Wednesday, October 19, 2016

2016 Player Reviews: Jim Johnson, Casey Kelly, Matt Kemp

The Braves have already signed their first free agent, which means it's a good time to unveil this year's minor league free agent portal. As I did last year, I will try to track down all offseason minor league free agent signings and, in many cases, provide some analysis. Last year's crop of players included Jhoulys Chacin, Chase d'Arnaud, and even Blake Lalli - who rejoined the Braves yesterday after briefly becoming a free agent. One new thing for this year's list is that I will try to add in those players that have left the system.

Let's get to today's player reviews. Did you miss the last edition? I got your back. Want to catch up on all of the series? I have you covered as well.

*Ages reflect the player's age on opening day, 2017

By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational
(Crop) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Jim Johnson, RHP, 33 years-old

2016 Review: For all the criticisms that rightly and unjustly have been attributed to Roger McDowell, one thing that cannot be ignored is the magic he could do with veterans like Johnson. After returning to the Braves, where he looked effective in 2015 before a midseason move to the Dodgers, Johnson arguably had his best season. Granted, 20 saves doesn't look as fancy as back-to-back 50-save years, but he set new career-best totals for strikeout percentage (26%) and FIP (2.71). He also lowered his HR/FB rate under 10% for the first time in four years. He continued to practically scrap his changeup in favor of a four-seamer to keep batters off-balance from keying in on his sinker. One big change in pitch-selection this year was that he began to use his curveball nearly 25% of the time, an increase of about 10% over his career. None of his pitches generate more whiffs per swing, which is a big reason for such an increase in strikeouts.

2017 Projection: Can he repeat his success without McDowell? The Braves put a $10 million bet on that happening when they extended his contract through 2018 and why not? He has been given a base from which to excel regardless of the pitching coach. 2017 and 2018 will be his Age-34 and Age-35 years so regression is certainly possible - though Johnson has been remarkably durable with 60 or more games in five-of-the-last-six seasons with only one trip to the DL since 2011 (non-arm related). The Braves have done well to keep Johnson in the fold and Johnson surely has enjoyed his career resurgence in Atlanta.

Casey Kelly, RHP, 27 years-old

2016 Review: Acquired last December for Christian Bethancourt, Kelly was part of a trio of pitchers - along with Ryan Weber and John Gant - who seemed to handle the role of long-man out of the pen. Once they threw a few innings in a game, they'd cycle back to Gwinnett in exchange for a fresher arm and rinse-and-repeat. Kelly was optioned to the minors four different times during the season While in the minors, he received the first extended look at Triple-A during his eight-year career. It was fairly meh (stats term) as far as results go. His 3.53 ERA was helped by a .266 BABIP. His major league results over 21.2 innings were pretty ugly as his inability to get many swings-and-misses becomes a real problem against major league batters.

2017 Projection: It's been three years since Kelly last showed up on Top 100 prospect lists and at his age, he won't again be in contention for a spot. Kelly's problem is that after a 2013 Tommy John surgery, his strikeout numbers have never rebounded and his control has gone from merely good rather than impeccable as it was when he climbed the minor league ladder. That's not to say all hope is lost, but Kelly is a guy who throws 90 mph, gets a decent amount of groundballs, and doesn't have the stuff to bear down and get strikeouts when needed. Those type of pitchers are a dime a dozen. While Kelly still has an option left and provides depth, he needs to develop an out-pitch and quickly to start ascending the depth chart rather than get passed by higher-ceiling prospects as they mature.

Matt Kemp, LF, 32 years-old

2016 Review: While the trade of Hector Olivera to the Padres in exchange for Kemp was all about saving face, it turned into a game-changer for an offense without much power. Despite playing for the Braves for just two months, Kemp finished fourth on the team in homeruns with a dozen dingers. The big finish gave him 35 homeruns overall - his best single-season total since 39 to lead the NL in 2011. All in all, he hit .280/.336/.519 as a Brave. Included in this offensive improvement was a 5% increase in walk rate from his time with the Padres. While it's a far cry from the Dodger All-Star years, a 120 wRC+ and .354 wOBA as a Brave is nothing to scoff at.

