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March 18, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Defensive Doldrums

by Larry Granillo

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The differences between the 2010 Brewers, who won 77 games, and the 2011 Brewers, who are projected for an 85-win season, are usually described along these lines:

The 2010 Brewers were a team with a great offense and terrible pitching and defense. By trading for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, the Brewers have transformed themselves into a team with a (still) great offense and solid pitching. The defense is still awful (and may even be worse).

I've read that sentiment in a dozen different articles and have even expressed it myself. It's a simple, accurate description of the team’s strengths and weaknesses. In 2010, the Brewers scored the fourth-most runs in the National League, behind only the Reds, Phillies, and Rockies. With no major departures in the lineup, a similar offensive output is expected. On the other hand, the team’s pitching staff allowed the third-most runs in the league, behind only the Diamondbacks and Pirates. Greinke and Marcum are expected to alleviate some of that distress, both by piling up outs themselves and by easing the strain on an overtaxed bullpen

On defense, though, there’s no help on the horizon. It's no secret that Prince Fielder, Casey McGehee, Ryan Braun, and the rest of the Brewers’ big boppers are defensively-challenged, but it's not until you see the big picture that the extent of their inadequacy sinks in. Milwaukee’s 0.678 Defensive Efficiency (DE) ranked 15th in the National League and 29th in the majors last season. The only team to rate lower played in Pittsburgh and won 57 games. And with Alcides Escobar—one of the few players on the Brewers’ roster valued for his glove—leaving as part of the Greinke trade, there isn't much potential for improvement in 2011. Adding Yuniesky Betancourt to the everyday lineup tends to lower a team’s defensive ceiling.

The Brewers aren't the only defensive black hole in the division. The Pirates, Brewers, Astros, and Cubs occupied the bottom four spots in the NL's 2010 Defensive Efficiency rankings. Only the Cardinals (seventh in the league) and the Reds (second) were above average in the field. No other division can "boast" such defensive homogeneity.

As I mentioned earlier, the Central's worst defense does not belong to the Brewers. With a .673 DE, Pittsburgh finished worst in the majors and as far behind the 29th-place Brewers as Milwaukee was behind the 24th-place Marlins. Individual players' stats back up the team-level findings.

According to the new Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) figures found in Baseball Prospectus 2011, rookie left fielder Jose Tabata was the club's best defensive player in 2010 with +6 FRAA (a respectable total, but not what you want from your "best defensive player"). The team's star players—Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker—all fared worse. Alvarez accumulated +1 FRAA at third base in his abridged time in the majors, while McCutchen and Walker dipped well below zero, with -12 and -18 FRAA, respectively, forcing the kind of trade-off of offense and defense that teams have to make all the time.

The Pirates and Brewers are in similar boats, with their most productive offensive players also playing their worst defense. Prince Fielder is often derided as Milwaukee's worst defender; while that may sometimes be the case, it didn’t appear to be in 2010. After a -12 FRAA season in 2009, the lumbering first baseman finished the 2010 season at +1 FRAA, though we should avoid putting too much stock in either single-season sample. The news wasn't as good for Corey Hart and Casey McGehee. Neither Hart nor McGehee has ever been considered a plus defender, and 2010 was Exhibit A for the prosecution. Hart spent his season accumulating -10 FRAA in right field, while McGehee put up the same number at the hot corner. More surprising was FRAA’s verdict on Carlos Gomez. The Brewers put up with Gomez's anemic bat because of his excellent defensive reputation for getting good reads on the ball and using his speed to chase down anything hit near him. In 2008 and 2009, Gomez turned in seasons of 14 and 15 FRAA as the Twins’ center fielder. In 2010, though, his FRAA sank to -10. With Hart, Braun (+4 FRAA), and Gomez patrolling the Miller Park outfield in 2010, there were plenty of balls falling in for hits.

The blame for the Cubs' poor defense is a bit more difficult to distribute. Most of their outfield was solid, with Marlon Byrd, a +6 FRAA player, chasing down flies in center field, and two decent fielders in Kosuke Fukudome (+1 FRAA) and Tyler Colvin (+2 FRAA) working in right. In the infield, Starlin Castro spent his age-20 season at shortstop, a tough assignment even for a more experienced player, but he handled it well, accumulating only -2 FRAA.

The biggest defensive problem with the Cubs, though, comes from the other players making up the left side of the field: Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano. Soriano has never been a great defender, and 2010 may have been his worst year yet in the field: he earned -7 FRAA playing under the glare of the Ferris Bueller seats last year. Note this quote from BP2011: "His fielding sums him up: He's not awful as much as frustrating, making mistakes and scrambling to repair the damage."

Ramirez may be the Cubs' most serious liability in the field. Offensively, A-Ram’s 2010 was a disappointment, as he hovered below the Mendoza line for the first two months of the season before finally getting healthy enough to put together a respectable second half. His defense was even worse. Ramirez had -14 FRAA in his 2008 season before shooting up to -3 FRAA in 2009. He was back to his old self in 2010, putting up a -9 FRAA season. With a 20-year-old rookie shortstop, a near-statue at third base, and a series of adventures in left field, it's a wonder that the Cubs caught as many balls as they did.

Houston's Defensive Efficiency was identical to Chicago's in 2010, but their story isn't quite the same as the Cubs'. To begin with, Houston's two best players, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, are also excellent outfield defenders. Bourn finished the 2010 season with a career-high +7 FRAA. Pence did him even better, accumulating +10 FRAA in 2010, which was Pence's third straight year of with a FRAA of at least +7 in right field. Jeff Keppinger put together a fantastic season with the glove as Houston’s starting second baseman in 2010, mustering a +12 FRAA at the keystone. He'll give way to Clint Barmes in 2011, while the Astros attempt to fit him in elsewhere.

The biggest defensive drain on the team in 2010 was clearly Carlos Lee. Whereas the Cubs needed Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano to combine for -16 FRAA, the Astros received the same horrible performance from Lee alone.  El Caballo finished the season at -15 FRAA, and considering his age and body type, Houston’s brass can't expect much better from their $37 million albatross. Combined with the infield changes that the Astros have made—bringing in Barmes and Bill Hall to replace Keppinger and the revolving shortstop—Houston's defensive outlook for 2011 looks dark.

At least the Cardinals and Reds can look proudly at their defense and not have to worry about that aspect of their performance in the coming season. Having players like Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols, Skip Schumaker, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Scott Rolen—all of whom range from solid to excellent defenders—arrayed around the diamond certainly makes things easier on the St. Louis and Cincinnati pitching staffs. The fact that most of these good glove men are also excellent offensive players makes these teams' lots even better, since it keeps them from having to settle for suboptimal solutions in the field in exchange for pop at the plate.

The worst defensive player on these two above-average teams—at least according to FRAA—hails from St. Louis. A sophomore last year, Colby Rasmus didn’t have the best relationship with his manager; perhaps his -20 FRAA in centerfield had something to do with that. Most surprisingly, Rasmus put up this horrendous number only one season after posting a +5 FRAA in his rookie campaign. Rasmus will be only 24 during the 2011 year, so he may still have better defensive days aheads.

The NL Central doesn’t have the strongest reputation among baseball fans these days. Since the 83-win Cardinals' World Series win in 2006, observers have bemoaned the Central's mediocre teams and their lack of success in the postseason. There are, of course, many factors that contribute to a run like that, but it's not unreasonable to think that the division's terrible defense has played a big part. In view of the scarcity of good gloves making their way into the division this offseason, a defensive renaissance in the NL Central will probably have to wait until at least 2012.

Related Content:  Defense,  FRAA,  Defensive Efficiency

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