Baseball purists cover their eyes and ears when the topic of metrics is brought up. It’s understandable. Mathematics has muddled the minds of those who still can’t reconcile the concept of the designated hitter 46 years after its introduction.
The use of metrics continues to change the way the game is evaluated and played every day. What was right is now wrong. What was left is now right. It’s just too much for some people to comprehend.
Just the other day, the Milwaukee Brewers did something that shocked a fair number of fans. They announced that Mike Moustakas, who made his bones playing third base for the Kansas City Royals before joining the Brewers last season, would be their starting second baseman in 2019.
“I always ask [manager Craig] Counsell and [bench coach Pat] Murphy and [first-base coach] Carlos [Subero] about how I look over there, and they say I look good,” Moustakas said last week. “I’m moving around good. I’m in the right spot when I need to be. Obviously, there are still some things I need to work on, and I think that just comes with playing in all the games and continuing to work and practice and all that stuff. Other than that, I feel really comfortable over there.”
At face value, the news seemed counter intuitive. Why would Milwaukee, who came within a whisker of making it to the World Series last season, consider moving a guy who has never played second base in his professional career there?
The Sporting News painted the picture quite plainly. Moustakas, who was a shortstop when the Royals drafted him in 2007, has played 8,070 defensive innings over 937 regular-season games in his Major League career and 3,057 in the Minors without every fielding a grounder to the right of first base in his life.
Still, when the Brewers re-signed the Moose to a one-year, $10 million deal, they did so with the idea he would play second base. This wasn’t something that just suddenly popped into manager Craig Counsell’s head over a cup of coffee.
And the reason why the Brewers were comfortable with this notion were the numbers, the metrics, telling them fewer balls get hit to second basemen every year.
So essentially, the Brewers are playing the numbers, taking a calculated risk that adding Moose’s bat to the lineup will more than compensate for any trouble he might have fielding a position that sits idle more than it ever has in the game’s history.
“He’s handled the game action flawlessly,” Counsell said.
Look at these numbers, for a second. In 1968, second basemen handled 5.28 chances per game, which equals almost 856 per season. By 1978, the number had risen to 5.51 (892). Since then, the average has declined exponentially every decade and in 2018 the number had dipped down to a historic low of 4.29 (695).
So, if Moose was playing second base for the Brewers in 1978, instead of Paul Molitor, odds are he would have been asked to handle 197 more chances than Jonathan Villar and Jonathan Schoop did in 2018.
As of Tuesday, Moose had played 40 innings at second base in Spring Training and the ball had come his way only 14 times. That computes to 3.15 per nine innings.
What’s more, not once was he involved in a double-play scenario, universally acknowledged as the most difficult play a novice second baseman can be asked to make.
The Brewers believe in statistical probability. The love what those numbers imply. So the Moose will man second base when the season kicks off March 28 in Milwaukee against the St.. Louis Cardinals.
Counsell, a middle infielder during his Major League career, confirmed to reporters at the team’s Spring Training facility in Arizona what the numbers make clear. For some reason, the game has changed in a way that has turned second base into a quiet zone.
One reason is the there’s simply less contact in the game, Hitters set a Major League record in 2018 by striking out 41,207 times, 11,270 times more than 20 years ago. In fact, there were more strikeouts than hits last year for the first time in the game’s history.
“That goes into the equation,” Counsell said. “The ball’s not being put into play a ton. It’s just not.”
Let’s relate this to second basemen: The Sporting News tells us Fernando Vina, ironically a Brewers infielder, led MLB second basemen in 1998 with 5.75 chances per nine innings (884). Last season, Scotter Gennett, a former Brewers infielder, led MLB second basemen, with at least 1,000 innings at the position, with 4.95 chances (665) with the Cincinnati Reds.
And its not just second base dealing with less heat. Chances at shortstop are down from 5.08 in 1968 to 4.01 last season.
Let’s face it, those are numbers that are hard to ignore.
“There are,” Counsell admitted, “going to be things that’ll happen during the season that happen to him (Moustakas) for the first time.”
Moustakas, and metrics mavens, are not worried about it.
“I feel like I’m going to play a good second base,” Moustakas said. “It will be good.”