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Can the Milwaukee Brewers play winning baseball without playing defense?

Before the 14 division titles in 15 years, before Greg Maddux and Chipper Jones, no one saw the dynasty coming. In 1990, the Atlanta Braves lost 97 games and had the worst record in baseball. The 1991 Braves came within a Lonnie Smith baserunning gaffe of winning the World Series.

People tend to believe that the Braves jumped from worst to first thanks to their starting rotation, which featured future Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, as well as 21-year-old phenom Steve Avery. That narrative ignores a crucial piece of evidence: Those three starters, along with Charlie Leibrandt and Pete Smith, were all part of the Braves’ rotation in 1990, as well.

The missing ingredient wasn’t on the mound; it was in the field. Between 1990 and 1991, the Braves engineered a defensive makeover of historic proportions. David Justice replaced the fading Dale Murphy in right field, opening up first base for defensive specialist Sid Bream. Jeff Treadway ceded much of his playing time at second to Mark Lemke and his superior glove. The Braves’ incumbent shortstop and third baseman, Andres Thomas and Jim Presley, two of the worst fielders at their positions, were replaced with Rafael Belliard and Terry Pendleton, two of the best. Speedy Otis Nixon was brought in to share left field with Lonnie Smith.

Suddenly, a pitching staff that looked mediocre in 1990 was among the game’s best in 1991. Relative to their peers, the Braves’ pitching staff struck out fewer batters and gave up more home runs in 1991 than the year before. But with more line drives finding gloves and fewer groundballs eluding them, the Braves surrendered the fewest hits in the NL. In 1990, they had surrendered the most.

More recently, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays pulled off a similar about-face. After the 2007 season, Tampa Bay was a 66-96 team that had lost more than 90 games in every year of franchise history. The following winter, they shed the “Devil” from their name and shed the iron gloves from their roster.

Second baseman B.J. Upton, who played the position with all the grace of a pregnant llama, was converted to center field, where he was exceptional. Taking Upton’s place at second was Akinori Iwamura, who made the transition from third base look shockingly easy. The Rays were able to shift Iwamura because top prospect Evan Longoria was deemed ready; Longoria sparkled with his glove as much as his bat on the way to winning Rookie of the Year honors. With one new player, the Rays upgraded their defense at three positions.

Tampa Bay made two more defensive upgrades with a headline-grabbing trade that winter. It sent Delmon Young, who had just finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, to Minnesota in exchange for pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett. Defensively, trading Young was addition by subtraction, as his substandard range was ably replaced by more competent defenders. Meanwhile, Bartlett replaced Brendan Harris, a utility player stretched to play shortstop every day. With elite glovemen Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena already in place, the Rays rode their new, airtight defense to the American League pennant.

The 1991 Atlanta Braves and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays are two of the most impressive turnarounds in major league history, and they stand today as shining exemplars of baseball conventional wisdom, which has always stated that you can’t win if you can’t catch the ball.

This season, at least one team is trying to turn conventional wisdom on its ear.

At the end of last season, Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin found himself in a quandary. He took the job after the 2002 season, when the Brewers lost a franchise-record 106 games. By 2005 they reached .500 and broke a streak of 13 consecutive losing seasons. Melvin has kept the Brewers around the .500 mark ever since, an impressive feat for a team that plays in the smallest metropolitan area of any major league team. But a .500 record won’t get you to the playoffs.

Melvin understands the trade-offs that teams must accept to escape the rut of mediocrity. In 2008, the Brewers were 49-39 and tied for the wild-card spot in early July when Melvin stunned the baseball world by trading four prospects to Cleveland for CC Sabathia. It turned out to be one of the great deadline trades of all time. Sabathia started 17 games for Milwaukee, and the Brewers won 14 of them. In the last two weeks of the season, with the Brewers in danger of falling apart — manager Ned Yost was fired on September 15, an unheard-of move for a team in a pennant race — Sabathia pitched three straight games on three days’ rest, allowing two earned runs in 22 innings. On the final day of the season, with the Brewers tied with the Mets for the wild-card spot, Sabathia allowed a single unearned run in a complete-game win. The Mets lost, and Milwaukee made the playoffs for the first time in 26 years.

