Spring Training preview: Defense

20 02 2008

Here’s a defensive chart from Baseball Think Factory:

Team	1B DRS	2B DRS	3B DRS	SS DRS	LF DRS	CF DRS	RF DRS	C DRS	DRS SUM
PHI	-13	20	-1	-2	-5	3	13	8	23
NYM	-1	-4	1	15	-4	12	2	-2	20
ATL	3	-6	9	-9	8	-3	0	-1	-1
WAS	-14	1	13	-14	-2	1	7	6	-2
FLA	-1	-18	-28	-13	-11	-5	8	-1	-70

STL	12	5	24	-10	-2	-6	-7	8	25
CHC	-1	13	3	1	3	9	0	-8	21
CIN	8	1	-1	0	-3	1	-2	1	7
PIT	9	-14	-10	-6	-2	16	-11	-1	-19
MIL	-8	-12	-5	-10	3	-14	0	-2	-48
HOU	-5	-7	-16	-1	-23	-5	-6	2	-61

SF	10	-6	26	25	-9	-4	-6	2	36
COL	10	19	-14	16	14	-8	-6	-2	30
SD	1	9	2	9	15	-1	4	-22	17
ARI	-3	4	-2	-9	12	2	6	6	15
LAD	-7	-8	-1	8	7	2	1	6	8

Total	0	0	0	0	0	0	0	0	0

Max	12	20	26	25	15	16	13	8	36
Min	-14	-18	-28	-14	-23	-14	-11	-22	-70
Range	26	38	54	38	38	30	23	30	107

The Milwaukee Brewers were one of the poorest defensive teams in the National League, with only Houston and Florida posting worse numbers. If you compare Milwaukee’s -48 DRS sum to Chicago’s 21, one can easily tell that a weak defense was one of the leading reasons to why the Cubs were able to win the NL Central down the stretch.

Doug Melvin’s emphasis on improving Milwaukee’s defense has been well-chronicled this off-season, and I think it would be prudent to delve into how the Cameron and Kendall signings, along with Hall and Braun’s position changes, will affect Milwaukee’s defense. I understand using these numbers will only allow a superficial assessment, but it is still worth exploring.

Mike Cameron looks to improve one of the weakest positions on the field this season. Milwaukee’s center fielders put up the worst defensive numbers in the NL last season, as is evidenced by the -14 DRS in the table. Mike Cameron, on the other hand contributed to the -1 rating for the San Diego Padres from last season. If one plugs in the -1 the position, Milwaukee’s center field defense immediately becomes league average.

Everyone knows that Ryan Braun struggled at third base last season. With Craig Counsell and Tony Graffinino taking 1/3 of the starts at 3B, the defensive rating still comes to a -5 DRS. It is reasonable to assume that without Counsell or Graffinino starting at the beginning of the year and occasionally filling in during the later innings, Braun would have brought the third baseman’s ranking near the bottom for Milwaukee. There is no way to measure the improvement Bill Hall will bring to the third base position, but it is certain that Milwaukee’s defense improves. Assuming that Hall will still split time with Counsell occasionally, I will arbitrarily increase the rating to a modest 0.

With Bill Hall moving to third base, Braun will transition to left field. This transition will certainly come with some growing pains, so it is unreasonable to assume that Braun will be able to match the fine defense provided by Geoff Jenkins and to a lesser extent, Kevin Mench. The rating will certainly travel to the negative side, but Ryan should certainly perform better in the outfield than he did at third. I will decrease the rating to a -1, as Braun’s big arm and athleticism should allow him to quickly learn the left field position.

At this point, Milwaukee’s defense has improved by 14 points so far on this DRS scale.

Now on to Jason Kendall. Much has been made of Kendall’s poor defense, and this table echoes that sentiment. Kendall played for two teams last year (Oakland and Chicago), and both of their ratings are negative (-5 and -8, respectively). Since Kendall played much more of the season with Oakland, one can assume that his defense affected Oakland’s rating more. I feel comfortable assigning Kendall’s defense a -6 for Milwaukee, which is a decrease from the -2 DRS that Milwaukee’s catcher position had last season. This decreases Milwaukee’s defensive improvement to only 10 points.

That takes care of the new faces and position changes for Milwaukee. One more position needs to be addressed, however. Rickie Weeks has improved his defense at second base in the past two seasons, but it is still below average (a -12) for the National League. With Rickie’s athleticism and range in the infield, he should continue his improvement. He is now injury-free and his heightened confidence at the plate should translate somewhat to the field. A conservative estimate for Rickie’s improvement would be a -9.

With this analysis, Milwaukee’s defense only improves by 13 points. That said, the defense as a whole should improve with the strong emphasis on defense in Spring Training. It may simply be a Brewers’ bias coming through, but the team’s defense as a whole should improve. For the purposes of this assessment, I will take a stand and give Milwaukee’s defense a conservative upgrade of 9 points as a whole. This puts the improvement to 22 points, and -26 overall. Unfortunately, this would still rate the Brewers as a below-average defensive team. I think that is a fairly accurate assessment of the team’s defensive ability. With the offensive firepower the Crew has to offer, however, they should be able to balance out the defensive problems somewhat.

In all, expect Milwaukee’s defense to improve this year. Just don’t expect it to take giant leaps forward. Milwaukee’s offense will have to carry the team, and the starting pitching will have to pitch deeper into games. That said, anything is possible with this young Brewers team. It should be a fun year to watch.

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