Writer’s Note: Thanks for continuing to read BttP’s team previews, which run concurrently with the Effectively Wild podcast team previews. I had so much fun writing about the Braves that I expanded on Matt Trueblood’s Team In a Box format. If this is too long for you, you can skip to the relevant questions at the bottom of each section. I’ve avoided duplicating information when I feel I’ve already answered the question earlier in the article so some of Trueblood’s questions do not appear here.
Catching up with the Braves
The Braves didn’t wait until after the World Series to start their off-season moves, firing general manager Frank Wren Sept. 22nd and naming John Hart interim GM. Hart later accepted the position of president of baseball operations, working with assistant GM John Coppolella. Hart has led a series of trades that saw several key Braves leave town in exchange for prospects and young major leaguers. He acknowledged there was an eye toward 2017, when the Braves will move to Cobb County and open SunTrust Stadium, without trying to ”strip down” the team.
PECOTA projects the Braves to finish second worst in the National League East, with a 75-87 record. It sees the Braves as the second worst offensive team in the NL, scoring more runs than only the Phillies, and it considers the team’s defense as worst in the NL, which spells trouble for the Braves’ pitching staff.
Braves Not Expected to be “All About That [On] Base”
How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
In 2014, the Braves finished second-to-last in runs scored, beating only the injury-and-stadium-challenged Padres. That’s what happens when you finish 24th in OBP, 29th in slugging, and 27th in team strikeout rate. The Braves followed this stellar offensive performance by trading away three of their four best hitters in Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis. Freddie Freeman is going to need plenty of hugs this season as he tries to carry the offense unless a whole lot of players end up overachieving their projections.
A freak .371 batting average on balls in play in 2013 meant Freeman was due to fall back to earth in 2014, but he handled it with grace, batting .288/.386/.461 with 18 home runs. His discipline at the plate helped him hit his way into the top five offensive first basemen in baseball according to wOBA. ZiPS, Steamer and PECOTA all project him to jump back into the low-20s range for home runs while maintaining his solid on-base percentage and batting average. While he leads the team in pitches seen per plate appearance, Brooksbaseball.net considers Freeman “exceptionally aggressive” against fastballs in the strike zone. While swinging at fastballs in the zone is a good plan it’s possible there’s room for Freeman to improve with regard to which fastballs in the zone he swings at in the future.
On the other side of the infield, Freeman will be joined by his old friends Chris Johnson and Andrelton Simmons. Johnson continued to swing at everything in 2014 and his BABIP crashed nearly 50 points, dragging his batting line to .263/.292/.361 in 611 plate appearances. He has been the subject of many trade rumors this off-season as the Braves look to escape the three-year commitment they made in May 2014. Johnson is a below average defender with so-so career numbers against right-handed pitching. Limiting him to platoon duty vs. left-handed pitching may be on the table for the upcoming season. Simmons should continue to gobble up everything hit to the left-side of the infield. Projections systems expect he will improve as a hitter in his 25 year-old season while continuing to lead the majors in defensive metrics. He may never hit 17 home runs again but, as long as his glove continues to play, he will remain a valuable shortstop many teams would love to have.
The Braves signed Alberto Callaspo to a one-year deal this off-season, likely to serve as either Johnson’s platoon-mate or as the starting second baseman. Callaspo, who hit just .223/.290/.290 in Oakland, specializes in not striking out, with a career 9% strike-out rate vs an 8.7% walk rate, but he’ll need to make better contact in Atlanta if he wants to help the team score runs. Callaspo, a switch-hitter who hits better from the right-side of the plate, gives the Braves flexibility if their top positional prospect, Jose Peraza, is ready for his MLB debut at the keystone. Peraza, a shortstop who converted to second base last year to move more quickly to the majors, is an excellent runner who swiped 177 bases over 4 seasons in the minors to complement his .306 batting average. Peraza offers no power but can rely on hitting ground balls and using his speed to reach base. With a AA walk rate under 4%, however, he may need to improve his approach if he wants to succeed in the majors. Lefty swingers Jace Peterson, acquired in the Justin Upton trade from the Padres, and Kelly Johnson, looking to catch on as a non-roster invitee, are also in the infield mix, as is Phil Gosselin, who impressed down the stretch in 2014.
Behind the plate, the Braves cleared room for Christian Bethancourt to move into a starting role in 2015. Bethancourt’s bat is a work in progress but he has been heralded for some time as a top defensive catcher in the minors, particularly for his cannon arm. Bethancourt appeared to have a breakout season with his bat in AA in 2013 but has not duplicated the success at AAA or in the majors. AJ Pierzynski will round out the catcher position as the team’s token veteran backstop. Pierzynski, now 38, hit 27 home runs in 2012 but that number looks to be a bump in an otherwise steady downward trajectory for the veteran.
When the Braves signed right fielder Nick Markakis to a four-year pact in December, it looked like they were trying to make up for what they lost in Jason Heyward: Markakis won the AL gold glove in 2014 and posted similar OBP numbers to Heyward over the last few seasons. Advanced defensive metrics frown on Markakis’ lack of mobility in right-field, though, and he lacks any sort of power at the plate. At least there is a consistency to his catch-and-throw abilities and his ability to get on base. His .342 on-base percentage and six steals over the last three seasons don’t scream “leadoff hitter” but it looks like he’s Atlanta’s best option, as he was for the Orioles in 2014. Markakis underwent neck fusion surgery in mid-December but is expected to be at fully ready by opening day.
Returning to play centerfield is the lone Upton to survive the Braves’ purge. B.J. Upton cut his strikeout rate by four points in 2014 and hit for more power. Relative to his historically awful 2013, “more” means bringing his batting line up to .208/.287/.333. B.J. batted second more than any other member of the Braves last season so it’s possible Fredi Gonzalez will continue to keep trying to get him at-bats with hope he can return to the player the Braves thought they were signing before 2013.
On the surface, it looks like the Braves hope the switch-hitting Zoilo Almonte [Zoiled again!] or Eric Young Jr., can platoon with Jonny Gomes in left field to start the season. Gomes has been weaker against right-handed pitching in his career, and the Braves will likely want to limit his exposure to playing defense in Turner Field’s spacious outfield. It was somewhat surprising to see the Braves commit a major league contract to Almonte, since he only played in 47 games over the last two seasons for the Yankees. Entering his 26-year-old season, Almonte posted reasonable power numbers in AAA, with 18 home runs in 105 games last season. Baseball Prospectus projected him as a “useable bench bat” in 2014 but he didn’t even make the 2015 annual. It’s possible this is just John Coppolella hoping to get lucky on a player he liked when he worked in the Yankees’ front office. Eric Young Jr., was signed to a minor-league contract with a spring training invite as pitchers and catchers reported to Florida. The light-hitting Young struggled to a .299 OBP last season but is a legitimate base-stealing threat, with 76 steals in 93 attempts over the last two seasons with the Rockies and Mets, and advanced defensive metrics see him as a strong left-fielder.
The real enigma for the Braves is recent Cuban signee Dian Toscano. The Braves reportedly hope Toscano will be good enough to start the season in AAA Gwinnett. A multi-year suspension from playing baseball in Cuba means Toscano has not played professional baseball since 2012. BaseballAmerica.com reported that Toscano has “good bat control and strike-zone awareness” and runs well enough for center but played left field due to concerns over his arm strength. If Toscano plays well in AAA, look for him to displace Almonte or Young on the major league roster if he struggles.
