The Braves are a better team than they were last year. Their record should improve and they should be in playoff contention for the entire season. Jurrjens is bound to have a better impact on the team than in 2010 and the Beachy/Minor combo should outperform Kawakami's numbers. The bullpen should be almost as good as lat year's. And due to the young arms in the 'pen, it could be better. The big improvement was the lineup. We should see increased run production at SS (Yunel forgot he was a major league hitter for us last year), 1B, LF, and CF. Let's not forget though, the Braves have also improved a vital part of their team over last year's: Defense
With a more talented lineup, it's easy to look over the fact that our defense is better as well. Sure, Uggla isn't as good an infielder as Prado, but Prado is an excellent ballplayer who should preform well in the outfield. Prado is a better outfielder than Uggla as well, but the gap is wider if Uggla were asked to play the outfield than the current defensive alignment, so the current defensive alignment is the most efficient use of resources. Uggla, however, should be at or slightly below league average defensively this season at 2nd. Form all the games I've watched so far, Uggla's defense has seemed more than adequate. Remember though, marginal defensive players can make routine outs into eye-catching outs due to limited range. A great defensive player should make routine outs look like routine outs. Last year, Melky Cabrera played over 36% of his innings in CF. Even Nate McLouth can make center field better! Troy Glaus played the majority of 1st base for Atlanta last year. Glaus was learning a new position with a diminished range and the results were as bad as expected. Freddie Freeman, however, has played first base his entire Minor League career. More importantly, he's a tall, left-handed, agile option who could not fit the profile for a defensive 1st baseman more perfectly. No one will benefit more from a 6'5" target more than Dan Uggla, by turning arbitrary "errors" into outs. Nearly half of his errors in his career have been throwing errors. Freeman is almost guaranteed to cut down on Uggla's throwing errors due to a better range at 1st than Uggla has ever played with in Miami. Also, McCann has an improving UZR score every year since he became teammates with David Ross, and I don't think that's a coincidence. At only 27, there's no reason not to expect Brian to not improve on his impressive defensive season from a year ago.
I hate to rely on a dinosaur statistic like errors, but fielding percentage is not irrelevant. Last year was a rough year concerning fielding percentage for Atlanta. Nearly 10% of runs allowed last year by Atlanta were unearned runs, with a higher percentage than the Pittsburg Pirates (who has the most runs allowed). This is an obvious concern that will be improved this season. I'm not saying the Braves will be an elite defensive team this season. They won't. The goal for the season is to go from a team that has been in the bottom 3rd of MLB in defensive efficiency to the middle of the pack. An improvement of that magnitude of going poor to average will show more dividends than if a team went from average to great. The gap of defensive inefficiency has been bottom heavy for the past several seasons. Imagine if they cut the unearned runs last year (60) by a third. That is a whole 2 wins added to an expected wins total. In a Pennant Race, 2 wins could be the difference between a playoff appearance or not. By improving the most basic of all fielding metrics, (The bottom 4 teams last year all finished with a .979 FP. The Braves barely avoided last at .980) the dividends will show immediately. The Braves will cut down on errors by a certain 6'5" left-handed, agile 21 year-old helming 1st base and by a great defensive bench in Ross, Young, and Hicks that should be utilized in the later innings. The outfield is staffed by three players still in their 20s with, what I expect, defensive improvements at every position in the outfield. Melky F. Cabrera got significant innings at every outfield position last year. Now that he's gone forever, that's an instant, instant improvement. Prado will show the biggest improvement by playing most of LF. Heyward is a great defensive player in RF, and one should expect after a full year under his belt in the majors in RF at Turner Field to be as good, if not better. McLouth has been a poor defensive outfielder and always will be, but let me just reiterate this here: McLouth > Cabrera. I pray to Allah every night that Young plays CF in the late innings in close games. har, har.
The Braves led the MLB with a very impressive 49.9% Ground ball rate. Of course, the pitchers had a defense ranked in the lower third behind them. The most disappointing stat last year in my opinion wasn't the highest percentage of runs being unearned last year, it was this: Atlanta easily led the league in GB%, but were only 23rd in double plays turned. By luck alone, the Braves should improve upon that poor number. In this young season, the Braves lead the league in GB% and I continue to see them to do so (3rd right now in double plays by the way). I attribute the lack of double plays turned last season to a poor defensive 1st baseman, bad luck, and a revolving door of infielders. How many teams can say their entire Playoff infield roster was different from Opening Day? Infante was not a good defensive infielder and Conrad will surely play less in the field this season. That being said, it's important for an infield to be familiar in with each other in order to consistently turn double plays. The infield has to be more durable than last year with Uggla, Gonzalez and Freeman being (on paper at least) prime examples of durability. Chipper will need regular rest, but Prado can play well 3rd. Prado's greatest asset to his infield defense is his arm, which will help turn double plays when he's in that position. A variance in bad luck, an expected increase in durability, and no more two-bad-knees Glaus will mean more double plays and less runs allowed. Mark it down.
The best defensive player on the team is playing the most demanding defensive position (other than catcher), like it should be. Since UZR's inception in 2002, Alex Gonzalez has posted a positive in score every single season; Ultimate Zone Rating is the most advanced defensive scoring metric in available use. Keep in mind he did this while playing in a dump of a stadium in Miami for four years, which couldn't've helped. His total UZR score is 47.4 He's added nearly 5 wins above replacement with his glove alone during this time. In the early goings this season with the UZR scores for 2011 just released, Gonzalez, while playing the 2nd most innings at SS in the MLB has the 2nd best score. This is a very encouraging stat in the early going. He's only behind Paul Janish (who has a good track record with UZR) of the Reds, but he's played almost 50% more innings! UZR has backed up what I've seen Gonzalez play on the teevee. He has as much of track record as you can with UZR, and he's off to an excellent start. Uggla looks great on the teevee, but UZR isn't as kind. Remember, mediocre defensive players make routine outs to look outstanding plays. That's not to say the sky is falling and Uggla is a poor defensive 2B and his great looking defense is an illusion. For one, it's early and he also has above average ability to turn double plays according to UZR. On black and white, he'll always be a below average defensive 2B; he just has below average range. There's nothing egregious about that to be called "below average" if, by definition that included 50% of all other players at that position. He can provide a great help because of his career averages marked by UZR concerning better than average marks on his ability to turn double plays (Keep in mind, his entire career up to this point in double play partner was a poor defender in Hanley Ramirez). Freddie has also had UZR rankings in the bottom third, but what is encouraging is he has been above average in "Scoops" at 1B and plays marked outside the zone. He will get plenty of opportunities this year at 1B, I think more than any other in MLB. With more opportunities he should progress defensively throughout the season and should prove to have strong rating in UZR, Total Zone, and Defensive Runs Saved. Chipper posted a positive UZR score last year, and with a surgically repaired knee, he could even improve his range to go along with an above average throwing arm at 3rd, again with Chipper playing more games this year should increase double plays turned. CF and RF have played to form according to UZR so far this season with McLouth performing poorly and Jason performing well, and this will be the case all season. The best news from looking a the defensive efficiency in black and white has been Prado's UZR scores have been above the MLB average so far in every category. Prado has a great arm, good speed, and must have good instincts to the ball if he's gotten great UZR numbers in the early goings. There's no reason not to believe he won't improve over the course of the season.
I'll admit it's a bit silly to take so much out of defensive numbers a couple weeks into the season. But I'm thin slicing to just to get a barometer of what to expect. It makes more sense to look at team-wide defensive scores in order to get enough numbers to make a more definitive statement. Like I said, Atlanta will not be an elite defensive team this year. But, guess what… they've improved so far. In standard fielding, they are 3rd in MLB turning double plays. They're 4th in fewest errors. Those dividends will show perceptible improvements -- less unearned runs, shorter innings, and fewer base runners altogether. They've also improved their range overall according to UZR in this young season, which is even more important than turning more double plays and reducing the amount of errors. Their UZR/150 score in 2010 was -5.9. That defensive liability was disappointing in every measure and meant the Braves were 26th overall. Despite poor defensive play, they made the playoffs, and they were a statistical outlier to do so. The next lowest team was Philadelphia at 14th with a UZR having the lowest positive score at 0.8. Six of the top 11 teams in the UZR ratings made the playoffs last season-- you had a better than average chance of making the playoffs if you finished in the top 11 only in defense, which is often an afterthought when people evaluate baseball players. Defense is not an afterthought. Defense is important. Defense does not go into slumps. The Devil Rays were 29th in UZR in 2007 and finished in last place. The very next season, the Rays finished 1st in UZR and won the pennant. We don't need anything that drastic to improve an already great team in Atlanta. The reasonable goal is to match what Philadelphia did last year -- 14th overall in UZR. Above average. Right now Atlanta is 18th with over 90% of the season left to play. If Atlanta can go from a poor defensive team to an average defensive team (as I think they will), we make the playoffs. Mark it down.