FanPost

What We've Learned: Braves through the All-Star Break

I wrote this assessment of the Braves through 88 games for my site and I thought I'd share it here.  It's rather long (6000 words or so), sorry.  Here goes:

Baseball analysts and beat writers refer to the half-way point of the season as the appropriate time to evaluate where you are, what you've done, and where you're going. Naturally. 81 games is a significant enough sample size to eliminate a great deal of the statistical noise you'll encounter from a smaller sample size, say, a month. After 81 games, you know what kind of ballclub you have. Well, the All-Star break is here and the Braves have played 88 games. So we'll take a look at where we stand and what to expect going forward.

Part I: Where We Are

As of right now, here's what the NL East picture looks like:

 

Team W L Diff Pct GB
Philadelphia 48 38 48 0.558 --
Florida 46 44 -20 0.511 4.0
Atlanta 43 45 -6 0.489 6.0
New York 42 45 -33 0.483 6.5
Washington 26 61 -108 0.299 22.5

6 games back of the division lead and 2 games under .500. We're chasing down the Phillies and Marlins with the Mets on our tail and the Nationals out of the picture. A better indicator of where you are than actual winning percentage is Pythagorean winning percentage. We'll take a look at the Pythagorean adjusted standings. First, we'll use the actual runs scored and allowed.

 

Team W L Diff Pct GB
Philadelphia 47 39 48 0.547 --
Atlanta 43 45 -6 0.489 5.0
Florida 43 47 -20 0.478 6.0
New York 40 47 -33 0.460 7.5
Washington 34 53 -108 0.391 13.5

Still virtually the same picture. We're winning the number of games our runs scored and allowed would indicate. The Phillies are playing slightly over their heads as are the Marlins and Mets. The Nationals are vastly underachieving but given the fact that they're so far out of the race, they're not relevant to the picture. Don't underestimate them down the stretch when they're playing spoiler unless they have a fire-sale. Usually even more accurate than the 1st order Pythagorean expectations, the ones we just looked at, are the 2nd order Pythagorean expectations. These don't use actual runs scored and allowed but use offensive components to determine the runs you should have scored and allowed all luck removed. So we'll take a look at those.

 

Team W L Diff Pct GB
Atlanta 48 40 39 0.548 --
Philadelphia 42 44 -12 0.488 5.0
Florida 44 46 -14 0.484 5.0
New York 41 46 -23 0.473 6.5
Washington 40 47 -35 0.463 7.5

Once again, our offensive components have out-done our actual runs scored. This has been a theme for about 4 years now, more so this year and last than the previous two. There are a few reasons for this. 1) the formula I used, BaseRuns, doesn't take into account base running. The Braves have been horrible with that. According to Baseball Prospectus we've cost our self a full win just from incompetent base running and we're 29th of 30 teams in that category. Part of this is an overall lack of speed. Part of this is a series of bone-headed base running plays, usually committed by Yunel Escobar. And part of this is Brian Snitker's fault. He has no idea what he's doing out there. He'll stop a competent runner from first at 3rd on a 2-out double in addition to making various other idiotic base-coaching mistakes. We're not a fast team and shouldn't expect to be in the top 5 or even the top 10, but there's no reason we should be 29th. 2) Bobby Cox's sub-optimal use of 1-run strategies. When 1-run strategies are executed perfectly, you gain zero runs. We use them all too frequently and with either a) players that are extremely bad at executing them and b) players that are entirely too good to be giving away free outs. The Matt Diaz botched pinch-bunt is one of many, many examples of Bobby's mis-allocation of his resources. We're currently 1st in the league in intentional walks as well, which has undoubtedly hurt us. We're not at the top of the league in sacrifices, but I would suggest we're probably at the top of the league in botched sacrifices. And 3) luck. When you hit all your homers with nobody on, and ground into all of your double plays with 1 out and the bases loaded, you're not going to score as many runs as you figure to just due to bad luck. The bad luck won't stay around forever so there's plenty of reason to believe we're a better team than our record or run differential indicates. And that's not a typo. We're really the best team in the division base on 2nd order Pythagorean expectations. Point is, we're a better team that we're playing right now.