On the bench, Jace Peterson was underwhelming in short call-ups in 2014 with the Padres but he posted solid on-base percentages and showed he could run a little throughout his minor league career. Gosselin will return, likely as the backup middle-infielder and right-handed complement to either Peterson or Johnson, and could see time in the outfield. Look for Todd Cunningham to backup center and left field. The switch-hitter could be in line for a starting job if the Braves can part with B.J. Upton. He’s not the player you want starting on a championship team but his defense should help the Braves keep some runs off the board. The Braves also have an option in center and left-field in the speedy Eury Perez.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?
Fredi Gonzalez’s heart appears to be in the right place when it comes to platooning players and pinch hitting but, unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to pay attention to stats. In the second half of 2013, he platooned lefty Jordan Schafer with righty B.J. Upton, but he may have been better off just starting Upton every day. The team appeared to sign Callaspo with an eye toward platooning him with Chris Johnson at third base but Callaspo actually hits better against left-handed pitching so there’s little statistical merit to this plan. It looks like they’ll use Gomes and Almonte or Young in a platoon in left field but Almonte or Young will need to prove he can hit enough to stick in the majors, even in a platoon situation.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?
Whether the Braves front office signed Markakis and Callaspo simply because they provided cheap value or because they strike out far less than the players they are succeeding is unknown. Strikeouts will remain an issue for the Braves in 2015 because of the presence of free-swinging players like Chris Johnson and Simmons, players with contact issues, like Upton, and players who might not stick on the roster, like Almonte. Over the last four seasons, the team has the worst contact percentage against pitches in the strike zone in MLB. Kevin Seitzer will serve as Atlanta’s fourth hitting coach in six seasons this year and he’ll have a challenge on his hands.
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
Gonzalez does not have a reputation as an aggressive hit-and-run caller but the the Braves rank in the upper-half of MLB teams in sacrifice hits since he took over as manager in 2011. Early in Gonzalez’s first season, the Braves were among the least successful teams at stealing bases but it appears the days of calling for a suicide squeeze with the catcher on third are gone for Gonzalez; the team is 25th in stolen base attempts since 2012 while ranking around average in success rate.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
There several positions where the Braves need upgrades if they’re going to compete soon but the question for this team is, who would replace them? The Braves are still desperately in need of players who can get on-base at an above-average clip. If Simmons and Bethancourt are penciled in as the long-term shortstop and catcher, then the Braves will need to compensate for their spots in the lineup. Banking on uncertain platoons, unproven castoffs and unready prospects doesn’t bode well for their chances of doing so in 2015.
If the Braves want to commit to their rebuild, they could make anyone on the roster available but they appear to be clinging to Craig Kimbrel at the moment. They appear to have players on the bench or in the minors who could join the big league team and provide replacement level value or better at most positions if they decide to flip any of their veteran signings from this off-season. It may be a long season but, at the very least, such an approach would give them a chance to evaluate what they have in unknowns like Almonte and Peterson.
Optimized Lineups (approximate)
|vs. RHP||vs. LHP|
|Nick Markakis, RF||Jonny Gomes, LF|
|Freddie Freeman, 1B||Chris Johnson, 3B|
|Alberto Callaspo, 2B||Nick Markakis, RF|
|Andrelton Simmons, SS||Andrelton Simmons, SS|
|Chris Johnson, 3B||Freddie Freeman, 1B|
|Almonte/Young, LF||Christian Bethancourt, C|
|B.J. Upton, CF||Alberto Callaspo, 2B|
|Christian Bethancourt, C||B.J. Upton, CF|
Chance they will use one of these lineups: Slim. Fredi Gonzalez used B.J. Upton and Andrelton Simmons as the #2 hitter in lineups more often than any other hitters last season. In the statistically optimized lineup, this is the spot reserved for the best hitter on the team, not one of the worst. He also loves to alternate lefties and righties in his lineup so that same-sided batters do not follow each other. This strategy prevents other teams from using lefty or righty specialist relievers for more than a batter at a time late in the game. But when it’s giving extra at-bats to Upton or Simmons at the expense of Freeman, it also weakens the lineup during the 3 or 4 times the team might bat through the lineup earlier in the game.
