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Monday, September 25, 2017

Walk-Off Talk 1.10: The Search Committee

(Walk-Off Talk is an informal series of responses between members of the Walk-Off Walk family. Today, we talk about who should be the manager in 2018 with Ryan Cothran, Stephen Tolbert, and me - Tommy Poe.)

Okay, guys, I think we're ready to decide the manager of the Atlanta Braves for the 2018 season and, with any luck, the many years to follow. Why John Coppolella trusted us with this responsibility remains unknown, but we cannot let him down. We got our list of in-house candidates that the powers-that-be are pushing and I know you guys are considering other options so let's dive right into this mess.

Candidate #1 - Brian Snitker Survives


By Jeff Morris. Follow him on Twitter @AtlBravesJeff
Tommy: Well, I'm sure many people won't like this option. Even his long-time supporters have resigned themselves to accept that the dismissal of Snitker after the 2017 season may be inevitable, but there might be a chance he stays for 2018. Just yesterday, the AJC's Mark Bradley indicated the front office might be leaning that way. Regardless of how that plays out, the case for him returning is very thin. It seemingly boils down to the old stand-by - "the players love him." Freddie Freeman certainly does and if Freeman wants to play shortstop, I'm fairly convinced the Braves will let him. Snitker's obviously a good foot soldier and a player's manager, but when it comes to management skills, I'm just not seeing it. Does he put players in the best position to succeed? Does he think several steps ahead to consider all possibilities while also making a quick decision? Does he use all of the information available to him to help influence his decision or fall victim to old habits? Does he help the players progress as professionals? When it comes to each of these questions, the best grade I could give Snitker is average, though below-average is more likely in most cases.

To be fair - something I rarely care to be - Snitker was given a roster in which everything had to go right for this season to have turned out much better than we have witnessed. Bartolo Colon transformed from the rotund ageless wonder to the rotund aged failure. Jim Johnson taught us the value of FIP. Freeman got hurt. Dansby Swanson struggled massively. Matt Kemp was Matt Kemp. Emilio Bonifacio, Eric O'Flaherty, Chase d'Arnaud (for about five seconds) had roster spots. The deck was stacked against Snitker. Still, throughout the season, Snitker made matters worse. He called on the wrong guy to pitch out of the bullpen or pinch-hit many times in 2017. He seemed totally incapable of predicting what other managers would do. He played veterans over rookies even though the team needed to find out what they had in the younger guys. For all that Snitker couldn't control, the things that he theoretically could too often showed Snitker to be a man under-qualified for the job at hand. While Freeman may love Snitker, this is a results-driven business and even if you accept the win-loss record for a roster this inept can't completely fall on the manager, it's hard to be excited about the decisions he did make.

Stephen: Yeah, of all the scenarios, this one seems like the least likely. I’ve argued both in a post and on Twitter, that the Brian Snitker problem pales in comparison to the lack of talent problem facing Atlanta. This argument I think has led some people to think I’m in favor of keeping him. Let it be clear - Brian Snitker is not a major league caliber manager. His contract should not be renewed. Even if I’m right and managers only contribute +/- 3 Wins, Snitker is still at the bottom of that range. I’ll take +3 Wins over -3 Wins any day and Atlanta needs to get a real manager that can be a daily asset instead of a constant liability. Tactically and strategically, Snit is playing checkers and while he’s been an important part of the Braves past, the future requires a new voice. A better voice.

The committee appreciates everything you’ve done for the organization over the years Brian, here’s a nice, cushy front office position. As for the rest, we’ll take it from here.

Ryan: The problem that I have had this season with his roster is his bizarre usage of abysmal players over competent players. I discussed a stat on Twitter the other day that Emilio Bonifacio and Danny Santana received nearly 200 combined plate appearances with 45 coming in high-leverage situations. Add Jace Peterson’s 190 to that stack, and then compare it to the Adamses (Matt and Lane) and it’s a downright abomination. Yes, there is an excuse that can bail out Snitker and it’s the fact that this was the roster given to him and he had no say so in it...but do we believe that? I don’t. It was alluded to by Coppy, after Bonifacio’s DFA, that he was Snitker’s choice to fill out the roster. That sounds about right. Knowing Coppy’s mindset, it just doesn’t make sense that he’d make that same mistake again if it was his call solely.

There are others that I could point to but now we’re just swatting the flies off of Snitker’s career. He doesn’t keep his players healthy, is a poor tactician, and that’s enough for me to look to others.

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Candidate #2 - Ron Washington 


By EricEnfermero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Stephen: As it’s become more and more apparent Brian Snitker won’t be retained, the most popular name mentioned as a replacement has been Ron Washington. And there's some logic behind it. Washington not only has big-league experience as a manager but a significant amount of success as well. He was the man at the helm of the Texas Rangers from 2007-2014, taking them from perineal basement dweller to back to back World Series in 2010 and 2011. Overall, he had a .521 winning percentage in Texas in his 8 years and established himself as one of the better managers in the league. Add that to the fact that he’s already on the staff, already has a relationship with the players, and it’s easy to understand why he’s so high on the list.

Washington isn’t the perfect candidate though. For one, he’s had some significant personal issues. During the 2009 season, Washington tested positive for cocaine and later confirmed he had indeed been using. After the 2014 season, Washington somewhat surprisingly resigned as manager of the Rangers citing personal reasons. A week later it was widely reported the resignation was due to a sexual assault allegation against a reporter and a week after that Washington confirmed he had been having an extramarital affair. We’ll probably never know the full story but these lapses in judgment are real concerns when deciding whether to make a guy the face of your organization.

Another issue is Washington is considered an old-school manager. And while that has been shown it can work given the right talent, it would be nice for the organization to consider a more analytical guy. Less bunts, more creative bullpen use, a progressive approach to platoons or bench usage, etc. That’s not Washington so Atlanta needs to be clear on what type of guy they want before going back to the old-school well.

Ryan: In looking at Washington’s years at Texas, the one thing that I noticed was that he rode players HARD!  Numerous guys year after year were getting upper-600 and 700 plate appearances. In today’s game, I just don’t like this mindset. I want to see the usage of super-utility outfielders and infielders rotating around the field to provide rest. While I’m not going to speak in depth about the personal issues Washington has faced, I’m not going to deny that it worries me, as managing a baseball team isn’t exactly a low-stress job. He’s not my guy, but it lies more with the first reason rather than the latter.

Tommy: What you said in regards to his old school approach sticks with me, Stephen. Ron Washington once said about bunting that, "you can take that analytics and shove it." He then added, "I do it (bunting) when I feel it’s necessary, not when the analytics feel it’s necessary, not when you guys feel it’s necessary, and not when somebody else feels it’s necessary. It’s when Ron Washington feels it’s necessary. Bottom line." Apparently, Washington 3:16 means I just bunted on you in the third inning because I thought it was necessary. I have to say it's that kind of thinking that scares me about Washington. He had success, there is no doubting that, but if you, as I do, subscribe to the Three Tiers of Managing Jim Leyland laid out that Joe Posnanski refined, the most important skill for a manager is the actual act of managing a game. And when it comes to that, Washington concerns me. I don't want a manager who shuts himself off to the idea that there is new thinking - supported by analytics - that bunting and being hyper-aggressive on the bases depresses run production. Now, maybe that's changed since his 2014 spring training interview I referenced. Maybe. But I have my doubts.

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Candidate #3 - Bo Porter


By EricEnfermero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Ryan: If I’m going internal, Bo knows he’s my guy. I was very hesitant and vocal about Bo before as I saw him make some excruciatingly painful managerial decisions, but knowing that Bo has managerial experience and has gotten his feet wet tells me that he could be the only forward-thinking baseball guy in the internal candidate discussion, as Eddie, Terry, Snitker, and Washington are likely Bobby Cox guys (old school) and will coach similarly to the legend. Bo’s been quoted that he looks much deeper than the superficial statistics and keeps his own chart of advanced metrics.  This quote was found by a great twitter follow in @JawnCoppolella and it provides the majority of my opinion.
"Batting average to me is the most overrated statistic in baseball," said Porter, whose Astros rallied to defeat the Rockies 3-2 in 12 innings Monday.
Like most players, Porter barely paid attention to advanced stats when he roamed the field. But since becoming a coach, the youngest manager in MLB has started to delve deeper into the inside-baseball side of the game.
"When you're trying to make a decision and place value to how important is this guy versus the importance of this guy, you have to go beyond the surface," Porter said. "For me, I can give you my eye-test opinion. But when you're trying to really get to the (bottom) of it, there's information that will let you know."
Porter keeps a chart of hard-hit balls and the numbers factor into lineup decisions. He pays attention to hitters who clean up only against poor pitching. He understands the value of batting average on balls in play.
"I have my own theory when I'm talking about (signing) a free agent," Porter said. "The first thing I'm going to do, I'm going to eliminate all his numbers against my team. ... People make this mistake a lot. They go, 'Well, this guy kills us.' And then you get him on your team. Well, you know what? He did 40 percent of his damage against your pitchers."
Asked if he has a Sabermetrics card, Porter said yes. He appeared to be joking. But he sounded like a proud member.
"It's easy to look at batting average, wins-losses, ERA," Porter said. "I mean, that information is available to everybody."

