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October 6, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

Final Moments of a Brave 2011 Season

by Michael Jong

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Last week, we discussed the potential collapse of the Atlanta Braves in their attempt to hold on to the National League Wild Card. Well, on one of the greatest nights in baseball history, that potential collapse became a crippling reality for the Braves, as they lost a late-inning heartbreaker to their division rival Philadelphia Phillies. At the risk of picking at a wound that has almost assuredly not begun healing yet, let us take an episodic look through the lens of Win Probability Added and Win Expectancy (provided by Baseball-Reference) and see how the game progressed from the Braves being on the brink of a second straight playoff berth to heading home without a chance at the World Series.

3rd Inning: Dan Uggla hits a two-run home run, Braves lead 3-1
That home run was the single biggest play on the Braves' side of the docket on Wednesday evening, as it added 22 percent to their chances of winning the game according to WPA. Uggla's home run was fitting of the hitting performance he has put up since July; his batting line of .301/.386/.596 with 24 home runs since July 5 has far surpassed the other Braves batters. His 36 homers for the season represent a career-high total and a fifth straight year with over 30 home runs. Despite the atrocity that was the first half of the season, his magnificent second-half line brought his season back from the brink. After the end of June, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Uggla would end up an absolute disappointment in 2011, yet somehow he ended up with 2.3 WARP on the year, which stands as second on the team among position players. With his Wednesday night home run, it appeared that Uggla was going to once again have a hand in leading his team's offense to the postseason.

One cannot help to think that the Braves could have even eked out an extra possible run had Michael Bourn not gotten caught stealing third base on a strong throw by Carlos Ruiz. On the replay, it does appear as if Bourn has a foot on the bag when Placido Polanco places the tag, but instead of placing runners on second and third, the Braves end up losing a whopping eight percent off of their win expectancy due to the play. Of course, one batter later Uggla homers, and it is easy as a fan to feel cheated out of an extra run, especially with the game's result being so close. However, there is no guarantee that Uggla is pitched in the same fashion that led to that home run, so tallying an extra run for the Braves in that situation would be inappropriate analysis.

6th Inning: Freddie Freeman walks, Dan Uggla to second base, Braves lead 3-1
This is the highest point of the Braves' win expectancy that evening, calculated at about 90. The Leverage Index (LI), a measure of how important an individual game state would be to the outcome of a game, of the next three plate appearances never climbed past 1.0, meaning that none of those three outs—including Hunter Pence's pinpoint throw to nab Uggla at home—came at a time more important than the average plate appearance. Of course, the benefit of hindsight (something Leverage Index does not have) shows how valuable those plays ended up being.

7th Inning: Raul Ibanez scores on a Jack Wilson error, Braves lead 3-2
Braves starter Tim Hudson had been pitching decently up until that point. Prior to the start of the seventh inning, he had scattered four hits in three different innings while surrendering just one walk. He had thrown 86 pitches by the end of the sixth inning, and with the current style of management regarding pitching counts, this guaranteed that he would return to pitch the 7th inning.

However, there was something to be said about the theory that Hudson should have been pulled early because of the strength of the Braves' bullpen. As the night progressed, this theory would grow to sound more ridiculous in hindsight, but during Hudson's final inning, it certainly did not sound terrible. After a routine groundout, Hudson allowed a double and a single to Ibanez and Polanco, surrendering 13 percent of the Braves' odds of winning. At that point, the Braves could have gone to any of their main cogs in the pen, in particular ace lefty relievers Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters. At least one of them would have been left to pitch the eighth inning to face the duo of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and it would have brought a fresh pitcher to face Carlos Ruiz in that important situation (LI of 3.03). Neither O'Flaherty nor Venters would have been a poor choice for inducing that inning-ending double play grounder either, as both have very favorable career groundball rates. Instead, as many managers often do, Fredi Gonzalez left Hudson in for one more batter than he should have, waiting until a run came through and the Braves lost 10 percent more off of their odds before removing Hudson in favor of O'Flaherty. Again, it is easy to second-guess Gonzalez's decision after the fact, even if the results came off a sharply-hit error, but the idea of utilizing the Braves' bullpen depth to help preserve a lead instead of leaving a starter in during his third trip through the order is a sound one even without knowing what ultimately happened.

9th Inning: Chase Utley hits a sacrifice fly offCraig Kimbrel, scoring Pete Orr, Game Tied 3-3
This was the culmination of one of the more ugly Craig Kimbrel outings of the season. Including Wednesday night's performance, Kimbrel had allowed four baserunners only three other times during the year. Furthermore, his three walks were the most he had allowed all year in any one outing. This outing would appear highly abnormal were it not for the fact that Kimbrel had allowed the most runs that he had all season long, prompting claims that he along with Venters were tiring by the end of the season because of their heavy workload.

Rob Neyer did a good job covering this concept, but it is worth noting that, at least in terms of velocity, Kimbrel has not missed a beat.

Month

Fastball Velocity (mph)

April

95.0

May

96.4

June

95.9

July

96.4

August

96.8

September

96.7

Still, Kimbrel and Venters did not look good on Wednesday, combining for two strikeouts versus five walks in an abnormal loss of control. There could have been numerous other factors involved in their performance on Wednesday, but coming off of four days rest and displaying the sort of lightning fastball he has flashed all season, it does not seem like physical fatigue is one of those factors.

12th Inning: Jack Wilson sacrifice bunt, Jason Heyward advances to second base, Game Tied 3-3
Following Heyward's single, the Braves got the closest they would come to winning the game in the extra innings with their odds sitting at about 70 percent. Despite the fact that the Braves only needed one run to win, the bunt still took one percent off of their odds of winning, though it seemed like an acceptable move given the bunter was the bat-less Jack Wilson (career .240 TAv). Of course, the Braves came up empty-handed in this inning, and this was followed by their eventual loss at the hands of Utley and Pence the following inning.

Last week, I mentioned that the Braves did not have egregious problems in the month of September but rather that they were sunk by small deficiencies in performance that piled up. This game was a bit of a microcosm of that concept as well. Bourn and Uggla may have made slight baserunning errors. Leaving Hudson in that long may have been a mistake. The management of the pen or the pressure of the situation may have gotten to Kimbrel and Venters. All of these things may have been small, but they snowballed when piled on top of each other and led to a final, disappointing Braves defeat in 2011.

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

Related Content:  Dan Uggla,  Managers Of The Year,  Braves

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