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The Indefensibly Awful Atlanta Braves Defense

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The 2016 incarnation of the Braves have several rather big problems, but one that has loomed really large is their defense. We take a look at that and highlight some of the biggest offenders.

Adonis is not great at defense
Adonis is not great at defense
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Alright guys, I know this will come as a shock to a lot of you... but the 2016 Braves are not very good. In many respects, this is both expected and totally okay given the expectations of the team. In addition, in the context of a rebuild, where larger international signing pools and higher draft picks are valuable commodities, a few more losses can be beneficial rather than harmful.

However, the way that a lot the losses have transpired so far this season has been maddening: Just. Catch. The. Ball. The inability of some of the Braves players to catch and throw the ball has been very frustrating for even the most ardent fans of the Braves. From the normally reliable Gordon Beckham making one of the worst throws to first you will see a major leaguer make in a critical spot, to Adonis Garcia seemingly making an error every other game (probably not an exaggeration...probably), the Braves defense has been woeful this season, but just how woeful and who are the main offenders? Ivan and I decided to take a look at the indefensible Braves defense.

(Ivan’s note: He’s made seven errors in 18 starts, so it’s not exactly half, but it’s still really ugly. You know how fielding percentages are usually in the .900s? Garcia’s is currently below .800. That should tell you something even if fielding percentage usually doesn’t.)

First, the overall bad news: The Braves are among the, if not the, worst defensive teams in baseball right now. They currently ranked dead last in the league with -22 defensive runs saved. That’s not unlike taking an anti-Andrelton Simmons (basically putting a negative sign in front of all of his defensive values), condensing his awful production in the field from one season down to less than a month, and then running him out there every day.

The Braves' ineptitude in terms of defensive runs saved is already at a historic pace. One of the worst seasons defensively for a team was the 2005 Yankees who came in at -120 defensive runs saved for the entire season(Ivan’s note: at least since we‘ve had DRS and UZR data available to us, there were probably even worse teams historically but it’s hard to compare box score-based Total Zone to current defensive metrics.) At the Braves’ current pace, they will sit at -198 defensive runs saved for the season...which is basically taking that 2005 Yankees team, and then lopping on yet another terrible defensive season (-78 additional defensive runs saved) onto it.

What’s worse is that the Braves seem to be screwing up the routine plays and not just ones on the fringes or range and/or make-ability. In terms of DefEff (which is essentially just BABIP allowed), the Braves are in sort of in the middle. That suggests that the Braves defensive woes aren't because they can't get to balls, but because they keep flubbing the basic plays major leaguers should make. (An alternate explanation is that the Braves tend to have worse range on cutting down extra-base hits than singles, because that’s another way to have negative metrics while allowing a reasonable BABIP. It’s probably a combination of the two, as both UZR and DRS show range shortcomings in addition to flubbing basic plays.)

Even if you aren't into defensive metrics (you know who you are), the Braves are in the top three teams in terms of total errors made and have the worst fielding percentage in the majors. The eye test also is not kind to the Braves, with it seeming to be night after night a play that should have been made getting botched leading to guys getting on base that shouldn't be there. (Ivan’s note: as I was talking to Eric about this article, AJ Pierzynski flubbed another play, live. You can’t even write about the Braves without having them drop a ball in front of you.)

There are some metrics that actually have the Mets as worse than the Braves this year, which is shocking...but its hard to argue that there have been some really ugly, really high profile examples of a defense that has a chance to be among the worst to take the field in recent history (or ever?).(Ivan’s note: there’s a big caveat in here that UZR/DRS update on a lag, and we’re only a few weeks into the season. Still, the Mets are the only team that currently comes close to Braves-level badness by DRS, while the Mets, Athletics, Yankees, and Braves are all scorned by UZR so far.)

Let’s be clear, a LOT of the Braves have been bad on defense this year. So far (appreciating the lag in updating metrics), Freddie Freeman and Jace Peterson have been below average by DRS, and the tiny sample defensive outcomes for many of the fill-ins and role players on the roster are really ugly. As of right now, only five position players have positive DRS on the year, and one of those is Jeff Francoeur. Hat tip to Mallex Smith who leads the team in DRS with 3 despite only appearing in 14 games thus far. One way to look at it: no one has actually fielded well so far except for Smith and Daniel Castro. Yikes.

On the flip side, there have been a few players who have been the terrible offenders (and defenders), so here is a quick rundown.

Adonis Garcia

It’s hard to describe just how bad Adonis has been at third base this year. Chris Johnson, long considered by scouts and fans alike to be an awful third baseman, posted a -13 DRS in 2014. Adonis is already at over a third of that with -5 DRS and he has done so in just 19 games thus far this season. By DRS, only David Wright has cost his team more runs on defense this season than Adonis.