2017 Projection: At just 32, Kemp likely has some more productive years left in him. We'll get to his issues in a second, but dive into his ratios at the plate and you see one positive common theme - nothing he did during two months with the Braves was out-of-character for him compared to other times in his career. That's not to say he can sustain that production over a full season, but he was essentially playing to his career averages in wRC+ and wOBA. That's promising and if he's able to get in better shape, as both the team and Kemp have indicated he needs to do, there is a pretty good chance that Kemp can be an asset at the plate. In the field, that's another question. The Padres moved him away from center field - which badly needed to happen - and now the Braves are counting on him in left. Despite a less physically taxing position, the results were miserable and you would be hard pressed to find an outfielder with worse defensive metrics than Kemp since 2014. In fact, it's not even close. Kemp owns a -20.5 UZR/150 over the last three years. Dayan Viciedo (who hasn't played in the majors for two years) and Shin-Soo Choo are the only outfielders with more than -9 UZR/150 and neither come close to Kemp. This a real problem and not just a stat nerd one. If Kemp cannot improve his defense from epically bad to fairly bad (yes, that's the scale I'm using here), his value is considerably muted. You can't hide a player like Kemp in the NL and that's why the Braves traded Evan Gattis. For the time being, they are saddled with Kemp moving forward. Here's hoping his defense improves just a bit more because the bat has a chance to be a big asset for a Braves team that could make some noise for a playoff spot in 2017.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

2016 Player Reviews: Jason Hursh, Ender Inciarte, Tyrell Jenkins

With today's three in the bank, I am still not even half-way through this series, but progress is progress, right? There are a lot of players still in the mix for hypothetical spots on the 2017 roster, though as we shift toward the offseason and a plethora of moves the Braves make to try to get better next year, open slots on next year's roster will be harder to come by. Today's trio has one definite member of next year's roster in the mix - provided he's not traded. Two others could battle for a bullpen spot.

Did you miss the last edition? I got your back. Want to catch up on all of the series? I have you covered as well.

*Ages reflect the player's age on opening day, 2017

By Tate Nations (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
 Jason Hursh, RHP, 25 years-old

2016 Review: For the first time in his career, Hursh did not get a starting assignment during the season. His move to the pen actually began in 2015 when he was shifted from the starting rotation after struggling badly during a second run in Mississippi. Overall, there is not much of a difference between Hursh the Starter and Hursh the Reliever except for one thing. He induced a ridiculous amount of groundballs when coming out of the pen. He's always been a groundball pitcher, but he went from a 1.6 groundball/flyball rate to 2.5 this season. According to this article from Fangraphs, that's comparable to a 55%-60% rate. Somewhere, Bobby Cox just had dreams of Kevin Gryboski. Hursh got a look in the bigs in August, though the results were pretty ugly (in a extra-petite sample size). He finished up the season with Gwinnett with mixed results.

2017 Projection: I kid about the Gryboski comparison, but Hursh is that kind of pitcher that a manager might be tempted to utilize in "rally-killing" situations. The problem with that idea is that Hursh has very little margin for error. He won't get many strikeouts (5.5-6.5 K/9) and isn't pinpoint enough with his control to make that work for him. Hursh could provide better value to the Braves if a team sees more in him than the Braves and is willing to take Hursh in a trade. If he returns in 2017, he'll be part of a large group of pitchers trying to get a look in the spring. A trip to Gwinnett seems most likely if he's not dealt beforehand.

Ender Inciarte, OF, 26 years-old

2016 Review: It was the tale of two different seasons for Inciarte. Through his first 56 games (which includes a trip to the DL), Inciarte was hitting an abysmal .226/.293/.304. He had been relegated to the bottom of the order and it looked like it would be a lost year for the former D'Back. Instead, Inciarte righted the ship beginning on July 8. Over his final 75 games, he slashed .338/.392/.436. Until the last weekend, he didn't go back-to-back games without a hit. Back in the leadoff spot, Inciarte was integral to the offense's resurgence in the second half. While his bat failed to impress early, his defense was a full-season marvel. Briefly, he was utilized in left field, but quickly, Brian Snitker realized that was a waste of Inciarte's impressive talents. He finished the season with 13 DRS, the third best total in the majors. For the first time since Michael Bourn left via free agency after 2012, the Braves had a plus-plus defender in center field.

2017 Projection: Let's be clear...the Inciarte of the final 75 games is not a true reflection of his skill level, but a regression to the mean. We have two extreme samples of Inciarte in 2016 and the overall performance level is closer to the final numbers (.291/.351/.381) than either of the extremes. That stat line isn't too far removed from his 2015 campaign with the D'Backs. He did show some improvement with a slight climb in walk rate to nearly 8% after hovering around 5% with Arizona. What is more impressive is the improvement against lefthanders. While it deserves to be mentioned that his .355 BABIP against lefties indicates an artificially high triple slash, Inciarte still reached .319/.365/.384 - a far cry from the .288 OBP he had against southpaws before coming to Atlanta. It would be easy to suggest - especially with Mallex Smith also in the fold - that the Braves could shop Inciarte this winter. Certainly, they could, but they shouldn't sell him short. He now has 381 major league games under his belt and a 9.5 fWAR to show for it. While his numbers may never wow you, his overall value to a team is easy to see and difficult to replicate.

