Brewers’ Defense: Roadblock To A World Series?

When the Brewers traded four young players to Kansas City and snatched away Zack Greinke, the deal triggered two reactions:

1) The Brewers traded for Zack Greinke? The Brewers?!?!
2) Too bad they had to take back Yuniesky Betancourt to seal the deal.

The Betancourt snark was funny, but few people actually figured it would make a big difference. The Brewers had already nabbed one of the most underrated starting pitchers in the game in Shaun Marcum. Now they were adding one of the best pitchers on the planet in Greinke to team with Yovanni Gallardo and a potent lineup that included the likes of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee, and Corey Hart. This Brewers team owns enough front-line talent to make a serious run this season. So how much harm could one stone-handed statue of a shortstop possibly cause?

A lot, actually. So much in fact that Betancourt, combined with the rest of a marginal defense, could torpedo a potential run at a championship.

Start with the man Betancourt is replacing. Alcides Escobar posted a 3.5 UZR in 145 games last year, his first full season in the big leagues. You’d like to have three years of UZR data to back up Escobar’s defensive ability, but the scouting reports mesh with the data: Escobar already is, and projects to be, one of the best defenders in the game, at the most important position on the diamond.

Compare Escobar’s profile to Betancourt’s. Yuni’s bulky body makes him a better fit to play a corner position. The problem is, he can’t hit enough to be serviceable offensively at short, let alone at third, first, or the outfield. Of course, he can’t field enough to handle shortstop either, not with an average UZR of -12.5 over the past three years. By swapping out Escobar for Betancourt, the Brewers could be punting 2 wins of defensive value alone in 2011.

The Brewers will trot out one defensive ace this season in center fielder Carlos Gomez. But a full season of one of the best defensive CF would simply replace strong 2010 showings by Jim Edmonds (6.8 UZR in CF) and Lorenzo Cain (2.0 UZR). The rest of the defense offers little in the way of star quality or upside, with veterans (many of them younger veterans, granted) at every position. The Brewers finished 15th in MLB last season with a team UZR of -0.7; it’s tough to imagine that number not getting significantly worse this year.

The bigger issue is a potential cascading effect. As much as we’ve studied the effect of glovework on pitching performance, a lousy defense does more than simply hurt a pitcher’s batting average on balls in play and his ability to prevent runs. It extends innings. It also tests a manager’s patience. Every time Betancourt lunges in vain at a grounder up the middle, Ron Roenicke moves a step closer to calling on his bullpen. It’s a bullpen that could be improved, with Takashi Saito replacing his much less effective 40-something counterpart, the now-retired Trevor Hoffman — and joining a young core led by John Axford and Zach Braddock. But the sooner a team has to call on its bullpen, the more it’s likely to expose its weaker links.

There’s more. Longer innings, working with men on base, and generally pitching under duress, puts potential strain on a pitcher’s arm. Both the Brewers’ starters and relievers risk fatigue, even injury, if they’re made to stand around for long innings because their shortstop probably shouldn’t even be starting in the Pacific Coast League. (For much, much more on the magnitude of this cascading effect, check out Vince Gennaro’s terrific SABR presentation.)

These are all theoretical problems for now, of course. Greinke didn’t tear a rotator cuff in the past season and change, despite Betancourt playing behind him. Shaun Marcum isn’t a big groundball inducer, logging a 38.4% GB rate last year (43.1% and 40.2% in his two previous healthy seasons). Gallardo does allow more grounders than flyballs (42.4% vs. 35.9% for his career), but he’s also not what you’d call the next Brandon Webb.

Still, these things matter on the margins. And the NL Central projects as a division that may well be won by a slight margin this season. The young Reds are coming off a division title, with Jay Bruce moving one year closer to potential stardom and Aroldis Chapman ready to be deployed for his first full season. The Cardinals return the best player in the game and a stellar rotation. Even the Cubs figure to improve with the addition of Matt Garza, enough to at least play spoiler from time to time. The latest CAIRO projections have the Cardinals winning 90 games, the Brewers 87, the Reds 86 – and that’s to say nothing of the Braves’ and other teams’ Wild Card chances.

