Coming into 2021, the Milwaukee Brewers had huge holes to fill at third base and first base. Their outfield was set with three starters with strong track records. Well David Stearns, as he is apt to do, did some “outside the box” stuff. He moved Keston Hiura to first base and signed defensive star Kolten Wong to man the keystone. He brought in Travis Shaw to compete for the third base job with other multi-positional players like Daniel Robertson, Luis Urias, and even Orlando Arcia. And then he did something even more interesting.
Stearns added a defensive stud in Jackie Bradley Jr. to play in an already full outfield with another defensive stud already entrenched in center field.
Craig Counsell: "Lorenzo Cain is our centerfielder." And he left it at that.— Tom (@Haudricourt) March 4, 2021
What is he thinking? He thinks unlike the rest of us, and maybe unlike many of those heading up front offices around MLB. Stearns sees something that few of the rest of us do not. He sees that the baseball will be of the non-juiced variety in 2021. He sees that defense will be at a premium as more teams look to put the ball in play. He sees that with his pitching staff, he can eliminate runs from the scoreboard even more with elite defenders in the field. Kolten Wong was his first move in this direction. JBJ was the second move.
Bradley Jr. is a human highlight reel on defense. He covers as much ground as anyone in baseball. According to Baseball Savant’s Directional Outs Above Average statistics, JBJ is one of the best in baseball.
Directional Outs Above Average takes Outs Above Average, the Statcast range-based metric of fielding skill, and splits it into six different segments to express a fielder’s performance directionally. He ranked in the top 20 in outfield jump according to Statcast. And he is top-3 in outfield catch probability. While DSR has dropped for him in recent seasons, some more advanced metrics suggest he is as good as he ever was.
With just his defensive prowess, his signing has to be considered a savvy move. With LoCain and JBJ roaming the Brewers outfield, with Kolten Wong and the combination of Orlando Arcia and Luis Urias covering shortstop, and Manny Pina and Omar Narvaez behind the plate, Milwaukee is going to keep a lot of runs from opposing teams off the board. Couple that with some really good pitching, and the Brewers are not a team to be underestimated.
Offensively, Bradley Jr. has been an up-and-down player. In 2015 and 2016, he really produced at the plate. In 2016, especially, the results showed as he hit 26 home runs and was a 5.3 fWAR player. Between 2017-2019, he was a below average hitter with BABIPs below .300 in everyone of those years, which suggest some bad luck. His luck changed to good in that regard in 2020 as his BABIP was .343, and he posted a 120 wRC+.
One key statistic to note regarding why JBJ might have been more successful in 2020 was his K%. His K% dropped five percentage points from 2019 to 2020. He put the ball in play more, and for him at least, good things happened as a result.
Stearns and Company are paying JBJ $24 million over two years. The deal does allow an opt out after just one year, and he can make up to $28 million over three years due to a mutual option for a third season. The Brewers might only have the defensive phenom for one year, but imagine what he and LoCain will be able to do in the Milwaukee outfield in 2021. Just from that standpoint, the deal is likely worth it.
Yet there are other reasons that this deal is worth it. LoCain has not played baseball in a year, and he will turn 35 in April. Cain will need days off. Christian Yelich will need some time off his feet. Avisail Garcia will need time off, especially against really good right handed pitchers. As in years past, the Brewers will use a four man outfield with the idea to be ready for a run in September and October. Craig Counsell has always gotten plenty of at-bats to the players that should be getting them. The result should be an outfield racing on all cylinders come September.
Depth is not a bad thing. With this move, the Brewers have it in the outfield in a big way. JBJ improves the defense in a significant way as well. If he can put up an even average offensive season, this deal will prove a steal in a market that just did not appreciate the skill set that JBJ (and Kolten Wong) bring to the table.
Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant