Monday, April 24, 2006

Experts Finally Pick the Braves in 2006, One Year Too Late
By John Williams

Ever since the Braves began losing their starting pitching stars in the early 2000s the experts have been predicting their demise year after year. And year after year, the Braves win the NL East. Last year was seemingly the last straw for Braves nay-sayers, as injuries to nearly every key veteran forced a roster full of unproven talent to be used for most of the season. When the big guys finally came back in mid July, they suprisingly found themselves within striking distance of the NL lead and jumped ahead by August. Another round of injuries and bad luck losses late in the year meant that they barely hung on to the NL East title. Having survived this worst case scenario of unfortunate events, it has now been assumed by many that nothing could stop the Braves in the near future, especially since the youngsters who contributed last season should only be getting better.

In stark contrast to recent years, actually picked the Braves to finish 1st in the NL East for 2006. This is quite notable since espn is home to several Braves-hating analysts, the biggest among them Rob Neyer. The average vote was only for the Braves to finish 1 game better than the Mets but it seems like that was because of several individual analysts utterly infatuated with the Amazins, as a healthy majority 12 of the 19 contributors picked the Braves.

To me it seems like the Braves roster has been changing so much the last few years that hardly anyone has gotten a firm grasp on why they have continued to win. Dire predictions have been made when an important player has been lost in the offseason, only to be retracted when his production is replaced in other areas. Having seen the Braves’ unorthodox win of the division last year, analysts have suddenly resorted to just picking the Braves because they keep winning, despite the fact that the roster keeps changing. I would like to look back at the last few years and examine why the Braves won the NL East. My hypothesis going in is that when examining the 2006 offseason for the team, keeping in mind what the actual team strengths of 2005 were, it will be seen that the 2006 version is actually a weak team. Furthermore, the Braves should not be picked by everyone to win the NL East this year just because of the performance in recent years of both the Braves and the Mets.

2003: Of the fabled Big 3 who led the rotation during the 1990s, the Braves were without Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had moved to the bullpen due to arm troubles, leaving only Greg Maddux. Even worse, the fact that Greg Maddux accepted arbitration meant the Braves also had to let go another costly but valuable starter, the younger Kevin Millwood. They only scored 708 runs in 2002 but won as usual due to their pitching, allowing a ridiculously low number of 565 runs. It was said that the pitching losses here would bring the team close to a .500 record, which makes sense if you assume the hitting stays constant.

In reality, the 2003 team was primed for an offensive explosion. One of the most important changes was that in the roster turnover between seasons the anemic Kieth Lockhart had been supplanted by the rising star Marcus Giles. Veterans Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla were horrible in 2002 (Javy also in 2001) but both were way too talented (and established in their past numbers) to continue premature declines in production. Lopez for one was dealing with knee problems both of those years. Castilla’s 2002 was a result of still recovering from shoulder problems. Gary Sheffield also had a very subpar and injury riddled 2002 campaign. In fact nearly every member of the lineup had a year in 2002 that looked like an aberration on their career path. The 2003 team promised to fill all the lineup holes with even slight bounceback years from the veterans, and putting the stable Robert Fick at 1st base to go along with the ever productive Julio Franco.

The 2003 team gave up a stunning (albeit widely predicted) 175 more runs than the 2002 team. But instead of this crippling the Braves, they cruised to 101 wins and a NL East title. The reason was the 2003 version scored a stunning 199 more runs than the 2002 team. Part of the amazing turn around was that Javy Lopez didn’t just have a bounceback 2003, he had one of the greatest offensive seasons ever for a catcher after having a miserable year the year before. But still, this wasn’t a team that snuck into the playoffs on the back of Lopez, they won 101 games and beat the Marlins by 10 for the division. The team slugged .475 for the year, a number so high that someone had to have seen it coming. Experts should have looked at the projected lineup and seen the likelihood for 850 runs scored (along with the likely 700 allowed), putting them in line for a low-mid 90s win season and a division crown.

