Prior to the 2020 season, I wrote about where each member of this year’s team ranked, by WAR, among players in Atlanta Braves history. Seeing how we have enough division these days, I averaged all three major WAR calculations (bWAR, fWAR, and WARP) for each player from 1966 on, calling the result “Unified WAR”. If you’re wondering why this doesn’t cover all of Braves history, I have two reasons. First, I don’t think the WAR data is as reliable if you go too far back. Second, and more importantly, the achievements and exploits of Milwaukee Braves or Boston Braves (or Bees, Rustlers, Doves, or what have you) don’t really do a lot for me. The 1914 and 1957 pennants may hang in Smyrna, but I don’t have any notable pride over those achievements. Those were won for different fans, and had the team never moved to Atlanta, I don’t know what team I’d root for. So, without further ado, let’s see how the 2020 Braves moved up or down on the Atlanta leaderboard.
Rank - Player - ATL Career total (2020 total, previous rank)
850. Robbie Erlin: -0.5 uWAR (-0.5, NR)
837. Kyle Wright: -0.4 uWAR (0.0, 830th)
Wright may have regressed on the WAR board, but we all know that, if his mid-season adjustments can carry on, this ranking will be short-lived. While demoted to the Alternate Training Site (I can’t wait to leave that term behind forever), Wright became a sinkerball specialist, throwing it on at least 40% of his pitches in each of his final four starts. According to the metrics at Baseball Savant, Wright had allowed an expected batting average of .291, an xwOBA of .397, and an average exit velocity of 88.3 mph in his MLB career before this switch. Since the conversion, those numbers are .261, .349, and 87.7, respectively - and that includes his disastrous NLCS start against the Dodgers. He is no finished product, and it’s very likely there are more frustrations to come, but I’m optimistic he can leave this section of the leaderboard behind for good in 2021.
803. Tommy Milone: -0.3 uWAR (-0.3, NR)
799. Touki Toussaint: -0.3 uWAR (-0.4, 436th)
737. Bryse Wilson: -0.2 uWAR (0.2, 811th)
715. Tucker Davidson: -0.2 uWAR (-0.2, NR)
In terms of distinctions you don’t want to have, being the first major league starter to finish a season with no-decisions in multiple games where your team had a 10 run inning has to be up there. I’m not sure what wiseguy thought trading for Milone was a good idea, but it did not work out at all. Toussaint tantalized us with some good performances, but there was more bad than good, as the strike zone still eluded him as he slid down this list. While Kyle Wright began throwing his sinker much more, Bryse Wilson showed up in September with a sinker not only for the first time, but as his secondary offering. It made a world of difference, as Wilson went from a career 17.4% K-rate, 11.8% BB-rate, .609 SLG, and .386 xwOBA before to 25.5% K, 7.3% BB, .255 SLG, and .268 xwOBA after. It’s a small sample, but a change in process gives us more reason to believe in that small sample than we otherwise would. Davidson appears to have a bright future, and it’s too bad his placement on this list is marred by a single start.
715. Alex Jackson: -0.2 uWAR (0.0, 705th)
715. Will Smith: -0.2 uWAR (-0.2, NR)
For all that went right for the Braves in 2020, their biggest free agent signing of the offseason wasn’t one of them. After signing a 3 year, $39,000,000 deal - a hefty sum for a reliever - Smith surrendered 8 home runs over 22 innings across the regular and postseason. Everything else looked good, striking out 25 in the same span, so perhaps his shakiness can be chalked up to the late start he got due to a positive COVID test. There’s no reason to be pessimistic about his 2021, but so far, Atlanta has yet to see a return on this investment.
613. Chris Rusin: -0.1 uWAR (-0.1, NR)
613. Cristian Pache: -0.1 uWAR (-0.1, NR)
613. Patrick Weigel: -0.1 uWAR (-0.1, NR)
579. Pablo Sandoval: -0.0 uWAR (-0.0, NR)
538. Scott Schebler: 0.0 uWAR (0.0, NR)
538. Cole Hamels: 0.0 uWAR (0.0, NR)
This section is mostly a who’s who of guys who, five years from now, you probably won’t remember playing for the 2020 Braves. The exception is Pache, whose regular season was disappointing in terms of results (he wasn’t very good) and process (he wasn’t really given the chance to be). Forced into playing him in the postseason, the organization’s CF of the future seemingly established himself as the CF of the here and now. There’s a chance the team tinkers with his service time next season, but Pache should kiss this section of the leaderboard goodbye very soon.
476. Austin Riley: 0.1 uWAR (-0.2, 387th)
It’s hard to look at Riley’s WAR figure and really feel like it’s on the money. I think it’s clear he’s presently no star. He doesn’t get on base with regularity. He isn’t able to attack high velocity fastballs, with just 3 homers in his career on pitches 94 mph or higher. He doesn’t have great range at third. And yet, it’s also hard to see him as a replacement-level or worse player. He has sure hands and a strong arm. In his sophomore season, his K-rate plummeted by 13 percentage points. He walked more, hit the ball harder, and ran the bases more effectively. Some of yesterday’s defensive metrics may consider him a liability, which might be understandable after taking a huge chunk of time off from third in order to play LF as a rookie, but Statcast’s OAA graded him as essentially an average defender at the hot corner in 2020. WAR selling him short doesn’t make him a player to pencil in for years to come, however. Riley fixed 2019’s breaking pitch problem by sacrificing his ability to hit fastballs in 2020. He needs to bridge those skills in 2021, or else his chances of rising considerably higher on this list may stall.
418. Chad Sobotka: 0.2 uWAR (-0.0, 408th)
371. Jhoulys Chacin: 0.3 uWAR (-0.1, 344th)
333. Grant Dayton: 0.5 uWAR (0.4, 459th)
313. Darren O’Day: 0.5 uWAR (0.4, 440th)
304. Jacob Webb: 0.6 uWAR (0.2, 337th)
294. Adeiny Hechavarria: 0.6 uWAR (-0.2, 258th)
273. Shane Greene: 0.8 uWAR (0.6, 381st)
265. Tyler Matzek: 0.9 uWAR (0.9, NR)
261. Charlie Culberson: 0.9 uWAR (-0.1, 242nd)
260. Josh Tomlin: 0.9 uWAR (0.4, 324th)
Sobotka and Chacin were afterthoughts on this team. Dayton proved to be the reliable low-leverage lefty we thought he could be if he could stay healthy. After a somewhat surprising declined option, O’Day finishes his Braves career with a 1.73 ERA across both the regular and post-season. Jacob Webb is hoping to earn Brian Snitker’s trust in 2021 - despite a spotless 0.00 ERA, no pitcher was used in lower leverage situations for the 2020 Braves than Webb. Hech’s second tour with Atlanta didn’t go as well as his first, but I’m sure he still thanks God he’s not a Met. Greene finishes his stint of team control with a reliable but unremarkable Braves tenure. Tyler Matzek was one of the most talked about Braves in 2020, an incredible find for this organization that will be under team control for years to come. Charlie Culberson was more useful as a reliever than as a position player, and yes, even he received higher leverage use than Jacob Webb. Tomlin faltered when pressed into starting duty, but I will always fondly remember his opening weeks of 2020 and the truly bizarre 40% K-rate that accompanied them.
248. Adam Duvall: 1.0 uWAR (0.6, 358th)
240. Chris Martin: 1.1 uWAR (0.7, 350th)
237. Travis d’Arnaud: 1.1 uWAR (1.1, NR)
231. Ian Anderson: 1.1 uWAR (1.1, NR)
227. Mark Melancon: 1.1 uWAR (0.6, 298th)
225. Luke Jackson: 1.2 uWAR (0.0, 228th)
Duvall, the only Brave in history with multiple 3-HR games, has probably played his way into more regular platoon work in 2021. Adjusted to 600 PA, he was on a 46-HR pace in 2020, which is awfully fun, but he’s probably never going to get on base enough to be a WAR hero. Martin was a joy to watch in the first year of his two-year deal, and he should be a prominent part of the Braves ‘pen again in 2021, where he should crack the top 200. Speaking of delightful first seasons on a two year deal, Travis d’Arnaud was an instant fan favorite, and like many catchers, he’s underserved by bWAR’s omission of catcher framing data. Anderson debuts at #231, putting him ever so slightly ahead of one of the least enthusiastic Braves, BJ Surhoff. Of the pitchers to save at least 20 games with the Braves, only Craig Kimbrel (1.52) and Billy Wagner (2.10) had better FIPs than Mark Melancon’s 2.81. WAR has a tough time with small samples, and there’s no better example of that than Luke Jackson’s 0.0 uWAR for 2020. Jackson had a terrible season by any rational assessment, and he’s fortunate to still rank 225th.
183. A.J. Minter: 1.9 uWAR (0.7, 217th)
Last offseason, I wrote about how Minter’s four seam fastball would be the key to his success. That proved to be exactly the case in 2020. His cutter remained as unhittable as ever, but by using his fastball more effectively, Minter was better than ever. With another strong season in 2021, he can pass another great Atlanta lefty, Eric O’Flaherty, and possibly wind up in the top 150.
163. Marcell Ozuna: 2.4 uWAR (2.4, NR)
If Ozuna is one and done, he’ll rest next to a few other one and dones on the list, as should-be Hall of Famer Billy Wagner ranks 167th, while brief bizarro Cy Young candidate Aaron Harang sits at 168th. Ozuna is a much better player, of course, but he only had 60 games to prove his worth, and WAR is a cumulative statistic. Here’s hoping he can return to mix up this list a bit more in 2021 and beyond.
131. Sean Newcomb: 3.3 uWAR (-0.3, 127th)
126. Johan Camargo: 3.7 uWAR (0.0, 126th)
97. Mike Foltynewicz: 5.3 uWAR (-0.2, 91st)
It’s the “No, seriously, I promise these guys were valuable once” section.
