With full seasons from Orlando Arcia at shortstop and Keon Broxton in centerfield, the Milwaukee Brewers team defense, which ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency in 2016, was supposed to be improved. The opposite has been true.
The Brewers are currently ranked as the worst fielding team in baseball according to the Baseball Prospectus defensive efficiency metric.
It remains to be seen if this is an early season blip on what otherwise, on paper, should be a decent defensive team, but the early returns are concerning.
The outfield defense has been unsatisfactory at best. Full-time play from Broxton (-0.4 FRAA) has not been enough to cover up the defensive liabilities in the corners in Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana. Entering play Wednesday, Santana has already been worth -2.3 fielding runs below average and Braun has been about average so far in 2017 according FRAA, but has been worth -27.5 fielding runs below average for his career.
The outfielders are not turning fly balls into outs. They rank third-to-last in defensive efficiency on fly balls according to Baseball Prospectus. Their batting average on balls in play on fly balls ranks last in the league at .193 according to Fangraphs. There are only three other teams with BABIPs on fly balls over .160.
Aside from a Domingo Santana collapse as a hitter or a call-up of Lewis Brinson, it’s hard to see Ryan Braun or Santana being replaced from their respective left and right field positions.
The Brewers’ pitching staff isn’t particularly fly ball heavy, but with growing trend of fly ball hitters around the league, the outfield defense is a glaring hole to fill.
The pitching staff hasn’t been doing their part in regards to turning balls in play into outs. They have allowed the 5th highest line drive percentage at 26.50 percent. On top of that, the Brewers have been by far the worst team in turning line drives into outs. Their defensive efficiency on line drives is .301, 45 percentage points behind the second-to-last New York Mets.
The Brewers have shifted more than every team except the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays. Teams are still trying to figure out the perfect amount of shifting and when and where to utilize the shift. It is entirely possibly the Brewers are over-shifting, leading to a high percentage of line drives falling for hits. In my opinion, it has more to do with a bad month and a half of fielding and a good dose of bad luck.
On the positive side, the Brewers are seventh in Major League Baseball in defensive efficiency on groundballs. The addition of Orlando Arcia and Travis Shaw to the left side of the infield has dropped their batting average against on groundballs from .233 in 2016 to .222 so far in 2017. It seems the infield is solid enough to be seen as a strength for the Brewers, despite their stance as one of the couple worst defensive teams in baseball.
The Brewers’ batting average on balls in play as a team is .322, which ranks dead-last. That number would be the highest since the 2012 Colorado Rockies if it holds. But of course, one expects it is unlikely to hold.
Brewers lore knew their corner outfield spots would be a weak spot before the season started. No one anticipated it would make them the worst fielding team in baseball. And I think they have good reason to believe this defensive output as a team won’t continue. Their team BABIP was right at .300 in 2016, still a high number but not last-in-baseball bad.
The team defense was supposed to be improved in 2017. Even with this early-season window of bad defense, I’d still bet on the Brewers defense to play like an average defensive team from here on out. There are too many good players for things to keep going as they are. The starting pitching staff should not be as bad as they’ve been and the bad luck on balls in play is not sustainable.
The fact that the Brewers are four games over .500 on May 17th even with terrible defense says a lot about the offense and bullpen. Thus far, the Brewers didn’t transform into the good defensive team we expected them to but they are much better than what they’ve shown thus far.