The news isn’t all bad. While Betancourt produced -11.4 batting runs last season, Escobar was a full win worse, at -21.7. Betancourt is capable of that kind of near-historically bad performance (see 2009′s -23.4 effort), but in any given year, he’s unlikely to be quite as miserable offensively as Escobar and his .235/.288/.326 line of ’10.

Still, Yuniesky Betancourt may be the worst shortstop in baseball, and the rest of the Brewers’ defense isn’t equipped to make up for his shortcomings. Re-signing Craig Counsell to a one-year, $1.4 million could turn out to be one of the most important moves of the Brewers’ off-season, given his still-quality glove. The question is, how often can the Brewers run out a 40-year-old shortstop? Given the in-house alternative, we may be about to find out.




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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

41 Responses to “Brewers’ Defense: Roadblock To A World Series?”

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  1. goyo70 says:

    I think the Brewers need to call Jack Z. and offer cash for Jack Wilson. Or less cash and Manny Parra. The Mariners need the money and have a few excellent SS gloves.

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  2. J.Ro says:

    Hindsight being 20/20, maybe they should have just held onto J.J. Hardy? I don’t know what they got back in the Minnesota trade — anything of value?

    Can they just cut Betancourt and sign Orlando Cabrera?

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  3. Barkey Walker says:

    Is there evidence that these defensive metrics actually work to predict outcomes?

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    • Jilly says:

      This isn’t exactly a case where the numbers disagree with the eyes. I don’t think anyone who isn’t a Brewers fan would consider anyone besides Gomez and maybe Hart to be an above average defender from watching them. This is a defense that is going to be viewed as poor regardless of peoples’ background I think. They might have the offense and the pitching staff to make up for it, but that defense is ugly.

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        I’m just wondering how much it actually matters. I guess another way to couch this question would be, how were the numbers normalized when turned into WAR?

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    • Dealer A says:

      That’s a good question. Betancourt had some better defensive years earlier in his career. Is there any chance he regains his form?

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  4. mister_rob says:

    I think this article should have been written about the Cardinals
    Is there a worse dp combo in the league than theriot/schumaker?
    And Berkman in the OF? Really?

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    • grandbranyan says:

      Yeah, I think Berkman will put up as bad a UZR as Hart/Braun…COMBINED!!!

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    • JayT says:

      Yeah, I really have no idea what the Cardinals were trying to do this offseason. Much of their defense is going to be terrible, 3/4ths of their infield won’t hit, and there is just no way berkman lasts a whole year in right field.
      I think 80 wins is more likely than 90.

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      • chuckb says:

        Tony La Russa wanted “gamers” so the team replaced Ryan w/ the defensively (and offensively) challenged Theriot, decided to keep the awful Schumaker on to play the keystone, and stuck a 1B/DH in RF. Like you, I don’t think it will work out well, and I’m a Cardinals fan.

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  5. Jonah Keri says:

    The Cardinals do have a few plus defenders elsewhere, but that’s an interesting point. Will check it out.

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    • grandbranyan says:

      The Cardinals were already 14 runs worse than the Brewers last year according to UZR. Even if you think Alcides to Yuni costs the Brewers 20 runs on defense the Cardinals are far worse off when you subtract Ryan’s huge number and plug in an equally huge negative number for Berkman.

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  6. Matt says:

    Considering the Braves finished last year with -35.7 UZR (compared to the Brewers -.7), I don’t think swapping out a shortstop is the apocalypse.

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  7. tbr says:

    The Crew apparently didn’t “have” to take Betancourt to get the deal done; Melvin has said he wanted very much for him to be included.

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    • J.Ro says:

      But I’m sure they did have to give up A.Escobar to get the deal done. And weren’t going to decline a replacement that the Royals wanted to get rid of.

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    • grandbranyan says:

      It should also be noted that just because a GM says something to the press doesn’t make it true, in fact it significantly decreases its chances of being so.

