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On Sunday, the Braves suffered their latest brow-raising defeat, turning a three-run lead with two outs in the ninth inning against the Mets into an extra-innings loss. Along the way, the Braves bullpen did something more impressive than blow a near-certain win: They left Keith Hernandez aghast.

While Hernandez was beside himself, saying that if he were a Braves fan he would “turn in his season tickets,” actual Braves fans have to be numb by now to showings like Sunday’s. Losing has become the norm in Atlanta during the second half, with the Braves following up a surprising (and overachieving) 42-47 first-half effort with a 14-41 stretch (a 41-win pace over a full season) that has placed them in contention for the no. 1 pick. Predictably, Atlanta’s futility extends to its team ranks. Entering Monday, the Braves were 27th in True Average and defensive efficiency, and 30th in runs scored and staff-wide Deserved Run Average. In fact, their bullpen’s DRA was the worst among any bullpen or rotation.

This is a bad team, so bad that it seems to excel only at running the bases and inspiring tanking allegations. That’s right, the best regular-season team of the ’90s has been reduced to the constant, circular are-they-or-aren’t-they-trying debates previously reserved for the NBA and the Astros.

The anatomy of those arguments is well known: One side praises the Braves for their boldness and big-picture approach, while the other damns them for their shoddy ethics and shady dealings—especially in light of the new stadium they’re building—and so on, until a meteor strikes and saves everyone else the headache. If the whole ordeal seems confusing and pointless, that’s because it is, and that’s because tanking itself is a vague and abstract concept. Kevin Pelton once defined tanking as “intentionally trying to lose games.” Sure, but where do you draw the line between tanking and rebuilding, and how do you separate intent from incompetency? Long story short: Disagreement has a lot of leg room.

So, for as complicated as the whole mess is, let’s go through the Braves roster, unit by unit, and figure out whether the tanking allegations are merited or misplaced.

The Lineup
Every roster-building strategy comes down to talent accumulation and utilization, the players employed and the way they are deployed. The Braves’ lineup passes both inspections.

John Hart and Fredi Gonzalez have made decision after decision throughout the season supporting the notion that the Braves are bad, not nefarious. Hence A.J. Pierzynski taking over behind the plate and bumping Christian Bethancourt to the bench (then the minors); hence trading for Juan Uribe and later taking on salary to acquire Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Hector Olivera; hence holding onto Pierzynski and Cameron Maybin past the deadline, rather than spinning them off for prospects, as they did with Uribe and Kelly Johnson. The Braves don’t have a good lineup, but they’ve added more talent in-season than they’ve subtracted, a counterproductive equation if the goal is to lose.

If the accumulation aspect is fine—or, at least, defensible—then how about the utilization? Most days, the Braves start a lineup of Nick Markakis, Olivera, Freddie Freeman, Pierzynski, Swisher, Jace Peterson, Andrelton Simmons, and Bourn. Are those the right eight? PECOTA says yes, for the most part. Plug the Braves’ available hitters’ True Average projections into a spreadsheet and sort in descending order without regard for position, and the top eight are Freeman, Swisher, Olivera, Markakis, Ryan Lavarnway, Maybin, Adonis Garcia, and Pierzynski.

In other words, Gonzalez is fielding five of his seven best available hitters (Maybin is hurt) on a near-daily basis; he’s also found starts here and there for Garcia, a 30-year-old minor-league free-agent signing who has walked three times in 156 plate appearances. That leaves Lavarnway as the odd man out, but that’s reasonable: PECOTA is too high on him, and the Braves are right to split the catching reps between Pierzynski (as a thank you for a solid season) and Bethancourt (as a study guide for next year’s big test).

While Gonzalez has always constructed odd, suboptimal lineups—remember, he batted Melvin Upton Jr. leadoff when he was trying to win as many games as possible—there’s nothing too off about his normal lineup. Markakis makes sense at the top spot because he’s second on the team in on-base percentage to Freeman, and offers considerably less power than Freeman does. Neither Swisher nor Garcia nor Pierzynski is an ideal middle-of-the-order hitter, but each belongs there more than the likes of Peterson, Simmons, and Betancourt, who should always bat as close to the bottom as possible.

The other constant bugaboo worth noting is Gonzalez’s insistence on batting Olivera and Daniel Castro second. Still, both are excusable crimes, given Olivera needs the plate appearances and Castro has fared okay so far as a platoon second baseman.

What’s interesting is that Gonzalez’s lineups have seemingly improved during the second half. If you were managing the Braves and you wanted to tank, you would move Peterson and Simmons to the top of the order. Sure enough, the two have combined for 92 starts where they batted first or second. Ready for the weird part? The great majority of those came during the first half, before the losing and tanking charges began. Go figure. Unit verdict: Not tanking.

The Rotation
Here’s where the allegations begin to grow legs. Knowing that Hart spent the winter acquiring new starter prospect after new starter prospect, it’s jarring to tune into a Braves game and see Williams Perez or Ryan Weber—two replacement-level, pitch-to-contact righties—receiving the nod.

Alas, the rest of the rotation hasn’t been much better, either. Were it not for Shelby Miller, the Braves wouldn’t have a single starter on the roster with an ERA+ north of 93, the approximate league average for a starting pitcher. Julio Teheran, who entered the season projected as Atlanta’s top dog, has done more yelping than biting, and Matt Wisler, one of those prospects added through trades, has struggled to evade bats and barrels during his big-league introduction.

