Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Braves will Strike Out Less, but Will It Help?

The last two seasons under Frank Wren were uneven as the Atlanta Braves offense was both productive and dreadful. The only things that seemed to be consistent about the team was a pitching staff doing its job regardless of the injuries that were piling up and the constant reminder about how the team was striking out. Oh, the strikeouts.

Over the last four years, the Braves have struck out at least 1,200 times after not doing so once in the previous 135 years of the franchise. The last two seasons have actually climbed north of 1,300 K's, an astonishing amount in sheer raw data. On one hand, it was nice charity to cool down The Ted in July and August with a constant state of wind coming from swings-and-misses, but on the other hand, it was frustrating. Striking out is one of the two most frustrating ways to make an out (the other is double plays). We are taught in little league that strikeouts should be avoided at all costs. Choke up with two strikes. Just put the bat on the ball. Whatever you do, force the defense make a play. On the face of it, that is an entirely reasonable approach. There are probably a few kids out there like me when I was younger. I could field the ball at third, but my arm, while powerful enough to get it to first, was massively inaccurate. Billy Black, my first baseman, looked big enough to be in high school when we were in the fifth grade, but I still had him leaping to try to catch my sailing throws. Just making contact seems like a way to make something happen in little league.

But this is the Major Leagues. Last year, there were 2,914 errors, or about one for every two games that were played in the majors. Reaching base via an error is exceedingly rare. To add on, there were 3,711 infield hits in 2014, less than one a game. But what about just slapping the ball around? The batting average on grounders last year was .235, which outside of one notable outlier (2007), that number is pretty consistent. Now, to be fair, .235 is a better batting average than .000 when striking out. Also, hitting flyballs results in just as many hits proportionally, though the tendency of extra base hits increases with flyballs as we might expect (much easier to hit a homer when it's in the air). Connecting on liners results in hits over 70% of the time. An approach that is designed to just make contact will rarely result in liners because you are more concerned with putting the bat on the ball over staying within yourself and being more concerned with hard contact. I should note that every player is different and some players with extraordinary hit skills or tools have the hand-eye coordination to turn a "make contact" approach into one that produces more liners, which creates more hits. To test that, I looked at last year's Top 30 in both Contact% and Line Drive%. Guys who make an exorbitant amount of contact, but don't sacrifice their best chance for success, via the line drive, to do so. Eight players were in the Top 30 of both. So, it's not impossible to do both, but it takes a special kind of player and Michael Brantley was the only one of the group to hit 20 homers. Even in a game that has seen its homers dramatically decrease, power is still a massively important skill.

Atlanta is hoping to build a roster that goes against what they did all too much of the last two seasons. Striking out. The first real sign that this was their approach comes back to the hiring of Kevin Seitzer. Now, we can't immediately come to the conclusion that a hitting coach's teachings will mirror his career approach, but one reason Seitzer was canned in Kansas City was that the Royals were expecting more power and Seitzer's approach of grinding out at-bats and focusing on hitting the ball gap-to-gap was counter to what the Royals believed themselves capable of. Seitzer would also have issues reaching Colby Rasmus, leading to the latter getting benched. This isn't to say that this was a bad hire. Seitzer might be exactly what the Braves need to get the most out of Chris Johnson, Andrelton Simmons, and God willing, B.J. Upton. But his approach wouldn't appear to mesh with what former Brave, Jason Heyward, did at the plate. Same with Justin Upton, a guy who is at his best when he waits for his pitch and doesn't miss it, leading to walks, strikeouts, and long flies that he pulls toward left.

