Five questions: Atlanta Braves

Wind the clock back 10 years and these preseason Braves prognostication articles would have been a lot more straightforward. The Braves were in the midst of their unbeaten division run, and the rest of the NL East didn’t have the quality to topple them—nowhere near in fact (okay…the 2001 Atlanta Braves won only 88 games, but let’s not sweat the details).

How things change. The Phillies have won the NL East four times on the spin and, with the acquisition of Cliff Lee, appear ready to cement their position as the new perennial champions. Can the Braves possibly challenge them? Read on and find out.

Will Bobby’s departure have an impact?

Of course it will.

The man led Braves for over 20 years, so when an individual of his standing steps down, the team will be affected in some manner. The question is, how much?

First, let’s examine the evidence. The accepted wisdom is that managers are generally responsible for two to three wins/losses per year, max. The general sabermetric view is that the majority of managers rely too much on tradition (rather than game theory or understanding optimal probabilities) when managing (read: tinkering with lineup, platoon plays, or reliever use) and, as a result, actually cost their teams games.

There is little doubt that Bobby Cox fits into this latter category. He used to make some ridiculous player decisions—wasn’t it obvious Brooks Conrad should have been pulled before making his third error in the last fall’s NLDS that cost the Braves Game Three?

However, playing the percentages effectively is only one attribute of a successful manager. The other is leadership and man management. And that was Cox’s long suit. At every juncture, through every low point, the players respected him deeply. That engendered loyalty and, thus, he was often able to get more out of certain players that others would have.

With Cox moving upstairs, former Braves third base coach Fredi Gonzalez steps into the hot seat. Despite being fired by the Marlins last year, Gonzalez had a good record with the Fish. He steered them to winning seasons in the 2008 and 2009 campaigns despite having to work with the lowest budget in baseball.

That bodes well in a sense—the Braves aren’t the big spenders they used to be, and Gonzalez isn’t a doofus. However, the reasons for his firing still remain a mystery, with some suggestions that he lost the clubhouse following Hanley Ramirez‘s famous lollygagging incident last year.

Winning the players over is key to his success. Gonzalez starts in a good position, as he knows the senior players and has an affinity to the Braves. Cox won’t be more of a phone call away either, so the new guy will be okay.

Will Jason Heyward suffer from a sophomore slump?

The famed sophomore slump is very real and is more commonly known as regression to the mean. The theory is straightforward: player A (a rookie) plays way above average in his first season so is more likely to get playing time the next. However, as he was lucky in the first season, he reverts to type and appears to have a sophomore slump.

Heyward’s line is 2010 was .277/.393/.456, which was a little way off what many projections thought. In other words, he didn’t overperform (if you believe the forecasts for a minute). His 2011 projections also show a stark improvement. Marcel the monkey has him at .286/.391/.476, mostly because of age adjustment—the kid is only 21.

Another factor that affected his 2010 season was injury. By the end of May, Heyward was averaging over .300 but hurt his thumb and suffered at the plate for most of June before taking a little time off to recuperate. He came back strongly, but his hand never fully healed, and that had an effect in the last third of the season. He should be fully healed know and, after a year in the bigs, better attuned to the demands of a long season.

Let me stick my neck out for a minute and hope it doesn’t get chopped off: Heyward underperformed in 2010; that has hurt his 2011 projections, and regression to the mean works both ways, you know…when you underperform one year, the expectation is you bounce back the next. If Heyward were a traded security, I’d be taking a long position.

Dan Uggla…is he worth $62 million?

In the great scheme of things, trading for Uggla and re-upping his contract is a tidy piece of business by the Braves. Sure, stretching to a fifth year may end up costly, but he wouldn’t likely have signed without it. Let’s take a closer look.

Over the last three years, Uggla has averaged an fWAR of around 4.0 (indeed fangraphs pegs his 2011 fWAR at 3.8, as projected by the fans. Assuming that the going rate for a free agent is $4 million a year, then 4.0 fWAR is worth $16 million a year (versus an average annual contract value of $12M).

The problem is that Uggla is no spring chicken. In fact, he’s a 31 years old, which means by all aging models he’s expected to get worse over time. Not only that, but Uggla isn’t the world’s finest gloveman, and by the end of his contract he could well be shunted to a different position.

So if we factor in aging and assume Uggla will peak at 3.8 WAR in 2011 and lose, say, 0.5 WAR in each subsequent year, then over five years he projects to contribute 14 WAR, which (by no coincidence) when multiplied by $4.5 million per win gives you $63 million over the duration of his five-year contract. So say what you like about the deal, but unless you’re predicting a serious injury, it doesn’t look as though the Braves overpaid.

Perhaps the more important factor is that Uggla is likely to mash 30 long balls a year. His home run numbers are amazingly consistent, and last year the one thing the Braves lacked was consistency in the power department. Uggla will be a good foil to Heyward and Chipper, if Jones returns successfully. So, yes, he’s worth $62 million. Just!

Can Derek Lowe maintain his September 2010 form?

Last year the big story in Atlanta, other than Heyward’s impending debut, was whether the Braves would be unable to unload Lowe instead of Javier Vazquez. In 2009, after Lowe signed a cushy 4-year, $60 million deal, he posted a woeful 4.67 ERA for a WAR of precisely zero. Contrast that to Vazquez, who logged an ERA of 2.87, and you can see why the Braves were chomping at the bit to let Lowe go.