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?
According to BaseballProspectus.com, Turner Field is a top five ballpark in MLB for aiding right-handed home runs, playing remarkably similar to Great American Ballpark for righties. Lefties must deal with pitcher friendly factors on the other side of the field, however. The differences between right and left field make the stadium average out to a slight pitchers park.
The Braves’ schedule for 2015 should not hinder their record any more than other teams in their division. While PECOTA sees the Nationals as a 90-win team, it projects the rest of the NL East to finish below .500. This division also gives the Braves the chance to play their share of games against the Phillies, who look like the worst team in baseball right now. The Braves will match-up against the AL East in interleague play this season, featuring a potentially resurgent Red Sox. The East looks like a division that won’t cut the Braves any breaks, as only the Orioles are projected to win less than 80 games.
The Pitching Staff: A Hit or a Miss?
It’s hard to settle on what to expect from the Braves’ pitching staff in 2015. The Braves lost 400 innings from their 2014 rotation when Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana left for free agency. They also parted ways with Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, both of whom pitched well for the Braves in 2013 and both of whom are trying to return from a second Tommy John Surgery. Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, and Alex Wood will return to the rotation. They picked up Shelby Miller in the Jason Heyward trade , who could settle-in behind Julio Teheran in the rotation order, but there appears to be a multi-pitcher battle for the fifth rotation spot.
Projection systems are all over the place when it comes to the Braves’ rotation. ZiPS considers Julio Teheran one of the better pitchers in the National League, pitching 200 innings with a 3.37 FIP, good for 4.3 WAR. Other projection systems are less bullish on the 25-year-old’s performance. Steamer projects Teheran to finish with a 4.10 FIP while PECOTA projects a 3.56 ERA for Teheran and 1.2 WARP, roughly equivalent to former Brave Tim Hudson. Keep an eye on Teheran’s fastball velocity: it dropped nearly 1 mph last season which is a bad sign for a pitcher the Braves hope will lead their rotation for several more years. The rest of the rotation follows a similar pattern. ZiPS thinks highly of Alex Wood and sees Shelby Miller and Mike Minor as slightly above average pitchers while PECOTA and Steamer project below average performances for all 3 starters.
The Braves’ focus on acquiring pitching during their off-season trades could start to come to fruition this season. Hard-throwing righty Michael Foltynewicz [folt-in-eh-vich], acquired in the trade that sent Evan Gattis to Houston, appears to have the inside track on the final spot in the rotation. Foltynewicz brings upper 90’s heat when starting and touches 100 mph in relief. He’ll need to work on his command and control if he wants to cement a spot in the Braves’ rotation as they also have options in lefties Wandy Rodriguez and Manny Banuelos. Rodriguez, entering his age 36 season, was once a frontline starter for the Astros but age and injuries appear to to be catching up to him. Banuelos was a former stud prospect in the Yankees’ org and was acquired for relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve. He struggled to return to form after Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2013 but, at 23, there’s still time for him to grow into a quality major league starting pitcher. The Braves could use Banuelos as a left-handed reliever but the presence of James Russell and Luis Avilan leads me to believe he’ll start the season in AAA Gwinnett.
In the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel projects to continue his reign of terror over hitters at the end of games. The Braves also brought in a couple veteran closers with name recognition to fill late inning roles in Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli. Johnson, who turns 32 this summer, was excellent from 2011-13 with the Orioles, pitching to a 2.09 ERA by using ground balls to neutralize hitters but struggled to a 7.09 ERA with the A’s and Tigers last season. Grilli also got off to a rough start in 2014, posting a 4.87 ERA with the Pirates, before a change-of-scenery trade sent him to the Angels where he cut his walk rate nearly in half and pitched to a 3.48 ERA.