Of course the Braves aren’t running out a shoddy rotation by choice alone, as there are other circumstances at play. Mike Minor has missed the season with a torn labrum, while Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos are dealing with their own injuries. The Braves contributed to their misery by trading Alex Wood at the deadline, but that deal netted them Olivera, so it wasn’t borne just of tanking aspirations.

Is there a solution within reach? In theory, the Braves could bring up one of those young starters, except doing so would be problematic for various reasons. Tyrell Jenkins, the most qualified of the group, posted poor peripherals in the upper minors while outpacing his career-high innings count by more than 50 frames. What about the other parts of the Braves’ Triple-A rotation? Depends. Would you prefer Greg Smith, Alex White, Kanekoa Texeira, or Victor Mateo? None is likely to pitch better than Perez or Weber.

That doesn’t mean Hart and the Braves are blameless for their current rotation predicament; perhaps they should have added a veteran stopgap or two, as they did during the winter with Eric Stults and Wandy Rodriguez. At the same time, most teams would be scraping the bottom of the jar if tasked with replacing four starters, particularly if two of those starters were lost to injury in the waning days of the season. As a result, unless the Braves are asking Teheran and Wisler to pitch well below their means, it’s hard to get too worked up or accusatory about their rotation. Unit verdict: Not tanking.

The Bullpen
And here’s where the allegations grew the rest of their appendages.

The Braves’ present-day bullpen is a smoothie made from other team’s leftovers. Unlike the rotation, this group is rotten by choice: Hart traded Jim Johnson, Luis Avilan, and Ian Thomas (and likely would have traded Jason Grilli if he hadn’t gotten hurt), and received (among others) two injured relievers in return (Paco Rodriguez and Chris Withrow) who have yet to throw a pitch with the Braves. Add in a preexisting injury to Shae Simmons and failed stints by veterans David Aardsma, Nick Massett, Michael Kohn, and Jason Frasor, and the Braves were left with this undesirable cast of characters:

Vizcaino is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the lone member of the group with an ERA+ topping 100. Is it any wonder, then, why the Braves have been far worse than the normal team at holding leads? Even compared to other bad bullpens (like the A’s), the Braves are in their own class. Consider the following table, which includes the shutdown Royals for additional context:

Winning percentage when leading after x innings, 2015

Team

After Six

After Seven

After Eight

Braves

75.5%

86.0%

92.3%

Royals

91.5%

95.5%

98.6%

A’s

82.5%

88.3%

96.6%

The Braves being far less efficient at holding onto leads than the Royals is to be expected; the Braves being almost as far away from the A’s as the A’s are from the Royals is not. Keep in mind, the A’s have had to deal with misfortune and trades of their own, so they aren’t benefiting from greater stability. The Braves’ bullpen is so bad that you almost have to wonder if their condition is intentional, i.e. if Gonzalez is using the relievers the wrong way in order to lose more games.

The simplest method to test that theory is to compare the relievers’ leverage indexes with their projected ERAs. (This isn’t the best method; not everyone pitches to their projections, and so on, but it is the simplest method.) In real life, Gonzalez’s top seven relievers have been Vizcaino, Cunniff, Marksberry, Moylan, McKirahan, Jackson, and Detwiler; PECOTA would instead recommend a group of Jackson, Vizcaino, Moylan, Winkler, Burawa, Cunniff, and Detwiler, in that order. Those lists aren’t perfect matches, but they do share five of the seven names. The two Gonzalez has “snubbed,” so to speak, have legitimate explanations behind their absences: Winkler hasn’t thrown a regular-season pitch in two seasons and is active for service-time purposes, while Burawa is new to the organization and doesn’t have a track record of big-league success; it’d be more curious if Gonzalez trusted him.

The Braves have been active in accumulating arms—albeit low-quality ones—and at worst passable at utilizing those arms. Their strategy hasn’t resulted in a fix, but they’ve probably done enough to give them a pass. Unit verdict: Maaaybe tanking, but probably not.

With that verdict issued, let’s perform a thought experiment. Say you were Hart and you wanted to tank without becoming a running heat magnet, like the Astros or 76ers. How would you go about it? One covert way would be to assemble the worst bullpen possible. You could then toggle through cheap, bad options on a whim—or go “through more pitchers than a free bar on St. Patrick’s Day,” as last week’s piece put it—and earn points for effort, even if all the movement amounted to false hustle and did little to up the talent level. All along, you’d be allowing more runs in high-leverage spots, which, coincidentally, is the easiest way to lose more games than you should.

Obviously that’s an extremely cynical read that (almost certainly) isn’t grounded in reality. Based on Hart’s work with the roster as a whole, it’s likely that his efforts to repair the bullpen have been sincere and just haven’t worked out. It happens; ask the Red Sox, A’s, and Rays, who are all suffering through rough bullpen seasons without their every move being misidentified as having a conspiratorial bend. But after sifting through the Braves’ bullpen members and statistics, you can understand why folks are accusing them of pulling the plug; even if they aren’t trying to, they’re doing a darn good job of it.