But those strikeouts are an issue for a team that wants to change their offensive approach in their effort to get away from all things Wrenish. But that implies that strikeouts were an issue. Here is where the math doesn't match the perception. The math says that if you strikeout the same exact percent of the time (like the Braves did in 2013 and 2014), you can't score such a wildly different amount of runs (+115 in 2013). At the end of the day, it doesn't matter so much if you strike out vs. ground out. Or pop out or even fly out. What matters is that you made an out in the first place. I always like the accepted truth that baseball is the only major team sport that doesn't include a clock. In a way, it does. It's called the 27th out. You are promised 27 outs in a regular nine-inning game to score more runs that the opposing team. You grind out as many at-bats as you want or strike out ten times, but all that truly matters is how many people you score before those 27 outs are up. There is no one right approach and a team must craft its approach to the players it has. I'm not a "smallball" guy or "smartball" or whatever passes as a cliche that allows David Eckstein and Craig Counsell to annoy me. By the way, Eckstein's website includes a scary pitcher of him holding a bat and the phrase, "What if you could bring St.Louis Cardinal David Eckstein to your home to meet your kids!"

Running away from strikeouts is not a bad thing. For that matter, striking out is not a bad thing. Making outs at a Francoeurian rate...now, that's a bad thing. So far this winter, the Braves have added two major league bats (along with a couple of guys who aren't established in the majors). Nick Markakis fits the grinding approach the Braves want. He puts the bat on the ball and makes the defense make a play. He also tends to get on base, as his .358 career OBP eludes to. It's worth noting that he has been below that career OBP in both of the last two years and depending on your perspective, the differences, which range from a drop of 16 points to 29 points, are either concerning or do not present much significance. Remember that the OBP for the league has also fell the last two seasons. His line drive rate has fluctuated around 20%, which is about the league average. He also hits a lot of grounders (slightly better than the league average), though he's only reached base via an error 43 times in his career, of roughly four-to-five times a year. Markakis fits what the Braves appear to be aiming for.

Moving onto Alberto Callaspo, Clearly, unlike Markakis, Callaspo isn't here for the long haul. He's a stopgap until the point that Jose Peraza is ready. The marks I just went over with Markakis see similar rates with Callaspo, though Callaspo is coming off a much worse year and is not as good of a hitter.

A guy like B.J. Upton wouldn't fit into this current regime's plans even if he was coming off a solid year with the Rays. Neither would have his brother, though, and his brother has been the second best offensive player over the last two seasons the Braves have had. And that is the crutch of the problem. It's fine to put together these grind-it-out types, but are they going to produce enough? According the sabermetrics, it's questionable. Remember that offense isn't just hitting the ball, but what you do on the bases and how it compares to the league, park, and year you have played in. Replacing Heyward with Markakis is a significant drop as far as Off goes, the statistic used to gauge offensive output in wins. Callaspo has been below 0, or the baseline average, in both seasons.

So, the Braves offense, on paper, has simply declined further.

That will be true unless the change in approach implemented by the coaches yields positive results with the returning Braves from last year's woeful offense. Ignoring that better luck could play a role, the Braves offense, as dysfunctional as it was last season, is left to just hope that the missing ingredient was the approach. The moves so far have made the Braves better suited for that approach, which is a stark difference from last year when it appeared they tried to be more aggressive at the plate, but were left flailing themselves into bad counts and bad at-bats. Like in football, you need the personal to run the offense. So far, whether you consider the offense the right choice, the moves will help get closer to the results the Braves want.

Of course, this is a process. Players like the Upton Brothers, Johnson, and even Evan Gattis don't fit into the philosophy that the Braves appear to want. Those players won't grind it out. Whether swinging or watching a called third strike, they will turn and head to the dugout at least a fifth of the time, or around once a game. It's the kind of player they are and changing that, especially if they are productive, is extremely unlikely. Hell, it's unlikely even if they are unproductive. Just ask B.J.

At the end of the day, we will see if the approach change yields much positive results when the season gives us enough results to make an observation. My personal feeling is that the Braves are likely 2-3 years away from getting the lineup they want. Like changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3. you just aren't suited to make the switch right away. The Braves will certainly strike out less this upcoming season than they did in either of the last two seasons. Will they turn those plate appearances into more non-outs, let alone runs? Where's my shrugs.gif?

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