Part II: What We've Done

Where we are is a product of our Pitching, Hitting, Defense, and Base running. We'll start with the strongest portion of our team, the Starting Pitching.

The starting pitching has been nothing short of excellent this season. 7 players have made a start for us and they have a collective 3.77 ERA, good for 3rd in the NL behind only the Dodgers and Giants who play in more pitcher-friendly parks than the Braves do. Throw out Medlen's 4 starts of 6.38 ERA and Reyes' 5 starts of 6.58 ERA and you're basically looking at a rotation that--through and through, top to bottom--is the best in the National League. Wren got criticized in the off-season for not acquiring an "Ace". Well, the critics were dead wrong. But so were most of the people who argued with the critics, because they argued that Derek Lowe would be the "Ace" of the staff. In practice, the ace has been Javier Vazquez. And what can I say about him? How good has he been? Well, by one metric, xFIP (expected Fielding Independent Pitching), he's been the best starting pitcher in Major League Baseball. If that's wrong, it isn't wrong by much, as Vazquez has posted a 2.95 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and a 136/23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 119 innings. He's having a career year by all accounts. It's hard for me to refrain from saying this so I won't, I predicted he'd be in the conversation for the Cy Young given his transition from the tougher AL to the easier, DH-less NL with a superior group of defenders behind him, in a bigger park, and with the support of Bobby Cox as opposed to the lack thereof from Ozzie Guillen. He's certainly proven me right. We'll take a look at the starters' xFIP:

 

Starter Innings xFIP ERA
Javier Vazquez 119.0 2.68 2.95
Jo Jo Reyes 27.0 4.27 7.00
Derek Lowe 112.6 4.38 4.39
Kris Medlen 32.3 4.61 5.85
Jair Jurrjens 114.3 4.62 2.91
Kenshin Kawakami 88.6 4.74 4.26
Tommy Hanson 41.0 5.52 2.85

Well Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens are vastly outperforming their xFIP. Hanson's xFIP will likely go down as the season continues as he re-gains his fastball command which will result in fewer walks and more strikeouts, but to put it softly, he's been rather lucky thusfar. Don't expect a 2.85 ERA from him in the second half. I'd expect something more in the neighborhood of a 4.20 ERA. The story with Jurrjens has been the strand rate, which is unsustainably high. He's walked 44 batters this season and as a guy who admittedly pitches to contact and doesn't miss many bats, he has got to cut down on the base on balls. Part of the reason his ERA is so low is that 6 of the 43 runs that have scored off of him have been of the "unearned" variety. Kawakami has also allowed 6 "unearned" runs, nobody else on the starting staff has allowed more than 4. Jurrjens has lowered the hits/9 from 9.0 last year (he allowed 188 hits in 188 and 1/3 innings last year) to 8.0 this year, but to have any shot at sustaining his 2.91 ERA, he needs to cut down on those walks. On the other side of the spectrum, Reyes and Medlen have gotten far worse results than their xFIP would suggest they deserve. Reyes has re-injured himself during rehab assignments twice since going on the DL so I don't envision the Braves using him with the big club at all this year, but Medlen is going to contribute out of the bullpen and it's nice to know that he's due to improve. Against all odds, Javier Vazquez has actually pitched better than his 2.95 ERA. Which is incredible, but he's been incredible. We've seen about what we're going to get from Lowe. The string of bad starts sort of evened everything out and I don't expect him to continue to be as bad as he's been for the past 5 weeks, but his stats are right about where they'll be for the remainder of the season if xFIP truly does have predictive value (which I believe it does). Expect more consistency from Lowe and for him to pitch worse than he did during the good stretch but better than he did during the bad stretch. And Kawakami has been Kawakami. All I can say about him is he's turning out to be a big-game pitcher. His best 5 starts are against 4 AL East teams and the Cubs.

