There’s chatter in the social media universe about whether the 2015 Braves are more enjoyable to watch than the 2014 Braves or perhaps even the 2013 Braves. From what I can gather, the complaint is that the Braves got less gritty and acquired more high-strikeout, selfish guys who tried too hard to be sluggers, after they lost guys like David Ross, Eric Hinske, Tim Hudson, Brian McCann, and Martin Prado. They added guys like Justin Upton and B.J./Melvin Upton. This not only made the team worse (it took a season, as they were good in 2013 but bad in 2014), it made them less interesting to watch.
Now, “less interesting” or “not as fun” are obviously matters of personal taste. One can’t really argue if another person doesn’t mind strikeouts (if a team is scoring runs) or prefers contact outs. This is true regardless of the fact that team strikeouts don’t correlate to team runs scored or regardless of the fact that contact outs sometimes do result in a runner from third scoring.
As far as things like “grit” or “veteran leadership,” it’s difficult to decipher what those words mean. And it’s pretty much impossible to know just by watching whether a player is a leader, a hindrance, if he’s pushing himself everyday, or if he’s lazy. I posit that when people refer to the 2015 Braves being more gritty or having more leadership, they are essentially just saying that they like the way certain players carry themselves. This is another matter of personal preference. Whether you like Jonny Gomes coming to the plate and fidgeting with his helmet or whether you like Justin Upton coming to the plate and taking a rather ordinary batting stance, it is up to you. We might think we can tell whether Justin Upton or Jonny Gomes is trying hard or is gritty just by watching but we can’t.
The bothersome aspect of people discussing whether the 2015 team is more fun to watch than the 2015 team is what it implies, that players on the 2014 team weren’t doing their best or weren’t trying to employ the most optimal techniques. For example, I don’t think any hitter on the 2014 team was ever careless about any strikeout or was ever trying to do anything other than make contact with a runner on third with less than two outs.
The Braves’ front office, under Frank Wren, acquired power hitters who could also run the bases and play defense, and that front office team appropriately understood that strikeouts or the way a player looks while playing is secondary to on-base, slugging, defensive, and base-running abilities. Attempting to build a good team that hit for power, got on base, played good defense, and run the bases well, regardless of strikeouts or a gritty look, whether by design or not, is not a bad thing. If opportunities arise under the new regime to acquire similar types of players, we shouldn’t freak out.
The plan, in terms of style of play, under Wren and company wasn’t the problem. Acquiring high-strikeout hitters like Justin Upton or Evan Gattis or even Melvin Upton or Dan Uggla, wasn’t the issue. One issue was Melvin Upton and Dan Uggla’s careers declined beyond belief the moment he put on a Braves’ uniform. Another issue was Ryan Doumit in 2014 wasn’t able to fill the Evan Gattis 2013 role.
If you look at the Braves from 2013-2015, it’s quite a stretch to conclude that strikeouts and (perceived) grit were/are significant factors to whether they won or lost. If Wren deserves blame for anything, it’s for neglecting the farm system. Reportedly Wren wasn’t the warmest, friendliest person to work with and that’s why a lot of good scouting and player development people left the organization. But some of the neglect of the farm system was because he knew he had a core of players from 2010-2014 capable of making a run at a championship, and resources and efforts went into trying to win at the major league level.
With Justin Upton and Jason Heyward headed for free agency, they had to flip the switch and get back to building up the system. I wouldn’t have blamed the organization if they had tried to go for it one more time in 2015 with Justin Upton and Heyward. But I approve of the rebuild. Wren did quite well with returning the Braves to as close to a prominent level as we’ve seen since The Run ended in 2005. The time came and went for the Frank Wren Braves. It was time to turn the page. His weaknesses probably set the franchise back and that really started to show up this season, but there was nothing wrong with the type or style of players he looked to build the major league team around.
Unfortunately, in 2014, the Braves surrounded the core group of their best players with bad or disappointing ones. But, dare I say, watching Justin Upton, Heyward, Gattis and that core group was more fun to watch than the 2015 Braves.