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Milwaukee Brewers focusing on defensive improvement to succeed in 2021

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Finding few impact bats on the market, Milwaukee sought gloves instead

Oakland Athletics v Milwaukee Brewers
Kolten one is just one of the Brewers major upgrades on defense.
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

While most fans focus on the offense and the thrill of scoring runs in bunches, the 2021 Milwaukee Brewers are poised to be one of the best defensive squads in MLB. With the free agent signings of Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley, Jr. (both Gold Glove winners), plus the return of Gold Glove center fielder Lorenzo Cain, the Brewers have improved their run prevention in a drastic way.

Those three glove men immediately boost the defense, but they also positively impact other positions by allowing guys like Avisail Garcia and Keston Hiura to move to spots more suited to their skill sets. So as much as people were worried about improving the offense, David Stearns may have seen the weak bats as a fluke while tackling what was really a bigger problem – the defense.

Using Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), the Brewers ranked 22nd in MLB last year (-14 DRS). In fact, Milwaukee owned a negative DRS at each outfield position and second base – the exact areas where they are enhancing their 2021 defense. As a quick reference, to have a negative DRS means a player is below average as a fielder.

Hiura owned a -8 DRS last season, the worst qualified second baseman in MLB. Over the past two seasons, Hiura has a -13 DRS, second-worst in baseball (minimum 1,000 innings). Meanwhile, Wong has easily been the best player at the pivot in that time with 25 DRS. The next closest second sacker has 11. It also moves Hiura to first base where his throwing issues are less of a problem and his athleticism could make him a solid glove over there.

In the outfield, Garcia’s -5 DRS in center field ranked 4th-worst in 2020. In fairness, he isn’t really a center fielder, which makes the presence of Cain and Bradley, Jr. enormous. Last season, Bradley, Jr. had a 5 DRS in center and has posted multiple seasons with double digit DRS. And of course, since 2018, Cain leads MLB with 41 DRS. These guys can play wherever you need them and ensure Garcia sticks to the corner outfield spots where he has been an average-to-above average defender.

Milwaukee Brewers v Pittsburgh Pirates
Cain’s return to center field shrinks the field for the opposition.
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Now maybe it’s because I was always better with the glove than the bat, but I love this approach to runs; that is, preventing them. Many advanced metrics like the Brewers’ pitching staff and most of the same guys return from a fabulous 2020. Now throw in better defense that should create more outs and fewer base runners, and suddenly the offense only needs to be average for the team to succeed.

Despite playing in a homer-friendly park at American Family Field, it has acted more like a “neutral” park, not favoring offense or pitching significantly. So the focus on pitching and defense works fine at home and generally plays well in any ballpark. Plus, history has been on the Brewers side when they own a quality defense.

Again using DRS, which dates back to 2002, the Brewers five best defensive seasons are as follows:

2018

2008

2013

2019

2011

With the exception of 2013, I figure if you’re reading this, you immediately know the connection between those other four seasons. For as much as we think of the offenses of the Brewers with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Christian Yelich, etc., defense sure seems to be a major factor to this franchise’s success this century.

Of course, the 2018 club finished with a 96-67 record as NL Central Champions, coming within one win of the World Series – the closest the franchise has been since their only appearance in 1982. Milwaukee’s total DRS that year was 107, good for 2nd in MLB and easily the best Brewers’ mark since the statistic debuted.

The squad was led in DRS by a pair of center fielders in Cain (18) and Keon Broxton (12), though Broxton accumulated his in just 134 innings. Now with Bradley, Jr. in the mix, Milwaukee boasts two quality center fielders again who can cover a ton of ground whenever you need them as starter or late-game replacements.

The next three Brewers on that 2018 team in DRS: Travis Shaw, Orlando Arcia and Manny Pina. All appear to be in the Opening Day plans for Milwaukee this season. Arcia and Pina have been known for their defense, even if they don’t see as much playing time in 2021. As for Shaw, who everyone looks at his offense struggles for, has always been a solid third baseman in his career. That group had average and above average defenders up and down the roster, meaning few holes and consistent run prevention over the course of a season – much like you should expect form the 2021 group.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox
Bradley, Jr. gives Milwaukee two quality center fielders and great depth all over the outfield.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

For comparison sake, the worst Brewers’ club by DRS is the 2003 team who finished at -84 DRS. That squad allowed 873 runs, 3rd-most in franchise history. They also ended the season with a 68-94 record, tied for the 6th-most losses in a single Brewers’ season.

While it seems many people eschew great defense for allure of eye-popping offense, the 2021 Brewers may change your mind a bit. The problem is that truly great defense is often not found in diving plays and flashy throws, it’s found in the margins of great jumps, perfect angles, and consistent tosses on the mark.

So much like Benjamin Franklin’s quote that, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” the Brewers’ 2021 have their own winning philosophy:

“A run saved is a run earned.”

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference