In real life, when a player starts the season poorly, it’s tempting to chalk it up to variance and sample size. Through April 23 of last year, for example, Jackie Bradley Jr. was hitting .134/.203/.164, good for a -7 wRC+. The rest of the way, he hit .239/.335/.461, a 104 wRC+. Nothing was wrong!
That’s the snarky, detached analyst view. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t work that way on the actual team. It’s harder, when you’re living through the oh-fers and demoralizing strikeouts, to determine whether or not to give that player as much playing time over the rest of the year. Of the 10 players with the worst batting lines on that day, eight saw their playing time meaningfully curtailed over the remainder of the season.
And that brings us to our Out Of The Park Brewers. The FanGraphs readership’s intrepid management has led the team to a 13-12 record, which is an okay enough start all told; there have been injury issues across the pitching staff, Luis Urías is still rehabbing from his offseason injury, and there was that absolute pasting at the hands of the Mets.
But there’s one disturbing performance that stands out so far; Lorenzo Cain is hitting .136/.212/.153, good for a Bradley-Jr.-in-bad-times wRC+ of -7. It’s by far the worst line on the team; Orlando Arcia has played poorly enough that he’s lost most of his playing time to Brock Holt, and even he has a 30 wRC+.
What’s a manager to do? It’s not obvious. The team is built for Cain to be an anchor; the corner positions are a grab bag of mix-and-match players. Christian Yelich can man left or right with equal aplomb, and the other outfield slot can be filled by nearly anyone; Avisaíl García, Ryan Braun, Ben Gamel, Holt, or even Eric Sogard. But only Gamel and Yelich can even fake center, and I’m skeptical that either could do it full time.
OOTP handles outfield defense with positional ratings at each corner. Players can improve by playing more at a given position, which means the ratings aren’t set in stone, but they give you a good idea of how a player will perform defensively. The problem: on the 20-80 scouting scale, our center field options aren’t great. Gamel is a 40, Yelich is a 35 (though with room to improve, he’s a 65 in left), and Holt is a 35. Cain is a 70.
That’s hardly surprising; Cain’s defense is the best part of his game. But it underscores the difficulty the team faces when he isn’t hitting. It’s fine to play a subpar offensive player if the defense makes up for it — paging Austin Hedges — but Cain’s offensive ineptitude is well past Hedges-level. It’s past Jeff Mathis-level, even, and he’s one of the worst hitters of all time.
If Cain were a true talent -7 wRC+ hitter, the decision would be easy; he wouldn’t merit a roster spot. But of course, he’s not, and that’s where you come in. I’ll give you some underlying metrics; walk rates, strikeout rates, BABIP, that kind of thing. I’ll provide some alternatives for how we want to handle Cain’s slow start. Then, we’ll make a decision together.
Let’s talk walks and strikeouts. Those, after all, tell us more about a player’s talent level than whether a few batted balls find their way safely to the outfield grass. For his career, Cain has been solid on both counts; he strikes out less often than average and walks at roughly an average clip, which makes him a valuable overall contributor:
BB%, K%, and wRC+ Since 2015
How has he held up in the midst of his hellacious slump? Pretty well, actually. In 2020, Cain has struck out 19.7% of the time and walked 7.6% of the time. It’s worse, on both counts, than his numbers before 2020, but not by a ton. Those numbers would make Cain a worse version of his ZiPS projection if everything else went to plan; a mid-80s wRC+, perhaps. That would be an acceptable player, an average-ish regular after accounting for his defense.
OOTP doesn’t, ordinarily, have batted ball distributions. If you’re willing to dig through the game logs, however, you can create them. Again, let’s take a look at Cain’s historical tendencies first:
Batted Ball Tendencies (Since 2015)
That’s not really surprising; Cain’s never hit more than 16 homers in a season, and he’s fast; a diet of grounders and line drives is exactly what you’d expect out of him. Let’s add in this year:
Batted Ball Tendencies (Since 2015)
Well, that’s not great! The launch angle and exit velocity data in OOTP doesn’t seem to mean much, but this many grounders is just not going to work. Grounders produced a .220 wOBA across baseball in 2019. That’s miles better than Cain’s actual production (.163), somehow, but still abysmal. Even if you bake in Cain’s speed and spray tendencies, he’s a career .255 wOBA hitter on grounders, much lower than his overall .331. Extra groundballs are doing him no favors.