The starting staff has been solid. More than solid, excellent. They've had a bit of trouble completing the game or going more than 7, but overall, they've been wonderful. The Braves can thank their starting pitching for where they are right now. Without it, they'd have been in a cellar-race with Washington.

The Bullpen has been less than excellent. They've combined for a 4.09 ERA, which isn't that much worse than their starters' ERA, but the league's ERA splits favor the relievers by 0.35 Runs. The Braves lead only 3 NL teams in bullpen ERA, the Washington Nationals (a huge outlier) at 5.71, the Arizona Diamondbacks at 4.92, and the Colorado Rockies (who play their home games at Coors Field) at 4.85. Now, those teams are significantly worse than us bullpen-wise and all of the other teams are fairly close together (.80 runs separate the best team and us whereas the Diamondbacks aren't within .80 runs of us), but we're the last of the fairly close teams, 13th in the NL. I was very surprised when I looked this up. I figured we'd be closer to middle of the pack. Truth be told, we're fairly close to league average, but the bottom 3 teams are so bad they pull the average way up. We'll take a look at the relievers' xFIP (we already looked at Medlen and Reyes, I used comprehensive stats for the previous table, so we'll leave them out of this one). I've added appearances to this table, a change from the previous one. I also cut it off at 10 innings, so Boone Logan, Blaine Boyer, Jorge Campillo, and Luis Valdez (the only other relievers we've used this year) don't make the cut:

 

Reliever Innings xFIP ERA App
Rafael Soriano 42.6 2.93 1.48 41
Mike Gonzalez 42.0 3.35 3.43 45
Peter Moylan 37.0 3.81 4.62 49
Eric O'Flaherty 32.3 4.09 3.34 47
Jeff Bennett 34.0 4.59 3.18 33
James Parr 14.0 5.79 4.62 8
Manny Acosta 19.0 4.71 3.32 17
Buddy Carlyle 19.3 5.17 8.84 14

Ignore Carlyle because he's been diagnosed with Diabetes and we've got virtually no meaningful data as a result. Soriano, Bennett, and Acosta have all vastly out-performed their xFIP. Jeff Bennett was getting ridiculously strand-lucky. Most fans realized he actually sucks because he came undone like a cheap suit in pressure situations. He's a serviceable low-leverage reliever, though. The problem is the Braves haven't had too many low-leverage situations. They've got the starting pitching to stay in games so they're never really getting blown out, and their offense, which I'll get to later, has been very bad so they're never blowing out the opposition. Back to Bennett, the more weight he loses, the more his sinker tends to sink, so I hope he takes some time during the recovery period from his hand injury to get in better shape. Soriano is pitching unsustainably well, but he's still been incredible. Acosta only has 19 innings and is more of a low-leverage pitcher anyway. He has options, so when the other incompetent mid-relievers return I expect him to get sent back to AAA. O'Flaherty has out-preformed his xFIP, but that's the nature of his job. He's a lefty specialist. When you chiefly pitch in match-up favorable situations, you're going to outperform your xFIP. Of course, he's done an excellent job as the lefty specialist. Bobby sometimes gets a little too excited when these guys pitch well and moves them into full-inning roles. I'll tell you right now, moving O'Flaherty into a full-inning role would be a colossal mistake. On the other side, Moylan has pitched much better than his ERA suggests. Naturally, he's not a ~5 ERA pitcher. He's gotten a bit hit-unlucky. Partially because of our patchwork and at times air headed defense, which I'll also get to. Expect improvement from Moylan in the second half. We've seen the real Gonzalez and expect that to continue if not get better as he grows more and more comfortable and begins to command the slurvy pitch more and more. I don't expect James Parr to contribute any more this season, but the fact that he's underperforming makes me a bit more comfortable with the thought of him pitching in low-leverage situations with the big club.