Despite trying, there we no takers for Lowe, while Vazquez was snapped up by the Yankees. We all know what happened next. Vazquez had his worst season in 12 years, going 10-10 with Yankees with a 5.32 ERA. He was hurt and ineffective.

Lowe stayed with the Braves and pitched more or less as expected. Going into September his ERA was 4.53, which was pretty much bang on league average. He was also on course to throw 190 innings, which has some value (although not $15 million a year worth of value).

However, then something strange happened. In September he suddenly started to appear dominant. He won all five stats, conceding only four earned runs and dropping his season ERA all the way down to 4.00. His form continued in the postseason where, despite losing both games, he pitched well. So, has Lowe made an important adjustment to his mechanics or is this a classic case of small sample size at work?

Let’s take a look at what we can see using Joe Lefkovitz’s awesome PITCHf/x tool. Below is a plot of pitch movement by type (as classified by MLBAM) for the two spells in question:

image

Lowe claims to have rediscovered his slider in September. Can we see it in the data? In both charts sliders are red dots. In September he definitely threw more sliders (the left panel has six times the number of pitches than the right, and going through the numbers he was throwing about twice the number of sliders in September). Also, the sliders seem more tightly clustered, which could imply that he was locating the pitch better.

Whether fluke or mechanical adjustment, the question is, can he maintain the pitch’s effectiveness? It depends on exactly what adjustment Lowe has made. If it is a mechanical adjustment that results in a more effective pitch (which is hard to tell from the charts above), he is likely to maintain a small advantage.

However, game theory suggests that if he keeps throwing the pitch, hitters will likely make adjustments. Pretty much all the projection systems expect an ERA in the low fours. And that is likely where he’ll end up—unfortunately, his September 2010 form won’t hold.

Do the Tomahawks have enough to topple the Phillies?

Yikes. The Phillies added Cliff Lee in the offseason and probably have the best rotation in baseball since the Braves in the late 90s. The good news for the rest of the NL East is that the uber rotation will probably only be together for a maximum of two years, as both Cole Hamels‘ and Roy Oswalt‘s contracts come up at the end of 2012.

However, the situation isn’t terrible for the Braves. Lee will contribute only slightly more than the Phillies will lose from the departure of Jayson Werth. Although the Phillies won the NL East last year, until the Braves faded in September it was a reasonably close race. Expect the same this year.

The Braves have a good, young rotation. Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens should bounce back from down years and, as discussed above, Lowe will hurl 180+ innings at fourth-starter level, which is all the Braves need from him. And with Kris Medlen likely to miss most of the 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery, don’t be too surprised to see Julio Teheran called up. Teheran is the top prospect in the Braves system and arguably the best pitching prospect in the game.

The loss of Billy Wagner in the bullpen is a blow but Craig Kimbrel has the stuff to close and, provided he has the mental game, will do well. Uggla adds runs to the lineup, and Heyward will likely improve on his 2010 numbers.

I don’t think the Phillies will win 97 games again next season. The Braves had the sniff of a 90-92 win team given how they played last year. My guess is that won’t be quite enough to take the divison—the Phillies will likely do that—but it should be enough to secure the wild card and another heartbreaking loss in the NLDS.

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Comments

  1. Jim G. said...

    Good report John. A couple of points – you dedicate a paragraph to Heyward’s health, but still pin his success on avoiding mystical slumps. He had more health problems than just his thumb (albeit minor/nagging), and is experiencing back stiffness already this spring. I agree with your point that he “underperformed” last year, but I’m worried that injuries may keep him underperforming.

    You mention Uggla may not be at 2nd base by the end of his contract, but if Freddie Freeman works out, where’s Uggla going to move to? 3rd?  Does Freeman move? I suppose the quick answer on DU is “another team.”

  2. Josh said...

    Since you used fWAR, it’s worth pointing out that Fangraphs says the market rate for one WAR is $5 million. So if Uggla puts up the 14 WAR you predict, he’ll be worth at least $70 million, making the contract a slight bargain. And of course, that doesn’t take inflation into account.

  3. Dave Studeman said...

    Fangraphs says the market rate for one WAR is $5 million

    As far as I know, this is just a guideline from Fangraphs.  Any number of $/WAR guides are useful. An appropriate number for prospective contracts should be based on a host of things, such as a team’s specific economic situation.

  4. Scott said...

    As I understand it, market value of a win fluctuates from year to year and the most recent figure was 5M. Who knows what it will be in the coming years?

  5. Jason said...

    Two points about Derek Lowe, the article said Lowe “posted a woeful 4.67 ERA for a WAR of precisely zero” in 2009. Fangraphs has Lowe’s 09 WAR at 2.6, not great but not replacement level either. Second, “Going into September his ERA was 4.53, which was pretty much bang on league average.” The National League average in 2010 was 4.02. Lowe’s eventual ERA of 4.00 was what was almost league average (his ERA+ was slightly below league average at 98.)

  6. rl1856 said...

    You neglected to address the impact of Freddie Freeman.  I expect numbers similar to what Heyward delivered last year.

    In assessing the Phillies, everyone agrees that their pitching will be dominant.  However, key offensive players are aging and starting to become brittle.  If one or more hitters have down years or succumb to injuries then the NL East gets a lot closer.  I agree it is a 2 team race.  The winner will need 92-95 W and if the Phillies falter, I feel the Braves are fully capable of winning the division.  In Oct, all bets are off as it is usually the “hot” team that does well.

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