Tommy: Man, I hope that’s how he thinks now. I’ve been all over the map with Porter and one of the biggest reason comes down to analytics. Reports out of Houston at the time he was relieved suggested that Porter didn’t embrace analytics, but he disputes that and the amount of shifting done in Houston while he was the manager supports his contention. He’s described as fiery and very protective of his players. What happened in Houston may have simply been a case of a relationship between manager and general manager that simply couldn’t work. Considering he’s worked under John Coppolella this year, it would seem that Porter should have a good relationship with this general manager and that could help him move forward.

Stephen: If, as the committee, we decided to go internal for this decision, then Porter has my vote. Porter’s positive views of analytics as well as his history and experience being a player's manager are enough for me to feel comfortable with him being the guy. Porter has spent the last year working in the organization so a relationship with the players and the front office is already present. That last part is especially important given the reported rocky relationship the current manager has with the higher-ups. To be clear, I think an outside hire is still preferable but I understand the desire for stability and familiarity in this decision so if this is how we go, I can live with it.

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Candidate #4 - Eddie Perez

By Alex Brady (Hatmatbbat10) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Tommy: As we continue to cycle through the in-house options, there’s Eddie Perez. It’s hard to get overly excited about Perez. He’s just kind of there. That said, he does have a legitimate argument to be included in this discussion. He's led a team to a Venezuelan Winter League title and brought the squad all the way to the Caribbean Series finals, where they lost to Mexico. On that team was Adonis Garcia, but we won't hold that against Perez. The former personal catcher has been part of the Braves' coaching staff since 2007 and is a Bobby Cox disciple. Last winter, the Rockies flirted with Perez before choosing Bud Black. It was also reported that the Diamondbacks had interest in him as well. Last winter also had the strange situation where Perez was reportedly going to take over as the manager of Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic only to have players already committed to the team threaten to bolt over the possible dismissal of Omar Vizquel, the current manager. That's probably not something about how the players felt about Perez, but about loyalty to Vizquel. Still a weird event.

Notice I didn't mention anything about his managerial abilities when it comes to strategy because it's so hard to get a read on that. One problem we have seen from Bobby Cox disciples is that they try to manage just like Cox. It's worth mentioning that Cox is in the Hall of Fame so there are worse people to try to manage like, but can you really be a successful manager when you keep looking down at your "WWBD?" bracelet? All that said, Perez does have some experience helming a club, even if it's only the winter leagues, and has served a few different roles in Atlanta. He knows the players, he knows the system, and he would be a strong Latino presence on a team with a number of young and hungry players from Central America and the Caribbean.

Stephen: The kind way for me to say this is I have zero interest in Eddie Perez being the next manager of the Atlanta Braves. I could make a whole argument as to why but the easiest way to say it is he doesn’t bring anything new or interesting to the table. Just another old school, old guard, Bobby Cox disciple and that well dried up long ago. Hard pass.

Ryan: I really have no opinion on Eddie Perez as it seems to me he’d have been given a shot to manage somewhere by now, which might be telling. There’s no doubt he’s beloved in this organization and rightfully so, and he’s also beloved by his fellow countrymen. I also really like Eddie, but in my opinion, there’s likely the same mentality that’s been present for 3 decades in his approach and I’m ready for different.

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Candidate #5 - Terry Pendleton

By Bryan from Florida (Terry Pendleton) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Stephen: No list of managerial candidates for the Braves is complete without at least mentioning Terry Pendleton. It’s almost impossible to believe but 2018 will be Pendleton’s 17th year as a coach for the Atlanta Braves. After a distinguished playing career, Pendleton spent nine years as the hitting coach under Bobby Cox before being moved to 1st base coach when Fredi Gonzalez was hired. After six years there, Pendleton was transitioned to full-time bench coach when Brian Snitker was hired and has remained there since.

While Pendleton was gaining all this experience in Atlanta, his name was being mentioned for manager openings not only with the Braves but other organizations too. Both Washington and St Louis at separate times had Pendleton on a short list of candidates to fill a vacancy and while it still hasn’t happened for him, his experience coaching in a major league dugout is unimpeachable.

My biggest issue with Pendleton mirrors my issues with Eddie Perez. He’s one of Bobby’s Boys from the good ole days. It’s just retreading the same idea over and over and frankly I have zero interest in traveling down the same road for the 100th time. Time to pave a new way. I think Terry deserves a chance to manage somewhere, sometime. Just not here. Not now.

Ryan: I’ve liked Terry Pendleton for a long time. It has a lot to do with his time with the Braves, but it likely has more to do with family connections and the fact that he nearly kicked the living crap out of crybaby Chris Johnson. Of the guys currently on the bench, Terry would be my choice as I feel he’d do what’s best for the team, not the individual. Still, this is a gut feeling as there’s no real proof that he’d be any different than the last three, and going with the ol’ gut seems cliche for “I really don’t have any proof that this could work, but what the heck!”  That’s not good enough. I want a proven, unique manager that will use the entire roster.

Tommy: Honestly, there's little more than I can say. It is striking that Pendleton used to be a bit of an interesting candidate out there who interviewed for jobs or at least was considered, but over the last several years, that interest has dried up. I wonder if the Chris Johnson situation Ryan spoke of had something to do with that or maybe Pendleton doesn't interview well. Whatever the case, it seems Pendleton is a lifer in the coach role - much like Snitker. If someone really felt he was a manager, he would have already gotten a shot by now.

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Candidate #6 - Outside Hire

Ryan: Dave Martinez is my man.  He’s been Joe Maddon’s right-hand guy going on a decade and has been groomed to study deeper to create a winning ballclub. Hopefully like Maddon, Martinez will be a manager that utilizes the entire roster to maintain camaraderie and health for a season. If the Braves go into 2018 not able to shed Nick Markakis or Matt Kemp, someone has to come in and be bold enough to play both in part-time roles so they can be healthy for an entire year. Even if the more likely of the 2 in Markakis gets moved, someone has to have the cojones to sit Kemp regularly and utilize a platoon in left field.  It just feels like it’ll be more of the same if Braves stay internal, and I want a manager that aligns more with Coppy and his crew rather than Schuerholz and company. For me, that guy is Martinez.

Tommy: I have long been on the Dave Martinez train so I'm on board with your suggestion, but here's one of my own - Don Wakamatsu. Similar to Porter, Wakamatsu took over a team in the middle of a rebuild in the Mariners back in 2009, but they finished over .500 with him at the helm. The next year, the wheels came off and the Mariners fired him. One more common theme with Porter - Wakamatsu seemed to be at odds with his former general manager, Jack Zduriencik. To be fair to Wakamatsu, everyone seemed at odds with the former Mariners' general manager except for his high-priced - and often underperforming - player acquisitions. Zduriencik once took the side of Chone Figgins over Wakamatsu after Figgins confronted the manager during a game. In Atlanta, that would be unlikely to happen. Many suggested Wakamatsu lost the clubhouse, but how much of that was a front office that took his legs out?

Wakamatsu currently works under former Braves coach Ned Yost in Kansas City and according to Yost, he runs every decision by Wakamatsu. In his first season under Yost, the Royals nearly won a World Series before taking home a title the next year. He's steeped in analytics from his time with the Mariners and seems to have worked hard to bring Yost into the 21st century as well. This quote from an article on how he was fascinated by the then-brand-new metric system of Statcast is required reading for anyone interested in Wakamatsu.
"To me, BABIP simply raises a red flag, one way or another, and tells you to dive into it more deeply," Wakamatsu said. "Along the same lines, if we look at an opponent who is 0-for-5 on sliders low and away, and he has a BABIP of .000 on those, you might think that's the way to pitch him. But if his average exit velocity is 105 mph on those balls and they were all rockets, you're not going to pitch him that way. 
"The bottom line is we're in an age where there is all kinds of data coming in. The key is being able to use it to win games, not just to sit around and admire it."
Stephen: I would gladly take either of those gentlemen over any internal candidate we’ve discussed but for my suggestion, I’m looking at Joey Cora.

First and foremost, Cora has the resumè for the job. After an 11 year playing career in MLB, Cora has spent the last 15 years either coaching or as an analyst covering baseball. He was on the White Sox staff from 2003-2011, including their World Series year, ranging from 1st base coach to bench coach and was the man deemed to be interim manager anytime Ozzie Guillen was suspended (which was frequently).

Cora also has experience as a manager in the Venezuelan Winter League, as a bench coach for the Miami Marlins, and hired by the Pirates AA team, the Altoona Curves, as their skipper in 2016.

This past year, Cora was promoted to the big league club and served as a base coach. His time with Pittsburgh is especially interesting for me given they’re one of the most analytical teams in baseball. Cora has gone on record saying his time with them has opened his eyes to new ideas.

