Sunday, November 13, 2016

2016 Player Reviews: Mallex Smith, Dansby Swanson, Julio Teheran

Today's player reviews is a biggy (or should I say today's trio of players are bigly important?). Three exciting players at three different junctures of their careers. One is trying to establish himself as a major league option. Another may have already done that and now, we wonder what more can he become? The other is about to be a five-year major league veteran and has given us a solid floor of what we ought to expect out of him, but could he be on the verge of a breakout season?

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.

Mallex Smith, OF, 23 years-old

2016 Review: After finishing 2015 with a .328 wOBA at Gwinnett over 307 plate appearances, Smith seemed primed for a repeat assignment with the Braves' Triple-A squad for at least the first few months of the 2016 season. Instead, an Ender Inciarte injury during the first few games of the season opened the door for Smith. While he would later suffer his own injury which would limit him to just 80 overall games (plus some minor league postseason action), Smith showed us a few things that give us a glimpse of where he is right now as a player. One, he might be capable of an everyday assignment in center field from a defensive standpoint. We knew coming in, he had the speed, but reports were mixed whether he was maximizing the speed with proper angles. While he would later be shifted to left field, where he thrived, that was more about Inciarte's excellent play than Smith. Another thing that we learned was what we could have assumed coming in - his bat is a work in progress. He hit just .238/.316/.365 in the majors. One final thing...it's much more difficult to swipe bases in the majors. After stealing 57-of-70 bases (81%) in 2015, Smith was only successful in 16-of-24 stolen base attempts in the majors.

2017 Projection: There seems to be two schools of thought with Smith. With his speed, solid on-base skills (career .382 minor league OBP), and possibly above-average ability to play center field, he could have similar value as players like Cesar Hernandez, who accounted for 4.4 fWAR last season with a 10.6% walk rate, 17 steals, and a .294 batting average to go with a .099 isolated slugging. Yes, Hernandez is a second baseman, but that's a level from which we can project Smith tio produce at with better stolen base numbers. The other school of thought that comes up when we think about Smith is that, outside of his speed, he lacks a standout skill. He's hit .296 in the minors. While that's a great batting average, the problem is that he's going to provide an "empty" batting average because he has very little extra-base ability. Because of his lack of a standout skill at the plate, maybe Smith will max out as a platoon/4th outfielder. It's way too early to tell which option is more likely, but Smith might benefit from playing a reserve role in 2017. As it stands, the Braves have a veteran-laden outfield with Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp flanking Inciarte. Obviously, a lot can change, but at this point, I don't think Smith really pushes any of that trio for playing time. Rather, he gives the Braves depth and a defensive caddy for Kemp. Meanwhile, the Braves can get him 250 or so plate appearances in the majors to work on one real issue that we saw last year. While Smith is patient at the plate, his contact rate and swinging strike percentage both were issues. While there is an argument that those rates won't be improved by averaging about 10 plate appearances a week, I think his skillset as a reserve (pinch running, defense, situational hitting) could be too good for the Braves to pass on next season. Either way, what we see right now is a guy who brings a good deal of excitement. Can he be a full-time starter in the majors? I don't think that question is likely going to be answered in 2017, but we should be closer to a decision this time next year than we are now.

By Arturo Pardavila III from Hoboken, NJ, USA (Dansby Swanson takes
grounders) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Dansby Swanson, SS, 23 years-old

2016 Review: Here's some good news. The Braves now have a shortstop and won't need to bother with a veteran stop-gap for a second consecutive season. Swanson was a bit of a surprise callup toward the end of the season. After blitzing the Carolina Legaue to open 2016, Swanson had been up-and-down with Mississippi for most of the year. Yeah, he flashed some major potential, but was he ready for the majors? The Braves felt so and promoted him in mid-August. The situation never seemed too large for Swanson and he provided tremendous defense at shortstop over a 38-game cameo to end the year. I realize his UZR/150 doesn't back up the last statement, but I believe that number is soft. Swanson's production at the plate ultimately mimicked his Mississippi-levels except for one key difference. His BABIP at Mississippi was .309. With Atlanta, it was 74 points higher (.383). However, his walk rate held steady at 9% and while his strikeout percentage did climb to 23.4% after hovering around 19% with Mississippi, that's really not a worrisome mark in a short sample size (especially with around league average contact rates). Advanced metrics of .334 wOBA and 107 wRC+ are springboards for what's to come.

2017 Projection: Now, he's not a seasoned veteran who we can expect All-Star-level performance from just yet, but he's got a chance to be pretty damn special. Swanson has just 165 games of professional experience since the Diamondbacks took his with the first overall pick in 2015 and has done nothing short of impress. While it would be easy to think about what Swanson can be become, let's focus on 2017 for the moment. The Braves treated Swanson with kid gloves last year and left him in the eighth spot in the order, but he'll probably move up to the second spot in 2017 and hit between Inciarte and Freddie Freeman, which should only help him see more fastballs (he had a 6.2 wFA last year according to PITCHf/x). I've long felt that the second spot is a perfect place for young hitters to hone their skills and Swanson profiles as a perfect #2 guy in the lineup. Swanson's early success also bought him some time if he struggles out the gate to not feel the pressure to succeed or get demoted. The Braves will - or at least, should - give him the time to play through some issues as Swanson's progress will go a long way to deciding just how close the Braves are to being a division title contender again.

Julio Teheran, RHP, 26 years-old

2016 Review: Teheran is basically becoming the Andruw Jones of pitchers. While he may never become the pitcher some projected he would become during his minor league days, that shouldn't take away from the fact that he's a very productive option. A year after struggling with his control, Teheran found it again in 2016, setting a new single-season low with a 5.4% walk rate, which represents a 3.3% decline from the previous year. His strikeouts have remained steady in the 21% range as a major leaguer and Teheran continues to surrender his fair share of homeruns, though the rate is an acceptable 1-in-10 flyballs that turn into homers. He's lost a tick in average velocity, though still has the ability to hit close to 96 mph with his fourseamer and 94 mph with his sinker. Overall, his 2016 was much like his 2013-14 in performance and that's a pretty good thing. Beyond control, possibly one thing that led to Teheran's resurgence this year was that he once again wasn't completely inept against left-handers, who owned him in 2015.

2017 Projection: One of the stories of camp will be if new pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, along with other the new pitching instructors the Braves have added, are able to unlock some potential in Teheran that we haven't seen. We all know Roger McDowell preached working the knee-high strike on the corners. Will Hernandez and company push Teheran to be more aggressive? Consider that Teheran worked the entire strikezone against right-handed batters in 2013. Just as many pitches were over the inside corner as the outside corner among pitches that would have been charted as a "strikes." Last year, about a hundred more pitches were charted as "strikes" over the outside corner as there were over the inside corner. To the right, you can see a visual representation about what I am talking about. The top pic comes from 2013, Teheran's rookie season. The bottom one is last year. As you can see, while the pitching styles aren't wildly different, Teheran seemed more apt to come in to right-handed batters. While I am just just using right-handed batters because it's a bigger sample size, I should point out that left-handed batters see a reverse in that he's more likely to come in against them than he was in 2013. Now, part of all of this is due to better control, but one has to wonder what effect - if any - the new pitching braintrust will have on a guy like Teheran. Either way, we do know that Teheran will likely be, at minimum, a 3-win pitcher in 2017 and short of a big trade, will be expected to front this rotation.

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