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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

7 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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gtgator

Watching Game 4 of the PHI-STL series, TLR made a comment during his mid-game interview about what he told players - "when in doubt, be aggressive". He's not perfect, but he's a HOF manager. As such, I can't fault Bourn for the attempt, especially since he was 1) safe and 2) the ump blew the call.

As to Hudson, hard to fault him or the manager for the run in the 7th when Hudson got the DP GB he needed. Wilson was obtained for his defense. He committed an error. That happens. There's nothing to indicate that a GB induced by O'Flaherty would have been handled any better by Wilson.

As for the bullpen, I would be curious if pitch movement/location had gotten worse in September for both Venters and Kimbrel - not simply velocity. Because velocity isn't the only aspect to effective pitching. All month, both showed worse results thanks, IMO, due the Indonesian shoe factory workload Fredi heaped on both all season.

In fact, while I would have loved to have seen a playoff berth, the silver lining in not making it is that Fredi couldn't pitch those two in even more games this year. I honestly hope none of the O'Ventbrel trio come up lame in 2012 thanks to their abuse in 2011.

Oct 06, 2011 11:27 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Michael Jong
BP staff

gtgator,

You and FredOwens made points regarding the decision to leave Hudson in. The results are irrelevant; it's the process that matters. After you see a double and a single allowed, why let your starting pitcher, closing in on your pitch count limit and in the middle of his third trip through the order, stick around? What's the point of letting the starter clean up his mess when you have two good relievers with ground ball-inducing capabilities in the bullpen?

There's a tendency for managers to stick with their starter until something has already gone wrong and it's too late to reverse. At that point in the game, is Hudson in his third trip through the lineup the better choice over O'Flaherty or Venters? Most relievers are better than starters on their third trip, and that goes double for guys like Venters who are far better than the average reliever. Yet Fredi left Hudson in until the run went through. Why did he pull him after the run went in if he thought Hudson was still good to go? The move stinks of reaction to results and not a thought-out process.

Oct 07, 2011 10:38 AM
 
gtgator

I normally try to avoid snark, but often fail. I will fail here.

Sorry, but you're pigeon-holing the decision BECAUSE of the result. Please spare me that you've analyzed the decision only - because context matters and you've failed to address same. Until you address the situation involved in its entirety in your analysis, it is simply hindsight. The reality - if Wilson turns the DP, you never mention this "decision".

1st and 3rd, one out. You need a DP. RH-hitting C batting. The Braves' usage patterns puts O'Flaherty as the person who would get the call. Ruiz and O'Flaherty both have platoon splits such that the move improves Ruiz' chances. With his contact ability, you can't presume a K. And Hudson is a premier GB pitcher.

So, needing a DP, a RH catcher up who does better against LHP in his career and whose 1st 2 AB were GB to SS, you're trying to get anyone to believe that the "better" move was to bring in a LH RP who does worse against RHB to replace the RHP who is an extreme GB pitcher?!? Please - you honestly expect anyone to believe this isn't hindsight rationale?!?

Plus, the batter before had reached on a GB infield hit. Where's all this wonderful evidence that Hudson has somehow "lost it" despite being at only 97 pitches at the start of the AB (a total eclipsed 17 times in 2011)?

Look, I can fault Fredi for a LARGE number of decisions during the course of the year and even in this game. The Pence decision is the most blatant and yet you ignore it.

But the Hudson decision is easily defensible and was clearly the right decision. Until you can bring something more than "tired SP so bring in the RP" as justification for the move, you're simply providing "analysis" I expect to find at Sportsline.

Oct 10, 2011 12:37 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Michael Jong
BP staff

gtgator,

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. The initial argument (one I would have been in favor or) is to pull Hudson early to avoid him having to go through the lineup a third time. Ideally, he would have left at the start of the inning. He's also been hit with a couple of base hits prior to the situation. You have two strong bullpen options, both of whom can get ground balls (one of them as well as if not better than Hudson). Where is the wrong in pulling the starter?

