Position Review & Preview: Jonathan Lucroy, Catcher

By Nathan Petrashek

Jonathan Lucroy came into spring training last year with a giant question mark attached.  After tearing up the minor leagues offensively to the tune of .298/.379/.459, Lucroy was called up in May 2010 for an injured Gregg Zaun and slashed only .253/.300/.329.  Lucroy, as a prospect touted for his incredible plate discipline and patience, seemingly failed to transition those skills to the majors, striking out more than twice as often as he walked.  It was a somewhat disappointing season offensively, but allowed Lucroy to work on his defense and familiarize himself with the Brewers’ pitching staff.

Lucroy, as always, came into spring training last year ready to make improvements to all aspects of his game.  The Brewers hedged their bets, though, bringing five other catchers into camp, only two of whom would survive to 2012 (George Kottaras and Martin Maldanado).  The Brewers’ move proved fortuitous; Lucroy broke a finger early in spring training, but returned to the Brewers in mid-April and went on one of the hottest streaks I’ve ever seen from a Brewers catcher (though such offensive juggernauts as Johnny Estrada, Damian Miller, and Chad Moeller aren’t exactly stiff competition).

Through May 31, Lucroy was hitting .310 with a .353 OBP.  His plate patience hadn’t necessarily improved (he walked only 7 times versus 30 strikeouts), but showed pop that had been somewhat of a surprise after hitting only 4 HRs in 2010.  After he managed 6 HRs through may en route to a .496 slugging percentage, though, Lucroy’s power, along with his average, plummeted.  He was a .250 hitter in June, and though his average recovered slightly in July, he had only 1 HR in the two months, contributing to a rather pedestrian .329 slugging.  Lucroy’s power returned slightly in August and September (5 HR, .363 SLG), but his average and plate discipline suffered.  Lucroy would finish the year a .265 hitter with a disappointing .313 OBP and a nearly 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.  However, defensively he would throw out a respectable 30% of would-be base-stealers, though at times Lucroy appeared to have problems blocking pitches.

Remember, Lucroy’s 2011 decline – which mirrors that of 2010 – probably isn’t a result of overwork.  Lucroy received every fifth day off because Randy Wolf refused to let Lucroy catch.  I suspect that the two could not get on the same page because Wolf and Lucroy are both very protective of their ability to call the game, and the pitcher (who has the ability to control what he throws) will usually win that battle.

There has been no indication that the situation between Wolf and Lucroy will change in 2012.  I expect George Kottaras to again be Wolf’s personal catcher, meaning Lucroy should accumulate about 500 plate attempts.  This split doesn’t do the Brewers any kind of service; Lucroy performed very well against left-handed pitching last year, whereas George Kottaras hit only .174.  Lucroy should always be in the lineup when facing southpaws, regardless of whether Randy Wolf is going for the Crew.

However, I expect Lucroy he will make  further adjustments to major league pitching and improve his bottom-line performance.  Between 2010 and 2011, Lucroy significantly cut down on his swings at pitches outside of the zone, and his aggressiveness at the plate in general, though the percentage of times he swung on the first pitch was essentially unchanged.  If Lucroy can further refine this aspect of his approach, we could see Lucroy on base more frequently, though sitting back and waiting for his pitch could cause his power numbers to dip a bit.

2012 Projection: 133 G, 522 PA, 131 H, 52 R, 16 2B, 10 HR, 63 RBI, 42 BB, 85 K, 2 SB, .274/.328/.382

PEDs, the “Character” Clause, and Hall of Fame Voting

By Nathan Petrashek

Over on Twitter, Jim Breen of Bernie’s Crew is terribly impressed with an article by Rob Neyer. It seems Neyer doesn’t take kindly to the Cooperstown voting style of MLB.com’s Terrence Moore, and Neyer just won’t tolerate a baseball writer who won’t vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.*  Neyer takes Moore to task for his invocation of the so-called “character” clause, asserting that not even the legendary Mickey Mantle, with all his intoxication and womanizing, would have made it in the Hall.  To prove his point, Neyer concocts a fictional twenty-year MLB veteran named Joe, whose body begins falling apart in the midst of a wild card race.  Joe applies an unknown white substance recommended by a friend for a week to speed his recovery time.  Relating “Joe” to Mantle, Neyer asks whether a player who routinely drinks himself into a stupor and shows up for work half-drunk should make the Hall over a player like Joe, who will do whatever he can – steroid use included – to play as well as he can.