Josh Outman joins Russell and Avilan to round out the lefties competing for a bullpen spot. The presence of Outman could allow the Braves to trade Russell, whose contract is up at the end of the season. The Outman has held left-handed batters to just a .528 OPS in his career. He’s also the Out-of-Options-Man, which could give him the inside track on a roster spot. With Shae Simmons likely missing the entire season with Tommy John surgery, Arodys Vizcaino should have an inside track on a bullpen job. Vizcaino returns to the Braves in the deal that sent Tommy La Stella to the Cubs. He struck out more than a batter per inning as a 20 year-old call-up with the Braves in 2011 before Tommy John surgery derailed his career. Michael Kohn will get a chance to compete for a bullpen spot as a spring training non-roster invitee. Kohn struggles with his control, walking nearly a batter for every one he strikes out, but he managed to keep his strike out rate high enough to off-set the walks in 76 innings with the Angels over the last two seasons.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?
Other than Andrelton Simmons, the Braves opening day roster could be a team that struggles to defend their positions. B.J. Upton’s defense has slipped toward replacement territory according to advanced metrics in recent seasons. Advanced metrics are not fans of Markakis and don’t really see why anyone would play Chris Johnson or Gomes in the field unless absolutely necessary. Freeman is a controversial case when it comes to defense; he’s known for his huge reach and ability to dig out baseballs when fielding throws but his range as a fielder is poor. This will be a challenge for a young Braves’ staff that could be subject to some volatility as they develop. On the other hand, if in-season trades push Jace Peterson into service at third and Jose Peraza into a major league job at second base, the Braves infield defense could become death to ground balls. The new addition of Young could signal some help for the outfield, as well.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
The Braves will continue to be defined by young pitchers in the rotation this season. A lot is riding on Teheran to carry over his 2014 performance, as well as further improvement from Shelby Miller and Alex Wood. Fredi Gonzalez no longer has the liberty of assuming he can reduce every game to 6 innings like he could with O’Flaherty, Venters, and Kimbrel carrying the final innings. Shae Simmons may be the key to handing off leads to Kimbrel this season, as Johnson and Grilli have struggled tremendously at times in recent seasons..
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
The Braves were slow to adopt the infield shift but now seem to use it in appropriate situations. This isn’t a team with a reputation for aggressively shifting but Fredi Gonzalez has used plenty of defensive substitutions in recent season like bringing Ramiro Pena in to substitute for Chris Johnson. Look for Jace Peterson or Kelly Johnson to take over at third base late in games. Todd Cunningham or Eury Perez could also pick up a fair number of innings late in games substituting for Gomes or Almonte. If Young makes the big league club, he should provide plenty of defensive value and would not need a late inning substitution.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
Christian Bethancourt receives rave reviews for his arm and pop times. While recent research revealed that most of the running game is controlled by the pitcher, Bethancourt has an opportunity to be the outlier thanks to his quick movements and strong arm. We are yet to see what kind of pitch framing skills Bethancourt can deploy at the major league level. In a small sample, best discarded, he ranked below replacement level according to pitch framing metrics but those same metrics rated Evan Gattis as an above average framer in a small sample in his first season, even though further data rated him poorly compared to other catchers.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
It shouldn’t surprise readers at this point that I don’t see a lot of hope for the Braves’ win-loss record this season. What I do see is a sound strategy to commit to rebuilding the farm system and turn short-term contracts into long-term assets by way of trades over the course of the next year. If you’re a baseball rat, you might enjoy the chance to see a lot of different players don jerseys for the major league club this season as the Braves try to balance veteran leadership with young call-ups. If you’re more of a casual fan, you might enjoy the chance to get good seats at a reasonable price on StubHub. With luck, we’re only a couple seasons away from seeing a Braves team packed with speed and hard-throwing pitchers ready to help the team open SunTrust Stadium on a high note.Next post: Baseball’s Premier Home Run Jingles
Previous post: BttP Podcast: Ep 7 – Nick Strangis & Scott Kushner