OOTP Brewers: Brock Solid

So far this season, my OOTP Brewers updates have followed a familiar cadence. Every Monday or Tuesday, I write about some new disaster for the team. Josh Lindblom is out for the year, maybe, or Lorenzo Cain isn’t hitting. Maybe the Mets put up six trillion runs on us, or Luis Urías broke his foot rehabbing his broken hand. You get the idea — these articles has been a struggle to keep a team on the field, serialized.

This week is going to be about whatever the opposite of that is. The Brewers have played six games since my last update. They’ve won all six, taking them to 23-18 on the year. The contributions have come from everywhere — the team allowed only 15 runs in those six games while scoring 32. Josh Hader faced 20 batters and struck out 12. This is the Brewers team the Milwaukee brass hoped for in the offseason; pitching lines that look like this:

Oh yeah — Corey Knebel is back. The above game was his first one back in the majors, but he looked fine during his rehab assignment as well. In the meantime, we’ve added Tony Cingrani on a minor league contract, and after a few tune-up appearances, he’ll be ready to bolster the big league bullpen whenever needed. Mystery man Sam Pierron is still going back and forth with me about money, but between Knebel and Cingrani, the reinforcements have arrived.

Put it all together, and we’ve captured the lead in the NL Central, with the Cubs and Reds easily in shouting distance. How’s our run differential? Well, it’s not great! But if you remove the 25-run stomping at the hands of the Mets, it’s positive, and that counts for something. For the most part, this is what I’d hoped for as the Brewers’ GM before the start of the season: enough offensive production to get the job done, some exciting young starting pitching, and a fully operational bullpen Death Star to make any lead hold up.

I’ve written a lot about the pitching staff in recent weeks. Do we have the right starters? Do we have the right relievers? Does the franchise need to add new blood? For a completely unremarkable overall pitching line, we’ve done a lot of discussing. Today, let’s focus on hitting. More specifically, let’s focus on what has gone right, and what we can do to keep the offense working.

As you might expect, the team has been keyed by Christian Yelich. He leads the team in plate appearances and WAR — he’s sitting there in the second spot in the lineup making things happen. Seven homers, 10 doubles, a 162 wRC+ and .979 OPS; he’s basically the Yelich of the past few years. That works out to 2.1 WAR, 13th in baseball and within hailing distance of Juan Soto’s league-leading 2.8.

The Brewer offense is built to be a stack of moving parts with Yelich at its core. Keston Hiura and Omar Narváez are the only other players who look like true everyday regulars at this point; Hiura because of his sky-high potential and Narváez because it’s incredibly hard to find an everyday catcher. Lorenzo Cain might have fit that role once upon a time, but with his rocky start to the season, he’s merely a nearly-everyday player, rather than being an automatic lock in the lineup.

Beyond those three (and a half) positions, it’s musical chairs. To fill first base, third base, shortstop, and right, we’re using a broad cast of characters: Adeiny Hechavarría (freshly acquired from the Braves), Brock Holt, Avisaíl García, Eric Sogard, Justin Smoak, Ryan Braun, and Jedd Gyorko. You could even add Ben Gamel to that mix, though his main role so far has been backing up Cain against right-handed pitchers.

Aside from Smoak and García, every one of those players can handle multiple positions. A depth chart would make little sense. Instead, take a look at this player/position grid:

The Brewers are Versatile
Player/Position 1B 3B SS Corner OF
Adeiny Hechavarría x x
Brock Holt x x x x
Avisaíl García x
Eric Sogard x x x
Justin Smoak x
Ryan Braun x x
Jedd Gyorko x x x

That view even undersells it: Hechavarría, Holt, Sogard, and Gyorko can all handle second base to back up Hiura as well, and Holt can even play center field. We’re wildly flexible, is the point.

There’s one downside to that flexibility: even if you add in spot starts backing up Yelich, Hiura, and Cain, we have seven hitters for four spots plus a few backup reps a week. That creates a playing time crunch. Consider Holt: he’s played in each of the last six games. In those games, he’s played right field three times, shortstop twice, and third base once.

What’s the point of giving him all those gloves? Quite simply, he’s been mashing. Yelich has been on fire — but Holt leads the team in wRC+, with a brilliant 166 mark over 136 plate appearances. He’s slashing .339/.426/.568 on the back of a .400 BABIP, but his .229 ISO, 10.3% walk rate, and 17.6% strikeout rate imply that he’s not simply a mirage.

In fact, Holt and Yelich are the only ones keeping the offense going at the moment. Aside from those two, the only other Brewers with average or better batting lines are Hechavarría (a BABIP-fueled 126 wRC+) and Avisaíl García, who checks in at 124. Ben Gamel I suppose counts as well — he has a 114 wRC+ in 62 plate appearances thanks to some BABIP luck of his own — but for the most part, the team just wouldn’t have enough oomph without Holt bringing the lumber.

That brings us to today’s poll question: how should we handle Holt moving forward? He’s going to play almost every day — he already was going to play almost every day, but he’s especially going to after setting the league on fire so far this year. The only question is where we’re going to play him. There are, in my eyes, five options: first, third, short, right, or a true utility role.

