The Brewers Reunite with Eric Sogard

The last time Eric Sogard was on the Brewers, he was bad. Not just run of the mill bad, but really bad! He hit .134/.241/.165 in 113 plate appearances for them in 2018, good for a 14 wRC+. That was all the team needed to see to send him to Triple-A Colorado Springs — where he hit .225/.297/.270 at altitude. So it was hardly surprising when they parted ways, with Milwaukee opening up playing time for their packed infield and Sogard seeking an easier path to the majors in Toronto.

What a difference a year makes. Sogard was excellent in 2019 over 442 plate appearances with the Blue Jays and the Rays. He hit 13 home runs, more than he’d previously hit in his 1800 career plate appearances. He slashed his strikeout rate, put a few more balls in the air, and was handsomely rewarded; not only were the homers a career high, but he hit 23 doubles and two triples as well, leading to easily his best single-season production. A .316 BABIP didn’t hurt, either — in all, he produced a 115 wRC+ on the year.

There were reasons to be skeptical, of course. Those home runs were largely of the “hey, that got out?” variety. The average home run in baseball last year was hit at 103.5 mph. Sogard’s baker’s dozen dingers averaged 96.7 mph. If you’re more of an xwOBA person, combining angle and speed, his home runs had an expected wOBA of .701. The league average was a robust 1.359, and among players with five or more home runs, only Sandy León had worse expected results on homers.

In fact, if you want to be skeptical, you could say that Sogard didn’t even have a particularly impressive 2019 despite the surface numbers. His overall wOBA of .346 was excellent, but it vastly outstripped his xwOBA of .307, driven largely by his home run luck. None of this is surprising or hard to tease out from watching him play; he simply doesn’t hit the ball that hard, and even though lots of players ran into some extra home runs in 2019, Sogard really ran into some extra home runs.

That’s the pessimistic view of Sogard’s 2019, and it helps explain why he’s signing a $4.5-million, one-year contract (with a club option for 2021) rather than getting an eight-figure salary, which would normally seem appropriate for a 33-year-old middle-infielder coming off of a 2.6-WAR season. His deal looks reasonable for a utility infielder, not for an above-average regular.

But there’s an optimistic read on Sogard’s 2019 as well. Maybe he outperformed expectations, but he did so in a way that plays well in Miller Park. Sogard had one standout change to his game in 2019; he started pulling more line drives and fly balls while decreasing his groundball rate. Not only that, but he hit them with more authority than he had in 2018, dialing back the clock to his effective 2017 season:

Eric Sogard’s Pull Tendencies
Year Air Pull% Air Pull Hard Hit%
2015 28.4% 29.5%
2017 31.1% 42.4%
2018 25.0% 27.3%
2019 34.6% 40.0%

Do you know what stadium, since the start of the Statcast era, has most rewarded pulled air balls from lefties (rewarded, in this case, being how much higher actual wOBA was than xwOBA on those batted balls)? Well, it’s London Stadium, and it’s not particularly close. Second is Fort Bragg Field, where MLB played one game at a military base in 2016.

But fine, out of regular MLB stadiums, do you know which park has most helped lefty pull hitters? Yeah… it’s Coors Field. But Miller Park is fourth, and PNC Park, where the Brewers play 10 games a year, is second:

Outperformance (wOBA-xwOBA) on RF Air Balls, 2015-19
Stadium Lefty Pull Advantage Overall RF Advantage
Coors Field .133 .088
PNC Park .113 .043
SunTrust Park .087 .025
Miller Park .086 .013
Target Field .075 .021

Sogard also helps out defensively, and this is a Brewers team that could use the versatility. They’ll likely play two defenders who are a little stretched at their position in Luis Urías, a second baseman playing shortstop, and Keston Hiura. They’ll need good defenders to plug in around those guys. Sogard is comfortable at second base, has been good in limited reps at third, and can even fake outfield and shortstop in a pinch, which gives the team plenty of options when it comes to assembling a lineup every day.

Earlier this week, I was critical of the Brewers for signing Avisaíl García rather than going more boom/bust. But this Sogard signing is more in line with what I expected to see from them this season. The Brewers are hoping to scrabble together a league-average player out of Sogard. They’re doing so because his offensive skill set fits their home stadium and his defensive profile fits their needs. Getting above-average production out of acquisitions like this is how Milwaukee has reached the playoffs each of the past two years.

For Sogard, this deal feels about right. It’ll be his highest single-season salary without being a truly mind-boggling number. I’m skeptical that he could have secured a starting spot on a playoff contender, so this seems like the best available combination of playing time and playoff odds. If I’m right and Miller Park flatters Sogard’s numbers, he can either re-enter free agency next year or stay with the team on their club option, the details of which aren’t yet public.

In any case, I like this signing for Milwaukee. They have a tough road ahead to make the playoffs with an unsettled roster, but cheap and potentially useful depth can only make that road easier. Eric Sogard won’t be the reason the Brewers make the playoffs next year, but he might be a reason, and that’s reason enough for this signing in my mind.

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

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3 years ago

They also went out and got Healy, which… Is weird.

3 years ago
Reply to  carter

If they played him at third base, he and Hiura could give them a historic defense! Let’s hope we don’t have to watch that. And he can’t get on base. Oh, and he also might never be healthy enough to play again.

I’m pretty skeptical of that signing for all those reasons and because he takes up a slot on the 40-man roster that they could use on a reliever, but he does have one big thing going for him: He’s got three minor league options. So I suspect the worst thing that happens is that they have to DFA a borderline prospect/depth piece they would like to keep.

The Duke
3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yelich must be scratching his head as to what’s going on.