As a blogger, I like Jim Breen’s work.  He’s normally a very logical, thorough guy.  Which is why I’m shocked that he couldn’t see through Neyer’s hatchet job.

The “character” clause states that Hall of Fame voters are to consider a player’s “integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character” in addition to the player’s record, playing ability, and contributions to his teams.  It does not assign a weight to any particular factor, though obviously playing ability and records have come to dominate our discussion of what makes a very good player worthy of Cooperstown.

In fact, the character clause is deeply engrained in the Hall of Fame voting process.  The battle over the clause was largely settled in its favor way back in 1991, when the Hall of Fame voted to exclude any person on a permanent ineligibility list maintained by the MLB.  The rule change was a direct response to the case of Pete Rose, whose Hall of Fame case was otherwise undeniable.  As a practical matter, the vote operated as a de facto exclusion on character grounds.

Despite the character clause, the Hall of Fame has its fair share of members with, shall we say, dubious moral records.  As Neyer points out, Mickey Mantle was a drunk and a was famous for arriving at the ballpark hung over.  Babe Ruth’s infidelity didn’t stop voters from naming him one of the first inductees in 1936.  Orlando Cepeda, who was inducted by the Veteran’s Commitee in 1999, has been busted for marijuana possession several times.

But there is an important distinction to be made here.  No one has ever argued, to my knowledge, that a player’s career was  helped by their excessive intoxication, or infidelity, or recreational drug use.  The fact that some members did these things does not speak highly of them, but the fact that they were able to succeed in spite of these failings says something about their abilities.

Unlike these human errors, steroids and other similar substances are taken for one reason: to give a player a competitive edge.  They’re designed to make you faster, stronger, durable.  And their roots extend so deeply beneath the numbers of some otherwise Hall-worthy players that it is virtually impossible to create a composite of the player had they not used such substances.  Because of the veil of secrecy that surrounds steroid use, there is no meaningful “before” and “after;” no way to tell who a player truly would have been absent the drug use (though some may try).  This is the most pernicious thing about baseball’s steroid era; even when you know a player was dirty (and figuring even that out is a difficult task), it is impossible to tell how dirty they were.

I, of course, find some sympathy for Neyer’s fictional Joe.  Hell, I would vote for Joe for the Hall of Fame, if the numbers were there.  Should a man’s legacy be for all time tainted because of one bad decision, made from noble intentions? But the occasional user does not, by and large, personify what we conjure up when discussing steroids in baseball.  Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were not one-time users who suffered an ethical lapse in the midst of a playoff race.  Their alleged use was repeated, sustained, and deliberate; their denials amidst the growing evidence utterly unbelievable.

The most compelling argument that the pro-Hall bunch can muster again analogizes PED users to current Hall of Fame members, but this time the focus isn’t on hangovers or weed.  It’s about amphetamines, stimulants that according to certain reports were rampant throughout baseball well into the first decade of the 21st century.  If baseball writers have voted in known amphetamine users, the argument goes, why draw an arbitrary boundary to exclude steroid users?

But pointing out the failings of other Hall of Famers doesn’t make a case for the inclusion of PED users.  As Joe Posnanski has noted, if we’re talking about playing records, the argument that “X player is in the Hall, and so Y player should be too” can be used to justify nearly anyone for inclusion.  Pointing out the ethical lapses among current members does nothing more than make the case against inclusion for those members.  It does not bolster someone else’s case for getting in.  No, the current crop of alleged PED candidates – Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire – will have to make their case on their own, regardless of what Ralph Kiner did with some greenies in 1953.

For most of the upcoming Hall of Fame players who have admitted using PEDs (or for whom there exists a sufficient factual basis to conclude that they used), there’s no good way to separate what they did from what they put in their bodies.  There are, to be sure, some players whose use may have been so fleeting that it should not bar them Cooperstown, but of course we have no idea who those players are.  In any event, past history with Bonds and McGwire almost assures that a player’s denial will never be believed.

