How I Voted for the Braves “Franchise Four”

As part of this year’s all-star game, Major League Baseball is asking fans to vote for their franchise four, the top players in the history of their franchise.  I assume the purpose of this exercise is to help celebrate the history of a franchise, but it appears to be designed to maximize the chance that the persons chosen are alive and able to be on the field during game.  Here are the nominations on the Braves franchise four page (I’ve also included the stats from that page):

Hank Aaron: .305 AVG, 755 HR, 2,297 RBI

Eddie Mathews: .271, 512 HR, 1,453 RBI

Tom Glavine: 305 Wins, 3.54 ERA, 2,607 Ks

Dale Murphy: .265 AVG, 398 HR, 1,266 RBI

Chipper Jones: .303 AVG, 468 HR, 1,623 RBI

John Smoltz: 213 Wins, 3.33 ERA, 3,084 Ks

Greg Maddux: 355 Wins, 3.16 ERA, 3,371 Ks

Warren Spahn: 363 Wins, 3.09 ERA, 2,583 Ks

There are lots of problem here, but let me list a few of my opinions:

1) The stats they have chosen are misleading.  For example, using batting average to describe Dale Murphy’s contribution in the 1980s is like saying that Home Run Baker was a terrible home run hitter because he only hit 96 career home runs.  That would overlook the fact that he lead the American League in Home Runs in 1914 with 9.  Yup, nine.  Nobody hit a lot of home runs in the dead ball era.  In 1982 and 1983, Dale Murphy won consecutive MVPs with a .281 and .302 batting average.  In both years he hit 36 Home Runs.  The National League collectively hit .258 in 1982 and .255 in 1983.  In 1930, the National League collectively hit .303.  In 1999 (perhaps at a peak of the so-called “steroid era”) the league average was .266.  So Murphy had a batting average which tied for 6th in the NL, and it was lower than the league average in 1930.  Even if we forget the specifics, this should make clear that “Franchise Four” needs statistics that more easily show players of different eras.

Here’s what this list would look like if we went with a franchise WAR contribution list from BaseballReference.com :(players in bold are not on the MLB list)

1. Hank Aaron (142 WAR)

2. Kid Nichols (108 WAR)

3. Warren Spahn (99 WAR)

4. Eddie Mathews (94 WAR)

5. Phil Niekro (89 WAR)

6. Chipper Jones (85 WAR)

7. John Smoltz (70 WAR)

8. Greg Maddux (67 WAR)

The next three are: Glavine (64), Andruw Jones (60), Murphy (46).

Keep in mind the career WAR emphasizes long-term contributions over short-term dominance, but our MLB list still seems odd.  Kid Nichols and Phil Niekro (who is alive) aren’t on the list, but Dale Murphy is on the list over Andruw Jones who was a statistically better player.

Of course this is a fan vote, and Dale Murphy is a favorite of every Braves fan who watched him play.  In an era of cocaine abuse and sandpapered baseballs, he had the wholesome image that every dad wanted their children to emulate.  He belongs on the list.

2) So who the heck is Kid Nichols?

Glad you asked.  He might be the best pitcher you’ve never heard of.  He played for the Braves (when they were the Boston Beaneaters) from 1890 until 1901.  In that time, he had a record of 329 Wins and 183 Losses, with an ERA of 3.00 in 621 Games, 532 of which he started and completed.  He is 17th all-time in career WAR.  He lead the National League in WAR three times, and was in the top 10 in the League 11 times.  He is 7th all-time in career wins.  He is 15th in all-time career ERA+, which is ERA adjusted for ballparks.  He lived long enough to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1949, four years before his death.

3) So what would you do with this list, tough guy?

There’s not too much wrong with the list.  I’m fine with the 8 they chose, but they should include better stats.  They should say that Murphy won two consecutive MVPs and 5 consecutive gold gloves.  That Maddux won 3 consecutive Cy Young awards for the Braves, that sort of thing.  I would also kick Glavine and Maddux off the list for Nichols and Niekro.  Glavine’s stats aren’t as good as either, and Maddux did too much work for other teams.  This is a franchise list, not a list of great players who spent some time with your club.  That being said, I voted for Aaron, Murphy and Spahn.  (Yes, I grew up in the 1980s and Murphy is a hero of mine).  And yes, I wrote in Kid Nichols.