Before I put up a poll, let’s go through the pros and cons of each option. First base is the least demanding defensive position, though it’s not Holt’s best spot. If we play him there, he’d make Justin Smoak more or less superfluous; Smoak should only bat against righties (he’s a switch hitter in name only), but Holt is simply better at it than he is. Right now, first is effectively a Smoak/Braun platoon; turning it over to Holt means we’d need to jettison Smoak. That’s not disqualifying, but Smoak is a useful player: he plays good first base defense and is certainly one of the team’s best eight hitters against right-handed pitching.

Those are the cons; the pro is that placing Holt at first would stabilize the rest of the infield. Sogard can cover third, Hechavarría short, and Gyorko can back them up. When Urías returns, we can simply DFA Gyorko and slide Hechavarría into his slot. Easy peasy. It does mean less playing time for Braun or García, but if we’re willing to sacrifice Smoak, we’re probably willing to cut Braun’s playing time back a bit as well.

If we play Holt at third base, things get a bit more complicated. Sogard is a key cog in the lineup against righties, and he came into the season as the everyday third baseman. To keep him in there with Holt at the hot corner, we’d need to get creative; a few starts a week at shortstop, a few in right field, all the reps when Hiura needs a day off, and maybe even a day at first, though he’s not currently rated at the position.

That’s not great for our defense; Sogard is at his best as a second baseman, and only marginally worse at third. He’s underqualified everywhere else, particularly in the outfield. Holt, on the other hand, has reasonably similar defensive ratings everywhere, with right his best position. Making Holt an everyday starter at third might be an untenable weight on the team’s defense.

How about shortstop? Almost the same, only worse. Holt is a 40 defender there (on the 20-80 scale), and I’m not a big fan of playing poor defensive shortstops unless it’s a necessity. It really is necessary at times, and his ability to play the position is a huge plus, but locking him in as an everyday player there means much less Hechavarría (a 60 defender at short) and more Holt/Sogard/Hiura infields, which… yikes. When Urías came back, things would get even messier.

How about playing right field? There’s one obvious benefit: Holt is at his best defensively as a right fielder (in OOTP, for clarity’s sake). We could give him time off against lefties by plugging in García in right and Braun at first. But that raises an obvious follow-up: where does García play when Yelich and Holt are manning the outfield corners? He’s one of the team’s better hitters, after all, and the game thinks he’s reasonably immune to platoons. Giving Holt daily reps in the outfield only to bench a productive player who the team just acquired in free agency seems pretty weird.

The last option is the murkiest. I think it might also be the best. The idea here is to use Holt as an actual super-utility player. Against left-handed pitching, he would play third base, with Hechavarría at short, Braun at first, and García in right. Against righties, he’d float: handle all of Hechavarría’s and Hiura’s off days, spot Cain in center, and handle right from time to time.

Take a look at this hypothetical seven-day schedule:

The Brewers are Versatile
Day Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
Pitcher Handedness R R L R R R L
C Narváez Narváez Freitas Narváez Narváez Narváez Freitas
1B Smoak Smoak Holt Braun Smoak Smoak Braun
2B Hiura Holt Hiura Hiura Hiura Hiura Hiura
3B Sogard Sogard Gyorko Sogard Sogard Sogard Holt
SS Holt Hechavarría Hechavarría Holt Hechavarría Hechavarría Hechavarría
LF Yelich Braun Braun Yelich Yelich Braun Yelich
CF Gamel Cain Cain Cain Holt Gamel Cain
RF García Yelich García García García Yelich García

This isn’t perfect, but it works okay. Yelich, Hiura, and Holt each get six starts out of seven — the three key offensive cogs need to play. Braun, Narváez, Sogard, Hechavarría, and García play five days each. Cain and Smoak each have four. The odd man out in this arrangement is Gyorko, and he’s increasingly tough to squeeze into the team with Hechavarría in the fold and Sogard holding his own. If Holt is hitting well enough to get playing time against lefties, Gyorko just doesn’t fit well.

One side benefit of this arrangement: it results in the least disruption when Urías returns. He can slot in at short and let Hechavarría float, with Smoak and Sogard bearing some share of the playing time reduction as well. In all, I think this is the best plan, but I’m also willing to believe that locking Holt in at a single position could be worth it. Hence the poll:

As usual, I’ll be on FanGraphs Live tomorrow at noon ET to discuss the results of this vote and work out a lineup taking our decision into account. It’ll be fun, for once, to talk about what’s gone right instead of how we can patch up what’s gone wrong. Let’s do a little work squeezing as much juice as possible out of the offense now so that we won’t be back to patching up what’s gone wrong in a few weeks’ time.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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How is Hiura hitting? I’m not a huge believer in him in real life, because of his K:BB ratios and all his offense in the minors came from sky-high BABIPs. You really have to buy the power from 2019 being real (and not just from the ball) to see him as a great hitter. I wouldn’t bench him for more Sogard or Gyorko, obviously, but maybe he doesn’t need as many starts, especially when Urias comes back? Maybe Holt can play more at second until/unless Hiura starts hitting?