Five Questions: Atlanta Braves

We all know the story: for the first time since 1991 the Braves failed to win their division. Shocking, wouldn’t you say? Or perhaps not?

By thinking back to some of the events in 1990 we can put the Braves’ achievements into perspective. The last time the Braves didn’t win their division Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait, George Bush Senior was in the White House, Dubya was a rabid drunk, Microsoft was about to ram a stake through the heart of the IT world with the launch of Windows 3.0 and Elvis was still alive. Hang on … no, sorry, apparently Elvis was dead (or so they say). Dang it.

There we have it: the winningest streak in sport. Ever. Okay, perhaps barring the Harlem Globetrotters’ winning record, but that was a facile achievement.

The naysayers have been perennially predicting the end of the Braves’ streak for a few years now, ever since Time Warner started tightening the purse strings in fact. Of course, this year said naysayers have been able to gloat about their prescience, but if you continually cry wolf then at some point the beast will show.

So why did the Braves’ magical run come to an end?

It was a combination of factors, but ultimately it came down to atrocious pitching. The only reliable starter was Smoltz, who is almost old enough to be sharing ‘Nam war stories with Donald Rumsfeld. Apart from Smoltz the Braves used 10 other starters, and only Chuck James can take any pride in his efforts.

The ‘pen was a disaster and reads like a who’s who of Quad-A relievers, pensioners and cripples: Ken Ray, Peter Moylan, Phil Stockman, Mike Remlinger, Lance Cormier, Chris Reitsma, Jorge Sosa, Oscar Villarreal, Tyler Yates, Joey Devine (ERA 63 until September). See what I’m saying?

On that depressing note let’s turn to the five questions.

1. Can the Braves bullpen hold it together?

Fans and non-fans alike acknowledge the paucity of options that the Braves had in relief last year. Some put it down to Mazzone’s departure, others to the shoddy work of John Schuerholz in snatching up spare-part relievers. Either way the front office has put in a lot of effort to establish a solid relief corps this time round.

Bob Wickman, acquired from the Indians partway through 2006 remains the anointed closer, at least for the time being. During his stint with Atlanta last year he posted a 1.04 ERA and only gave up two walks and one round-tripper—albeit in just 26 innings. While closing for the Tribe his ERA was a more lofty 4.18, which was largely a result of wonky control—he issued 11 walks in 28 innings. Which Wickman shows up in 2007 will have a large say in the efficacy of the bullpen. A repeat of his second-half performance from last year will take the pressure off the other relievers and allow some of the better ones to be used in higher leverage situations.

To supplement Wickman (or in case he guzzles too many Kit-Kats) the Braves added a couple of fireballers: Rafael Soriano from the Mariners and Mike Gonzalez from the Pirates. The good news for the Tomahawks is that both are closers in waiting. Soriano is a hard-throwing righty who clocks 95-97mph on the gun and mows down men by the dozen—last year he had an ERA of 2.45 and struck out more than a batter an inning. Practically the same words could be used to describe Gonzalez—the only difference is that he is a southpaw; again he strikes out over a man per inning and has a sub-2.50 career ERA, which is impressive by anyone’s standard.

The only concern surrounding both these hurlers is injury. Soriano threw just 13 innings in 2004 and 2005 and his biggest yearly workload was 54 innings last year. Likewise Gonzalez’s usage also topped out at 54 innings in 2006. If both pitchers can stay healthy and chuck 40 additional innings between them, then the Braves could have the most formidable shut-down trio in the National League.

The fear is that Wickman regresses and one of either Gonzalez or Soriano spends a good portion of time on the disabled list. Having to rely on junk relievers like Moylan, Ray and Villarreal will not form the backbone of a postseason challenge!

Probably the most likely outcome is for Wickman to regress slightly and for Soriano and Gonzalez to have good, but not great, seasons while possibly spending a little time on the disabled list. It should be a vast improvement on 2006 though.

2. Will the Braves be able to replace Adam LaRoche‘s bat?

A poll of Braves fans taken at the start of 2006 asking about the efficacy of LaRoche’s bat would have been met with discontented murmurings and a couple of expletives thrown in for good measure. The opening few series confirmed that view as LaRoche hit .221/.328/.451 by mid-May. From that point LaRoche transmogrified into Babe Ruth, clubbing .303/.362/.594 and circling the bases 27 times.

