Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The 2012 Atlanta Braves: Half-Season Review

Greetings everyone! I've undoubtedly neglected coverage of the Braves in this space, so I'll try to make it up to you with a giant half-season review. Let's get it going...

Current Record (at time of writing): 41-39 (.513), 3rd place in NL East
Projected Record (by me): 44-36 (.556)

The Lineup
  • C - Brian McCann - If there has been one position player who has failed to meet expectations, it has unquestionably been Brian McCann. With 9 home runs in 261 plate appearances combined with an OBP of .291 and slugging of just .380, this half-season represents the worst of McCann's career, and if he continued at this pace, he'd post an OPS over 100 points lower than the worst season of his career. Do we really think McCann is "done"? At age 28? I don't think so. There is reason to suspect that he'll never return to having an OPS in the high .800s like he did early in his career, and having caught nearly 1000 games already won't help that, but I can't fathom a world where he hits with an under .700 OPS at age 28. It's going to bounce back. 
  • 1B - Freddie Freeman - We know Freeman has solid power, that he strikes out too much, that he is great around the bag with his glove, and that he has absolutely no defensive range. What has he done this year? Slugged .449 (.448 last year), struck out 67 times in 283 plate appearances for 23.8% (22.3% last year), and his defensive metrics have remained fairly level. It's too soon to indicate that this is the best Freeman will ever be, because at age 22, he's still wildly young to be in his 2nd full year as a starting first baseman, but even if this is what we can ask for, he's easily worth the money/investment that the Braves have placed in him, and he's productive enough. I could see a slight up-tick in his 2nd half performance as he's currently swinging a hot bat and battled some injuries in half #1. 
  • 2B - Dan Uggla - Morphing more and more into a "three true outcomes" player. In his 332 plate appearances, he has 92 strikeouts, 52 walks, and 11 home runs. That's 155 times, good for almost half of his at-bats. There is direct correlation between Uggla's power and the amount of times he strikes out, and if you take a look at 2011 and 2012, it's clear that the Braves want him to be aggressive, strike out a lot, and hit home runs. He's gone cold over the last few weeks, which coincides with a dip to just a .770 OPS, but he's a guy who's better in the second-half historically with a 30 point bump, and that would be nice to see. Uggla has already been worth 2.2 wins above replacement (according to BB-Reference), which already surpasses his 1.7 wins in the dreaded 2011 season. He's a player.
  • SS - Andrelton Simmons/Tyler Pastornicky - Tyler Pastornicky posted a -1.5 WAR in 45 games. Andrelton Simmons posted a 2.2 WAR in 27 games. That's impossible. Granted, Pastornicky managed just a .605 OPS to go with his atrocious defensive output, while Simmons may be the best defensive SS in baseball. That accounts for some of the jump, but the fact that Simmons has actually hit in the majors is a bonus that the Braves can't rely on. Simmons' OPS of .874 since his debut is insanely high when you consider that he never approached that number at any level in the minors, but here's the key. He doesn't need to hit to be valuable. Simmons is SO good defensively that his glove will carry him as long as he doesn't post an OPS of .500. It's that simple. The decision to go with Pastornicky out of Spring training will be debated, but I don't think I'd kill the Braves as much as it may look. Simmons hadn't shown he could remotely handle the bat at this level, and Pastornicky was the "safe" choice. That said, Simmons is the vastly superior option even when he stops hitting, because when you're playing defense between Chipper Jones and Dan Uggla, you need help.
  • 3B - Chipper Jones - The Magic 3rd Baseman has been everything we knew he'd be. In 180 plate appearances, Chipper has 21 walks to just 19 strikeouts, 6 home runs, and an OPS of .828. He's still quite a valuable hitter when he's in the lineup. That said, he has just 180 plate appearances, and has only appeared in 45 games in any capacity. We'll discuss the acquisition of Juan Francisco later (read: a disaster), but in the meantime, let's get back to praying for health for Chipper Jones.
  • LF - Martin Prado - As you'll see by the next 3 entries, the outfield has been utterly tremendous. Martin Prado is currently leading the team in OPS (.846), doubles (22), and on-base percentage (.383) as he's already walked 31 times in 339 PA's compared to just 34 walks in 590 PA's last year. He's become a more disciplined, strike-oriented hitter and the results have been staggering. Prado will never be a power guy (just 5 homers so far), but if he produces doubles at this rate and continues to take walks, he's a very, very good player. I think we can reasonably expect that this is near the peak for Prado, and there may be a slight regression coming, but with the adjustment to his approach, this may be sustainable, and his 3.1 WAR is fantastic.
  • CF - Michael Bourn - Bourn has been the best player on the Braves this season. He leads the team (easily) with a 3.5 WAR in the first half, leads the team in steals with 23, hits with 102, and runs scored with 53. Keep in mind that Bourn is an absolutely elite defensive player in center field, and that he's actually under his normal stolen base pace, and he's crazy valuable. Not much else to say here. I think the 7 home runs he hit in the 1st half are completely unsustainable, but with a slight bump in the stolen base department, that could virtually off-set and we're looking at a 5+ win player.
  • RF - Jason Heyward - It's all coming together, folks. Heyward has been on an absolute tear since the beginning of June, putting up a 1.053 OPS for the month with 6 home runs while making countless pinpoint throws from right field, and playing elite defense for the position. Heyward is still not a Ryan Braun-type hitter who could post a 1.000 OPS for the season, but I firmly believe it's reasonable to assume he's turned the corner a bit now that he's playing with 100% health, and if you remember that he has great plate discipline and plays great defense, we're home free. Heyward has already been worth 2.4 WAR this season, equaling his entire total from 2011, and 4.5-5 wins is certainly not out of the question. Pray for health.
The Bench
  • C - David Ross - OPS of .794, above-average defense, and positive WAR from your backup catcher. It's comical that his (very solid) numbers would actually represent a downgrade from where he's been the last two seasons, but Ross is the best backup catcher in baseball, and he'll continue to be so in my opinion, at least for this year.
  • 1B/OF - Eric Hinske - Hinske has been a bit of a train wreck in 2012. After a solid April that saw him put up a .791 OPS in 25 at-bats (small sample alert), he's completely fallen apart. For reference, he's 12 for his last 74 at the plate with only 7 walks and zero power, which has resulted an OPS south of .500. This is particularly bad for a player like Hinske who provides nothing (really, worse than nothing) with his glove, and the positional "flexibility" that he brings is minimal when the 2nd position he can play is first base. He's part of an overall bench issue, that we'll talk about more when we get to Juan Francisco.
  • OF - Matt Diaz - In Matt Diaz's career, he has an OPS of .866 against left-handed pitching and an OPS of .677 against right-handed pitching. In 2012 alone, Diaz has an OPS of .764 against LHP and an OPS (yes, OPS) of .304 against right-handed pitchers. Are we sensing a trend? Matt Diaz should never take an at-bat against a right-handed pitcher unless the only alternative is a pitcher hitting in the same spot. He is a luxury that a team could have if the rest of the bench supported his position perfectly, but it is very, very tough to employ Diaz with his below-average (being kind) defense, and inability to hit right-handers on a team that also employs Eric Hinske and Juan Francisco. That said, Fredi can do a better job of deploying Diaz, and he is what he is at this point.
  • 3B - Juan Francisco - Prepare for the rant. The Juan Francisco trade has been an unmitigated disaster. A .659 OPS in 117 plate appearances can be explained away with small sample size, but the manner in which he's done it with three walks in those at-bats is pretty ugly. That's before realizing that his defense is far-below average and acknowledging that the Braves are unquestionably better with Martin Prado at 3rd base and Matt Diaz in left against left-handed pitchers and arguably as good with Prado at 3rd base and Eric Hinske in left against right-handed pitchers. As long as Chipper Jones is upright on not on the disabled list, Juan Francisco is a luxury that the Braves can't afford to carry, but because he is out of minor-league options and the Braves gave up a legitimate arm (JJ Hoover) for him, they're being forced to carry him despite better use for the roster spot. Let me say this. This isn't the fault of Juan Francisco at all, as he is virtually the player that most thought he'd be, but rather a failure in bench construction by Frank Wren, and a failure in deployment by Fredi Gonzalez. Not shocking on the latter.
  • SS/3B/2B - Jack Wilson - There isn't a whole lot to say about Wilson. The team needs to employ someone who can play shortstop when Andrelton Simmons isn't on the field, and with the defensive liability that Pastornicky showed himself to be, it's tough to argue that Wilson isn't the best option. He's never going to hit (career .672 OPS with under .600 since 2009), but he's still above-average with the glove, and within the organization, I'd rather employ him than anyone else for the final bench spot.
The Rotation
  • Tim Hudson - 3.87 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 2.39 strikeout to walk ratio. Sounds like Tim Hudson, right? He's been a bit unlucky with the ERA, and his injury concern (his ankle) is a scary one, but Tim Hudson is a reliable option to provide high-end, but not elite, production. Gone are the days when he was a #1 starter, but Hudson is the guy I'd most want to see on the mound for any game, and a mid-to-low 3's ERA can be expected with solid peripherals and good control. Hudson is who he is, and I like that.
  • Tommy Hanson - Tommy continues to have the highest upside of any Braves starter. 87 strikeouts in 99 innings to go along with a 3.70 ERA and that snapping curve ball that buckles hitters. The issues with Tommy in 2012 have been his walk rate and his home run rate. He's walking a career high 3.34 batters per 9 innings and allowing 1.44 home runs per nine, both of which are career-worsts. It's a fairly small sample size on both accounts, but I'd expect (and hope) for a regression to the mean, and a slight bump in overall production in the second half.
  • Mike Minor - It's been a roller coaster for Mr. Minor. The 6.20 ERA he put up in the 1st-half is obviously hideous, but the underlying numbers leave room for slight encouragement. First of all, Minor's xFIP is a much more reasonable 4.71. That number is pretty bad in itself, but the run and a half difference isn't normal. The other thing is the disastrous May that he had (with nearly a 10 ERA) has been bookended by reasonable production in April and June. I'm not excited for Minor this season, but it would be too quick to slam the door on a guy with good stuff and decent upside in the future.
