2011 was another stop on the feel-good story tour for one Mr. Brandon Beachy. After not being drafted in 2008, Beachy went to the independent leagues, where a Braves scout took note of his 94 mph fastball and signed him later that season. Beachy entered the Braves’ system as a reliever, but a month or so into 2010, the Braves moved him into the rotation, ending the season in Atlanta. He succeeded and rapidly moved up prospect lists, and by the end of this past Spring Training, he had won a spot in the rotation. Other than an oblique injury, Beachy pitched 140 innings of excellent ball. With a strikeout rate of 10.7 and a walk rate of 3, the only issue with Beachy’s peripherals was his fly-ball tendency that allowed 16 home runs. Even with that, he contributed about three wins to the Braves’ season, which was good enough for third-best on the team.
But that brings us to the subject of this post. Can Beachy continue this into next season and beyond? Was his rookie season a fluke of sorts, and will teams begin to hit him the second and third time around? Let’s first take away the initial concerns centering around his BABiP and HR rate. His BABiP was .307, so that was in line with what we’d expect. His HR/FB was 9.8%, so that’s also about what we’d expect. When we look at his FIP and xFIP, they were 3.19 and 3.16, respectively, so his 3.68 ERA was probably a bit high for what he deserved. With that, none of our initial concerns about his performance seem fluky, but is there more?
When you see disbelief in regard to Beachy, the usual suspect is his strikeout rate. Having a 10+ K/9 when your stuff usually suggests a third or fourth starter causes skepticism. To continue this, he needs a pitch or two that are above-average in order to be so good at striking out hitters. Otherwise, he may simply have ordered them somehow to get more strikeouts than his talent level dictates. It’s not exactly “luck”, but if he doesn’t have the stuff, you can expect the league to simply adjust and hit him better the next time around.
Courtesy of TexasLeaguers, Beachy’s whiff rate on his fastball is 22%, which is above the average 16%, but considering his fastball is straight as an arrow, I wouldn’t expect that to continue, even though he has above-average command and velocity. It’s not that it won’t be above-average, but I wouldn’t expect it to remain that high. Beachy’s slider was even better, netting a 42% whiff rate way above the average of 32%, and this is where he made his bread-and-butter. He has an excellent slider due to its ridiculously late break, but that’s a lot to hope for every year. The rest is much more normal. His change-up gets whiffs 28% of the time (30% average) and his curveball 20% (28%). Here’s what we know. Beachy has an above-average to plus fastball and slider, an average change-up, and a below-average curveball that he may want to just junk. What we still don’t know is how the league will react to him.
It’s a crucial question because the initial swings-and-misses may be partially due to batters not having seen Beachy. So the next thing we can do is ask how he performed against teams after his initial bouts.
The chart above shows how he did in his 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. times against those teams in his major-league career. If you scan down to the bottom, you see that his strikeout rate has dipped slightly and so has his walk rate, and his FIP even went down. Now, we need to be very careful. This is only 13 games worth of data, and that is not enough to glean sufficient conclusions. They are interesting, however, and at the very least, he isn't getting nailed the next time through.
What do we ultimately learn from all this? Nothing conclusive. We do, however, get more evidence for Beachy being a very, very good pitcher, and we even have some evidence that it wasn’t just some rookie fluke. What I would guess will happen is that Beachy will see a significant drop in his strikeout rate, not to 7 but I’d be somewhat surprised if it’s over 9 again, and we’ll also probably see a slight decrease in walks as he simply gets better from repetitions and more innings. In effect, I would expect something more along the lines of the FANS predictions than Bill James. While that isn’t an “ace”, that’s still a guy that fits comfortably in the middle or top of a rotation. Now, we just have to wait-and-see.
