The Braves’ Salary Situation in 2016

Here’s a treemap of the Braves’ salaries in 2016, based on Spotrac information .  I had to make some guesses as to who will make the team, but I entered in “R1” through “R8” for all of the players who will end up making the team on a rookie (minimum) salary of a little more than a half a million dollars.  Batters are to the left, pitchers are to the right, the size of the rectangle is their salary, and the color of their rectangle is their WAR last year. Green means above 0.0, and red means below 0.0 with the intensity of the color reflecting the distance from zero.

 
BravesSalaries2016

First obvious conclusion?  We are in trouble.  What you’ll see immediately is that the only solid above-league-average players on the roster are Freddie Freeman, Erick Aybar, Nick Markakis, and A.J. Pierzynski.  Yes, Julio Teheran is primed for a bounce back season at the top of the rotation, but he was below replacement last season.  There’s every reason to believe, on top of all this, that Aybar will be traded for something before the all-star break as he is going to become a free agent in the offseason.  Remember, the theory is that we are building for next season!

Season Preview – Mallex Smith

We’ve spent some time analyzing the veterans coming back to the Braves this season, but our focus today turns to the 22 year old Mallex Smith, who was a single short of the cycle (with two triples!) on Wednesday against the Orioles in the 2nd Grapefruit League game for the Atlanta club.  Here we see Smith’s offensive numbers by minor league level.

MallexSmithActualNumbers

He has been truly great, but to put these into context, let’s see the next chart which converts each number into a 600 at bat season.  Each fraction is rounded down to the nearest integer and batting average is recalculated.

MallexSmithEstimatedNumbers2

The last row is a linear regression of the various seasons into the next level (a mythical AAAA league).  This isn’t really a good estimate of how Smith will produce in the majors for lots of reasons.  Research has shown that lower minor league stats are less predictive of major league success than higher minor league stats, and the difference in pitching between AAA and the majors is much greater than the difference between AA and AAA, etc., etc.

In any case, it is interesting that Michael Bourn is mentoring Smith in spring training, because they seem like very similar players.  Let’s look at Bourn’s defense by looking at Range Factor per 9 innings over his career in center field.

MichaelBournCareerFielding

He started out at or above the league range factor, and as of 2013 has been below it and falling.  If we isolate Bourn and Smith’s minors-only fielding numbers we can see the following comparison.

MallexAndBournMinorsFielding

It would appear that Smith’s ceiling might be a roughly equal offensive player to Bourn, but a slightly slower defensive center fielder with a few more errors.  That will be well worth it to the Braves if the Braves’ coaching staff can get the potential out of Smith.

How Tall is a Baseball Hall of Famer?

We take a quick break from our season preview articles to explore something completely unrelated: the height of the members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and how that height has changed over time.  According to this article in Scientific American, the average human has grown 4 inches taller than they did 150 years ago.  Since 150 years ago is roughly the same time we have information on height in Major League Baseball (though that information is far from complete until well into the 20th century), we can compare the two numbers.

First, just taking the members of the Hall of Fame were inducted as players (excluding those who were inducted as managers, pioneers, umpires, etc. even if they also played), we get the following graph:

HeightAndWeightOfHallofFamersWithOutliers

As you can see, there are relative few outliers in the group.  Of the four labeled outliers, Johnny Evers and Willie Keeler are older players, and Frank Thomas and Randy Johnson are very recent players.  Louis Santop was a turn of the 20th century Negro League catcher who was large before his time.  If you’re wondering, Babe Ruth is in the big blog near the upper right.  Since he was more commonly filmed for popularity and technology issues very late in his career, a common belief was that he was the Pablo Sandoval of his time (Yes, Pablo would be far to the right of this line at 5’11” and 255 lbs.).  However, for most of his career Babe was a muscular and fit right fielder who could run.  You can also see a kind of baseline using the trendline to judge your own height and weight, or a favorite player.  Below and to the right of the line, you or that player could stand to lose a few pounds.  Above and to the left of the line, and you or they could pack on some muscle.

How have the heights changed over time?

