Friday, May 12, 2017

What Happened? - The 2017 Braves Story (Part 1 of 2)

By Arturo Pardavila III [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Even if the Atlanta Braves were not ready to be legitimate contenders for a Wild Card slot, they were supposed to a better than 11-20 through the first 31 games with a -35 score differential. People expected a team resembling the one that won 31 of its final 56 games and why not? Bonifide major league veterans like Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, and Jaime Garcia were replacing the overmatched trio of Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair, and Williams Perez. The Braves were no longer trolling through former big league starter hell to unearth Roberto Hernandez and Lucas Harrell. The bullpen, which had found its way last season down the stretch, was returning all of its key parts and was supposed to have even better depth.

And the offense? They were expected to be much improved without the likes of Gordon Beckham, Erick Aybar, and A.J. Pierzynski receiving 200 PA or more.

So...what happened?

Either later this evening or tomorrow, I'll look at some pitching suggestions that might help, but for now, let's look at the offense. It is nearly impossible to produce at a solid rate when only a third of your lineup has been above-average. The opening day lineup's wOBA looks like this. See if you can pick out who's who.

.316
.217
.488
.420
.326
.316
.264
.393

A simple scale suggests a .320 wOBA is average. Ignoring what these eight player's defensive capabilities are, that is not a lineup capable of scoring many runs. By the way, that .393 at the bottom belongs to Tyler Flowers, who typically hits seventh behind Adonis Garcia. He's the guy with a .264 wOBA.

Dansby Swanson has been banished to the bottom of the lineup to try to work through his struggles. His .203 BABIP is not his fault, but a 17.3% line-drive rate is not helping matters. Ender Inciarte has stayed in the top spot every game, though. He's getting on base at a .308 clip. It's not the worst leadoff OBP in baseball. In fact, ten other players who have 50 PA in the leadoff spot are worse. It's still a contributing factor - along with Swanson's failures and Brandon Phillips's cooling down - to one of the Braves' biggest offensive issues.

To this point, the Braves have wasted having one-of-the (and some would argue the) best hitters in baseball. I'm not one to talk up the merits of the runs batted in, or RBI, statistic. Nevertheless, despite the third-best wOBA in baseball, Freddie Freeman has just 20 RBI. To this point, Freeman has played every inning of the season. Here's a stat that might be a bit shocking - 92 other players in the National League have more PA with baserunners on than Freddie Freeman. This is despite hitting in what is supposedly the top place in the lineup for run production. The only Braves regular with fewer baserunners on base than Freeman is Flowers, who, again, hits behind Adonis Garcia.

Freeman and Matt Kemp (who missed ten games earlier this season) have given the Braves a 1-2 combo that can hang with any other team in baseball, yet the Braves are 12th in runs scored in the NL because of lineup sinkholes like Garcia and Swanson, a bench incapable of providing the Braves any lift, and regulars like Phillips and Nick Markakis, who have been nice complimentary players when the Braves need better results.

The problem with the offense moving forward is that the Braves are pretty stuck with what they have. Sure, the Braves can bring up Rio Ruiz. After a slow start, Ruiz has hit a #nice .290/.348/.548 over his last 69 PA (18 games) with four doubles and as many homers. He's still platoon-limited, but so is the current third baseman for the Braves. Fortunately, Ruiz hits left-handed and Garcia bats right-handed so together, they kind of make a complete third baseman. And with 163 games at the Triple-A level, Ruiz is likely ready to sink-or-swim in the bigs.

That's the one obvious player transaction for the Braves to make. They can fiddle with the bench some (bringing back Lane Adams and/or Johan Camargo would be a start). If Swanson's struggles don't start to turn the tide soon, they could swap out the young shortstop for Camargo and let Swanson hit his way back into the bigs. Personally, I'm still not very worried about Swanson, but at this point, you can't be upset if the Braves just shake up things just to do it.

This is where I mention Ozzie Albies. I'd love to believe the 20-year-old is ready, but the results say otherwise. And that's okay. The average pitcher he's facing is seven years older than he is with much more experience. Check in again this summer.

Atlanta could also go the lineup optimization route and try to change up the order. It's not the worst idea, though repeated studies have shown lineup optimization is not nearly as important as we seem to think it ought to be. Even with that in mind, a top of the lineup with Markakis, Phillips, Freeman, Kemp, and Flowers could lead to better run production in the long run.

All in all, this offense just doesn't have the firepower to be a great offense. A streaky good one, absolutely. You also might be thinking "but Inciarte and others are bound to improve, right?" You're absolutely correct. Inciarte's BABIP is over forty points below his career average. It should improve and with it, he'll get on base more. But Tyler Flowers is unlikely to have a .478 BABIP all season - though Chris Johnson's "BABIP God" moniker is in serious trouble. Freeman is a beast, but do we really expect Kemp's BABIP to continue to float forty points over his career average? For more on BABIP and the Braves, check out Ryan Cothran's first article for Walk-Off Walk.

There's room for improvement, but there's also room for falling back to the mean. The Braves can try minor fixes (Ruiz, Adams, Camargo), but I don't foresee this offense being much better than average. Let's be clear, though. The average is much better than the recent history for the Braves. And if the Braves pitching was considerably better, that average offense would be enough to compete for a playoff spot.

So, about that pitching...

(Part 2 due either tonight or tomorrow afternoon)

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