The 2017 Atlanta Braves: A .500 Team?

The 2016 Atlanta Braves were built to suck.  After all, starting a season 0-9 basically kills any hope left in the fan base, and gets them prepared for the contagious losing.  For the few fans who paid to go see their beloved Braves play in the now retired Turner Field, losing 93 games is heartbreaking.  A large volume of articles exists detailing the extent at which the Atlanta Braves, under both John Hart and John Coppolella, are remodeling their organization.  This article serves the purpose of examining one thing:

2016 Atlanta Braves

 

Record

Runs Scored Runs Against

Run Differential

First Half

31-58 307 414 -107

Second Half

37-35 342 265

-20

That’s right! The 2016 second-half Atlanta Braves won more games than they lost!  If you did not already know this you either (a) are not a Braves fan, or (b) could not manage to care less.  However, this could have some real value behind it.  While the Braves managed to be outscored by 20 runs in the second half, they still managed to win two more games than they lost.  They scored 35 more runs in 17 fewer games.  Their runs/game increased 3.45 to 4.75, which would have placed them in between the Mariners and Cardinals in that regard had it been 4.75 the entire 2016 season.  The most important takeaway is how much better the second-half Braves were at preventing runs — 149 fewer runs allowed than in the first half.  Shaving off that many runs in only 17 fewer games is huge.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  A winning record is unsustainable at a deficit of 20 runs in 72 games.  But I am not asking whether the 2017 Atlanta Braves can win even 82 games.  Can they win 81?  Could the great finish down the stretch of the 2016 season carry over into 2017?  While going .500 is technically meaningless because a .500 team will not make the playoffs, not losing more than they win in the new SunTrust Park will energize the organization and the fan base, and prepare the team for future success.

When the 2016-2017 offseason kicked off, the Braves signed two popular starting pitchers, and acquired one via trade, to eat innings so their crop of young pitching could ripen on the farm.

Braves 2017 Offseason Acquisitions (2016 Statistics)

 

Record

ERA FIP BB/9 K/9 WHIP

WAR

Bartolo Colon

15-8 3.43 3.99 1.50 6.01 1.21

2.9

R.A. Dickey

10-15 4.46 5.03 3.34 6.68 1.37

1.0

Jaime Garcia 10-13 4.67 4.49 2.99 7.86 1.37

1.2

Two of the three had subpar years in 2016.  The other one became an internet sensation for his antics in the batter’s box and even hit a homer against the San Diego Padres.  But let’s assess what each pitcher brings to Atlanta’s rotation.

Bartolo Colon ages like a fine wine.  His ERA was better last year than any Atlanta starter except Julio Teheran.  While pitching record is not a statistic to measure performance, it is worth noting he won more games last year than any Atlanta starter.  He was better pretty much across the board than anyone not named Julio Teheran.  But can he keep this level of production up?  I would like to think so.  His two-seam velocity has stayed relatively consistent over the past three years.  All the Braves should ask Colon to do is turn in around 20 quality starts (he turned in 19 last year).  Consistency was a hallmark of his time with the Mets, and should continue in Atlanta for at least the 2017 season.

The other old guy the Atlanta Braves picked up this offseason happens to be knuckleballer — R.A. Dickey, 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner.  While Dickey will more than likely not be in the running for any hardware as he nears his 43rd birthday, he can still meet the immediate needs of his new team.  From 2011 to 2015, Dickey’s lowest inning count was 208.2, and peaked in his legendary 2012 with 233.2 innings pitched.  This is what the Braves need.  They need Dickey to turn in a mountain of good, quality innings.  If he could get over 200 innings again, and remain viable at the big-league level, then it is mission accomplished.

The third major addition to the Atlanta rotation is southpaw pitcher Jaime Garcia.  On December 1 of last year, the St. Louis Cardinals accepted minor-league infielder Luke Dykstra, right-handed pitcher John Gant, and righty Chris Ellis for Garcia’s services.  First, let’s look at the positives of this — Garcia is a definite mid-rotation talent, who posted a 3.73 ERA in 31.1 IP and a 3.18 ERA in 28.1 IP in April and May of last year, respectively.  He gives Atlanta a lefty in a rotation filled with righties.  The downside?  His low ERAs early in the season turned into a 5.40 ERA in June and a 5.60 ERA in the second half of the season.  So much for success in the second half driving this article, right?  Let’s remain optimistic.  After all, that is the whole purpose of this.  Garcia’s HR/FB rate was up from 7.1% in 2015 to a ghastly 20.2% in 2016.  He got consumed by the league-wide power surge.  I do not think such a high rate is sustainable or will happen again.

