Before last season and early on last season whenever the Braves went into an offensive slump, much was made over the Braves propensity to strikeout often. The view was that they couldn’t manufacture runs, meaning they couldn’t score without the benefit of the homerun to help them out.
When all was said and done last season, although the Braves did in fact tie for the league lead in strikeouts and led the league in strikeout rate, the Braves had the third- or fourth-best offense in the National League (depending on what key metrics you looked at). The Braves’ propensity to strikeout often did not seem to hinder their ability to manufacture runs because runs were in fact manufactured.
This season is a different story, at least so far. The Braves are third in the league in both strikeouts and strikeout rate. Their offense is somewhere between noticeably below-average and bad (depending on what key metrics you look at). Were the critics right all along? Is there a fundamental flaw in the way the Braves’ offense was constructed? Are the chickens coming home to roost this season?
Well, the makeup of the team isn’t all that different. Brian McCann is gone. And Tommy La Stella now has more plate appearances this season than Dan Uggla. Chris Johnson has been worse than we might have expected, even after playing over his head last season. B.J. Upton is better than last season, which is not saying much. He’s still been bad so far on the season. Jason Heyward, after carrying the team for parts of last season, is basically a league-average hitter.
Gattis took over for McCann and he’s been about as good as anyone could have imagined. La Stella is clearly an upgrade over Uggla, and he doesn’t strike out often. Even if Johnson, B.J. Upton and Heyward were more productive, they aren’t low-strikeout guys. It’s hard to imagine a more productive Braves team, with all players playing close to their upsides, as much different in terms of strikeouts.
Last season Chris Johnson played over his head. B.J. Upton was even worse. Heyward might not have played up to what we think his ceiling but he had a very good season. With the exception of B.J. Upton and Uggla, all other of last year’s Braves’ hitters more or less produced as expected or exceeded expectations. Yet, they ranked higher among National League teams in strikeouts and they produced as well as all but two or three National League teams.
This season’s lack of production is probably not a a result of a fundamental flaw in roster construction or because of lots of strikeouts causing an inability to manufacture runs. The problems are Chris Johnson is a lot worse, Heyward is a bit worse and the extra, non-regulars are worse.
No Braves non-regular has posted an OPS+ above 74. (An average OPS+ is 100, so 74 is 26 percent below average.) So when a player like Gattis goes down or when Fredi Gonzalez wants to give someone a day off, the offense has taken a huge hit. None of the Braves’ regulars are exceeding expectations enough to make up for a lack of production from the part-time players.
The Braves should be looking for a good part-time bat, one that could possibly platoon with either Chris Johnson or B.J. Upton (moving Heyward to centerfield on those days), to improve their offense. I’m not sure how much of an upgrade they can get. It would be crazy to give up a good prospect for an extra/platoon-type player but I’m not sure they have enough in the way of their second-tier prospects to get such a player worth anything. Hopefully Wren and company can work some magic. But offensive production is the issue, not an inability to manufacture runs in certain ways some would prefer.