Is positionless baseball MLB's next big thing?

The team whose work at the trade deadline most intrigued me was easily the Milwaukee Brewers, who made not one but two moves that led to a knee-jerk reaction of "Huh?" Believe it or not, that's not a criticism.

The fact of the matter is that Brewers GM David Stearns, in lockstep with manager Craig Counsell, just doesn't view the game the way most of us do. I'm not sure he sees it the way his executive brethren do, either. I'm not sure exactly how Stearns views the game, and no matter how many times I try to pry into his head, I'm pretty sure he's not going to tell me. I am sure that his approach to roster building is a novel one.

The Brewers entered the trade period with a solid everyday third baseman in Travis Shaw. According to Fangraphs, Shaw has the ninth-best WAR among all big leaguers who call the hot corner home. He's 10th in weighted runs created at the plate and fourth in defensive runs saved. Shaw, in other words, is a very good player.

Milwaukee has remained squarely in the National League Central race not because of its offense or starting rotation, but because of its defense and its bullpen. Milwaukee's 105 defensive runs (per Baseball Info Solutions) is 10 more than any other team, and its relievers rank seventh in win probability added. Meanwhile, the rotation ranks 17th in WAR (per baseball-reference.com), and the offense is 21st in adjusted OPS plus.

While the Brewers could still add a starting pitcher during August, they did not do so during the run-up to the non-waiver trade deadline. The return of starter Jimmy Nelson from shoulder surgery, something we've pointed to all season, does not appear to be close to happening. They added reliever Joakim Soria in a trade with the White Sox.

As for the offense, clearly there was some need to trade defense for production. The Brewers are 18th in second base WAR and 26th at shortstop, even though hitless wonder Orlando Arcia ranks eighth at the latter position in runs saved.

First Stearns traded for Mike Moustakas. It was a reasonable addition to perk up the offense, especially since Miller Park ranked as baseball's second-best home run park for lefties from 2015 to 2017, according to the 2018 Bill James Handbook. The only problem is that other than DH games, Moustakas has played nothing but third base during his eight-year big league career.

No worries! Milwaukee would simply shift Shaw over to second base, a position he has never played, not even in the minor leagues. With good bats at both second and third, maybe Arcia's elite glove would be good enough to overcome his offensive shortcomings and the faltering glove next to him. But then on deadline day, Stearns traded for Baltimore's Jonathan Schoop, who has played 97.2 percent of his 5,498⅓ career defensive innings in the majors at second base.

Now Milwaukee's best offensive infield will feature Jesus Aguilar or Eric Thames at first, though the immobile Aguilar sometimes is shifted over to third and the not-much-more-mobile Thames sometimes swings to left field. Ryan Braun, an aging corner outfielder, also sees time at first base and generally doesn't look too swift in doing it. But Shaw and Moustakas might play some first, too. Meanwhile, Schoop may play at short or second, Moustakas at third when he's not at first, and Shaw at first, second or third, though the way things are going, it wouldn't be shocking to see him standing at shortstop for a few innings.

Let's remember: We are not talking about a team that has chosen to value offense over defense. We are talking about the best defensive team in the majors. It's crucial for them, too. In terms of the difference between actual ERA and fielding-independent ERA, only seven teams have been more reliant on their glovework for run prevention than the Brewers.

However, don't be surprised if Milwaukee's defense keeps humming along no matter where Counsell has his infielders deployed. The Brewers currently are at least plus-2 at every position on the field and are in double digits in runs saved at short, center and right. They also rank sixth with 19 runs saved by the shift, so that's part of the story, too.

Center fielder Lorenzo Cain ranks second among all defenders, with 20 runs saved, and he has been a rock at that position, an emerging MVP candidate. But in the top 50 after Cain, you have Keon Broxton (10 DRS), who is back in the minor leagues because of a roster crunch. You have Arcia, who has been one of baseball's worst hitters this season. You have Shaw, who will be playing WAY out of position. And you have Domingo Santana, another outfielder stuck in the minors.