By EricEnfermero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Tyrell Jenkins, RHP, 24 years-old

2016 Review: Another mixed bag, Jenkins made it to the majors this year nearly six years after being selected the 50th overall pick of the 2010 draft. In addition, his callup came just a few weeks after Jenkins was shifted to the bullpen. At that time, I felt it was the right move as I am not a big believer that Jenkins' best value comes in the starting rotation. However, with the starting staff's depth issues in 2016, the Braves moved Jenkins into the starting rotation to make his first big league start on July 6. He would make seven more starts through August 20. Jenkins had a nice run in there (3 starts, 18 innings, two earned runs allowed), but his last two starts sent his ERA skyrocketing to 6.20 when he was demoted. He appeared twice in September in the majors and ended the year with 52 innings pitched, more walks than strikeouts, and nearly a dozen homers surrendered. His minor league numbers were better, but nothing to write home about outside of 2.47 ERA matched with a 3.61 FIP.

2017 Projection: When he was acquired by the Braves, Jenkins was a top pitching prospect in a system that didn't have many to speak of. Now, he's lost in the crowd. There has always been a bit of disconnect between the potential pitcher Jenkins could become and the pitcher Jenkins has a better chance of being. He won't be 25 until next July, but progression has been lacking to this point. He did reach 120 innings for back-to-back years - something he never did with the Cards. Nevertheless, Jenkins will need considerable refinement to be a serious starting pitcher possibility for the Braves moving forward. A best-case scenario could see Jenkins developing into a Derek Lowe-type where he induces a lot of grounders and logs innings. I feel a more likely option is that Jenkins grows into a Cristhian Martinez type of reliever who can give you a few innings in mostly low-leverage opportunities. While that role has some value, it's a far cry from the hope the Braves and their fans had when he was acquired from the Cardinals nearly two years ago.

See more player reviews.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Kevin Millwood's 1999 NLDS Rivals Kershaw's 2016 Effort

What Clayton Kershaw did last night was pretty amazing. Two days after throwing 110 pitches during Game Four of the NLDS against the Nationals, Kershaw got the call in the ninth inning with one out and two runners on base with his team clinging to a 4-3 lead. After a pop-up, Kershaw struck out the final batter of the game to send the Dodgers to the NLCS. It's the kind of thing that basically only happens in the postseason that we, as fans, love to see.

It also reminded me of something very similar that occurred in 1999. That year, another big fireballer took the ball in a save situation two days after a start when called upon by his manager. While it wasn't an elimination game for his team, what Kevin Millwood did in the '99 NLDS was still pretty impressive considering the dominant start that came in Game Two of that series.

The '99 Braves were loaded on the mound. Of course, you have the Big 3 of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz. In a time of skyrocketing offensive numbers, the Braves pitching staff led the majors with a 3.63 ERA. Surprisingly, on a staff with three future Hall of Famers, the best starter the Braves had that season was Millwood. He K'd 205 that year. In franchise history, only six other Braves have reached 200 strikeouts in a season. He led the staff in ERA as well and at just 24 , Millwood gave the Braves a young gun in an increasingly aging staff.

The bullpen was also loaded with a relatively mild version of John Rocker, a healthy Kevin McGlinchy, and a dominant Mike Remlinger along with other plus arms like Rudy Seanez and Russ Springer. The offense had seen Chipper Jones post MVP-type numbers while Andruw Jones was coming into his own. While the Braves were missing Javy Lopez (injury) and Andres Galarraga (lymphoma), they still bashed 197 homeruns - good for 4th in the NL.

After winning 103 games during the regular season, the Braves met the Houston Astros in the first round of the playoffs. For Houston, it was a chance at redemption. Built around the Killer B's (most notably, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio), Houston had ended a drought in 1997 of over 10 years by making it to the playoffs. Atlanta quickly sent them home with a sweep that year. The next year, they lost in four to the Padres. Now, they drew the Braves once again.

Game One of the NLDS saw Greg Maddux face Shane Reynolds. It's easy to forget - especially for Braves fans who recall Reynolds' mediocrity with the Braves in 2003 - that Reynolds was a pretty good pitcher in the late 90's. In fact, from '95 to '99, Reynolds had a 3.73 ERA with 16 complete games and six shutouts over 165 starts. In a league that included such control artists as Maddux and Glavine, Reynolds led the NL in fewest walks per nine innings and K/B ratio in '99. Houston never trailed in Game One and pounded Remlinger in the ninth for four runs to cruise to a 6-1 win.

