The Atlanta Braves are entering unchartered waters with their youth movement in 2012. With their lack of interest in re-signing Alex Gonzalez or any other potential starting shortstop, the Braves seem likely to enter the 2012 season with rookie Tyler Pastornicky as their everyday shortstop. If this comes to pass, it would mark the third consecutive year that the Braves have begun a season with one of their farm system products as an everyday starter with Jason Heyward (RF-2010) and Freddie Freeman (1B-2011) being the other two. The fact the Heyward, Freeman, and Pastornicky will all be 22 years old on opening day 2012 started an interesting conversation between the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Dave O’Brien and his Twitter followers due to the claim that no team in recent history has made the postseason with three starting position players under the age of 23.
It is easy to dismiss stats like this out of hand. These are the kinds of trivia-based stats that sports announcers use to fill time during games, but they are at best spurious correlations that typically have little if any predictive power. The fact that no American League team has ever made the postseason with Albert Pujols in its lineup should not have deterred the Angels from signing him. Likewise, the fact that the Marlins have never won the NL East and the World Series in the same year should not deter them from trying to win the division in the coming years.
Despite being skeptical, with the help of Jeff Zimmerman, I decided to investigate the correlation between youth and success a bit more systematically, and the results were not exactly pretty. First, what the Braves are considering is unprecedented. No team since 1950 has given 400 or more plate appearance to three players under age 23. If we move the cutoff to 100 plate appearances we find 21 examples. As the table below demonstrates, these 21 teams are not exactly models of success as they combined to average 67 wins, a .422 winning percentage, and produced only three winning seasons.
However, if we look at some of the young players on these teams there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that young players alone are holding the teams referenced above back. For example, Tony Conigliaro was certainly not to blame for the Red Sox of lack of success in 1964 and 1965 as he posted an a wOBA of .385 in 1964 and .372 in 1965 despite being under the age of 21. Similarly, Bob Horner was one of the Braves’ best hitters in 1978 (.371 wOBA) and 1979 (.387 wOBA) in his age 20 and 21 seasons.
Back to the teams themselves, are there commonalities in these teams that are relevant to the 2012 Braves? For the most part the answer is no. This is a largely a collection of recent expansion teams (Houston, Milwaukee, NY Mets) and moribund teams without a recent track record of success (Atlanta, Tamba Bay, Red Sox). In fact, the only team out of the 21 that had a winning record in the season before their youth movement was the 1970 Cincinnati Reds, which is the one team that stands out in this analysis, having gone 102-60 and appearing in the 1970 World Series. So we now have two ways to spin our trivial stat: (1) Braves fans should give up now on 2012 as the average winning percentage of teams that give 100 or more plate appearances to three players under 23 is .422 or (2) the Braves should start printing playoff tickets, because all teams that had a winning record the year before and gave 100 or more plate appearances to three players under 23 went on to play in the World Series.
The 2012 Braves will definitely be unique. They are likely to give more playing time to guys who can’t rent a car than any team in recent history. In addition to the three regulars under age 23 the Braves also return 2010 Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel (23) as closer and someone out of the highly touted trio of Mike Minor (24), Julio Teheran (20), and Arodys Vizcaino (21) will likely be the fifth starter going into the season. Young players are certainly risky, but I am not sure this is necessarily what Braves fans should be worried about going into the season, as all these players either have a good track record or are very highly regarded.
First baseman Freddie Freeman is projected to follow up his respectable .345 wOBA rookie campaign with a .350. Most observers expect Jason Heyward to bounce back from a disappointing second season (.314 wOBA) in the big leagues and produce more like he did as a rookie (.376 wOBA). As for Pastornicky, he does not have to be great to improve upon the 1.1 WAR that his predecessor, Alex Gonzalez, provided in 2010 or what is available in the free-agent market (Yuniesky Betancourt?). The bigger risks for the Braves going into 2012 likely involve the health of their veterans such as Chipper Jones (39, and increasingly fragile), Tim Hudson (36, and recovering from back surgery), and Tommy Hanson (25, and recovering from shoulder tendinitis). The Braves should be a highly competitive for a postseason berth in 2012 in large part because of the quality of their young players, not in spite of them.