Sabathia lost his only postseason start and the Brewers were bounced from the first round in four games. He signed with the Yankees that offseason, and two of the prospects the Brewers traded are now regulars in the Indians’ lineup. But Sabathia was worth all the blood and treasure the Brewers gave up for him.

After third-place finishes in 2009 and 2010, the Brewers reached a similar crossroads last winter. They weren’t good enough to contend or bad enough to rebuild. Prince Fielder was in his final season before free agency, and the Brewers’ pipeline of minor league talent was drying up. This time, Melvin couldn’t afford to wait until July. He pushed all his chips into the pot last December, making a pair of trades to strengthen Milwaukee’s rotation, which already had a pair of viable starters in Yovani Gallardo Randy Wolf. Melvin sent his best prospect, infielder Brett Lawrie, to Toronto for changeup artist Shaun Marcum. Then Melvin again made the surprise winning bid for the best pitcher on the trade market — this time, it was Royals ace and 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. All it cost Melvin was his two best remaining prospects and rookie centerfielder Lorenzo Cain.

As a result, the Brewers entered this season with the weakest farm system in recent memory. Fielder will be a free agent in four months; both Marcum and Greinke can be free agents after 2012. It will be a mild upset if the Brewers aren’t the worst team in the majors come 2013. But for 2011, the division is wide open, the Brewers have an elite rotation, and their lineup core is the envy of rival front offices.

The Brewers are built to win now. If they overcome their competition in the NL Central, they’ll also overcome the most pervasive trend in baseball today.

The sabermetric movement in baseball was slow to catch on to the importance of defense. It wasn’t that statistical analysis undervalued defense; it was that no one knew how to properly measure it. The same generic categories that Henry Chadwick put into the first box scores in the 19th century — putouts, assists, double plays, and errors — were still the only defensive statistics being recorded a century later.

In the early 1980s, Bill James invented a simple metric to measure team defense. He added up all the balls that were put in play against each team, and calculated what percentage of them were turned into outs. He called this stat “Defensive Efficiency.” No one knew what to make of it, and it didn’t catch on.

Then, in 2001, Voros McCracken published one of the most important — and controversial — ideas in the history of sabermetrics. He argued that while pitchers were responsible for how many strikeouts they recorded and how many walks and home runs they surrendered, they had almost no control over how many base hits they allowed.

McCracken’s ideas shined a light on measuring defense. After all, if the pitcher can’t control the outcome of balls in play, the fate of those batted balls must be in the hands of the defense. After two decades under mothballs, defensive efficiency was hailed as a remarkably accurate, if not terribly specific, measure of defense. Defensive efficiency couldn’t tell us who the best fielders were, but it could identify the best defensive teams.

Viewed through this new lens, the Braves’ success in 1991 could be seen in a new light. In 1990, the Braves ranked dead last in defensive efficiency; their defense turned only 69.8 percent of balls in play into outs. In 1991, that number jumped to 73.4 percent — best in the National League.

With the problem of evaluating team defense solved, analysts began studying individual players. Better mining of play-by-play data helped, as did the work of companies like Baseball Info Solutions, which categorized balls in play by degree of difficulty (so that, for instance, a third baseman wouldn’t be penalized for not fielding a line drive that hit the chalk, and would be rewarded for bare-handing a slow dribbler to nip a batter at first base). While defensive measurements aren’t as precise as their offensive counterparts, they’re trustworthy in large samples. And several major league teams have in-house proprietary systems that are even more accurate.

No one saw the 1991 Braves coming, but when the Rays transformed themselves in 2008, analysts noticed. Sabermetrician-turned-political analyst Nate Silver saw the Rays’ defensive upgrade as their ticket to competitiveness. “[T]he Rays’ defense projects to be 10 runs above average this year, an 82-run improvement,” Silver wrote before the season. He also stunned baseball experts by projecting 88 wins for Tampa Bay after it had won just 66 the previous year.

