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One missing win for the Braves so far

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Ball in play shenanigans, of course

Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2021 Braves have not been good. You can tell a lot of stories about them, sure, but none of them will place this squad in the “good” camp. At least not yet. (Maybe not ever, this season? We’ll see.) Still, you can tell a lot of stories about them that should at least make you feel a little better than you do right now.

After all, 24-26 with one game left to play in May is a gnarly record, and not the good kind of gnarly, either. One thing we can’t quite blame for that record is how the Braves’ outputs have translated into wins and losses. Specifically, the Braves come in to play on May 31:

  • 10th in position player fWAR (7.4); and
  • 22nd in pitching fWAR (2.7).

Add those up and you get 10.1 team fWAR. A replacement-level team would win around 15 of its first 50 games, add 10.1, and you’re at 25. The Braves are at 24. Not bad, accuracy-wise, considering we’re through less than a third of the season.

But, going beyond outputs, we also know some stuff about batter inputs. While this has ameliorated somewhat in the last few weeks, the Braves still remain one of the less fortunate teams when it comes to how well their batting outputs accord with their batting inputs. There are lots of ways to illustrate this. One really telling one: the Braves literally lead MLB in xwOBA (even though they have to use a pitcher and not a DH, unlike half of MLB). Yet, their wOBA is only sixth in MLB, and when you account for the fact that Truist Park has played very hitter-friendly recently, their team wRC+ (wOBA, but adjusted for park) drops to ninth overall.

Another very basic illustration is this snip from Baseball Savant:

Again, it’s not that everyone on the Braves has been doomed to underperform their contact quality — give a big wave to Guillermo Heredia and Austin Riley, among others — but having four regulars out of eight regulars underperforming substantially is pretty brutal. The three guys at the top of that table are all in the quartile with the biggest underperformances among the 319 players with the most balls put in play to date. Cristian Pache missed the cutoff; Ozzie Albies is almost there as well.

I was curious as to what the Braves’ team WAR would look like if you “normalized” their outputs to these inputs. Doing so was pretty straightforward:

  • wOBA has a linear relationship to wRC+ for each team, because the adjustment just uses the team’s home park factor. (I don’t actually like doing it this way, but it’s not my system.)
  • Therefore, wOBA also has a linear relationship to batting runs. And runs have a linear relationship with wins (aka, WAR).

Given that, it’s pretty easy to just swap in someone’s xwOBA for their wOBA, and recalculate their wRC+, their batting runs, and their WAR-based-on-xwOBA. One note is that I didn’t use a player’s straight xwOBA, but his xwOBA less .010, because as you can see from the table above, the league is still underhitting its collective xwOBA by .010, due to the effects of April/May weather and the deadened ball as well. (This will eventually be re-calibrated such that league wOBA and xwOBA are equal, but it hasn’t happened yet.) Here’s the net effect of these recalibrations.

So, basically, there you have it: the Braves’ position players have essentially lost 1.0 WAR in translating their batting inputs to batting outputs. It’s not a huge difference, but it still hurts. Especially when you consider that they’re already underperforming their WAR-wins by a game. They could be above .500, if not for stupid stuff. Unfortunately, this season has been... a lot of stupid stuff.

There’s a temptation to do the same thing for pitching and run prevention as a whole, but that gets in the murkier territory of having to evaluate team defense, and assign credit to “stuff that would’ve happened irrespective of team defense.” That’s a lot harder, and can’t be done with the sort of glib analysis above. The Braves, as a team, have an average gap between opposing batters’ wOBA and xwOBA, with an average aggregate defensive unit (15th in MLB in success rate, which is impressive given that they are bottom five in infield success rate and rate poorly all-around by OAA — that outfield and outfield positioning’s been doing work).

Also, just to attempt to head off any discussion of the fact that xwOBA lacks directionality — we have a good sense that one bias in xwOBA is that it underemphasizes hitters who pull fly balls, while overemphasizing hitters who hit their flies to center and the other way. However, we also know that this bias doesn’t tend to show up based on hitter spray chart type - it’s specific to where balls are hit, but hitters themselves tend to have patterns that makes it easy to move outfielders around to adjust for these patterns. (This is, per Tom Tango, why the current iteration of xwOBA doesn’t worry about directionality — because the hitter doesn’t systematically influence his xwOBA via their spray chart.) The Braves, as a team:

  • Have an average pulled fly ball rate (13th in MLB), and a perhaps-unjust lack of xwOBA overperformance on pulled fly balls (21st in MLB);
  • Have an average-y fly-ball-to-center-rate (10th in MLB) and an average xwOBA gap on center-hit fly balls (11th in MLB); and
  • Have an average-y opposite field fly ball rate (20th in MLB) and an average xwOBA gap on these (18th in MLB).

So, they’re not exactly failing to pull a bunch of fly balls or anything. They could stand to pull more of them, and they could definitely stand to get better results on their pulled fly balls given how well they hit them (.728 xwOBA, .925 wOBA on pulled fly balls, compared to the league having a .687 wOBA and .917 xwOBA), but it doesn’t appear to be a huge problem.

One potential reason for a lot of underperformance: groundballs! The Braves have MLB’s fourth-biggest xwOBA underperformance on grounders. Yet, this isn’t really their “fault.” For one, they have the lowest grounder rate in MLB. For another, while they have the second-highest rate of pulled grounders in MLB, their wOBA and xwOBA gap on those is not particularly noteworthy. Sure, a lot of their grounders are pulled, but they just don’t hit that many grounders. The league’s sixth-biggest underperformance on liners is probably a bigger killer, given that the Braves have the sixth-best xwOBA in MLB on liners, but only the 16th-best wOBA.

Anyway, just getting results on contact commensurate with the quality of that contact won’t save the Braves’ season. They’ll need a lot more than that going forward. But it hasn’t helped so far, and we’ll all just hope for a bit more karmic justice in that arena going forward.