It is a sticky and troubling situation to which there is no good solution.  I am thankful that I am not (and probably never will be) a Hall of Fame voter, for they are in the unenviable position of cleaning up the mess the Steroid Era left in baseball’s kitchen.  And so my only advice is for voters to use both their head and their conscience when evaluating  steroid use on their Hall of Fame ballot.  The fact that Jeff Bagwell – a clear-cut, no-doubt Hall of Fame player – received only 56% of the vote based largely on unsubstantiated and baseless suspicions of PED use shows the writers need to use their heads more.  But for the Bonds and McGwires of baseball, I certainly won’t fault guys like Moore for voting their conscience and taking full advantage of the “character” clause.

*Alleged steroid users, the both of them.  Nothing has, as with most things steroid-related, been proven.

The Winter of Our Discontent…

One Brewer fan’s attempt to talk Brewer Nation off the ledge

Have you ever been in a relationship that, right from the start, has you constantly smiling? It seems to be clicking on all cylinders, yet you know it doesn’t have staying power? No matter what you did – weekend getaways, fancy dinners, experimental roleplay – you just always knew that a dark cloud hung over the entire relationship. Well, if you were a fan of the 2011 incarnation of the Milwaukee Brewers, you’re all too familiar with this type of volatile relationship.

Think about it. You had the exciting can’t-sleep-at-night feeling when it all started (trading for Marcum and Greinke). You had the initial rough patch (the 14-20 start). You had the moment when things couldn’t be going better (the August domination), even though that dark cloud still seemed to be waiting ominously over everything else (Prince’s impending departure). And of course, you had the moment when it all fell apart (the NLCS).

So where does that leave you now?

Well, now you are newly single. Your friends are trying to set you up with someone new, but it doesn’t have that same feeling to it. No offense to Aramis Ramirez – who, by the way, is a huge upgrade from Casey McGehee and I don’t care how much you like McGehee or how nice he is – but Ramirez’s signing in no way compares to how we felt when we traded for Marcum (a battle-tested arm from the AL East) and Greinke (I was literally checking my phone for updates as I sped from Green Bay to Madison upon hearing about this trade). Instead of looking forward to another year of watching possibly the best hitting duo in baseball, we have one of them heading for greener pastures and one looking at a 50-game suspension.

(To keep the relationship parallel going, finding out Braun tested positive for some banned substance would be like finding out your ex cheated on you and then gave you herpes – that one’s pretty clear-cut)

Oofta.

So why even bother with a new relationship when the fallout from the last one still stings?

Because this could be the one.

I know what you’re thinking. I must be nuts to have such optimistic feelings about 2012. Just bear with me for a moment. While the glaring differences between last year’s Brewers and this year’s seem to suggest a precipitous fall, I see things quite differently. Let me tell you why. (Thanks to fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com for the following stats)

    1) No more Yuniesky Betancourt. The only hole bigger than the one in Betancourt’s swing was the one that resided where a team’s shortstop should typically be playing. Alex Gonzalez provides similar value at the plate (Gonzalez OBP+ was 76 in 2011, Betancourt’s was 75) while adding defensive value on a team that so desperately needed to improve the defense of the left side of the infield. In fact, Gonzalez’s UZR/150 of -0.3 was his worst since 2005 (and only his second year with a negative UZR/150) while Betancourt’s UZR/150 of -7.4 was his best since 2007. Basically, Gonzalez at his worst is still much better than Betancourt at his best. And Gonzalez’s noticeably superior defensive metrics don’t even tell the whole story – truth is, Gonzalez makes a play on a lot of balls that easily get to the outfield with Yuni out there. Upgrade.

    2) Aramis Ramirez. For the last 8 ½ seasons, Ramirez has been a thorn in the Brewers’ side. Since 2003, Ramirez has posted an OPS+ of 105 or greater in every season other than 2010. Ramirez’s 2011 WAR (3.6) absolutely crushed McGehee’s (0.3) as did his wOBA (.373 for Ramirez, .272 for McGehee). Defensively, I was surprised to find that McGehee’s numbers are quite a bit better than Ramirez’s (UZR/150 of 7.3 for McGehee vs. UZR/150 of -10.9 for Ramirez). Still, the naked eye test suggests that Ramirez will add defensive value if only for the fact that he has greater range than McGehee – though he’s certainly lost a step or two with age, it’s not hard to beat the half-step range that McGehee provided. If the Brewers are going to stay in the NL Central race for the first 50 games without Braun, Ramirez is going to be a key factor.