The Rays had the worst defensive efficiency in the majors in 2007. In 2008, they had the best. Silver’s projection was actually conservative — the Rays won 97 games.

It wasn’t only statistical analysts who embraced the new tools to evaluate defense. Increasingly, major league teams did as well. In the aftermath of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, the race was on to identify and profit from the next underappreciated skill set. The book lauded the value of burly sluggers who drew a lot of walks; with no more bargains left in that bin, teams looked for virgin territory. They found defensive specialists.

Perhaps no team embraced the new emphasis on defense more than the Seattle Mariners. After Jack Zduriencik was hired as the Mariners general manager in 2008, he immediately set out to improve his defense. Among his first moves was trading for Franklin Gutierrez, an outfielder with a modest defensive reputation but whose statistics marked him as an elite defender. Gutierrez took over center field in 2009 and immediately made his case as the best defensive outfielder in baseball. In 2010 he won a Gold Glove. The Mariners, who finished 25th in defensive efficiency lost 101 games in 2008, led the majors in the defensive metric and had a winning record in 2009.

By 2010, the only thing the Oakland A’s shared with the team described in Moneyball was their uniforms. No one on the team hit more than 16 home runs; only two players drew more than 50 walks. In lieu of offensive fireworks, the A’s had glovemen everywhere — Coco Crisp in center field, Mark Ellis at second base, Daric Barton at first base. Players like Kevin Kouzmanoff and Ryan Sweeney were acquired for their proficiency with leather more than with wood.

The stats reflected Beane’s new emphasis on defense. The A’s had the best defensive efficiency in baseball last year. Not coincidentally, they allowed the fewest runs in the American League.

Doug Melvin and the Brewers aren’t hopping on the defensive bandwagon. In order to close the trade for Zack Greinke, Milwaukee had to agree to an exchange of shortstops. The Brewers surrendered Alcides Escobar in return for the Royals’ Yuniesky Betancourt. Escobar had been an elite prospect largely because he was considered one of the minor leagues’ best defensive shortstops. Betancourt, on the other hand, possessed below-average speed, a terrible first step, and poor fielding instincts. According to defensive metrics, Betancourt was the worst starting shortstop in baseball.

Which meant he would fit right in with the Brewers. Doug Melvin managed to assemble one of the best pitching rotations in baseball while also preserving a lineup that included Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Rickie Weeks, who were all among MLB’s best hitters at their positions. But Melvin had to compromise on something, and that was defense.

Here is the starting infield of the 2011 Brewers. At third base, Casey McGehee, whom the Chicago Cubs waived in 2008 partly because they felt he didn’t have the defensive chops to play third base in the majors. At shortstop, Yuniesky Betancourt, whose defensive reputation is so bad that his arrival in Kansas City nearly precipitated a fan revolt.1 At second base, Rickie Weeks, who has faced questions about whether he should move to the outfield since the moment he was drafted in 2003. And, at first, Prince Fielder, who fields his position exactly as well as you’d expect from a player listed at 5-foot-11 and 275 pounds.2 They might be the worst defensive infield for a contending club in major league history.

The rest of the Brewers’ defense looks good only by comparison. Sophomore catcher Jonathan Lucroy has thrown out only 19 percent of opposing baserunners attempting to steal, well below the major league average of 27. The best that can be said about Ryan Braun’s glove is that he’s better in left field than he was at third base. Mind you, in 2007, Braun’s one season at third, he had a fielding percentage of .895. According to one defensive system, that qualifies Braun for the worst defensive season in the position’s history. Only Carlos Gomez, who opened the season as the starting center fielder, rates as an above-average defender. As a team, the Brewers rank 25th in the majors in defensive efficiency — a terrible ranking for a putative contender.

This defensive alignment wasn’t forced on the Brewers by injuries or other unforeseen circumstances. This is the way Doug Melvin drew it up. With every other team in baseball trying to zig, Melvin decided to zag.

