The Brewers’ biggest acquisition at the trade deadline was a puzzle. They’d picked up third baseman Mike Moustakas, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, and one big question about how to align their defense. Before these trades, Milwaukee already had a full infield. So how were they going to configure all of this? Specifically, what were they going to do with the man currently at third, Travis Shaw? It only made sense that he’d yield to Moustakas. But Shaw’s bat was too big to be permanently relegated to the bench, and finding him a new spot on the diamond could be tricky. He’d only ever played at the corners, even in the minor leagues, and he wasn’t a natural fit for the middle; the line on him as a prospect had been that his defense might not even stick at third, and teams should prepare for a move to first. The Brewers, though, knew what they wanted. They were going to play him at second, and they had a feeling that it would work.
See, Shaw may not have ever played as the second baseman, but he’d certainly played at second.
“Our confidence in Travis at second base was, at least in part, dictated by the fact that we had seen him over there in shifts,” said general manager David Stearns. “He played on the right side of the bag over there a fair amount, even in the first half, and so we saw him make the throws, we saw him charge balls at different angles, and we thought, That can work.”
Stearns & Co. had indeed enjoyed significant opportunity to see him in the shift. On 35.6% of pitches in the regular season, Milwaukee used a shifted infield—more than any other team in the National League. Shaw’s experience, then, is reflective of the team’s larger philosophy here: A position doesn’t have to be anything more than one of baseball’s social constructs. The Brewers’ infield isn’t four men at four positions, with a utility player waiting on the bench. It’s a set of guys who have been brought together for maximum flexibility, able to be configured in any number of different ways—changing not just from game to game, but from batter to batter, in an attempt to nail the best defensive arrangement at any given time.
Milwaukee’s most obvious strategy here is the most common one. Like every team nowadays, they make use of the shift. They just do it more than almost anyone else. The 2018 season was the third in a row that the team led the N.L. in infield alignments categorized either as a full shift, with three men on one side of second base, or as strategic, with one man somehow out of regular position. (Not coincidentally, it was also the third full season in office for Stearns.) The Brewers’ 35.6% this year was their highest yet—easily putting them in first place in the N.L., as one of only two teams to post a number above 30%.
It can be disconcerting to look up and see a near-empty half of the infield that often. But it’s paid off, and so the team’s stuck with it.
“We believe in this, what we’re doing. We trust it,” said manager Craig Counsell. “Sometimes it’s hard to trust, I think, for everybody. When you look [at the shift], it’s sometimes hard, and it does cause you some anxiety. But it’s a system that’s worked for us, and we’re going to live by it.”
The other half of the team’s strategy here is a little more unorthodox. They’re not just shifting players within their specific positions. They’re shifting them between positions. After acquiring Moustakas on July 27, Milwaukee used 14 different infield configurations in 57 regular-season games. This variety wasn’t the result of taking advantage of newly called-up players to give their regular guys rest in September, or covering for injured men out of necessity. These 14 arrangements in were instead built from the same set of seven players, none of them rookies. In eight playoff games so far, the team has used four different configurations.
The corner positions have been relatively stable. At first base, there’s big man Jesús Aguilar, backed up on occasion by Eric Thames. (Shaw will show up there, too, if needed.) At third, there’s Moustakas—again, replaced every once in a while by Shaw. In the middle, though, there’s plenty of mix-and-match plug-and-play. The most common configuration gives second base to Shaw and shortstop to Orlando Arcia, whose defense is sharp enough to keep him in the lineup despite his featherweight bat. But Schoop will often take over second against left-handed pitching, and sometimes, he’ll play at short. (He’d played just seven games at the position in six years in the major leagues before being traded to Milwaukee.) There’s also Hernán Pérez, who can grab either spot up the middle. Most often, they’ll play Aguilar—Shaw—Arcia—Moustakas. But it’s not uncommon to see Aguilar—Schoop—Perez—Moustakas, or Aguilar—Shaw—Schoop—Moustakas, or Aguilar—Schoop—Perez—Shaw, or ... you get the picture.
The Brewers’ aggressive use of the shift, of course, makes all that positional flexibility easier. If “shortstop” is a dynamic and loosely defined concept in the first place, then it’s naturally much simpler to stick someone new there.
“I feel like the way we’ve decided to position guys allows us to be a little more creative about where we play guys,” Counsell said. “Because I think, you know, if you put three guys on the same side of the field… you still feel like you’re getting to more balls without necessarily having to have a ton of range.”
This defensive diversity isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, in and of itself. There are plenty of clubs that make adjustments like these, due to injury or fatigue or poor performance. The Brewers, though, are different. They didn’t land here by backing themselves into a corner. They landed here by design, engineered in the middle of the year. Even so, when the front office made these deadline trades, they didn’t necessarily picture this much flexibility. They were partially driven by a typical midsummer desire—not to set up a defensive experiment, but to pick up some insurance for the stretch run.
“We pictured the ability to guard against injuries, which are always a part of this thing,” Stearns said, on what the front office imagined when they pursued Moustakas and Schoop. “We’ve been fortunate in our infield that we haven’t had injuries, but that was one of the driving factors—the assumption that something will happen, and we wanted to be prepared for that.”
But injuries didn’t come, and so the team has thrived with a full range of modularity in the infield. While defensive metrics can be finicky, just about every number says that they’ve succeeded as a unit here. The Brewers ranked second in the National League for defensive efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs. Their Defensive Runs Saved was the highest of any playoff team (91 runs recovered by their fielders), and their Defensive Runs Above Average was the highest in the NL.The strong outfield—led by Lorenzo Cain—is central to that, of course, but the infield has held up their end of the deal, too.
“In the outfield, you’re 100% feeling comfortable that anything hit in the air, it’s pretty much going to be caught,” said starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez. “And then in the infield, from corner to corner, I think it’s unbelievable. Guys are playing positions they’ve never played before, and they’re doing great.”
The Official Baseball Rules don’t define any of the infield positions. There’s no description of where they should stand or what they should do; there’s not even a requirement that there be four men in the infield. The Brewers have embraced that ambiguity, and they’ve discovered a jackpot in the gray area.