The Braves at the Break: Part 1

In this series, the plan is to take a look at the Braves and their players at the All-Star Break here at slightly past halfway in the season.

The Team
Overall record: 45-50 (.474)
Runs scored/allowed: 421/383
Expected record: 52-43 (-7)

Overall, this is has been a disappointing first half for Los Bravos. While suffering a litany on injuries to their starters, their main problem has been offense and bad luck. They should be well above .500 according to their runs scored/allowed and a few games closer to the top of the division. Their lineup, as we’ll examine next, is not hitting that well as a whole, though, and especially in the outfield. The Braves have suffered some really bad luck – their record in one run games is astoundingly bad, and they have not won a one-run game on the road since last August.

For the examination of the individual players, we’ll compare their current stats with Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections that were published at the beginning of the year. (Note: PECOTA adjusts for park factors and whatnot, and so may be incorrect for players that were not projected to be with the Braves back in January, though this mostly affects the utility players.)

Before we begin, “VORP” is “Value Over Replacement Player”, that is, how many more runs valuable a player is over an replacement-level player at the same position. So Brian McCann is 36.2 runs more valuable than a replacement level catcher with the same percentage of the Braves’ plate appearances. Since VORP is a counting stat, I’ve adjusted the projections for 95 games.

Position Players (starters listed first):

Brian McCann (C)
Projected: .281 AVG/.344OBP/.471 SLG (815 OPS), 19 HR, 17.4 VORP
Actual: .302/.377/.563 (940), 18, 36.2
McCann should have been a starter for the National League in the All-Star Game, but he lost out to the Chicago ticket. Nonetheless, he got the spot he deserved and will make his 3rd straight ASG. He’s been one of the few bright spots offensively for the Braves and is exceedingly durable, especially for a catcher. Of course, the latter may have a lot to do with the former; his backup is the very bad Corky Miller (.093/.170/.163). McCann is especially doing well in terms of his power numbers – he almost has as many home runs at the break as he was projected to have all year. Not bad.

Mark Texeira (1B)
Projected: .295/.394/.547 (941), 32, 28.6
Actual: .271/.373/.484 (857), 17, 23.0
Everybody and their brother knows the Braves won’t be able to afford the Boras-represented Texeira after this season, and so he’s been at the center for many a trade rumor as the Braves continue to flounder in the division. He got off to a slow start, but this is not unusual for Tiexeira. He got traded roughly halfway through the year last year, which gives us a good comparison. With Texas he hit .297/.397/.524 with 13 HR. After the trade, he hit 17 HR and hit .317/.404/.615. The Braves, who whichever team he gets traded to, expect roughly the same kind of turnaround.

Kelly Johnson (2B)
Projected: .279/.375/.466 (841), 17, 21.1
Actual: .272/.346/.431 (777), 8, 14.3
Kelly continues to play a good second base, but his offense isn’t where he or the Braves probably want it to be. Thankfully, the Great Kelly Johnson Leadoff Experiment is over – I maintained all along that he was not suited for this role, considering his low OBP for a lead-off man and good power potential. To give you an idea of what the Braves were expecting, though, his 14.3 VORP is still 4th highest on the team, but no where near the 33.1 he achieved last year.

Chipper Jones (3B)
Projected: .315/.410/.547 (957), 24, 33.5
Actual: .376/.472/.614 (1086), 18, 55.5
There’s little I can say here that hasn’t been said already. Though he’s not above .400 anymore and has had a rough two weeks, he’s still the best hitter in baseball so far this year. He will rightfully start at third in New York on Tuesday. Amazingly, he’s actually slightly worse in terms of VORP than he was last year. Guess the rest of the NL got better third basemen, as the rest of his independent stats are still up.

Yunel Escobar (SS)
Projected: .287/.348/.402 (750), 7, 11.0
Actual: .286/.355/.383 (738), 6, 13.7
Escobar has been hampered over the last month by a shoulder injury, which is unfortunate for the Braves. While he hasn’t been hitting like he did last year (not a surprise), he’s still better than the cast of utility men tasked to take his spot. The Prospectus said that he should watch out for Brent Lillibridge, who struggled at the start of the year at AAA and has been filling in for Escobar the last couple weeks at short. (Of course, as I type this, Lillibridge hit his first big league home run Saturay night and was 2-4 on Sunday. Nonetheless, he really does need to finish the year in AAA.) They were right about his average probably falling off, though, has his batting average on balls in play (BAbip) is down by 50 points so far this year, to .314. (In other words, less of the balls he hits are falling in for singles.)