Not convinced? No third baseman in the league has been worse in terms of Revised Zone Rating and only Nick Castellanos and Wright have a worse UZR than Adonis. (Ivan’s note: this is actually sadly hilarious. Revised Zone Rating is basically just a measure of how many balls in a fielder’s zone are successfully turned into outs by that fielder. Adonis Garcia is the only semi-regular in baseball so far to have an RZR under .500. That means that so far, on balls hit to him, batters generally have had a greater than a 50 percent chance of reaching base. Also, Garcia’s ErrR, the component of UZR that tracks errors and flubbed plays, currently leads the league. His range has been marginally below average, but his butterfingers… sigh.)

Defensive metrics not your thing? Well, his fielding percentage, which is now hovering around .800, is the absolute worst in the league by nearly 100 points among players with at least 120 innings played (congratulations Eugenio Suarez of the Reds, you are safe from the cellar). His seven errors lead the majors. He has almost as many errors as he does putouts on the season (nine). Basically, every fifth time a ball is hit his way, something bad happens. (Ivan’s note: Or, every other time the ball is hit his way, no out is made, and every fifth time, something potentially even worse happens.)

Adonis has been actually pretty serviceable at the plate thus far for the Braves with an OPS of .760. However, any and all value that he has provided there has been negated by his inability to catch and throw. (Ivan’s note: this is actually evident in his overall value. He has a 103 wRC+ due to a .377 BABIP. Normally, a guy with a 103 wRC+ and average baserunning/fielding would be on pace to be a 2-win player. Instead, Garcia is currently putting up below replacement WAR because his defense—and his baserunning—have been abominable.)

Erick Aybar

If Adonis has been historically bad on defense, Erick Aybar has been an unmitigated disaster in every aspect of baseball for the Braves. Ignoring the fact for a minute that he has been arguably the worst position player in baseball at the plate since the start of the season (Ivan’s note: he’s currently the only semi-regular with a negative wRC+, because Barves), he has been arguably as bad in the field (with the aforementioned Adonis Garcia a strong contender for the title as well). Only Brad Miller of the Rays has been worse at shortstop than Aybar in terms of defensive runs saved (Miller is at -5 while Aybar is tied with a few others at -4). He’s trumped only by Trevor Story in UZR-measured badness among shortstops so far, and has a laughable, Garcia-esque RZR of .520. (Ivan’s note: it’s a wonder that the Braves even allow their pitchers to pitch in ways that would result in balls being hit to the left side of the infield anymore. Basically even odds to reach base safely on a ball hit out that way.)

Still hate defensive metrics? The eye test has not been kind either, as he has failed to make plays that the average league shortstop makes, let alone the plays that predecessor Andrelton Simmons used to thrill fans with during his time in Atlanta. He has two errors on the year, but it’s debatable as to whether he should have more than that. Aybar ranks dead last among qualified shortstops (120 innings) with 12 putouts and is 3rd-worst with 32 assists on the year (hello again, Brad Miller). (Ivan’s note: by the way, Simmons has 3.5 times as many putouts as Aybar so far this year.)

Braves Catchers

The easy scapegoat is AJ Pierzynski, who has never been known as a good defensive catcher. He can pop up and throw reasonably quickly, but has little arm at this point so teams generally will run on him. He has also has had some notable flubs in the field in terms of fielding short grounders and plays at the plate that have led to bad things happening. Therefore, it’s not that surprising that AJ has already accumulated -3 defensive runs saved on the season.

However, what is more surprising is that Tyler Flowers, who is usually considered to be a competent backstop and has played a full 40 innings less than AJ, has actually put up that same -3 DRS. Both Pierzynski and Flowers rank within the bottom four of catchers by DRS. Taken together, no team in the league has lost more runs on defense from catchers than the Braves—the next closest team has half as many demerits as the Braves.

It’s worth noting here that catcher defensive metrics are notoriously cagey, so it may not be as bad as it appears. That said, they’ve put up just a 25 percent caught stealing rate (league average = 32 percent). It’s not hard to argue that, like the defense overall, the catching tandem has been deficient defensively. (Ivan’s note: Pierzynski is also continuing his streak of putting up below-average pitch framing numbers.)

(Ivan’s) Conclusion

Defensive metrics tend to regress towards the mean. I don’t know if the smart money is on assuming the Braves will put up some kind of dubious DRS record of badness, but it’s been hilariously ugly so far. We knew that the offense was going to be paltry, but the combination of poor range and poor fundamentals is brutalizing the team both in the metrics and the standings. Defense may be overrated, but it’s not meaningless, either. I’d also like to conclude by saying that while Kelly Johnson has been spared any mention here, if he keeps playing second base with regularity, he may very well join the Adonis Garcia Club for Players that Can’t Field Good and Want to Not Have Horrible Defensive Metrics Either. So watch out.

(Eric's note: What Ivan said. Also: Just. Catch. The. Ball)