In other words, the Brewers have achieved this elite defensive standing as much through scheming, shifting and analysis about where players should stand as they have through individual play. Consider defensive games played, a count of every player who has appeared at every position (except pitcher). For example, if you have three players appear at third base in a game, you have three defensive games played at that position for the game.

Tallying all those up, only the Dodgers have more defensive games played than Milwaukee. The Brewers rank in the top 10 in the majors in appearances at every position except catcher, where they rank 14th. They rank second at second base, shortstop and right field, and fourth at first base. Counsell moves players around like he's playing chess, and with all that, his defense has been better than anyone's.

Given the makeup of the Brewers' upgraded roster, Counsell's chess-playing is likely to accelerate even more. Can Milwaukee possibly maintain the game's best defense like this? It will be fascinating to watch, because if they do, and you also consider the similar approaches of elite teams like the Dodgers, Cubs and Astros, we may be entering a new era of defensive deployment. The defining traits of that new era: There are no positions. There are only spray charts.

However it works out, there is a fascinating experiment taking place in Milwaukee in the crucible of a tight playoff chase. How fun is that?

What the numbers say

Trout's RBI count issue

After being briefly surpassed by Cleveland dynamo Jose Ramirez atop the WAR leaderboards, Angels superstar Mike Trout has reclaimed the top spot at both baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com. For a couple of hours, though, it looked like another Trout MVP run was going to be derailed by an injury suffered on a slide in the hand or wrist area. Trout jammed his right wrist while attempting to steal third in the first inning at Tampa Bay on Wednesday. He finished the game but ended up getting both an MRI and an X-ray on the wrist, which thankfully both turned up negative.

I didn't see the injury live, so when I read the news of the MRI, I assumed that Trout was back to his old trick of diving into bases. I was wrong -- it was a conventional feet-first slide, if awkwardly executed. So there's no reason to write that rant. Instead, I'll just write this: Mike Trout stinks at sliding.

Save your angry messages -- I don't mean it. But Trout's history of manic self-improvement suggests that if he gets wind that his sliding is viewed as a weakness, by this time next year he'll be the best slider in the game. And that would be good -- we need fewer, not more, of these Trout-MRI news bulletins.

One thing that stands out about Trout's traditional stats this year is his RBI count. He's hitting over .300 -- one of just 19 qualifying hitters in the majors to be hitting that old benchmark. He has 30 homers, and here's what I want to look at -- all of those dingers and hits have resulted in just 60 RBIs. Trout did not drive in a single teammate from June 21 to July 21. Both of his RBIs during the 25 games of that span came on solo home runs.

Let's say that Trout's MRI had not gone so well and his 2018 season came to an end with those numbers frozen: 30 homers, 60 RBIs. Comparing that to season-end totals from the past, it would be the fourth-lowest RBI total for a player with 30 or more home runs. There is a three-way tie for the fewest: Curtis Granderson (2016), Jedd Gyorko (2016) and Kyle Schwarber (2017) all drove in 59 runs with 30 homers. Right behind Mike Trout is Milwaukee's Thames, who had 31 homers and 63 RBIs last season.

This isn't new for Trout. Last season -- the one clipped by a thumb injury suffered on a head-first slide -- he had 33 homers and 72 RBIs. That's tied for the 17th-fewest RBIs in a 30-homer season, with Evan Gattis, who had 32 homers and 72 RBIs in 2016. Of the "top" 17 hitters on this list (omitting Trout this season), nine of them did it in 2016 or 2017.

Clearly, this is a symptom of baseball in the 20-teens. All of the players joining Trout on the list are huge strikeout guys, even by current standards. Contact is not their game, whether or not there are runners on base. It's about walks and homers.

Thing is, that doesn't describe Trout at all. He's not a three-true-outcomes player by any stretch of the imagination. Most of those other players are highly shiftable, dead-pull hitters (though Schwarber has tried to evolve beyond that this season, with some success). Most of them hit from the left side of the dish. Trout is a righty who mashes to whatever damn field he wants and makes enough contact to put up an average over .300 in a season when the big league average as a whole is under .250.

Clearly, the problem here is Trout's ability to come through in the clutch. His massive ability shrivels up and vanishes every time a teammate reaches second base and he steps to the plate. Don't believe that? Well, of course you don't, and you shouldn't.