    3) The bullpen. I don’t expect John Axford to have the kind of year he had last year – that just doesn’t happen often. But even if he doesn’t rack up save after save as he did in 2011, he has the type of mentality to be able to bounce back from one rough outing. And don’t forget that we still have K-Rod for the eighth inning. Now, like many of you, I was not ecstatic that we offered arbitration to him – that’s a big number to be paying a setup man. But he’s going to be auditioning to be someone’s closer. He knows that. He wants that. So if he needs to audition, let’s have him audition with us. Add to that Kameron Loe in a role that he’s comfortable in (not setup), a hopefully healthy Zach Braddock, and the additions of Seth McClung and Jose Veras, as well as the typical movement that a bullpen sees from year-to-year, and the Brewers bullpen has the potential to be as reliable as last year’s version.

    4) Jonathon Lucroy. When was the last time you remember the Brewers having a catcher that you were excited about? A young, up-and-coming catcher that wasn’t some other team’s reject? A catcher who seemed to have the snarl of a pitbull while still knowing how to control a pitching staff of varied temperaments? Seriously, pay attention to Lucroy this year. This one might just be a gut feeling, but I’m calling this his breakout year. He’s going to need to take on a leadership role this year to help fill the void of Prince and Braun, and I think he’ll thrive in that role.

    5) Rickie Weeks. In case you forgot, Weeks was having a pretty impressive season last year until he legged out an infield single, spraining his ankle in the process. We always heard about his potential, and he’s been starting to show that potential for the last few years now. Whether he’s batting leadoff (he’s become a valuable table-setter for the team in the last few seasons) or filling in at the 3/4 hole for 50 games, Weeks has the ability at the plate to put runs on the board.

    6) The rotation. Yes, I know. I watched the playoffs. I saw Gallardo embracing the moment and everyone else fading from it. But we know the potential is there. Greinke has ace material and has shown it on more than a few occasions. Marcum suffered from a dead arm more than anything else in the playoffs. He’s a good pitcher, and I’m thrilled to have him as our third starter. We know what Gallardo is – a strikeout machine who is starting to figure out that seven innings and six strikeouts is better than five innings and ten strikeouts. Wolf is a veteran who doesn’t let his previous start affect his next one. We actually have a rotation that isn’t a glaring weakness. For the second year in a row.

I’m not saying that we’ll automatically be as good as or better than last year’s 96-win team. Replacing Prince is not going to be easy. Losing Braun for 50 games is not going to be easy. As entertaining as he is, T-Plush is in his second year in Milwaukee. In sports, crazy players typically win you over in the first year and then show off their crazy side in year number two. So that could be interesting. All I’m saying is that things aren’t as bad as many Brewer fans seem to think they are. And I didn’t even mention the biggest reason to have hope for 2012.

    7) The NL Central is very winnable. No Albert Pujols. The Cubs are rebuilding. Again. The Astros might field one of the worst teams in history. The Pirates really haven’t done much to change last year’s first-half wonder team. The Cardinals are expecting Lance Berkman to have the same season as he did last year. The Reds pitching rotation got stronger, but still remains an issue.

The NL Central will be a three-team race between St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee. Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos will improve each of their respective rotations, but they will not fix all of the problems that either team faces this year. St. Louis has to replace the man who has been the face of their franchise for the last decade. Cincinnati needs more consistency from their rotation and bullpen. Trust me; the NL Central is wide open.

I know that the sting of last season might still be there for some of you. You’re afraid to get back in the saddle when there’s a good chance for another relationship that has a disappointing end. But 2012 is a new year. This is a new team. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I think you should give them a chance.

After all, the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers might be the one.

