An Early Test: Milwaukee at St. Louis

Columnist Will Horton looks to the Milwaukee Brewers, invading Busch Stadium for the first time in 2008.

As Beck sang, "Call me when the new age is old enough to drink."

It has been a long, long time since the Milwaukee Brewers were a consensus pick to contend for their division. In fact, with Julio Franco now plying his trade in the Mexican Leagues, the last remaining player link to that early-80's era has now been broken. This season, though, nearly all the simulators and all the pundits predicted better than 85 wins and a probable repeat of last year's division title chase with the Cubs.

No one predicted that they would have to contend with the Cardinals as well. However, after a 4-3 road trip, the Redbirds come home in sole possession of first place in the division, a rank they could not claim at any time last season. The Brewers come to town Tuesday to open the season series, perhaps heavy favorites on paper, but still looking up at the St. Louis club in many ways.

For one, manager Ned Yost has been leaning heavily on Cardinal precedent when filling out his lineup card. Yost, whose lack of experience helming a contender is often pointed to as the weakest link on this team, has adopted Tony La Russa's tactic of batting the pitcher eighth. His stated reasoning revolves around the presence of catcher Jason Kendall on his roster, whom Yost describes as an "ideal second leadoff hitter." (Indeed, when Kendall is not in the starting lineup, Yost reverts back to batting the pitcher 9th.)

In addition, the Brewers started the season penciling Prince Fielder into the third slot in the lineup card, changing precedent from the season before. Consciously or unconsciously, Yost is mirroring Fielder with Albert Pujols, as the two men joust toward MVP contention. Surprisingly, it is this move which is raising more eyebrows than the unconventional placement of the pitcher.

Last season Ryan Braun stepped into an already-potent lineup and quickly earned the coveted #3 spot in the lineup, traditionally reserved for the best all-around hitter in the lineup. Braun more than lived up to the bill, putting up a full season of hits in only 113 games. In so doing, Braun bumped Prince Fielder to fourth, where he in turn feasted on pitchers and earned the NL home run crown.

This season, for reasons of his own making, Ned Yost decided to switch things up, and wrote "Fielder" in third and "Braun" in fourth for the first 11 games of the season. And while the team has not struggled for runs, the two players at the core both appeared disoriented in their new locales. In fact, just this past weekend, Fielder and Braun both approached their manager and asked to be switched back to their comfortable spots.

This brings up an age-old debate: If you are "the man" of your lineup, where should you bat? Third or fourth? Many Cardinal fans howled when La Russa insisted on batting Mark McGwire third in the lineup, when he so fully fit the picture of what a cleanup hitter should look like. (La Russa's answer was to invent, for the National League, the common AL practice of batting a "second leadoff hitter" in the 9th spot.)

Debating hitters' ability and comfort in various positions up and down the lineup is a psychological game, and one that baffles statistical analysts. A true analyst looks to separate "noise" from "fact" in statistics. Noise, such as Joe McEwing's one half-season hitting .305, is caused by the random vagaries of playing a game with a round bat and a round ball. Facts, such as Albert Pujols' steadily increasing walk rates and decreasing strikeout rates, are products of baseball players honing their skills.

And yet Prince Fielder's splits appear to show two completely different hitters in the three hole as opposed to the four, despite nearly equal time in each:

Splits

G

PA

R

HR

RBI

BB

SO

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

Batting 3rd

115

499

62

22

70

48

96

0.242

0.331

0.454

0.785

Batting 4th

117

502

85

40

85

76

84

0.300

0.418

0.659

1.078

One of these players bears statistical resemblance to a player struggling to attain his own potential, while the other suggests the monster he could become. Placing all logical weight on these numbers, it would be easy to excoriate Yost for batting the first rather than the second.

However, batting third or fourth in a lineup does not constitute a "skill," per se. It falls into the psychological swamp next to clutch hitting and lineup protection as a thing which may be described anecdotally, but cannot be isolated statistically. Show them Prince Fielder's splits, and they will utter their favorite three-word argument, one which cannot be checkmated: "small sample size." The blame lies not with Yost, but with any of a number of other potential factors – Fielder's mechanics, or the quality of opposition that he has faced, or simple dumb luck.

The psyche weighs heavy in sports, though, providing an essential counterpart to skills. Witness the Yankees, who just spent untold dollars digging a hole in the foundation of their new stadium simply to remove an evil talisman left months ago by a Red Sox fan working on the job site.

And it is the psyche of these Brewers, far more than their apparent skills, that will be analyzed and cross-examined as this season progresses. This series will act as a crucible that will give us a glimpse of whether this psyche is ready for the task ahead.

The Brewers have not won a season series against the Cardinals since the unbalanced schedule was introduced, and only once (1999) since migrating to the NL Central. Indeed, whether the Cardinals can remain in contention or not, history says that they will pose a formidable obstacle to the playoff hopes of this still-young Milwaukee squad.



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