Fact or Fiction with Atlanta Braves' Early-Season Performances
With two months of the season already in the books, we have a relatively strong sample size to determine what's real and what's not as far as statistics are concerned. Of course, some stats take an entire season or even multiple seasons to normalize. However, one-third of the season is a perfect threshold to examine what's to be believed for the remaining two-thirds of 2014.
For the Atlanta Braves, there are a number of stats that jump out in terms of team rankings in hitting and pitching, as well as individual player numbers. It is often hard to tell what's a fact and what's fiction from these. The simplest and perhaps best advice when considering stats is to give a player the benefit of the doubt and expect things to regress back toward the mean. Eventually, everything gets there.
What follows are 10 statistics that give a strong representation of how Atlanta's season is going. After each one, I will tell you which are facts (the implied trend should continue) and which are fiction (the trend should reverse or change in due time).
25th in MLB in Strikeouts
The Atlanta Braves batters are 25th in the majors in fewest strikeouts.
This is a bad trend and one that will unfortunately continue based on the Braves' lineup construction. Other than Andrelton Simmons, no one in the lineup has a strikeout percentage in the single digits, and a number of the regulars have a K-rate approaching or surpassing 30 percent.
Right now B.J. Upton is the biggest culprit with over 60 strikeouts to his name. However, his brother is not too far behind. Even players not yet close to 150 at-bats, such as Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis, have already surpassed 30 Ks on the season.
This is the same problem Atlanta had last season. Their hitters had a lot of success when the bat was actually put on the ball, but the K problem is not going anywhere.
27th in MLB in OBP
The Braves are 27th in baseball in on-base percentage.
Unlike the strikeout rates, the team's on-base percentage should not stay in MLB's cellar for much longer. There are too many good hitters on this club.
While OBP is driven by walk rate, it also obviously factors in base hits. Atlanta isn't the most patient team at the plate, as evidenced by the Ks, but it should start to hit more than it is right now. With a team batting average hovering below .240, the Braves are hitting like a group of replacement-level lifers.
Even if the walks don't pick up considerably, the hits should, raising OBP in the process.
1st in MLB in Quality Starts
Atlanta's pitchers are first in baseball in quality starts.
The sub-3.00 ERA may not last for much longer. It would not be fair to expect it to. However, Atlanta's continued dominance on the mound can exist all season.
The Braves started the year with a number of the starting pitchers and bullpen depth on the DL. As the weeks go by, the starters especially are returning to game action and getting back to pitching like they are capable of.
Because of that influx of depth to the rotation, even as the streaky starters begin to falter, others will be there to take their place. Right now, the rotation is so deep; Alex Wood is tossing it around out of the pen. Atlanta should have at least five starters it feels confident in for the vast majority of the regular season, meaning the quality starts should continue.
16th in MLB in Fielding Percentage
Atlanta is 16th in the majors in fielding percentage.
While the Braves currently reside right near the middle of the pack in fielding percentage, that is not a fair estimate of where this team will be later in the season. It should find itself much higher in the rankings.
One main contributor to poor defense has been second baseman Dan Uggla. At this point, Braves fans are well aware of the fact that Uggla was yanked from his everyday duties in the infield. This move alone should bolster Atlanta's defense.
The other thing to consider here is the fluky nature of fielding percentage. It isn't a very good stat. Fielders with great range will usually commit more errors because they get to more balls. The Braves have so many fielders with great range and abilities, especially in the outfield, as well as perhaps the best defensive player in baseball in shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
Combined with Gattis' improvements behind the plate, Atlanta should be a top-10 defense by the end of 2014.
Jason Heyward's .339 SLG
Atlanta Braves' outfielder Jason Heyward is slugging .339 on the year.
There is no plausible explanation for why Heyward has hit the ball so poorly this season. The only explanations that make sense are (a) he's injured or (b) it's just a fluky stretch of games.
Unable to prove or disprove (a), it only makes sense to assume Heyward's first two months of 2014 are just a bit of bad luck. He's been an All-Star and six-plus-win player in the past. That type of ability doesn't just disappear.
And while the batting average and on-base percentages are worrisome, the scariest number is Heyward's slugging percentage. He's hitting for power as if he is batting with a pool noodle. And while he may be on pace for a career high in steals this year, that is not the type of player Heyward is supposed to be.
Chalk this start up to a good player having a bad couple of months and take solace in the fact that even Miguel Cabrera looked bad at the plate in April.