Past that, there’s not really much to say. One of his walks was intentional, but he also got hit by a pitch. He hasn’t faced particularly good or particularly poor pitching; nearly league-average in terms of weighted ZiPS-projected ERA’s. He’s just hitting everything into the ground, and his strikeout and walk rates can’t do enough to make up for it.
Will he keep BABIP’ing .170? Definitely not! But you could add six singles to his tally, replacing six outs, and that would only bring his wRC+ up to 40. When you can normalize someone’s batted ball luck, at least a little, and he’s still terrible, that should give you pause. You could add some doubles, too, but two-baggers aren’t easy to come by when you can’t get the ball in the air.
The only rate I’m not worried about here is line drive rate. I don’t understand the underpinnings of the OOTP engine exactly, but line drive rates that low, like trans-Uranic elements, don’t last long. That should flatter his line a little bit, and that might explain a lot of the BABIP woes — but it’s not exactly an encouraging development, nonetheless.
With that out of the way, let’s discuss our options. We could stay the course, keep running Cain out there, and hope things work out. It’s not a crazy idea at all; when in doubt, reacting to early-season numbers is generally not a great idea. That early season sample is quite bad, however.
We could move Cain down to co-fourth-outfielder status, and run out some combination of Yelich, Gamel, or Holt most days in center. I’m already dabbling with this one, in fact, though I haven’t yet been brave enough to try Holt out there. Perhaps that’s my real world bias showing, but I just can’t picture him manning center.
This plan could definitely work out — Yelich played center for a year in Miami and didn’t embarrass himself. The combination of García and Braun is useful here; having two corner bats helps when you need to slide a corner outfielder over to center. It’s still a scary plan, but… maybe!
Lastly, we could dip into the minors. This would probably be a rash decision; it’s less than a month of games, for crying out loud. But it’s actually a pretty cheap cost to pay; Gamel has a
minor league option remaining, and he’s definitely the odd man out in the event of an outfield switch. He’s 27, and our scouts think he’s a 40 current value with 40 potential; a bench role player, in other words.
Who are the exciting minor league options? That depends on your definition of exciting. There are four candidates. First, there’s Tyrone Taylor. He had a cup of coffee in the majors last year, and he’s on the 40 man roster. He’s not good, exactly, but he does a little bit of everything; in real life, we gave him a grade between 45 and 55 on every tool. He doesn’t really have minor league stats this year, having missed most of the spring with an injury, but OOTP gives him a 40 current grade and 45 potential — he’s a righty Gamel, in other words, who can fake center.
If we don’t want Taylor, what about former top prospect Corey Ray? His star has fallen, but his game — dingers and speed — looks a lot like the direction baseball is headed. He sports a 60 grade on his current center field defense, which is a big deal if we want to replace Cain with another smooth fielder. But bad news — he’s batting quite poorly in the minors this year, almost as bad as Cain is doing in the majors. Whoops!
Let’s move on to two options I’m actually excited about. In real life, Jacob Robson is an undecorated minor leaguer in the Detroit system. In OOTP, the Tigers tried to move him through waivers, and I pounced. He’s a Gamel type — 40 current, 45 future value per the OOTP scouts. He hit at every level of the minors before 2019, where he faltered in Triple-A Toledo. He’s a speed and batting eye type; he’s intermittently posted some nice minor league walk numbers, and his speed would play well in center.
Lastly, there’s another Ben Clemens special, though with a far more delightful name. Brewer Hicklen, a Royals farmhand in the real world, is on the Brewers now. He’s a great athlete, a former college football player with 70 speed. He tore up Hi-A last year with the Royals, though at 24 he was quite old for the level — he got a late start due to his two-sport status. Perhaps most importantly, he’s hitting well in Double-A Biloxi, a level he’s never previously attempted. And he’d likely wear “BREWER” for Player’s Weekend, which is awesome.
Here’s a quick overview of each player’s minor league season so far, though again, Taylor hasn’t played much. As a side note, everyone except Hicklen is in Triple-A; he’s in Double-A:
Minor League Options
Aside from that, things are going alright. Luis Urías should be back soon, Holt has played an acceptable shortstop somehow and has a 165 wRC+, and we’re only 1.5 games back in the Central. Considering that Cain and Keston Hiura have combined for -0.6 WAR, and the entire bullpen clocks in at -1.1 WAR, things could be a lot worse. Hopefully by next week, we’ll have our center field position worked out and things will really start clicking.