Monday, May 22, 2017

Braves replace Freeman with James Loney and Matt Adams

Now that Freddie Freeman is sidelined for about 10 weeks, the Braves had to have a better answer as everyday first baseman than Jace Peterson. That meant signing and trading for two new faces, James Loney and Matt Adams.

James Loney was signed to a minor league deal (ala what Ryan Howard was doing and failed at) so that he can potentially step in as a first base option. Loney is a 33 year old, 11 year MLB veteran with almost 1400 games played at first base. He had a career resurgance in Tampa back in 2013, but his hitting numbers have been in steady decline ever since, leading up to his outright release from Tampa in 2016. At that point, the Padres picked up him at the beginning of 2016 season, and then the Mets purchased his rights from the Padres. He played 100 games with the Mets in 2016 and had a very mediocre .703 OPS with a .265 average.

Loney at his core is a replacement player, and that's why he's been signed away from the Rangers and Detroit after they tried him in their minor league systems. I would hold out hope for this one working beyond just filling in as a below average defensive replacement with a tepid bat, but we'll see.

Matt Adams is another story. Adams was traded to Atlanta for cash and Juan Yepez, a guy I've never heard of mentioned in our minor league system even once. Adams is almost 29, been in the league about 6 years, and he's a career .270/.315/.452 slash line player. That's a strong slugging percentage but the reason Adams is likely getting traded from St. Louis is his defense, which is frankly abysmal for a first baseman. However, with more power comes more playing time, so while he's nothing like Freeman with the glove, he's less of a falloff with the bat.

Neither person can make up for Freeman, yet the team suddenly went on a winning tear against the first place Nationals, and they are pitching better than ever. Maybe the Freddie injury galvanized the team to actually try harder instead of staring at Freddie swinging the bat. Maybe the Nationals took their foot off the gas and just assumed they would steamroll the Braves. Either way, it's an odd time to see a team surge when they've lost their best player. I hope they can keep it up against the Pirates this week.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Freddie Freeman out 10 Weeks, All Hope is Lost

We had a good thing going didn't we? The Braves were sort of turning things around against Toronto and they were getting on track to possible get close to .500 again. Freddie Freeman was having undoubtedly the best start of his career. And now we learn that he's going to be out 10 weeks for a broken wrist because some idiot maple leaf syrup guy hit him with a fastball. Life isn't fair in baseball.


At least Dansby is improving and the team was scoring 4+ runs a game. If the pitching staff wasn't such a wreck, I'd feel pretty good about our chances to just weather the storm and play decent baseball if Freddie was just going to miss a month. But 2.5 months? There's no way the offense can recover from that kind of loss. You're talking about MAYBE Freddie getting back at the earliest in mid-July, and more likely at the beginning of August. The season will be truly over by then, and there's almost no point in having him worry about struggling with it, other than getting reps for next year.

I didn't think we'd win the division but I held some hope that with the offense improving Freddie would be the All-Star leader of the team and a possible MVP candidate. That's not going to happen now. I have to admit it really takes what was already a sort of questionable season and makes it completely awful. If we don't get the chance to see some of the young guys come up and play now? I don't know what the point of watching this team is beyond simply habit. I need to know that the guys we're playing will be here for the division run we hope to make.

That's not guys like Adonis Garcia, Nick Markakis, Jace Peterson, Kurt Suzuki, Tyler Flowers, Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia, RA Dickey, Emilio Bonafacio, or Brandon Phillips. I can pretty much say with certainty, most if not all of those players won't be on this team in 2019. And 2019 is the 5th year of the rebuild, the year I expect to compete for a division again.

So now? With no Freddie and only Dansby, Ender, and Kemp as 3+ year or longer parts of this team? I just start to feel like this season is a waste of time if we're not getting some younger players some time in the show to prove they can do it. I'm tired 2.5 years into the process still hearing that guys aren't ready. I'll continue to harp on that until it changes because we're not competing for a pennant this year.

Losing Freddie sucks and I'm bummed.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Dansby Swanson isn't going anywhere

Look I hear a ton of whining about Dansby Swanson lately, and it's warranted with his stat line. Dansby is a starting shortstop with a .151/.222/.217 slash line, and he's 174th out of 185th among qualified starters in WAR. Turns out the worst player in baseball right now is Carlos Gonzalez, which is pretty funny considering he's making $20M this year. So I don't expect that to continue for Cargo, nor do I expect this slump to continue for Dansby.

When you look at the Braves future, Dansby is a top candidate. Right now, as usual, people are panicking over his slow start and not looking at the big picture. Does Dansby look awful at the plate? Yes. Would you start anybody with those stats if they were an MLB vet and you weren't sunk by a contract? No. But that's not where the Braves are right now as an organization. Winning is NOT the most important thing to the front office right now. What is important is developing talent at both the MLB and the minor league levels, and accelerating it to the MLB level so we can have a functional team in 2018 and a contender for the division in 2019-2020. That's how long these things take. Rebuilds are 5 year processes, and we're really in year 3 of the process.