Chris Johnson's .284 OBP
Starting third baseman Chris Johnson has a .284 on-base percentage.
It goes against my gut feeling to say that this start for Johnson is not real. I am much more inclined to call 2013 the fluke year for CJ and point out that this season is much more in line with the rest of his career. (In six seasons, Johnson had never accumulated more than 0.5 WAR in any individual year until last year's 2.4 WAR.)
However, there is a simple explanation in defense of believing this low OBP won't continue. If Johnson doesn't start to turn things around, he will no longer be playing everyday.
Without the history with the team and history of success, Johnson's leash should not be nearly as long as Uggla's was before he was yanked from the lineup. The Braves should be looking for a trade that nets them another infielder who can play both second and third base. And if Johnson doesn't start getting on base, he should be dumped into a platoon that gives him the best chance to succeed.
While not showing strong lefty/righty splits for his career, there is some level of comfort that manager Fredi Gonzalez can find for Johnson to turn things around at the plate.
Players without huge power who get on base less than 29 percent of the time don't even deserve to be in the major leagues.
Andrelton Simmons' .286 OBP
Andrelton Simmons has an on-base percentage of .286.
There is of course an exception to the rule that players without power who get on base less than 29 percent of the time should not be in the major leagues.
That exception would be if you happen to have just put together the greatest defensive season in the history of baseball.
According to Baseball-Reference's defensive WAR, Andrelton Simmons' 2013 mark of 5.4 was tied for the best in MLB history. Defensive statistics are still being ironed out and perfected every year, but Simmons was one of the most valuable players in the league last year, even though he got on base so irregularly.
This year should be no different. Even if Simmons continues to swing at everything and never walk, he still deserves to play everyday. His overall value as a hitter may be in a slight decline, as he's also not running or hitting for much power, but while there is no evidence that he will start to draw walks anytime soon, it really doesn't make him any less valuable as a commodity.
Freddie Freeman's .922 OPS
First baseman Freddie Freeman sports a .922 OPS (on-base plus slugging).
Every year he's been in the majors, Freddie Freeman continues to improve. His first year getting major at-bats, he finished with a .795 OPS and was runner-up for the Rookie of the Year award. His total bases, power numbers and OPS figures have been on the incline ever since, culminating with his start to the 2014 season.
It remains to be seen what Freeman's power output ceiling could be. He doesn't seem like he'll ever be a 40 home run guy, but that doesn't matter. He's a better overall hitter because of it. Combined with his ability to draw walks, which should also continue to improve, there is no reason Freeman cannot be a .900 or 1.000 OPS guy for an entire season.
Mike Minor's 2-3 Record
In five starts, Mike Minor has a 2-3 won-loss record.
There are three main factors at play in regard to Mike Minor's sub-.500 record. First, he got a late start to the season with an injury and started the year on the disabled list. Upon return, it will take him more than 30 innings to get into midseason form, pitching at his best.
Second, he has only thrown those 30 innings thus far. Regardless of whether or not he came off the disabled list, that is not a large enough sample to judge a player's season by. He could have faced five difficult opponents, pitched in four hitter-friendly ballparks, etc. There are any number of details that don't come into play by just looking at the record.
And third, a starter's won-loss record is not always evidence of how someone is pitching. Over time, the better a pitcher throws, the more likely he is to win a ballgame. But even for an entire season, someone can be fantastic but have a poor record because of a lack of run support or poor defense behind them.
In Minor's case, it's a little bit of everything. He's not at full capacity yet. When he is, he should start to look like the ace of the staff he was in 2013. Once that happens, the wins will pile up as well.
Aaron Harang's Team-Leading Pitching WAR
Aaron Harang leads the Braves in pitching wins above replacement.
Pitching wins above replacement is different than pitching wins. What Harang currently leads the team in is WAR from the pitcher position, according to FanGraphs. He has been the most valuable pitcher on the staff thus far. This will certainly not be the case for much longer.
Harang got off to a pace this season that could not be maintained. He was pitching way over his head and over anything he had done previously in his career. In recent starts, the numbers have come back down to earth a bit, but Harang is still throwing well.
However, there are other, much more talented pitchers on this season that will pass Harang in a matter of weeks. This is not to say that the old vet will start to pitch so poorly he will lose his role in the rotation. But his peripherals will regress a bit, giving players such as Minor or Julio Teheran a chance to pass him in WAR.
While this is a bit of a knock against Harang and his ability to maintain how he's been playing, it also speaks to the talent atop the Braves rotation.
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