What They Did: 94-68, 2nd Place NL East. Lost in Wild Card Round.
Actual Runs: Scored 700 runs, Allowed 600.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 92.3 (1.7 below actual)
Restated: Scored 675 runs, Allowed 610.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 88.5 (5.5 below actual)
(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed. Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.
Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed. In the case of the Braves, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 89 games.)
The figures above give the first clue as to why I don’t have the Braves repeating as post season participants in 2013 and even, shockingly, finishing behind the Phillies. They may have won 94 games last year but the Braves benefited from cluster luck a little bit on offense, a little bit while pitching, and then had some further luck in how the sequencing of their actual runs scored and allowed, all adding up to the tune of about 5 games. My numbers viewed the Braves as a 94-win team in 89-win clothing.
Now an 89-win team is still a top tier team and always deserving of a playoff berth especially in the expanded Wild Card format that began last year. An 89-win team is collection of players who combined to perform at a level 46 wins above replacement level. (For this example, I’m using FanGraphs 43-win replacement level baseline as all the individual WARs I’m going to cite come from FanGraphs.)
Collectively, the Braves everyday players amassed about 29 WAR and the pitchers about 18. (Please excuse rounding differences, in this case 47 total WAR versus my theoretical 46 from above.) Here’s a list of the top five everyday player contributors:
Jason Heyward 6.6
Michael Bourn 6.4
Martin Prado 5.9
Dan Uggla 3.5
Chipper Jones 3.0
That’s more than 25 of the total 29 WAR everyday players produced and Braves fans will surely note, 15.3 of that WAR, in the form of Bourn, Prado, and Jones, will not be with the team in 2013. Sure, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton are exciting additions to the team’s outfield for years to come but on a year-over-year basis are they going to improve on the 12+ WAR performances of Bourn and Prado in 2012?
B.J. Upton played centerfield for the Tampa Bay Rays for six full seasons and only once was his performance even low enough to be called league-average (2009). In every other year he’s consistently been an above average player, flirting with All-Star level performance in 2008. He’s pretty established, at age 28, as a very consistent, 4 WAR player. Justin Upton, his younger brother by three years, has a little more volatility and therefore a little more upside as well. In 2011, Justin garnered well deserved MVP support and finished fourth in the balloting. He returned to a roughly league-average level last year and apparently a conflict with Arizona management led to his trade. It was a great pick-up for the Braves as he is signed to a very reasonable contract through 2015. If the Upton brothers each match the best season of their entire career, they will produce 11.4 wins in 2013 – a one game drop compared to the men they are replacing. And, of course, a projection system does not call for them both to have career years in the same season.
I think it goes without saying that a third base platoon of Cincinnati Reds cast-off Juan Francisco and Houston Astros cast-off Chris Johnson aren’t expected to equal Chipper Jones’ production. (Let’s put it this way, if Johnson and/or Francisco retired after last year, I doubt Brian Cashman would be putting out feelers to see if they wanted to play one more year in pinstripes.)
A trio of 23-year olds may prevent the offense from falling off too much though. Heyward has the right mix of skills and age to suggest his tremendous year last year could be the start of multiple All-Star campaigns and Freddie Freeman impressed by increasing his walks and cutting down on his strikeouts in 2012, suggesting he is the Braves first baseman of the future. Finally, mid-season call-up Andrelton Simmons solved the shortstop problem created by the early season performances of Paul Janish and Tyler Pastornicky. Brian McCann had the worst year of his career at the age-draining position of catcher and he no longer has super-sub Brian Ross to spell him, backed up this year instead by the pedestrian Gerald Laird. Since McCann typically misses 40 games a year that’s an important factor. Put it all together and while there is upside to the Uptons – especially Justin who has the explosive power to carry a team for a month – there is plenty of volatility to the downside as well. The Braves will do well to match last year’s run production.
The case for a regression on the run suppression side of the ledger isn’t quite as easy to understand but it’s there nonetheless. Kris Medlen was incredible in the second half of 2012 going 9-0 as a starter of 12 games and posting an ERA of 0.97 in 83 innings of work. He’s good – he’s really good as evidenced by his high strikeout, extremely low-walk skill set – but no starter is 1.00 ERA good. He could still be great in 2013 and give up as many runs in April as he gave up as a starter all last year (11). To a lesser degree that could happen to the rest of the returning rotation as well. Finally, newly installed fifth starter Julio Teheran may have a lot of potential, but he also had a lot of trouble striking out batters in a full season of AAA pitching last year – a data point that usually bodes poorly for MLB success. In the bullpen, there really aren’t enough superlatives to describe closer Craig Kimbrel’s 2012 season. The entire bullpen is really good, but even a superior bullpen can be expected to have an ERA of say, 3.25. That’s a half-run higher than Atlanta’s allowed last year. Over nearly 500 innings or work, that’s an increase of about 25 runs.
Finally, Atlanta had, by my calculations, the best defense in the National League last year. According to the game charters, a lot of that was due to the play of Michael Bourn and Marin Prado (as well as Jason Heyward). Replacing Bourn and Prado, along with the natural volatility that results from leading the league in defense, projects to cost the Braves about 20 additional runs this year.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: Atlanta certainly earned its place in the post-season last year, even if it ended after just one controversial, infield fly-marred game. But a lot went right for them in 2012, and even more importantly some key contributors to that success are gone this year. Atlanta had some splashy off-season acquisitions which may have masked the reality of this year’s task. Vegas opened the Braves at 87 ½ wins. Frankly, I’m thinking the books down there are on to me as I thought it would open even closer to 90. Still, just like the other team to make name-recognized changes in the off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays, I like the under here a lot.
82-80 – Third in NL East
677 Runs Scored 670 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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