So what is the master plan to replace LaRoche’s production?

The answer isn’t yet 100% clear but is likely to involve some combination of Scott Thorman and Craig Wilson. LaRoche contributed 1.6 wins above average in 2006 so let’s try to construct a scenario where Wilson and Thorman can replicate that.

Wilson is an extreme platoon hitter with a strong bias when facing southpaws. His career line against lefties is .296/.395/.543 and last year he managed a respectable .278/.347/.486 against them. If we assume that as part of a platoon partner he hits 70% of the time against lefties then a line of .270/.340/.470 (0.7 wins above average) in 300 plate appearances wouldn’t be outrageous.

History shows that Thorman always takes time to adapt to a new level. Here is his OPS as he moves up the organization (hat tip: Martin Gandy).

OPS      Level    Year    Difference (at same level)
0.702    A+       2003    -
0.819    A+       2004    0.117
0.732    AA       2004    -
0.866    AA       2005    0.134
0.751    AAA      2005    -
0.868    AAA      2006    0.117
0.701    Majors   2006

Based on that simple relationship Thorman could be reasonably productive in 2007. BIS reckons he’ll be a .287/.335/.489 player, although ZiPS, on the other hand, is projecting an emaciated .262/.312/.426. The range in wins between these two extremes is -0.1 to 0.6.

The best case is that Thorman and Wilson combine for a 1.3 wins above average, which is 0.3 wins behind LaRoche’s 2006 production. If you add in extra oomph from Kelly Johnson at second (who’ll take over from Marcus Giles) the Braves can replace the combined production of LaRoche and Giles.

If the stars align the Braves will pull this off; the problem is they rarely do!

3. Will Hudson and Hampton contribute?

Great question, if I may say so myself! Hudson and Hampton are two radically different propositions. Hudson is coming off a mediocre season with a 4.83 ERA, which is a shade below league average, while Hampton has been ensconced firmly on the DL for the past 18 months convalescing from Tommy John surgery.

Let’s deal with Hampton first.

Spring Training did not a get off to a good start for Hampton as he strained his oblique muscle, which means he won’t see action until May at the earliest. Anyway let’s assume he makes a successful comeback at that point—quite frankly the prospect of Cormier as the long-term fifth starter scares me—what can we expect?

As with any hurler emerging from the dark confines of the DL it is hard to tell what to expect when he first steps on the mound. Mac Thomason from Braves Journal lays out the Hampton situation crisply:

What usually happens to players coming off TJ surgery is that their velocity is up but they have control problems in their first season back, but are back to themselves (if they ever will be) in their second season. Hampton is an unusual case, because he could have pitched late in the season last year but the Braves left him on the DL (to collect a full insurance payment). So, will Hampton rediscover his touch in his first season back, or in his second season? I’ve no idea. If I had to guess, he’ll start off wild but his progress will be accelerated.

That’s good enough for me. Projections largely support that view with an ERA range between 4.50 and 4.80. Jeff Sackmann shows that if Hampton meets thoses expectations he would perform as a #3 starter. Whatever you believe, Hampton will provide some upgrade to the 2006 class, provided he can stay healthy.

Hudson, on the other hand, is a bit of a pitching enigma. Red-hot between 2001 and 2004 for the Athletics, Hudson had a pretty good first season with the Braves, but last year he slumped badly. Oddly his peripherals didn’t change drastically. The main problem was his inability to hold base runners as he left 67% on base last year versus 79% in 2005. So, the 2005 number was fluky, but I think it’d need an eternal pessimist to predict that Hudson won’t improve on his 2006 ERA. Although his ace-days seem to be behind him don’t be too surprised to see his ERA hover around the 4.00 mark, which would represent a 1.5 win improvement over his 2006 effort.

Although neither Hudson nor Hampton will set the world alight, look for them to provide a solid base to the Braves’ starting quintet. Conservative calculations suggest that an average Hudson and Hampton could be worth up to three additional wins.

4. Will Francoeur ever learn to take a hike?

If Jeff Francoeur went to the batter’s box without timber in hand he’d walk more than he does now! Let’s throw some stats into the mix. In 2006 Francoeur swung at a major league high 52.2% of the 686 first pitches he saw. Vladimir Guerrero was the only other player to swing at more than 45% of first pitches (at 49.2%), and only five others swung at more than 40%! Makes you think, doesn’t it?

