LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Over a 30-day stretch last fall, Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore, a protege of Braves president and former GM John Schuerholz, found lightning in a bottle as he watched his small-ball offense and high-quality pitching manufacture its way from a one-game wildcard to Game 7 of the World Series. Atlanta’s retooled offense is banking on finding a similar spark.
On multiple occasions throughout the Braves’ hyperactive offseason, there have been references to a new style of play from various levels of the organizations. During his de facto spring training State of the Union address, president of baseball operations John Hart again pushed this vision.
"I think that we’ve been an easy target nationally when you look at the Braves and you say trade Heyward, star player; trade Upton, star player; trade Gattis, big bat — you just connect the dots and it’s not going to be a very good offense," Hart said. "I think if you want to dig a little deeper, look in and say this is a club that had a lot of strikeouts last year, was 29th in the league in runs scored, it wasn’t a really easily-functioning offense as it was.
"There’s no promises that this is going to jump up and be a much better offense. It’s going to be a different offense. Fredi (Gonzalez) is going to have a little more maneuverability."
Gonzalez has used this language — different offense, matchups, platoons, lineup experimentations — in practically every interview regarding the offense since the team’s multiple blockbuster trades were executed. And it seems the blueprint has filtered down to the player level.
"I think we’re kinda built more like the (2014) Royals this year," said first baseman Freddie Freeman, the team’s top returning position player. "We’ve got some guys that they brought in that make more contact. We did strike out a lot last year. We did strike out a lot in 2013, but we also had a couple more guys on and we seemed to those big hits when we needed to in 2013. We just didn’t do that last year. And I think we all saw that probably late April, we stopped getting those big hits. If we can just cut down on the strikeouts, get some balls in play, move some runners to steal some bases — with Bo Porter coming in, I think we’re gonna be a lot more aggressive on the bases this year; maybe I’ll get some stolen bases — we’ll see."
Added third baseman Chris Johnson: "I think (the Royals) showed everybody last year that you can win and not hit a bunch of home runs, that you can manufacture runs and win on good pitching. Hopefully our offense will get going. We’ll learn how to manufacture runs and ride the coattails of the pitching staff."
The preseason projections, particularly in regards to the offense, have almost universally been negative. As Hart pointed out, a low-scoring offense that loses the bulk of its top talent does not inspire optimism. Still, this team is relying on small-ball to bring it out of its funk. The power numbers are bound to decline — the Braves look destined to finish near the bottom of the league in home runs two seasons removed from finishing fifth in the majors with 181 — but the plan is for the on-base percentages, walk rates, strikeout rates and the overall consistency to improve.
While it may not immediately provide a high-octane offense (Kansas City finished 14th in scoring), there is potential for better balance. The Royals hit the fewest homers in baseball last season, finished in the middle of the pack in offensive production and got hot at the perfect time. It is a plan that is not easily mimicked, or perhaps even sustainable, but it’s at least more realistic than trying to mold this group into the Orioles or Tigers.
In a rudimentary look at how last season’s statistics matches up with the current, yet-to-be-finalized active roster, there would have been significant improvements in certain areas, downgrades in others. The strikeout rate would have been cut by 2.4 percentage points. The on-base percentage would have held constant (.305), but the contact rate would have jumped 3.2 points (via FanGraphs):
Overall, that would have been a slightly worse lineup. The list of things that need to go right for this to work in 2015, even marginally, is a long one. (There are reasons the Phillies are the only team projected to score fewer runs in 2015.) The holdovers from a year ago still see a few of the moves as upgrades and are publicly welcoming the new approach.
"Last year, we didn’t really have a leadoff hitter or a 2-hole hitter," Freeman said. "You can’t expect a 6-foot-6, 250-pound man (Heyward) to hit leadoff for you when he’s a middle-of-the-lineup (bat). Hopefully our lineup is constructed better and we can get some guys on base and move some runners over and producing 1 through 8."
How the front office whittles down the roster in camp promises to play a factor as well.
The left field and second base position battles are wide open with plenty of candidates, and bench depth is going to be important if Gonzalez truly plans to mix and match based on matchups. Will on-base percentage and high contact rates play the trump card during roster cuts? How much will "veteran leadership" come into play? And if the aim is to clone the Kansas City blueprint, the Royals also finished first in steals (153) a season ago, so an added dose of athleticism could come from names like Jace Peterson, who came over in the Justin Upton trade from San Diego, Eury Perez or veteran Eric Young Jr. All three names are involved in the two aforementioned position battles.
No matter who is left on Opening Day, the shift from the power-first mentality to run manufacturing is an organization-wide approach that requires time and effort.
"It’s definitely something that you’ve got to work on," Johnson said. "The last couple of years we’ve kinda been just going up there and trying to hit home runs and trying to have that big inning that way. Now, we’ll take a run here, take a run there and if we can score a couple of runs every couple innings we’ll be in good shape.
" … It’s a little different approach is what he talks about a lot. It’s just basically a mindset at the plate of what you’re trying to do and what we’re trying to do as a whole. It’s a work in progress. It’s a what we’re working on every single day with the situational hitting and taking what the pitcher gives us and manufacturing runs."
Can Kansas City’s success be replicated? It’s unclear if Kansas City can replicate its own success, particularly in an improving division — Vegas certainly doesn’t like the ’15 odds for either team. Still, that is the apparent model, and it’s too early for Hart & Co. to abandon optimism.
"This is a hard thing to sort of define: You always hope that you have the kind of club that’s going to overachieve," Hart said." (One) that is going to play at its potential, sure, and perhaps even better."