  • Randall Delgado - His WAR of -0.2 tells the story. He's basically slightly below league average. 4.52 ERA with a 1.44 WHIP and a 7.2 K-rate won't kill you but if he's anything but your #5 starter, you're taking on water. It's unfair to Delgado to judge him harshly based upon the fact that he really was never the plan for the rotation, but with Jurrjens and Teheran struggling, Medlen in the bullpen, and Beachy on the shelf, it's Delgado time! I think he can repeat his first half, and by definition, not kill the Braves. 
  • Jair Jurrjens - Oh, Jair. You may remember in this space that I was one of the lone voices in the wilderness preaching caution during his amazing 1st-half in 2011. The peripherals simply didn't stack up to the performance and I maintained that he was nothing more than a mid-rotation guy. I'll stop crowing now, but I'll also tell you that he's almost certainly not as bad as he's been in 2012 unless he is injured. Prior to demotion, he had an ERA of 9.37. After demotion, in 2 starts admittedly, his ERA is around 2. His FIP and xFIP would indicate he should be around 6.00 right now, and that's not a surprise with how terrible he was early, but if you told me he'd post a 4.00 ERA and make 90% of his starts the rest of the way, I wouldn't laugh at you.
  • Ben Sheets? - The Braves just signed former Brewer Ben Sheets to a minor-league deal and he reportedly looks electric. Just a note to keep an eye on him in case he can a) remain healthy, and b) regain his old early-to-mid 2000s form.
The Bullpen 
  • Craig Kimbrel - To summarize, he's the best closer on the planet. 1.50 ERA, 23 saves, FIP of 1.15 and xFIP of 1.45, strikeout rate of 15 per nine and a reasonable walk rate of 3 per nine. He's the best in the business. There's not much else to say about it other than I wish Fredi would deploy him in better spots sometimes. There it is.
  • Jonny Venters - There are two issues with Venters this season. His home run rate went from 0.2 per nine last season to 1.47 per nine this season, and his ground ball rate has spiked from 73% down to 59% accompanied by a BABIP jump from .242 to .436. He's been wildly unlucky this season. I'll allow for the fact that's actually been pretty lucky in his major league career if you look at the numbers and that the real Venters is in the middle, but he's most certainly an above-average bullpen guy and he hasn't pitched like it this season. I'm not alarmed except for his control issues, and I expect him to adjust to "the book" that is now out on him. Don't give up.
  • Eric O'Flaherty - Rebounded from a bad April (4.91 ERA) with 2 solid months and now sits with an ERA of 3.18. It's becoming increasingly clear that he can't get righties out, and everyone knows this except for Fredi Gonzalez. That said, he's an exceptional LOOGY at worst, and situationally, he's fantastic. The sub-1.00 ERA from last year is a complete mirage, but he's still a solid option when used correctly.
  • Chad Durbin - Durbin looked to be the worst acquisition of the off-season after an April where he had a 9.00 ERA and seemed to allow a home run in every appearance. Since then? Durbin has been lights-out with sub-3.00 ERAs in both months and decent numbers. I'm still wary of his production in the long-term but he's at least earned a role.
  • Cristhian Martinez - First of all, Martinez has been used in a way that does not concur with how he should be used. He would've been perfectly effective as the team's long man OR as the team's primary right-handed guy before Kimbrel. Neither of those has taken place. He was relegated to Long Man #2 under Livan Hernandez for much of the year, and as a result, only has 40 innings as a guy who can go 3-4 at a time when needed. That said, Martinez is solid but nothing more.
  • Kris Medlen - Speaking of mismanagement! Medlen was managed in a less-than-stellar way in two different areas. First of all, he was sent to the minors to stretch out in an attempt to take a spot in the rotation... only to be recalled and stuck back in the bullpen. The move wreaked of panic from the time that it happened, and still doesn't make sense now with both Delgado and Minor on the verge of demotion. The second mismanagement of Medlen has always been Fredi's inability to realize who Medlen is. In his career, Kris Medlen has allowed an OPS over 90 points lower to left-handed batters than to right-handed batters. JUST BECAUSE HE'S RIGHT-HANDED DOESN'T MEAN HE CAN'T GET LEFTIES OUT! Sorry for the yelling, but because of Medlen's elite change-up, he's absolutely not a righty specialist, and shouldn't ever be used as such. This isn't even a sabermetric discussion, it's a simple platoon split. Come on Fredi!
So, there you go. I won't review Anthony Varvaro because there isn't enough data yet, but that's pretty much the entire active roster. I firmly believe this is an above .500 team without question, and whether or not the Braves make a run at a wild-card spot or even a division title strictly depends on the starting pitching. Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Jair Jurrjens, Kris Medlen, Ben Sheets, and trade candidate X are undoubtedly the answer to the question of "most important piece in the second half", and we'll see what happens. As currently constructed, I would ride with Minor/Delgado/Jurrjens until somebody falls apart or Sheets shows that he is back to his old self. If nothing else, it'll be interesting, and the spotlight is squarely on Fredi Gonzalez to sort this all out. Godspeed to us all.

Go Braves. 

No comments: