The 2017 lineup stacks up comparably with Braves’ top offenses since 2010
The Braves have every right to feel ecstatic. With four consecutive series wins, including two over division leaders Washington and Milwaukee, Brian Snitker’s club is clawing its way back to .500 without a single on-field contribution from one of the world’s best hitters. Atlanta should have crumbled without Freddie Freeman. Instead, over the past two weeks it ranks 13th in runs scored with a middle-of-the-pack rotation and bullpen. Here are three observations from the recent surge:
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In 2006, the year the New York Mets snapped the Braves’ division title streak, Bobby Cox’s lineup featured power galore. The offense ran out five different players with 24 or more home runs — in order: Andruw Jones, Adam LaRoche, Jeff Francoeur, Chipper Jones and Brian McCann — and led the National League in long balls. By 2008, Andruw was gone. By 2010, Chipper and McCann were the only true links to the 2005 banner plastered on Turner's left-field facade.
In the meantime, with few exceptions, the Braves’ offense trended in the wrong direction.
In the 11 seasons since the Mets snapped the streak, Atlanta ranks 23rd in runs scored and 17th in weighted runs created. These marks were pulled down to baseball’s basement after a disappointing 2014 campaign gave way to a dramatic rebuild. Atlanta entered this season as the lowest-scoring team in baseball over the past three years.
Now? The post-trade deadline explosion of yesteryear is no longer a product of sample size. The Braves' offense is at least decent again. It’s been awhile.
Even with Freeman missing half the season to date, Matt Kemp’s occasional hamstring flare-ups, Dansby Swanson hitting himself out of the Rookie of the Year race in April and May and the worst third-base productivity in the National League, Snitker’s club continues to make noise with its bats.
“We’re never out of games, especially with the offense that we have,” Kemp said earlier this week. “We can put up a lot of runs at any given point, at any given moment."
Is this an elite group? Not even close. Teams like the Astros, Yankees and Nationals are in another stratosphere. But is this the best Braves offense this decade? That’s a closer race.
The 2013 Braves should be considered the benchmark for Atlanta offenses in recent years. Bolstered by excellent offensive performances from Freeman, McCann, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, plus an inexplicable career year from Chris Johnson, the franchise hit above league average (102 wRC+) for the first time in 10 years. Here’s the thing: The 2017 group boasts a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Granted, those rates arrive in a friendlier hitting environment league-wide, but it’s a start … especially considering the most productive hitter on the planet over the past calendar year has been sidelined since mid-May.
Combing through both teams position by position makes for an interesting exercise. Here are the differences in weighted runs created plus for the eight field positions (listed rate pertains to this season’s team; for instance, a +5 means the 2017 team is five percentage points better than the 2013 group, per their respective league averages):
First base: +38
Second base: +3
Third base: -54
Right field: -13
Center field: +27
Left field: -4
Even split by position. There were occasional similarities. Both teams received strong production from their catchers, Kemp vs. Upton is a close race in left and, despite the feast-or-famine memories, the second-base spot ultimately wasn’t that much of a disaster that season (although Brandon Phillips is a significant upgrade and deserves a bigger lead in the above breakdown). Though a fastball to the face cut his season short just when he started hitting his stride, Heyward posted demonstrably better offensive numbers than Nick Markakis in right, but it’s not a glaring difference.
The differences arrive in the two teams’ black holes. Insert flashbacks to B.J. Upton (now Melvin Upton Jr.) right alongside the current edition of frantically searching for answers at third; where the Braves have filled that void in center with Ender Inciarte, they could use a bit of that flash-in-the-pan challenge for the batting title from Chris Johnson nowadays. Shortstop is the other major advantage for the 2013 unit as Andrelton Simmons’ solid year outpaces Swanson’s slow start, but that should even out over the course of this season.
And there’s no question which version of Freddie Freeman the franchise would take.
If this Freeman-to-3B experiment does proceed (and succeed), this season’s team has chance in this conversation: If not the best Atlanta offense this decade, they have a chance to be a more complete unit when October rolls around. Much of this depends on what the front office decides to do with the likes of, say, Brandon Phillips and Matt Adams — the 2013 team has the advantage of being the leader in the clubhouse — but it’s encouraging news for the organization that, for the past 11 months, it is trending in the right direction at the plate.
