Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Atlanta Braves need to give Freddie Freeman Protection

Freddie Freeman will slay the Dragon!

Many times you'll hear a baseball person comment about how they need to protect certain hitters, or offer better protection for guys in the lineup. I think that many fans may not understand this concept, or even worse misinterpret what they mean. So what is protection in baseball? Armed guards? Security gates? Condoms and a prayer? Well, maybe all of those off the field, but on the field it's something totally different.

For those of you who understand protection in a lineup, feel free to jump ahead if you want. For those of you that don't, here's how it works. On every major league club there is one hitter who is known as a game-wrecker. He's the guy that can change things with one swing of the bat. The long-bomber, the power guy, the home run hitter, the RBI machine. The pitcher would rather clean clubhouse toilets than pitch to this guy with the sacks packed.

The idea behind protection is that your power hitter is going to see less quality pitches if the guy behind him is a sub-par hitter. As an example, say I have a guy on second and two outs with Freddie Freeman coming to the plate. Last year, Freddie was slugging .461 with 78 RBIs. Behind him is Justin Upton, a guy slugging .491 with 29 homers. In this scenario I have to make a choice. Do I walk Freeman with a base open and pitch to an even more dangerous power hitter, although he has more strikeouts? Or would I rather just pitch to Freeman even though he's got a better RISP average?

In this case, the power of Justin Upton is providing some protection for Freddie. He's likely going to see more pitches and less intentional walks because you'd rather not put an extra runner on base with Justin Upton at the plate. But if it were BJ Upton behind Freddie Freeman? (Just go with me and assume that Fredi G was high when he made out the lineup) I'm absolutely walking Freddie and taking my chances with BJ since he's about as dangerous as two kittens in a fuzzy blanket. In that case, Freddie has no protection and won't see as many good hitting chances in key scenarios. With nobody on base, this obviously matters less, but baseball is all about managing scenarios.

Now, if you know me you'll know that I think sabermetrics people like to overplay their hands and start debates that are anti-common sense. There's a lot of things they do that provide value, but they like to be controversial and stick their spreadsheets into things that simply don't belong, then rig the numbers in their favor with weighting of formulas. The simplest things they do are the best, but any time you see adjusted weightings inside largely complicated vast formulas, start asking yourself who is deciding what goes into those formulas and what they are trying to prove.

That aside, a sabermatrician would likely tell you protection is meaningless or in their usual parlance "overrated." A traditionalist would tell you protection is invaluable. I fall somewhere in the middle, as I do on most things in the this statistical holy war. I don't think either side from a predictive standpoint is right. I don't think we can be right because you can't fully predict outcomes of baseball games. What I do know is that logically in baseball scenarios I'm going to want to reduce my risk of a game-changing event. And if that means walking or pitching around a batter in a RISP scenario to get to a much lower risk guy, I'm going to do that.

What I do know is that Freddie Freeman will be the Braves best hitter going into this season. Freddie has a career OPS of .831, he's got an on-base of .431 in spring so far, and he's already hit two homers. What's interesting is that he's also amassed the second most walks on the team with 8 walks, and that's not a coincidence. Freeman has a great eye, and pitchers don't want to get embarrassed so he'll see fewer give-in pitches. That could continue into the regular season, which is why Freddie will need some protection in the lineup.

That protection will likely come in the form of Chris Johnson if he can return to 2013 form, or Jonny Gomes if he can get the big stick going in the right direction. Either way, that's not exactly Justin Upton. The reality is that Fredi Gonzalez is going to have to hope that CJ 2.0 plays really well, or he's going to be constantly shuffling the lineup again to find a hot hand that will play behind Freeman. For a sport where players love consistency, those kinds of changes really mess with production. It's a key thing to watch as the season develops: Who is going to be the consistent clean-up hitter? If the answer is, "We don't know," or "This set of guys," the Braves are in big trouble.

All in all, I think that protection for Freeman would be a great thing, because it means that two guys in the middle of the lineup are swinging the bat well. It's hard to argue against that.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Which Chris Johnson will we see in 2015?

This is my interpretation of Braves fans having a Twitter war in stick form

Chris Johnson is probably the biggest hot-button player on the Braves. Moreso than BJ Upton, because all BJ inspires is hate. Chris gets disparate reactions from fans that range from moderate support, to wild criticism, to passionate belief, to statistical hatred. Twitter has a love/hate relationship with every player, but Chris Johnson can spur a war of words simply by saying you like him as a player.