The thing that concerns me about the bullpen is the health thereof. 4 players in the bullpen had or recovered from arm injuries/surgeries last year. Peter Moylan, Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, and Eric O'Flaherty. Those 4 are the top 4 on the team in appearances and though Jeff Bennett has 1 and 2/3 innings on Eric O'Flaherty, they're all in the top 5 in innings. The 4 come-back-from-injury relievers have totaled 154 innings while the rest of the bullpen has tossed 114 and 2/3 innings. Add Jeff Bennett to the group and you've got 188 innings pitched by the top 5 in innings to 80 and 2/3 innings pitched by everyone else (9 relievers). Concern about Mike Gonzalez has already surfaced as he skipped the final 3 games of the Colorado series to fly back to Atlanta for an MRI. He was diagnosed with tendinitis (aka it hurts and we don't know why) and isn't expected to miss time. I'll believe it when I see it. The top 3 relievers on the team in terms of appearances are all in the top 6 in the NL. Overall, Bobby Cox has generally abused the bullpen, especially the late-innings group. They all pitch more times than not during a close game and they pitch in nearly every win. Bobby needs to make use of the front end of the bullpen more frequently and for longer. The starters could stand to go a little deeper into the games too. It's a shame that the offense can't ever put up 10 runs and let a starter pound the zone instead of constantly being in tight ballgames where they have to make perfect pitches every time (thus driving up their pitch count). It has undoubtedly caused the bullpen stress. With an offense like this, though, there are going to be scenarios where all of your late-innings guys have pitched 2 days in a row and they shouldn't be available. Rather than rolling the dice with the front end of the bullpen and giving the back end a rest in that situation, Bobby would use the back end of the bullpen for the third consecutive day. In addition to being a crazy injury risk, these guys aren't as effective on their third consecutive day and I'd rather see Bobby go to the front end. You're going to lose some games because of your bullpen when your offense is this bad. I'd rather the front end of the bullpen fail because of inability than the back end fail because of fatigue and become unavailable the next day as well as injure themselves in the process.

While the bullpen hasn't been as good as we'd like, it hasn't bee awful. I expect the same, if not better performances from the bullpen arms in the second half. If they can only endure Bobby's abuse and stay healthy, we should have a decent bullpen in the second half. I wouldn't be adverse to adding another arm (I'd even pursue one heavily), but only if he's a cheap and young one. Someone you can take a flyer on. Perhaps a buy-low type. Of course, when Tim Hudson returns, one of the starters will presumably assume a role in the bullpen, but I'll get to that.

While the pitching has been above average, saving 21 runs despite the below-average defense (which I'll get to), the position players have disappointed all around. Not in every individual case, but overall they've been fairly well below average in every category: defense, hitting, and base running. We'll start with defense.

The team, as a whole, ranks 21st of 30 in defensive efficiency. I envisioned a good defensive team going into the season. I figured we have 2 plus defenders (Escobar and Schafer) up the middle augmented by a slightly above-average one (Kelly Johnson) along with a plus defender at 1B (Kotchman) and an average at worst defensive 3B (Chipper). I figured Francoeur would be somewhere around average and Garret would be colossally bad, but with the platoon, late-innings defensive replacements, and Schafer manning the middle, we'd get by at that spot. I also figured McCann would improve behind the plate and we brought in one of the better defensive C in the game to back him up, David Ross. Here's what the defense, as a whole, has done by position according to +/- (RS = Runs Saved):

 

Pos RS
P 2
C 2
1B 6
2B -4
3B -3
SS 7
LF -5
CF -8
RF 3

So far, Escobar hasn't been nearly the defender he was last year. He saved 15 runs last year and was the 2nd best defensive SS in the game. In more than half the innings this year, he's saved only 2. I'm guessing all of this is a result of those bone-headed errors he's been prone to making this season. Kelly Johnson has done good work with the glove at 2B, but he lost his job to a much inferior defender, Martin Prado. This has undoubtedly hurt us. I anticipated Schafer being a plus defender. Statistically, he was below-average. He made a ton of mental mistakes resulting in misplays and Magellan-like routes, which was completely uncharacteristic of his minor league career. But that didn't really matter, because he lost his job and was eventually replaced by Nate McLouth, a still inferior defender. I expected us to have saved around 25 runs up the middle thusfar this season. We've actually cost ourselves 5.

Kotchman has been great at 1B, saving 4 runs. Garret Anderson has only cost us 1 run in left. Diaz has cost us 1 in right and 2 in left. Jeff Francoeur had cost us 2 runs in right before he was traded and Ryan Church had saved the Mets 2, so that should represent a defensive upgrade (Church representing an upgrade will become a theme of this piece). The average at worst (as I envisioned) 3B, Chipper Jones, has been absolutely miserable, costing the team 11 runs. I don't know why. Errors mainly. His range isn't diminished and he saved the team 8 runs in 2008. I expect him to be better, but not league-average-better, in the 2nd half. McCann has improved from slightly below average to right at average. I do wonder whether or not benching Kotchman, using Kelly at 2B (where he's been a plus defender), using Prado at 3B (where he's been an excellent defender), and moving Chipper to 1B would improve the club defensively. This, of course, is hypothetical and most probably won't happen, but I do wonder.

Bottom line, this group is too talented to rank 21st in defensive efficiency. The positions that get the most chances, SS and 1B, are manned by very good defenders. More focus and a commitment to defense is necessary to succeed in the second half. Chino Cadahia has been particularly bad at fufilling his bench coach responsibility of handling defensive alignments, especially in the outfield. The outfielders positioning at Coors Field last weekend is a perfect example of this.

The thing this team has been the worst at is running the bases. According to Baseball Prospectus, they're 29th in base running. I know we're not a super-fast team. There isn't really anyone with impact speed on the team and most of the regulars are below-average runners. But you have to try to be 29th in base running. The coaching, Brian Snitker in particular, has been heinous. Our slow legs are costing us runs on the base paths as well as the errant mistakes (usually committed by Yunel Escobar), but Snitker is stop-signing us out of wins. This team isn't the 2nd worst base running team in the majors. They just aren't. But they have been. Let's take a look at the individual players' EqBRR (Equivilent Base Running Runs):

 

Player Name: EqBRR:
Nate McLouth 1.88471
Yunel Escobar 1.74486
Omar Infante 1.05992
Ryan Church* 0.65840
Matt Diaz 0.34848
Garret Anderson -0.09418
Martin Prado -0.65536
Kelly Johnson -0.92042
David Ross -1.17899
Jeff Francoeur -1.20150
Jordan Schafer -1.51949
Brian McCann -2.40753
Chipper Jones -2.73195
Casey Kotchman -3.40472

*Ryan Church compiled these numbers with the Mets.

Again, swapping Church for Francoeur represents a definite upgrade in this department, but it isn't like we traded Sid Bream for Rickey Henderson. Kotchman is slower than molasses on the base paths. Worse than Teixeira. By a fairly wide margin. So is McCann, but his contribution isn't supposed to be base running, Chipper likewise. Everyone else in the negatives (except Garret Anderson who I'm extremely surprised isn't "more negative") has no excuse. Martin Prado doesn't have impact speed, but he shouldn't be below average. Kelly Johnson is an above-average runner and there's absolutely no reason he should be below average (I blame Snitker). Francoeur has been bad, but he's the Mets problem now. Diaz busts his tail on the base paths and doesn't make stupid outs, I like the way he plays the game. Infante was contributing on the base paths before he broke his hand. Yunel is our 2nd best runner, but he'd be far and away our best if not for all the silly mistakes he's made on the base paths. Running into outs, getting picked off, getting caught stealing 3rd with 2 outs, etc. What's particularly frustrating about Yunel's mental errors is he normally bats second so when he reaches base, more times than not, he makes his idiotic mistakes with Chipper at the plate. You can't give away free outs with Chipper at the plate. If we had McLouth all season he would've given us 3.66 runs on the base paths. I generally believe that you don't win or lose too many games on the base paths. But this team is so bad offensively that they need every ounce of help they can get. They're cutting off their nose with their base running, and that really needs to change in the second half. I'm not just talking about stealing more bases, which I don't even advocate if we can't do it at at least a 75% success rate. I'm talking about advancing on outfield fly balls, not running into outs, scoring from 2nd on a single, scoring from first on a double, and just generally making good base running plays. Perhaps a coaching change is appropriate to facilitate this improvement.

