Atlanta Braves Question: What If They Stop Here?
Sure: it is still just mid-November. But the ‘essential’ fixes have already been completed for this off-season. While there is rumor of more for the Braves, what if it doesn’t happen?
November has been good to the Atlanta Braves. Aggressive moves for free agents have left them in an enviable position compared to many other teams.
The Braves added what they hope will be 400 innings to their rotation in the past week. Between Teheran, Foltynewicz, Wisler, Colon, Dickey and Collmenter, that probably provides at least 900-950 starting pitching innings.
Note that it requires 972 starter innings to reach a ‘Quality Start threshold’ – that’s 6 innings in each of 162 games.
That itself is probably good enough to get through the season. Clearly, the Front Office wants more… but whether they can pull that off is another matter.
So suppose the 25-man roster looks something like this:
- Rotation as above: Teheran, Foltynewicz, Wisler, Colon, Dickey, Collmenter and/or auditioner of the month.
- Bullpen anchored by Jim Johnson with Vizcaino, Cabrera, Simmons, Krol, et al.
- Infield: Freeman, Peterson, Swanson, Garcia
- Outfield: Kemp, Inciarte, Markakis
- Catchers: Flowers and Recker
- Bench: Smith, Francoeur (possibly), and d’Arnaud
What could that group get accomplished in 2017?
Checking the Numbers
I have a simple model that I have been using over the past 2-3 years to project team performance: total team WAR, as reported by fangraphs.
So it isn’t like this is some super-secret formula – and in fact, I expect that fangraphs contributors would say “Well… yeah, of course it works.”
From their annualized Team stats, I take their team WAR for position players (includes offensive and defensive components) and add it to the same for pitching.
Here’s the results for 2016:
In general, if you have a 40 WAR team… you are a playoff team. This year actually had a couple of anomalies in the data, though they are explainable:
- TEXAS. At 28.6 WAR, this team had no business making the playoffs at all – especially being out-pointed by nearly three teams in their own division. What’s whackier is that their race wasn’t even close: 9 games over second place Seattle.
The reason for the Rangers’ success was that they killed the Astros (15-4!) and Mariners (12-7). They ended up 28 games over .500 and 16 of those could be attributed to those 2 opponents. That’s something not easily repeatable.
- BALTIMORE. The Orioles barely made the post-season, and were clinging to the ledge through most of the year’s second half after a nice start. They, like the Giants, took advantage of opponents that scuffled early on (Boston and Toronto with pitching; the Yankees with… everything) … then more-or-less coasted the rest of the way.
On the flip side, the Cardinals (39.2 WAR) showed that being in a strong division is not a path to success, despite your own decent showing. The Astros should have made the playoffs… but they couldn’t even be the best team in their own state.
Okay, so what about Atlanta?
That requires some projections.
Projecting 2017 – Tricky Business
It is clear that the Braves performed much better in the second half (post All-Star Break; 72 games) than during the Spring. Since we have to rely on some methodology here, the assumption is that the second half is out standard for this analysis.
The conjecture here is that with the offense more-or-less identical to that period of time, this makes a reasonable frame of reference to use. It’s also a nice chunk (44.4%) of the season, making this less susceptible to streakiness.
It may also be somewhat conservative, since Matt Kemp wasn’t around for that full 72 games.
During that second half of 2016, the Braves’ position players soared to 6th in baseball with a total fWAR of 10.6.
For a full year, this extrapolates to 23.85. I will round that down to 23.8 for our purposes here.
Is that a reasonable projection? I will claim “yes” for these reasons:
- Inciarte, Garcia, Kemp, Freeman, and Peterson can build from their strong finishes
- We should see a tick upwards on the defensive side with Swanson, perhaps a better-in-shape Kemp.
- Gone are unproductive performers such as Beckham
- Smith should be both present… and better in 2016.
On the pitching side, that’s more difficult to factor.
Braves’ pitching was – in a word – terrible in 2016. First half, second half… didn’t matter. But it is here that the biggest changes will be felt.
No, I don’t expect great things from the new signees. But I do expect league average performance in terms of ERA with good innings production. Fangraphs relies on strikeouts as a strong measure of their WAR calculations… and that won’t help these guys a lot.
In 2016, these pitchers had these full-season positive WAR results:
- Julio Teheran: 3.2 fWAR
- Bartolo Colon: 2.9
- Mike Foltynewicz: 1.3
- Jim Johnson: 1.3
- R.A. Dickey: 1.0
- Ian Krol: 0.9
- Chaz Roe: 0.6
- Mauricio Cabrera: 0.6
- Matt Wisler: 0.5
- Arodys Vizcaino: 0.3
- John Gant: 0.2
- Casey Kelly: 0.2
- WIlliams Perez: 0.2
- Jose Ramirez: 0.1
- Josh Collmenter: 0.1
- Shae Simmons: 0.1
These numbers sum to 13.5. Now clearly, there were some negative values (since the Braves scored 8.9 overall… and neither Colon nor Dickey were present).
The league median pitching WAR result was 14.2 fWAR. So even if the Braves muster that 13.5, they aren’t quite up to league average.
Nonetheless, I’m going to use that 13.5 number for these reasons:
- It probably represents a best-case scenario for this exercise.
- It is not completely unrealistic. With many more innings coming from the starters, it is reasonable to project that (a) they will be better as a group; and (b) the bullpen should also benefit.
ADD ‘EM UP
23.8 + 13.5 gets the Atlanta Braves to a fairly robust number: 37.3. That’s actually a lot better than I had expected.
Clearly, a lot of things have to go right to reach this figure:
- The team must stay healthy for the most part. That’s probably the biggest hurdle… though it actually happened for the position players over the 2nd half of 2016.
- The 40-something’s need to maintain 2016 levels of pitching production. No easy feat.
- No extended slumps.
- Must beat the Nationals more than 4 times (yes, we had our own 15-4 deficit to a division rival)
But because “things just don’t all go right”, 33-35 fWAR is probably more realistic for 2017.
Based on 2016 team results, that would put the Braves around where the Yankees (33.1, 84-78) and Tigers (37.0, 86-75) were.
The worst team in that group was the Marlins (79-82, the only team under .500); the best was the Orioles (89-73; AL Wild Card winner and only team in the group making the playoffs).
That’s not a horrible result.
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What Would It Take to Push ATL Over the Top?
Roughly another 5 WAR… probably on the pitching side of things.
So let me finish with this tease:
- Chris Sale: 5.2 WAR (roughly his average year)
- Jose Quintana: 4.8
- Sonny Gray: 3.7 in 2015
- Chris Archer: 3.1 (in a “down” year for him)
Want to know why John Coppolella is pushing for Chris Sale? That might very well be the answer to your question.