Everybody remembers Chris's 2013 hitting streak and batting title run. At the time, hardcore sabermetrics people were decrying him as a flash in the pan while other Braves fans were telling the team to sign him immediately to an extension. So, the Braves did sign Johnson to 3 year, $23M extension. He unfortunately went into the crapper in 2014, and sabermetrics disciples everywhere waved their spreadsheets in triumph while spittle flew from their frothy mouths decrying the Braves front office and fan-base as fools.

I'll be the first to admit that Chris Johnson's 2014 year reminded me of a Six Flags turnstile holding a baseball bat. But to quote Willy Shakespeare, "One year doth not a contract make, anon." Ok, so Shakespeare never said that, but if he was a baseball fan I guarantee he would have tossed out something similar. Along with questions about bullpen use like, "Methinks thou head-man changes hurlers too much."Classical literature references, kids. Look it up.

Chris Johnson is not the first player in the world to sign a big extension and feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. Miguel Cabrera, who is 10x the hitter that Johnson is, signed a huge deal before the 2008 season for $152M. In that 2008 season he saw his average fall 28 points, and his OPS fall 78 points. That season broke a four year streak of All-Star games for Miggy. Sure his falloff is still better than 95% of baseball players alive, but he struggled by his own high standards.

Why do I bring him up? Because even the greatest hitters, and Miggy Cabrera is probably the best hitter in baseball over the last five years, can struggle with the pressures of a big-money deal. By comparison Johnson saw his production fall even further as he hit a low in OPS for his career. So which Chris Johnson will we see in 2015? The career low hitter with 159 strikeouts? Or the batting title candidate with a .321 average?

I think we'll see something closer to the 2012 version of Chris Johnson before he showed up in a Braves uniform. Back then, Chris was bouncing around a couple of teams, hitting a .281/.326/.451 slash line. By the way if you don't know what a slash line is, that's batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage. I'll use it a good bit when talking about a player's stats. I think if the Braves put Chris in the middle of the order 4-5-6, then he can hit 15 homers and 75 RBIs on the season, and I would take that in a heartbeat.

As I've said before spring training stats don't mean much to most players. The only thing I really take from this is how a player is seeing the ball and if he's making decent contact. In spring so far, Chris has 4 walks, 2 homers, 9 Ks, and an OPS of .800. Last year when he struggled, Chris's spring numbers were much lower with 2 walks, 11 Ks, 1 homer and an OPS of .674. Just from the standpoint of how Chris was seeing the ball, you can tell that's making better contact, taking more walks, and seems generally more comfortable at the plate this spring.

That may translate to better numbers for Chris in 2015. Because in 2013 spring training, Chris hit 3 homers, had 1 walk to 13 Ks, and had an OPS of .879. Despite what looks like an increase in strikeouts, Chris actually had a lot more ABs in spring that year, and he was barreling up the ball. That hitting carried over into his regular season. My hope is that Chris is the type of player where a good spring really catapults him to a good regular season.

The good news at the minimum is that I believe Chris is seeing the ball better right now, and I think his mind is in the right place. Last year can be written off as an anomaly, and the clubhouse turnover really benefits guys who were slumping since it can be viewed as a new beginning for their careers. That's going to be key for a guy like Chris who will likely be slotted in the clean-up spot as protection for Freddie Freeman.

Call it wishful thinking, but I'm looking for a nice rebound for Chris Johnson in 2015. And the Braves will need all the help at the plate they can get.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

The New Look Atlanta Braves Outfield 2015

Remember Up-Up-and-J-Hey? How'd that work out? Yeah, as of opening day you won't see any of them in the outfield. Justin Upton was traded away to the Padres, Jason Heyward was traded to the Cardinals, and the crappy Upton is still sucking away our money like a grouchy leech in center field. Oh but wait, crappy Upton is injured so he won't actually start the season. Sarcastic huzzah!

Also since many readers asked for more pictures, I'll be making terrible pictures in MS Paint for the blog this season. Enjoy my lack of talent!

Instead we're likely to see an outfield of Nick Markakis in right, Eric Young Jr. in center, and Jonny Gomes in left. So, what should we expect from this completely overhauled outfield? In a word, experience. EYJr is 29 years old, Markakis is 31, and Gomes is 34. Nobody in the outfield last year was older than BJ last year, and he was 29.