 

 

 

 

26 Different Batting Orders in 26 Games means….

Cut4 wrote up the situation.  The Braves have used 26 different combinations of batters in the first 26 games of the season.  If you’re a nerdish baseball fan like myself, you thought “I wonder how many combinations are possible?”  Well, the answer is 741,354,768,000 if you just solve for permutations of 9 batters from a 25-man roster.  Of course, it’s only 362,880 combinations if you have the same 9 players in every game.  If we take the 741 billion number, we can reach new levels of nerd-dom rather quickly.

If Freddie Gonzalez had cloned players delivered daily to the ballpark (so they never went on the disabled list, grew old, or retired), how long would it take Freddie (or the future clone-Freddies) to get through all of the 741 billion combinations?  If they only played 162 games every year and never reached the playoffs (today’s roster, remember), it would take the Braves just over 4.5 billion years to use all of the combinations.  Astro-physisicist types suggest that the sun only has about 5 billion years of hydrogen left.  We have to get on this.

If we cloned our best possible lineup and got rid of all platoons, it would only take 2,240 years to use up all of the possible combinations.  That means on the 27th game of the season in the year 4255 we would end up repeating a line-up.

By the way, based on season-to-date WAR, that lineup would (arguably) be Shelby Miller pitching to Bethancourt, with Freeman, Peterson, Simmons and Kelly Johnson in the infield, with Gomes, Maybin and Markakis in the outfield.

How are the platoons for the Braves working out?

Baseball-Reference.com keeps data on wins above average (WAA) for each player, but for a team like the Braves with so many platoon positions, the better chart is the Wins above average for each position.  Here’s what the information for the National League looks like as of this morning:

NL-WAA-ByPosition

 

In this chart, the blue bars are the current National League averages, and the red bars are the current Atlanta Braves WAA for each position.  What we see is that every platoon position (2B, 3B, LF, CF) are all underperforming.  Andrelton Simmons is dominating, and the bullpen as a group, Nick Markakis in Right Field and Freddie Freeman are all exceeding the league average.  The Braves biggest disappointment would appear be to be 3rd base, where Chris Johnson (24 plate appearances), Alberto Callaspo (24 as well) and Philip Gosselin (5) have a combined -0.4 WAA in all bats.

Braves Proving Doubters Wrong… For Now

The Braves are now 8-4 after wrapping up their 3-game series in Toronto with 2 wins.  They are now:

  • 4th in the League in runs scored per game
  • 3rd in the League in home runs
  • 6th in stolen bases
  • 4th in fewest men left on base
  • 5th in fewest runs given up per game
  • 8th in ERA
  • 1st fewest defensive errors
  • 3rd in defensive efficiency

What can we conclude?  The Braves’ pitching has been solid, but not dominating.  Their bullpen has been better than it can be expected to be for the rest of the season, and the offense has been better than could’ve been expected.  Most likely, the starting pitching will improve, the bullpen will fall back closer to league average, and the offense will have to lean more on run manufacturing rather than power.  That will all happen if these various part of the team “regress to the mean” as the saying goes among statisticians, but we know that the games must be played on the field, and not on a spreadsheet.

Braves League Rankings

As of the middle of the game, here are the Braves National League rankings.

Braves Runs Scores and ERA with League Averages - 4-15-15

Braves Season Averages and League Averages - 4-15-15

Braves Season Totals and League Averages - 4-15-15

 

What do we see?

  • The Braves offense has been outstanding, cutting way down on their strikeout rate from last year.  That has translated into grounding into a few more double plays, but they are leaving less runners on base than the league average as well.
  • Their home run totals no longer dominate the league, but with an average amount of home runs and an above average runs per game, the Braves are manufacturing runs at a better rate than the rest of the league.
  • The increased speed has meant a higher slugging percentage than the rest of the league, even when their home runs are right at the league average.

What are Juan Jaime’s chances of staying in the majors long-term?

