A while back, I asked my Twitter followers if they thought that the 2012 Braves' hitters would improve upon their 2011 home run total of 173. Nearly all of the responses projected an increase, often a significant one. My instinct, though, was to expect a slight decline.
This is a complex issue, though, so I think it's worth going through each factor independently to get a better idea of what we should expect. I should note right away that this is not an evaluation of the team's offense as a whole--just the homers. In several cases, I expect a player to improve his overall production while actually hitting fewer homers.
In this post, I'll analyze the homer potential of the Braves' likely regulars and key bench players. Mostly, I'll be using the various projection systems offered on FanGraphs as a baseline. I'll start with players who are new to the team (or in their first full season with the team) before moving on to the returning players.
The Braves didn't have a lot of roster turnover this offseason, so this will be a fairly short section. Here are the most important changes:
The only way the Braves get more homers from their shortstops this season is if they trade for a big-power player (which is unlikely). Gonzalez has many flaws on offense, but 15 homers is a good total for a shortstop. Neither of the team's top shortstop prospects have that kind of power right now.
Pastornicky's projections range from 4 to 9 homers. Since he hit 7 last year and 8 the year before in the minors, that seems like a good range. Simmons has even less power than that, with just 3 homers in 839 minor-league PAs. ZiPS (his only projection) thinks he'll hit 1 in MLB if given a full season, which again seems reasonable. Jack Wilson also won't help in this department; his projections range from 0 to 3 homers.
All in all, I think the Braves' main shortstops will hit something like 6 homers this year, which would be a decline of 9 from 2011.
The Braves' center fielders hit just 6 homers last year, but again, there's not really much chance of improvement in 2012. Bourn has never hit more than 5 homers in a season; projections range from 2 to 4. Backup CF candidates like Jose Constanza and Luis Durango have, if anything, even less HR power. In their past 6 seasons of pro ball (mostly in the minors), Constanza has 8 homers and Durango has just 3.
I think the Braves get about 3 homers from their new center fielder(s). That's down 3 from last year.
If Sutton does make the team, I'd say he has an outside chance of matching Conrad's 4 homers. Sutton has pretty good pop; he once hit 20 HRs in a season in AA, though he hasn't repeated that at higher levels. If he gets 100 to 150 PAs, I'm thinking Sutton hits around 3 homers. That'd be down 1 from Conrad's 2011.
Total Projected Change for New Players: -13 HRs
Jason Heyward (14 HRs in 2011)
Let's start with the player most likely to improve his HR total in 2012. All 6 projection systems think he'll hit more than 14 homers, and 4 of them think he'll hit 20+. The range of the projections is from 15 to 22. And of course, there is a huge amount of potential for improvement even beyond those numbers.
Because of the large disparity between his 2011 performance and his immense talent, Heyward is an extremely difficult player to project. I'll play it safe and go with the median of the projections and say he'll hit 20 homers in 2012. That's up 6 from 2011.
Freddie Freeman (21 HRs in 2011)
With just 1 season under his belt, Freeman is also a difficult player to project. The projection systems have a wide range, from 17 to 25 homers. It seems to be a common assumption among Braves fans that Freeman will improve in 2012, and while that is certainly a very real possibility, it is far from certain. We have no idea if Freeman's 2011 is the peak of his talent or just the tip of the iceberg. And even if he does have lots of room to improve in the HR department, there's no guarantee that the growth will occur in 2012.
I tend to think that a slight uptick is the most likely of the various outcomes, so I'll set Freeman's projection at 22 homers, up 1 from 2011.
Martin Prado (13 HRs in 2011)
Prado may seem like a good candidate for a HR improvement, but the projection systems disagree. They all think he'll hit somewhere between 11 and 13 homers. He certainly could hit a few more than he hit last year, but really, home runs was the one area in which Prado didn't underachieve offensively last year. All the projection systems think he'll have a much better year in 2012 overall, but the improvements are projected in batting average, walk rate, and doubles.
I have to say I agree with the projections. I think 13 is a reasonable expectation for Prado even with a healthy overall improvement; he could hit a few more or a few less. That's no change from last year.
Brian McCann (24 HRs in 2011)
A lot of people don't realize that McCann's 24 homers last season tied his career high. Overall, it was just an OK year by his standards, but the homer total wasn't low. Accordingly, the projections don't think he'll hit more homers in 2012; the range is between 20 and 24.
Let's be generous and say that McCann repeats his 2011 HR total of 24.
Dan Uggla (36 HRs in 2011)
Like with McCann, a lot of people don't realize that Uggla actually set a career high in homers last year. Sure, he had a subpar season overall, but the homers were not part of the problem. The 6 projection systems give a range of 27 to 33 homers for Uggla in 2012. Which makes sense, because before 2011, Uggla had hit between 27 and 33 homers each season.
While I think Uggla's offensive numbers will be much better overall in 2012, I see his HR total declining slightly. Let's say he hits 33, which would be a drop of 3.
Chipper Jones (18 HRs in 2011)
Chipper's 18 obviously wasn't a high homer total by his standards, but at his age, it seems clear that an improvement is not likely. And indeed, all 6 projection systems think Chipper will hit either 13 or 14 homers in 2012. Whether he tops that range or not likely depends on his health, which I'm not even going to try to speculate on.
Let's set Chipper's projection at 14 homers, then. That's a decline of 4 from 2011.
For these two, so much depends on playing time. Let's assume that both gets about the same amount of PAs that they got last season (so around 260 for Hinske and around 170 for Ross). Given that Ross is 35 and Hinske turns 35 in August, a small decline seems likely. That'd put Hinske at around 8 HRs and Ross at around 5. Obviously, if they play more, they're likely to hit more HRs, but if that happens, it's because someone like McCann, Freeman, or Prado is spending a lot of time on the DL.
Assuming they hit around 13 homers combined, that'd be a decline of 3 from the 2011 season.
Total Projected Change for Returning Players: -3 HRs
Add up all the players in both groups and we're looking at a projected drop of around 16 homers for the 2012 Braves. That'd put the 2012 Braves at 157 homers. While that's a drop of around 10%, it's still likely to be above-average if all else remains the same. Had the Braves hit 157 homers in 2011, they'd have still ranked 6th in the NL (the NL average was 143). So a lower homer total is hardly a disaster. Especially once you consider that the Braves are likely to get better overall production from several positions (2B, all of the outfield).
Obviously, these are just projections. Some of these players will hit more than their projected totals and some will hit fewer. If all goes right, the Braves could hit many more homers than the projection, but if a couple key guys get hurt, they could easily hit a lot fewer. The point of a projection is simply to have a reasonable middle-ground expectation.
And, of course, we're looking at the players in a vacuum here, but the games aren't played in vacuums. They're played in ballparks and against other teams. In Part 2, I'll look at changes in these factors, some of which could help the Braves hit more homers than they otherwise would.