Rather than go with another future Hall of Famer in Game Two, Braves manager Bobby Cox tabbed Millwood as his guy. While Millwood had started 37 games the previous two seasons for the Braves, he had never appeared in a playoff game until that afternoon for the Braves. He would match up with the eccentric and exciting Jose Lima. After the Braves and Astros traded early runs, both pitchers would settle in until the sixth when Eddie Perez followed up a single-and-a-double with a sacrifice fly to plate Ryan Klesko. An inning later, Atlanta added three runs to extend their lead to 5-1. Meanwhile, Millwood was awesome. He gave up just one hit the entire afternoon - a homerun by Ken Caminiti. Only one other batter reached and that came via an error by Chipper Jones. Millwood would strike out eight batters, including Carl Everett and Ricky Gutierrez twice each. A Game Score of 89 is the highest postseason effort that any Braves pitcher has earned since at least 1903. That means what Millwood did that day was better than any postseason start by Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux, Johnny Sain, or even Warren Spahn.

In a short series, an effort like Millwood had in Game Two is usually the final time we see that player until the next round provided his team advances. But Millwood's 1999 was about to get even more special. As the series moved to Houston, Glavine matched up with future Brave, Mike Hampton. Many of us recall that Glavine sometimes struggled badly in his career in the first inning. This isn't just something we think happened - it did happen! In the first inning over his 22-year career, Glavine had an ERA of 4.58. His second "worst" inning is the 7th, where his ERA is 3.91. Glavine could look terrible in the first and settle down shortly thereafter to coast to a win. For a time, it looked like Game Three would be no different. Five of the first seven Astros reached, aided by a hit-by-pitch and two walks - the latter of which came with the bases loaded. Quickly, Hampton was staked to a 2-0 lead. It took two times through the lineup, but finally, in the sixth, the Braves figured out the lefty. With two outs, Bret Boone singled to left. After a wild pitch, Chipper Jones worked a walk. That set the stage for Brian Jordan and he did not disappoint. With one swing of the bat, Jordan put the Braves on top 3-2.

Glavine was replaced to begin the seventh by Terry Mulholland. He yielded a one-out double and Cox appeared to get a little too aggressive with his stacked pitching staff. He brought in Maddux to face Biggio. The battle of the Hall of Famers went to Biggio as he earned a walk. Cox then brought in Remlinger, who gave up a base-hit to tie the game. Remlinger would load the bases with one out by walking Bagwell intentionally, but got out of the jam from there. It remained tied at 3-3 in the tenth when Russ Springer loaded the bases with nobody out. Rocker got the call to try to put the flames out and extend the game into the 11th. After a groundout to first base led to a force-out at home, what happened next would become one of the biggest defensive plays of the 90's for the Atlanta Braves. Tony Eusebio rocketed a grounder up the middle. The infield was drawn in and the Astrodome turf did nothing to slow down the grounder, but as he did so often during his playing career, Walt Weiss was ready for the task. He dived to his left to get to the ball, did a 360 and threw to the plate to nail the runner trying to score.

The game continued with Rocker throwing a solid second inning of work in the 11th. In the 12th, the Braves' bats woke up once again and also once again, it was Jordan bringing the lumber. With two outs and a pair of runners on, Jordan ripped a double to right off future Brave, Jay Powell. Both runners scored. After an intentional walk, Rocker's spot was due up and the Braves opted for a pinch hitter. Needing a new arm on the mound, Cox again went with a starter. This time, it was Millwood. Rather than plug-and-play with a starter trying to defuse a rally, Cox allowed the big righty to begin an inning and it worked much better this time. Millwood got Caminiti to pop-up to third before a liner and a Carl Everett strikeout finished the 12-inning affair. A day later, the Braves would win 7-5 to advance to the NLCS - which ended on a walk-off walk (i.e. this blog's namesake).

Kershaw's save opportunity was definitely more impressive considering it was an elimination game with two runners already on base. That said, Millwood's start two days before the save was much more impressive. Which feat was greater?

Who really cares? Both were awesome and show just how exciting October baseball can be.

2016 Player Reviews: Freddie Freeman, John Gant, Adonis Garcia

Welcome back to another edition of 2016 Player Reviews. Today's a biggy with a franchise cornerstone, a righty with a funky delivery, and one of the biggest surprises of 2016. Thanks for bearing with me as I look at these players and take stock in their contributions this season. With still over 30 to go, I hope to complete this series in the next couple of weeks.