The other big plus for Cora is Keith Law has publicly and consistently lobbied for him as a serious candidate. Law and Cora worked together on Baseball Tonight and Law has frequently pointed out that, in his opinion, Cora has everything you need to be a successful manager. Law views baseball managing very similar to how I do, no bunts, creative bullpen use, shifts, analytics before tradition etc, and if he supports Cora as a candidate then that carries weight with me. Add that to his time coaching in a very progressive organization the last couple of years and I’m sold.

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Final Recommendation

It is the recommendation of this committee that the Braves go outside of the organization for their next manager. While we have no true consensus among the three candidates we have provided, we each believe that any of those three are preferable to other in-house options. Martinez has interned under possibly the best manager in baseball and runs the day-to-day for Joe Maddon. Wakamatsu has experience on the hot seat and understands both the traditional mindset as Ned Yost's sidekick and the more analytical side of modern baseball. Cora has done it all and is a database of knowledge that can be useful for the Braves moving forward.

Should Atlanta want to stay in-house, a consensus was reached that Bo Porter should be the manager of the 2018 Braves. He understands the metrics and has embraced their usage in baseball. He has both dugout and front office experience, which would help him to understand the entire spectrum of his responsibilities. Porter is also young, which is useful in providing a building ballclub with a manager they can grow under. 

While the choice is yours, John Coppolella (and possibly John Hart), we believe it's clear that the Braves should move on from Snitker and if they are going to limit their search to who is already on staff, the best option is the guy who has already served you for a year as a special assistant. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Braves Bring Back Suzuki

I can't say that I was a fan of acquiring Kurt Suzuki last January.
At the time, it seemed just as useful to bring a couple of journeymen catchers to camp to compete with Anthony Recker for the backup job. But someone saw something in Suzuki and fortunately for the Braves, Kevin Seitzer and Suzuki quickly meshed as a combo. The Braves hitting coach worked with Suzuki to alter his swing during practice. After a great deal of work, Suzuki found power he had never shown in previous seasons. For instance, from 2013 to the end of 2016, Suzuki hit 21 homers with a .102 ISO in 1671 plate appearances. Entering play Saturday, Suzuki had hit 18 home runs this season in 287 plate appearances with a .255 ISO.

This newfound success for a guy who was still without a job on January 21 of this year has been astounding. For a signing that angered many because they passed on Matt Wieters, Suzuki has turned into one of John Coppolella's gems. In addition to setting a personal high in home runs, Suzuki will post just his second season of a 100 rRC+ or better along with his second 2-win season since 2009. While his framing continues to be below-average, his other defensive metrics are positive even if he's not throwing out too many runners.

The question turns to how likely Suzuki is to repeat his success in 2018. Well, the answer is not likely, but that's not necessarily going to make this extension not worth the investment. Beyond the price tag, which is a reported $3.5 million base salary, Suzuki has made some adjustments that could lead to continued success in 2018 even if the catcher falls back to Earth a bit. The Braves like to swing as a team and be aggressive at the plate, which may have worked in Suzuki's favor. He grew up in the A's organization, one that preaches patience. While I prefer the approach, it doesn't work for everyone. This season, Suzuki has swung at 53% of all pitches seen, roughly 9% higher than his career rate. With a better swing in general, more swings should lead to better contact and that is exactly what we have seen. With a 34% hard-hit rate, he's 7% above his career average. Finally, Suzuki's not necessarily hitting the ball much harder (about a 2mph average exit velocity better than 2016), but he is making a higher quality of contact. Last year, he averaged 2.1 barrels per plate appearance, ranked 377th. This year, it's up 5.6 brls/PA - or 122nd right behind Corey Seager.

Further, a lot of the so-called luck stats don't apply here. The big one is BABIP and Suzuki is actually below his career average. It's also worth mentioning that his swing mechanics have also led to a higher pull rate, which depending on the player can be a good or bad thing. When it comes to Suzuki, it's difficult to think it's anything but good at this point. He's also put a stop to three years of a below 40% flyball rate. A lot was written earlier this season about Yonder Alonso's flyball rate, which was leading to big power numbers. Suzuki upped his flyball rate 10% in one year and 9% over his career average. The changes at the plate have led to a lot of positive results and to some degree, these results could be sustainable.

To some degree. It would be foolish to expect Suzuki to continue to post a .255 ISO. But it's not foolish to expect Suzuki to post good numbers in 2018, even if it will be his Age-34 season. With Tyler Flowers likely to return after his $4M option is picked up, the Braves have a pair of catchers returning who have combined for a 4.5 fWAR. This situation is perfect for the Braves, who have a wealth of catching brewing in the system led by Alex Jackson, who is likely to open 2018 in Gwinnett.

When Suzuki signed in January, I was indifferent. Now that he's signed an extension, I'm shocked by how little it ultimately cost the Braves. It goes to show that sometimes, the right situation trumps money and playing time.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Will Matt Adams be a Brave in 2018?

WSB-TV
When Freddie Freeman went down, the Braves started Jace Peterson at first and signed James Loney. And for a minute, we thought that was the best the Braves could do. John Coppolella changed that by acquiring Matt Adams from the St. Louis Cardinals for minor leaguer Juan Yepez. While expectations weren't great for Adams, he was clearly an upgrade over in-house options - including Loney who asked for a release. Adams, who had been stuck on the Cardinals bench after they moved Matt Carpenter to first base, would take off after arriving in Atlanta. Over 39 games while Freeman was out, he blitzed the league to the tune of .285/.333/.589 with 12 HR. So good was his performance that when Freeman was ready to return, the Braves took him up on his suggestion and moved their franchise cornerstone to third base just to keep Adams in the lineup.

That would last most of July and while Adams continued to produce, he definitely cooled down. As the calendar changed over to August, the Braves moved Freeman back to first base, leaving Adams to play left field in Matt Kemp's absence or pinch-hit. He's hit just .227 since but has bashed four homers - including two pinch-hit moonshots.

As the season rolls to an end, the Braves have a choice to make with Adams. Let's look at the options:

Trade him: Easier Said Than Done

In 2017, Adams was paid $2.8 million for his services and will be arbitration-eligible for just one more season. He's a career .270/.315/.470 hitter with 75 home runs. He falls under the spectrum of productive, but not so productive that other teams are willing to spend much in terms of assets to acquire him. The Braves traded a corner infielder who has hit just 13 home runs in 201 games and might only profile as a first baseman because his defense at third base is so suspect. First basemen without power don't tend to keep a job for very long (i.e. James Loney).

Adams does have power - a good deal of it - and can hit the ball hard. Adams currently rests just outside the Top 50 in Barrels per plate appearance, which rates the quality of contact. When he puts the bat on the ball, it has a good chance of finding a hole. Does he have .283 ISO-type power, like he has shown this year? It's probably not something he can sustain, but he qualifies as a true power hitter with a career .199 ISO. That's a big boost to his value.

However, several things are working against the Braves as they consider dealing Adams.
  • He's platoon-dependent. Over his career, Adams has a .256 wOBA against lefties. It's just as miserable this season at .244. Unfortunately, every team has access to Fangraphs so they also have this information. Acquiring Adams only works if you can match him up with a right-handed hitter who mashes lefties in the Matt Diaz mold. 
  • He's position-dependent. Adams is a fine first baseman. He's not gifted at the position by any means, but since 2014, Adams actually profiles better than Freeman as a first baseman (4.8 UZR/150, 17 rPM, 15 DRS). Nobody is paying anyone for first baseman defense, though. Adams has played just 129.1 innings in left field and we simply can't gauge much of anything of his numbers, but the eye test suggests that Adams is probably going to be a negative defensively. It's too much of a stretch to believe he can play anywhere else. He's a first baseman who might play left field for you in a pinch. That limits his value to NL clubs who know they are going to have to platoon him. The AL teams that could have interest do have the DH, which opens up more possibilities.
  • He's under team control for just 2018. The Braves paid next-to-nothing to acquire Adams and that was with a year-and-a-half of team control. The team acquiring Adams will have even less.
None of these conditions will erase any chance the Braves have of trading Adams, but they certainly limit the opportunities. One thing could work in their favor, though. Of the 21 full-time qualified first basemen this season, five are free agents. Two others, Lucas Duda and Mike Napoli, didn't qualify but have been regulars in the lineup and could also be free agents this offseason (Napoli has an option). Further, a DH like Carlos Beltran will also hit the open market. In addition, the Angels are a team that might entertain the idea of improving their first base production after a combined 0.7 fWAR from C.J. Cron, Luis Valbuena, and Jefry Marte. Suffice it to say, the market is theoretically available for Adams.

That said, a number of open jobs at first base/DH doesn't mean the same thing as open jobs in center field or at shortstop, positions where the market is depressed by so few capable players at the position. A number of the free agents this offseason with history at first base were also free agents last year. This is because most teams look at first base in this regard - it's great if you have a Freeman, but if you don't, you can find something that will work. You don't even need to be in a rush. The Rays signed Logan Morrison a week before spring training for nearly $2 million less than they paid him the previous year. It worked out pretty well for them and they weren't alone. The first base market rarely invites huge paydays because teams can just wait it out and go bargain shopping.