Let’s make a prediction.  Bartolo Colon makes us all fall back in love with “The Great Bart-Bino” all over again and he turns in around 16-20 quality starts for the upstart Braves.  Dickey, the workhorse of the staff, follows suit and dizzies batters with his knuckler for over 200 innings.  Garcia returns to early-2016 form, and posts something in the ballpark of 1.5 WAR.  Of course, the likelihood of all three scenarios playing out is small, but what I am trying to get across is it is possible.

Now, time to switch gears. The Braves lineup has changed its look dramatically since this time last year, sticking with a solid mixture of recognizable names and some guy named Dansby Swanson.  Here is a look at their projected Opening Day lineup:

2017 Atlanta Braves

Position

Name Bats 2016 WAR

Projected WAR

CF

Ender Inciarte L 3.8

2.5

SS

Dansby Swanson R 0.9

2.4

1B

Freddie Freeman L 6.5

3.7

LF

Matt Kemp R 0.0

0.0

RF

Nick Markakis L 1.7

0.5

2B

Brandon Phillips R 0.8

0.7

3B

Adonis Garcia R 0.2

0.2

C

Tyler Flowers

R 0.3

0.7

The projected WAR was retrieved from FanGraphs.com ZiPS projection

Look at the first half of their lineup.  To me, those three guys, Inciarte, Swanson, and Freeman, look like the core of a team poised to wreak havoc on the NL East before the end of this decade.  It is hard to project exactly what we are going to get out of Dansby Swanson, but most Braves fans and analysts expect him to take reign as the face of the franchise.

Starting in the leadoff spot is Ender Inciarte, who was brought over as icing on the cake in the Shelby Miller trade that landed Swanson and pitching prospect Aaron Blair.  In his first year in Atlanta, Inciarte posted a .732 OPS and won a Gold Glove for his outstanding play in center field.  I really could not think of a better leadoff guy for the Braves.  He is signed through 2021 at a team-friendly cost of $30.5 million, with a $9-million team option in 2022.  In his first years in the bigs, Inciarte has played in at least 118 games, posted a WAR above 3.7 (produced a figure of 5.3 in 2015), and shows no sign of slowing down as his prime years lay ahead. What if he crosses the 3.0 WAR plateau for the fourth time in four seasons, and maybe even adds another Gold Glove?  That is all his organization needs out of him.

Inciarte is a vital part of the Braves defense, which, according to 2017 PECOTA projections, leads the NL East in Fielding Runs Above Average (they are projected to attain an average figure of 3.6, while the other four teams are either at 0.0 or negative).  BaseballProspectus.com explains FRAA as an “individual defensive metric created using play-by-play data with adjustments made based on plays made, the expected numbers of plays per position, the handedness of the batter, the park, and base-out states.”  In short, the higher the number, the better the fielder, and vice versa.  The higher the team average, the better the team is overall in the field.  In his Gold Glove campaign, Inciarte registered a FRAA of 23.0, according to BP.  The graduation of Dansby Swanson and the addition of web-gem-prone second baseman Brandon Phillips will certainly strengthen the middle cone of the field.  Just how good is this team going to be at preventing runs?  Many projection systems think they will be around the top of their division, and many fans are excited to see the double-play tandem of Swanson and Phillips at work.

Freddie Freeman is the undisputed anchor of the lineup, and has finally seen the Braves ADD instead of SUBTRACT from the lineup around him.  The addition of Matt Kemp has helped tremendously.  With a recognizable slugger swinging behind Freeman, managers and pitchers had to pitch to him in the latter months of the year. With Kemp slotted behind him, Freeman hit to the tune of a .340/.456/.665 slash with 16 home runs and 18 doubles.  Kemp also matched the theme of this article with a strong second half — hitting .280/.336/.519 with 12 bombs in 241 plate appearances as a Brave.  The duo should have Braves fans excited for a full season of similar production from Freeman if Kemp is behind him.  Kemp, on the other hand, has a lower bar to pass, and could re-tool his value as an offensive player in his first full year off the West Coast.

So why is it unreasonable for the 2017 Atlanta Braves to win 81 games?  I do not think it is that far-fetched.  This article has not mentioned their incredibly deep farm system, which includes guys such as Ozzie Albies, Sean Newcomb, and Lucas Sims, but instead focuses on the immediate roster — a roster which has the potential to do unexpected things in 2017.  The dominoes would have to fall in all the right places, but this is baseball.  Anything is possible.

Theodore Hooper’s Official 2017 Atlanta Braves Prediction: 81-81

 

The statistics used in this study were found on BaseballProspectus.com, Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, and the rosters on RosterResource.com were a great help in referencing players and transactions. 



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RMD4
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RMD4

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge's_law_of_headlines

but I digress…

Anyway, I don’t see Markakis improving. Ditto for Garcia or the revolving door at catcher. Should still be a fun team though.