This is the final part of my comprehensive look at the Braves' offense. Here are the links to the earlier posts on the team's catchers,1st basemen, 2nd basemen,shortstops, 3rd basemen, right fielders, and center fielders.
In my last post, I remarked upon the Braves' center field woes dating back to Andruw Jones' decline & departure. What's depressing is that the Braves' left fielders have been nearly as bad for even longer. Since Ryan Klesko left after the 1999 season, the Braves have had two above-average full seasons from the position... and both were by Chipper Jones during his brief exile from 3rd base. After that, it's basically Matt Diaz in a platoon role and that one year when Charles Thomas played out of his mind.
The 2011 season brought more frustration for Braves fans, as Martin Prado--previously a reliable offensive presence--moved to left field and struggled mightily. Like Jason Heyward, his season was marred by health concerns (in Prado's case, a bout with a staph infection). Prado's main backup, Eric Hinske, also had a somewhat disappointing season, though he wasn't bad.
The graph below shows how the Braves' left fielders compared to the rest of the NL in 2011 using Weighted Runs Created (wRC). Please click to expand it:
Because Prado and Hinske both played extensively at other positions, the Braves got a disproportionately large amount of plate appearances (over 900) from left fielders; this skews their totals, making their production look decent when it was actually quite poor. Pay more attention to the rate version in the graph, which shows the Braves to be dead last at the position in the NL.
More analysis and a review of the 2012 projections after the jump.
Coming into this offseason, many people (including me) were expecting the Braves to acquire a new left fielder, either trading Prado or moving him back to a utility role. As of now, it looks like all the ink spilled on such rumors was for naught, however. Prado seems likely to start 2012 exactly where he started 2011: in left field for the Braves.
Despite Prado's poor year last year, that's not such a bad thing for the Braves. Assuming Prado has fully recovered from his infection, and assuming that he'll benefit from some regression* as well, the chances are very good that Prado will be much improved on offense in 2012. Unless he bumps his walk rate up, I don't think Prado is likely to be much above average for a left-fielder, or worthy of hitting at the top of the order, but he should be a useful player. Especially considering his versatility.
* The good kind. He'd be regressing back to his true talent level, which is surely much better than what he did last year, though likely not quite as good as he was in 2010. Remember, folks: regression != getting worse.
After putting up 91 wRC in 2010 and just 57 last year, all 3 of the projection systems available on FanGraphs agree that Prado should find some middle ground in 2012. Bill James projects him to be worth 70 wRC, RotoChamp has him at 73, and the Fans' consensus is 79. All 3 of those projections work out to around 90 wRC per 700 plate appearances, which is a bit above average for a left-fielder. That sounds pretty good to me after last season, and I'm sure the Braves would take it.
ZiPS is a bit more pessimistic, projecting Prado to hit .281 / .325 / .417, which I'm estimating would work out to around 75 to 80 wRC in a full season. That's a decent-sized improvement over last year, but not one that will excite anyone.
As for Hinske, he'll be back in the same role as well, as the primary backup in left-field and at 1st base (plus the 1st left-handed hitter off the bench). After two really good years with the Braves, he slumped to a bit below average in 2011.
All of the non-fan projection systems think Hinske will have a very slight bounceback in 2012. ZiPS, Bill James, and RotoChamp all project his OBP between .316 and .321, and all project his SLG between .412 and .417. That'd mean somewhere between 25 and 30 wRC in the 200-some PAs he's likely to get (a rate of 80 or so wRC per 700 PAs). All of which is certainly not bad for a bench player.
Of course, Hinske is getting up there in years (he'll be 35 in August), so a dramatic falloff is always possible. The FanGraphs fans project something like this, apparently in the belief that his best asset (power) will drop off dramatically. The Fan projection for Hinske is for only a .366 SLG (he was at .403 last year) and a .122 isolated power (.169 last year). Both of those would easily be career lows for Hinske. The Fan projection works out to a rate of 71 wRC per 700 PAs.
All in all, the Braves' left field situation doesn't seem to be particularly good, but it also doesn't seem to be nearly as bad as it was in 2011. Obviously an improvement is no guarantee, but I'd say it's more likely than not. For a team that missed the playoffs by the narrowest of margins in 2011, any improvement will be quite welcome.
Thanks for reading these posts, everyone. I hope you're all looking forward to the 2012 season as much as I am!