Our Community Projections for 2012 have wrapped up, but before we got too far removed from them I wanted to take a moment to look at the Brewer defense as it performed last season, and how it might improve or decline in 2012. We'll start with the infield tonight, and look at the outfield next week.
For the purpose of this conversation we'll be using Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) to evaluate performances. If you're not familiar with it, you can learn more about it at FanGraphs. It's not perfect, but it does provide a pretty good approximation of defensive performance and has the added advantage of being readily available.
2011 Brewer UZR: -4.1 runs
Brewers to play the position: Prince Fielder
Brewers expected to play the position in 2012: Mat Gamel
We'll start with one of the Brewers' biggest question marks. While Prince Fielder wasn't a defensive stud at first base, the numbers show that he wasn't as bad as many would have you believe: Slightly below average was certainly acceptable for a player who made offensive contributions like he did.
Mat Gamel, meanwhile, has very limited experience at first. While he's certainly physically capable of playing the position, it'll probably take him some time to learn some of the nuances and get good at things like scooping balls in the dirt, catching in-between hops or keeping his foot on the bag when he has to reach for a throw.
If Gamel can put up defensive numbers that are even somewhat comparable to Fielder's, it has to be considered a surprise and a massive success.
2011 Brewer UZR: +4.6
Brewers to play the position: Rickie Weeks (974 innings), Jerry Hairston Jr. (188 innings)
Brewers expected to play the position in 2012: Rickie Weeks
Rickie Weeks was arguably the Brewers' best defensive infielder in 2011, and in my mind it wasn't even close. The problem was that he either wasn't healthy or was still hampered by injuries for much of the year, leading to Jerry Hairston Jr, Josh Wilson, Taylor Green and Felipe Lopez all getting time at the position. Hairston and Wilson were above average in small sample sizes, while Green and Lopez were not.
If Rickie Weeks misses significant time in 2012, the Brewers will have an interesting decision to make. Either Taylor Green or Brooks Conrad could probably play the position and provide some offensive value, but both would come with significant defensive drawbacks. Cesar Izturis, meanwhile, would be better defensively but provide little offensive value.
2011 Brewer UZR: -5.4
Brewers to play the position: Yuniesky Betancourt (1278 innings), Craig Counsell (120 innings)
Brewers expected to play the position in 2012: Alex Gonzalez
The numbers are a little deceptive here: Yuniesky Betancourt was almost seven runs below average by himself (and that feels like a massive understatement), but Craig Counsell brought the number back toward average by saving 2.5 runs in just 120 innings (which translates to roughly 40 runs in a 150 game season).
Even if he does nothing else, Alex Gonzalez should significantly improve this number. He had a down season defensively in 2011 (-0.3 runs according to UZR), but was worth an average of +6.9 runs in each of the four seasons prior to that. Simply by being a league average defensive shortstop he'd significantly improve this team, and he has a chance to be much better.
2011 Brewer UZR: +8.7
Brewers to play the position: Casey McGehee
Brewers expected to play the position in 2012: Aramis Ramirez
I'll be honest, this number surprised me a lot.
I don't think many of us really remember Casey McGehee as a solid defensive player, but by the numbers he was one of baseball's best last season. Six other Brewers played the position, but only one (Craig Counsell) played more than 35 innings there, so this number is largely based off McGehee's work.
Aramis Ramirez, meanwhile, is questionable at the position. He's been below average defensively in each of the last four seasons, and at 34 years old it's probably not reasonable to expect him to make any large-scale improvements. Ramirez should be a major improvement over McGehee offensively, but it looks like he might negate some of that difference in the field.
So what do you think? Will the Brewer infield defense take a step forward or back this season?
Yes, I did use a post sponsored by the Marines to discuss defense.