These data shouldn’t be a surprise. Many commentators were prophesying that plate discipline was an issue for Francoeur at the start of the season. So much so that Frenchy responded head on to his critics in Spring Training 2006:

“I learned I’ve got to give up something … if I’m covering out over the plate and he throws it inside, I’ve got to spit on it [take the pitch] You can still be a free swinger, but you need to be more selective. You just learn as you go. You learn to realize that’s not a good pitch to swing at … I want to keep learning and get to the point where the team can totally depend on me, like they do Chipper [Jones] and Andruw [Jones].”

SO WHAT THE BLEEDIN’ HECK HAPPENED THEN??

Getting the best of a batter/hurler match-up requires both luck and skill. The skill element comes down to two things: one, how good you are, and two, how intelligently you play the game (game theory). It is this second aspect where Frenchy lets himself down. If you were a pitcher facing Francoeur why on earth would you throw a strike if you knew your opponent swung at anything within a pole vault’s length of the plate? You wouldn’t, so pitchers don’t. John Nash he ain’t.

The Braves really need to get someone smart to sit down with Frenchy and explain the ins and outs of plate discipline. Hitting coach Terry Pendleton probably isn’t the right guy:

What got you here is swinging the bat. He doesn’t need to change his approach … That’s the type of player he is: He plays hard and swings a lot.

It is not all doom and gloom though. Francoeur’s monthly walk totals (from April to September) read: 0, 3, 4, 2, 6, 8. Simply put, that means in the last two months of the season he either got a hell of a lot better at leaving bad pitches or he faced God-awful hurlers. The law of large numbers and the fact that his monthly OPS didn’t change hugely allows us to dismiss the second option. It does appear that Frenchy is becoming slightly more adept at taking a hike.

However, it’s not yet party time because the rise in walks was accompanied by a drop in contact. The sample size is too small to draw firm conclusions—it could be that although Francoeur is trying to learn plate discipline but isn’t being especially wise about which pitches at which he flails.

More of the same next year will be encouraging. Most projections believe he’ll be a .330 OBP hitter, which would be a vast improvement. Perhaps Francoeur finally understands that you have to learn to walk before you run. Bobby Cox certainly seems to think so:

“[Francoeur] can sit on pitches now,” Cox said. “He’s sharp kid. He is still working. He is not going to walk an awful lot, which is fine with me where he is hitting in the lineup. And I think if you took his aggression at the plate away from him, I don’t think he’d be as good.”

His performance in spring training 2007 hasn’t been walk fuelled yet. A case of deja-vu? Possibly, but let’s hope not.

5. Can the Braves beat the Mets?

This is the $64 million question. The answers to the first four questions suggest that the Braves could easily add another five wins to their 2006 total. Add in a dollop of luck and the Braves are in swinging distance of those pesky Mets.

However, last year the Braves had a poor record against New York’s second finest, going 7-11. Had the Braves and Mets split those games and had the Braves played to their Pythagorean expectation, the gap between the two would have been a more respectable six games.

Given the nature of the unbalanced schedule in today’s game, the victor of these match-ups will probably be in pole position to capture the division in 2007.

So, can the Braves overcome the Queens boys in 2007?

Actually until last year the Braves’ record in Mets games was excellent: 13-6 in 2005, 12-7 in 2004 and 11-8 in 2003. Chipper Jones has had so much success in Queens that he has even named his kid after Shea Stadium!

One way to think about this is in terms of team talent. An analysis that I did on the THT projections suggests that, based solely on talent, the Braves will finish 82-80 and the Mets will finish 85-77. That certainly isn’t the biggest gap in the world. All else being equal, all the Braves have to do is win the season series against the Mets and then Chop Nation has a great shot at the division.

We know that luck plays a huge role in baseball so speculating on the winners of 18-19 games between two evenly matched teams is more or less impossible. Shame.

6. Where should I be reading about the Braves this season?

Hey. What’s this? Sorry … I know this should be five questions but having read all the guff above you going to have to read my shameless plug for the next few seconds. I, along with a couple of other Internet bloggers have just launched a new site to cover all things Braves this season. It’s called Chop-n-Change and will have updated, original, daily, (insert other cool adjectives), content. Check it out.

Go Braves.

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