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The Milwaukee Brewers are getting it done on defense

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You could argue that baseball’s best defensive team plays in the Cream City.

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Brewers took two out of three games in their most recent series at Miller Park against the Chicago Cubs, extending their divisional lead - and lead for the best record in the National League - to 1.5 games at 41-27. As has been a theme throughout the season, Milwaukee’s offense struggled to put runs up on the board and scored only seven times during the three-game set. Run prevention was once again the name of the game, as the Brewers shut out the Cubs in back-to-back games on Tuesday and Wednesday, the first time in franchise history that the boys from the Cream City kept the Baby Bears scoreless on back-to-back days.

Milwaukee’s stellar pitching staff has been oft-discussed throughout this year’s successes. The Brewers enter today’s off day with tied for the fourth-best cumulative ERA in baseball at 3.42. The initial out-getters have started pulling more of their weight in terms of innings and production, posting a 2.55 ERA over the last dozen games to lower their season-long total to 3.97. And despite a couple of recent hiccups, the bullpen is still #2 in all of baseball with a 2.65 earned run average.

One part of the run prevention equation that is equally important but perhaps a bit overlooked is the defense behind Milwaukee’s pitching staff. The old school stats will tell you that the Brewers’ 41 errors rank tied for the 10th-most in the big leagues, and their combined .983 fielding percentage places them in a tie for 20th. So when you hear Bill Schroeder cite the team’s “middle of the pack” defense during the television broadcast, those are the numbers he is referring to. But several other stats suggest that the Brewers have actually been one of the elite defensive teams in baseball in 2018.

According to the Fangraphs’ leaderboard for the metric Defensive Runs Saved, the Milwaukee Brewers rank #1 in all of baseball with +52 DRS as a team. The next closest team, the Diamondbacks, check in a whole eight runs behind at +44 DRS. Individually, the Brewers have four of the top 30 defenders in baseball in terms of Defensive Runs Saved. Lorenzo Cain leads the club with +10 DRS so far in 548.2 innings, which ties him with former Brewer Lewis Brinson for the top mark among the league’s center fielders. Orlando Arcia has been credited with +9 Defensive Runs Saved so far, which ranks behind only Addison Russell and Francisco Lindor as far as shortstops around the league go. Arcia has also played forty fewer innings in the field than Russell and some 160 innings fewer than Lindor.

The next two Brewers on the list are a little more surprising, as defense isn’t typically the first thing that comes to mind when discussing either player. But the numbers say that last year’s team MVP Travis Shaw is an underrated gloveman at the hot corner, and so far this season he is baseball’s #2 third baseman with +7 DRS. Finally, we arrive at the most astonishing name on this list - right fielder Domingo Santana. Sunday’s bat has been a major disappointment to this point in 2018, but he has totally flipped the script on his defense. After totaling -15 DRS during 2016-17, Santana has accrued +7 DRS this season. Among MLB right fielders, only Aaron Judge has been credited with more Defensive Runs Saved.

While DRS is probably the most commonly cited defensive metric, it’s not the only one. Ultimate Zone Rating is another statistic used to evaluate defense, and the Brewers rate quite highly there as well. The idea behind UZR is that it compares the event that actually happened (like a hit, out, or error) to data on similarly hit balls in the past to determine how much better or worse the fielder did than the “average” player. Per Fangraphs, Milwaukee’s defenders have combined for a +15.3 UZR. That ranks as the #3 total in all of baseball.

One final stat that we’ll look at is Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency. Per the BP Glossary, “Defensive Efficiency is the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs by a team’s defense.” To this point in the year, Milwaukee ranks #2 in baseball (behind the Cubs) with a Defensive Efficiency rating of 0.733, which means that a little more than 73% of the balls put in play against the Brewers are turned into outs. Milwaukee is seventh-best overall with a 0.774 DE rating on ground balls, but is #1 in the league at converting fly balls into outs (0.933 DE) and #2 (behind the Yankees) at turning line drives into outs (0.425 DE).

Defensive statistics are known to be a little wonky sometimes, especially in small sample sizes. But metrics like DRS, UZR, and DE are useful because they are better representations of defensive value than fielding percentage and the old “eye test.” It would be practically impossible for one person to watch every single defensive play in baseball to know just exactly how well a given player stacks up at his position, so these stats help to give the best possible estimates as to how much a player’s defensive contributions help his team win ballgames.

The Milwaukee Brewers have struggled to score runs at times this season, but they haven’t had many issues preventing them. That’s due in large part to the excellent work by the pitching staff, specifically the relief corps. But we can’t ignore the incredible work that this team has done on the other side of the ball, either. According to the metrics, the Milwaukee Brewers are one of, if not the best defensive team in baseball this season, and that’s been a significant contributing factor in the team rising to the top of the National League.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus