The Braves Infield: Pop-Ups and the Middle Infield

At first base in Atlanta, you’ve got a line drive, batting average on balls in play god with maybe a lower power ceiling than some of the others at his position. At third base in Atlanta, you’ve got a line drive, batting average on balls in play demi-god with maybe a lower power ceiling than some of the others at his position. At catcher, you have two grip-it-and-rip-it guys with power and little else. There isn’t too much science to those parts of the Braves’ infield depth chart.

In between the three positions, you’ve got some strange batted-ball distributions that make for more interesting conversations.

Andrelton Simmons has probably heard about his pop-up problem. He changed his swing plane drastically between his rookie and sophomore seasons. He hit 2.05 ground balls per fly ball in 2012, and almost halved that to 1.08 GB/FB in 2013. That can only come from a concerted effort to put some lift into the ball. Of course, it resulted in more power than most expected from Simmons, and the good news is that he can probably keep doing it if he liked the results.

The bad news would come if he decides his batting average and on-base percentage is more important to the team than his power. Players make decisions like this all the time, just listen to Torii Hunter tell me about his purposeful change in batted ball trajectory. If he trades homers for singles, there might indeed be a boost in his batting average, but there’s an invisible anchor holding him down. Check out his spot on the leaderboard for pop-up percentage (infield flies divided by balls in play):

Name PU%
Jose Bautista 7.52%
Mike Moustakas 7.39%
Andrelton Simmons 6.96%
Yoenis Cespedes 6.57%
Dan Uggla 6.41%
Matt Dominguez 6.15%
Giancarlo Stanton 5.97%
Brian Dozier 5.95%
Shane Victorino 5.78%
Ian Kinsler 5.67%

There are a lot of bad batting averages on this list. Ever wonder why guys with power and speed like Shane Victorino and Ian Kinsler don’t have great batting averages? This is part of the reason. They hit balls straight up in the air more than most, and those end up outs 99% of the time. And! To Simmons’ detriment! This skill is strongly correlated year-to-year — only slightly less strong of a correlation than ground-ball and fly ball rates. So it’s very likely that Simmons has another year with a bad pop-up rate and a depressed BABIP. Let’s just hope it comes with the homers again.

You’ll see that Dan Uggla is on this list, too. He was terrible last year, and he’s got pop-ups to blame for part of that problem. The worse news is that he’s the 13th-worst in the league in pop-up percentage since he joined the Braves. Add that in with his gradually-worsening strikeout rate and high fly ball rate, and you have your career .287 BABIP for Uggla, which has been more like .267 over the last three years. Even if Uggla cuts back on the strikeouts, he’s a lock to be looking up at his .246 career batting average. That suppresses his on-base percentage, too, and that’s why he’s barely been above average with the stick in Atlanta. Add in bad glove, and he’s one of the shakier penciled-in starters on a decent team.

Enter Thomas La Stella. The eighth-round draft pick out of college is already 25 and was therefore older than many of his minor league stops, so he doesn’t have a ton of ceiling. His defense isn’t great, but it *has* to be better than Uggla’s. And, like Scooter Gennett in Milwaukee, La Stella comes to the table with the completely opposite plate discipline profile as the incumbent. It might be refreshing for the Braves to turn to a player who’s projected to walk once for every one and a quarter strikeouts. That .347 OBP projection for La Stella betters Uggla’s OBP with the Braves by seven percent…

But Uggla is still under contract for $26 million over the next two years. He’ll get first crack at the job, and if he can be 2012 Uggla, he may keep it for much of the year. Most of the year! All of it?

That might be a shame. La Stella is projected for an isolated slugging percentage over .130, speed, and an OBP over .340. How many second basemen bettered those marks last year? Four. Robinson Cano, Jason Kipnis, Ian Kinsler and Chase Utley.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

3 Responses to “The Braves Infield: Pop-Ups and the Middle Infield”

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  1. Brian Snyder says:

    The good news is that the Braves will have Gattis and LaStella cost controlled for the foreseeable future. Freeman is taken care of. Now its just a matter of signing Simmons to a long-term deal (which shouldnt be too hard since defense/value is still underrated.

    Braves should be good for a long time even with the bad TV contract.

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  2. mcf1417 says:

    Wait, Freeman is the BABIP God and CJ is the Demi-God?

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  3. Zo says:

    Eno, just got offered Gyorko ($10) for Wacha ($7) – thoughts? TY!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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