the deal as well. Brewers fans may argue that he had big hits in the playoffs and had his moments offensively, but he’s still an offensive sinkhole in spite of his ability to run into a pitch every now and then. And as a shortstop, you can be as bad offensively as Betancourt is, but you have to be good defensively, and he just isn’t. He’s averaging a bit under a -12 on the UZR/150 scale over the last three seasons. That doesn’t cut it. Offensively, Escobar and Betancourt weren’t that different this season, and I bet playing at Miller Park could have raised Escobar’s slugging percentage to close to where Betancourt’s was to make them almost identical offensive performers. You think the Brewers wouldn’t have wanted to have some defense out there in this series? I’m not saying they shouldn’t have acquired Greinke because he was a huge reason why they got to the playoffs, but man did that defense kill them.
This whole post is good news for the Royals because it looks like they actually are understanding how to build a team that can win in the playoffs (if they can just get some pitching…man I sound like a broken record here). Let’s dream for a minute and assume the Royals make the playoffs with the crew they ended the season with, making just one change and subbing Cain in for Cabrera. That would give the Royals big time positives defensively at catcher, shortstop and center field. I know the metrics hate Hosmer, but we’ve discussed that and I’ll add him as a big time positive. I think in the outfield corners, the lack of range that Gordon and Francoeur have is made up for by their arms and Cain’s range. The two defensive liabilities are Moustakas and Giavotella. Both have somewhat limited range and slightly stone-like hands. The hands can’t be helped with anything but work, but they are spread out on the infield at least. Escobar is between them while Hosmer has Giavotella covered on the right side of the infield. If you’re going to have holes defensively, it’s good to either mask them with good defenders right next to them or count on them to hit and hit a lot. The Brewers were hoping the offense would mask the defense, but it cost them in this series and it potentially cost them a trip to the World Series. All in all, still an amazing season that I doubt Brewers fans would trade for anything, but I bet you see a little better defense on the field for them in 2012.
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