The Milwaukee Brewers are still searching for help at the hot corner. They were reportedly involved in the bidding for Starlin Castro before he signed with the Washington Nationals. According to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com, the club “is in the market for a long-term solution at third base.” But if the season were to start today, the lion’s share of reps at the position would go to Eric Sogard, who re-signed for another stint in the Cream City during the holidays.
Sogard was surprisingly productive with Milwaukee after inking a minor league deal in 2017, but he cratered during the 2018 campaign. He made starts at second base, third base, and shortstop, but his output with the bat was so poor that he was eventually sent to the minor leagues and later released. He finished with a .134/.241/.165 slash in 113 plate appearances for the Brewers and didn’t fare any better in Triple-A, batting .225/.297/.270 in 101 PAs for Colorado Springs.
“Nerd Power” was forced to accept another minor league deal before 2019, this time landing with the rebuilding Toronto Blue Jays. It did not take long for him to find himself back at the game’s highest level, however. He posted an .828 OPS in nine games in Triple-A before his contract was purchased by Toronto, and over the next three months, he made himself into one of the more surprising trade candidates of the 2019 summer deadline season. He played all over the infield and even appeared in the outfield corners while hitting .300/.363/.477 with 10 dingers in 363 plate appearances for a 122 wRC+. He was dealt to Tampa Bay for a pair of players to be named later and finished out the year by helping the Rays win a Wild Card spot before bowing out to the Astros in the ALCS.
By the time the 2019 campaign concluded, Sogard had put the finishing touches on the finest offensive season of his career. He set new highs with a .290 batting average, .457 slugging percentage, .810 OPS, and a 115 wRC+. His 13 total home runs between his two stops more than doubled his previous career total; he had launched only 11 long balls over his first 584 games in the big leagues. According to Fangraphs, Sogard has accrued 4.7 WAR during parts of nine MLB seasons; 2.6 of those wins above replacement came in 2019 alone.
So was Sogard’s age-33 breakout for real? Will he be able to sustain that level of production going forward? A deeper dive into the numbers suggests that it is probably pretty unlikely.
First, we must note the difference between Nerd Power’s stints in Toronto and Tampa Bay. He finished with a 122 wRC+ during his 73 games north of the border, but his performance was far more pedestrian in the Sunshine State. In 37 games with the Rays, Sogard batted .266/.328/.404 with three homers for a 94 wRC+. The most notable difference was in his batting average on balls in play; it was .326 in Toronto versus .289 in Tampa Bay. For his career, Sogard owns a .280 BABIP, so there is reason to believe that there was a measure of good fortune involved during his stretch with the Blue Jays. His BABIP with the Rays is much closer to what he’s done during the sum of his time in the big leagues, and he was only in the 35th percentile in terms of Sprint Speed last season.
Driven perhaps by the “juiced” baseball that MLB has put in play in recent years, Sogard made an adjustment in 2019 to hit more fly balls, lifting the at a 42.3% rate versus a 37.0% career average. That change in batted-ball approach, combined with the flightier baseball, has led many analysts to conclude that Sogard’s 2019 season was something of a “juiced ball special.” Among the 478 hitters with at least 50 batted ball events last season, Sogard ranked 440th in average home run distance at 378 feet. His 1.6% barrel rate per plate appearance was 425th. Sogard’s average exit velocity was in the 5th percentile of all hitters, and his hard contact rate was in the 3rd percentile.
In terms of Statcast’s “expected” outcomes based on the quality of his batted balls, Eric fared 20 points better in terms of batting average (.270 versus .290) and a whopping 84 points better in slugging percentage (.457 versus .373). Sogard finished 2019 with a weighed on base average of .342; among the 241 batters who accumulated at least 350 plate appearances, the 35 point gap between Sogard’s actual wOBA and his expected wOBA (.307) was the ninth-largest. Eric’s xwOBA ranked only in the 22nd percentile of MLB hitters.
On the other hand, Sogard’s cumulative DRC+ of 110 in 2019 largely supports the success that he enjoyed at the plate. Whereas Statcast’s expected metrics look at things like exit velocity and launch angle, Deserved Runs Created attempts to “dig beneath play outcomes to isolate how much of the outcome should be credited to the hitter, then weighs those contributions on the value he provided to the team. Then, the DRC+ model adjusts for context, which include factors like which park the hitter played in and how good the opposing pitcher is...DRC+ uses a mixed-model approach to deal with several contextual variables that affect the hitter’s performance, and assign an expected value to the player’s performance that neutralizes those factors.” According to further research by Baseball Prospectus, “DRC+ is more accurate, descriptive, and predictive than any other public-facing statistic when we talk about all of offensive performance.” So, Eric does have that working for him.
When considering all the context around Sogard’s season, however, it does seem difficult to conclude that he’ll be a well above-average hitter moving forward. What he does do is put the bat on the ball a lot — he owns a mere 13.4% strikeout rate and 3.9% swinging-strike rate, and his totals in those two categories in 2019 were largely in line with his career averages. He has earned free passes at an 8.6% rate in his 2,185 MLB plate appearances, and he matched that exact percentage last season. He should at the very least be a useful hitter in 2020, with Steamer forecasting a .256/.335/.386 slash for an 88 wRC+, and Marcel projecting a .258/.336/.408 batting line. Both systems seem to buy into his newfound power, too, projecting 9 (Steamer) and 11 (Marcel) home runs in roughly 420-430 plate appearances. So long as the juiced ball stays in play, that doesn’t seem outlandish.
David Stearns has already indicated that Sogard figures to see a fair amount of action at third base this year, at least in comparison to how often he played there in 2017 and 2018. He doesn’t have a ton of experience at the position, having started only 27 games among 38 appearances at the hot corner for his career. He graded out well there in limited samples during 2011 and 2012, but has been roughly a net-zero at the position by both UZR and DRS in fewer than 100 innings since then. Sogard was a negative at second base last year (-4 DRS, -1.9 UZR) after grading out positively there every year prior, and he’s always been the type of guy who can “fake it” at shortstop versus someone who should be playing there everyday. It stands to reason that he’s lost a little bit defensively as he’s gotten older and he has never had the strongest arm, so he is likely to be a slightly below-average defender at best if he’s primarily playing the hot corner.
Eric Sogard is a useful role player, to be sure. He can provide decent enough defense all around the diamond, get on base at a reasonable clip, and appears to have found some power in the later stages of his career by figuring out how to take advantage of the dragless baseball. Playing his home games at Miller Park might help that even more. Right now, Sogard projects to serve as the strong side of a platoon at third base (likely with Ryon Healy) and with a guarantee of $4.5 mil — including a team option for 2021 — the Brewers are probably counting on him to soak up a sizable amount of at-bats. He’s probably miscast as a regular member of the starting lineup for a team with designs on contending, however; it would almost certainly be in Milwaukee’s best interest to continue exploring available options at the hot corner so that Sogard can occupy a roving role more akin to what Hernan Perez was for the team for the last several seasons.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant