Who is really the best baseball team in the majors? I honestly don't know but I try to figure that out by using basic and advanced statistics. I live for talking about baseball, it's my biggest drive in my life and I will jump on the opportunity to talk baseball with anyone, even with people who I don't really like. For me, Baseball is a piece of art that sits in my mind all day, ready to be painted on at any point of the day.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

30 Teams: Atlanta Braves

By Mike Moritz

QUICK NOTE: Three days ago, Vladimir Guerrero signed with the Baltimore Orioles for one year and $8 million. He'll probably be the DH. The Oriole's have an impressive offense this year but will obviously have to cram everyone for playing time.

In Bobby Cox's last year managing, the Atlanta Braves won the National League Wild Card in 2010, winning 91 games and finishing 6 games back from the first place Phillies. The Braves are, in my opinion, one of the most exciting and interesting teams in the major leagues now and probably will be in the future. They have a great farm system with a lot of young talent on pace to putting together first full seasons as well as an established group of players that can lead them to this team to the playoffs.

The Braves were beaten by the eventual world champion San Francisco Giants in the division series losing 3 games to 1. The Braves looked over matched in the series, only getting an average of 6 hits (which was helped by their lone good offensive game of 11 hits in game 2) and scored a total of nine runs in four games and five of those runs once again came in their good game 2. They were shut down by the Giants superb pitching and amazing defense, to say the least.

Between September and two games in October at the end of the season, the Braves limped into the playoffs winning 13 games and losing 16 and at one point, blew the division lead to the Phillies at which point, they were unable to get back again.

But apart from Bobby Cox and his Brave's early playoff exit and their September swoon, they had a great season and a fantastic pitching staff.

Atlanta finished with the best xFIP (3.79) in all of baseball and the third best ERA (3.57). They also finished 6th in both K/9 (7.76) and BB/9 (3.16) and they even had the 4th best pithing WAR in baseball, 20.5. And another great note is that their opponent O-Contact% was 64%, good for the 4th highest in baseball. The Braves also had the best xFIP of any bullpen in the majors at 3.40.

So the pitching was more than great. What about the offense?

The Braves tied for the forth best OBP in baseball, .339 and were tied for third in walk rate at 10.1%. That is really just about it. Atlanta finished 14th in BA (.258) and 13th in wOBA (.327) and 17th in ISO (.143). So it was no surprise that their collective offensive WAR was a mediocre 22, which ranked 16th in baseball.

Their defense was not good. -30.7 UZR over the course of the season was ranked 26th in the big leagues.

The Braves acquired Derrek Lee around the trade deadline and then lost him to free agency when he signed with the Orioles. But that is OK because the Braves have a very good player from the Atlanta farm system to fill in, top prospect Freddie Freeman.

Freeman is the top hitting prospect in the Braves system and at the age of 21, will be the starting first baseman for them leading into 2011. Freeman has been said to have great pitch recognition and plate discipline, especially for such a young player, but not the kind that translates into walks, but rather big hits like home runs. His defense is great and he has a very strong arm (he was a pitcher in high school). As stated before, Freeman does not walk a lot, as many young hitters, and strikes out at an average rate, which could get worse later in his career if he does not collect more walks, but I hesitate to worry about this as, like most players, their walk rate should improve. 

Freeman is a very good player who should hit for about a .290-.310 average and about 30 homers in an average year for his career and play great defense as well.

And for the sake of this post getting long enough, I will save your time and just say some names in the in Braves farm system that should have a fine future in the bigs rather than writing up a whole paragraph on all of them. The players are: Julio Terhan, Mike Minor, Arodys VizcainoRandall DelgadoCraig Kimbrel, and Brandon Beachy as well as others.

Moving away from the farm system and to the external additions that the Braves have made which included picking up Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins

Uggla, who had a career year last year, failed to come to an agreement with the Marlins on an extension to stay in Miami and thus was traded for Omar Infante and reliever Michael Dunn. He posted a .287/.369/.508/.381 line with 33 homers which were all career highs except his SLG. He also had an 11.6% walk rate and a 25.1% K-rate (which obviously isn't very good). Expect his batting average to regress back to about his career mark and his homer total to stay about the same because Turner Field is better for homers than Sun Life Stadium but looking a little deeper into his stats, it looks like he just caught a little bit of a power surge (his fly ball rate was below his career mark even though he had more dingers). He also had a 5.1 WAR, again, the highest of his career. 

The final topic that I will mention is Jason Heyward. Heyward's much anticipated rookie season started with a bomb that sailed over the right field wall at Turner Field on Opening Day last year.  Heyward and his amazing plate discipline then went on to a .277/.393/.456/.376 line with 18 homers, 11 stolen bases and a 14.6% walk rate the rest of the way. Not to mention his exceptional 24.2% O-Swing, which is even better considering that he is 21 years old. Yes, his strike out rate of 24.6% strike out rate is high but considering his age, plate discipline and potential, that should take the same kind of pattern to that of Even Longoria's (downwards). Heyward had a great rookie year (finishing 2nd to Buster Posey in R.O.Y.) but I am expecting a considerable regression for 2011. First, he has a new manger in the clubhouse and young players tend to take more time to adjust to an adjustment in team management than veterans do. Second is his ground ball and fly ball rates. His line drive rate was just about average but his ground ball rate was a very high 55.1% which was near the worst in baseball last year. His fly ball rate was a mere 27.2% which, again, was in the bottom tier in all of baseball. .255/.377/.445/.355, 15 homers is my projection. I think the sophomore slump will hit him pretty hard. But that is not to say that his plate discipline will take a hit, it will probably be the same, or maybe better...if it can get better.

While you can't see their faces, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward look to be the future face of the Braves franchise just as Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones were in the late 90's to early 2000's. 

The Braves look to be in great shape, their rotation is sharp, led by Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson, and in the back end, they have Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, and probably either Mike Minor or Julio Terhan. And let us not forget All-Star catcher Brian McCann (sorry that he has not been mentioned more), Martin Prado and Chipper Jones (who is questionable coming off knee surgery and is 38 years old) to add to the group of players that were already mentioned.  

The new manager, Fredi Gonzalez, might have an effect on the team performance, which is obviously a big thing to consider but I still have them competing for a playoff spot and if they get in, it will most likely be as the Wild Card team. I say 85-92 wins. 

Congratulations to Bobby Cox on a terrific managerial career. 

(Statistics in courtesy of: espn.com, fangraphs.com and hittrackeronline.com)

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