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    • Da says:

      If Melvin very much wanted him, Kansas City was slightly stupid to throw in the extra $2 million, no? I think the Royals forced his inclusion as a salary dump, pretty obviously.

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  8. Nate says:

    I agree the Brewers need to address the SS position. I’m not sure Orlando Cabrera is a solution. He’s now 37, coming of 1.3 and 0.8 WAR years. There’s got to be a quad-A player that would be better cost effective to acquire.

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    • I think the Cabrera idea speaks to how bad Betancourt is more than it does to anything about Cabrera. I personally would’ve been okay with the Brewers signing Renteria, if I were a Brewers fan. Again, not because Renteria is any great shakes (as a Tigers fan, I’ve seen the horrors), but because Betancourt is that bad.

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  9. MikeS says:

    I think the Phillies pitching might be a bigger roadblock.

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  10. Jack Nugent says:

    Oustanding analysis. Happy to have Mr. Kheri and FG. This was a post just waiting to be written. 8 or so months from now this is gonna look spot on– I really think unless they make a move, just like it was put– their defense might just torpedo their playoff chances.

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  11. Crumpled Stiltskin says:

    Cascading, well the effects of any sort of contingent conditions, is one of the biggest problems faced with any statistical model, and especially those having to do with sports. Baseball largely gets around that because baseball events do not generally happen simultaneously but one at a time. In most cases, this makes an understanding possible, or at least we can come to the precipice of an understanding. And yet certain events like the widening of gaps in a defense are hard to notice, but are happening do to multiple conditions that exist at one time. The placement of defenders on the field and their ability. (The really interesting thing is that any finding in this field would also be incredibly useful to every other team sport is played, as while defense is different in these sports, at the heart defensive principles all rely on spacing and athleticism.

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  12. Jonah Keri says:

    Agreed, Crumpled. Sadly I lack the statistical chops to do the kind of complicated modeling involved to nail down exactly how cascading would work.

    Fortunately FG has many, many people infinitely smarter than me who might be able to make a run at it.

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  13. Xeifrank says:

    I will take the “under” on the Brewers winning 87 games.
    vr, Xeifrank

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  14. Crumpled Stiltskin says:

    It is perhaps less healthy to think of it as more intelligent, you are clearly quite bright, than differently intelligent, than having your own unique abilities (each in a way a type of intelligence) directed to aims in which they are better suited. Clearly to write a book the one you’ve written, you need many such skills, a people intelligence and an ability to bear down into the material you gather, to be able to decided what is important and what is not, to discover the prescient relationships that make up its narrative. That is its own type of intelligence, one which perhaps those at FG more skilled in numbers than you or I, perhaps don’t possess. (At least not in the way you do, or else why invite you to write on the site?)

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  15. Ender says:

    While you are pretty much spot on with the Brewers defense I think it is important to note that both SP and the RP they added are all pretty big K guys and the pitchers they lost were almost universally low K guys. I think the reduction in numbers of balls put in play against the Brewers will probably offset any dip in defense they see.

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  16. Dudley says:

    how about swinging a deal for brendan ryan and dumping betancourt?

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  17. Da says:

    That’s a rather silly headline. The team should be evaluated as a whole; just because they have poor defense doesn’t matter if they have excellent offense and pitching.

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    • The Ancient Mariner says:

      Your comment suggests to me that you *only* read the headline, since you don’t seem to understand Jonah’s point about the effect of bad team fielding on team pitching.

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      • Da says:

        Was he making a point? He said such an effect may exist and then failed to quantify the impact.

        The Brewers have bad defense, the the negative impact of that may affect the pitching too, but just because they are below average in one component of baseball doesn’t qualify as a “roadblock to a world series.”

        I read the article (though I’m not sure you actually did) which is why I find the headline so ridiculous.

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      • Crumpled Stiltskin says:

        You understand what a question make is? You don’t think bad defense could possibly be a potential roadblock to the world series?

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  18. West says:

    I’ll be shocked if Betancourt plays a game for the Brewers in September or October. Look at the Giants WS roster, half their position players were on another team on opening day.

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