So does age help an outfield? Well, perhaps. In defensive ability, it's not exactly ideal. Younger players typically have better speed an range than older players. In terms of game knowledge and veteran chemistry? It's invaluable. Still, we're replacing Jason Heyward who is probably the best defensive right fielder in baseball.

The problem I had with Heyward was that his hitting didn't always carry his defensive prowess, as I believe many metric-heads overrate an outfielders defensive value. That's not to say Heyward wasn't a great player because he was. I'm not going to pretend that the loss of Heyward isn't a bad thing for the Braves. But when you're not putting any runs on the board, it really doesn't matter if you're playing amazing defense, and the Braves got skunked a lot last season.

Defensively, Markakis and Gomes are below average. EYJr is at best average. So you will see a falloff on the defensive prowess in the outfield this year, guaranteed. If anybody tries to sell you on defense, ignore them. However, you will also likely see more contact at the plate from at least 2/3rds of the outfield.

As for comparisons, I believe Markakis is a better hitter than Heyward over their careers. Nick is a .797 OPS hitter for his career, averaging 17 homers a season with 38 doubles, and 78 RBIs. Jason was a .781 OPS hitter for his career, averaging 20 homers a season with 30 doubles and 69 RBIs. The RBI difference is primarily due to Heyward getting moved to the top of the lineup, but the OPS and power are very comparable.

In essence, I think the Braves lose a good bit of defense in RF and could gain a little bit of hitting. If both players return to their 2012, everyone will be happy with the move. In that year, both players had OPS over .800. The big difference I notice is that Markakis doesn't strike out as much as Heyward, and he has a better K/BB ratio. That will impress traditionalists while sending sabermetrics people into a diatribe about how stupid strikeouts are while throwing charts at you.

Gomes isn't an upgrade over Justin Upton. It would be completely ludicrous for me to suggest that, because Justin was an MVP candidate who slugged .478 for his career in Atlanta, which is frankly absurd. His loss is the biggest in my mind because he was the kind of player who could literally carry the team offensively when he was hot. The downside is that Justin could also inexplicably go ice cold, like in 2014 when he hit .169 in the month of September. Gomes offers two things, veteran experience and a World Series ring. He's the wild card in the outfield to see if clubhouse leadership actually makes a difference in team performance. If he can hit a .235/.340/.420 slash line, I'll take it. He had a bad 2014 which is the reason he was a free agent, if he can return to 2013 form, we'll be in business.

I'm not going to even bother comparing Eric Young Jr. to BJ, because I could almost pull a beer vendor out of the stands and be more comfortable with him at the plate than Upton-the-Elder. A beer vendor might look at some pitches. He might actually take a walk. He's guaranteed to complain less, and provide the team with ice-cold-beer-here. Anyway, you get the point. I'm running out the clock on BJ's contract until the organization decides to pull an Uggla and cut him outright. Or have him shipped to the California Penal League.

What should we expect out of this outfield? I'm hoping it will stay this way until Fredi Gonzalez tries to platoon BJ since he costs so much, and then we see less and less of BJ until he's booed into the locker room. Supposedly, the advantage of firing Frank Wren was that Frank was constantly telling the manager who to play and micromanaging the team. I don't know if I totally believe that, but all I'm hearing out of Braves camp is that the atmsophere feels looser and more positive. That's a great thing for team chemistry, and it's great if it means Fredi can bench players hitting sub-Mendoza line.

I expect this outfield will see some returns to their prior year forms since all these guys hit their low points in 2014. After all, you don't usually get free agents at their primes unless you at a top-10 payroll team. The Braves aren't that. So, what they've done is roll the dice and hope that the gamble pays off while grooming some talent for 2017.

I think it will pay off.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Atlanta Braves Catcher Situation 2015

The Braves play their first real game on April 6th in Florida, and I haven't really allowed myself to get excited until this week. I feel that two weeks away is usually the proper amount of excitement and payoff when the event actually arrives. There's a modifier for football, simply because the heat of summer makes you want stuff more. So the formula goes something like (Anticipation / Days Remaining) x Heat Index = Sports Excitement.

Where was I? I get sidetracked by math all the time. Oh right, catchers. We had a ton going into spring training, and even I quipped that when pitchers and catchers reported for early training that would encompass half the squad. Well, we're one less catcher now since John Buck decided to retire today. Buck is my age, so the fact he's retiring from baseball really kicks in my "OLD MAN, YOU'RE OLD!" response. And I'm 33 which really just ticks off all the really old people in my office when I suggest stuff like that.

