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September 1, 2011

The BP Broadside

Heyward You Show the Braves the Way to the Playoffs?

by Steven Goldman

The day the Braves reacquired outfielder Matt Diaz, pitcher Derek Lowe out-homered Atlanta’s outfielders 1-0. This was not at all a shocking development. Braves outfielders have been, as a group, among the worst in baseball this season.

Diaz, who hit .305/.353/.461 in five seasons with the Braves after being dismissed by the Rays and Royals organizations, has looked totally lost this year, hitting just .259/.303/.324 with no home runs in 100 games with the Pirates. A .335/.372/.538 hitter against southpaws with Atlanta, he has hit a mild .295/.342/.362 against them this season. League-wide, right-handed batters are slugging .406 against lefties, and have a .332 on-base percentage.

That association with the Pirates could cause any veteran to experience something resembling chronic fatigue syndrome can be taken for granted, but reeling in Diaz for the stretch drive must qualify as a desperation move; the outfielder has always been a defensive millstone, and when you have a 33-year-old bat-only player who only qualifies as offensive in the sense that the number of outs he has made causes the discerning observer to pinch his nose, he can hardly be called an upgrade—unless, that is, you’re talking about the marvel that is the Braves’ outfield.

As a group, Braves outfielders are hitting .250/.322/.381, their aggregate production ranking 14th in the National League (only the Padres and Giants are worse) and 24th in the majors. Starters have included Martin Prado, Eric Hinske, Nate McLouth, Jordan Schafer, Jason Heyward, Michael Bourn, Joe Mather, Matt Young, Wilkin Ramirez, and Jose “George” Constanza. All except for Bourn and Constanza—the former acquired from the Astros as the non-waiver trading deadline, the latter a minor-league vet who joined the Braves as a six-year free agent—have been, at best, disappointing.

After two and a half very consistent .300 seasons in which he was a second baseman who hit like a left fielder, Martin Prado is now a left fielder who hits like a second baseman. Since missing 31 games with a staph infection in his leg, Prado was hitting .249/.296/.333 heading into Wednesday’s action. McLouth was disappointing for the second year in a row before disappearing at the end of July with a sports hernia. He’s been superseded by Bourn, whose batting average and baserunning generate some offense to go with his excellent defense, but he cannot be characterized as a run-producer.

Of course, neither Prado or McLouth compare as disappointments with the anticlimax that is Jason Heyward. Last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up and baseball’s super-prospect prior to the ascendancy of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, Heyward has failed to build on last season and has lately fallen into a platoon situation, having hit only .188/.271/.313 against left-handers this year. Worse, he has hit only .226/.300/.384 overall in 57 games since his three-week trip to the disabled list with an inflamed rotator cuff beginning in late May.  

There is a discussion to be had about manager Fredi Gonzalez’s priorities here, and if he is overreacting to a small sample (107 PAs) in platooning Heyward, thereby potentially preventing him from finding his way to the adjustments that his immense physical talents, not to mention last year’s strong debut, would suggest that he can ultimately make. The Braves have a near lock on the National League wild card, and are tremendously unlikely to unseat the Phillies for the division lead (the gap is 7.5 games with 27 to play), so barring a ’64 Phillies like collapse on the part of either team, the Braves’ September will function as a long tune-up for the postseason, a postseason they stand a better chance of winning if Heyward managed to find his way out of his funk before the end of the regular season. More playing time, not less, would seem to be the key.

In fairness to Gonzalez, we don’t know what Heyward’s mental state is after such a difficult year. Casey Stengel, the father of modern platooning, said that you not only platooned based on a player’s abilities but sometimes “on his confidence” as well—protecting a kid from what he can’t do, he felt, protected a player from experiencing the kind of frustration that would ultimately undermine his overall contribution. If platooning Heyward in that sense, it is possible that Gonzalez is acting properly.

Still, the Braves would inarguably be better positioned to make a long post-season run if Heyward was fully functional. While center field has a place for defensive specialists, the corners are where the bats are normally found. A team with spectacular production up the middle can get away without having great corner bats (thus did the Yankees prosper in the 1999-2001 period with no regular left fielder and Paul O’Neill in decline—having Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Chuck Knoblauch, and Bernie Williams in places normally dominated by gloves helped cover for many weaknesses), but despite Brian McCann’s strong season and Dan Uggla’s second-half turnaround, that hardly describes the Braves.

Surprisingly, many teams have gone to the postseason with outfields that were comparable to if not worse than that of the Braves. In this century alone, among others, we’ve had the 2003 A’s win 96 games and the AL West despite an outfield unit that included Terrence Long (.245/.293/.385), Chris Singleton (.245/.301/.340), and Jermaine Dye (.172/.261/.253 in 65 games). Overall, the outfield hit .241/.303/.389 against league-average outfield production of .278/.338/.445, ranking last in all of baseball. The 2005 Astros went to the World Series despite an outfield that hit just .268/.320/.409 versus a league average of .272/.346/.450, ranking 14th in the NL and 27th in the majors. Their main outfielders were Chris Burke (.248/.309/.368), Willy Taveras (.291/.325/.341), and Jason Lane (.267/.316/.499). You can also find the 2003 Marlins on the list, with their outfield of Todd Hollandsworth, Juan Pierre, and Juan Encarnacion, just slightly buoyed by a young Miguel Cabrera. They hit just .271/.327/.410 as a group in a league where the average outfield hit .276/.353/.460, but they won the World Series anyway.

The anorexic outfield, then, can be overcome at least long enough to reach October, and sometimes even longer. That said, it’s far easier to make the postseason and win it with burly sluggers in the power positions. That the Braves have made it this far despite their weak outfield is an accomplishment in itself, as well as a testimony to their pitching staff. Acquiring Diaz makes sense both from the standpoint of protecting Heyward and keeping those pesky lefty specialists tamed during the playoffs, but if giving Heyward more rope between now and October stands some chance of sorting out his swing and helping him rediscover his nascent stardom, it’s in the franchise’s best interests, both this fall and in the future, to give him the opportunity.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Outfield,  The Who,  Outfielders

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