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March 9, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Braves Optimism

by Tommy Bennett

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The Balance-Sheet Approach

One common, back-of-the-envelope way to predict a baseball team’s success is to start with the previous season’s actual record. Then, adding and subtracting for players acquired or lost, one can swap into last year’s results this year’s new expected performances. I call it the balance-sheet approach. Nobody would say this method is deadly accurate, but it is employed quite often during the offseason and spring training by radio hosts and commentators. How good is it?

Put simply, it’s terrible. It turns on the implicit assumption that everything except the players gained and lost will perform at exactly the same level they did the year before. Because players (both good and bad) tend to regress toward the mean, such a method will always systematically favor teams that were good last year and punish teams that were bad. Let’s have an example.

Last year, the Braves’ actual record was 86-76. This offseason, they traded away Javier Vazquez, acquiring Melky Cabrera (and elite prospect Arodys Vizcaino). They also lost Mike Gonzalez (to free agency) and Rafael Soriano (via trade after he unexpectedly accepted arbitration), but brought on free agents Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito as replacements. They sloughed Kelly Johnson and decided to replace his PAs with Martin Prado’s production. Tallying up the gains and losses in PECOTA-predicted wins (rounded to nearest half-win):

Gains Wins Losses Wins
Melky Cabrera 2.5 Javier Vazquez 4.5
Billy Wagner 1.5 Rafael Soriano 1.5
Takashi Saito 1.0 Mike Gonzalez 1.0
Martin Prado 1.5* Kelly Johnson  1.5*
Total Gained 6.5 Total Lost 8.5

* I have divided Prado’s and Johnson’s numbers in half to reflect the half season that each played as the starter last year. Other part-time players, like Ryan Church, Jesse Chavez, and Jeff Francoeur, have been omitted for simplicity’s sake.

By this method, the Braves should be a little more than two wins worse in 2010 than they were in ’09. That would make them an 84-win team. And in fact, if we look at the current PECOTA-based depth charts, we find an 84-78 projected record. Easy like Sunday morning, right?

Thing is, it’s not nearly so simple. Let’s start with the big picture. At how many positions can the Braves expect to be better this year than they were last year? They can reasonably expect similar results from second base, catcher, center field, and shortstop. Just about the entire rest of the team is in flux.

Improving

At .297, Chipper Jones had his worst year by True Average since 2004 last year, and even at age 37 must be expected to benefit from more than just a dead-cat bounce (if not a full return to 2008 levels). Derek Lowe, signed to a four-year deal prior to last season, had his own worst season since 2004, contributing just two pitching runs to the Bravo cause. Considering he averaged 33 runs over the previous three seasons, it’s a safe bet that Lowe won’t be so excruciatingly bad next year (even if there are scouting concerns about his velocity). Kenshin Kawakami, who was relatively steady even as he bounced between bullpen and rotation last year, should help stabilize the rotation as well.

Perhaps most notable, though, is the expected improvement from Tim Hudson. After returning from Tommy John surgery on September 1, he pitched 42 1/3 innings, recording 30 strikeouts against 13 walks and posting nearly a full pitching win. PECOTA is studiously pegging him for a pedestrian 4.33 ERA and a 77/40 K/BB in 124 innings. Find me a bookie who sets that line for Hudson this year and you can color me surprised. Not only did Will Carroll’s THR peg his injury risk at merely yellow, he indicates that there’s more room for optimism. Hudson is now 19 months removed from Tommy John surgery, and given that he pitched major-league ball in only one of those months, he’s now squarely in the TJ "honeymoon" period (during which a post-TJ pitcher is much stronger than he was pre-surgery). Additionally, all the rest and recovery from elbow surgery allowed his somewhat-balky shoulder to recuperate as well. I don’t know how many runs I’d tack onto PECOTA’s estimate, but it’d be somewhere between a bunch and a bushel. The Braves obviously agree, as they inked Huddy to a three-year, $28-million deal in November.

Your Guess is As Good As Mine

All said, not everything about the Braves is so cut-and-dried. In fact, the Braves have significant flexibility at several positions, and uncertainty at others. You can bet that Bobby Cox, entering his final year of managing, will be eager to squeeze the most out of his players to reach the promise land one last time. Fortunately for him, he has all the right tools to do so.

Platoons are the lost art enamored to Strat-O-Matic players and 11-man pitching staff apologists alike (ignoring, for the moment, the substantial overlap between the two). Smart money has the Braves platooning at least one outfield spot by late May. With Jason "Jay Hey Kid" Heyward muscling his way into right field (and, ahem, denting the bosses’ cars while he’s at it), Melky Cabrera and Matt Diaz will have to share time in left. That’s okay, since Matt Diaz goes bump in the night against lefties (.347/.384/.537 in 667 PA career against them) and Melky has always been a SHINO (switch hitter in name only); he’s hit .255/.325/.355 in 637 PA against lefties batting righty.

Another intriguing platoon possibility would be to pair up Eric Hinske and Troy Glaus. Hinske has whistled righties to a ditty of .263/.347/.456 in his career, while Glaus has a .277/.399/.558 line against lefties in more than 1,500 PAs. Especially if Glaus isn’t as good as his career numbers against righties (and is there anyone out there who thinks he is?), Bobby Cox has every reason to give him a rest on days the team faces tough righties.

Kids These Days

How we’ve gotten this far without mentioning the Braves' biggest upside is a legitimate mystery. Between Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson, the Braves have two of the highest upside players in the game. (In fact, if you want to get technical, PECOTA’s Upside score ranks Heyward as the 32nd-highest hitter and Hanson as the ninth-highest pitcher.) It’s tough to project players so young (Hanson is 23, Heyward is 20), but you’d have a lot harder time finding someone to tell you these guys will fail than someone to tell you they’ll be perennial All-Stars. Considering that they are replacing the likes of Garret Anderson and Jo-Jo Reyes, it’s awfully tough to see how they aren’t net gains for the Braves. PECOTA loves Hanson this season, projecting him for almost five pitching wins. On the other hand, PECOTA remains unsure about a 20-year-old outfielder with three games above Double-A, and sees Heyward as the worst offensive regular on the team. Before you tell him that, though, I’d suggest moving your car.

Question of the Day

 How many wins will the Braves rack up this year? What are their chances of getting Bobby Cox back to the playoffs one last time? What players on the team are the best bets to take a hit in their production? Jurrjens? Prado? Someone else?  

Related Content:  Tommy Hanson

9 comments have been left for this article.

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