This is the year where I expect to take the worst lumps, because it's the time when the young guns will emerge and struggle. Dansby is just the first. I expect to see several pitching prospects up here by mid-year, and then watch them flounder. Looking back, I wouldn't be shocked to see this team finish with less than my original projection of 76 wins, simply because we're going to see a ton of turnover as some point, especially with the pitching staff. But the key thing to remember is that Dansby is the first guy to show up, and there will be more, not less.

It makes no sense to send Dansby back down to the minors. He's never going to learn there, and now is the time for us to figure out if he can play for an entire season. He needs the time to readjust to the majors and make an impact. When Dansby originally came up last season, he was hitting over .300, and that's not an accident. He has the tools to be successful, but hitting in the majors is a constant cat-and-mouse game of adjusting over and over again to pitchers as they adjust to you.

So for those of you asking if Dansby will get sent down? The answer is a hard no. If he's still under .200 in July? The answer then might be a soft no. But the Braves are going to give Dansby at least 3 months if not the whole season to get this right, and the only reason they might send him back after that is to regain confidence with his new swing approach.

In the meantime just root hard for Dansby to pull it together and pull out of this funk, along with the rest of the Braves.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Braves Starting Pitching is a Disaster: Some Advanced Stats

Here's the problem I have with the team right now, and this will be mildly ranty and really stat-driven so just be prepared for that. I have had a problem with the way our starting pitching staff was designed from Day 1, and if you go back in time to when they first announced the rotation I did some bold predictions. One of those predictions (in fact the absolute first prediction) was that the starting rotation would be bad. I questioned everything except really Teheran, and even with Teheran I said that I expected a small fall-off

And so here we are in May, and I've had a month to watch this pitching staff. There's only 6 months in the baseball season if you don't count the playoffs (and let me tell you with this crew, we ain't counting on October) so I believe 1/6th of a season is enough to start analyzing what we've seen.

I don't like what I've seen at all with the pitching.

Now like I said before, I can't say I'm shocked. I expected the pitching staff to suck, and I wrote that down in the predictions on both the starting and the reliever fronts. What I'm shocked by is that we are DFL (Dead Freaking Last) in the major leagues in ERA for our staff. The starters? 24th in the league. The relievers? 28th in the league. And why is is so bad? Who is the problem? Allow me to elaborate.

Our best starter by ERA right now is RA Dickey, and that's misleading. He's at 3.94, Garcia is at 3.99, Teheran is at 4.33, Folty is at 4.55, and Bartolo is at a whopping 6.27. Among qualified starters, our absolute BEST pitcher by ERA is going to rank 51st out of 100. That means every pitcher we're tossing out there is in the bottom half of the league.

But wait! Stat guys always tell us that ERA doesn't matter, that it's actually FIP (or fielding independent pitching) that matters. That's basically ERA adjusted for an average defense. OK, sure let's look at the pitchers FIP. It actually gets worse. In that case, Julio is the best ranked Braves pitcher with a FIP of 4.31, and that's 59th out of 100 in the league.

Julio isn't pitching well. Nobody is. Why? A big issue is that the starters excepting Julio are all giving up well over a HR every 9 innings, which is a bad ratio is you want to keep scores down. At the absolute best if you're giving up a homer every start, you're giving up one run. And it can get worse. Folty as an example is giving up 1.52 HR/9, which ranks him 74th in the league out of 100.

Julio's problem seems to be command. He's given up the most walks on the team at 18, he has given up almost a hit an inning with 32/35.1 innings, and his batted ball numbers are awful. Guys are squaring him up well, and that leads to more hits and runs. Over 26% of Julio's hit balls are line drives, which a BIGTIME problem for a pitcher. Right now that would put him 94th out of 100. That's why he's getting crushed. He's struggling for command of the zone, and when he's in the zone, hitters are teeing him up for hard hit balls. Compare to say a guy like Max Scherzer who only has 13% line drives in the top 5 of baseball, it's no surprise that Max's ERA is at 2.66 while Julio has ballooned to over 4.00.

Bartolo is basically done at this age in my mind. He's too old to have strikeout stuff anymore, so he mostly relies on people getting out on balls in play. The problem is that if you look at his hard-hit balls, he's giving up almost 40% hard contact (that's 8th worst in the league.) When you're getting blasted that hard, it's tough for the defense to react, and that's causing some issues in addition to his 22% line drive rate. It tells the tale of a man who like Julio is missing in the zone, and he's paying the hard prices for it. And he'll continue to pay them unless he can cut down on the hard hit balls.

