Friday, August 28, 2009

What Constitutes a Good Baseball Team?

I was recently having a conversation with one of my friends about how good of a season Prince Fielder was having. Fielder by all accounts is a below average first baseman defensively, but is completely killing the ball this season. My friend replied, "you don't care about defense. You would take eight Prince Fielder's to play everyday and be terrible defensively."

Now it's tough to accurately judge what makes a great defender by just watching the games. I have heard all season that Ryan Braun is a great outfielder and that Jason Kendall is an amazing defensive catcher. This was, of course, stated by the Brewers broadcast team and really doesn't have any factual basis behind it. Sure Ryan Braun didn't make an error for over a season, but was he really playing good defense? No.

The other night, the Brewers were tied with the Reds in extra innings. There were two outs and a runner on second. Darnell McDonald was batting and hit a fly ball to left field. This was a routine play by all accounts, but Braun ran in and then back only to watch the ball sail over his head. The run scored on the play and the Brewers lost 4-3 after failing to score the next inning. Braun was not charged an error on the play, so in the boxscore, it might appear that it was a clean double for McDonald. Sure Braun wasn't charged with an error, but everyone would agree that he should have easily made the play.

The fact of the matter is that errors really don't tell how good a player is defensively. That is why it is so important to rely on advanced fielding statistics. They are able to determine things that are not visible to the naked eye.

With that being said, let's go back to the topic of what really makes a good baseball team. Would eight Prince Fielder's win you a ton of games? Offensively, yes. Defensively, no. Sure the team might score eight runs a game, but how many balls could Prince run down in the gap? Probably very few. So what is essential in the makeup of a baseball team.

It is very easy to pencil in great hitters in hitter friendly fielding positions. The easiest positions to play on the field are first base, right field, left field and third base. That is why I have always said it is key to fill those spots with great hitters. Anyone can play first base, that is why it is so important to have a great hitter playing there.

The more difficult positions to play mean that that player can afford to not be as effective on offense. Those positions include catcher, shortstop, second base, and center field. Now, I'm not saying that you can afford to run out terrible hitters in those positions, but the talent level in batting between a shortstop and first baseman is usually astronomical. So what would my ideal team be?

It is very easy to plug Hanley Ramirez in at short and Joe Mauer at catcher, but that's really not fair. Most teams are unable to be as fortunate as the Twins and Marlins. So here is what I would look for in a line up. Obviously, the easier positions to play would have to be able to hit. There is really no sense in starting a non-power threat at first base considering how many options are out there. So say I was able to pencil in good hitters at 1B, RF, LF and 3B, what else would I need?

I never believed in an all glove, no bat player. Off the top of my head Nick Punto comes to mind. There is no reason that Punto should be making $4 million a year for the Twins. Don't get me wrong, he is a great defender, but he has no business being in an everyday lineup. So, although I would lower the bar offensively, the "toughest" positions would still have to hit. I think this is why I like Mike Cameron and J.J. Hardy so much. Cameron is a great centerfielder, but he is also able to hit for some power. There are not many CF's that are able to do this. That is what makes him so valuable to the Brewers. Likewise with Hardy. Although he has struggled mightily with the bat this season, he is one of the better hitting shortstop in baseball.

When a team is able to pencil is a good hitter in a position that rarely yields offensive production, is makes that player much more valuable. Just think of what Joe Mauer is doing this season in Minnesota. Joe Mauer is posting a ridiculous OPS of 1.064 at the moment. The league average OPS for a catcher is .719. An OPS of 1.064 is amazing for any position, but a catcher, that's just insane. He leads the American League is OPS from, usually, the least productive position offensively Mauer is much of the reason as to why the Twins still have a chance this season.

So when I think of what kind of team that I would like to see, it's really not that far off from what the Brewers had this season. Of course, an upgrade would be needed at catcher, and Corey Hart's production would have to improve, but this team has a really good makeup. Also, at the start of this season, the Brewers had a healthy Rickie Weeks at second.

With Weeks coming back next year and Mat Gamel coming up, next season looks very promising. The Brewers need to sign a cheap option at catcher and cut ties with Jason Kendall. Of course the pitching is a huge question mark, but this team is as far off as some think. So to answer the question, what I would want is something very similar to what the Brewers have going.

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