Gird yourselves, Braves fans. This series has left the (mostly) comfortable confines of the infield and is traveling out to that fearsome realm that has been the downfall of so many Braves teams in the post-Andruw era. You guessed it, the outfield.
We start in right field, which a year ago seemed to be one of the brightest spots on the team. Alas, our hopes for the position were not fulfilled. Former rookie sensation Jason Heyward had an extremely rough year (at the plate, at least) and his backups weren't much help, either.
The graphic below shows how the Braves' right fielders stacked up to the rest of the NL in terms of Weighted Runs Created (wRC), everyone's favorite rhyming total-offense statistic. If you're new to this series, go back and read the 1st post so I don't have to explain wRC again. As usual, you'll want to click the graphic to expand it.
Okay... So those numbers are pretty ugly. Before I delve into the Braves' numbers, a caveat: 2011 was a really good year for NL right fielders. In most years, 72 wRC* wouldn't be that close to the bottom of the pile. But in 2011, no NL team had truly awful RF production. In fact, 10 teams got at least 99 wRC from the position. That's star-level production from more than half the league. So keep that in mind.
* As we'll see next week, center field and left field were even more problematic for the Braves in 2011, but the team's rankings at those positions aren't quite so bad.
Another important caveat is that these numbers only incorporate hitting (and stolen bases). When defense and other baserunning are taken into account, the Braves' right fielders look quite a bit better, thanks mainly to Heyward's prowess in those areas. But this post is just about hitting, and in that area, Heyward definitely struggled relative to his peers (and our expectations for him).
Beyond that, I'm not going to belabor the analysis of Heyward's 2011. I've done that elsewhere, and it's not like we need to rehash those arguments. What's important is 2012.
All of the projections available on FanGraphs (Bill James, RotoChamp, and the Fans) agree that Heyward will bounce back in 2012 to a level just short of his 2010 season, but much better than 2011. The 3 projections average 91 wRC (he had 99 in 2010), which I think we'd all take in a heartbeat.
ZiPS, as is often the case, is a bit more pessimistic, projecting Heyward to hit .255 / .360 / .427, a line that is almost exactly the midpoint between his 2010 and 2011 numbers. That's certainly possible, of course, and if so, it'd still be a big improvement over his 2011; I'm guessing that line would be worth around 75 wRC, or 24 more than he had in 2011.
And of course, a player of Heyward's many talents has the potential to surpass all of those projections by 30 or 40 runs. You can't say that about very many players. Still, I think somewhere around 85 wRC is a reasonable middle ground of expectation.
Getting the most playing time (and attention) among the other right-fielders was Jose Constanza, who inspired a sizable portion of the Atlanta fanbase to Beatlemania-esque shrieking and fainting spells. Yeah, he got off to a hot start. But that hot start was fueled by an incredible** run of luck on infield hits. And when all was said and done, he wasn't really any better with the bat than Heyward, despite all that luck. He ended with 82 wRC per 700 PAs, while Heyward was at 78.
** In the literal sense, as in "difficult to believe." Constanza got hits on nearly 25% of balls hit on the infield; Ichiro's career rate is 15%. That means Constanza got 6 more hits than even an infield hit expert like Ichiro would have had in the same number of chances. Take away those 6 hits and Constanza's line looks like this: .248 / .287 / .330. Which sounds like a much more realistic estimate of his true talent than his actual line.
So basically, Constanza wasn't that good and he's likely to be a lot worse going forward. He may make the team as a 5th outfielder-type player, and I'd be fine with that, honestly. But he won't--and shouldn't--have a major role on the team going forward.
The other two players to qualify in right field were Joe Mather and Matt Diaz. Mather was good for just 4 wRC in 83 PAs (a miserable 34 wRC per 700 PAs). Signing Mather was understandable, I suppose, but I think we can all agree that giving him that much playing time was a mistake.
As for Diaz, he was marginally better: 3 wRC in 37 PAs (57 wRC/700). The Bill James projection for him inspires some confidence (77 wRC / 700 isn't bad at all), but I am a good deal less optimistic. If Diaz doesn't hit lefties, he doesn't have much use. And he's coming off two down years. It's fairly likely that he gets cut before the season is out. That makes me sad to say, because I like him a lot, but oh well. Hopefully the Braves won't need much in the way of backups in right field, anyway.
To sum up: in all but the worst-case scenarios (i.e. major injuries), the Braves should do better at this position in 2012. Even a not-that-optimistic scenario would still result in the Braves improving by around 20 runs. And if Heyward fulfills his potential, watch out: we could be talking about a huge improvement. There is a lot more upside in right field than downside.
Next week, we'll talk about the other outfield spots, starting off with Michael Bourn, who hopes to finally end the Braves' horrific run of center fielders.