With Adams likely to earn $4M to $5M in arbitration, would any team really spend assets to acquire a guy that resembles several free agents that are already available and won't require a prospect? For that matter, they could be even cheaper than Adams. This is a problem the Braves will face in regards to dealing Adams this winter.

Non-Tender Him: But Why?

The Braves could see Adams as a luxury they can do without and simply non-tender him to open a 40-man roster spot. Such a decision would be a mistake in my view.

At $5M or so, Adams is an expensive bench piece, but the Braves will probably be able to deal with that. If they don't sign a third baseman - and Ronald Acuna takes over in right field as many expect - the Braves will open the season with half of their position starters earning the major league minimum. It would be a fair assumption that two of their rotation members will also make the minimum. Paying $5M for a bench player becomes much more bearable when you aren't spending heavily at other positions.

Beyond that, Adams does have value - value that would be wasted as a non-tendered free agent. I mentioned many of the negatives earlier because that hurts his trade value, but his offensive value is still quite apparent as he has a .335 wOBA since 2013. That ranks 74th among 238 players and it's better than Adam Jones, Beltran, Todd Frazier, and Evan Gattis. And since we know that he's a platoon player, we can reasonably assume that his wOBA would only look better if you limited it to facing right-hand pitching. And why assume when we can just look it up? Since 2013, Adams' .355 wOBA against right-hand pitching ranks 59th of 482 players (min. 370 PA against RHP).

If the Braves were in a financial crunch, I'd understand non-tendering Adams if a trade market never materialized - which is a real possibility. But I don't believe Atlanta will have to worry about that so why not keep Adams? Further, perhaps a trade market would come together as players go down or don't perform after spring camp opens up. Regardless, just cutting Adams is short-sighted and I think more of John Coppolella than that.

Keep Him: Cause Why The Hell Not?

If the Braves can't trade Adams and non-tendering him is a dumb move, that leaves the third option - keep him. And frankly, it might be the best option available even if Atlanta gets much interest in Adams this offseason.

The Braves are unlikely to trade Matt Kemp this winter. It'd be great if they can, but the sheer amount of financial responsibility the Braves would have to shoulder just to unload Kemp might be too much for the Braves to accept. Trading Nick Markakis to open up a spot for Acuna seems like the easier and more likely play. That leaves Atlanta to hope Kemp loses all the weight, keeps it off, and performs once again. Pretty much the same thing they hoped for last winter.

Whatever the case, the Braves seem stuck here. Here's the thing, though. If you are willing to play Kemp in left field with all of his atrocious defense, why wouldn't you also be willing to play Adams out there? Both players need a defensive caddy (Hi, Lane Adams!) and with Kemp seemingly always dealing with hamstring and knee issues, having Matt Adams' bat around could be useful for the Braves. Yeah, the defense sucks, but honestly, Adams could be better than Kemp defensively. Here's a fun stat for all of you Josh Browns of the world. Sprint speed is measured by feet per second. 447 players qualify currently and ranking 398th is Kemp with a sprint speed of 25.6 ft/sec. Adams is slightly quicker at 26.1 ft/sec. While speed isn't everything (Ender Inciarte ranks 173rd overall), there's at least an argument that Adams is a comparable - maybe even better - left fielder than Kemp. Probably not better, but Kemp is so bad that Adams can't be any worse. Presumably, with even more time in left field, Adams stands a shot at improving. Not a good one, but we know Kemp isn't going to get any better.

Pinch-Hit Homers by the Braves
Remember when I said that keeping Adams maybe even better than trading him? Think about what the Braves might get for trading Adams. Well, we don't really know that, but we can make the reasonable assumption that it won't be greater than what the Braves gave up to originally acquire him. That would mean Atlanta would likely receive a borderline Top 75 prospect in this organization. Probably something between what they received for Jaime Garcia (Huascar Ynoa) and Brandon Phillips (Tony Sanchez). Now, that player could be a fun project, but it's probably going to be a guy who won't ultimately play for the Braves or turn into a good tradeable asset. And by the way...the Braves' lower minor league teams are already packed with project players.

Keeping Adams gives the Braves a bat off the bench - something they lacked when the 2017 season opened - who provides depth at 1B and LF. That depth could be important when you consider that Freeman has missed about 80 games to injury over the last three years (including a healthy 2016). Conversely, Kemp bends over and misses two weeks. That's being mean, but having Adams for depth could be useful to help the Braves should either player go down. Further, Adams could fetch a better prospect from a desperate team later. That last part is wishful thinking, but it's not impossible.

In the end, short of being surprised on the trade market this offseason, the best bet is to keep Adams moving forward into the 2018 season. Do you agree? Let me know in the comment section.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Braves and Shohei Ohtani

If you haven’t been paying attention, there’s a rather large story brewing on the international prospect scene. His name is Shohei Ohtani and he's the best prospect to come out of Japan in years, arguably being a once-in-a-generation prospect.
Wiki Commons

If you’re unfamiliar, Ohtani is a 23-year-old, two-way player who regularly hits 101 mph as a starter and regularly destroys baseballs as a hitter. In the states, if this guy was on the free market, free to sign wherever and for however much he wanted, numbers like $300 million would be in play. He’s that special of a player.

But that’s where it gets complicated for everyone. Ohtani isn’t in the states, and he isn’t a free agent and now he’s tied to a system that was never designed to handle a player of his caliber. Because Ohtani is under 25, he’s subject to MLB international signing restrictions, which are complicated in themselves, but basically is going to restrict Ohtani from signing for anything more than $10 million. We can discuss the right and wrong of forcing a player to accept a contract 1/30th the value of what he’s actually worth another time but the bottom line is this, if he comes over this offseason, as reported, he’s leaving hundreds of millions on the table.

And this is big news for the Braves. If I’m honest, I haven’t really been following the Ohtani sweepstakes that closely simply because I really didn’t think Atlanta had a chance. If he waited until after he was 25, then it’s an open market and Atlanta would simply get outbid. If he came before 25, Atlanta would still be in the penalty box from their 2016 class, which included Kevin Maitan, and would only be allowed to offer 300K to any player. These two realties convinced me Ohtani certainly wouldn’t be wearing a Braves uniform.

But the thing is, it isn’t certain. Jeff Passan of Yahoo sports put it best in a recent series of tweets on the subject:






“Free agency where money almost literally isn’t a factor.” This is Atlanta’s type of free agency. In a world where money isn’t king, Atlanta has as good a shot as any. By coming over now, Ohtani is telling the world this decision won’t be based on the biggest number he sees on a check. 

There’s another factor too. Like I mentioned above, Ohtani is a two-way player. He loves to hit. But it’s very unlikely any MLB team is going to let such a special arm play in the field the 4 days a week he isn’t starting, especially when the financial commitment increases. This has led many to believe Ohtani will choose a National League team. A scenario where he gets to hit 3 or 4 times every 5th day as well as being a legitimate pinch hit option seems like it would appeal to Ohtani much more than going to American League and basically being told his hitting days are over. If this is the case then Atlanta just increased their odds from 1 in 30 to 1 in 15.

There are other ways to increase their odds as well. One interesting idea that some have suggested is a team should agree to non-tender him after two or three years. Under the rules of baseball, after Ohtani signs he will be subject to the same 6 years of team control before free agency as all other players. By agreeing to non-tender after certain amount of time, he gets to free agency quicker and you get two or three of having him vs some other team. Atlanta could certainly get creative like this. And even if you only had him for 2 or 3 years, the benefits are insane. Even if you’re not ready to compete in that time frame he becomes a first-rate trade piece. It's an interesting idea but just like everything else in this case, it's more complicated

MLB has set up these international spending rules, in part to save owners a lot of money, but also to maintain competitive balance. Put a cap on it and it doesn’t matter if you’re the Yankees or the A’s, you’re operating on the same financial playing field. And MLB is serious about this. They’ve sent out multiple league wide memos reminding teams that any contract for Ohtani, just like all other contracts, must be approved by the commissioner’s office and any attempt to circumvent the rules will result in not only a voided contract, but harsh penalties. This is a measure intended to prevent teams from orchestrating an under-the-table agreement with Ohtani, like the one mentioned above, or any kind of pre-arranged extension.
 
But it’s important to remember that the commissioner’s office doesn’t wield power unilaterally over baseball. The sport is governed by a collective bargaining agreement and any and all clauses and penalties regarding contracts must be laid out in the CBA. Now I’ve heard this new CBA will have such language in it but it’s obviously very difficult to include every possibility. Teams have people on their payroll whose entire job it is to find legal ways around the CBA. Such is the reality in an ultra-competitive world. If a team comes up with a creative way to get Ohtani paid quicker while still staying within the parameters of the CBA, MLB is going to have a mess on their hands. Again, this system was never designed for a guy this valuable.

