Retooled Brewers OF among MLB's best

Stearns: 'Improving defense in general was a priority'

June 1st, 2018

lurches into his locker, grabs his glove ahead of batting practice and prepares to head to the field. Out of the adjacent corner of the Brewers' clubhouse -- one comprised of a retooled nucleus looking to build off last year's 86-win season -- third-base coach Ed Sedar shouts at Cain in a scene that plays out almost daily.
"Where's your card?" Sedar said. "Let me see it."
Sedar oversees Milwaukee's outfield defense, and as he has since 2007, he constructs scouting cards that players keep in their back pocket tailoring each defensive alignment. Many clubs use these index-sized cards now, but Sedar insists he pioneered them. And Cain is constantly losing his. 
"Every single day, I tell [Sedar], 'Just wait until we get out there, because it's most likely not going to make it to the dugout if you give it to me early,'" Cain said good naturedly. "He definitely gives me a hard time. I think I've gotten a card out to the dugout once this year. We're trying to figure out a program that works for both of us, so I'm not there empty-handed without my card."
Cain didn't use a card during his seven seasons with Kansas City, and his natural instincts often mask the minute detail of where he's positioned. His raw athleticism as a premier center fielder, in large part, was what inspired the Brewers sign Cain for $80 million, just hours after trading for 2014 Gold Glove Award winner . It was a package deal of sorts that shaped an outfield that -- with improved defense from slugging right fielder -- many metrics and eye tests suggest is among the Majors' best. 

"Improving defense in general was a priority. We were able to do it in the outfield, we think," general manager David Stearns said. 
Looking at Statcast™'s Outs Above Average, which is a range-based metric that details how many outs an outfielder saved compared to his peers, Milwaukee is tied for the league lead with 11. OAA is more telling with a larger sample than two months, so with that caveat, also consider that the Brewers' outfield ranks second in MLB with 21 defensive runs saved, which shows how many runs a player saved or cost his team in the field compared to the average player at his position. Last year, Milwaukee ranked 18th in DRS (minus-6), and it was tied-for 13th in OAA (minus-2). Both metrics are better representations of defensive value than fielding percentage, which the Brewers rank 13th at .988.
Last month,'s Mike Petriello highlighted how the Brewers have been one of the most improved outfields, and personnel upgrades have certainly contributed. Yelich, who logged more innings in center last year (1,368 2/3) than anyone, is playing full-time in the corners, and Santana, who last year was worth minus-6 OAA -- among the worst in MLB -- has made significant strides through a Spring Training program to become a better defender. Santana is at plus-2 OAA this season. 
"He's a diligent worker in his outfield defense," manager Craig Counsell said of Santana. "He's trying to get better at it. He wants to get better at it. He knows it's important to get better at it. I'm proud of him for how hard he's worked. He's spending a lot of time out there making the effort."
Highest conversion rate on catches of at least 3 stars* by a team in 2018

  1. Cubs: 47.8 percent
  2. Pirates: 47.4 percent
  3. Reds: 46.4 percent
    4. ** Brewers: 46.3 percent
  4. Braves: 45.3 percent
    * Catches with a 75 percent Catch Probability or lower

** Milwaukee ranked 21st in 2017 at 30.5 percent
Like most clubs, Brewers outfielders put a premium on treating balls during batting practice as live. This isn't novel, but doing so meticulously allows their outfielders to acclimate to the behaviors of each ballpark. This practice is particularly true when Milwaukee opens a series on the road, and even more at ballparks it visits only once a year. 
"It's difficult to simulate balls you get during a game," said , who has also been a hybrid outfielder/first baseman this year. "Trying to get reads, trying to get jumps, seeing the ball in different ballparks, getting used to some of the different dimensions of ballparks. The lighting is an issue in certain places. The sun is an issue in certain places. It's just about trying to get comfortable."

With Braun able to play first, and having a breakout season (hitting .307/.377/.555 with nine homers), the Brewers believe they've constructed a roster that not only offers defensive flexibility, but also protects them should they become vulnerable to injury. Braun, Yelich and -- who last year played 29 games in the outfield -- have all been on the disabled list this year.
It's also worth noting that last year's outfield included (plus-10 OAA, 11th best in MLB) and , who logged multiple throws of 100 mph or higher, per Statcast™. Both are in the Minors. 
"Those were two pretty good defenders as well," Stearns said. "To really acquire the well-rounded players that we were able to get in guys like Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, they're premium defenders and obviously they contribute at the plate. The on-base presence that both of those guys provide has been huge for us. They've really paced our lineup, and when they get on base, we're generally a pretty good team."

In a stagnant Hot Stove offseason, the Brewers were headliners. After falling one game shy of the postseason in just their second year of a rebuild, Stearns and the front office didn't let off the gas. Milwaukee hasn't lost consecutive games since April 29, and it is 15 games over .500 for the first time since August 2014. 
Cain (127 wRC+) and Yelich (133) comprise among the best 1-2 lineup punches in the NL, and the Brewers' improved defense and pitching staff has played a major part to their standing atop the loaded NL Central. The sample size is now one-third of the season, which indicates this improved club might be here to stay.