Next Up: 2012 NL Central Division Team-by-Team Breakdown

By The Numbers: What the Acquisition of Alex Gonzalez Means for Milwaukee from a Defensive Perspective

By Kevin Kimmes

The offseason acquisition of Alex Gonzalez to replace Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop may not at first seem like a very exciting move on the part of Milwaukee. Gonzalez, who turns 35 this year, is heading into the twilight of his career leaving some to wonder why The Brewers have gone and acquired another shortstop with roughly the same offensive output as Betancourt, when the departure of Prince Fielder has left a void in the run production department.  While it is true that Gonzalez has seen a decline in his offensive numbers (.241/.270/.372/.642 in 2011), the move makes perfect sense from a defensive perspective.

Consider this: according to Baseball-Reference.com, last season Milwaukee shortstops accounted for a total of 23 errors, 2 higher than the league average of 21, and tied for 10th most in the league with Boston, Cincinnati, and Washington. Of these errors, 21 were committed by everyday shortstop Betancourt.

By comparison, the Atlanta Braves (the former home of Gonzalez) committed a total of 14 errors at the shortstop position, ending the season tied for 5th least with Arizona. Of these, 12 were committed by Gonzalez.

Additionally,  according to The Bill James Handbook 2012, over the past 3 seasons (2009-2011) Gonzalez’s defensive play has led to 26 less runs being created  as well as 30 more outs created on grounders and flyballs when compared to an average shortstop. During this same period Betancourt was responsible for the creation of 46 runs due to poor defensive play, partially due to the fact that his outs created on grounders and flyballs were 56 plays below average (the worst at the shortstop position). That’s a variance of 24 runs and roughly 29 outs per season between the two.

So, will the addition of Gonzalez’s glove to the Brewers infield mean lower run totals for the teams opponents this season? Only time will tell. But, based on what the statistics show us, I would say that it is pretty safe to believe that we will be in for much higher quality defensive play this season from the infield.

Blog News: New Writers and an Award

I want to thank everyone who has visited Cream City Cables over the last year.  This month, the blog was named to the 2011 list of the top 100 MLB.com fan blogs.  I hope you enjoyed our analysis of the Brewers, and baseball in general, in 2011, and continue to come back often this year!

I’m also pleased to announce the addition of two authors to Cream City Cables for the 2012 season.

Ryan Smith has been following baseball pretty much since birth.  He is an avid Brewer fan and has a background in literature.  In addition to bolstering the blog’s statistical offerings, Ryan will be providing coverage of the Brewers farm system and draft.

Kevin Kimmes is also an avid Brewers fan with a strong interest in statistics and the history of the game.  Kevin will be contributing Brewers analysis as well as general baseball-related content.

I’m very pleased to have them both on board, and I speak for everyone when I say we’re hoping to build upon the success of our inaugural season.

Offseason 2012: Introducing SS Alex Gonzalez; K-Rod returns

Late last night, Brewers set-up man Francisco Rodriguez accepted the Brewers’ offer of salary arbitration.  He is projected to earn somewhere between $11-13MM this year, putting the Brewers in a significant financial bind.  Doug Melvin was a little fuzzy on the math when discussing the impact on team payroll, but later stated that he talked to owner Mark Attanasio and that the team is still in the hunt for free agents.  It is not yet clear whether that includes 3B Aramis Ramirez, in whom the Brewers showed heavy interest before learning of K-Rod’s decision.

One glaring hole in the Brewers infield has been filled, though.  The Brewers have apparently agreed to a one-year contract with former Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez.  A career .247 hitter, Gonzalez has the same low-impact bat as the much-maligned Yuniesky Betancourt, but his fielding is significantly better.  While Fangraphs indicates that Gonzalez’s defense slipped a bit last year, his history suggests he is a solid fielder who makes few errors.

Back in “Must Win” Territory

Last night’s game – Game 5 of the NLCS – was simply dreadful if you’re a Brewers fan.  Defensive miscues and a lack of clutch hitting deprived the Brewers of a victory in what would have been, absent such errors, a very winnable game.  Jamie Garcia tossed less than five innings, but gave up only one run and struck out five.  It was the Cardinals’ bullpen – a regular season weakness turned postseason strength for the Red Birds – that was again so, so good, tossing up scoreless frame after scoreless frame the rest of the way.  The Crew gave the Cardinals plenty of extra outs on three fielding errors and a throwing error, and the Cardinals took advantage for a 7-1 win and a 3-2 advantage in the series.