Since Trout's first full season in the majors, he leads all batters with an OPS of .997 -- 22 points better than anybody else. With runners in scoring position, he's second to Joey Votto with a 1.062 OPS. They're Hall of Fame numbers, no matter how you slice it. Not that it's any surprise, but Trout's low RBI count cannot be viewed as any kind of performance flaw.

The RBI issue is due to a couple of factors. First, there is opportunity.

We can track this using the RBI Opportunities tool at Baseball Prospectus. Over the last couple of seasons, Trout has had an average of 0.523 runners on base during his plate appearances. The big league average, not adjusted for batting order position, is 0.597. Using that as a baseline, we can measure that Trout has had 73 fewer runners on base than expected, the 28th-highest total in the majors. Most of those ahead of him see a lot of time in the leadoff spot, where you'd expect to see a lower rate of runners on base. Because, you know, they're hitting leadoff.

Trout has driven in 13.3 percent of the runners who have been on base for him. The league average is 13.8. So he does bear some culpability in the lower-than-expected RBI count, but that is more style than substance.

According to TruMedia, since the beginning of the 2016 season, 46.7 percent of the pitches Trout has seen with runners on base have been in the strike zone. That's lower than the league average (47.6 percent) but not shockingly low. There have been 103 hitters to see an even lower frequency of strikes in those spots.

However, there are many reasons to pitch out of the strike zone against a batter. Among the hitters who have seen the lowest rate of pitches in the zone with runners on base are Chicago's Javier Baez and Kansas City's Salvador Perez. Both are dangerous hitters, but pitchers tend to stay out of the zone with them because they know they'll swing anyway.

For Trout, the opposite is true: Only 12 batters have a lower chase rate with runners on base than he does. As a result, Trout has a walk rate (21.9 percent) and on-base percentage (.476) that leads all batters in those situations. His metrics in both categories surpass even those of the divinely patient Votto.

The end result of all that patience is that Trout is driving up his bottom-line value in terms of WAR, while driving in fewer of his teammates.

This, of course, is a timeless problem, one that is much less of a big deal than it used to be. Ultra-patient stars from Ted Williams to Barry Bonds to Votto have been accused of being overly patient in RBI situations, at the detriment of driving in teammates. Over time, however, we've seen that those concerns are largely hollow. Expanding the strike zone is just not what hitters of that ilk do.

Thus, it's up to the Angels to put better on-base guys in front of Trout, and more dangerous power guys behind him. Trout does his part, even if RBIs don't tell the story. This is exactly why we don't fixate on the RBI totals in modern-day evaluation. We can track them and admire them, and often, they do tell a story. They just don't tell us much about who is good and why.

Since you asked

Hall of Famers on the state of baseball

Last week, I was in Cooperstown for the 2018 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a paradoxically busy and placid time on the baseball calendar. It was great to take a few days off from fixating on trade rumors, playoff races and off-the-field controversies. There is no better place to take a step back and see the game in context, even a season that is unfolding at what feels like a breakneck pace. Baseball is still great.

You might read that feature as being on the Pollyannaish side, and that's fine. In this weekly space, I've not shied away from addressing the challenges the game faces, and won't do so in the future. And some of those topics were broached with the new inductees. It's funny, regardless of who it is, all new Hall of Famers are imbued with a kind of guru status. Their take on anything baseball-related suddenly becomes hallowed.

Anyway, what do the new Hall of Famers think of the various proposals to spruce up the game and other matters of controversy?

Jack Morris, on a pitch clock: "I'd rather see a pitcher limit. Eleven pitchers on each team. That way, we won't see 14 pitchers in a ballgame. Every generation prior to 2000, in a blowout you may see five pitchers. In a good game, you're going to see two or three. In a great game, you're gonna see one. Today's starting pitchers that go complete games get standing ovations. My goodness, to the first 100 years of baseball, that's what it was supposed to be played like. I think the pitching changes delay the game, and that's what's killing the game."

Jim Thome, on PEDs: "Never thought about doing it. As it got going around, you heard about it, but never seen it. It was never around. At the end of the day, you look in the mirror and you feel proud about how you accomplished something. That's the greatest feeling ever for me, to know all those struggles, you did it the right way. That's what I feel most proud of."

Thome, on shifts: "Being a guy that the shift hurt -- they shifted me notoriously the last stages of my career -- I'd like to see them go straight up. I'd like to see baseball go back to traditional play. Personally, I'd like to see what it would do. Would it speed the game up? We don't know. How many times is the shift actually helping the team win?"

Thome, on a pitch clock: "I don't like a clock in baseball. It's what makes an hour, two-hour, four-hour game great. To me, I don't like a clock in baseball."

Alan Trammell, on shifts: "Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is that, you know what, we used to play the game, we didn't have the technology. Sparky and the coaching staff used to give me the free rein to kind of move where I wanted to because I was paying attention watching the hitters. So, I think to a certain degree, we weren't shifting and doing the overshifting, but we were moving around, at least all the good ones were. All the guys that are in the Hall of Fame, I can guarantee you that they were moving; they weren't playing in the same position all the time."

Chipper Jones, on legislating against the shift: "Not a huge fan of it. I think we're tinkering with the game a little too much as it is. You know, it's a free enterprise. You put those seven guys out there behind the pitcher wherever you want. I would've welcomed a shift because that would've inside-outed the heck out of everything. I would've eaten that shift up. I think it takes a conscious effort by hitters to be able to make the adjustment."

Trevor Hoffman, on the shift: "The shift became important in a way that it opened up our eyes, that there are tendencies that guys are doing. If we pitch them a certain way, more often than not, they're going to hit into this position of how we're set up. As a defense, we can get them out better. Now the shift needs to come back. The hitter needs to make the adjustment and take what the defense is giving them."

Hoffman, on a pitch clock: "I've seen it in the minor leagues. I get a chance to go down to the Padres' minor league affiliate and see it. It becomes kind of white noise. I don't think guys are overly paying attention to it because they know it's there, but they know they're getting their job done within that time frame. I think it would be easy to adjust to."

Coming right up

Get ready for some big series

We're not out of the trade-rumor woods just yet, but the heavy lifting for the in-season transaction market has been done. With just two months left in a 2018 season that has plenty of undecided races to follow, we've reached that time of the year when we can call a set of games a "big series" without it being mere hyperbole.

There are several big series on the docket for the week to come, but some of them aren't as shiny as they could be because of some key injuries. The Yankees and Red Sox face off in a four-game set at Fenway Park as New York seeks to narrow the gap in a high-octane AL East race that Boston is threatening to run away with. However, Aaron Judge and Chris Sale are among those on the shelf, so that stinks. Still, that quartet of games should make for 20 hours of quality baseball.

A rematch of the 2017 World Series is happening at Dodger Stadium this weekend, but, alas, the defending-champion Houston Astros are shorthanded. No Jose Altuve, no Carlos Correa and possibly no George Springer. *frowning emoji*

The division to focus on over the next week is the NL East. On Monday, the freshly stacked Philadelphia Phillies will visit the Arizona Diamondbacks in a matchup of division-title contenders that have beefed up their respective rosters over the past month. It's also a chance for both teams to pit their productive and deep bullpen against a playoff-quality opponent. It's not October, but it's a glimpse of what October might look like.

While the Phillies are battling in the desert, the Braves will visit the nation's capital for a huge four-game series against the Washington Nationals that begins with a day-night doubleheader on Tuesday. The Nationals seem to have come out of the deadline breathing fire, though that may simply be a matter of playing the Mets. Still, if Washington is going to make the division race a three-team sprint, this is the time to do so.

We'll see how the rotations shake out, but right now it appears the Braves could be sending their top two starters, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, to the mound early in that series, and Atlanta's newest starter, Kevin Gausman, could go in the series finale. Meanwhile, Washington is set to have Max Scherzer go in one of the games of the doubleheader, and Gio Gonzalez should get a start as well.

A week from now, we may look at this week as the one when the Nationals finally returned to the relevance that their management has gambled still exists. Or it could be the week that we start wondering if Bryce Harper will clear waivers.