The pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018 ranked #11 in fWAR as opposed to #18 so far in 2019. As we know, the Brewers went on an amazing run in September of last season. One the reasons for that run was a shift in pitching effectiveness. During their stretch run to the playoffs in the final month of 2018, the Brewers were tied for third in fWAR with the Houston Astros as a pitching staff in all of baseball.
The starting pitching was frustrating at times during the season, with every baseball pundit in the universe saying that the Brewers cannot win with their current starting staff, yet they did. The bullpen stepped up huge as Craig Counsell leaned on them in September and October. Milwaukee’s manager will likely employ a similar strategy going down the stretch this season. The question is, will it work? If it does, the Brewers’ defense will take a leading role in making it happen. For a run to playoffs to happen, the defense will need to improve.
One of the underrated aspects of Milwaukee’s team last season was their defense, which was one of the best units in baseball. In fact, the Brewers’ pitching staff would have likely been in the lower third of baseball in terms of pitching effectiveness in 2018 if it were not for the defensive capacity of the 2018 positional players. There is no way the Brew Crew’s pitching would measure out so well in September if their defense was not playing at an elite level.
This year, the Brewers are hampered by the fact that the defense is just not as good as it was in 2018. This may play a bigger role than most of us understand, because good pitching can become great pitching when there is great defense behind that pitching staff. Last season, the Brewers put up elite defensive numbers. Milwaukee was #2 in all of baseball with +116 Defensive Runs Saved last season. This season they are not terrible, but not quite as good. They rank #10 in MLB with +25 DRS. If we look at Fangraphs overall defensive rating of Milwaukee, they rank #18 and come out with a negative rating (-1.7). This is just not the same level of defensive acumen enjoyed in the previous year.
With defensive stalwarts like Lorenzo Cain, Orlando Arcia, and Yasmani Grandal in the lineup almost everyday, one can be very confident that Milwaukee will play well in the field. The problem is, up to this point, Cain, Arcia, and Grandal (and the catcher position overall) have not been as good defensively as last season, along with much of the rest of the team. Pitching as suffered as a result.
Lorenzo Cain should have won the Gold Glove last season by almost every defensive metric. He is still great, but not quite as good as 2018 (Ultimate Zone Rating of +8.7 in 2018 compared to +4.5 in 2019). His overall fWAR last season was 5.7 largely because of his defensive play. This season his fWAR is just 0.9. His fielding percentage is better this season than last, and he is on a similar performance track in terms of DRS (17 in 2019 as opposed to 20 in 2018), one of the best in the NL. He is still elite, but he was #2 in MLB last season.
Unfortunately there have been a couple mental lapses uncharacteristic of the defensive superstar, and he has been playing through injury for much of the season. I imagine that is a substantial part of the reason for his slight dip in defensive performance. We can certainly forgive him for not being quite as good in 2019 as he is still probably the best defensive center fielder in Milwaukee history (sorry Carlos Gomez). But he was the best defensive outfielder in baseball last season. He has not been quite that this season, and that reduction in performance has cost the pitching staff on at least a couple of occasions. That said, the team without Lorenzo Cain in center field would not be as good as it is.
Orlando Arcia is often lauded as a defensive phenom. His range and instincts are often credited as being at an elite level. Defensive metrics do not illustrate this, and those metrics are down across the board in 2019.
For all the things that the “eye test” tells us about Arcia’s ability in the field, he does not grade out as well as you would think in areas like UZR, DRS, errors, and even fielding percentage. If we just take his fWAR statistic for 2018, Orlando Arcia ranked near the bottom of all starting shortstops with -0.4. He was one of the worst hitters in baseball last season though, so that can be forgiven because he was such a great defender, right?
Well, he would rank somewhere outside the top 10 in most defensive metrics, so he is not the second coming of Andrelton Simmons. On the other hand, he still is a pretty good defender that might be better than the defensive metrics grant him. He did have a +4 DRS, a 0.0 UZR, which would place him just outside of the top 10 in those categories among shortstops, but he also committed 15 errors and had a .964 fielding percentage. Nonetheless his range allowed the Brewers to shift and play defensive alignments that they might not otherwise be able to in 2018.
Arcia’s 2019 has not been as good defensively as it was in 2018 even with 4 less errors committed (plenty of season to go) and a better fielding percentage (.975). The underperformance of Arcia as a defender led to the call up of Tyler Saladino earlier this season and more time on the bench even though he has been a better hit in 2019. Looking at the defensive metrics tell us why. While Arcia saved 4 runs defensively last season, his DRS so far this season is -2. That is lower than Brandon Crawford. His UZR is -1.7, which is on par with Jorge Polanco. I think we expect Arcia to be more in the range of Javy Baez and Trevor Story on defense, yet he is not, and he actually grades out as worse than average this year.
One defensive statistic that gives me the most worry about Arcia this season as opposed to last season is based on Fangraphs “Inside Edge Fielding” statistical area. Fangraphs breaks down defensive plays made or not made into categories of “impossible,” “remote,” “unlikely,” “even,” “likely,” and “routine.” Arcia’s percentages have fallen off significantly in two of these categories: the percentage of plays made in the “unlikely” category and the “likely” category. In 2018 Arcia made 50% of the plays in the “unlikely” category as opposed to 33.3% in 2019. Maybe more concerning, he made 76.5% of the plays in the “likely” category in 2018 as opposed to 67.9% in 2019.