We are still operational, and now that the calendar has turned, one of my new year's resolutions is to get things back on track. I've been very sidetracked with my work over at The Outside Corner and my day job, and this site has suffered as a result. The lack of activity by the Braves this offseason hasn't helped matters. The Braves have signed a total of ZERO major league players this offseason, and have lost three free agents: Alex Gonzalez to Milwaukee, Nate McLouth to Pittsburgh, and George Sherrill to Seattle. I touched on Gonzalez briefly when it was announced that Tyler Pastornicky would be the starter in 2012, but the other two really weren't post worthy. I also didn't think that the nontendering of Peter Moylan (a fan favorite, despite being very ineffective since blowing his elbow out) and Brooks Conrad (a bench bat) were really worth posts, though I did have a nice video post up for Conrad that the Joomla fairies ate the HTML for.
I don't know what the staffing for the site is going to look like in the coming months. I'm not sure if I'm going to be bringing anyone on staff at all, or just rolling with the crew I have. I can tell you though, that game recaps will no longer be featured here. This is going to be all analysis, no filler crap that other sites do. That is my promise to you readers in 2012: to put out the absolute best Braves blog that I can, and not be just another one in the crowd. My goal is to make this *the* site for top notch Braves analysis, with all due respect to the current clubhouse leader at Capitol Avenue Club.
Thank you for all your readership over the past year, and here's to a more productive 2012.
Pastornicky seemed to be the favorite for the role. There was a high ceiling with the shortstops on the free agent market this offseason, with players like Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins lurking. But the dropoff after those two was severe, and you were looking at guys like Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt, both of whom scare me for a variety of reasons.
I was in favor of either keeping Gonzalez for around the same salary he was getting in 2011, or giving the job to Pastornicky. A raise for Gonzalez was completely out of the question in my mind, due to his anemic bat. Sure, the glove is great, but I can't get past his sub-.300 on base percentages in the last three years. Even at the bottom of the lineup, that's unacceptable.
As for Pastornicky, his starter's role in 2012 will mark the fourth straight year that a rookie position player will be starting for the Braves, following Jordan Schafer, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman in the three years prior. The Schafer experiment didn't work out well due to a broken wrist, but Heyward and Freeman were smashing successes in their rookie seasons, though Heyward dropped off a bit last year due to a balky shoulder.
Pastornicky had a .314/.359/.414 triple slash in 459 at bats for Mississippi and Gwinnett, along with seven homers and 27 stolen bases. I calculated Pastornicky's major league equivalents a couple of months ago, and determined that he could provide roughly the same or better offensive value as Gonzalez did.
With the shortstop question not a question anymore, the attention will turn to moving Martin Prado and/or Jair Jurrjens in search of an impact bat. Apparently around a dozen teams are interested in Jurrjens, and half the league is interested in Prado, so there is plenty of interest to go around. It might simply be a matter of picking the package that best suits his interests for Frank Wren at this point in time.
Yes, folks, it's been a wild couple weeks of rosterbation, but one can hardly blame us fans for that, right? After all, the Braves are a team that was on the verge of playoff baseball last season, and are just a couple pieces away from being a legitimate World Series contender, and some of the marquee free agents are starting to sign, and GMs are bathing in scotch at the Winter Meetings and I'm pretty sure I read on Twitter that one guy (not to name names) loudly yelled to everyoen present that he'd be willing to hand over the contract of ... well, "Hoy Ralladay" (wink wink) if someone will JUST BRING HIM SOME GODDAMN BARBECUE AND A BIB and oh hey did you guys happen to notice that Peter Moylan and Nickelback took to chirping each other on Twitter the other day?
You probably did, since there's, like, literally nothing else newsworthy going on. The closest we've come to meaty stuff is that DOB is probably going to violently eviscerate (is there another way?) the next person who @s him on Twitter asking whether the Braves are going to make a run for Rollins, and while that's certainly a juicy scoop that we'll run with once it becomes reality, we're the kind of Serious Journalists who won't dare speculate on something like that. So, take it away, Pete!
If you don't know, Chad is Chad Kroeger, the lead singer of the band that, despite being generic hard rock pablum writ large, is probably the most divisive cultural force in America. Relationships have been shattered by people finding out their friend/spouse/pet (somehow) enjoy Nickelback, and given that they've sold more records than all but ten bands over the last decade, that's a lot of broken hearts. Such is life when Canadians get involved.
And so but the story does not end there. Chad Kroeger, ladies and gents, is an international rock star, and he'll be damned if he's going to take that chirp lying down. Clear the way, everyone: Big Bad Chad is comin' through!
Ok, so three points here. First, as Moylan himself said, he is, by definition, watching Kimbrel from either the bench or TV since one cannot have two pitchers on the mound at the same time. Frankly, I thought that rule would've held up the CBA negotiations for months on end, but I guess I'll just keep dreaming. Second, the two have gone on to tweet that it was merely chirping and not a sign of a real Twitter war, which I would think was plainly obvious, but whatever.
Third, though ... the judges (me) are scoring that as a win by decision for Nickelback (or whomever runs their Twitter). And that, obviously, cannot stand. So let's hear it, commenters: whom should Moylan go after next? @ChrisBrown is a good target, but he's also a loose cannon with an army of rabid supporters (for reasons that escape me, but that's not a discussion for here). One incisive Rihanna comment could very well set Moylan under the knife again, except less in the nice, sterile, surgical way than the motel bathroom way. Plus, @JennyJohnsonHi5 has that beat covered pretty well. There's always @KimKardashian, who's good choice, since lord knows weddings take a long time to plan, and she's been single for an awfully long time by now. My personal favorite choice is @DarrenRovell, whose unique brand of earnest idiocy, self-promotion and incessant interest in business minutiae overrides any inkling of common sense in his brain.
But since we all need something to latch onto, what say you, commenters? Who in the Twitterverse is ripe for some Braves beef oh god that was awful look just share your choices in the comments and we can get back to holding hands and lighting candles, praying for something interesting to happen.
Consider this: six middle infielders have signed so far.
Willie Bloomquist, a middling utility player, gets two years and $3.3 million.
John McDonald, an all-glove shortstop, gets two years and $3 million
Jamey Carroll, another utility player who is being given a starting job, gets two years and $6.75 million
Clint Barmes, another all-glove shortstop, somehow gets two years and $11.5 million
Mark Ellis, a type B all-glove second baseman, gets two years and $8.75 million
Aaron Hill, another type B second baseman, gets two years and $11 million
The only player out of those six I'd consider taking over Prado is Hill, and that's assuming that Hill's struggles late in his tenure in Toronto are gone. All of these guys got two years, and the youngest is Hill at 29. Prado, right now, is 28. Before collapsing to a .687 OPS last year, Prado had back to back to back seasons over .800. The only one of those players to EVER have an .800 OPS season is Hill, who did it in 2009. Prado has three seasons like that. Prado is also not defensively limited. He's an above average defender at second, third, and in the outfield. Carroll can play second, short and third, Barmes can play second and short, and Bloomquist can play short and left. The other three players are limited to one position.
So when you look at versatility, defense, and offense, Prado is the best mix of the three. The rest of the utilityish player market right now is hot garbage, with guys like Orlando Cabrera, Craig Counsell, and Adam Kennedy topping the market. There is obviously the higher tier of stud free agents available at the positions Prado plays, like Kelly Johnson and Aramis Ramirez. But Prado would be much more cost-efficient than either of those players, with the only cost being the young outfielders that the Braves desire.
If teams are really looking at multi-year deals for players like that, how would they value a player like Prado, who is better than them all offensively, while also being more versatile? I don't think Frank Wren is going to settle for a below market value return for Prado when you consider what teams have paid for inferior players. I wouldn't mind TWO of the young Rockies outfielders as opposed to one and some filler. And quite frankly, I don't think it's too out of line either.
