Rebuilding the Milwaukee Brewers Infield

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The Milwaukee Brewers officially kicked off their rebuilding effort with last week’s trade of Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers, and it couldn’t be a more opportune time for the Brewers to take a step back. Milwaukee won the second most games in the NL Central between 2005-14 based mostly on the strength of a powerful offense, but they are now well behind the curve in the division as the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates appear poised to dominate in the near term. The Brewers have done well to overhaul their farm system in the last 12 months, including the seven new prospects they acquired before the deadline, and the front office is doing its best to set the team up for long term success.

There’s an old adage in sports: defense wins championships. This holds true in basketball and football, but in the complex game of baseball, the importance of defense can sometimes be forgotten. The offensive boom in the early part of this century highlighted the importance of home runs and high on-base percentages, but since the so-called “steroid era” has died down, there is a new found importance being placed on pitching and defense. This is evident in the way the Royals have build themselves into a competitor over the past few seasons; there is no more effective way for a team to prevent runs than by fielding a strong defense behind its pitching staff.

For a team that plays their home games in the band box that is Miller Park, one thing has become clear: the Milwaukee Brewers prefer ground ball pitchers. The Brewers have shifted their draft strategy to focus on big bodied, ground ball types and according to our interview with farmhand Gentry Fortuno, Milwaukee’s coaches work diligently to teach the importance of pitching low and away as soon as a pitcher is brought into the organization. Following the trade of Fiers and with the Kyle Lohse‘s future in the rotation now in jeopardy, the Brewers are working to build their rotation around three young pitchers that were signed and developed by the organization: Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, and Taylor Jungmann. The major league average ground ball rate for pitchers this season is 45.4% according to Fangraphs, and each of these three pitchers are inducing grounders at a significantly higher than average rate:

Peralta: 55.4% ground ball rate
Jungmann: 51.4%
Nelson: 49.9%

At the minor league level, the Brewers have doubled down on the strategy of building a stable of ground ball pitchers throughout their system. The Brewers currently have 15 pitchers ranked within their top 30 prospects according to MLB Pipeline, and their ground ball rates (all courtesy of MLBFarm.com) are as follows:

8. A- || RHP Devin Williams || 43.3% ground ball rate
9. AA || RHP Jorge Lopez || 54%
10. A- || LHP Kodi Medeiros || 66.7%
11. AAA || RHP Zach Davies || 54.3%
14. A- || LHP Nathan Kirby || 66.7%*
15. AA || LHP Josh Hader || 43.1%
16. AA || RHP Tyler Wagner || 65%
17. A+ || RHP Taylor Williams || 50.4%**
21. R || RHP Marcos Diplan || 39.3%
24. R || RHP Miguel Diaz || 50%***
25. AAA || RHP David Goforth || 59.5%
26. AAA || RHP Tyler Cravy || 39.7%
28. AA || RHP Adrian Houser || 53.8%
29. AA || LHP Hobbs Johnson || 48.8%
30. A- || RHP Cody Ponce || 55.3%

*Kirby has pitched only 1.0 professional innings.
**Williams has not pitched this season, so GB rate shown is from 2014.
***Diaz has pitched only 4.0 innings this season, so GB rate shown is from 2014.

So not only have do the three young, controllable building blocks of the major league rotation feature above average ground ball rates, but 11 of the Brewers top 15 pitching prospects are ground ball pitchers, as well. This is significant because ground ball pitchers rely much more heavily on a strong defense than fly ball pitchers tend to. Going forward, the best thing the Brewers can do to try and help further the development of their young pitching staff is to surround them with a stellar infield defense.

Unfortunately for the Brewers, this is easier said than done. According to Fangraphs, the Brewers as a team rank 24th in the MLB with -10.8 total fielding and positional runs below average and a -13.8 Ultimate Zone Rating in 2015. In terms of Defensive Runs Saved, Milwaukee’s cumulative -25 DRS ranks 27th in baseball. The Brewers have gotten negative contributions from most of their defenders around the infield (in terms of total fielding and positional runs above average, min 25 innings played):

1B
Adam Lind: -6.5 runs in 780.2 innings
Jason Rogers: -0.5 runs in 115.0 innings

2B
Scooter Gennett: -1.4 runs in 485.0 innings
Hector Gomez: 1.9 runs in 163.0 innings
Elian Herrera: 1.0 runs in 132.1 innings
Hernan Perez: -2.1 runs in 91.1 innings
Luis Sardinas: 0.1 runs in 66.0 innings

SS
Jean Segura: 3.4 runs in 773.0 innings
Luis Sardinas: -0.3 runs in 104.2 innings
Hector Gomez: 0.0 runs in 57.0 innings

3B****
Hernan Perez: -2.2 runs in 163.1 innings
Elian Herrera: 0.9 runs in 112.0 innings
Hector Gomez: -0.8 runs in 45.0 innings

****I’ve excluded Aramis Ramirez and Luis Jimenez from this list since they are no longer with the organization.

With the lone exception being Jean Segura at shortstop, the Brewers are giving the majority of the playing time in the infield to players that are rated as below average positionally this season. This generally poor defense has led to opposing teams scoring 38 unearned runs this season, which does nothing to help the confidence of the Brewers’ young pitching staff.

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Doug Melvin has intimated that winning games during the rest of the season is a low priority for Milwaukee, and with this being the case, it would be wise for the Brewers to begin employing a lineup based more on defensive prowess than offensive ability. While Adam Lind and Jean Segura have entrenched themselves as everyday players, the Brewers do have several options that they can begin to employ at the keystone and hot corner in order to help further the development of their young, ground ball heavy pitching staff. This means less playing time for guys like Scooter Gennett and Hernan Perez, and more lineups featuring the likes of Elian Herrera, Hector Gomez and current farmhands (and above average glovemen) Matt Dominguez, Luis Sardinas, and Yadiel Rivera.

At both the major league level and in the minor league system, the Milwaukee Brewers have shifted their philosophy to favor ground ball pitchers. With an opportunity to begin rebuilding their infield, it is imperative for the Brewers to place a premium on defense in order to support the growth of their young pitching staff. This may hurt the team’s offense in the near term, but that is no longer a consideration for the 2015 season. Defense wins championships, as they say, and the Brewers now have a unique opportunity to start building towards a championship caliber team that is focused on pitching and defense, rather than the offense-first clubs that dominated in Milwaukee for the most of last decade.

Statistics as of 3 Aug 2015

Next: Brewers Should Consider a Fifth Starter Tandem

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