And you know what? It just might work.

Here’s the funny thing about undervalued assets: The minute they’re perceived as undervalued, they aren’t anymore. A stock that’s a steal at $20 a share is a rip-off at $30. You don’t want to be the last to arrive at the gold rush.

Over the past few seasons defensive specialists may have swung from undervalued to overrated. While the Seattle Mariners had a winning record in 2009 thanks to their great defense, the aftermath was grisly. The Mariners lost 101 games in 2010. The culprit wasn’t their defense, which was still excellent, but the Mariners’ neglect of offense was downright criminal. The team scored 513 runs all year, the fewest by an AL team in a full season since the DH was implemented in 1973. It seemed as though hitters had become the undervalued commodity.

The A’s had the best defense in baseball in 2010, but they finished with a pedestrian 81-81 record because their offense was dreadful. This year, the A’s again built around pitching and defense, and they’re 39-49. After five playoff appearances and eight consecutive winning seasons from 1999 to 2006, the A’s haven’t finished above .500 since. A strong defense is not a panacea.

The Brewers, leaky gloves and all, are in the thick of the NL Central race. A recent slump — they’ve lost seven of their past nine games — has knocked them out of first, but they stand at 46-42, just a game behind St. Louis.

The double-edged nature of the Brewers’ lineup reveals itself when evaluating their big acquisition, Zack Greinke. In some ways, Greinke has lived up to his billing — with 89 strikeouts in 68 innings, he has the highest strikeout rate of any starter in the majors. Greinke has allowed only 14 walks, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio trails only Roy Halladay’s. But thanks in part to the eight guys on the field with him, Greinke has allowed more than a hit per inning. His ERA is an almost incomprehensible 5.66. And yet, thanks to those same eight guys, the Brewers’ offense has averaged nearly six runs in his starts, and Greinke’s record stands at 7-3.

Halfway through the season, it’s too early to know whether the Brewers’ strategy will work. Their pitching staff has wrestled their defense to a draw; the Brewers rank a respectable ninth in the NL in runs allowed. But an offense that was supposed to dominate hasn’t. The problem hasn’t been their star hitters, but some of their bat-first regulars like Betancourt (.260 on-base percentage) and McGehee (.225 average, 5 homers) have hit as poorly as they field. This represents an opportunity for the Brewers coming down the stretch — even with their depleted farm system, they should be able to deal for an upgrade to the left side of their infield.

Almost three decades ago, another Milwaukee squad made a similar decision to eschew defense in favor of bludgeoning opponents into submission. Harvey Kuenn took over as manager in May 1982, with the team under .500, and the Brewers soon became known as “Harvey’s Wallbangers.” Center fielder Gorman Thomas led the league with 39 home runs. Left fielder Ben Ogilvie chipped in 34 of his own. First baseman Cecil Cooper hit .313 with 32 homers. Catcher Ted Simmons hit .269 with 23 home runs. At third base, Paul Molitor hit .302 with 19 homers and stole 41 bases. And at shortstop, Robin Yount played his finest season and won the MVP award, hitting .331 with 29 homers, 46 doubles, and 12 triples.

Even with future Hall of Famers Molitor and Yount, the Brewers had a below-average defensive efficiency. But with an offense that led the majors in home runs and runs scored, it hardly mattered. Despite a mediocre pitching staff,3 the Wallbangers went 72-43 after Kuenn was hired and won the AL East before finally succumbing to the St. Louis Cardinals in a seven-game World Series.

There was nothing elegant about the 1982 Brewers — their philosophy was to score runs faster than their pitching staff and defense could give them up. It worked. This year, while other teams are trying and failing to win with defense, the Brewers have thumbed their nose at baseball’s conventional wisdom. The counterrevolution has arrived in Milwaukee. Vive la différence!

Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website and co-hosts The Baseball Show with Rany and Joe podcast. He is one of the original founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

Filed Under: Milwaukee Brewers, MLB, Sports, Teams

Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

Archive @ jazayerli