We've covered pitch the ball, catch the ball, and run the bases. Next, we'll turn to a perhaps the most important thing the position players have been inadequate at, hitting the ball. (I'm not picking on the hitting, they've been inadequate at everything else, too). They've hit .261, 3 points above the league average, and gotten on base at a .332 clip, 1 point above the league average, but the Braves are 12th in the league in SLG% and 13th in the league in HR. The single greatest systematic weakness of this team has been the inability to hit for power and this has undoubtedly been the biggest reason why our offense hasn't performed like it needs to. We'll take a position-by-position look at the team's OPS+ (100 is league average, anything over is better, anything under is worse. An OPS+ of 142 would be 42 percent better than league average. These are not park adjusted):

 

Pos OPS+ Rk
C 120 1st
1B 86 15th
2B 106 6th
3B 111 4th
SS 103 5th
LF 97 8th
CF 88 14th
RF 82 15th

Big surprise that RF is our worst position, right? Well, when your Right Fielder plays more games than anyone else on the team and hits a big fat .250/.282/.352, that tends to happen. The only team that's RF production is worse than ours is the San Diego Padres, who used Brian Giles for 61 games before they decided .191/.277/.271 just wasn't going to cut it. Of course, easy for them to wait it out because a) Brian Giles makes almost 3 times as much money as Francoeur does and b) They're currently 20 games out of first, who cares if their right fielder isn't producing? The season isn't relevant to them, so they don't. The Braves, on the other hand, had everything to lose by playing Francoeur. He'll be the team leader in games played for another week or so. Meanwhile, on the surface, it doesn't appear that swapping Church for Francoeur will help us that much from an offensive standpoint. Church is only hitting .274/.324/.365. Instead of hitting bad/horrendous/unacceptable, he's hitting mediocre/mediocre/less-unacceptable-but-still-unacceptable. However, it is worth noting that he's hitting .313/.344/.424 in parks not named "Citi Field" and he's hitting .297/.346/.406 against RHP. I expect him to improve in a platoon role playing in a more hitter-friendly ballpark. Given Diaz, the person the Braves intend to platoon with Church, is hitting .365/.422/.514 against LHP, they should make for a productive platoon in right. It won't be like having Justin Upton in Right Field, but a platoon of Diaz and Church is so much more useful than Jeff Francoeur. Infinitely more useful. Center Field is also lacking. When you go with a player for 50 games who hits .204/.313/.287, you'd be crazy to see you're 14th in the league at that position and act surprised. The good news? Well, McLouth has hit .288/.349/.500 as a Brave. So the ranking is only going to go up with time. 1st base has been miserable as well. Daniel Murphy of the Mets has been the only 1st baseman to task Kotchman as the worst NL regular 1st baseman. Then again, Murphy isn't their regular 1st baseman. Why they decided it was a good idea to go with a 38 year old, I don't know, but when Carlos Delgado broke down, they were left with Murphy as their every-day 1st baseman. Kotchman does provide value with his glove as I previously mentioned, but if I were GM, he'd have about 2 weeks to show he belongs on the active roster before I shipped him off or benched him. LF hasn't been that bad, mainly because Matt Diaz played there for awhile during Anderson's injury and played there some against LHP during the season. Garret Anderson has only hit .274/.304/.397 this season, which would yield an OPS+ of 92 (against his position). It should be noted that after a particularly awful stretch of games, his first 17, in which he hit .196/.246/.275, he has hit .293/.321/.431, nearly league average. Though in July he has hit only .211/.268/.342. I don't know what to think. I feel like he's capable of producing at a level close to league-average with his bat. When Omar Infante returns, he should be able to spell Garret Anderson some. At that point, we'll have 5 capable outfielders: McLouth, Church, Diaz, Anderson, and Infante. 2 are right-handed, 3 are left-handed, so with McLouth playing every day and platoon-esque playing time distributions (that slightly favor the right-handed portion in left field's case) at the corners, we should be able to generate enough offense from our outfield for the rest of the year to get by. Catcher has been excellent, of course. When you have the best offensive catcher in the league and your back-up has produced the 5th highest VORP in the league despite managing only 105 PA's, you're usually going to be OK at that position. Prado's MVP-like play the past month at 2nd has rescued a position from well below-average to above average in a very short time. Chipper is Chipper at 3rd. Yunel is having a nice offensive season at SS. He's had a few nagging injuries which have undoubtedly hurt the team as his most capable, healthy replacement at the moment, Diory Hernandez, has hit .149/.197/.239. Yunel staying healthy will be key for the team throughout the second half.