So with Buck gone we're actually down to only two catchers on the active roster. Christian Bethancourt and A.J. Pierzynski. I like both of these guys right of the bat because their names are difficult to spell. I will be referring to Bethancourt sometimes as "C-Beth" and to Pierzynski simply as "AJ" or "our catcher everybody hates." Seriously, ask around about AJ, he's not popular with other teams or his former team for that matter.


Here's an article that cuts to the issue with AJ. From that Yahoo Sports article, they were quoted as saying:
A microcosm of Pierzynski's approach was mentioned by more than one of the backstop's former teammates, who revealed his propensity to spend a significant amount of time looking at his phone while at his locker during games. In one instance, after a particularly rough outing in which the starting pitcher had been pulled early in the game, Pierzynski could be found staring at his phone while the pitcher gave off the appearance of being an emotional wreck just a few feet away. That incident paved the way for at least one complaint to management from a teammate.
Ok so what's my take from that incident? AJ is basically like anybody under the age of 20 that I've ever tried to have a conversation with. Mid-way through making eye contact they'll pick up their phone, answer a text, and make sure their town isn't getting attacked on Clash of Clans. I want to slug people that do that. But that's a crime, and I'm not going back to prison.

So while answering your phone and ignoring people is frankly obnoxious, it has absolutely nothing to do with how you play baseball, and it puts you on par with 90% of the populace I see at a restaurant. I mean The Artist Formerly Known As BJ is notorious for being a jerk, but if he was hitting 20+ homers a year and .240 nobody would give a damn. And nobody did for a long time, because that's what BJ was doing in Tampa. Talent lets you get away with being an aloof dude. But you have to back it up with results.

So far, AJ is backing it up. Plus he's 37 years old and seen it all at this point. He doesn't have to put up with people's drama-llama nonsense. AJ hit .251 with 12 doubles last year as a catcher. His power has obviously faded, but his ability to put bat on ball and call a good game is not in question. He's going to be the backup, so we need him to be a better version of Gerald Laird, and hopefully as good of a version as David Ross (though I'm not holding my breath there).

The starter is going to be C-Beth. Why? Because they've been grooming him seemingly forever, and because we traded away Evan Gattis. If you know anything, and I mean anything, about the minor leagues you've heard Christian's name before. He's been the supposed catcher-in-waiting answer since Brian McCann was still on the team.

C-Beth got some MLB spot time last season late in the year where he hit about .250 and didn't really show any power or eye for that matter. He only walked 3 times compared to 26 K's. He looked a little dazzled by the who call-up, which had several fans scratching their heads. What didn't have them worried was his defense. His caught stealing rate was 33%, which is very solid for any catcher in the league. If he can move that to 40% he might be an all-star defender.

But the issue that remains with Bethancourt is his bat. The good news is that over the last two years in AA and AAA ball, Christian managed to post OPS numbers over .700, and 10 homers a year on average. In spring this year, he's slugging .600 in 25 ABs. That's obviously too small a sample to really glean much from, other than the fact he's making good contact, seeing the ball well, and he's striking out less. Still, I really want the Braves hitting staff to work on his plate approach. He needs to get those walks up as a guy without a ton of power.

The depth chart for catcher looks pretty set now, which about four months ago was completely up in the air. I like both our catchers in terms of being able to do all the defensive things we need. The real test for them this year is, can they hit? I think Fredi will end up playing the hot hand a lot in a platoon, and make adjustments depending on who is swinging the big stick.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why James Russell struggling shouldn't scare you...yet

Some of you read the title of this article and said, "Who the hell is James Russell? Does he play for us?" I want you to channel that feeling. I want you to cook it for a while with some sugar, pop it in a mason jar, and put it up for the winter. Why? Because you're going to be asking yourself, "Who the Hell is <insert random guy playing today>?" a good bit. And I want you to have plenty of that feeling leftover for making soup.

James Russell is a long-haired reliever you may remember from last year if you paid attention to some of the middle innings where we weren't scoring runs. That's a wide swath of baseball so I can forgive you if your brain checked out of those games for the finer things in life. Like ignoring Twitter.

Russell is lefty we got from the Cubs, and we're currently paying about $2.5M to pitch. That may sound like a lot for a reliever, because it is. In fact, if we weren't paying him that kind of money, we might cut him after spring ended because of the way he's been pitching.

