October 8, 2009 at 8:24 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves, Defense, Front Office, Pitching, Statistical Analysis
This is going to be a very lengthy post. It will involve a lot of statistical analysis and will attempt to determine what the Braves did well, what they did badly, what they need to change, and generally how they got to where they are. While the purpose of this post is to examine the team as a whole, it will deal with the successes and shortcomings of individual players in the process. I haven’t formed any conclusions yet and won’t until the end of the post. So sit back and enjoy.
Part I: Where They Ended Up
Here’s what the NL East’s final standings look like:
The projection systems all had the Braves finishing with between 84 and 88 wins. They pretty much nailed it. Florida vastly overachieved. Philadelphia made some acquisitions and ended up being a better team than the projections thought. Injuries wrecked the Mets season. The Nationals were never in it to begin with.
A better indicator of how good a club actually is, rather than using the actual standings, is their Pythagorean W-L record. This method uses runs scored and runs allowed to estimate how many games a team should have won. We’ll take a look at the Pythagorean standings:
The Braves were much closer to the Phillies than the standings would indicate. A team that scores 735 runs and allows 641 should win 91 games. They won 86. However, second order Pythagorean wins is an even better indicator of how good a team actually is. These calculations don’t use actual runs scored and runs against, they use offensive components to determine how many runs a team would score and allow all luck removed. We’ll take a look at those standings:
And 3rd order Pythagorean wins is even more accurate. This takes into account the quality of opposition and park factors:
There’s nothing the Braves can do about this, really, it’s mostly just luck, but it’s rather annoying to think what might have been after watching the Phillies wallop the Rockies in game 1. Fundamentally, the Braves were probably the best team in the NL East. At any rate, this is a fairly good reference point for the rest of the post and a good starting point for 2010.
Part II: What They Did
Where the Braves ended up is a product of the four major categories–hitting, pitching, defense, and base running. We’ll examine each category with great scrutiny. We’ll start with the category that was undoubtedly the strength of the club: pitching.
There aren’t enough good things to say about the Braves’ pitching in 2009. Overall, staff ranked in the NL, as a whole, 3rd in ERA, 3rd in ERA+, 4th in WHIP, 1st in home runs allowed per 9 innings, 4th in hits allowed per 9 innings, 3rd in walks allowed per 9 innings, 5th in strikeouts per 9 innings, and 2nd in strikeout-to-walk ratio. In every meaningful category, the pitching staff was top-5 in the league.
The starting staff was exceptionally strong, posting a 3.52 ERA. That ranked 1st in the NL. Eight pitchers made a start for the Braves in 2009. We’ll take a look at their xFIP and ERA:
|Jo Jo Reyes||27.0||7.00||4.29|
Kris Medlen, Jo Jo Reyes, and Derek Lowe underachieved. On the other hand, Kenshin Kawakami, Jair Jurrjens, and Tommy Hanson underachieved. Javier Vazquez and Tim Hudson were in line with their pherepials. It’s a bit concerning that two of the team’s best starters were extremely lucky–Hanson and Jurrjens.
Jurrjens was able to accomplish this for a variety of reasons. Nine of the runs he allowed were scored “unearned”. If they were all earned, his ERA would’ve been 2.97. Jurrjens also benefited from a low BABIP (.274, 11 points lower than his career average and 25 points lower than the league average) and a high LOB% (79.4%). When you hear people say “trade Jurrjens while his value is high”, this is what they’re talking about. Advanced metrics suggest he’s incapable of repeating his 2009 performance with the same fundamental skills. They aren’t suggesting he won’t be valuable in the future, just not as valuable as he was in 2009.
Hanson also benefited from a low BABIP (.279), but his 80.3 LOB% is the biggest reason his ERA outperforms his xFIP. He also suffers because his HR rate is so low (0.7 HR/9), but that’s right in line with the rest of the Braves’ staff. A staff that has traditionally been extremely good at limiting home runs. I’m less concerned with regression from Hanson than I am from Jurrjens because Hanson’s strikeout rates and walk rates were significantly worse the first few starts than his minor-league numbers would indicate. He reversed the trend after a month or two and I expect that to continue in 2010.
Kawakami’s over achievement can be explained by his home run rates as well, something that he’s probably capable of sustaining. Kawakami also struggled with command in his MLB debut on account of a bigger, slicker baseball than he used in NPB and a smaller strike-zone. He’s seemingly made the adjustments he needs to and I expect improvement from Kenshin in 2010.