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R.A. Dickey hits the reset button
As negative attention descended upon Bartolo Colon as his ERA ballooned and he was sent to the disabled list, R.A. Dickey lingered with even worse peripherals. At the time of the trade, the veteran knuckleballer claimed a lower strikeout rate, higher walk rate and gave up home runs at a higher clip. For most of the campaign, Jaime Garcia has looked like the only successful signing in the Braves rotation.
Dickey has done his best to alter that storyline in recent weeks.
Dickey’s best three starts in a Braves uniform arrived this month — each coming at SunTrust Park. (Average game score per FanGraphs: 79.) Following his gem against the Brewers over the weekend, Dickey has allowed just two earned runs over his past 21 innings at home. When throwing in a hiccup in run prevention in the nation’s capital, allowing eight runs in five innings to the Nationals, Dickey has 26 strikeouts and just two walks over his past four starts. The 43-year-old right-hander said his signature pitch was not dancing quite as well against Milwaukee, but that’s all relative. Just ask the Brewers.
“(The knuckleball) wasn't as good as the movement that I had the last three games, but I had a good enough one to change speeds," Dickey said of his last outing. "It was in the strike zone a large percentage of the night, and those things add up to a pretty good outing."
This four-start stretch is not an anomaly. It coincides with (potential All-Star) catcher Tyler Flowers moving behind the dish for Dickey’s latest starts. Grading out as one of the premier pitch-framers in the game, Flowers has helped Dickey nibble the edges. In 26 innings pitched to Flowers, Dickey has received 68 called strikes — a small but meaningful jump in the percentage of his pitches thrown (18.56 percent), particularly low fastballs outside the zone. Here’s how those numbers have played out in the box score:
Atlanta’s patience appears to have paid off for Dickey, who might still be a commodity at the trade deadline with a few more strong starts under his belt.
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Freddie Freeman’s third-base experiment does not arrive free of opportunity cost
The surface-level explanation for the surprise pending news of Freddie Freeman's move across the diamond is simple: Former third baseman and early-season MVP candidate wants to maximize lineup productivity by switching his position to keep his super-replacement at first base around.
The hopeful payoff is an enticing one. If Matt Adams’ career-best streak is not an illusion — rather a product of a lefty-friendly ballpark and regular playing time — then Atlanta can address its asteroid-sized crater at third base without leaving first base in a similar situation. The injury risk is minimal. Freeman will more than likely commit his share of defensive mistakes at his new spot, but it’d be worth the price if Adams can carry a 150 OPS+ through next season. The move could give Atlanta a truly dangerous lineup, and it would also help fulfill the "Field A Competitive Team" objective set in Year 1 at SunTrust Park.
Keeping Adams and Freeman in the middle of the order is the quickest way to a brighter present — and the extra year of control on Adams does not hurt.
Does keeping Adams get Atlanta closer to a World Series title, though? That's an unfair boom-or-bust question, but general manager John Coppolella discusses this endgame all the time. Decisions are not made in a vacuum. It’s not a guaranteed win-win to hang onto a surplus MLB-caliber first baseman hitting roughly 30 percent higher than his career averages, because doing so means declining calls regarding his increased market and acquiring potential value that could help past the 2018 season.
To be clear: The Braves have the upper hand here and they are weary of losing. Adams’ club control is an asset. The fact that they traded for him when his value was low, courtesy of him sitting on the Cardinals’ bench, means they are already one stepping stone ahead. Any production Adams provides is surplus value; any trade offer worth accepting offers surplus value.
The point is that there is a chance — despite Freeman’s team-oriented, win-now mindset at the moment — that Adams regresses to his typical career numbers. Again, that would be fine … and Adams’ career averages are better than anything the Braves have thrown into the third-base role since Chris Johnson decided to randomly challenge for a batting title. But the possibility exists.
And this is a team that, regardless of its present hot streak, still sits nine games behind the first-place Nationals and even farther outside of the wild-card picture.
Keeping Adams seems like a 2018 play.
So if a team is willing to put together a trade package for this Matt Adams, the Braves should listen because his market may never get hotter, but his bat could very well cool off before the Braves break back into baseball's playoff picture.