We'll take a look at Runs Above Replacement to judge what sort of value each of our players has contributed to the team. This considers both offense and defense:

 

Player Name: RAR:
Brian McCann 24.5
Martin Prado 20.5
Nate McLouth 19.6
Yunel Escobar 14.6
Chipper Jones 14.0
David Ross 11.5
Matt Diaz 10.5
Omar Infante 6.8
Casey Kotchman 4.9
Ryan Church 2.4
Kelly Johnson 1.7
Garret Anderson -3.5
Jordan Schafer -3.6
Jeff Francoeur -4.8

Among qualified players, Francoeur ranks as the 2nd worst in the league. That's what happens when you hit .250/.382/.352 and play bad defense. Schafer wasn't much better but the organization pulled the plug on that one after 50 games. Garret's been horrible in the field, but like I said, with defensive replacements and the platoon effect, we're not suffering overall on defense in left. I imagine that figure would be closer to zero had he not played those first 17 games. Kelly Johnson did good work with the glove, good enough to stay above replacement level. Yet the organization decided he would be the first to go despite Francoeur's well below replacement level play. Church's 2.4 figure I believe will improve as he plays more and more games away from Citi Field and against RHP. Kotchman can thank his glove for his figure as it would look much worse if he were merely an average defender. Runs are runs, though. Next, a group of 3 bench players that have played very well. The return of Infante is key for this team and what Diaz has been able to do and will continue to do against LHP has been a welcome surprise. David Ross helps us in a few ways. 1) I'm confident he's taught McCann how to be a better defensive catcher. 2) He's not worthless, so we don't have to stretch McCann so much. 3) He's actually played very well. Chipper's cost himself some runs with the glove and hasn't played every game, though he's averaging more games than last year. Let's hope the latter of the trends continues while the former reverses itself. Yunel has been excellent. McLouth has been excellent. Prado has been unbelievable. And McCann is simply the best Catcher in the league.

The weaknesses of our offense have been well-documented. For most of the year thusfar, we put together a line-up that included Schafer, Francoeur, Kotchman, Kelly Johnson, and Garret Anderson. It was extremely frustrating to watch Chipper, Escobar, and McCann do all the work offensively and say to yourself, "if we were only league average at the easy spots to produce". Very frustrating.

