In perusing baseballprospectus.com's sortable stats (awesome new feature, by the way), I came across yet another gem from this first month of the season. Your Milwaukee Brewers are ranked 5th in the major leagues in defensive efficiency. Showing yet again that defense is so hard to judge just by watching it, I think this ranking would surprise and even shock most Brew Crew diehards. Defensive efficiency is defined by BP as "the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs by a team's defense". Is this just an early-season bubble ready to burst, or has the Brewers' defense really improved to the point that it's a valuable asset?
Well, previous studies tell us that batting average for balls in play tends to be heavily influenced by luck for pitchers. Following that line of thought, if this were indeed a lucky start by the Brewers' D, their pitchers would probably have unusually low BABIP numbers, right? As their pitchers' BABIPs regressed back to average, more hits would find holes and thus the team's efficiency would fall.
We'll divide the Brewers' pitchers into three groups:
1. those with BABIPs higher than they should be (a typical BABIP, according to BP, is in the .290-.300 range), and will probably get better as the season goes on.
2. those with BABIPs that are typical.
3. those with BABIPs that are lower than they should be and thus will probably get worse as the season goes on.
Higher than they should be: Ben Sheets, .395; Doug Davis, .338; Justin Lehr, .353; Mike Adams, .333; Jared Fernandez, .333
Right where they should be: Tomo Ohka, .290
Lower than they should be: Jose Capellan, .179; Chris Capuano, .220; Derrick Turnbow, .269; Dave Bush, .267; Dan Kolb, .167; Chris Demaria, .091; Matt Wise, .226; Rick Helling, .200; Jorge De la Rosa, .211
Wow, Ben Sheets at .395? I'm sure we can expect that to go down significantly, a good sign for Sheets' future success. We probably also can expect Davis' number to go down slightly as well, provided he actually lets the opposition put the ball in play (9 walks on Sunday). Justin Lehr has pretty much been shelled all month, so the jury is out on whether his number will come down or not.
Moving on to those who have probably been a little lucky so far, Chris Capuano jumps out as a guy who may be pitching a little over his head. That .220 is awfully low, and his groundball to flyball ratio (31/30) doesn't show him benefitting from an abundance of easy grounders. Most of our bullpen seems to have had their share of luck as well. Turnbow's numbers may not change a lot, but guys like Wise, Capellan and Kolb have been getting a lot of nice bounces. Research shows that pitchers have little influence over balls hit in play, a point very much against the grain of typical baseball thinking (as shown by the abundance of times a manager will yank a pitcher after giving up a bloop hit or a grounder through the infield). With that in mind, our bullpen may be performing a little bit better than we can expect for the remainder of 2006.
The forecasted improvement of Sheets and Davis, along with the probable decline of Capuano pretty much balance each other out. There are so many other factors to consider, but given what we've seen here, one could come to the conclusion that maybe we do have a pretty good defense. The Brewers finished 10th overall in this category last year. 2/3 of the outfield is very solid defensively (I'll let you figure out which 2), and the infield flashes a lot of range and is for the most part dependable. Below are the FRAA (fielding runs above average) for individual Brewers through yesterday's game:
Rickie Weeks (-4), Prince Fielder (+2), J.J. Hardy (+4), Corey Koskie (+2), Bill Hall (0), Carlos Lee (-2), Brady Clark (+3), Geoff Jenkins (-2), Gabe Gross (+1), Damian Miller (0), Chad Moeller (+2)
Weeks has been our worst defender to the surprise of no one, J.J. and Clark have been stellar, and based on past performance, it's safe to say Jenkins will get better (he finished +8 last year).
2005's top 5 in defensive efficiency were Oakland, the White Sox, Cleveland, Houston, and St. Louis. If these teams' performances in '05 are any indication of things to come, the Brewers' current ranking is a very good omen.