What Has Been the Most Glaring Absence from Last Year’s Team?

Ron Roenicke often finds himself searching for answers this season.

You don’t have to be an expert to realize something’s been amiss for the Milwaukee Brewers this season. In fact, juxtaposed to last season, it doesn’t take too much fundamental baseball knowledge to realize that a lot has been missing this season.

Under the guidance of rookie manager Ron Roenicke at this juncture last year, the Brewers were riding high at 46-42, just a game out of first place in the National League Central division, owning — among other things — the best home winning percentage among all big league clubs. Fast forward to a year later, and Roenicke’s same bunch sits at 38-44, just barely over the .500 mark at Miller Park, clinging to the notion that they will somehow return to postseason contention before they’re forced to sell their assets prior to the July 31 trade deadline.

Just what’s been missing, you ask? I’ll try my darndest to answer that question with some amount of certainty.

Shortstops with Plate Discipline

A position that the Brewers have struggled to find production through over the years, the lack of a steadfast offensive yield at the shortstop position this season has been precariously obvious compared to last season’s club.

Last year, fans griped about the often sub-par offensive capacity of Yuniesky Betancourt, Craig Counsell and Josh Wilson as the team’s primary shortstops. Over the course of 162 regular season games, the three combined for a .256/.277/.395 line with an average wRC+ of 57. Even considering Alex Gonzalez’s production prior to tearing his ACL, Milwaukee’s shortstops have yielded a .238/.304/.379 with an average wRC+ of 71 this season.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wait a minute, some of those numbers better than last season’s!”. While that is most certainly a correct observation, there is another key aspect that must not be overlooked — strikeouts.

Milwaukee’s shortstops last season maintained a superb strikeout rate of just 11 percent. Discounting Gonzalez, Brewers shortstops have garnered a strikeout rate of exactly 18 percent this season, and it doesn’t help that primary shortstop Cody Ransom has struck out in nearly half of his plate appearances this season, either.

Nyjer Morgan’s Production out of No. 2 Spot in Batting Order

In case you didn’t already know, Nyjer Morgan was really, really valuable last season, so much so that his WAR (wins above replacement) rating ranked fourth-highest among all players on the active roster despite playing in just 119 games, according to FanGraphs.

More specifically, though, Morgan was exceptionally valuable out of the No. 2 spot in Milwaukee’s batting order. In that role, the Walla Walla Community College product hit .310/.353/.415 with a .375 BABIP (batting average on balls that were in-play) and a strikeout rate of just 17 percent. This season, he’s experienced a massive decline in production, with a .248/.307/.310 line, .303 BABIP and a strikeout rate of 20 percent out of that same role.

Harboring a WPA (win probability added) of 2.00 last season, Morgan proved to be one of the bigger reasons for Milwaukee’s collective success. As proved by his unsightly -1.37 WPA this season, according to FanGraphs, Morgan has been almost a near opposite of what he was in 2011, and you can bet that’s been a big absence for Milwaukee.

Prince Fielder’s Production out of the Cleanup Role

In case it wasn’t already obvious enough, the 2012 Brewers dearly miss the offensive production yielded by former longtime first-baseman Prince Fielder — it’s hard to blame them for that fact.

As Milwaukee’s cleanup-man for each and every contest last season, Fielder was a force to be reckoned with. In 692 plate appearances, he posted a .299/.415/.566 line and drew a Major League-high 32 intentional walks. What’s more, he actually drew walks on a more frequent basis than he did strikeout, garnering a walk rate of 15.5 percent and a strikeout rate of 15.3 percent.

While free-agent pickup Aramis Ramirez has come on strong of late, the fact is that he just hasn’t produced up to Fielder’s standard, and that has directly affected Milwaukee’s lineup.

Through 75 games, the 34-year-old former silver-slugger has batted .268/.344/.474, drawing 30 total walks with one being intentional. The fact that Ramirez has posted significantly lesser slugging number than Fielder’s from 2011 has forced Ryan Braun into becoming a slightly more aggressive hitter, as displayed by his swing rate of 49.4 percent compared to his 44.6 percent last season, according to FanGraphs.

The source of Gallardo’s regression could be his fastball.

Whether you’d like to believe it or not, evidence shows that Fielder’s absence has probably been the most glaring void in Milwaukee this season.

Yovani Gallardo’s Fastball

There are signs everywhere that Yovani Gallardo has had a disappointing 2012 season. His command issues have led to an increase in walks, hits allowed, batting average against and, of course, a noticeable increase in ERA compared to last season. What has caused such a regression for Gallardo? The answer can be found within his fastball.

Generally known for having a great deal of confidence with his fastball, the 2012 version of Gallardo’s heater has been anything but what it was last season. For starters, the average velocity of his fastball this season has been 91.9 MPH (nearly a career low), down from 92.6 MPH last season, according to FanGraphs. And that’s not even the worst part.

As a possible consequence to his decrease in velocity, the value of his fastball has declined overwhelmingly. FanGraphs cites that Gallardo’s fastball garnered a linear weight (or “pitch value”) of 9.0 last season, enough to rank among the best of all big-league starters. This season, it’s down to an unsettling -5.0, which ranks exactly 13th-worst among starters with at least 100 innings pitched this season.

Defensive Value from Starters, Bench

The importance of having above-average, versatile gloves on a Major League roster cannot be overstated, and the Brewers are well-aware of that fact.

After ranking as one of the worst defensive teams in many categories last season, general manager Doug Melvin made it a priority to go out and find defensive help this past winter. While injuries have certainly taken their toll (see Alex Gonzalez and Mat Gamel) on their effort to improve in the field, it has become blatantly obvious that Milwaukee has actually regressed from where they were last season.

FanGraphs claims that Milwaukee has harbored a -12 DRS (defensive runs saved) through the first half of 2012 compared to their 16 DRS last season which, per the website, should be considered “gold glove caliber”. A lot of that should be accredited to their starters, however, overlooking the value of their gloves off the bench would be remiss.

According to Baseball Reference, Milwaukee’s top four defenders off the bench garnered a total dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) of 2.6 last season. This season, their four primary off-the-bench defenders have just a 1.5 dWAR, with most of their value coming from Nyjer Morgan’s 0.9 dWAR, if you even consider him a bench player.

Just what has been missing from the Brewers bench this season? Quite possibly the loss of utility man extraordinaire Jerry Hairston Jr., who last year alone saved eight runs in just 45 games, was the biggest blow to Milwaukee’s 2012 bench.

Sveum was more valuable to the Brewers than you probably thought.

Dale Sveum

I wish there were a statistic showing how many “wins above replacement” a quality hitting coach added to a Major League team’s record over a given period of time. You know, like they use for positional players and pitchers? Because if there were such a thing, I have a feeling Dale Sveum would have one of the higher ratings in all of baseball.

Milwaukee’s hitting coach from 2006 through last season, it can be statistically proven that Sveum had a lot to do with the hitting success of a few roster players. For example: Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Nyjer Morgan — arguably the heart of the Brewers’ lineup at season’s start — have experienced declines in contact rate compared to last season, as illustrated by FanGraphs. Only Corey Hart and the presently injured Jonathan Lucroy have witnessed an increase in their contact rate from last season to this year.

As we all (should) know, the first priority of a hitting coach is to, well, make sure you’re players are making contact with the baseball at an adequate rate. The fact that Weeks, Morgan and the reigning NL MVP have accomplished that at a much lesser rate than last season shows us how much importance Sveum carried last season. He is dearly missed.

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