Hope Springs Eternal, Part 1

This got a little out of hand so I broke it up a bit.  Part 2 will run a bit later.

The 2012 Brewers Are Underrated.

Many pundits and most (and possibly all) projection systems are picking the Brewers to finish no better than 3rd in the NL central with a record generally around .500.  Almost everyone sees the Reds jumping up to challenge the Cardinals.  On the surface this makes some sense based on the following obvious things:

  1. Prince is gone. Let’s be kind and call Mat Gamel “unproven”.
  2. Marcum and Greinke were garbage in the playoffs.  This is especially worrisome in Marcum’s case.
  3. Aramis Ramirez will turn 34 this year and is commonly thought to have “old player skills”.
  4. The lineup is very right-handed.
  5. LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito are both gone.
  6. Last season we may have seen career years from Nyjer Morgan, Corey Hart (OPS+ of 133), and Ryan Braun (MVP seasons are often career years).

I think there is a tendency among pundits to focus on either the positive or negative with no gray area in between and with Prince leaving we’re seeing the negative.  With the more stat-based crowd I think some problems are being overstated and some large improvements are being understated, especially defensively.  Let’s get started.

I. Alex Gonzalez will be way better than Yuni Betancourt.

Earlier I wrote a post about BP’s shocking conclusion that Yuni Betancourt was not only not terrible, but was in fact an average defender and actually put up a solid 1.3 WARP last season.  That’s garbage.  You all watched Yuni-toons stand still out there at short.  You saw his sparkling .271 OBP.  You saw Zack Greinke out there trying to prevent anything from being hit towards the left side of the infield as much as robotically* possible.

BP has Gonzalez as only a .2 WARP upgrade.  Quick, who hit more HRs last year, Yuni Betancourt or Alex Gonzalez?  (It’s Alex, 15-13, in about the same number of plate appearances).  He’s not a good offensive player, but he’s about the same, and by all accounts he’s a defensive wizard even if defensive metrics are a bit all over the map on him.  (More on defensive metrics later.  After writing this I never want to see another defensive metric again because I basically feel like I spent 15 minutes writing down random numbers.)  He’s going to shorten innings, lighten the starters’ workloads, and allow them to go deeper into games.  How many times last year did you think back on games and wonder “what if Greinke had just gotten out of the 3rd on 10 pitches instead of the 45 he ended up throwing because inertia once again defeated Betancourt?”  In short, aside from providing an objective value-upgrade over Yuni there will also be knock-on effects for the pitching staff as a whole.

There’s another reason that Alex Gonzalez will be way better than Yuni.  The other day Jack Moore wrote this post at Disciples of Uecker on the subject of the Brewers’ struggles with the bases loaded.**

“Betancourt’s awfulness seriously cannot be overstated. He was 3-for-21 with one walk. He hit two sacrifice flies, but also grounded into three double plays. Overall, Betancourt produced a whopping 23 outs (15 normal outs, six on double plays, two on sacrifice flies) in just 21 at-bats and 24 plate appearances. “

While Yuni’s stats in a vacuum last year produced a WARP of 1.3 and a WAR of .5, his awful situational hitting led to a WPA of -2.47.***  Alex Gonzalez WPA’s aren’t exactly stellar, but in the past 5 seasons his worst is -1.90 and his best (in 2010) was -.71.  Last year it was -1.4.

Low OBP guys are going to put up low WPAs most of the time, but Yuni last year was something special.  In fact in 2011 Only 5 players put up WPAs worse than Yuni Betancourt.  They are:

Carl Crawford – (-2.64)

Kurt Suzuki – (-2.97)

Mark Ellis (-3.35)

Alex Rios (-3.36)

Alcides Escobar (-5.03)

And in fact a sub -2.0 year from Yuni is not out of the ordinary as he’s been there in 3 of the last 4 seasons.

But let’s move on, we’ve spent way too much time at SS when we should give equal time to the shocking terribleness over at 3rd that is no more.

II. Aramis Ramirez is a huge upgrade over Casey McGehee offensively and defensively.

2007 seems like eons ago.  It was the last year that defensive metrics agree that Aramis Ramirez was a plus defender (10.8 FRAA, 11.6 UZR).  It’s a bit strange really since FRAA had him at -20.2 the year before and UZR at less terrible -2.1, but still worth noting.  Since 2007 Ram has declined posting UZRs of -3.4, -2.8, -6.5, and last year, -9.4, respectively, and FRAAs of -13.8, -2.7, -8.0, and last year -15.1, respectively.  What the numbers agree on are that the last two years have been especially bad for Ramirez, and that maybe age is getting to him.  He’s had leg problems and no one argues that he’s as nimble as he once was.  Then again, something else changed too over the last two years.  His name is Starlin Castro.

In 2007 the Cubs SS was a 27-year-old Ryan Theriot where he would remain until 2009.  He was never a great defensive SS, but he put up decent enough numbers in that time period (UZR 3.6, 1.7, and 3.7, FRAA – -.8, -9.1, 4.2.  God defensive metrics suck.)

Point is this, Aramis used to have a fairly competent partner out there but Starlin Castro is a very raw SS.  UZR hated him last year (-8.7) while FRAA liked him OK (2.6, why am I even using these?), but scouts and the good old eyes don’t like him.  As he fills out most people expect him to end up at 3rd or 2nd and most agree that he’s already a sub-par SS.

Alex Gonzalez is by far the best defensive SS Aramis has played beside in at least 7 years.  It should make life easier for him.  And even if he continues to struggle defensively he’ll still be an upgrade over Casey McGehee because almost no MLB regular was as terrible last year as Casey.

VORP is an offensive stat.  It mercifully does not include defense.  Last year Casey McGehee’s VORP was -6.8.  Last year Aramis Ramirez’s VORP was 39.2.  The year before that Aramis played hurt and missed time and still put up a VORP of 9.6, which is bad, but still 15 runs better than Casey.  Over the last 5 years Aramis has been a beast on offense with VORPS of 38.5, 44.9, 22.8, 9.6 (hurt), 39.2.  How valuable he ends up being comes down to how much value he sheds on defense, and health.  I suspect due to Alex Gonzalez (and what can only be improved defense at 1B) that it will not be nearly as bad as some expect.  Casey was pretty terrible in his own right. His WARP last year was -.9.  The bar at 3rd base is very low indeed, and the ceiling for Aramis Ramirez is sky-high.

One last note on Casey.  I mentioned Yuni’s awful WPA above, but Casey should also get some special mention in this category because only 9 players were worse than McGehee.  Yes, the Brewers had 2 of the 10 worst players in terms of Win Percentage Added last year and still won 96 games.  It’s really kind of amazing.  The only other team with 2 such players was Oakland.

Coming tomorrow: Part 2, where we look at the injury bug and some high-leverage bad luck.

*You know.  As opposed to humanly.

**I’m already mad about future squeeze bunts that haven’t happened yet.

***I’m using Fangraphs for WAR and WPA, and BP for WARP.  Just an FYI.  Also, if you’re unfamiliar with win probability, what you need to know is: 1. WAR and WARP basically tell you what your stats should have produced, while WPA tells you what actually happened, so 2. A strikeout with the bases loaded is worse than a strikeout with no one on, etc., and 3. WPA is typically not consistent from year to year and involves a great deal of luck.  It tends to regress to the mean.

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