Matt Diaz (LF)
Projected: .297/.338/.466 (804), 11, 9.0
Actual: .250/.270/.311 (581), 2, -5.2
Diaz is not the greatest LF to walk the Earth. It was hoped he’d improved enough last year to break out of the platoon the Braves had been employing in left, but the evidence before he got hurt was not in his favor. He was 3-16 before he hurt himself sliding into a wall in foul territory in Milwaukee on May 27, and is expected to be back after the break.

Mark Kotsay (CF)
Projected: .258/.325/.358 (683), 15, 6.2
Actual: .279/.329/.394 (723), 4, 5.1
The Braves needed a new center fielder with the departure of Andruw, and they got one from the A’s in exchange for head-case Joey Divine. The trade worked out for both clubs, as Devine has his head back in straight with the A’s and Kotsay’s doing about what the Braves expected him to. The thing is, the corner outfielders aren’t doing a lot to make up for the lack of power in Kotsay’s bat. He’s fine defensively, but his back acted up again a few weeks ago and he missed a whole bunch of games, which the Braves expected but didn’t really have an adequate answer for – Blanco moved from covering left to play center, and they forced former 1B/DH to play left. None of this helps the offense at all.

Jeff Francoeur (RF)
Projected: .284/.331/.474 (805), 22, 10.7
Actual: .234/.285/.375 (660), 9, -9.0
Francoeur has been struggling mightily at the plate this year, so badly that the Braves sent him down last week. Of course, the Monday after they did that they had to put 3 guys in the DL and so they recalled Jeff. Since being recalled he’s played a little better, but it’s too early to tell if he’ll get back to form. Also, he’s been hitting into some bad luck. His batting average on balls in play (BAbip) for his career is .305, .337 last year, and an astoundingly unlucky .262 this year. He’s on pace to walk as many times this year as he did last year (and more than he did in 2006), and his home runs aren’t that far off last year’s total (neither are his doubles). That said, his slugging percentage his way off his career pace, which should be less affected by his BAbip than his OBP. As a result, his OPS+ is 76 right now (that is, he’s 24% worse than an average RF), and he has a -9.0 VORP.

Gregor Blanco (OF)
Projected: .264/.355/.352 (707), 4, 5.5, 506 PA
Actual: .257/.356/.314 (670), 1, 2.4, 307 PA
As mentioned above, with all the outfield injuries Blanco has been playing more than expected for the Braves, filling in for both Diaz and Kotsay. He’s hitting .271/.372/.684 versus RHP, which isn’t great but will probably earn him continued playing time in a platoon with Matt Diaz once he returns. Overall, he’s actually playing better than Diaz so far this year, and has played more, which makes the value of Diaz’s return highly questionable unless he has a brilliant second half.

Ruben Gotay (PH/IF)
Projected: .261/.329/.408 (737), 5, 5.6, 228
Actual: .216/.310/.324 (634), 2, -1.6, 86
Ruben’s mostly been used as a pinch hitter, something he doesn’t do particularly well. Of course, his splits as a starter (9 games, .212/.278/.333) aren’t much better. But that’s sort of the breaks with light-hitting utility infielders, I suppose.

Greg Norton (PH/LF)
Projected: .242/.341/.394 (735), 6, 2.8, 223
Actual: .202/.298/.330 (628), 2, -3.0, 124
Greg Norton began the year with the Mariners. After appearing in 6 games as mostly a DH or a pinch hitter, the Mariners cut him despite him being 7/16 with 2 walks. Of course, in terms of percentages that looks great, which created the initial impression that the Braves were getting a good deal. He saw limited action in May, mostly as a pinch hitter and occasional first baseman, but Diaz’s injury caused someone to think he should play in the outfield, which he had done 76 times previously in his 12 years. Depending on which defensive stats you like, he hasn’t embarrassed himself, except at the plate. Since coming to Atlanta, he’s had 226 plate appearances and has hit .202/.298/.330, which is bad no matter what position you play. He’s actually on a bit of an upswing for the past few weeks – in his first 35 games (84 PA) he hit .178/.286/.288 but is .250/.325/.417 since then. Still no homers, though. I suppose this is the real utility of Diaz coming back – by any measure, we’d expect him to be better than Norton, and we can go back to having him be a questionably okay pinch hitting specialist.

Omar Infante (3B/LF)
Projected: .261/ .315/.401 (716), 6, 3.4, 252
Actual: .282/.344/.427 (771), 1, 4.6, 124
Infante, unlike the other Braves utilitymen, hasn’t been forced into service as much this year. Unfortunately, he fills in for Chipper, which is a decided loss in run production for the Braves. They’ve also put in him the outfield a few (or rather, 14) times but it’s not really his natural position, but he’ll go back to being a pinch hitter/utility guy after the break for the reasons stated above.

Hopefully tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the pitchers and wrap this thing up. Later.