Folty's problem is homers and run support. He's gotten exactly 5 runs scored for him in every game he's pitched, meaning he's always pitching from behind. That's never good for the psyche. But he's got some great strikeout stuff with 8.19 K/9, and only 2.45 K/BB ratio. Near 2.5 to 1, is really really good. So he's got the command of the zone, and he's punching people out. Here's the problem, he's given up 5 homers, and of those homers 4 of them came in his last 2 starts, and 3 of the 4 were multi-run homers. You can survive solo shots, but if you're giving up 2 and 3 runs shots en masse? Big problem. However, Folty is still one of my smallest concerns because he's got the strikeout stuff to get out of trouble, and he's not really giving up a ton of big-time contact around the yard. With the exception of last night, he's been pretty good and just needs some run support to take the load off his mind.

Garcia and Dickey share the same problem, and it's that they can get any swings and misses. For Dickey, that's normal because knuckleballers don't strike people out. For Garcia? That's a bigger issue. With K/9 rates in the 5.00s? You better not be giving up a ton of big contact. What the FIP stats and BABIP stats would tell you about Garcia and Dickey is that you should be a lot more worried about them than what we've seen. If anything they've been getting lucky not to give up more runs. What do I mean by that? The average BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) is around .300 for hitters. Both Garcia and Dickey are in the .240s right now. That's extremely low to the point where they are in the top 20 in the league for lowest average. The issue? That's unsustainable unless you're a guy like Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw. Garcia and Dickey are neither. I'd expect their ERAs to start trending up in the future as their luck runs out, not down.

So in a nutshell, we have the worst pitching staff in baseball, and I don't really think it's fixable for about 60% of it or worse. And yet, I look down at the minors and think to myself, Wow, Kolby Allard has a 1.36 ERA in AA. Wow, Sean Newcomb has a 3.08 ERA at AAA. Wow, Lucas Sims has a 2.83 ERA at AAA. And yet we're still throwing these veterans at the starting rotation for reasons I don't understand.

Bartolo's value is going to tank if you don't do something soon. The second he starts to have a remotely good streak (if ever again), Coppy needs to unload him before his value goes to zero. I'd say the same thing with Garcia and Dickey before people figure out they have been getting lucky on borrowed time for about a month. We need to get the old guard out of here and get the new guard in here by the All-Star break.

I'm okay with losing if I'm seeing young talent develop. I'm not okay getting kicked around if we're running a bunch of old farts out there with one year deals.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Freddie Freeman is scorching hot

I don't mean hot as in looks, although I'm sure plenty of the Braves Country ladies would have something to say about that. What I do mean is that Freddie Freeman is playing some of the best baseball he's played in his career, and he's off to one of the hottest starts he's ever had. How good is Freddie right now through 25 games?

.378 Batting Average
.491 On-Base Percentage
.811 Slugging
10 Homers
7 Doubles
1 Triple
4 Stolen Bases

Freddie is 2nd in Slugging in the NL, and he's number one overall in WAR for the early season. He's easily the best player in the league through April, and the fact that Ryan Zimmerman won it over him is only because he is #1 in slugging and the Nats are the best team in the NL right now.

But think about this, in June of 2016 people were turning on Freddie Freeman. It sounds ridiculous now, but remember the scenario. Let's jump in the wayback machine and teleport ourselves to June 9th, 2016. The Braves are 17-42 in the standings. It's the worst start most Braves fans that were born in the 80s and 90s have every really witnessed. Freddie is batting with a smooth .250/.345/.431 slash line. He's only got 9 homers in 58 games, he's striking out at an alarming rate, and this team can't figure out how to score. Everyone looks lost, and Freddie just doesn't look right out there at the plate, even if the numbers aren't that bad.

Cue this article I wrote back then:

Back then I compared Freddie's value to other hitters, and his total contract value against his WAR for his career. Then I looked to see what he would need to produce in WAR today to get to his anticipated contract values. The answer is about 3.5 WAR a season. Through a month this season, Freddie is already at 2.2 WAR. That's insane. He could basically coast to an average ho-hum season for the rest of the year, and he'd still be well worth the $20.5M he's making this year for the Braves, and I'm guessing he'll do better than that.

It's funny how much difference a small change can make. Supposedly Freddie changed his approach in batting practice to try and hit line drives at the short stop every time he was hitting. That apparently keeps his hands inside and allows him to put the bat on the ball better. Is that all there is to it? I certainly believe it's part of the solution, but almost no hitter is going to tell the media EXACTLY what's working, because that's going to tell pitchers how to get you out. I mean hell, he could be completely making up the shortstop thing just to keep us off his trail. He's sneaky like that.

Anyway, it's great to see Freddie performing because he's the highest paid player on the team, and it's even better to see him starting to actually take more of a "face-time" role. I think as he ages, he'll start to think of his role more like Chipper did. Initially Chipper was reluctant to take over as a leader and even a bit abrasive with the media and fans. As Chipper aged, he softened towards everybody and realized that being a jackass doesn't help anything. Maybe Freddie is starting to move towards that goal already, which would be a great sign for this clubhouse winning in the near future.