Part III: Where We're Going

Perhaps the biggest difference in the 2 halves for this club will be the addition by subtraction of Francoeur. He'll be replaced by a platoon of Ryan Church and Matt Diaz, a humongous upgrade. Instead of Schafer taking up more than half the PA's in center, McLouth will assume nearly all of them. That is perhaps even more of an upgrade than Church/Diaz over Francouer. Martin Prado will man 2nd base for now. If Kelly Johnson comes back hitting, he'll possibly take back the 2nd base job if Prado regresses, or perhaps Prado will move to 1st, or maybe Kelly will be a rover-type in the Mark DeRosa mold filling in at 1st, 2nd, 3rd, LF, and RF. But even if he doesn't, we're getting more than enough production from 2B, so whatever Kelly is able to contribute is icing on the cake. The return of Omar Infante will most likely result in an upgrade in production at LF and rest for the infielders in general, which will increase their production. So long as Chipper can stay healthy, Yunel can stay healthy and focused, and Kotchman starts to hit, I'm actually fairly comfortable with our offensive outlook in the second half. Though I do wonder if Kotchman will ever start to hit and I'm beginning to grow tired of his lack of production. Once Frenchy was traded, he became our biggest weakness. If the Braves do decide to do anything with the offense, trading for another outfielder would be a bad idea. Either you're getting a rental (you've got 1 of those and his production is just fine in a platoon) or you're giving up the farm for a young player. If we were able to out-fox someone and get a young player for cheap, then sure, but otherwise, we'll probably be good enough in the outfield. If anything, the Braves should look at upgrading 1B. I know you lose something large on defense when you do this, but Russell Branyan would probably make a great deal of sense. I know he bats left-handed, but so does Kotchman. And he's slugged .500+ every month of the season and is 2nd in the AL with 22 HR. To put that in perspective, the Braves team leader is Chipper Jones with 9. NINE. The boost in home run power and SLG%, even if he isn't a high average guy, will undoubtedly help the team score more runs and put some games away. Though even if we don't make any more moves, I'm fairly content with the offense. It won't be any 1927 Yankees' offense, but it will score enough runs to give us a chance if things break our way.

The starting staff has been extremely effective and will only get stronger when Tim Hudson returns in late August. If all 5 starters are still healthy, one of them will shift to the bullpen, which will strengthen that aspect of the team. Still, out of concern for the health and performance of our bullpen, I would suggest we need to add another reliever. When you're playing as many close games as the Braves are playing, you need to keep your relievers fresh. The more quality bullpen arms, the healthier the bullpen, the greater the chance we have to win. If Mike Gonzalez goes down this will undoubtedly hurt the bullpen and shift all of the weight onto Soriano who will probably end up going down too. Let's hope Gonzalez isn't seriously hurt.

Other than possibly adding a 1B or a quality reliever, I would suggest a few coaching changes. I've already hinted at them. I believe it is time for Cadahia and Snitker to go. Maybe you fire them both, shift Terry Pendleton to 3rd base coach, hire Gerald Perry as hitting coach, and hire Ned Yost or Manny Acta to be bench coach. Or Julio Franco could assume one of the roles, but Cadahia and Snitker have been nothing short of awful at their jobs and it is time for them to hit the road. I don't care how you do it, but this team isn't good enough to get by despite being run by incompetent managers.

In summary, I really don't think a major move is either necessary or in the cards. We've got plenty of SP depth and RP depth as well, though adding a quality arm would certainly help. Maybe even one of the recently released ones ala B. J. Ryan, Matt Herges, or Luis Vizcaino. Adding a 1B with some serious HR pop would certainly help as well. The name I previously mentioned, Russell Branyan, makes the most sense in my opinion, given his cheap, short contract (2009: 1.4 million) and HR potential. Other than that, there's not much this team really needs to do to win this division, other than actually play like they're capable of. I sincerely believe the Braves are the best team in the NL East and are trying hard to prove me wrong. If they'll just start clicking on all cylinders, I think they're capable of making a run in the 2nd half and taking the division. This is the kind of team that could go far in the post-season, too. Dominant back-end of the bullpen, excellent rotation, and a decent offense with some scrappy players. I really think this team has a chance. So long as they do what they're capable of and keep their heads in the game. This division is as winnable a division as I've ever seen the Braves play in. And the Braves have the pieces. Provided they can stay healthy, play smart, and get a little lucky, they'll win this division. Or make a few moves and have an even better shot. Baseball Prospectus has our PECOTA-adjusted postseason odds at 24% right now. That's if everything goes right for everyone else. Like I said, this is a very winnable division. And if this team really wants to win it, I am confident they can. Let's do it. Go Braves.

Article origionally published here.

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