This will all be fascinating. To be clear, the Braves certainly aren't the favorites. That distinction probably belongs to the Dodgers, the Cubs, or the team that signs Yu Darvish. But Atlanta is certainly in a better position than they were before and the idea that money will play such a small role basically makes this a wide-open race. The Atlanta Braves could get Shohei Ohtani. And that's kind of cool.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

What do the Braves have in Lane Adams? With Q&A

Minda Haas Kuhlmann (SA BY CC 2.0) via Flickr
Lane Adams is 27 years old. Up until this year, he's been a career Minor Leaguer with a .755 OPS, average power, above average speed, and a pretty good glove that can play all three outfield positions.

But there's something happening here and what it is ain't exactly clear.  There's a Lane with a bat over there, and he's telling MLB they've got to beware. Ok, I'll stop here.

What's that sound? Everybody looks what's going down.

Ok. I'll really stop now. While this season has been a wash for the Braves, there's been a some very pleasant surprises on this team:
  1. Johan Camargo developing into a real Major League threat after being an incredibly mediocre Minor Leaguer.
  2. Sam Freeman ditching his reverse splits to become a legit force against left-handed hitters (.471 OPS against).
These are great developments for a team that was in need of a good super-utility type and a shutdown left-handed reliever, both of which hadn't really been present for half a decade on the Major League club. In enters something Braves haven't had in a long time as well... a good 4th outfielder, Lane Adams. Called up in late April, Lane received two handfuls of plate appearances but was mostly used for his speed in pinch running opportunities. He received no starts in this stint and was sent back to the Minors on May 8th after compiling a .667 OPS.

Fast-forward to June 7th, and Lane gets the call back to the bigs and was used exclusively off the bench for over two months as Danny Santana, Jace Peterson and Matt Adams were used in spot starts in left and right field. Meanwhile, off the bench, Lane was coming up with some pretty big hits and playing solid defense in late-innings. I, along with nearly everyone that was watching Santana at the plate and in the field, was wondering aloud who Lane had to kill to get a start.  And finally it happened...not the killing part.

It took a day off for Braves elite defending Ender Inciarte for Lane Adams to get the first start of his professional career. He went 1-3 with a walk and a run scored. You'd think that would earn him some starts over the likes of Jace Peterson and Danny Santana, whom were not swinging the bat well nor fielding above average, but alas no. It took 3 more weeks before Snitker started Lane again, and yet again, he had a good start going 1-4 with another walk.

Thus far, in little under 100 PAs, Lane has a .912 OPS, an 11.4% BB-rate, a 24.1% K-rate, and has 8 stolen bases to 0 caught stealing. However, there's plenty to be cautious about when it comes to his 2017 MLB stint:
  • An inflated BABIP of .391
  • A stat-line that far surpasses what he's been able to do at any MiLB level in every offensive category.
If there's anyone out there that expects Lane to continue hitting above a .900 OPS for the rest of his professional career, I'd ask you to lay off the painkillers. As intelligent as Lane is, I think he'd say the same. However, there's a lot to like about Lane, his approach, and the time, effort, and energy he puts into making himself an all-around better player. He studies the game, its mechanics, and has the intelligence to maximize his skillset. But enough of me talking about Lane. How about we let Lane talk about Lane! Buckle in as he has a lot to say and it's very, very good stuff. Like me, I'm sure if you read this, you'll be glad that he wears a Braves uniform.

First and foremost, thank you for taking your time out to answer a few questions for us at Walkoff Walk! We’re all big fans of the Braves and your stint with them has made an impression on all of us. On to the questions.  I am a teacher so you will be graded on your responses. 

For those of us that have been following you on Twitter, we have seen you discuss some advanced metrics that have been thrown around baseball lately, i.e. launch angle and exit velocity. We’ve also noticed a spike in your numbers this year, and was wondering if there was any particular metric you’ve been drawn to that has rewarded you with the great numbers you’re putting up at the MLB level?

I have to give you the background first.

Well growing up I played basketball and baseball. My first sport was basketball. Never put any emphasis into baseball growing up. In basketball, I studied the game's best shooters and scorers. Trying to add what they did into my game. As far as baseball goes, I just showed up and played. After games and practice, I usually went to the gym to get up some shots and to implement the moves I studied. When I played baseball, there was no studying, no technique, no mechanical issues or any mechanical adjustments to be made. Just sorta went out there and played and let myself be an athlete. Mainly just waiting for the game to be over so I could go to the gym. I'm sure you're all aware of the story of me trying to quit my sophomore year but my mom vetoed that decision.

I then get drafted. I get to AZL rookie ball league for my first go at professional baseball. Within the first week of my professional, I was told I needed a change in approach and in my mechanics. Naturally I thought "these are professional coaches they must know what they're talking about". Without any questions or knowledge, I proceeded to abide by their instruction. This is no knock to the coaches who at this time had a lot of major leaguers come up through that system and have had a lot of success. But for myself, I was a literal person. You tell me to swing down and try to create backspin I'm going to literally swing down and create backspin.

For the next 4-5 years, I was searching for a consistent swing. Deep down I knew something with my swing was off. We weren't allowed to watch video until 2015. And if we did it had to be with a coach. I would watch big leaguer after big leaguer watching swing after swing trying to figure out what I could do, but not knowing what I was looking for. I heard big leaguers talk about it and they'd give the old conventional hitting terms; swing down, back spin etc.

It wasn't until 2014 when I was called up that we played tigers out 10x in the month of September. That was the year JD Martinez broke out.  I went out and watched the Tigers BP one day and casually walked by JD to see how big he was compared to me. He might have had 5-10 lbs on me. But I kept asking myself why he was hitting balls out to the opposite field the way he was. At the time Raul Ibanez was with us. We would talk hitting all the time. I asked him where this guy came from. Raul told me JD went to a guy and overhauled his swing. Raul also worked with the same guy earlier in his career. He tried to go into detail about his technique and philosophy. I didn't comprehend it at the time. I was a shy 24-year-old and I didn't want to pester Raul with questions. Although he would've talked to me all day if I wanted him to. Raul has been one of the most genuine guys I've met still to this day.

2015 & 2016 were years of trial and error. Still searching for what worked for me. I ended up trying to hit homeruns and drive the ball. That leads to a lot of overswinging and the K's racked up. Sporadically swinging for the fences wasn't getting it done at AA.

Fortunately, a buddy of mine in the hitting coach department put me in contact with JD's guy. I flew out to California and hit with that guy for 5 days. They said it best. "I knew what to do I just needed the direction to get me there." They gave me that direction. The swing they taught me kept my bat in the zone longer. On a plane more south to north. Spent the whole winter working and working on implementing the changes. 26-year-old habits are hard to break. Old habits kept creeping in and that I had to address and stay on top of. I struggled in spring training but I knew it was right so I just kept working and stuck to the plan. At Gwinnett, I was hitting more balls in the air naturally instead of rolling over balls the left side when my timing was off I'd hit balls in the air through the middle of the field and they would fall for hits.

 Are players of today more apt to know about sabermetrics? Is there a divide - almost cliques - in which some players have bought into modern stats and others haven't? 

The thing about metrics and analytics are they aren't intended for the player. Knowing metrics and analytics doesn't make me a better player. Same as not knowing metrics and analytics don't make you a bad player. Advanced stats are intended for the guys up in the front office gauge a player's true value. Baseball is a business. Baseball Executives use analytics to find a player's true value to save money. Instead of paying a free agent such and such dollars when a player that has rookie status can bring you the same value. Advanced stats are used to so the baseball bosses can get the most bang for their buck. I will say a majority of players in today's game don't take analytics seriously. Baseball is a traditional sport so naturally, guys will look at the traditional stats to weight their performance. Which is fine, but traditional stats don't tell the whole story. Advanced stats can't tell you everything about a player either. There has to be a balance. You see old school guys saying nerds are ruining the game, which I don't think they are. Teams aren't hiring guys with Ivy League degrees because it's the new trend. They're being hired because it's an adapt or die business. Just like everything else in this world. Things get better and evolve and you either keep up or fall behind. The iPhone X is significantly better than the iPhone 1.

How widespread is the "hit the ball in the air" philosophy in both the majors and the minors?

I personally believe the hit the ball in the air is nearing a tipping a point. Though I prefer hitting the ball in the air far more than on the ground. But there's a way to do it. Too high of an average launch angle will lead to more frequent pop ups and a higher punch rate. I want to think a guy with an average launch angle of 15-20 degrees will have more consistent success. You can compare a BABIP and average launch angles. Not going to tell the whole story but it will lead you to know which player is relying more on luck.

What coach, past or present, has been most influential on your career? Why?

There's a lot of coaches and players that I have gathered information from. I love information (whether) I benefit from it or not. I like to hear how people perceive and analyze things. Hitting is personal feel. Each individual player receives information differently. Mike Trout thinks swing down and create backspin. That feeling/cue gets him to take his best swings. Is he wrong? No. I try to swing down and create backspin and I will literally swing down. So for me, I have to think differently than Trout. There's no cookie cutter way to teach hitting. Everybody player is different. Up until the last year, I relied on other people to apply their ideas of the swing when I needed to apply my own for a better understanding. Since I'm the one swinging the damn bat and all. I didn't have success until I had personal clarity and conviction to what I was wanting to do with my swing. Cue old phrase "different strokes for different folks"

If you could continue your baseball career in a different field, would you choose front office or manager? Why?