HeightofHoFoverTime

As it is labeled, this chart doesn’t measure Hall of Famers by their year of induction, but by the date 20 years after their birth.  As mentioned earlier, the average human is 4 inches taller than 150 years ago.  According to this data, we might expect the average Hall of Famers in 1860 (if a great enough number existed) to have been about 68 inches tall, or 5’8″.  The average current 20 year-old future Hall of Famer now is around 74 inches, or 6’2″.  The Scientific American article lists the most significant cause of this growth to be from increased childhood vitamin consumption.  We might guess that the extra two inches the Baseball Hall of Famer is from not only improved nutrition, but by drawing from a larger international pool than 150 years ago.

With the exception of sports like auto and horse racing, in which size is a disadvantage by making the car or horse/rider combo heavier, all sports see size as a significant advantage.  All sports are getting taller, and the days of exceptional play from people like Jose Altuve (5’6″, 165 lbs.) may become more rare in the future.

Season Preview – Nick Markakis

Today we dive back into the statistics waters of BaseballReference.com to see what we might expect from Nick Markakis this season. There’s some good news and some bad news. Let’s start with his various WAR values:

MarkakisWARbyYear

As Markakis enters his age-32 season, we see that the overall trends are not positive.  He has been a worse than average overall defender since 2009, and there seems no reason to believe he will improve.  His offensive and overall WAR have bounced back from his injury-shortened 2013 season with the Orioles, but there is little reason to believe his overall WAR will go much above the expected 2.5 WAR or so.  Not terrible for a $11 million/year salary, but there isn’t much hope for long-term improvement.  Let’s turn to his Right Field-specific defensive numbers.

MarkakisRangeFactor

As would be expected of a 32 year-old, his range factor is declining, but is still quite comparable to the league’s range factor.

MarkakisFielding%

As Braves fans have come to appreciate, Markakis simply doesn’t make errors in Right Field.  He is in the right place, he doesn’t drop the ball, and he throws the ball to the right place.  Let’s look at the traditional offensive numbers.

MarkakisPerAtBat

Not surprisingly, his batting average and walk rate have stayed fairly consistent with a slight upswing in both last year.  His home runs were way down, with many commentators blaming that on his recovery from neck surgery during the offseason before the 2015 season.  What we came to expect from many good hitters is a trade-off between batting average and home runs. We might expect that either the home runs will improve and the batting average falls slightly, or the home run numbers continue to be weak, but the batting average continues to be high.  In other words, the blue and red lines should either converge or diverge.  Either should keep Markakis with a high-level overall offensive performance.

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 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 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.

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.

Comparing the Salaries from the Last Two Opening Days

We’ll spend some time over the next couple of weeks unpacking the various deals the Braves made in the offseason, but let’s start with some big picture analysis.  First we see the salaries of the opening day roster last April, 2014.  Keep in mind that salaries reported on various websites like baseballreference.com and baseball prospectus are estimates, due to issues like the Giants paying Dan Uggla for the last couple of months, etc.  Only the Braves know for sure what they paid, but these should be roughly accurate.

2014-Salaries

Here is the same graph for today’s roster:

2015-Salaries

 

Obviously, there were lots of moving parts to the various moves the Braves made, but a few impressions can be made:

1) The Braves shed a lot of players who were being overpaid.  Justin Upton never matched his 2011 6.1 WAR season, and has been a 2.5-3 WAR player ever since.  That means he should be worth about 9-10 million a year (given the normal rough estimate of $3 million per WAR), but we was being paid much more.  Melvin (formerly B.J.) Upton was being paid $15 million a year to be a minor-league level player.  The Braves had to send along the best closer in the game (at 27 years old) just to get the Padres to take his money.  Ervin Santana was an emergency signing to deal with injuries last spring, and his $14 milion salary brought only 1.2 WAR.  Along with the Dan Uggla boondoggle, we see that the current Braves leadership is sacrificing to fix serious errors made by the previous General Manager.  The Braves were in a desperate “win now” mode, which resulted in a 79-83 record last season.  Clearly some housekeeping was necessary.

2) This graph doesn’t show future years, such as Heyward and Justin Upton being in the last year of a contract that will likely bring them a raise.  It also doesn’t show Freeman’s contract, which will increase every year until it reaches the $20 million annual range in a couple of years.  Yes, 2015 is the last season of the Uggla contract.

3) The Braves kept all of their home-grown starting pitchers, and acquired apparently high quality arms in return.  Except for possible exception of Minor (who has been great, but injury-prone), this group will likely continue to be bargains.