Did you miss the last edition? I got your back. Want to catch up on all of the series? I have you covered as well.

*Ages reflect the player's age on opening day, 2017

Freddie Freeman, 1B, 27 years-old

Keith Allison via Flickr
Creative Commons
2016 Review: Remember when people used to say, "sure, Freddie's good and all, but he's not one of the best at his position?" Yeah, about that...Freeman only hit .302/.400/.569. Want more advanced metrics? Freeman posted a .402 wOBA with a 152 wRC+. His .267 ISO was seventy points higher than his previous career-best while he eclipsed 6 fWAR for the first time in his career. His homerun total breezed past 30 in no small part because he finished with a flyball rate higher than his groundball rate for the first time. And about how he compares to the league - Freeman's 6.1 fWAR was nearly a full run higher than the next major league first baseman and one of the ten best WAR totals according to Fangraphs in 2016. It was the kind of season John Hart - and yes, Frank Wren - envisioned when they extended Freeman for $135 million less than three years ago. His overall numbers are even more impressive when you remember that his OPS  was in the .750s through 60 games. Back then, fans and media types alike wondered if his wrist troubles from 2015 would limit the effectiveness of Freeman moving forward. Now, they wonder how much better Freeman can be in 2017 and beyond.

2017 Projection: Here's the good news - at just 27, Freeman is entering his prime. There is no reason to believe that Freeman can't be even better in 2017, though even a slight fallback campaign would still be plenty good. One of the many bright spots in Freeman's numbers was an OPS of .901 against left-handed pitchers. Freeman had been fairly limited against southpaws in his career with weak isolated slugging numbers against them, but that wasn't the case in 2016. Freeman is a franchise cornerstone and there no longer exists reasons to doubt that.

John Gant, RHP, 24 years-old

2016 Review: Let's just say that Gant is more than a funky delivery. Out of necessity more than anything, he made the roster to open the year despite having just 100 innings of experience above A-ball (all at Double A). Over six different stints with the club (including a trip to the DL), Gant logged an even 50 innings in the majors. He was about a league-average arm - which really isn't that bad of a thing to say about a guy getting his first taste of the majors. He walked a few too many and homeruns allowed were a little much, but the strikeout total was solid (8.8 per nine). His favorite pitch was the split-fingered fastball, which he delivered about 60% of the time. The remaining 40% was split pretty evenly between his curveball and changeup.

2017 Projection: Gant was not the higher-rated prospect of the duo of righties the Braves got from the Mets for Kelly Johnson in the summer of 2015. While he did beat Robert Whalen to the bigs, I still like Whalen's chances of sticking more. Gant does everything he can - including his delivery - to keep hitters off balance and his split-fingered heater has some decent getty-up on it. This surprises me, but he's never really been a high groundball pitcher despite a splitter/slider combo that hitters like to beat into the ground. If he could improve that, Gant could carve out a nice role in the majors as a low-end starter/long reliever. As for just next season, Gant is in the mix, but will need a big camp to make the Braves for a second straight opening day.

Adonis Garcia, 3B, 31 years-old

2016 Review: What a strange season Garcia had. After an exciting summer callup the previous year, Garcia won the lionshare of time at 3B to begin 2016. He struggled both in the field and at the plate and was banished to the minors for most of May before a return as the Braves sought offense. While the Braves flirted with the idea of moving Garcia back to left field, he settled back into the third base spot and improved his numbers dramatically. At the plate, there was both good-and-bad. He provided some power for what was, at times, a punchless lineup. His negatives, though, included weak on-base numbers (.311) and while he did hit 14 homeruns, his ISO was a mere .133 (or about 90 pounds below his 2015 run).

2017 Projection: Garcia is a mixed bag. The Braves are probably asking too much from him to be an everyday starter. Sure, when he's hot, like he was during July when he slashed .337/.370/.537, it's difficult to get him out of the lineup. He's a good enough hitter to avoid long stretches of disappearing, but not good enough to provide enough offensive talent at the plate. His defense was definitely improved after a trip to the minors and he's competent at the position. The Braves seem unlikely to splurge for a third baseman to take over the position full time, but Garcia could still lose playing time to the rookie, Rio Ruiz. A left-handed hitter, Ruiz could be protected a bit by Garcia, who has slashed .310/.357/.472 in 213 career PA against southpaws in the majors. If Ruiz needs more time, Garcia could be partnered up with a different platoon partner (perhaps Jace Peterson) or handed third to open 2017, though that's not ideal. Either way, the Braves are getting their money's worth and then some with Garcia.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

2016 Player Reviews: Joel De La Cruz, Tyler Flowers, Mike Foltynewicz

Hope all of you are surviving the effects of Matthew as it climbs the coast. In central Virginia, it's been rain and a lot of it. Nothing like rainy weather to push you to write some more so let's dive back into the next set of players in the Player Review series. One of the players has already moved on as Jed Bradley, who I wrote about a few days ago, is headed to Baltimore via waivers.