I think my ideal job after my playing days would be head of player development or something in the front office. I would like to help younger players just getting started to find themselves as a player. Give them information. Teach them how to analyze/process it and help them build a foundation for them to chase their goals. I personally believe baseball development falls too much under the everybody do this and that and follow the line. I believe players will have more conviction and clarity in what they're doing if they can have some I freedom in their journey. Of course, you'd have to help guide them. Ask them questions like; what's your goal? What are you going do to get there? At the end of the day, it's the player's career. I rather have them do everything they think they could do in order to reach their goals. Put responsibility on the players for their journey to the big leagues. Everybody talks about having a process in this game. But who's process is this? The organization for the players?

This is merely theoretical...no story behind it. But if a guy evacuated from Florida, left the best tickets of his life before the bottom of the 9th inning last Sunday and missed Braves tie it in the 9th and your walkoff dinger in the 11th, what would you say to him?

I'd tell him, he and my girlfriend should go have a coffee together and talk about their decisions. She had a flight to catch and she was cutting it close. She had to leave early and got the update on the MLB app when she walked out of the stadium gates.

I want to think Lane Adams for answering some questions for us. You can - and should - follow him on Twitter @LA_Swiftness.


Post-Interview Reflection

I talked on Twitter how Lane could be a serious late-bloomer to the game of baseball, and the potential is affirmed in this piece as he's changed a good deal of his approach and is getting good results, especially in his medium to  hard contact rate which is over 80% in his 2017 MLB stint!  A smart dude. A heck of an athlete. A pupil of the game.  I'm excited to see what he can do on the diamond!  


Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Youth Movement Is Finally Here

G-Braves Media
You'd be forgiven if at times this season, you said, "where's all these prospects we traded everyone I knew for?"

The opening day lineup included five players over the age of 30. Two of the five reserves used that day were over 30. That doesn't include Emilio Bonifacio, Kurt Suzuki, Jaime Garcia, Jim Johnson, Sam Freeman, or Josh Collmenter - all regular faces over the first few months who were in the Age-30 season or older. Oh, and that definitely doesn't include R.A. Dickey or Bartolo Colon, who both hit their 30's over a decade ago. For a team that was all about the rebuild, this was an old team and a guy like Jason Motte didn't help make it any younger.

It was frustrating for casual and decidedly more-than-casual fans of the team to watch as prospects began to accumulate in Gwinnett while Adonis Garcia and Eric O'Flaherty appeared with regularity and disappointment over the first few months. You may have even lost a bit of your faith in the Braves front office and management. It's okay if you did. Like I said, you're forgiven.

On Wednesday night, we witnessed the latest example of what this youth movement might mean. Facing a playoff bound team destined to win 95 or so games, the Braves beat the Nationals with ease, leaning on a young quartet of pitchers. Sure, Matt Kemp's Grand Slam was the Sportscenter highlight, but the real story of this game was the youngins.

On the mound to begin the game was Luiz Gohara, who just turned 21 on the last day of July. Embarrassed by first-game jitters his last time out, Gohara took the mound against Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Ryan Zimmerman and made the Nationals quite aware that the young lefty just might be a problem for them to deal with for the next half-decade. With control that was missing his first time out, Gohara surgically placed his 97 mph fastball wherever he wanted throughout the evening. He then followed that up with his slider, which had the Nationals swinging themselves into pretzels. He was even able to spot his much-improved changeup, using it effectively to keep the Washington hitters at bay. It was the kind of stuff that may have made Bryce Harper happy to still be on the shelf.
He's right, ya know.

The Braves followed Gohara's outing with the 27-year-old rookie, Dan Winkler. Since he returned to the team last month, Winkler has been nearly as a lights-out as he was at the beginning of last season before he fractured his elbow. A rare bullpen piece that throws five pitches, Winkler gave his changeup the night off and worked instead off his four-seamer, cutter, and slider with a sinker tossed in there for good measure. Whatever he threw, the Nats were powerless. Howie Kendrick hit a grounder to short while Michael Taylor struck out looking. Jayson Werth saw three fastballs, including a cutter, before swinging over an 82 mph slider.

A.J. Minter got the call next and Turner singled off him. That at-bat followed back-to-back strikeouts of Matt Wieters and Raudy Reed with the latter looking just sad against Minter's slider. Randy, don't disappear. You aren't the first, nor will you be the last to look to the heavens as the slider defies physics. Minter toyed with Wilmer Difo next, throwing the infielder four sliders at 89-90 mph before throwing a 97 mph fastball that Difo could only look at.

With the lead safely in hand, the Braves called on Lucas Sims to finish it. A starter by trade, the 23-year-old Sims has been moved into a bullpen role and he drew three of the better bats in Wednesday's lineup - Rendon, Zimmerman, and Kendrick. They didn't have a chance against Sims' four-pitch mix of a 93-94 mph fastball, 87-89 mph slider, and the occasional 84 mph change and 82 mph curve. Zimmerman struck out for the second time in the game and the Braves' rookie arms struck out 12 overall.

Not to be outdone, the front two batters in the lineup, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson, reached base a combined four times, scored twice, and were credited with three runs driven in. Lane Adams, another 27-year-old rookie who keeps hitting, filled in admirably for Ender Inciarte with three hits, including his first major league triple.

On Wednesday, we didn't see Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Max Fried, or Johan Camargo, but all four are 25-and-under and contributing.

This season has been trying for Braves fans - myself included. Watching Jason Motte get innings while Akeel Morris remained in Gwinnett was difficult. And watching Adonis Garcia play over Rio Ruiz was very frustrating. For a rebuilding team, the Braves of the first several months seemed awfully focused on the here-and-now while ignoring the future. That much appears to be changing. The Braves are beginning to put the kids first and it's about time.

On Thursday, the Braves started just three players over the age of 30.

It's progress. And progress, my dear friends, is a good thing.

Walk-Off Talk 1.9: The 2018 Bullpen

(Every now and then, we hold informal discussions on something related to the Braves. Today, Ryan Cothran and me, Tommy Poe, look at the bullpen in 2018.)

Ryan,

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it looks like the Atlanta Braves won’t make the playoffs this season. And while it’s fun to talk about prospects like Kevin Maitan and Joey Wentz, there will be a major league season in 2018 and the Braves need to build a roster for it. On that roster, there will be a bullpen. So, let’s take a look at what that pen might look like.

Before we start, I have to admit something. For two consecutive years, I was sure the bullpen would be a strength and I was wrong. But I can’t be wrong three consecutive times, can I? 2018 has to be the year it all comes together, right?

To help answer that question, I want to look at where the bullpen is now and what the makeup might look like in 2018. We’ll cover some of the guys we want the Braves to keep, some of them that need to be moved, some of the guys coming up from the farm system, and any specific guys we would like the Braves to target in the free agent market or via trade. I’ll start.

 Vizcaino | By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop)
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I think the pen is a dicey position myself. It has a bullpen FIP that has often hovered around 5.00 since the All-Star Break (down to 4.61 now) and while we can blame Jim Johnson for much of that, others also struggled. Even some of the guys that have been so successful are players I'm not so sure I want to rely on moving forward. Jose Ramirez has a 2-run difference between his ERA and FIP and his xFIP is even higher. Can we really count on hitters becoming outs 8-of-10 times they put the ball in play moving forward as has happened for Ramirez this year (.209 BABIP)? Can we really count on Sam Freeman doing the thing he never did before - get left-hand major league hitters out - in 2018? Can we really count on Dan Winkler's arm not falling off from just signing an autograph?

It’s clear that I have my worries about this bullpen in 2018. That said, there are a few names that demand excitement. A.J. Minter has arrived and as long as he's healthy, he's probably the most dominant reliever the Braves have. Akeel Morris's incredible changeup will be in the mix as well - if the Braves remember he's in the organization. Arodys Vizcaino continues to impress, though he’s given up a few too many homers. Still, I’ll take him compared to others. Later, I'll talk about the two or three guys I really like coming up from the minors as well.

Generally, I'm seeing a bullpen that could go either way. Guys like Matt Wisler and Luke Jackson could finally get it. Winkler could stay healthy. Ramirez could continue to battle - and defeat - the SABR Gods. At the same time, there is a probably a better chance none of those things happen. So...that's a downer.

Here’s how I currently fall on things:
Keeping: Vizcaino, Minter, Morris, Winkler (I do like the arm)
Trading: Ramirez and Freeman - if there’s anything decent out there.
Keeping, but on thin ice: Wisler, Jackson, Hursh - next spring is their last chance.
Gone: Johnson (trade, DFA, pretend he’s Akeel Morris and lose him, whatever it takes), Krol, Motte, Brothers

I got the four I am comfortable moving into 2018 with, the three who I will give the last chance to (plus, they have no trade value), and a couple I’ll trade if there’s a good deal out there. I’m dropping veterans like it’s hot. Regardless, this pen needs plenty of work. What do you guys think? Am I wrong to be this pessimistic? Or am I seeing it way too clearly?

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Hey, Tommy!

Super-excited to be doing another Walk-Off Talk, especially one concerning the bullpen as I have a whole heck of a lot to say on the matter. First and foremost, I’ll say that I think we as Braves fans finally see the bullpen turn the corner in 2018.  There’s fruit that is blossoming in front of our eyes, young men becoming staples in the ‘pen, old dudes getting squeezed out, and fringe guys looking bloody awful and naturally being pushed out of roles.  While that all doesn’t sound good, there’s much research and evidence that shows you have to fail before succeeding.  We’re there.

In the 1st section, I’m going to look at the guys that we’ve seen in 2017 1 by 1, try to find underlying reasons for their success or failures, and decipher whether I think they have a shot at the 2018 bullpen.  Ready? Here we go! Who’s a KEEPER? Who’s a HEAPER?

  1. Jose Ramirez- KEEPER. 2.28 ERA through 59.1 innings. Like Jason Motte’s early “success” this year in which he was getting roped but the ball was hit right at fielders, ERA can be a fluke stat, especially when we’re talking relievers and 1-2 inning stints at a time. With Motte, every person watching could see it was only a matter of time before it blew up in his face. The day it blew up on him was our beloved country’s birthday and since then he’s had a 9.28 ERA. This brings us to Jose Ramirez.  Like Tommy mentioned above, there’s a lot that’s went right for Jose this year: low BABIP, high LOB%, but there’s also a decrease in hard-contact as soft and medium contact make up for about 70% of the total while hard comes in at 32.3% - a serious decrease from previous years. It’s also worth noting that his groundball rate has increased significantly which, when adding in that his soft/medium contact rate has increased, bodes well for long-term success. Lastly,  Jose’s had an increase in velocity as his average fastball is 97.3, when it was previously 95ish. It’s appropriate to taper expectations for Jose as asking him to duplicate his 2.28 ERA is wish-casting, but increased velo, softer contact, and the ability to keep more balls on the ground makes me think Jose can be a mid-3s ERA in 2018.
  2. Jim Johnson- KEEPER. This is tough. I don’t want to see Jim Johnson in a Braves uniform in 2018, but the reality is that it’s not that easy. He’s owed 5MM and the Braves at least need to give him a shot to rebound before throwing in the towel. Give him April in low-leverage situations and let’s see if he can make that sinker sink again - otherwise, his career will be the thing sinking.
  3. Arodys Vizcaino- KEEPER. While not as extreme, Vizzy has also benefited from a low BABIP and a high-strand rate, but unlike Jose he’s kept his BB-rate low and his K-rate above 9. He might not be able to sustain a sub-3 ERA yearly, but if I were betting on anyone to do so in 2018, he’d be there.
  4. Sam Freeman- KEEPER. The surprise of the bullpen in 2017, there’s not much fluke in Sam’s stat line as everything seems pretty normal. His fastball/slider combo has been downright filthy and he’s under control for 3 more years. No reason not to bring him back.
  5. Ian Krol- HEAPER. I’d like to believe that Ian Krol’s mishaps are all bad luck, but it’s just not true. The pitch that made him valuable last year (fastball) has stayed up in the zone this year and has gotten crushed. His K-rate has dropped, BB-rate increased, and there are at least 2 LHPs in front of him in the pecking order. He’d also be entering his 2nd year in arbitration and the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.
  6. Luke Jackson- HEAPER. Really, there’s not much to like here. He’s got a pedestrian fastball that has velocity and that’s it.  Luke’s got a lot to figure out in AAA before he even becomes an average MLB reliever.
  7. Rex Brothers- HEAPER. Was super excited to see Rex signed this offseason as I’d pined for it. However, it’s just not worked out. His advanced metrics show he’s been really unlucky and hopefully, he can turn it around this last month. For now, like Krol, there’s just more effective LH options available. Like Krol, hopefully, the Braves can trade Rex for something of semi-value.
  8. Matt Wisler- HEAPER. For the 3rd year in a row, Wisler just isn’t missing bats. And really, it goes beyond that as he hasn’t missed bats since 2013, which was the last time his ERA was below 4. I don’t know what there is to figure out at AAA and maybe a change of scenery is needed.
  9. Jason Hursh- HEAPER.There was this one outing where Hursh was running it up to 96 and pitches were darting every which way. Aside from that, it was a step back year for the former 1st rounder. Like Wisler, his best opportunity might come in another organization.
  10. Akeel Morris- KEEPER. Must be the black sheep of the Braves 40-man roster as that is the only reason I see for him to not be in the bigs right now. Good K-rate, walks are coming down, and his 2-pitch mix looks pretty doggone good.
  11. Daniel Winkler- KEEPER. In my opinion, this dude’s stuff is downright filthy.  I’ve wondered aloud whether Braves will keep him around due to injury, but if they do, I think he can be a serious 1-inning force.
  12. A.J. Minter- KEEPER. We are getting a taste of what he can do now and it’s delicious. A serious powerhouse lefty that’s capable of throwing high-leverage innings to any hitter.

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Ryan,

We mentioned a few names that came up from the minors this season and, as you said, will probably be keepers in 2018. Of course, I’m speaking of Minter and Morris - if he ever apologizes for whatever great offense he did to the Braves front office. Seriously, do as I do with my wife, Akeel. Make your apology sound super sincere even when you have no idea why they are mad. And maybe break down and watch Empire with The Holy John Trinity. Perhaps that last thing only helps with my wife, but it’s worth a shot.

Who might join Minter and Morris next season as young arms arriving in the bigs? Let me preface this by saying that I would love to include Kyle Kinman in this group, but coming off Tommy John surgery, I think that’s wishful thinking. Also, nobody knows where they put Armando Rivero so until we find him (I’ll check the couch), there’s no real reason to include him in this discussion.

Clouse | By Jeff Morris. Follow him on Twitter @AtlBravesJeff
One name that pops out immediately is Corbin Clouse. He logged 41 games between Florida and Mississippi this year, finished with the fourth most strikeouts in the system from those pitchers who didn't start a game, and hitters struggle to get the ball elevated against him due to a heavy 91-93 mph sinker and a wipeout slider. I'm sure this is going to be a common theme with these young arms, but in reference to Clouse, his control can waver from time-to-time. That said, when he's on with his delivery and follow-through, he's a nasty guy to deal with on the mound. Low-end projection, he'll be a left-hand specialist. But I think his stuff plays up to the righties as well. I think he could be a left-handed and maybe a little less effective version of the Tigers' Shane Greene.

Another arm that started in Florida only to finish the season in Mississippi was Devan Watts. Similar story to Clouse, except he's right-handed and has flashed very good control. Same sinker/slider combo, but with a bit more velocity and holy crap, does his sinker move. I've also seen a changeup out of him, though I'm not sure if it'll play in the majors. The Braves are downright scary with how they uncover these small college arms (Tusculum College alum) and develop them into relief prospects. He checks all the boxes you are looking for and should be in the mix come spring training.

Phil Pfeifer, unlike Clouse and Watts, has logged some time in Triple-A. He has a more prototypical heater, though this velocity won't blow you away. He'll mix in a changeup and a late breaking power curve. Sometimes, especially against right-handers, he'll slow the curve down to give the hitter something else to look at as it drops in a more traditional loopy fashion. Picked up from the Dodgers last year, it all boils down to control for the southpaw. He's quick through his delivery and gets a lot of movement on his pitches, though I sometimes feel like he's trying to get through his delivery way too fast and would be better off slowing things down a touch. Either way, there's a lot to like, but you can't walk 16% of hitters in the majors and be an effective reliever.

Finally, I have to mention the guy who came over with Luiz Gohara - Thomas Burrows. The Braves were super cautious with the former Alabama closer (Tide Roll! - right?), but I imagine the dude will be on the quick track next year after spending his Age-22 season in Rome. He struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced, got a heavy dose of grounders, and kept the walks to the minimal. Do I think he'll jump from low-A to the majors this spring? No, but could he be in the mix by midseason? Oh, absolutely. He's tried-and-tested in the SEC and has continued his success into pro baseball. And have I mentioned that he's another sinker/slider pitcher. Seriously, with all these sinker/slider guys, we should have never let Roger McDowell go. He'd be giddy with this crop of relievers. Oh, well.

I know there are more arms I haven't mentioned here. Why don't you point them out, Ryan?

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I will do just that, Tommy! But might I say that of the guys you mentioned above, Devan Watts really tickles my fancy.  Some twitter guys had his velo up to 98 at the end of this year. Add to that a low-BB rate, high-K rate, and a 2nd pitch in a slider that varies in MPH and is more of a plus pitch than his fastball, and you’ve essentially got what the Braves wanted out of Shae Simmons without the arm injury history. I’m all-in on THAT!

But enough about you and your guys! What do you think this is, the Tommy show?  I want to talk about my dudes!  Ready?

