Fewer plays in baseball can energize a team — and ignite a crowd — quite like an outfield assist. As an opposition player tries to stretch a single into a double or attempts to score from third on a shallow fly ball, the defender calmly fields the ball and immediately rifles it back toward the diamond. The split second of hesitation between the infielder applying the tag and the umpire punching the air builds the intensity of the moment; once the fielding team has officially recorded the out (and barring any video reviews), the atmosphere becomes electric. The offense trudges back to the dugout, its rally short-circuited, while the defense revels in the glory their outfielder has brought them.
In recent years, Brewers fans haven’t experienced this feeling as much as they’d like. Milwaukee’s performance has fluctuated a lot since the turn of the century, from last-place finishes to playoff berths and everything in between, but one thing has remained relatively constant — their outfielders have persistently failed to throw out baserunners:
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Advanced metrics don’t paint any brighter of a picture. For all their flaws, DRS and UZR generally succeed at gauging the minutiae of defense — such as outfield throwing arms. By the former’s rARM and the latter’s ARM, the Brewers have stacked up thusly over the past decade-plus:
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(DRS began in 2003.)
Here, the outlook is even more grim. Out of 27 overall measured campaigns, the Brewers have ranked in the top half of the majors on five occasions — whereas they’ve finished in the bottom five eight times. The team has run out some solid defenders in its outfield, but few of them could provide value with their arm.
Most of the squad’s current players attest to this deficiency. Ryan Braun (52 career assists, -14 career rARM, -20.2 career ARM) has never intimidated opposing runners, and Khris Davis (4 career assists, -10 career rARM, -10.3 career ARM) looks to be on track to match that. Logan Schafer has continually proven his mettle in the minors — over his 4,161.0 career innings there, he’s gunned down 57 baserunners — but a sickly bat has prevented him from regular playing time at the show. To a lesser extent, the same applies to Shane Peterson, whose current .233 TAv makes him little more than a 27-year-old fourth outfielder.
In the future, though, this could change. The Brewers notably traded several players at this year’s deadline; the most prominent of them, Carlos Gomez (who also owns a mediocre arm, but I digress), brought back four captivating prospects. Two of them play in the outfield, and each pairs considerable offensive potential with incredible throwing ability.
Brett Phillips became a regular starter in 2014, a year in which he broke out with a .905 OPS in 571 plate appearances. More importantly (for the sake of this article, at least), he exhibited an arm that would make Jeff Francoeur proud: Across 1,092.2 innings of work, he piled up seventeen assists. That output earned him a 6+ arm grade in BP’s scouting report, as well as a 70 from FanGraphs.
That showing was no fluke, as Phillips has followed it up with an equally formidable 2015. After hosing eight runners over 832.0 innings in the Astros’ farm system (and receiving the coveted “howitzer” label from BP’s Wilson Karaman), he’s notched three assists in less than 200 frames at Double-A Biloxi. While doubts about his range and instincts have made him bounce between center and right field, he can make elite throws from any area of the stadium.
At 21, Phillips still has room to grow, meaning his arm may become even better with time. He likely won’t join the Brewers any time soon — even if he progresses further in 2016, service-time concerns will probably keep him in the minors until 2017 — but Phillips looks like Milwaukee’s outfielder of the future. His solid bat will eventually grant him plenty of playing time, during which his arm will wow fans and teammates alike.
Domingo Santana doesn’t impress to the extent that Phillips does. Santana’s work at the plate may help the Brewers in the long run, but his low contact rate will likely prevent him from becoming an elite asset there. Meanwhile, his lack of speed has limited him to mainly corner outfield spots, where he’ll likely stay in the major leagues. With that said, he does possess one trait that sets him apart from many competitors: a fantastic arm.
Santana debuted in Philadelphia’s minor-league system in 2009, but he didn’t play a full season until 2012 with Houston’s Single-A club. There, he made a name for himself by racking up a dozen assists in 1,015.2 innings. 2013 saw him smite 11 runners over 926.0 frames, and despite falling off a bit in 2014 (to the tune of six assists in 969.1 innings), he obtained a 6+ grade from BP and a 60 from FanGraphs.
The poor play last season has continued somewhat into the present one. Patrolling the outfield for 697.1 innings between Milwaukee and Houston’s Triple-A teams, Santana only induced three outs on the basepaths. He also hasn’t yet shown any semblance of an arm at the major-league level. Since Milwaukee promoted him in late August, he’s cost them two runs by rARM and 1.5 runs by ARM; in 254.2 innings, his only assist has come courtesy of Elian Herrera’s fleet feet and Francisco Lindor’s poor judgment. The capacity for greatness nevertheless remains; with a clean bill of health in his favor, Santana seemingly has nowhere to go but up.
After an overall exquisite run of play in the final month of 2015, Santana has a good chance at staying in the majors for 2016. Whether he’ll sustain his offense will likely determine how long that stint lasts; if he can keep it anywhere near its current level, he’ll acquire enough playing time to establish his presence in the outfield. Now with his third organization (the second of which he shouldn’t have joined), Santana appears ready to settle in — a thought that should scare baserunners everywhere.
The Brewers entered 2015 as a win-now team, one that proceeded to do the exact opposite of that. They now can only look to the future, which admittedly brings much more potential than it did before the season. Should new GM David Stearns manage to build upon what Doug Melvin left for him, the fans will see a respectable team once again. Then, perhaps, they’ll see more of the exciting throws and thrilling plays that have eluded them for so long.