96. Mike Soroka: 5.3 uWAR (0.3, 97th)
82. Nick Markakis: 6.4 uWAR (-0.3, 75th)
Soroka seemed set to ascend the top 100 quickly, but that was derailed by his season-ending injury. When he gets back to full health, the assault may re-commence. If this is it for Markakis’s Braves career, a solid run ends with a whimper, with 2020 being his worst season in Atlanta. Some haughtier corners of Braves nation decried his value for years, but I have no reason to think they’re any more correct about him than the “professional at-bat” commentators they loved to mock. Markakis wasn’t a terribly complicated player, but he was a polarizing one. He was not a bat that tremendously changed the lineup he was in, but he was, for the most part, an above-average hitter, posting a DRC+ over 100 in 4 of his 6 seasons. He isn’t a defender worthy of his Gold Glove reputation, but there’s also reason, backed by Statcast, to believe his positioning, reaction, and route efficiency made him better in the field than old-fashioned metrics like UZR were able to quantify. Kakes wasn’t the star some wanted him to be, and he wasn’t the liability others loved to point out, but he was a reliable every day ballplayer who was mostly worth what Atlanta paid him, a second division starter who could help bridge the gap from rebuilding to contention. Interestingly, with his step back in 2020, he finishes tied for 82nd with one of his OF predecessors, Justin Upton.
78. Max Fried: 6.5 uWAR (2.0, 109th)
76. Dansby Swanson: 6.6 uWAR (1.8, 103rd)
53. Tyler Flowers: 8.9 uWAR (0.3, 54th)
If you exclude Hall of Famers, Max Fried already a top 20 starter in Atlanta history. That’s quite a start. Interestingly, Swanson is tied at 76th with Jeff Burroughs, a fellow #1 overall draft pick who was an All-Star in 1978 when he led the NL with 117 walks and a .432 OBP. Flowers is here all due to his framing glove, but he also improved as a hitter after coming to Atlanta. In 1395 PA with Chicago, he slashed .223/.289/.376. In 1381 PA with the Braves, he improved to .251/.349/.408. You may be tired of hearing about how underappreciated his glove was, but he was also pretty helpful with the bat, and he finishes as, believe it or not, the 4th best catcher in Atlanta Braves history.
43. Ender Inciarte: 10.3 uWAR (-0.6, 40th)
Inciarte is still owed over $9,000,000 and is potentially under team control for two seasons, yet it certainly seems as if his time with the ballclub has reached an end. Still, it’s important not to focus so much on the end and all the weak groundouts that heralded it. Focus instead on the three Gold Gloves, the All-Star nod, and the fact he came to Atlanta in the hilariously one-sided trade that made us all love Dave Stewart.
41. Ozzie Albies: 10.8 uWAR (0.6, 42nd)
36. Ronald Acuna, Jr: 11.5 uWAR (2.1, 47th)
As I’m sure will be the norm, these two stick near one another on the list, although Albies’ injury allowed Acuna to surpass him. Acuna moved past two outfielders named Gary - Matthews (46th) and Sheffield (37th). He joined Dale Murphy as the only Atlanta outfielders to win multiple Silver Sluggers. Acuna is one of 12 players in MLB history with a .275/.350/.500 career line and at least 75 HR through his age-22 season. Seven are inner-circle Hall of Famers: Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, and Joe Dimaggio. Another, Alex Rodriguez, probably will be one day, though the PED cloud may force a delay. The other three are active, and all are among the best of their era: Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper, and, surprise, Mike Trout. Acuna is on a rare path, and there’s a good chance that, after 2021, we’ll move the man with 2020’s longest homer into the top 25 Atlanta Braves of all time.
10. Freddie Freeman: 35.2 uWAR (2.9, 10th)
Freeman began the season as the 10th greatest Atlanta Brave, went out and probably won an MVP award, and finished as... the 10th greatest Atlanta Brave. Mobility’s tough at the top. Since he didn’t move past anyone, let’s play the same game with Freeman we did with Acuna, gerrymandering a list based on what he’s done. Through age 30, Freeman has slashed .295/.383/.509 with 342 doubles and 240 homers. Using those specific parameters, who else managed those numbers or better through age 30? Alex Rodriguez, Jimmie Foxx, Albert Pujols, Frank Robinson, Mel Ott, Miguel Cabrera, and Lou Gehrig. Sure, it’s engineered to be specific to MVFree, but let’s not pretend that’s not incredible company (imagining it as company means they’re all just sitting around listening to A-Rod wax poetic about bunting, but I digress). Is Freeman on a Hall of Fame path? Since 2015, Freeman has averaged 5.4 bWAR per 650 PA, and if he can keep that rate up for another 3-5 seasons, the answer is yes. If Atlanta can sign their superstar to an extension, he could move further into this top 10, and knock down some very big names along the way.
And that should close the book on 2020’s movement up and down the Atlanta WAR leaderboards. Until next year, thanks for indulging my boredom and joining me in the WAR room!