Recapping 2018: Atlanta Braves Edition | The Process Report

Recapping 2018: Atlanta Braves Edition

With the end of the regular season comes a time for reflection for the majority of baseball fans. What went right? What went wrong? You probably have a few ideas where your teams fell short or exceeded expectations, but what about a completely emotionless point of view? Throughout this season I have shown what batter and pitcher production looks like when we regress balls in play to look more like what the players should have seen using exit velocity and launch angle. The offseason will be no different as I take a team by team look at how the season fared for the team, while going a little deeper on a handful of players from each. The order will mirror the final team rankings running in reverse order so you can expect to find some depression leading to elation here. It’s going to take some time, but I would like to get one to two of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts. Here’s a link to the report for this club from last offseason.

Past:

30 – 21: BAL CWS MIA TEX KCR SFG SDP DET MIN CIN

20 – 11: ARI LAA PIT CHC SEA ATL

Back when Ted Turner ran the Atlanta Braves you could count on the team to win the division, probably not the World Series, and as it turns out, spend a bit of money. Pegged to current dollars, you can see that payroll started coming down a few years before Liberty Media Corp. consummated the sale in 2007, but the earlier 2000’s show a team unafraid to spend and typically winning just shy of 100 games. The team went through a bit of a lull that saw them dip below a .500 record  before the next resurgence in the twenty-teens. This rebirth came despite the lowest payrolls of the term, though the team has gradually increased since then when looking at three-year intervals. While last year’s 90-win season was a breath of fresh air, it stands out more so due to the fairly poor teams Atlanta ran out there these past several years. Things are starting to turn around with a lot more talent on the way, but we have seen teams that preferred to spend to prop open the window rather than during the height. Atlanta looks well-positioned to add now, and have already started to do so with the Josh Donaldson signing.

Despite the presence of a couple of stars, one blossoming and the other well established, and several solid complementary players the offense in 2018 was merely a little better than average. You can see that early and late looked pretty strong with a good deal of above average production, but the middle of the season dragged a bit and pulled the otherwise pretty good stuff back towards the pack. An ugly knee injury to Ronald Acuna Jr. is partly to blame, but also the league starting to adjust to some of their other young, talented players like Ozzie Albies and the continued stagnation of shortstop Dansby Swanson. Johan Camargo presented as a bright spot, but looks to be facing a utility role in the upcoming season due to the presence of Donaldson. The team looks fairly set in three of the four corners, but replacing the production of the now free agent Nick Markakis will not be an easy task.

A big reason the team needs to focus on good supporting players is due to the team already having one of the very best hitters in the game anchoring first base and the middle of the lineup. Freddie Freeman needs no introduction at this point even if he seems to fly under the radar of other bigger names. Lost time to injury has dampened some of his production in past years, but 2018 saw him stay on the field for the entirety of the season where he shows good control of the zone, but also great production when he does put the ball in play, and all of this while showing virtually no diminishment against same-handers. The mid-season lull for the team is partly owed to the pedestrian run that Freeman went on during that time, but with the nadir merely reaching league average and then immediately reverting to very strong production again there should be little concern about Freeman’s ability to carry a lineup going forward.

Freddie Freeman

First base isn’t the only offensive-priority position where the team reaped tremendous production. The corner outfield spots also saw wonderful performance from the National League Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr., but got very similar production from the other corner in Nick Markakis. Granted, Markakis needed around 200 more plate appearances to get there thanks to Acuna’s better rate, but it still counts. Acuna acclimated to the highest level in relative short order as he went from a little better than average to star-level production. He fell off a bit later in the year, but the most encouraging thing was seeing him reduce his strikeout rate over the course of his rookie year while also seeing improvement to the walk rate. The spray shows that he has little to work on as it relates to his contact. Markakis never got quite to those heights, but was able to contribute all year mixing in good heights with averagey lows. He puts the ball in play a ton with few strikeouts and walks, and often does so on lower angles that lead to base hits more than extra base hits. A late season swoon in exit velocity might help explain why his actual production fell off so much to finish the year, and could be a byproduct of fatigue or the tradeoff from a rapidly increasing launch angle over the course of the season.

Ronald Acuna Jr.

