Perhaps this is a discovery of a collective consistency unseen in more than a decade. Perhaps the past 81 games were a shooting star across baseball’s summer sky.
Regardless, the 2012 Braves outfield surpassed all expectations through the first half of the season. Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward and Martin Prado discarded preconceived notions of a production ceiling, electing instead to become the unexpected: The best outfield in baseball.
The Braves triumvirate, in fact, is on pace to become one of the most complete outfield grouping in the past quarter century, setting its course to challenge former elite outfields such as the 1991 Athletics, 1995 Angels and the 2002-03 Braves.
“The only ones that are comparable [this season], in my view, are the Angels and the Cardinals. All three are pretty close,” said Ken Rosenthal, Fox Sports’ senior baseball writer and on-air reporter.
Two Angels outfielders — young star Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo — made Tuesday’s All-Star Game roster in Kansas City. The Cardinals replicated this distinction with Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran.
Bourn was the lone Braves outfielder to be named to the National League roster. But make no mistake, through 81 games this season, this Braves outfield stands above the rest.
In fact, all three players are listed among the 10 most valuable outfielders in baseball this season, according to statistical website Fangraphs’ wins above replacement (WAR) database — an all-inclusive statistic that quantifies a player’s value in terms of the difference in team wins added (or subtracted) between him and an “average” replacement player.
Bourn is listed as the second-most valuable outfielder in baseball in the Fangraphs database; in fact, his 4.5 wins added over a replacement level center fielder ranks fourth-best in baseball at any position. Prado holds the seventh-highest outfielder WAR in baseball. Heyward boasts a WAR of 3.5 — the eighth-best mark among baseball’s outfielders.
No other team places all three outfielders in the top 25.
“As far as all three being consistent, I think they rank right at the top,” Braves analyst and former outfielder Brian Jordan said in a recent phone interview. “You rarely see three guys clicking at the same time, and that’s the way it’s been for this Atlanta Braves team.”
Recent history has played host to some dominant outfield groupings, but, without prior warning, the Braves are suddenly on pace to become one of the most integral trios to line up in the 7-8-9 positions in the past quarter century. Such outfields are, simply put, hard to come by.
Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and Gary Sheffield formed the best-rounded outfield of the aughts, with each Braves standout finishing the 2002 and 2003 seasons in the top 22 in WAR among outfielders. The 1990 Athletics were even more efficient with Ricky Henderson, Jose Canseco and Dave Henderson.
But all groups in this time frame take a back seat to the strike-shortened 1994 season and the Expos’ Moises Alou, Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom. Only that regal Montreal squad, which Rosenthal referenced as the preeminent group of the past 25 years, mirror the collective milestone Bourn, Heyward and Prado are on pace to reach: Three of baseball’s 10 most valuable outfielders roaming the same grass night after night.
The question: Can this exemplary production continue? Some analysts, like Rosenthal, think it’s possible.
“Of course they can keep it up. None of the three is performing at a level far beyond his norm.”
Funny how much difference one year can make in sports.
In comparison with 2011, drastic alterations dot the landscape of the Braves outfield, with trades and good health exponentially improving the level of outfield play at manager Fredi Gonzalez’s disposal.
Coming off the All-Star break last season, Prado had just re-entered the lineup after missing 31 consecutive games recovering from surgery on his right calf to treat staph infection. His .280 average at the time was 17 points below his career mark — he finished the year hitting at a career-worst .260 clip.
Heyward was battling a recent shoulder injury that stunted any improvement upon his hype-justifying rookie year. Instead, Heyward limped into (and out of) the All-Star break hitting a dismal .226 and inducing rumblings that, perhaps, opposing pitchers had figured him out. He finished 2011 with an on-base percentage hovering where most elite hitters’ batting averages range.
And Bourn, the unit’s leader and lone All-Star, was still a member of the Houston Astros.
Sometimes nothing changes from year to year. Other times, 365 days offers the opportunity for resurgence.
“To me, when you feed off one another it makes everybody better,” Jordan said. “It reminds me of when I played in Atlanta with Andruw Jones. He made me a better defensive player because I enjoyed watching him make great catches, how he played defense. And I fed off him.”
That certainly seems to be the case in Atlanta. The primary component in the three Braves’ significantly high value comes from their prowess and efficiency in the field. They comprise the top defensive outfield in baseball, with each player ranking among the seven best outfielders in terms of Fangraphs’ ultimate zone rating (UZR) – a statistic that quantifies the number of runs saved relative to an “average” fielder at a player’s position. If all three play at least 150 games this season, they are on pace to prevent around 70 opponent runs from crossing the plate.
Heyward, from the very start, proved to be an excellent fielder, and he has improved this aspect of his game every season. Prado has fielded his position exceptionally well the past two seasons. But the conversation always drifts back to Bourn, the one leg of the tripod absent at this juncture a year ago.
“He’s the catalyst,” Jordan said.
He’s a Gold Glove-quality center fielder — his ultimate zone rating is tops in the National League at any position. He’s a nightmare on the base paths. By any statistical calculation, Bourn’s all-around production through the first 81 games elevated him into first-class company. Perhaps through osmosis, it appears to have seeped to his left and right.
But if Bourn provides the foundation, Heyward holds the tools to build it into a skyscraper. His preternatural physical gifts were rumored long before he stepped into Turner Field’s dugouts. His batting practices became NASA field exercises. His first at-bat landed in the Braves’ bullpen.
Heyward finished that year with a .277 batting average and 18 home runs, and the rest was intended to be gold-plated history.
But history is not always perfectly linear, especially with myriad forces determined to prevent your success. Pitchers adjust, injuries happen and, soon enough, Jason Heyward was no longer JASON HEYWARD: SUPERSTAR OF TODAY, LEGEND OF TOMORROW.
Phenom lust wears off in short time.
“I think it wore on him as far as the disappointment. The amount of pressure this young man was under his rookie season – being compared to Hank Aaron … hitting a home run in his first at-bat – I mean, that’s a lot of pressure,” Jordan said. “For a young guy to sit out with an injury, that’s a tough pill to swallow. But yet, he was man enough not to say anything because he didn’t want to make excuses.
“Now people are just now seeing that he was injured, that this was the J-Hey people expected.”
But few, if any, expected the totality of this collection to be so dynamic, so effective. And so this Braves outfield enters the second half of 2012 with an opportunity to make its mark on history by attempting to become the first group in the past 25 years to complete a 162-game season with three of the 10 most valuable outfielders in the game.
That, in itself, would be phenomenal. And no one even saw it coming.