Just to use an example, in Hudson's career he's allowed a .707 OPS the third time through the lineup. O'Flaherty has allowed a .655 OPS for his career. Having said that, you are right in that the platoon difference would certainly add to that, perhaps such that it would have been a wash to bring him in. If that's the case, why did Fredi pull Hudson after the error? Having watched Fredi manage the Marlins for years, I'm almost certain that it is because the run was allowed, and Fredi decided that Hudson suddenly "didn't have it."

I do believe I would have brought it up even if Hudson doesn't get the double play, though neither of us can speak to that because it didn't happen.

Oct 10, 2011 14:09 PM
 
gtgator

Sorry, traveling for business. So if you never see this, so be it.

First, I think we can both agree Fredi is a moron. Why O'Flaherty after the error? Because Hudson was over 100 pitches AND was flustered (go look at his reaction after the error)? Otherwise, I have no idea - he brought in O'Flaherty to face Victorino who has a HUGE split advantage as a RHB.

That said, you still fail to acknowledge the facts at the time of the decision that made it a bad decision. And, again, here are those facts: 1) Ruiz had hit two GB to SS his first two AB; 2) the Braves needed a DP and were not likely to get a K, 3) Hudson was at 97 pitches (i.e. not tired), and 4) Hudson is RH and so is Ruiz.

Pointing to his OPS the 3rd time through the order is simply a generic stat having no meaning until context is provided. As such, until you address this SPECIFIC situation, yes, it is all hindsight. Because I need to see where, at the start of the AB, it was obvious that Wilson would commit an error here to allow the run to score because Hudson, indeed, did induce a GB to SS for a 3rd time. So, again, where is the problem?

The problem I have with people who use generic stats to try and prove how games "should" have been managed is that they miss the forest for the trees in trying to prove how smart they are. Context matters. 3rd time OPS is just a generic stat covering ALL such instances. It is a complilation stat - not a guarantee on how each PA will go. The reality is that some PA will favor the pitcher more and some less. You simply CANNOT ignore that fact and be credible, IMO. Heck, you didn't even provide the RH/LH split for this stat - which is a lot more relevant than his entire 3rd time OPS in evaluating this decision.

So, if this had been Utley or Howard or Victorino and he was left in? Sure, call it a bad move. But against a hitter who he had gotten two GB to SS and against whom he had a platoon advantage? Sorry, don't see it.

Oct 26, 2011 08:52 AM
rating: 0
 
JOEVAND

Excellent analysis of the Braves final game of a heartbreaking September collapse. I had a sinking feeling that when the game went into extras, the Braves bats would get even more feeble. Thanks for the indepth breakdown of a gut wrenching loss for the Braves!

Oct 06, 2011 14:08 PM
rating: 0
 
FredOwens

Kimbrel's fastball was fast but it looked flat and didn't seem to have much movement compared to earlier games. It's pretty well known that when your body is tired you can still throw hard and not pitch well. There are a couple of things about the pitching however. First is that Linebrink should only be used to wash out the showers after the game. Varvaro, and Martinez were still there and if I had to go long Lowe is fine for a couple of innings and has done it before. The other is that most pitchers taken out in games like this are taken out late because they are usually the best guns in the arsenal. Sometimes knowing how to pitch is better than being really fast. Huddy got his ground ball. Wilson misplayed it and that's baseball.
I was horribly disappointed in Fredi's lack of passion throughout the season and particularly when Bourn was so vehement about being safe. It's true no changes are ever made but there's something to be said for a manager letting a player know he's got his back - believes him implicitly - and the umpires know people are watching. LaRussa got Meals attention the other night and it made a difference.
I loved Bourn's steal but Uggla being sent was badly conceived by Snickter.
The ultimate error however belongs to Gonzalez who with Hunter Pence at the plate and a rookie hitting under 200 on deck, pitched to Pence and lost the game.
It's still baseball, it still happens and Fredi still screws it up more than he gets it right when the chips are down.

Oct 06, 2011 17:13 PM
rating: 0
 
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