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Braves Infield Defense Hurts Hudson’s Value

Judging the Braves defense in 2011 depends on which stats or methods you see as the most accurate. For instance, UZR has the Braves ranked in the bottom five of defensive teams while DRS has the Braves ranked in the top nine. Alex Gonzalez (-0.3 UZR, +15 DRS) and Freddie Freeman (-12.6 UZR, 0 DRS) are the two players the numbers disagree with most, and are a big reason for the differences in the two totals.

Whatever stats you decide to look at, it is easy to see that the Braves’ defensive strength was in the outfield, where both Jason Heyward and Martin Prado were above average defenders. The Braves shuffled centerfielders for a majority of the season, with Jordan Schafer, Michael Bourn, and Nate McLouth all amassing similar innings totals in center. McLouth was quite poor in center while the other two were at least average to above average.

The problem with the Braves defense, and what is likely to be an even bigger problem this season, was the infield. Freeman likely is not the plus defender many expected, but he probably also is not as bad as the one year UZR sample suggests. He is closer to average defensively, which is fine. Gonzalez was a top notch defender the whole season, which was the lone reason for the Braves sticking with him at shortstop for the entirety of the year was in his high quality glove.

Losing Gonzalez will be a big loss to the team’s defense, and it will especially hurt a pitcher like Tim Hudson. Hudson has relied on ground balls as much as any starter in the league since entering the Majors, so losing a quality defender at the infield’s most important position will certainly sting. Gonzalez’s replacement, Tyler Pastornicky, is expected to be about an average defender. Mike Newman shared those thoughts as well in a brief scouting report of Pastornicky.

With the downgrade at shortstop, a few other negatives also arise when looking at the Braves’ infield defense. Chipper Jones will play this season at age 40, and he has already seen his defense decline in recent years. Dan Uggla is arguably the worst defensive second baseman in the league, sporting the second lowest UZR of -34.2 and the second lowest DRS of -38 since both numbers’ inception. Freddie Freeman, who I already explained is close to an average defender, has his biggest problems with range. His hands are quality around the base, but his ability to move quickly and get to grounders is his biggest weakness. Freeman has reportedly added at least 15 pounds, which will probably not help him with this issue.

It is rational to expect worse defense at third base, shortstop, and first base due to the above reasons. Include those factors with Uggla’s already awful glove and you likely get one of the worst defensive infields in the game. Martin Prado will help the team defensively on Chipper’s days off, but the overall third base defense will still be well below average if Chipper stays healthy enough to play a majority of the season.

Tim Hudson GB BABIP
2007 .210
2008 .208
2010 .188
2011 .239

The poor infield defense could be detrimental to Hudson’s fantasy success. Hudson already saw a bit of a jump in his ground ball BABIP last season, which could be due in part to Uggla’s arrival and Chipper’s knees. In the above chart, 2009 is not included as he missed all but seven starts as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. The expected decrease in defense across the infield could push that mark up a bit further. The back surgery Hudson received combined with him pitching this season at age 36 for the first half and age 37 for the second half also make him a risky fantasy option.

On a good note, Hudson did post the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career last season. He was a bit less dependent on grounders than he usually is, as he was able to strike more batters out and amass a 56.7% ground ball rate compared to the 64.1% and 59.4% that he posted in his two previous years on the mound. However, the questions surrounding Hudson’s back – it is likely that he misses at least a few starts at the beginning of the season – along with the very poor infield defense behind him are big caution signs for the veteran sinkerballer. Hudson has been utilized in fantasy formats as a wins, WHIP, and ERA performer, but expect all three to be a bit worse than his career norms as his expected innings total and the Braves’ infield defense hurt his roto value.