Tomorrow, Game 6, is an elimination game for the Milwaukee Brewers.  You can pat yourself on the back knowing you’re a virtual prophet if you saw this coming; that the Cardinals, who have such a historical and philosophical rivalry with the Crew, would be the ones to push the NL Central Champions to the brink of elimination.

So all eyes shift to the man who will take the mound for Milwaukee tomorrow night: Shaun Marcum.

My pizza delivery driver last night wasn’t impressed with Ron Roenicke’s choice of pitcher.  “You’ve heard Roenicke’s throwing Marcum out there for Game 6?”  It took me a moment to register that he was asking because I was wearing my NL Central Championship t-shirt.  “Yeah, I think its a good choice,” I said.  He looked at me, eyes burning, asking if I was serious.  And then explained precisely why he could manage the Brewers better than Ron Roenicke.

I support Roenicke’s choice.*  It is certainly true that Marcum has not been, in Roenicke’s words, “quite as sharp” as he had been earlier in the season.  But for a variety of reasons, I don’t think a lot of Brewers fans are giving Marcum a fair shake.  His pitch location the last few games, if not his pitch selection, has been fairly good, and there really haven’t been any significant velocity dips (not that Marcum is a power pitcher anyway).  His mechanics (arm slot, balance, etc) don’t appear to have noticeably changed, though such things can be subtle.

I’ve come to believe the problem lies in pitch selection.

I put together some graphs of a few of Marcum’s starts this season that illustrate the problem.  I selected two starts in the season in which Marcum pitched pretty well.  In the first on May 16, Marcum threw seven strong innings against the Dodgers, giving up one earned run on five hits with four strikeouts.  Marcum throws his plus-change about 39% of the time.  Combined, he throws his three fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, and cutter) about 33% of the time.

The next start I looked at was June 12 against the Cardinals.  Marcum again goes seven strong innings, this time allowing three runs on five hits with eight strikeouts. He uses his change even more, about 41%, while his fastballs collectively constitute about 46%.

Here’s where it starts to get hairy.  In his last three starts – September 26 against Pittsburgh, October 4 against the D’Backs in the NLDS, and October 10 against the Cardinals in the NLCS, Marcum relies heavily on his fastballs.

On September 26, Marcum threw his fastballs nearly three times as often as his change.  That ratio climbed to eight to one in his abbreviated start in Arizona.  And by the time we get to the NLCS, he’s throwing his very hittable fastballs about five times as often as his changeup.  The diminishing use of Marcum’s best pitch is puzzling given that his fastballs really don’t work without the change.

Although Marcum seems to have taken a fancy to the heat as the season grows colder, Marcum simply doesn’t have the velocity to support his heavy reliance on fastballs.  He needs to go to the change early and often tomorrow.  If he can put that pitch where he wants it – and the location data suggests he can still do that – he will hopefully be back to old form.  You can wonder why Marcum doesn’t have the confidence in his change he once displayed – only Marcum can answer that question – but the path out of this slump seems pretty clear as long as there is no injury or fatigue issue (and both Roenicke and Marcum assure us there is not).

You have to believe that pitching coach Rick Kranitz and the rest of the Brewers’ managerial staff have noted this pattern and are working to correct it.

So where does that leave us?  I would just like to give Brewer Nation a little reminder how we got here.  Marcum was a huge part of our regular season success and deserves credit for taking us this far.  He also deserves our support in a time when he is not doing so well.  Greinke has pitched poorly at times this postseason and yet seemingly gets a pass because the offense can generate a lot of runs for him.

Best of luck to Marcum tomorrow.  And should things get off track and this turns out to be the final game of the season – which would be especially disappointing given the opponent – we should be proud of all that the Brewers have accomplished this year.

*Not that I’m a Roenicke apologist by any means.  In my eyes, his decision to play Mark Kotsay in center field in Game 3 was a fatal error that cost us that game.  And sure enough, first inning Kotsay can’t reach a ball that any respectable center fielder could have grabbed.  Again, you cannot give the Red Birds extra outs, and that mistake falls squarely on Roenicke.