The team definitely should have tried to move Jurrjens at the break. His value has taken a huge hit since. Not only has his ERA spiked, but his rate stats have also regressed (he allowed nine homers in 41 1/3 second half innings after allowing just five in 110 2/3 first half innings). The team has placed Jurrjens on the market, and there is interest. The Braves are looking for a young outfielder in return. There are a lot of teams interested. I mean, who wouldn't be? Jurrjens might not be the best pitcher on the market, but look at this year's crop of free agent starters. Out of the top five starters, Yu Darvish hasn't pitched in America, CJ Wilson has been a starter for two years, Roy Oswalt has a balky back and is old, Hiroki Kuroda is old and apparently wants to pitch in either LA or Japan, and Edwin Jackson has never been able to put everything together for a full season. Jurrjens isn't really a great pitcher, but you mean to tell me he couldn't crack that top five?
In all honesty, the Braves don't really need Jurrjens. They've got Tim Hudson, who will probably be around under 2013 (assuming his option is picked up), Tommy Hanson (under team control until 2015), Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor (neither of whom are arbitration eligible), a guy in Julio Teheran who dominated the IL last year and shouldn't waste away for another year there, a guy in Randall Delgado who endeared himself to the Braves brass by holding his own in the majors last year (despite awful peripherals), and Arodys Vizcaino, who was a dominant bullpen arm who could be a stud starter. Jurrjens is just an extra arm at this point, who's probably the fifth-most talented one of the bunch. Why not try to get some value for him?
Meanwhile, the outfield situation is a mess for the Braves. Jason Heyward should be entrenched in right field (but apparently isn't, because the front office is stupid), and Michael Bourn will be the center fielder next year, but is a free agent after the seasons. Martin Prado is the left fielder, but has an infielder's bat, and is on the block as well. The minor league system is a mess in the outfield, with no impact bats in the top two levels of the system. The only possibly way that you can call the outfield of the upper levels of the system a strength is if you're enamored with career minor leaguers like Constanza, Gartrell, Carter, Young and Ramirez, or guys who haven't been able to put a good season together, like Jones and Harrilchak. Neither of those groups of players really tickle me in the right places.
If the team is able to swing a deal and ship Jurrjens and/or Prado out in a deal (like the one proposed to the Royals for Wil Myers and Lorenzo Cain) to acquire a future center fielder and a future corner infielder, I'd be happy. The Rockies are apparently also a good matchup, with Charlie Blackmon and Dexter Fowler as the rumored compensation. I don't like that deal nearly as much as the Royals pair. But regardless, I think it's been time to move Jurrjens for awhile. I just wish that the team acted sooner, as was able to get a better return.
More importantly, the move clears a roster spot and some salary for the Braves. They're picking up $10 million of the $15 million Lowe is owed, so the savings of $5 million will allow them to play around a little bit. But what are the Braves really losing with Lowe? His ERA has been 4.00 or over in all three seasons with the Braves, but that doesn't tell the whole story, as his FIP over the last three years has gone from 4.06 to 3.89 to 3.70. A high BABIP in each of his three years in Atlanta screwed him, due in part to the terrible infield defense behind him (excluding what he's gotten at shortstop).
Over the last three seasons in Atlanta, Lowe has thrown 575 1/3 innings, the highest on the team by nearly 100. He's been healthy as well, making 101 starts. The other three main Braves starters are in the 70s. Lowe's 4.57 ERA is the highest of the four, but his FIP is third (3.89 compared to 3.90 for Jair Jurrjens), and his xFIP is also third, just behind Tommy Hanson (Hansonis at 3.73, Lowe is at 3.78). Looking at each starter's peripherals, it's quite bizarre. Hanson stands apart from the trio in strikeout rate, but Lowe, Tim Hudson and Jurrjens range from 6.01 to 6.11. The four are similar in walk rate as well, ranging from 2.65 to 3.03. Homer rate is another similar area, with the quartet ranging from 0.70 to 0.80.
But the major differences point to luck. Lowe has a 69.5% strand rate while no one else is under 75%. Lowe's BABIP is .321, and the next highest on the staff is .278. That points mainly to crappy luck, but there's another factor involved too: Lowe's average fastball velocity has dropped to 88.4 mph, with all of the others at least two mph higher.
I don't think Lowe was necessarily bad with the Braves, I think he was just victimized by a crappy situation. I'd be willing to bet he'll be more successful with the Indians than he was in Atlanta. But let's be honest, the team had a need to trade a starting pitcher with the glut of young pitching in the system. Lowe was the most reasonable option to move. Another one of the veterans may need to be moved as well to make room for Julio Teheran in the rotation, unless the team is willing to let him rot for another year in AAA....and I don't think that's the best idea.
Under Walker's eight year tenure with the Sox, they were 11th in baseball with a .329 wOBA. They had a below average walk rate, ranking 21st in the majors over those eight years with a mark of 8.1%. The team did hit for a lot of power, ranking fifth in baseball with a .167 ISO. Over those same eight years, the Braves had a .332 wOBA, 9.0% walk rate, and .160 ISO. There are differences there, but there are also some similarities.
But when evaluating a hitting coach, you have to look at the talent that he had to work with. Paul Konerko was a mid-.800 OPS guy when Walker took over. During Walker's tenure, Konerko had a .871 OPS, and stayed productive until this season at age 35. Walker had Konerko in his prime to help out, but he also had an aging Konerko, and kept him as a star hitter.
Carlos Quentin looked like an expendable bat for the Diamondbacks, struggling in an extended test in the majors in 2007. He came to Chicago, and has settled into a groove as an .800 OPS guy, which could be much better if not for poor BABIP luck. Walker also turned a potential-laden, yet inconsistent, Jermaine Dye into a pretty damn devastating hitter, even if he hasn't played since 2009. An aging Jim Thome kept his head above water playing every day for the White Sox while Walker was there. Aaron Rowand had one of the two great years of his career with Walker as his hitting coach, and one of his good seasons too. Andruw Jones looked like a competent major league once he started working with Walker in Chicago.
There have been some misses too. Gordon Beckham has gone downhill in each season of his career. Alexei Ramirez hasn't been able to consistently produce at a high level, seemingly alternating good seasons with bad ones. He wasn't able to fix Alex Rios, but I'm not sure anyone could at this point in time.
It's notoriously hard to evaluate hitting coaches. Walker has some history on his side at the major league level, so it's not a total shot in the dark like Parrish was. I wouldn't be surprised if the Braves offense was great, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were bad. But I'd lean towards the good side.
*This might be the least truthful sentence in this entire post, and that's saying something considering how much meth gets involved in a couple paragraphs.
Now, I can't disclose with you everything that I learned in those enlightening hours spent behind the closed double doors of the Braves' Official Department of Artifice, but I was able to get permission to share with you what happened in the Braves' clubhouse during that final, fateful month when the team embarked upon a nearly historic choke job. All information provided comes from team souces that agreed to comment exclusively under condition of anonymity, which I thought was just fine by me since that means I can say whatever I want and you couldn't get confirmation one way or the other. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me.
But that's enough of the glance into the painstaking journalistic process that goes into this blog. Let's get to the good stuff, shall we?
Former hitting coach Larry Parrish, much-maligned around these parts for his preaching of aggressive hitting, is the first culprit here. As you might have suspected, a hitting coach's job is to provide instruction to a team's hitters. Reviewing video, tweaking mechanics, deciding which batting gloves look coolest with the uniform the team's wearing on any given day; these were all part of Parrish's purview. But questions swirled throughout the clubhouse about whether he was the best man for the job when it turned out that his hyperactive hitting approach, and my sources say that all may have been the result of prolonged use of various 'uppers,' often-illegal chemical stimulants designed to give the user sustained manic energy. The team began to tune him out when he bullied newly called up Jose Constanza into taking those now-infamous running swings; perhaps most telling is this quote from one veteran player: "It's hard for a guy making $15 million to tell an $80,000 hitting coach that he needs to take it easy with the cocaine. We just kind of stopped paying attention, to be honest."