Juan Jaime is your classic Rick Vaughn-style pitcher.  He has career numbers, averaged out to 162 games, that include 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings (great!) and 8.6 walks per nine innings (eek!).  For fun, I looked up on Baseball-Reference.com the list of all pitchers in major league history who had a season with at least these numbers.  The most innings ever pitched in such a season is John Parrish’s 2005 Oriole campaign, when he pitched 17 1/3 innings.  There are basically three kinds of players on this list, 1) Players who are not good at baseball and didn’t have long careers, 2) Players who normally do not pitch (Cardinal utility fielder Skip Schumaker made the list in 2011), and 3) Players who were going to be amazing with a bit more seasoning.

In the third category, the list includes Nolan Ryan’s 1966 season with the Mets (age 19), Sid Fernandez’s 1983 season with the Dodgers (age 20) and Chan Ho Park’s 1994 season with the Dodgers (age 21).

The list also includes a name well-known to long time Braves fans, Joey Devine’s 2006 season.

While yesterday’s game against the Mets wasn’t quite as bad as the numbers would indicate since the third walk was intentional, he was missing the strike zone.  I’m not a major league catcher, so I don’t know all of the subtleties of calling a game and framing pitches, but I would have preferred A.J. Pierzynski to put the glove down in the middle of the zone rather than asking the rookie to go for the corners.

The problem is familiar to those of us who play golf.  If you swing as hard as you can, you often drastically increase the chance of missing the fairway off the tee.  The magic zone seems to be swinging about 80-90% of your maximum effort.  If Jaime throws at 80-90% effort, he may be much more hittable.  He doesn’t have any secondary pitches.  His model may be the pitcher who started for the Mets, Bartolo Colon.  If Jaime falls behind, he needs to slow down the speed and try to hit a corner with his fastball.  He may not be able to do that in the middle of an at bat, and that may be the reason his career is shorter than it could be.

What kind of pitcher is Alex Wood?

It is certainly too early to make any definitive conclusions about Alex Wood, but his early career has been intriguing.  After being drafted in the 2nd round out of the University of Georgia, Wood crushed the minors.

AlexWoodCareerResultsByLevel

 

He started out for the Braves as a long reliever and spot starter in 2013.  By 2014 he was in the starting rotation, returning to the bullpen only to keep his annual innings pitched number low, to minimize long-term damage.  That doesn’t appear to be a concern any longer, as he threw 139 2/3 innings between all levels in 2013, and 180 in 2014.

How well has he done?  Well, here are all the pitchers in the majors since 2010 who have had a WAR of at least 3.7 for a season in which they were 23 or younger:

  • Alex Wood (2014)
  • Chris Sale (2012)
  • Clayton Kershaw (2010)
  • Clayton Kershaw (2011)
  • Jarrod Parker (2012)
  • Jhoulys Chacin (2011)
  • Jose Fernandez (2013)
  • Julio Teheran (2014)
  • Madison Bumgarner (2013)
  • Trevor Cahill (2010)

How did they do the following year?  They averaged a 3.8875 WAR, with the lowest being Jose Fernandez’s injury shortened 2013 season, which still resulted in 1.1 WAR.

If you browse around the pitch f/x data on BrooksBaseball.net, you may seem some evidence for my conclusions:

  • Alex can crank his sinking fastball up to 95-96 mph when he needs to, but averages around 91 mph when starting.
  • He only has three pitches, and his change-up has gone from average to slightly above average.
  • His curveball has changed, in the last few years, from a “I rarely throw it”, “I need a third pitch”, “It will shock them into not swinging pitch” into a devastating strikeout pitch that he throws more often than his change-up.

There’s a lot of great charts we could examine, but here are two illustrative examples from the site:

AlexWoodPitchPercentage

 

AlexWoodWhiffsPerSwingByPitchType

 

As you can see, the curveball went from the number three pitch to the number two pitch, and has been his best pitch for getting swings and misses from the batter.  The change-up remains a “fool them into not swinging” pitch when they expect the fastball.

Who knows where he’ll end up, but with a 4th-pitch and more experience, the sky is the limit.  Considering his effectiveness isn’t based on overwhelming velocity, his career could be long and productive.

What can be expected from Eric Stults?

As he starts for the first time for the Atlanta Braves this evening, let’s take a look at the stats for Eric Stults to see what we might expect from him as a pitcher.