Nick Markakis

With three stud batters in place the team requested mere competence everywhere else, and one spot they were able to manufacture a good player out of two lesser parts was at catcher. Tyler Flowers looked better on paper than in reality and when those two perspectives aligned later in the year it was at those lower actual levels. He buoyed his line tremendously with a fantastic walk rate that came while striking out around the average or a little worse. Most of his harder contact was down or on the fringes of the nitro zone, but you can see a few pokes in there, too. The other half of this platoon was held down by Kurt Suzuki who has since signed on with the Washington Nationals. Where Flowers started better than he finished Suzuki went the other way with a magnificent close that came off a season where he was mostly average or better. You can see a worrisome spot preceding the takeoff where his actual results fell well short of find expectations, and you can see that the ascent came on the back of a big increase to his exit velocity later on. He’ll put the ball in the air a good deal, which has it’s pros and cons, but his ability to avoid the strikeout is a quietly strong facet to his skillset and something that bodes well as the trendsetting teams seek to run away from the unproductive strikeout.

Tyler Flowers

Kurt Suzuki

Rounding out the average or better group of hitters we land upon Johan Camargo. A bit of a weird season where early underperformance did not hold up, and the rest of the season showed lesser expectations, but better actual results. An ultra-passive approach early saw a strong, yet tenuous, walk rate boost that expected production out of the gate, but when that fell off while striking out around the average or a little worse things started to level off. A midseason dramatic decrease to exit velocity seems to coincide perfectly with an increase to his launch angle so this could be an example of a player tinkering and not exactly seeing the desired results. Of course, his actual performance came in above average all year so it could also be a case where Camargo can outperform his expectations a bit. I would bet on regression, however, and it looks like the club is with me after signing Donaldson early in free agency, which will push Camargo to more of a super utility role that seems well suited for the player.

Johan Camargo

At the tender age of 21 years old Ozzie Albies burst on the scene this year. His incredible start to the year, however, wsa built on a house of cards that showed him as more of an above average player than one of the best. That actual production eventually came in line with, and then surpassed, his expectations before another turn on the coaster that saw remarkably similar very strong actual production that was not reinforced by the expectations. Following that spike he showed as a worse than average hitter the rest of the way. That prolonged stretch was enough to bring his expected production below the average on the year, but still, lots to like. He showed that he can walk and strikeout around the average, but did get a touch over-aggressive during the middle of the season before reining things in. You can also see in the spray that while he does hit the ball really hard on occasion a lot of that contact is down. He has a good number of balls in the nitro zone, but they’re often on the lower end of the velocity band. I’d expect several of those to have come during his outlandish stretches when the league was forced to adjust to the hitter, and then re-adjust once the hitter made changes. An excellent sign from Albies, if true. Being so young and showing as essentially a league average hitter leaves me feeling very confident that Albies will continue to improve with experience and more physicality.

Ozzie Albies

We’ll finish up the sticks by looking at a couple of guys that contributed more with the glove at premium defensive positions in center fielder Ender Inciarte and shortstop Dansby Swanson. Coincidentally, these two came over together in the much-lauded Shelby Miller trade, and both leave a lot to be desired at the plate. Inciarte profiles as the more likeable of the two as he’s often around the average with brief forays above and below, but also better equipped to add value on the bases and in the field due to his good wheels. He doesn’t strike out much, and his gradually increasing true production looks well owed to increasingly hitting the ball harder over the course of the season. The guy that showed up in the second half is a contributor for any club, but the poor first half happened and likely hides a pretty nice player. Swanson, on the other hand, will look like an average batter only when at his best with most of his time spent well worse. He was hitting the ball a little harder early on, but was trading contact to get there as his strikeout rate ballooned. He hardly walks and when he cut down on his swing you an see exit velocity peel off fairly linearly while still having a rough strikeout stretch. This upcoming season is shaping up to be make-or-break affair for Swanson on a team that looks well put together that will have fewer paths to further improvement.

Ender Inciarte

Dansby Swanson

The collective group of pitchers came in basically at the average, but you can see a couple of long stretches of improvement over the first half with a short interruption in the middle. The second half showed pretty similarly with less gradualism. As a team they were either a little worse than average or a whole lot better than the league. Some of this might be attributed to expanded rosters that allowed a team that seems to have more pitching prospects than 40-man slots to rotate all those arms through keeping opponents off balance and allowing each pitcher to figure out what they need to refine. Anibal Sanchez is the lone free agent loss of consequence, though it is worth mentioning that Brandon McCarthy has retired. The team is well-positioned to replace these guys, but it will require a bunch of young arms to start actualizing.

