Teheran’s recent dominance has many Braves faithful breathing a sigh of relief, and for good reason. Atlanta’s lack of a true ace in the rotation has been clear for many years now, and it’s prevented them from making the leap from division-leader to world-series contender. A good baseball team must be balanced, with players who fit their positions and compliment one another’s skill sets. Of course not every position is equally important. The starting pitcher is arguably the most important position; he sets the tone of the game and is the only player to touch the ball on every play. As we’ve seen out of Teheran in his last two starts, a good starting pitcher can practically take the bats away from the opposition’s offense.
But even a great starter can only play every fifth game, making the everyday position players all that much more important to the team. These guys are responsible for supporting the pitcher, both by providing run support and preventing runs on defense. To get a strong bat in the lineup, you sometimes have to sacrifice defensive ability, and vice versa. One strategy is to acquire and develop strong defensive players at the more difficult positions and establish strong hitters to play the easier positions in the field.
According to the sabermetrics defensive spectrum, first base is the easiest position to field. First is home to many power hitters, because it does require a great deal of range or speed defensively. Still, just because it is not difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t important. The first basemen is involved in many plays throughout every game, often more than every player besides the pitcher and catcher. The first basemen needs to be consistent at making the routine play. The Braves were smart to sign Freeman to a long-term deal, because he is an above-average fielder and one of the best active hitters. They designated a big part of their payroll to his eight-year contract, but it is worth it because Freddie is a great fit at an important position.
In contrast, second base is one of them most difficult positions to field, but I do not consider it an important position. Second base usually gets less action than shortstop, or even third base, especially with the increased use of defensive shifts against pull-heavy hitters. A second basemen should be athletic and sure-handed, ready to turn a double play at second or cover first on a bunt. This is one position where defense is more important than offense, and teams can buy a good defense player for less than it would take to sign a big bat. That’s why the Dan Uggla signing was a mistake from the beginning. In an attempt to bolster the offense, the Braves spent $62 million on a second basemen with a limited range and subpar fielding skills. Now they are plugging Pastornicky in at second in an attempt to try to squeeze a few more drops of offense out of the lineup. Pena is more confident and capable in the field, making him our best option at second base.
In my opinion, one position player is clearly the most important cog in the machine: the catcher. The defensive spectrum ranks catcher as the most difficult position (apart from pitcher). Like first base, the catcher is better served by strength and durability than speed or agility, so it’s a position for good power bats. Also, the catcher is responsible for keeping base runners in check, preventing steals, and calling the game. I don’t think the importance of calling the game can be understated, and both Gattis and Laird have been surprisingly good at it. It’s one of those intangibles that’s difficult to represent with a specific stat, but I have to believe that our backstops have been a big part of the high-quality pitching we’ve in the first third of the season.
And how much are the Braves spending at this ever-important position? Half a million for Gattis, 1.5 mil for Laird (seems backward, right?). Neither of them are incredible hitters, but they are both good, and Gattis has as much raw power as any hitter playing today. Plus, one of Atlanta’s best minor-league prospects, Christian Bethancourt, is a catcher. Whether it’s Gattis or Bethancourt going forward after 2014 (and it will probably be the young prospect), the Braves should try to sign a catcher to a multi-year deal.
As I said before, a good balance is key. Still, teams would be wise to invest their money in the most important positions. Despite some missteps in the past, the Braves seemed to have figured this out.