Jacob Lindgren (LHP)- In this section, Lindgren, in my opinion, is by far the guy to be most excited about.  But keep your pants on, Braves fans.  He went under the knife last year with Tommy John surgery and has yet to pitch.  Stolen from the Yankees, Benjamin Chase compares Lindgren’s fastball and slider to Jonny Venters, and from all the video I’ve watched, it’s on the money. Unfortunately, the pitch that likely aided in the injury is Lindgren’s calling card: a slider that simply disappears on hitters. Keep an eye on Lindgren this winter as the Braves could send him somewhere to get some innings in January, but more likely would be a return to action in Spring Training for an Opening Day audition.

Wes Parsons (RHP)- Wes has been in the organization since 2013 and at one point was a top-10 prospect in a very weak system. Now that the Braves have the best farm in the Majors, Parsons has been a bit of an afterthought as he’s been moved full-time to the bullpen. However, it seems to have done him a whole lot of good, revitalizing what seemed to be a dead career as a starting pitcher. Parsons has added a couple MPHs (tops out at 96) to his fastball and rebounded to a 3.15 ERA across 2 levels with healthy. For me though, I’d file him under the same headline as failed starting pitchers turned fringe MLB relievers with Matt Wisler and Jason Hursh. Parsons has a chance to be a good relief pitcher, even if it’s just a sliver of hope.

 Biddle | By Jeff Morris. Follow him on Twitter @AtlBravesJeff
Jesse Biddle (LHP)- Before Lindgren, there was Biddle. Claimed from the Pirates prior to the 2016 season, Biddle was another guy that the Braves got for nothing due to recovering from Tommy John surgery when the Pirates tried to sneak him through waivers. In his first year of on-field action with the Braves, Biddle worked exclusively out of the bullpen and put up good numbers through 49.2 innings at AA. The BB-rate was below 3 per 9, the K-rate was above a K per inning, and the ERA sub-3. What’s bizarre is the fact that he’s on the 40-man and yet the front office didn’t bring him up for a cup of coffee. There are some undertones in this statement and maybe none of these are correct but I think Braves either don’t see him as a real piece, want to limit his innings, or dislike something in his demeanor. He seems like he could be a useful Major Leaguer and hopefully, he gets his shot next spring.

Caleb Dirks (RHP)-  Dirks was in the Braves system, traded to the Dodgers, and reacquired last year. Dirks is known for his deception as both video and scouting reports show jerky movements before delivering the ball, which has Benjamin Chase comping him to Jordan Walden. The problem is that is where the comp ends. He doesn’t have electric stuff, nor does he have electric velocity. In my opinion, there’d have to be a whole lot go right for him and wrong for others for Dirks to get a shot in the Braves bullpen. Like many fringe guys, his best path to the bigs will likely be outside this pitching-heavy system.

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Love “The Strikeout Machine.” Lindgren and Minter together are going to be hell on the opposition - especially the poor left-handed hitters they leave in their destruction.

Moving on, let’s talk about a couple of guys that might benefit from a switch. Specifically, Mike Foltynewicz and Lucas Sims. I’m glad I can address this subject again because Stephen stole my thunder awhile back with his column on Folty from the beginning of August and I want it back. He pointed out something that many Braves fans rather disagreed with, but that I have had a sinking feeling would be the inevitable conclusion on Folty. Simply put, he's miscast as a starter. That isn't to denigrate Foltynewicz, but over more than 350 innings, we have witnessed a few things about Folty that seem impossible to disagree with. One, he's got lethal stuff. Second, he's in stagnation since joining the Braves. He's improved, sure, but only incrementally. To put it another way, he's gone from a bad rookie pitcher to a mediocre third-year starter. And sure, we can sit here and condition this by saying Folty is really in his first full season as a major league pitcher after spending ten starts in the minors in 2015 and working his way back from injury last year, but that excuse only gets us so far.

It's not that Folty isn't useful in his current role - only that he's not best suited to be a starter. I was doing a Saturday Stats Pack less than a week before Stephen's article where I pointed out that since 2015, only two pitchers (the washed up version of Adam Wainwright and the journeyman Jeremy Hellickson) had higher line-drive rates against them. Line drives turn into hits nearly 70% of the time and many of them also become extra bases. Some, you can argue some of this is due to the fact that Foltynewicz has thrown his fastball nearly 65% of the time and it's a hard fastball. Fair enough, but even the most optimistic fan has to be worried about that line drive rate.

Foltynewicz simply doesn't have the offspeed pitch to keep hitters honest. Once they time his fastball, they don't have to worry about being fooled by a changeup. They can then sit dead red and react to the slider and curve, which both are better since his rookie year, but both suffer from repeated viewings of the pitch. Further, as Stephen said a month ago, Folty has never been able to get out lefties. Perhaps if they didn't see him multiple times in the same game - and he was given a chance to unleash his heater at full strength with either of his breaking balls - Foltynewicz could have more luck.

I know it's unpopular, but in my book, it's time to embrace the inevitable here and turn Folty into the Braves' version of Chris Devenski. Like Folty, Devenski has amazing stuff and he's given the opportunity to unleash it without the fear that he needs to hold back for the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. Moving Folty to the bullpen could hurt a rotation that appears wide open already, but a sign of good management is put your player in the best position to succeed. With Folty, I believe that he'll succeed the most coming out of the bullpen.

On the flip side, Lucas Sims has always had an arm scouts raved about, but the results haven’t been equally as impressive. He seemed to take a step forward this season with the lowest walk rate of his career in his second try at answering the Triple-A question, but also threw a lot of grooved fastballs that were hammered to deep Estonia. The strikeouts were there, but like we've seen with Sims, it was two steps forward, another step back. His first taste of the majors as a starter has been Matt Wisler-like. He's still avoiding the walks, which plagued him the last two years, but he's looked exceedingly meh. If that's possible.

One of the thing that stands out to me the most about Sims so far has been the inability to induce a swing-and-a-miss. The major league average is 10.3%. Sims, as a starter, had a 7.8% swinging-strike percentage. Hitters are making too much contact and those balls are screaming around the park.

The Braves have already announced that Sims will work out of the bullpen for the rest of the season and that might be for the best moving forward. We haven't seen a lot of Sims just as as a reliever, but the early returns are promising. Sims doesn't have the same kind of electric stuff as Foltynewicz does, but he does have lively movement on his pitches when he can repeat his delivery and arm slot - something that is easier said than done with him. Don't believe me? Check this out:


If he cleans that up, his fastball location should be better. Because his curveball is so good, he only needs to be able to locate his fastball and good things will come. In my opinion, that will come in shorter stints - the kind of appearances he had in the Arizona Fall League last year when he reestablished his value.

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Kudos on that, Tommy! I think we all at Walkoff Walk can agree that Folty would be better served to unleash all that holds him back 1 inning at a time. Could you imagine a bullpen that featured Folty coming in throwing triple digit heat? I need to see more at the MLB level on Sims, but I have a hard time distinguishing between what he brings and what Matt Wisler brings. At one point, I thought Wisler could be a stud bullpen piece with a couple of ticks in added velo. Now, not so sure. Hopefully, you’re right and Sims will take to a role in the bullpen.

But now that we are done with the in-house guys, it looks like we have enough candidates to make a pretty good bullpen. However, we all know that if a team starts the year with 15 candidates, they’ll be looking for more come April. So, is there anyone out there on the free agent market that could prove valuable in a 2018 Braves bullpen?  You bet there are and I want to take a look at some of those options.

With Minter, Clouse, S. Freeman, Lindgren, and Biddle, I think the Braves have the LH relievers in-house that they need, but there’s a few free agent RH that I’d like to see the Braves go after for 2018, but before that, let’s make a mental note: I think there’s a really big chance Craig Kimbrel comes home for the 2018 season, therefore the guys I’m looking at aren’t the top-tier, but right below that. Also, it’s worth noting that the guys I’m looking at carry a low-BB rate which is very much needed in a bullpen chock full of young, wild electric arms.

Anthony Swarzak- Fastball has picked up velo and has been downright dominant this year.  Having the best year of his career and a good time to do it.
Addison Reed- In a walk year, Addison Reed is pitching well for the 3rd consecutive year and inducing ground balls at a 40% rate.

The bad contract swap route?

A while back, I posted a waiver trade idea between the Braves and Orioles in which the Orioles brought home Nick Markakis and Jim Johnson. With Johnson tanking, I think that deal as it was is dead and gone.  But Markakis? That could still be something the Orioles are interested in this coming offseason. But maybe the Braves can knock off most of Jim’s contract and send him to them? Here’s the proposal:

Braves get Darren O’Day
Orioles get Nick Markakis, Jim Johnson, and 3MM dollars

O’Day has rebounded from his atrocious start in which his ERA approached 7 close to the midway point. Now, it’s a respectable 3.86. Still, he’s owed 18MM through 2019 and the Orioles could look at this as a peace offering to their fan base to start their rebuild. They’ll clear all of O’Day’s 2019 salary and pay JJ and Kakes 13MM for 2018.