Before I forget, I have updated my options page, which you can view here. Also, feel free to check out the last article in this series or click here for all of the articles in one central place.

*All ages are as of opening day, 2017.

Joel De La Cruz, RHP, 27 years-old

2016 Review: A minor league free agent out of the Yankees' organization, De La Cruz was a veteran of eight minor league season (plus two lost years) before coming to the Braves. His numbers with Gwinnett were pedestrian (4.28 FIP, 1.8 K/BB) and that included two major league promotions. Both times, De La Cruz didn't get into a game. However, with the starting rotation reeling (and Bud Norris soon to be traded), the Braves brought De La Cruz up to stay in late June. Over 22 games, including nine starts, De La Cruz was a bit worse than his Gwinnett numbers (5.19 FIP, 1.7 K/BB) and gave up his fair share of homeruns.

2017 Projection: De La Cruz is one of those guys who might get less of a look now that Roger McDowell has moved on. A three-pitch pitcher, De La Cruz relied heavily on his sinker and though his GB% rate in the majors wasn't very high, it was his M.O. in the minors (1.9 GB/FB rate). The next pitching coach might not stressed sinkers as much as McDowell did, which could make De La Cruz a bit less attractive as a guy to bring back in 2017. Beyond that, he turns 28 next June and this system is deep in options that are more intriguing than De La Cruz. So, with all of that in mind, it wasn't surprising to see De La Cruz outrighted to Gwinnett on Friday. He could be brought back out of familiarity, but again, the Braves might not be that interested anymore.

By Editosaurus (Own work) [CC0], via
Wikimedia Commons
Tyler Flowers, C, 31 years-old

2016 Review: This season was so weird for Flowers, who came back to the organization that originally drafted him in '06 last offseason. His .338 wOBA was a career best by 20 points. His triple slash of .270/.357/.420 made him a leader on this offense, especially before the arrivals of Matt Kemp and Dansby Swanson. According to Statcorner, Flowers finished fourth in the majors in pitch framing and would have ranked higher had he not missed time on the DL and shared too much time with A.J. Pierzynski. But...there was that weird caught stealing metric. Flowers was never gifted at nailing potential basestealers. His career-best rate was 33% and he's been around the league average during his career. Until this year. When he caught just three of 63 potential thieves. The other two catchers, Pierzynski and Anthony Recker, weren't great at catching baserunners either, but both looked much better in comparison to Flowers. By all accounts, Flowers wasn't dealing with shoulder issues that should have led to this problem so either it was mental or mechanical.

2017 Projection: Provided the former ChiSox can get his throwing issues behind the plate resolved and produces at the plate again, he'll be a good option for the Braves in 2017 in at least a platoon role. He actually doesn't have a dominant platoon advantage one way or the other, but if the Braves found a left-handed hitting catcher, Flowers could spell the new addition against southpaws. As a starter, he's a stopgap and if he hits like he did in 2016, he's a fairly effective stopgap at just $3M for next season. The Braves will shop for a better option behind the plate, but if it doesn't materialize, Flowers is a decent enough fallback.

Mike Foltynewicz, RHP, 25 years-old

2016 Review: This season certainly didn't begin the way Foltynewicz would have liked. After a pair of ailments set him back, including a blood clot that prematurely ended his 2015, Folty opened the year with four starts in Gwinnett where he was mostly great, but wild. He was brought back to the bigs in May for six starts before landing back on the disabled list. Of those first six starts, four included outings where he allowed two or fewer runs. His return to Atlanta at the end of June saw him struggle with consistency. He'd dominate the White Sox over seven scoreless with 10 K's before giving up seven runs to the Twins three starts later. The Twins!? But that's kind of expected with young pitchers trying to figure it out. In that aspect, we saw noticeable improvement from Folty. In comparison to 2015, he increased his groundball rate 8% while utilizing his hard slider more. Furthermore, his FIP came down nearly 80 points while his swinging strike percentage also climbed slightly.