How bad has it been? Well he's pitched 7.2 innings, given up 10 hits, 10 runs, 3 gopher balls, walked 3, and struck out 3. His spring ERA is 10.57, and his WHIP is 1.70. His entire line taken together looks like a guy who was left out on the line to dry out a bad performance against the Rockies in Colorado. But no, he actually did this in three games.

Why has it been so bad? It's because Russell's pitches lack any movement. What do I mean by that? Well, in the major leagues you have to have action on a fastball or changeup, or major league hitters will turn it into a fine paste. Reference a homer that Evan Gattis hit off Russell that landed somewhere in Iowa. That means the ball has to at least have some kind of positional change from right down the pipeline, no matter how fast you throw it. For most of Russell's pitches in spring, he's been throwing deadline meatballs.

So why shouldn't you panic when I just informed you that a guy you may not remember is pitching terribly? Because it's three games in spring, and Russell got a late start due to injury. The entire reason for spring training isn't hitters, it's so that pitchers can jack around with stuff and get their work in so they don't serve up meatballs in April.

James proved last year that he can pitch in the majors. He only gave up 3 homers in 57 innings, he had a respectable middle reliever ERA in the high 2's between the Braves and the Cubs, and his WHIP was only 1.13. Plus he's a lefty option. I can't stress how big that is in the reliever world. If you're remotely functional as a lefty, you can basically write your own ticket in this league.

So don't panic yet if you watched a few of these late games and saw Russell get knocked around. He's got plenty of time to sort this out. The time to worry if when his WHIP is over 1.50 in May and he's given up 4 homers in 10 appearances. If that's happened? Feel free to stone him and the front office that took on Russell's $2.5M contract.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Spring Training Player to Watch: Jace Peterson

As spring training draws to a close I wanted to take a few days this week to look at a few players that Braves fans need to be paying attention to. The first guy is Jace Peterson, a 2B prospect from Lake Charles, LA. He's turning 25 this year, and I believe it's time for him to make the show this season.

The Braves traded for Jace in the much publicized Justin Upton trade. Last year in AAA ball, Peterson hit .306 with an .870 OPS. That's stout for a second baseman, a spot where the Braves don't have any current answers. Actually, that's a lot of spots, but I digress.

Upside to Peterson is that he gets on base at a good clip, doesn't strike out a ton, and he does have the speed to swipe a few bases. Downside? He has zero power. He's not hitting more than low single digit homers in the bigs, so don't worry about him as a threat. More upside though, he has the speed to leg out a double and get immediately in scoring position. He's certainly a top of the order guy, or maybe a potential leadoff candidate.

Here's the issue though, the Braves have a lot of 2B candidates. Peterson will battle Pedro Ciriaco, Jose Peraza, Alberto Callaspo, and Phil Gosselin for the spot. However, I think the youth and spring training play is giving Peterson the top nod. In training so far, Jace has an OBP of .442 with 13 hits and 11 Ks. He's getting on base a ton, and seeing the ball relatively well. Nobody else on the team is even close to those kind of on-base numbers.

The truth is that Peterson should be the opening day starter in my mind, and right now that's how he's put into the depth chart. So, if you're watching or listening to any more of the games before we get to the regular season, keep an eye on Peterson. Like Gattis was a few years back, he's been a spring training surprise that may get some extended time this year in a big-league role.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Ben is back, back again. Ben is back, tell a friend!

Hello All!

It's been a while since I posted here, and that was because I was writing for ATL All Day for almost a year. Wow, it seems like not that long ago I was posting on this blog about my crazy Braves opinions.

Well, we went through a transition at ATL All Day, and I went through a transition with my job. I'm no longer a tax CPA, I'm a private controller CPA. That means I'm not killing myself in tax season anymore, but it also means I've taken on more responsibilities. Those responsibilities mean that it's harder for me to meet someone else's deadlines and schedules.

Also, I just plain missed having my own space to throw my ideas against the wall. I need a bit more freedom when writing about the Braves with my schedule, so while I learned a ton at ATL All Day and loved the people, it was simply time for me to return home.

So here I am, ready for new season. I picked up the domain bravesbythenumbers.com and I'm ready to rock and roll like ole gamblin' man BentheCPA all over again. Miss me?

I missed y'all. And I'm ready for a brand new season. That means recaps, previews, hyperbolic options and refusing to call BJ Upton Melvin. And more.

I'm back.