Derek Lowe was the biggest puzzler of them all. After signing a 4 year, $60 million contract, he disappointed with a 4.67 ERA. One would expect some regression due to park effects (Dodger Stadium is more pitcher-friendly than Turner Field), but this doesn’t account for a run-and-a-half of regression. Lowe didn’t get a whole lot of help from his defense in 2009. His .333 BABIP ranked 2nd in the league. This isn’t all luck, Lowe’s LD% was up in 2009, but a lot of it is. And of course his strikeouts were down in 2009 and his walks were up, but not significantly. All in all, his xFIP probably tells the complete story of Lowe’s abilities. In Lowe’s case, natural regression towards the mean will likely occurr in 2010 and I expect improvement from him. When it’s all said and done, Lowe will probably be worth every penny of that $60 million contract he signed this off-season.
The difference in Medlen’s xFIP and ERA isn’t particularly noteworthy and Reyes probably doesn’t figure to be a part of the Braves’ plans in 2010.
The Relievers were a less impressive group. Overall, they ranked 5th in the NL with a 3.68 ERA. We’ll take a look at the relievers’ ERA, xFIP, IP, and number of appearances. We’ll cut it off at 15 innings pitched. Kris Medlen, who primarily pitched in relief, is included in the previous table and not in this one:
Most of the work out of the bullpen was done by four relievers–Rafael Soriano, Peter Moylan, Mike Gonzalez, and Eric O’Flaherty. Soriano was excellent, notching the first Braves’ reliever 100-strikeout season since John Rocker did so in 1999. Peter Moylan proved to be an extremely valuable set-up man, despite having to dig his way out of a 7.88 ERA he posted in April. Moylan returned from Tommy John surgery in 2009 and many would argue he returned pre-maturely. His April performance suggests he probably did, but that’s neither here nor there. What’s done is done and, so long as no injuries surface, whether or not he came back too early isn’t particularly relevant going forward.
Something else happened to Moylan that was pretty noteworthy in 2009. He finished the year without allowing a home run. He shattered the major league record for appearances in a season without allowing a home run in doing so. The absence of Home Runs hit off of Moylan accounts for the difference between his ERA (which was in line with his FIP) and his xFIP (which adjusts FIP to account for league-average HR rates). While it would be unrealistic to expect Moylan to allow zero home runs in 2010, sinkerballers tend to limit home runs, so I believe his ERA is sustainable.
Mike Gonzalez was also excellent out of the bullpen. After being relegated to set-up man on account of Soriano’s dominant performance, he excelled and was probably the league’s top set-up man. His ERA was a bit of an illusion, but he did post an excellent 90-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Gonzalez was also invaluable as a late-innings left-handed reliever, limiting lefties to a .581 OPS.
Eric O’Flaherty rounded out the group of late-innings arms. O’Flaherty was used primarily as a lefty specialist and was excellent in that role. He was even more effective than Gonzalez against the lefties, allowing them to post a .559 OPS and posting a 24-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio against them. As the season grew, Bobby Cox became more and more comfortable using O’Flaherty against right-handed batters. He wasn’t nearly as good against them, allowing them to post a .375 OBP against him. Using O’Flaherty in a full inning role in 2010 would be a mistake, but he’s more than capable of being one of the best LOOGY’s in the game.
Jeff Bennett was terrible and able to sustain a low ERA despite horrible peripherals before being released. Manny Acosta wasn’t too good out of the bullpen either, but he’s perfectly capable of pitching low-leverage innings. Buddy Carlyle was diagnosed with Diabetes and, as a result, we have little meaningful data on him. He was good in 2008 and I expect him to compete for a long-relief role in 2010. The most interesting pitchers of the low-leverage group (apart from Medlen) was Boone Logan. Logan, who was acquired from the White Sox in the Javier Vazquez trade, has a big arm and pitched fairly well for the Gwinnett Braves, but wasn’t used very much with the big club. His platoon splits (in an admittedly small sample size) suggest he’s perfectly capable of filling in as a situational lefty. His peripherals were fairly solid.
Injury concerns arose during the season due to Bobby Cox’s overuse of the 4 back-end arms, but Bobby did a much better job of managing the bullpen in the 2nd half. I’m not too concerned that overuse will cause injuries to suffer in 2010, but it’s something I’ll be keeping an eye on.
Overall, the pitching staff was very good. The Braves will most likely bring all 6 starters back, but may have to deal with the departures of Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez. While I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, it would be nice to have another top-notch reliever in the 2010 bullpen to soften the blow of losing Soriano and Gonzalez. Otherwise, I think the Bullpen is much healthier than it was leading into 2009. Still, provided injuries or bad luck don’t rear their ugly heads, the pitching staff should be just as strong in 2010 as it was in 2009.
On the other side of run prevention–defense–the Braves weren’t nearly as good. This was, to me, the biggest surprise of the season. I envisioned an above-average defense. But when it was all said and done, the Braves ranked 21st of 30 teams in defensive efficiency (turning balls put in play into outs). We’ll take a look at how the team stacked up defensively, as a whole. Each position is listed along with the number of runs the team saved (+/-) at that position:
There are three positions that obviously need improvement–LF, CF, and 2B. Individually, we’ll look at what the Braves did:
Brian McCann has improved to a league-average catcher and his back-up is more than capable defensively. When the Braves traded Casey Kotchman, they lost something on defense. Kotchman is a plus defender. While LaRoche isn’t a complete slouch with the glove, he’s average at best. None of the 2B were particularly good. Yunel Escobar was outstanding at SS and has turned into one of the best defensive SS in the game. Diory Hernandez isn’t good at anything–defense included. Chipper Jones, who I expected to have an average season after performing surprisingly well with the glove in 2008, was miserable in the field in 2009. The only reason the Braves’ +/- number for 3B was positive is the excellent defensive work Martin Prado put in as the back-up.
In the outfield, left field was rather miserable every time Garret Anderson was out there. The good news is he most likely won’t return in 2010. Matt Diaz wasn’t particularly good out there, either. In center field, Jordan Schafer failed to live up to the hype. He was touted as one of the best defensive CF in the minor leagues, but got to the big show and looked completely lost. I expect him to play plus defense in CF going forward. McLouth had an overall positive defensive season, but it’s worth note that his UZR/150 with the Pirates was +5.6 but it was -1.5 with the Braves. I view McLouth as a below-average defender in center, but probably an above-average defender at a corner. One way to possibly solve both defensive OF problems would be to allow Schafer to resume full-time duty in CF and play McLouth in LF. In Right, Church was the 2nd best defender on the team. Matt Diaz and Francoeur both weren’t very good.
I have reviewed this team’s defense endlessly in this space and concluded that if this team wants to get better defensively, they probably have to just do it internally. There aren’t any openings (1B, corner OF) to add an impact defender. But with a commitment to defense, this club could push themselves into the top-half defensively. Ranking in the top-half defensively should be good enough to make this club the best in baseball at preventing runs in 2010.
Offensively, the Braves started out extremely slow. For this, they got a bad rap, but they ended up averaging 4.54 runs a game, good for 6th in the NL. They ended up finishing 5th in walks, 4th in hits, 4th in doubles, 6th in average, 5th in OBP, but finished 9th in SLG% and 10th in HR. It’s fairly obvious that the biggest systematic weakness of the team was the inability to hit home runs.
The Braves attempted to solve this problem all season long, which led to a re-tooled offense. Going from a line-up that typically looked like this:
1. Kelly Johnson* – 2B
2. Yunel Escobar – SS
3. Chipper Jones# – 3B
4. Brian McCann* – C
5. Garret Anderson* – LF
6. Jeff Francoeur – RF
7. Casey Kotchman* – 1B
8. Jordan Schafer* – CF
To a line-up that typically looked like this:
1. Nate McLouth* – CF
2. Martin Prado – 2B
3. Chipper Jones# – 3B
4. Brian McCann* – C
5. Garret Anderson* – LF
6. Yunel Escobar – SS
7. Adam LaRoche* – 1B
8. Matt Diaz – RF
Drastically improved their overall offensive numbers, but the only sort of impact home-run hitter added was Adam LaRoche, who is a free agent at the end of the season and has 30-HR power in a good year. We’ll take a look at every player’s weighted On Base Average, minimum 95 PA’s:
The Braves did a fairly good job of getting the useless bats out of there. Jordan Schafer’s .273 wOBA was replaced by Nate McLouth’s .342 wOBA. Jeff Francoeur’s .278 wOBA was replaced, in large part, by Matt Diaz’s .384 wOBA. Kelly Johnson’s .306 wOBA was replaced by Martin Prado’s .355 wOBA. And Kotchman’s .332 wOBA was replaced by Adam LaRoche’s .404 wOBA. There was one more bat they should’ve gotten rid of, that was Garret Anderson. For instance, if Bobby Abreu’s .367 wOBA had been playing left field instead of Garret Anderson for the 534 PA’s he consumed, the Braves would’ve netted 3 more wins. And that’s just with the bat.
Overall, they’re dealing with a fairly solid group of offensive players. With rebound seasons from McLouth, Schafer, Kelly Johnson, and Chipper Jones, they’ll have a decent enough offense. However, if they’re serious about winning in 2010, a power bat to man one of the corner outfield positions or 1B is going to be a necessity. Due to the fact that most of the Braves’ power-hitting comes from the left side (Chipper, McCann, and McLouth, specifically), a right-handed power bat would be ideal and may have a disproportionate effect on the offense, propelling them from a slightly above-average one to a top-4 offense.
On the base paths, the Braves were absolutely miserable. Not just a little bit bad, they were plain awful. In fact, if it weren’t for Baltimore’s incredible incompetence on the base paths, the Braves would’ve ranked dead last in the majors in base running, costing the team nearly two wins on the bas epaths. As you can probably guess, there weren’t too many positive performances individual performances on the base paths, seeing as the team ranked 29th of 30. We’ll take a look at EqBRR (Equivalent Base Running Runs) for each individual, anyway:
Simply put, nothing overwhelmingly positive is going on here and plenty of overwhelmingly bad things are going on here. I have previously concluded that the Braves probably aren’t in the position to add an impact base runner, so they’re probably better off just trying to improve within. I don’t see any reason it can’t be done. With a little bit of focus, some coaching, and some re-tooled workouts, I don’t see any reason why this team has to continue killing themselves on the base paths.
Part III: Where They’re Going
After losing 90 games in 2008, losing most of the rotation and the centerpiece of the offense, Frank Wren was tasked with trying to re-build the club. He was able to field a competent pitching staff–the inability to do so was the downfall of the club in 2008–but the offense didn’t take off until Wren made some in-season moves. As it stands, the club is probably good enough to make the playoffs in 2010, but Wren has some interesting decisions on his hand. We’ll take a look at the payroll commitments for 2010:
|SP -||Derek Lowe||$15,000,000|
|SP -||Javier Vazquez||$11,500,000|
|SP -||Tim Hudson||$12,000,000|
|SP -||Jair Jurrjens||$400,000|
|SP -||Tommy Hanson||$400,000|
|SP -||Kenshin Kawakami||$7,333,333|
|RP -||Peter Moylan||Arb 1|
|RP -||Eric O’Flaherty||$400,000|
|RP -||Manny Acosta||$400,000|
|RP -||Kris Medlen||$400,000|
|RP -||Boone Logan||$400,000|
|C -||Brian McCann||$5,666,666|
|2B -||Martin Prado||$400,000|
|SS -||Yunel Escobar||$400,000|
|3B -||Chipper Jones||$13,000,000|
|LF -||Nate McLouth||$5,000,000|
|CF -||Jordan Schafer||$400,000|
|RF -||Matt Diaz||Arb 2|
|BC -||David Ross||$1,600,000|
|UT -||Omar Infante||$1,850,000|
|UT -||Kelly Johnson||Arb 2|
|OF -||Brandon Jones||$400,000|
|OF -||Ryan Church||Arb 2|
You’re basically looking at 6 starters, 5 relievers, 2 catchers, 5 infielders (no 1B), and 5 outfielders. The Braves probably need to add a reliever or two (which could be accomplished by moving a starter to the bullpen), and add a 1B and OF. They’ve probably got about $12 million to play with right now. I won’t start playing the roster game, because I’ll never stop, but there are plenty of options.
The outlook for 2010 is good. Right now the Braves have one of the best teams in the NL and they’ll just be looking to re-tool, as opposed to completely re-construct a pitching staff and offense. Adding an impact bat and reliever would certainly make this team very formidable, but they’re probably good enough to make it as they’re currently constructed.
It was a very successful season. The pitching staff was completely re-built, Francoeur is a Met, the rest of the out-machines are elsewhere, and the Braves finally played meaningful games. They enjoyed the successful run that almost took them to the post-season and will look to build on it in 2010. With the much-anticipated arrivals of Craig Kimbrel and Jason Heyward, among others, the Braves could be looking to begin another run similar to the one they experienced in 1991.
While the Braves didn’t make the playoffs, the future is very bright and there’s plenty to be excited about going forward. 2010 will be a good year for the Braves. Count on it.