Monday, November 24, 2014

Could the Braves Compete in 2015? Depends on Simba.

While there has been a lot of discussion given to the idea that the Braves are gearing up for a 2017 contention, I am left wondering how outlandish of an idea is it that Atlanta will compete as soon as next year? I mean, this team is only a year removed from 96 wins. Why are we resigning ourselves to the prospect of going through a quick two-year rebuild?

Partly, this comes down to a flawed team. In 2014, the power that this team was built on in 2013 left them. The patience that was the 2013's secret weapon was gone. What remained was a team that didn't get on base much and didn't hit many homers. The 20 homers Brian McCann provided in 2013 were replaced by Evan Gattis, but no one replaced Gattis's 21 homers. The 22 homers from Dan Uggla were gone. Of course, Chris Johnson fell back to Earth rather than avoid reality.

And then...there was Andrelton Simmons. Simba was hardly an offensive force in 2013. He on-based .296, making it rather confusing why Fredi Gonzalez wouldn't waver from batting him leadoff until late into the season. But he did show some pop with a .149 ISO and was reasonably close to at least being an average offensive performer with a 91 RC+. With his defense, average offense makes him an MVP candidate.

But in 2014, Simmons saw a moderate drop in BB%, a moderate rise in K%, and a considerable drop in ISO to .087. That dropped him to a 71 RC+. To reference that last number, B.J. Upton had a 74 RC+ last season. Oh, and Johnson had an 82 RC+. All three players ranked among the lowest 16 RC+ in the game last season among qualified players with Simmons finishing with the fifth worst total. It's wonder the Braves even scored three runs last year. Now, Simmons can get away with a zero bat to some degree because of his spectacular defense and Simmons was still a 2 win player last season, but on a team that made too many outs last season, Simmons was the best (?) at it.

With that in mind, if the Braves are to compete in 2015, it might come down to whether or not Simba can display some average offensive numbers. Something akin to Dee Gordon's slash of .289/.326/.378. Obviously, Simmons won't swipe 60 bases, but that kind of offensive display is enough to keep you from being a weakness in the lineup and we can imagine that Simmons would actually do better from a pop side if he returns to his 2013 numbers.

Alas, there is a good chance he won't do that. Only three players have posted a worse BABIP over the last two seasons than Simmons and his .255 average on balls in play. Two of those three have actually been worth less offensively than Simmons. The average BABIP is about .298 over those two seasons so Simmons is already starting at a disadvantage. He has to maximize his offense opportunities, not minimize them. If he's not going to walk, he has turn the balls he puts into play into hits at a much higher clip.

We all know that Simmons' swing explains a lot of this mess. His max-effort swing makes it amazing that he's even capable of making so much contact. It also leads to the sixth highest percentage of infield flies.

Simmons will be productive regardless because of his defense. His case is similar to Alexei Ramirez, the White Sox shortstop who relies on his power to get his offense near average. In the American League, you can hide a guy like Ramirez, though. In this Braves lineup, it's hard to hide Simmons when you have B.J. and CJ, plus the potential addition of Christian Bethancourt. That's already a lot of outs and while B.J. could play better than he has the last two seasons and CJ could sell his soul again to see his numbers climb, the onus to produce may fall on Simmons. In the minors, Simmons relied on a higher BABIP which led to a higher batting average. He didn't corkscrew swing quite as much and instead made gap-to-gap contact. If the Braves are going to surprise anyone in 2015, it might come down to Simmons progressing with his bat. He's going to be in the lineup every day regardless. Having a .290 OBP is impossible to hide in this lineup. The Braves must get more and Simmons must progress. There's just too many outs as is.

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