Compared to a shortstop like Paul DeJong, who rates well in many defensive metrics, but is crushed by Arcia overall in more advanced categories like this, the Brewers still rate out pretty well. However there has been a fall off, and the coaching staff and front office noticed it. Obviously the regression affects the pitching staff as well, because some of those balls Arcia would have made the play on in 2018 have not been made in 2019.
The catching position is the position where it might be argued that the Brewers are better. However it can be argued that they are worse as well. Yasmani Grandal is an elite pitch framer. Currently he is ranked #3 in baseball and has 1000 (Roberto Perez) and 1500 (Austin Hedges) more chances than the two catchers in front of him. It could also be argued the Dodgers and Indians have better pitching staffs making them easier to frame. With this in mind, Grandal might be the best pitch framer in MLB. In fact, Fangraphs rates him as the best framer in baseball with a 13 FRM. Next closest is Danny Jansen at 8.8.
The power of pitch framing. Drew Pomeranz strikes out the side in the sixth. Two were called strike threes on pitches out of the zone.— Alex Stumpf (@AlexJStumpf) August 6, 2019
Did I mention Yasmani Grandal is a free agent at the end of the season? pic.twitter.com/62q38GyRaC
Grandal has a reputation of letting balls get by him on passed balls (PB) or wild pitches (WP). The problem with passed balls and wild pitches is that it is often difficult to discern who is at fault, the pitcher or the catcher. The catcher may get a passed ball, but have been crossed up by the pitcher throwing a fastball in that zips past the catcher’s glove when the catcher called for a slider away. In that case the catcher would be charged with the error, but the pitcher may have actually been at fault. Also the pitcher might intend to throw a slider low and away, possibly in the dirt, and the catcher be unable to block it. In that case the pitcher will get dinged, but the catcher should have done a better job of keeping the ball in front of him.
Does Grandal really let a lot of pitches get by him? When you look at the data, that reputation might be misguided. Grandal has 6 passed balls and the pitchers he has caught have 24 wild pitches. Based on his reputation coming out of the 2018 postseason, that actually is pretty good. The number of pass balls and wild pitches with Grandal as catcher is relatively low, especially when you think of the number of chances he has compared to many of the catchers around baseball who are in time shares. And while not as good as Manny Pina and Erik Kratz last season, it is not terrible, and the framing numbers likely make this a non-issue.
Where things might become an issue at the catcher position from 2018 and 2019 defensively is Grandal’s inability to throw out would be base stealers as well as handling pitching staffs. Grandal does not excel at throwing out baseruners. In fact, he is only throwing out 28% of attempted thieves this season. Funny enough Kratz and Pina threw out 30% and 36% respectively in 2018. While there is a difference it does not appear to be that significant.
So why would I argue there is a problem defensively at catcher? It comes from the handling of the pitching staff. Grandal is a brand new catcher handling a pitching staff that is just not as good as the one he came from in Los Angeles, which could be argued to be the best staff in baseball in both 2018 and 2019. And this is the problem, pitcher ERA when Brewers’ pitchers throw to Grandal is not good in 2019.
Milwaukee pitchers’ ERA is 4.96 when Grandal catches. League average is 4.50. Brewers’ pitchers’ ERA is 3.68 when Manny Pina catches. By the way, when Erik Kratz gets the chance to catch in 2019, those pitching to him have a 2.14 ERA. To be fair, if you compare Grandal (3.40 ERA) to Kratz (3.42 ERA) and Pina (4.00 ERA) last season, he was the better catcher in terms of pitcher ERA when pitchers threw to him. However as I mentioned he did have the Dodgers’ staff throwing to him in 2018 and not the Brewers’ staff. While Grandal’s framing acumen and relatively good ability at keep pitches from getting by him is good. His low CS% and a high pitcher ERA when he catches in 2019 vs. other catchers could be cause for concern.
It is difficult to discern why there is an effect of a particular catcher on a pitching staff; positive or negative. The pitching staff’s ERA when throwing to a particular catcher is at least a good indicator. In the case of Yasmani Grandal, that 4.96 ERA is indicative of something problematic. With his elite framing, decent blocking, and at least adequate caught stealing percentage, the pitching staff’s ERA should not be this high. There is nothing obvious to suggest why outside of this is his first season with the staff. Unfortunately there is likely something more to it than that. What that is a mystery.
Cain, Arcia, and Grandal have the reputation and in one or two of the cases earned the reputation of being defensive wonders at their respective positions, which, by the way, happen to be considered the three most important defensive positions on the field outside of the pitcher. Yet in all three cases, these elite defenders (whether by player or position) are not defending quite as well as they did in 2018. That has impacted the overall pitching of Milwaukee this season. Couple that with Keston Hiura being a below average defender at second base, and the rest of the team being slightly above average to below average defenders, it is no wonder the Milwaukee pitching staff is middle of the pack.
However as a positive, the Brewers’ pitching did not become elite until late last year. We are getting to that time. If the Brewers make another run at this, the pitching is likely to take a step forward. That will happen, in part, if the defense improves. With something to play for, Cain and Arcia might step up their game. With most of the season played already, Grandal and the pitching staff might be in better tune with each other. This could bode well for Milwaukee, but the defense for the Brew Crew begins and ends with Cain, Arcia, and Grandal. How they play defensively down the stretch will go a long way in determining how well the pitching staff performs moving forward.
Next up in this series, we will take a look at actual pitcher performance and execution. Stay tuned!
Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Reference