2004: The roster turnover between 2003 and 2004 was enormous, leading many to say that the division winning run would finish, as if believing change in of itself was negative, without bothering to analyze the changes in expected production. The lineup changes were as follows: Johnny Estrada for Javy Lopez, Adam LaRoche for Robert Fick, J.D. Drew for Gary Sheffield, and a 3 player platoon for Vinny Castilla. Overall it’s a huge change, and a pretty big negative, mostly because of the Estrada for Lopez swap. It’s true that the 2004 team should have been expected to score many less runs than the 2003 offensive juggernaut. The problem I have with the logic for then saying they should have finished 2nd-5th is that the remaining lineup was still very productive on paper, so unless the pitching was getting much worse than the Braves should still win in the low 90s, making them a good bet to repeat the as divisional champs.

The pitching turnover was large as well, which was more ammunition for experts to pick against the Braves in 2004. Look at the changes though, in the rotation Greg Maddux was lost, how has a big name but who wasn’t at all dominant in 2003, going 16-11 with an era near 4. The replacement John Thomson should have easily been projected to equal those numbers once the park effects and switching to a pitching friendly league was taken into account. Elsewhere in the rotation, Paul Byrd was returning from surgery the previous year and would be replacing an old and completely ineffective Shane Reynolds from 2003. The bullpen going into 2004 on paper should have been remarkably improved, not that anyone paid attention. The 2003 bullpen was essentially a lights-out John Smoltz, a decent Ray King, and little else. Chris Reitsma, Antonio Alfonseca, and Juan Cruz were all good arms acquired for the 2004 team to setup Smoltz, who had almost no help in 2003.

These pitching changes should have equated to something like 30-50 less runs allowed in 2004 and thus another very good chance for a division winning team. Actually though the 2004 version allowed 72 fewer runs. This extra pitching was delivered by Jaret Wright, who took over for Horacio Ramirez when he went down. No one could have ever predicted Wright’s 15-8 (3.28 era) season and everyone besides George Steinbrenner knew it was just an aberration. The Braves went 96-66 in 2004 and won the division by 10 games again, this time over Philadelphia. The point is even without a “breakout” season from Jaret Wright, they still would have won the division by several games, and that is the kind of finish people should have been predicting, not a 2nd or 3rd place finish, especially not behind a Phillies team with a vastly overrated pitching staff.

2005: Things start to get tricky around here. The 2005 team should never have been expected to perform significantly worse than the 2004 version. Jaret Wright, Paul Byrd, and Russ Ortiz would be replaced in the rotation by Tim Hudson, John Smoltz (coming back from the bullpen), and Horacio Ramirez returning from injury. This was automatically a huge upgrade, even if some people were still making a habit betting against the hall of fame worthy Smoltz being an effective starter again. The lineup took a hit from J.D. Drew leaving but the remaining parts would be more than enough to make the Braves a good bet to repeat once again. In fact the pitching remained about the same in 2005 from 2004, allowing only 6 runs more while the hitting scored 34 less runs. It all added up to a 90-72 record and a narrowly won division over the Phillies again. Simple things on paper were not in fact so simple on the field however.

The 2005 team was absolutely decimated with injuries. Smoltz, Hudson, Thomson, Hampton, and Ramirez all missed time or pitched through injury at some point. In the lineup Chipper Jones and Estrada missed major time while Furcal and Giles played through injury for most of the year. Corner outfielders Jordan and Mondesi meanwhile were terrible and replaced by Kelly Johnson, Jeff Francoeur, and Ryan Langerhans (all minor league call-ups) by mid-season. The replacement for Smoltz at closer, Danny Kolb was a nightmare and had to be replaced by Reitsma after only about a month, meaning the bullpen setup core was significantly weakened as well. Injuries hit the bullpen as well, and for one stretch everyone besides Reitsma was a recent call-up.

