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2009 Post-Mortem Part 3: The Anemic Opening Day Offense.

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Third in an occasional series of analyses of the Braves' 2009 campaign, with an eye toward 2010. The first was on the end to our season, and the second was about the pitching staff. Part three is about the team we started with on Opening Day, and how different it was from the team we ended with last week.

By the end of the year, The Braves were a very different team than they trotted out on Opening Day. Most of the change, however, was on the field rather than on the mound. The additions of Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson were important, but on the whole the pitching staff didn't change that much from wire to wire. Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, Peter Moylan, and Eric O'Flaherty all had at least 77 appearances; Javier Vazquez, Jair Jurrjens, and Derek Lowe all had at least 32 starts, and Kenshin Kawakami had 25.

On the other hand, our lineup changed from this to this:

April 5 Sept. 30
C McCann McCann
1B Kotchman LaRoche
2B Johnson Prado
3B Jones Jones
SS Escobar Escobar
LF Anderson Anderson
CF Schafer McLouth
RF Francoeur Diaz

Fully half of the defense changed, from Schafer to McLouth (Schafer's last game was May 31, McLouth's first was June 5); Johnson to Prado (Johnson effectively lost his job for good on June 25); Francoeur to Diaz (Francoeur's last game was July 9); and Kotchman to LaRoche (LaRoche's first game with the Braves was August 1). And each of the replacements was significantly more effective than his predecessor:

April 5 Sept. 30 ΔOPS ΔRC/G
1B Kotchman LaRoche +193
+3.7
2B Johnson Prado +130
+1.3
CF Schafer McLouth +173
+2
RF Francoeur Diaz +244
+3.4

Every single new guy had an OPS more than 100 points better than the guy he replaced. Runs Created per Game is a measure, as baseball-reference says, of Runs Created per 27 outs -- in other words, "the runs produced by a lineup of 9 of this player." So, on a game-by-game basis, each import was responsible for putting multiple runs on the board over what their predecessors had done.

The effect on the team's overall runs scored was palpable. The first two months of the season, before Schafer's demotion, the team averaged  4.4 runs a game. The last two months of the season, after LaRoche's acquisition, the team averaged 4.8 runs a game. Even allowing for natural in-season fluctuations, that's a significant difference. Over the course of the season, our pitching staff and defense allowed an average of 4 runs a game, meaning that the difference between our Opening Day lineup and final lineup was 10% of the total number of runs our opponents scored against us.

The Braves lost 25 games by one run and 15 games by two runs -- the Braves lost 76 games in 2009, and more than half of them were by two runs or less. 10 of those losses came in the first two months. 10% more offense would've undoubtedly helped.

Frank Wren did a very good job of tinkering with the lineup in-season, taking a team that was going nowhere to playoff contention. It's unfortunate that it was too little, too late, but it's easy to lose sight of just how far the offense came from the beginning of the season to the end. Francoeur, Schafer, and Johnson all OPSed under .700, and Kotchman's utter lack of power was replaced by a characteristic monster second half by LaRoche, who hit 12 homers in 57 games.

Where does this leave us for next year?
  • Adam LaRoche is a free agent, and in my view not worth signing -- we can pretty well guess he's going to be terrible in the first half again. So we'll need a first baseman.
  • Kelly Johnson's role on the team is uncertain: his trade value is fairly low, but Martin Prado is clearly the second baseman. He's worth keeping around because Chipper needs a caddy; at this point, on this team, he's a bench player, albeit a well-qualified one.
  • Matt Diaz has, yet again, earned himself a starting role -- preferably one that would prevent Garret Anderson from reprising his own. But Church is like an outfield Kelly Johnson: a nice spare part, but not an ideal starter. So we'll need a right fielder.
  • Nate McLouth: after having been one of the worst center fielders in baseball last year, according to both UZR and Plus/Minus, McLouth was very slightly above average this year. He was also slightly above average with the bat, 11th in OPS out of 23 full-time center fielders in baseball this year. His contract runs through 2011, with a 2012 team option. He's a fine solution. If/when Jordan Schafer's ready to take over, he can slide over to a corner and platoon with lefty-killer Matt Diaz or whoever winds up in right.
Catcher, second base, shortstop, third base, left field, and center field are basically set, and right field blissfully isn't. The loss of Francoeur and pickup of McLouth make the team better for the foreseeable future. With Soriano, Gonzalez, and LaRoche coming off the books, Wren should have a few bucks to spend. It's time to spend them.

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