2017 Projection: If anyone has joined Julio Teheran on the white board as a member of the 2017 rotation, it's Folty. While some might still be convinced Folty is a better fit in the bullpen, as long as he continues to make strides - like he did this year - I am comfortable with him getting time as a starter. With the dismissal of McDowell, perhaps a new pitching coach can help Folty reach new heights. I really think that if he can develop his changeup to go with his fastball/slider combo that got him to the majors, it will be a stepping stone to a long run in the majors as an effective starter. Love that we saw him induce many more grounders this season. and a 14.5 K/BB% is about 2.5% better than league average. There's a lot to build from heading into 2017. Foltynewicz is in a great place to claim and hold a spot in the starting rotation moving forward.

Thanks for reading and remember to share via social media if possible.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Braves Can McDowell

By EricEnfermero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons
After eleven seasons spanning three managers, Roger McDowell will no longer be the pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves. For a franchise that rarely sees turnover in the coaching staff, the last several months have been a change-of-pace. The in-season firing of Fredi Gonzalez, the very real chance that the interim manager Brian Snitker won't be in charge in 2017, and now McDowell's dismissal might point to one thing - John Coppolella is willing to change up the team a bit more than the last two general managers the Braves had.

McDowell replaced Leo Mazzone in 2006 after the latter left for Baltimore. Three years ago, McDowell nearly left the Braves following the 2013 season, but former general manager Frank Wren gave McDowell a boost in pay along with a long-term contract (for coaches) to keep him away from the Phillies. While with the Braves, McDowell pieced together bullpens with castoffs like Eric O'Flaherty, David Carpenter, and more recently - Jim Johnson, who cited his comfortability with McDowell as one of his reasons to forego free agency and reup with the Braves.

One criticism related to McDowell was a similar one lobbed at Mazzone - he didn't relate well with young starters and they rarely seemed to blossomed under his tutelage. Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson both saw their careers slide into mediocrity after All-Star worthy beginnings. Others like Kyle Davies and Jo-Jo Reyes never developed. Another criticism of McDowell was found in the belief that his pitchers too often went under the knife, a stark change from the Mazzone years. When on the mound, righties Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy - along with southpaw Mike Minor - could be excellent. However, they were frequently on an operating table rather than throwing strikes.

Both criticisms are a bit lacking in my mind. Young pitchers flame out all the time. I'm sure McDowell did struggle to reach certain prospects, but on the other hand, he got his fair share out of Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, and some of the aforementioned oft-injured pitchers. Furthermore, considering the rate of pitcher injuries - especially those that result in Tommy John surgery - is skyrocketing, can we really look at McDowell and blame him for that?

McDowell won't be without a job for too long. He's had too much success with the Braves, including a 2007 year where he pieced together a pitching staff that included Chuck James, Buddy Carlyle , Oscar Villarreal, Tyler Yates, Chad Paronto, and the previously mentioned Davies and Reyes and the Braves still finished third in the league in ERA. It was the first-of-seven years in which the Braves finished in the Top 5 in the National League in ERA, including a 3.18 ERA in 2013 to pace the league.

This dismissal means two things. One, the Braves do want a new voice to lead a very young pitching staff. Johnson is the only pitcher on the Braves roster who is definitely going to be on next year's team and is over the age of 30. Sixteen different pitchers took the ball for the Braves this year who were in their Age-25 year or younger. Pitchers like Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims are a good spring camp away from entering the picture. Whether McDowell did have issues with reaching younger pitchers or not, the Braves definitely want the guy in charge of their young pitchers to have an exemplary record with young guns.

The other thing this firing immediately makes you think of - the Braves might be moving away from Brian Snitker as next year's manager and will be giving the next Braves manager a chance to build his own staff. That could be Bud Black, though I am not very excited by that idea. There is a good chance McDowell is just the tip of the ice berg and long-running coaches like Eddie Perez and Terry Pendleton will also be headed out.

I don't necessarily disagree with letting McDowell go. I think he was very good at his job and the fact that this 2016 team wasn't at the bottom of the league in ERA despite starting 16 different pitchers is impressive (four NL teams finished with an ERA worse than the Braves). Still, I am a firm believer in giving a manager the leeway to bring his guys in and build the coaching staff how he sees fit. Letting him go now simply allows McDowell even more time to secure employment for 2017 - which is actually a pretty good parting gift when you think about it.

Fare thee well, Second Spitter. May you land with an American League team and enjoy your time there.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

2016 Player Reviews: Josh Collmenter, Brandon Cunniff, Chase d'Arnaud

Part 3 of the Player Review series touches on a trio of bubble guys - all of which could be back next year. But then, you have to believe there is more value available somewhere if you are building a team that can compete for a playoff spot.