That lack of attention, it appears, was not limited to the team's apathy toward their hitting instructor. The Braves, who won just nine games in the month of September, were fielding a roster of players who were mostly utterly ignorant of the team's performance. "During games, you'd see guys just kind of amble off the field and go hang out in the clubhouse for a couple innings. They'd miss at-bats or not be in the bullpen on time." Apparently, they couldn't stay away from the luxurious amenities in the Braves clubhouse, like multiple flat-screen TVs fully rigged wtih Xbox 360s, Playstation 3s, and "some s*** you've never even heard of yet." When asked what the team's record was at the end of the year, outfielder Nate McLouth replied "I don't know, man, Red-80?" When I informed him that that was not only not the team's record but was in fact the snap call for, like, every single one of the East Dillon Lions' plays from the Emmy-winning show Friday Night Lights, McLouth offered only a derisive snort and a shove before calling me a "nerd" and walking away*.
*The author would like to take this moment to point out that he would have made fun of McLouth's peroxide locks but that it is awfully difficult to form a witticism from around sobs of shame. He implores you not to think less of him for it.
Unfortunately, such a collapse as the one the Braves and their fans suffered through cannot be attributed to only two individuals. Rather, the problem was systemic, and was allowed to grow unchecked by manager Fredi Gonzalez. My sources tell stories of a clubhouse that came completely unglued early in September -- not because of a loss, but because after a 4-3 win to avoid a sweep in Los Angeles, Derek Lowe took the team out for drinks but did not invite Constanza. I'm told that Constanza counted no friends on the team except for his bat, which he treated as a constant companion. The two were never seen apart, although sources familiar with the situation indicate that relations between the two got a bit strained after a public display of affection by Constanza went unrequited by the bat (which he had named Marta after the Atlanta public transit system where the two had met; Constanza literally picked it up from underneath a seat where someone had left it).
The beginning of the end. Via Yahoo! Sports.
Abandoned by his teammates and unloved by Marta, my sources indicate that Constanza resolved himself to do everything he could to sabotage his team's playoff chances. It sounds unbelievable, but the numbers don't lie: he hit .174/.174/.174 during the month of September.
Unfortunately for the Braves, where management should have stepped in, they shrunk from the occasion. Gonzalez became withdrawn from his team, going so far as to live in separate hotels at all times. He feared interaction with his players, and made a point of getting thrown out of games so that he could be out of the dugout and away from the team that challenged his professional pride. When asked what Gonzalez did in the clubhouse, my sources responded that he would while away the hours on Twitter, a social media platform dedicated to criticism of sports teams. Gonzalez took to posting under the alias 'Frediot,' as his notion that he'd lost the team coupled with rampant criticism from Twitterers completely subsumed him in self-loathing and shame.
The front office claimed that they had no idea of the troubles brewing within the clubhouse, laughing off inquiries about the mental health of Constanza and Gonzalez as well as whether Derek Lowe's DUI arrest or pitching coach Roger McDowell's suspension for intolerant comments in San Francisco had had any effect on the team. They maintain that their outside business interests -- team CEO Terry McGuirk was reportedly involved in discussions with Tyler Perry about a transfer of ownership of the TBS network of which McGuirk is vice chairman -- had no impact on their focus and dedication to assembling a winning baseball club.
And so here we are, picking up the pieces of a broken season that once held so much hope. In many ways -- or, at least in one poor metaphor -- the 2011 season was like a precious vase full of life-giving playoff revenue, which Eric Hinske smashed because he wouldn't stop dicking around in the clubhouse even though how many times, Eric? But that, thankfully, is the past now, and as the season comes down to its thrilling (?) conclusion, the Braves and their fans are left facing a lot of important questions. How will the pitching logjam play out? Can Jason Heyward regain the tantalizing promise that he showed in his rookie campaign? Who put Chipper Jones' cane way up on top of the lockers? And, most importantly, did Parrish leave any of that meth around? We might need it.