The midseason turnover was so huge that it was hard to make sense of who produced and who didn’t. All told, production wasn’t really all that good. The Braves in 2005 finished 11th in MLB in pitching with a 3.98 era. But looking at the peripheral pitching stats, the Braves finished only 19th in MLB in whip (walks + hits per 9 innings), a stunning 28th in MLB in k/9 and only 24th in k/bb so it wasn’t like they just weren’t walking people either. The Braves did not pitch all that well in 2005. In fact the staff had been changing from 2002 until 2005 into one that relied much more on their fielders (the Braves have been for the last decade + a very good fielding team) to make outs out of balls put into play. This chart shows the k/9, whip and k/bb for the braves since 2002.


k/9 (MLB Rank)

Whip (MLB Rank)

k/bb (MLB Rank)


6.49 (14th)

1.26 (3rd)

1.91 (13th)


6.13 (20th)

1.36 (17th)

1.79 (22nd)


6.36 (20th)

1.38 (14th)

1.96 (13th)


5.79 (28th)

1.39 (19th)

1.79 (24th

Ever since the dominant pitching teams of the late 90s, the Braves starters had been letting increasing numbers of balls go into play and allowing increasing numbers of baserunners. They continued however to stay near the top of the league in ERA year after year, largely due to the fact that they played in a pitcher’s park with a sensational defensive team behind them. Defense isn’t that important to many teams, but to a team filled with control - as opposed to dominating - pitchers like the Braves, it’s very important.

The hitting all told in 2005 was good enough for the division (barely) but for all the talk of the successful youth movement, production was significantly down from 2004 after all the changes. The hope going into 2006 was that the youngsters would improve on their 2005 years, even though this isn’t necessarily likely. Jeff Francoeur and his swing-at-everything style was figured out late in the year, as pitchers finally strategized how to get him out and he slumped very badly. The core group of guys in 2005 was buoyed by Andruw Jones’ breakout year that he is unlikely to completely replicate in 2006. In addition, the sparkplug for the Braves for years at the top of the order, Rafael Furcal, has moved on to be replaced by a slightly less productive Edgar Renteria.

The changes to the pitching staff here aren’t big, but there are few good ones. Hampton, a serviceable back of the rotation arm in recent years, is shelved for the entire year after having arm surgery. Smoltz is a year older and has had more arm troubles. Tim Hudson who was supposed to reinvigorate the starting pitching in 2005 in fact regressed further down a disturbing career trend. The only starter likely to improve is Kyle Davies, mainly because in 2005 he had no major league experience. Few outside the Braves organization regard him as a serious prospect. The bullpen in 2005 was only really effective after Farnsworth was acquired in a brilliant trading deadline deal. He has since left, and only unproven youngsters and veteran retreads remain. The pitching staff should not be getting any better, and so far in 2006 through 17 games it isn’t: 1.42 whip (17th in MLB), 1.64 k/bb (22nd in MLB), and 5.50 k/9 (28th in mlb).

Those are pretty similar peripherals to the 2005 team though, which had a team ERA of 3.98, plenty good enough. I think one of the problems for this year's team is the decrease in team defense. Here is a table of the Braves’ main position players in 2005, the expected regulars in 2006, and their defensive ratings from both years (projected for 2006). Note: the defensive rating values are from Baseball Prospectus 2006 and are a measure of runs saved above average.


2005 Player

2005 Fielding

2006 Player

2006 Fielding












































Atlanta, we have a problem. Those 2005 stats explain the discrepancy between the 2005 Braves’ peripheral pitching stats and their team ERA. The 2006 team, with similar peripheral stats, has a team ERA so far of 5.19 (20th in MLB), which seems to be right in line with what Baseball Prospectus would be predicting for their 2006 fielding ability. The Braves are seriously hurting in the pitching department, and it is now showing in runs allowed since their defense has gone from stellar to suspect, albeit it in a series of subtle ways. Exchanging Furcal for Renteria hurts the infield defense immensely, and the other slight changes are all for the bad. The outfield defense (very important for all the fly ball pitchers on the staff) is weakened by missing the injured Kelly Johnson (a superb left fielder) and the fact that Andruw Jones continues to decline rapidly.

Conclusion: Experts have not paid enough attention to why the Braves really won in 2005 and what changes were made to the team in the 2005 offseason, instead just crowning them preseason favorites because of the shocking way in which they won in 2005, which really didn’t come out all that crazy on paper. The 2006 team is likely to allow many more runs, and unless the young hitting exceeds all expectations, they will struggle to win 85+ games, which won’t do it in a division with the much-improved Mets.

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