Read the previous article in this series or go crazy and check out the whole thing.

*All ages are as of opening day, 2017.

Josh Collmenter, RHP, 31 years-old

2016 Review: Collmenter gets the exciting honor of playing for two different teams that ended 2016 with 93 total losses. A year removed from being Arizona's opening day starter, Collmenter opened this season on the DL before finally making his season debut toward the end of May. Though he has started frequently in his career, Collmenter found no room in the Arizona starting rotation so he settled into a long-relief role. It did not go so hot. Homer-prone and struggling with his control, Collmenter was actually decent enough in 12-of-his-15 games with the Snakes before they cut him. In those other three games, he gave up four runs each time. Kind of odd. He was sent packing after Arizona found no takers at the deadline. Shortly thereafter, he signed with the Cubs and picked up four starts with Iowa before the Braves bought him off Chicago in mid-September for pitching depth. In three starts with the Braves, Collmenter looked good outside of the homerun total. And because I lack the creativity to find a way to work this in elsewhere, he also spent time as a teacher who tried to explain Newton's theories to Diamondback youngsters. Yep.

2017 Projection: Because of the minor league run this year, Collmenter will be arbitration-eligible for a fourth year. However, I'm not sure the Braves will bother. Yes, he looked decent enough in three starts, but Collmenter is a very underwhelming righty. He throws a 84 mph cutter that he offsets with a 76 mph changeup. Occasionally, he flashes a slow curveball, but not very often. A flyball pitcher, Collmenter lives off contact. The problem with that is outside of a few times in his career (2012-13), Collmenter has had a hard-hit rate over 30%. Basically, Collmenter is the guy you bring to spring training and hope someone outplays because he's not the type of pitcher you want to count on. The Braves should not offer arbitration, but a minor league offer with an invite and an opt-out date could be reasonable.

Brandon Cunniff, RHP, 28 years old

2016 Review: Cunniff was a surprise in 2015. After flaming out with the Marlins, Cunniff didn't throw an in-game pitch for over two years before the Braves brought him aboard in 2013 for 20 games. The next year, he was good - though nothing special - over 71 innings mostly at Mississippi. Still, with the Braves bullpen a wasteland in 2015, he got an extended look. He struck out over a batter an inning, walked a small town, gave up some long homers, and generally did little to excite. He was designated for assignment last December and moved off the 40-man roster. However, he made it back to the majors in August and after a shaky first five games, Cunniff turned it on in September. Over his final ten games, he K'd 11 in 11 innings, allowed just one homer, and walked just two unintentionally. His xFIP in the month of 4.96 makes his success a little suspect, but then we are getting into sample size messiness.

2017 Projection: The Braves can't DFA him again and send him to the minors without his consent. Nevertheless, the Braves probably aren't too enamored with Cunniff despite his strong finish. He'll be 28 in 2017 and while he was dynamite at times with Gwinnett last year, his numbers just kind of blend rather than stand out. Chances are he will be in the mix, but will have a long road in front of him to make the roster next spring.

Chase d'Arnaud, UTIL, 30 years-old

2016 Review: This season marked the fifth year d'Arnaud has been in the majors. He's still not arbitration-eligible, though. Never before had d'Arnaud received such an extended look in the majors and for a time, he became the latest Nick Green, or Pete Orr, or Brooks Conrad - utility guys who look really good in a small sample and people want to see them play more. He was hitting .299/.364/.393 after 35 games and 129 PA. Over his final 49 games (133 PA), he hit a paltry .190/.271/.276 and struck out at a pretty good clip (26 K's to be exact). We began to see why the Pirates gave up on the former fourth-rounder. His flexibility was a plus and d'Arnaud started games at every position aside from pitcher, catcher, and first base. Hard to get a read on his defensive capabilities as he didn't spend more than 145 innings at any particular position, though he graded out very well at third and less-than-ideal up the middle.

2017 Projection: If the Braves don't have to move him off the 40-man this offseason, d'Arnaud will be given a chance to get his roster spot back in the spring. I thought he was out of options, but he has one left (Thanks Braves Options Guy). It's worth mentioning in case the Braves try to outright him to the minors, d'Arnaud seemed to enjoy his time with the Braves - who also pimped his band on more than one occasion - and might be more willing to accept a minor league assignment if DFA'd because of that. d'Arnaud has enough speed to fulfill the 25th man role for an NL team where he can play all over and be used as a pinch runner if need be. But with his offensive limitations, he's not a guy who the Braves need to make room for.