The Brewers and the Impossibly Black Hole by Jeff Sullivan July 1, 2013 Not a whole lot of people have been paying attention to the Marlins. Now, this is typically the case, but the Marlins have been off the radar for months. People suspected they’d be bad, then they came out and were bad, and that was it, that was confirmation of beliefs. So maybe you didn’t notice, but since May 31, the Marlins have posted the National League’s second-best record. It’s good to have a healthy Giancarlo Stanton. By overall record, the Marlins have managed to catch up to the Astros. And they’ve narrowed the gap between themselves and the Brewers to a slim three games. Considering how those teams were viewed before the year, this is a bit of a surprise, and it’s mostly because the Brewers have been a disaster. In every case of significant over- and under-performance, there will be a variety of contributing factors, as no one player can make that much of a difference. Baseball is a game of little things adding up, and lots has added up to lead the Brewers to 32-48. But one problem in particular has been bigger than the others. One problem has really allowed the Brewers to sink to the depths. Instead of going the long way around, let’s tackle this head-on: Problem terrible at first base Legitimate excuse Corey Hart out for season Legitimate excuse no. 2 Mat Gamel out for season Failed solutions Yuniesky Betancourt Alex Gonzalez Jury is out Juan Francisco First base, for the Brewers, has been a complete and utter catastrophe, as we slide into the season’s halfway point. It’s not the difference between the team’s current record and a .500 record, but it is the difference between the team’s current record and a better record, and the team has cycled through a few players. In fairness, they weren’t prepared for both Hart and Gamel to miss the season. Those were the first two options on the depth chart, and no one would come away looking good after dealing with that kind of sudden adversity. But what’s done is done, and were the season to end today, the Brewers’ performance would be historical. Brewers first basemen have batted a combined 321 times, with 270 of those plate appearances going to Betancourt, Gonzalez, and Francisco. I’m going to show you their slash line, although you might consider looking away and having the computer just read the numbers out loud so you don’t turn to stone: .189/.231/.319 What you’re looking at is a .549 OPS, which is worse than Chris Getz’s OPS. They have a lower combined OBP than Clint Barmes. If Brewers first basemen were pitchers, they’d be the best-hitting group of pitchers, but the competition would be closer than the Brewers would like. Quietly — somewhat quietly — this position has been pulling the Brewers down toward the seafloor. This post is only going to look at offense, although it’s worth noting the defensive metrics don’t love the Brewers’ first basemen so far, either. They’re not making up for this hitting somewhere else. By OPS, let’s take a look at the worst positions in baseball so far this season: Team Position OPS sOPS+ Mariners SS 0.494 47 Yankees SS 0.538 60 Brewers 1B 0.549 41 Mets SS 0.552 64 Marlins SS 0.553 63 Pirates SS 0.559 66 Reds C 0.570 64 Blue Jays 2B 0.571 58 Marlins C 0.578 65 Mets 1B 0.590 55 Mets CF 0.590 61 Brendan Ryan and the Mariners’ shortstops haven’t hit, nor have the Yankees’ shortstops behind the injured Derek Jeter. We find the Brewers’ first basemen at third-worst. But you’ll notice that last column, under sOPS+. This is a Baseball-Reference measure of OPS relative to the league-wide position average, with 100 being average and something under 100 being worse than that. Let’s re-sort, this time in ascending order of sOPS+: Team Position OPS sOPS+ Brewers 1B 0.549 41 Mariners SS 0.494 47 Mets 1B 0.590 55 Marlins 1B 0.599 56 Blue Jays 2B 0.571 58 Yankees SS 0.538 60 Mets CF 0.590 61 White Sox 3B 0.593 62 Marlins SS 0.553 63 Mets SS 0.552 64 Reds C 0.570 64 Yankees LF 0.607 64 Now the Brewers take the cake, as their first basemen have been the worst, relative to the position. We also see the Mets’ and the Marlins’ first basemen, who’ve been awful, but no one has been Brewers-awful. Not this year, which compels us to examine the history. Following is a table of the worst positions from between 1950 and 2012, sorted by sOPS+. Pitchers are excluded, because nobody cares. Team Season Position sOPS+ Athletics 1979 RF 41 Tigers 1977 SS 42 Cubs 1955 CF 42 Twins 1994 C 43 Colt .45s 1963 SS 43 Blue Jays 1981 3B 44 Orioles 1958 SS 44 Athletics 1978 RF 44 Mariners 2011 CF 45 Red Sox 1993 C 46 Twins 2011 C 46 Angels 2001 DH 46 In 1978, A’s right fielders posted a combined .550 OPS, as the team sorted through a bunch of different players. The next year, A’s right fielders posted a combined .556 OPS, with Tony Armas greatly out-hitting Larry Murray. That position wound up with a 41 sOPS+ — the same as the Brewers’ current sOPS+ out of first base. That’s the worst team position, by offense, since at least 1950. What if we were to look only at first basemen? Here’s a table of the worst, sorted by OPS, since 1950 and now including 2013: Team Season OPS sOPS+ Brewers 2013 0.549 41 Mets 2013 0.590 55 Athletics 1983 0.595 56 Yankees 1982 0.597 58 Marlins 2013 0.599 56 Mets 1979 0.601 53 Twins 1981 0.602 64 Athletics 1981 0.604 64 Senators 1957 0.605 57 White Sox 1970 0.609 53 And now here’s a table sorted by sOPS+, covering the same amount of time: Team Season OPS sOPS+ Brewers 2013 0.549 41 Giants 1994 0.632 49 Mets 1979 0.601 53 White Sox 1970 0.609 53 Mets 2013 0.590 55 Athletics 2011 0.610 55 Athletics 1983 0.595 56 Marlins 2013 0.599 56 Senators 1957 0.605 57 Tigers 1975 0.612 57 Orioles 2010 0.625 57 Angels 2006 0.664 57 In 1994, the average first baseman posted an .851 OPS. Giants first basemen posted a combined .632 OPS, and that’s the worst baseball’s seen in a very long time. Relative to the average, this year’s Brewers have been even worse, and by a considerable margin. The difference between worst and second-worst is the same as the difference between second-worst and ninth-worst, by sOPS+. Here’s the punchline: through half of the season, Brewers first basemen have been the worst-hitting first basemen in more than 60 years. And they haven’t really done anything to make up for it with the glove. There’s hope in the presumably coming regression. There’s hope in the newly-acquired Juan Francisco, who hits for power, if nothing else. The Brewers might not finish as the worst ever, and since this season is a loss anyhow, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. The priority is shifting to next year and to the years beyond, and this year isn’t all that important. There are valid reasons why the Brewers wound up in a lousy position, and there are valid reasons not to really care anymore. But let it not be forgotten how bad they have been. Let it not be forgotten that the Brewers played a bunch of Alex Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt at first base. Things could’ve conceivably gone worse, but only by so much.