April 16, 2015

Is Improved Depth Enough?

The Braves got off to a hot start that not many of us saw coming, granted anything can happen over the course of 5-7 games.  The team is expected to have a poor 2015 season, thanks mostly to an offense full of fringy hitters.  They lost three (Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, and Jason Heyward) of their best four hitters and seemingly didn’t do enough to replace the lost production with enough quality bats.

However, we perhaps underestimated just how awful the rest of the team was, beyond Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Gattis, and Heyward.  Clearly those four hitters were the best on the team but those four hitter were also the only productive hitters on the team.  It’s not just that they were better than the rest of their teammates.  The rest of their teammates were well below average and made those four look like the heart of the 1927 Yankees’ order in comparison.

On Baseball-Reference, we can look at a stat called Batting Runs to measure a player’s overall batting contributions.  It is based on the run value of different events, so what are walks, doubles, homeruns, outs, etc. worth in terms of runs and run expectancy. Batting Runs is set up such that 0 is average.  Any positive number of Batting Runs is above average and any negative number is below average.

The 2013 Braves that won 96 games and finished 4th in the National League in runs scored had 10 players who were above average in terms of Batting Runs.  A couple of those players did it in 7 or fewer plate appearances.  The rest, 8 of the 10, did it in at least 107 plate appearances.

The 2014 Braves only had 6 players who were above average in terms of Batting Runs.  Only four of those players (Freeman, Justin, Gattis, and Heyward) had more than seven plate appearances.  So the Braves only had four players, with any kind of significant playing time, who were above average offensively in 2014.

A lot of the 2013 offensive performance was because of some hitters performing over their heads.  Chris Johnson was the third-best hitter on a team that finished 4th in runs.  That’s not likely to happen again for the rest of his career.  If you are relying on Chris Johnson to be your third-best hitter, it’s going to take a lot elsewhere.  Also, Gerald Laird and Ramiro Pena had solid seasons in fairly significant playing time.  Those players weren’t on the roster for their offense.  But on the other hand, that’s how you build a bench.  You get a lot of players who aren’t good enough to start and hope a couple have good seasons.

In 2014 the bench players they thought were going to hit just didn’t…at all.  Ryan Doumit was a microcosm of the Braves’ issues in 2014.  Coming into that season, he had posted a 106 career OPS+ (so he was roughly 6 percent more productive than the average player).  Yes, he was in his age 33 season in 2014 and his production had declined each of the previous two seasons but he was still coming off a season in which he posted a 95 OPS+.  Any team would take that from a bench player, particularly one who could play some corner-outfield, first base, and catcher.  But in 2014 his OPS+ dropped to 55.  Chris Johnson went from OPS+ of 124 to an OPS+ of 83.

When every player except for four are well below average, it’s hard to score runs and compete.  But no front office could have expected that from pretty much any collection of somewhat competent baseball talent.  They had a decent plan and all but four players either underachieved or at least failed to achieve reasonable expectations to such a degree that it kept the team’s offense from tanking.

The hope for 2015 is that they’ve accrued enough depth to be at least good enough offensively.  Odds are as many players as in 2014 can’t again fail to perform at or beyond what one would reasonably expect.  Even though they might not have three of the only four good hitters from 2014, they could make up for that production just by avoiding awfulness out of the rest of the team. The question is did they lose too much on the top end?  Did they make enough gains with the rest of the roster’s production to make up for those losses?

They might have a better offense, but that is damning with faint praise, as it’s hard to get much worse than bottom six in every meaningful category and bottom two in runs.  Sure, they made up some of the losses on the top end with some depth but the depth they acquired doesn’t exactly have a track record of producing offense.  Frankly, over the long haul, it’s probably a good bet to claim the offense will be roughly the same as last season, perhaps with marginal improvement.  Then again, stranger things have happened than a lot of fringy hitters producing enough offense to support a solid pitching staff.  It happened last year with the Royals.  I just wouldn’t bet on it.




27 Responses to “Is Improved Depth Enough?”

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