Surprisingly, Anibal Sanchez will leave behind some rather large shoes to fill, which is something nobody expected to say after the veteran settled for a minor league deal with Atlanta a week before the season started. The team got splendid production throughout the year even if he gradually became merely very good starter rather than the elite run he showed early on. You can see how the initial rustiness manifested in an exaggerated walk rate that he was able to get under control and then eventually make a non-issue as the season unfurled. While he struck out more early on, he still ran reasonable rates once batters stood up and started to pay attention to the resurgent Anibal. This also showed up as him getting hit a little harder, and often at higher angles by the end of the year, but even then he looked pretty good. The Washington Nationals will use him as their fourth starter next year, which goes to show the gulf that exists between these two teams, and is a good reason for why the Braves should be looking for a bit of proven production over rolling the dice on all the lads hitting the ground running.

Anibal Sanchez

The team has a nice foundation to work off of as Mike Foltynewicz was every bit as good as Sanchez. He looked worse earlier, but then settled in to a mostly better than average season with a wonderful close that showed his ceiling as a top of rotation pitcher is closer than ever. He consistently strikes guys out at a good clip, but occasionally will see his walk spiral to uncomfortable levels at times. He’s extremely good when he’s pushing those down. Batters don’t seem to be able to hit the ball hard with any frequency in the air, though there is a good deal of hard contact that he keeps down. He’s likely the nominal ace next year and will need to show leadership by keeping emotions under control. He did a better job of that this year, where in the past he would lose control on the game at times after a bad call or rough play in the field. Taking another step forward will only help cement him as one of the better pitchers in the game.

Mike Foltynewicz

The first two slots of the rotation showed consistently good production, but moving more to the middle we come across Sean Newcomb who shows a lot more volatility. He can be a very good pitcher, and showed sustained stretches of that last year, but he also shows enough blowups that some of the goodness is offset. As a still developing pitcher there should be the hope that he can continue to push the walks down, but it will likely always be a part of his game. More concerning should be the fairly massive drop in strikeout rate over the second half of his season. It’s quite possible Newcomb was dealing with an issue over that second half, and if that’s recovered it’s easy to see some upside remaining, but that volatility is pretty scary.

Sean Newcomb

Backing those three above average to quite good starters were the lefty-righty combo of A.J. Minter and Dan Winkler, respectively. Both got off to kind of rough starts before dialing everything in to be very good options most nights the rest of the year. Winkler looks like the better strikeout guy, but neither gets hit all that hard with any frequency. Each shows a fairly wide handedness split so while neither of these guys is probably a prototypical closer they should work pretty well in tandem most nights. Several other relievers profiled around the average, but none really stand out as guys that can’t be improved on going forward as the team should seek to cycle their many minor league options through.

A.J. Minter

Dan Winkler

Rounding out the rotation, at least to start next year, will be Kevin Gausman and Julio Teheran. Gausman was acquired at the deadline, while Teheran has seen and done it all in Atlanta as a former top prospect that has enjoyed runs of success and frustration in seemingly equal measures. Gausman wasn’t all that good after he came over, though his actual results were considerably better before being only slightly better and still worse than average. The walks were the big issue, but he also displayed very little increase to his strikeout rate despite getting to see opposing pitchers more often. Teheran again mixed lousy performance with surprisingly very effective with most of his first half being bad and a lot of his second half being pretty good. The big driver here was figuring out that walks are bad and that strikeouts are good as he saw a massive flip in both metrics. Considering a lot of his damage comes against lefties then it might make sense for the team to use him in a less rigid role than a traditional starter in order to get him more work against righty-heavy lineups and hide him a little better against lefties.

Kevin Gausman

Julio Teheran

Below you will find the rest of the prominent players from this past season and how they broke out in four different ways. I will save the commentary here as the charts speak for themselves once you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking at, and by cutting down on the verbiage it allows for looks at more players. Each chart looks at a rolling 100-plate appearance (or ball in play) average with the top left showing each player’s true and actual wOBA* over the course of the season. Top right shows the rolling strikeout and walk plus hit by pitch rates, and the bottom left shows the exit velocity and launch angle combinations for every ball in play. Lastly, the bottom right quadrant shows each player’s exit velocity and launch angle over the course of the season. Feel free to start a conversation on twitter if you have any questions or want to talk about any of these players. More than happy to have those chats.

 

 

Sam Freeman

Jesse Biddle

Luke Jackson

Shane Carle

Brandon McCarthy

 

 

 

 

 

Ryan Flaherty

 

Charlie Culberson

 

 

 

 



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