  • He doesn’t have a huge number of innings pitched for a 34 year-old, so he might have more left in the tank than we might expect.  He only threw 804 2/3 innings in the 11 seasons between 2002 (when he was rafted out of Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana) and 2012.  He pitched 215 games in the minors, but only started 123 games.  He has only pitched 635 2/3 innings in the majors.  That being said, 34 is a bad place to be on the Pitching Aging Curves.

His minor league numbers are clear.  Here are some of his numbers broken down my minor league level:

EricStultsMinorLeagueByLevel

 

  • What we see from this chart is that his walks per 9 innings stay fairly consistent around the 3 level, which is just fine.  His WHIP went up slightly for each level, but his ERA shot up close to 5 for the AAA level.  We’ll see this trend in his major league stats as well.

Here are Eric’s major league numbers, compared to the major league averages for those numbers:

EricStultsAverageToMLBAverages

 

  • He strikes out less batters than the league average (SO%)
  • He gives up more slightly more extra-base hits for opponent plate appearance and opponent hit (XBH% and X/H%)
  • He is a flyball pitcher (Ground Ball/Fly Ball and Ground Out/Air Out)
  • He pitches to contact (In-play%)
  • He gives up a lot of line drives, but less than average of his Fly Balls become Home Runs (LD% and HR/FO).  This is probably due to playing in Dodger Stadium and Petco for much of his career.

Summary: Eric Stults is in the majors due to his control, and his ability to eat up innings (His Quality Start percentage the last three years has been 64%, 61%, and 44%).  He generally gives his team a fighting chance, but he rarely shuts the other team down.  (He was 8th in the majors in fewest walks per 9 inn. in 2013, but also gave up the 8th most runs that year.)  He will give up plenty of hits, but avoids the big inning by walking very few batters.  Best case scenario is a competent #4 or 5 starter.

Discussion – What (if anything) went wrong in the Frank Wren era?

Ken Rosenthal wrote a great piece breaking down the Braves’ offseason moves.  The thesis is that the problem may not have been the farm system, since it has produced so many great prospects that made it to the majors.

I agree the Braves farm system has been excellent, but those in the know seemed to think that the next five years don’t look as bright.  In addition, a key factor seemed to be interpersonal issues with their GM, Frank Wren.  Check out this story from Baseball America.  A key section:

“More than 22 years in the Braves organization, including 11 as scouting director, ended with Clark resigning over a “difference in philosophy” with the direction the Braves were headed under general manager Frank Wren.

When the Braves fired Wren and his assistant GM Bruce Manno in September and began restructuring their front office, all it took was one phone call from team president John Schuerholz to get Clark back.”

So it would seem that interpersonal issues made a big part in the decision to move on from Frank Wren.  In the final analysis, it seems as though a likely breakdown of “what went wrong” would go something like: 1) Wren’s inability to get along with colleagues, 2) Wren’s signing of big money free agents that flopped terribly, and 3) the Braves’ inability to replenish their farm system under Wren’s leadership.

A Visual Summary of A.J. Pierzynski’s Career

In recognition of A.J. Pierzynski‘s first home run as a Brave, we offer here a visual summary of his career.  The three lines show his Wins Above Replacement (WAR), his Offensive WAR and his Defensive WAR for each season from the records at BaseballReference.com.  Remember the rough idea is that 0 to 2 is a major league reserve (bench) player, 2 to 5 is a starter, 5 to 8 is all-star quality, and 8 and up is MVP quality.  So, a horizontal line at 0 would mean a player that could easily be replaced with a random professional a team might find on waivers.

PierzynskiCareer

 

A few observations:

  • A.J. has never been an amazing defensive player, but for the first half of his career, his overall contribution (WAR) was generally higher than his contribution on offense alone.  Since about 2007 his defense has been a liability, lowering his overall WAR below his offensive WAR.
  • For his career, he has been a fairly consistent 1-2 WAR player, with two all-star games (2002 and 2006), and as recently as 2012 he had an offensive WAR approaching 4.
  • Since he has averaged a little over $5 million in annual salary in the years after his rookie contract ended, he has been a fairly good bargain for his teams.  His 2015 salary with the Braves is $2 million.  He looks like even in limited time this season backing up Christian Bethancourt he has a shot to give the Braves at least a win for their investment.  He’ll likely be one of the Braves’ best pinch hitters as well.