Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 1/31/13
I have a theory about front offices, and about baseball organizations in general. It seems to me that everybody’s trending in the direction of getting smarter about the game. There are fewer things within the game to exploit, because everyone’s got better awareness and understandings. I believe that, over time, front offices will come to closely resemble one another, strengthening the correlation between team success and team payroll. The front-office extremes will be closer together, and teams will depend more on money and luck. It’s just a theory and we’re not there yet, but it seems to be a sensible conclusion. About those extremes, and about better understandings — today, we’re still trying to nail down evaluations of defensive performance. When people complain about WAR, they almost always begin by complaining about UZR, because UZR isn’t perfect or even anywhere close to it. But while we’ve still got a ways to go with regard to defensive quantification, over the last several years tremendous progress has been made. I probably don’t need to explain it to you, because you are smart. We’re getting numbers, the numbers usually aren’t dreadfully inaccurate, and people better understand that defense is important and can make a whale of a difference. Finding good defenders is no longer something to be exploited; defense isn’t nearly as underrated as it used to be. So one wonders about the extremes. There will always be the elite-level defensive performances. Some players are just going to be far and away better defenders than others. But what about the opposite extreme? What about the truly awful defenders? It seems to me that teams will be less willing to tolerate dreadful defense from a position, now that they get how much it can matter. Teams should be less willing to find room for an extremely bad defender. Which brings us to the case of Ryan Braun in 2007. The last year of the other Ryan Braun’s major-league career was the first year of this Ryan Braun’s major-league career. He was promoted to the Brewers after a few months in the minors, and over those few months in the minors, he slugged .701. He wasn’t down in triple-A to work on his hitting; publicly, he was down in triple-A to work on his defense, although there were presumably also service-time concerns factoring in. Braun was a third baseman, or at least that was his title. Braun had switched to third base as a junior at Miami. Upon being drafted, it was, for him, a new position, and in the minors, he played all of 186 games. He played all of them at third, and he played third for Milwaukee, too. In the spring of 2007, Braun drew attention with his bat, but he committed too many defensive miscues. The time in the minors didn’t make them go away. It’s laughable what Braun did as a rookie at the plate. In another way, it’s laughable what Braun did as a rookie in the field. As a third baseman for the Brewers, he played just under 950 innings. He was charged with 26 errors. The Brewers, for the record, were a fine team, and they finished just over .500. The quick Braun defensive summary: Braun finished with an .895 fielding percentage. How often does a fielding percentage begin with an 8? Between 2002-2012, no regular posted a lower fielding percentage than Braun did in 2007. Braun finished with a -32 DRS. If we shift to DRS per 1,000 innings, then between 2002-2012, no regular posted a lower DRS/1000 than Braun did in 2007. Braun finished with a -28 UZR. If we shift to UZR per 1,000 innings, then between 2002-2012, three regulars posted a lower UZR/1000 than Braun did in 2007. One was Bernie Williams in 2004. One was Bernie Williams in 2005. And one was Brad Hawpe in 2008, trying to man the unusually large Coors Field outfield. Hawpe’s defensive numbers might have park-factor issues, and his UZR/1000 was just 1.4 runs worse than Braun’s. Braun’s Total Zone rating sucked too. Over the last decade, 2007 Ryan Braun might’ve had the worst individual defensive season. Maybe Williams was worse, but Williams also preceded Braun; depending on what you make of Hawpe, it’s possible no one’s been worse than Braun since. Braun scored a 40 overall rating in the 2007 Fan Scouting Report. Interestingly, that tied him with Miguel Cabrera and Kevin Kouzmanoff. Defensively, Braun was dreadful, and the Brewers knew it. “I think Braunie’s biggest problem is reading the ball off the bat,” says Brewers coach Dale Sveum [...] “He’s gotten a lot better on the routine plays, has gotten a lot better with his throws. “He’s a very good athlete. He’s working very hard at it. It gets easier when you learn to slow the game down. That comes with the territory. It wasn’t like we brought him up and didn’t think some of these things would happen. Obviously, he’s a very special young man. He has worked his butt off defensively. He’s going to get better, no doubt about it.” Now, a couple quick notes. For one thing, while Braun was aware of his own defensive shortcomings, he certainly didn’t let them get him down at the plate. He didn’t seem to take his work in the field with him to the batter’s box, even though he was also in his first go-around at the highest level of baseball in the world. Additionally, the Brewers seemed committed to keeping Braun at third, but then in the winter they moved Bill Hall to third and moved Braun to the outfield. Braun had never before played the outfield, and yet in 2008, he posted a positive DRS and a positive UZR. Third base was hard for him because it was unfamiliar. The outfield was unfamiliar, but he made it work, quickly. Ryan Braun is impressive. But anyway. In 2007, Ryan Braun finished with the same wRC+ as Albert Pujols. He finished with a lower WAR than Ryan Church and Khalil Greene. Everybody knew he wasn’t a good defensive third baseman — everybody has known this for a while — but still he played a lot of third base, perhaps because the Brewers didn’t understand how much he was costing them. Or perhaps because the Brewers understood he was still contributing more than he was taking away, but I can’t help but wonder. Teams understand defense now better than they ever have. They have access to numbers that we don’t, and some of them even use those numbers. Teams have the best idea who is and who is not a good defender, and teams get what defense can gain or cost. So: are we ever going to see another Ryan Braun? Are we ever going to see a team commit so much playing time to such a dreadful defender in the big leagues? Braun, in 2007, had a -29.3 UZR/1000. Last year, the worst defensive regular in baseball had a -13.5 UZR/1000, and that was another outfielder in Colorado. Will there be another, or do teams now know enough? There are always going to be bad defenders, at least relative to the rest of the defenders. That’s the nature of talent distribution. I can’t help but be curious about the future of exceptionally bad defenders. They seem to be something of a dying breed.
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