“When it all comes down
There’ll be nothing left to catch you but ground
It’s calling your name and filling your head
With delusions of glory”
That’s the opening lines to the title track of “A Blessing and a Curse”, the sixth album by Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers.
It’s also a fine recap of the first thirteen games of the 2015 campaign for the Atlanta Braves.
One of the prevailing stories of the off-season was the acquisition of low strikeout, high contact guys in Nick Markakis, Alberto Callaspo, and AJ Pierzynski. After years of playing for the long ball, this would be the year of small ball. This new approach was met with much criticism throughout the Twitter-verse, mainly because it all came at the expense of the exciting offensive approach provided by Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis. We love the home run. Almost as much as we hate hearing the likes of Joe Simpson expound the virtues of putting the ball in play and moving runners over.
Put the ball in play, they said. It’ll put pressure on the defense, they said.
It’s boring as hell, we all said.
But as the Braves ran off a 8-4 start and won three of their first four series, we all bought in and, shocker, actually enjoyed ourselves watching this scrappy little group overcome the odds. But how? Why? Weren’t we all supposed to hate this lame-ass, archaic approach? We wanted homers, damnit!
Then a three game stint in Toronto gave us exactly that. After hitting eight homers in the first nine games of the season, the team would hit five in the first two games across the border. They also struck out eighteen times in those two games. What is going on here? Is it possible that this small ball team could hang with the heavy hitters?
What if the contact theory actually proves to be a success for this team? It’s a topic we touched on briefly in the first BGSCast during spring training, and has actually been a key part of the team’s success so far. The team is being selective at the plate, they are making contact, and it’s very solid contact.
Heading into this week’s series against the Mets, the Braves were 12th in the NL in strikeout percentage, next-to-last in swing percentage, 12th in whiff percentage, and middle of the pack (9th) in line drive percentage. Twelve games into the season, the Braves are 8-4, and it looks like this approach may just be paying off.
How? The ball-in-play approach is supposed to be a myth perpetuated by the talking heads who wish to spit on all things fun. But there is some truth to it. As we discussed in the podcast, if you have guys with high LD% and high speed guys, you can use the batted ball as an integral piece of your offense. It may not work as the focal point because you’re still gonna need guys who can get on base by working pitch counts, drawing walks, and guys who can still hit the infamous three-run homer, but it can work.
Over the last decade, Major Leaguers have had a BABIP of close to .700 on line drives. Over the same time span, guys who have graded high in speed score, UBR, wSB–all the metrics that represent player speed–have regularly been amongst the highest in BABIP. The two ideas are simple: hit the ball solid so the defense can’t make a play, or have the speed necessary to reach base on weakly hit balls.
Now, how have the Braves utilized this?
Before the moves even started to rain down on the organization, the lineup included two of the highest ranking line drive hitters in recent memory: Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson. Freeman has been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball over the course of his short career. Johnson has been, well, not so much. But if 2013 proved anything, he certainly has the ability to be a very key piece of an offense when his swing is on.
The Braves supplemented the corner pieces with four guys in Markakis, Callaspo, Pierzynski, and Kelly Johnson who have been league-average or better in LD% over the course of their careers. They may not be guys who were every going to light the world on fire offensively, but they are capable of putting the ball in play, and doing so with a high percentage of line drives. They are also all guys with high contact percentages and very few swinging strikes.
Another aspect Hart & Co. wanted to add to the Braves approach is the speed dynamic. The team was abysmal on the bases in 2013, with Jordan Schafer being used off the bench as the only true threat. Sure, the team had Jason Heyward, but thanks to missed time and only six stolen base attempts, his base running ability was limited. Last season was a little different, as both Heyward and BJ Upton were given a longer leash and utilized more effectively on the base paths. Still, the Braves ranked in the lower half of the NL in every base running metric.
One of the first pieces brought in to change things was non-roster invitee Eric Young Jr., who has been one of the top base runners in all of baseball in recent memory; unfortunately, this side of his game has never been reflected in his BABIP. But he’s still a guy who fits the mold. Another piece was infielder Jace Peterson, who ended up making the Opening Day roster as the starting 2B. His speed has always graded out well both statistically and by scouts, and he’s had a high BABIP at every level he’s played in the minors. The final piece was Cameron Maybin, who was acquired in the Kimbrel trade on the eve of Opening Day. Before missing the majority of 2013 with injuries and a chunk of 2014 due to a failed drug test, Maybin was beginning to come into his own. His BsR numbers were progressing upward and his BABIP was consistently better than league average.
If line drives and speed were the keys to making this contact thing work, the pieces were definitely in place. Throw in Jonny Gomes to compliment Freeman as a potential high ISO guy, and you may be onto something.
And while none of us want to put any weight into it, what about all those small ball aspects we’ve had beaten into our head? They may not have any weight or value in overall offensive success, but things are better so far this season. From sacrifice bunts, to taking the extra base, to percentage of runners on-base eventually scoring, to avoiding double plays…all have been improved over the 2014 numbers. Granted, we’re comparing only a dozen games to a full season’s worth, and the added value is minimal, but the small things do add up when done properly long-term.
With everything that’s been going good, there has to be a flip-side where it all goes horribly wrong. It’s the inevitable. Even the great teams go through periods where nothing goes right.
Well, for all of those guys who put the ball in play, you don’t exactly have a ton of guys who can get on via other conventional measures, namely walks. Andrelton Simmons, Pierzynski, and Chris Johnson have some of the worst walk rates this side of the pitcher’s spot in the lineup. While Johnson has done a much better job drawing walks so far this season, one would be misguided to expect him to carry a walk rate higher than Freddie Freeman over the next five months.
You can get guys on base all you want, but if you’re putting the ball in play, the likelihood of creating multiple outs on a play also greatly increases. Nothing can kill a rally faster than a double play, and no lineup has as many pieces that can do that as the Braves. Simmons, Chris Johnson, Callaspo, and Pierzynski are essentially ground ball magnets when double play situations present themselves. So far the Braves are better than last season, still ranking in the bottom half of the league in GIDP, but a far cry from being tied for fifth place in the NL a year ago.
Looking to avoid the strikeout with all the contact? Well, not so much. The new guys and Simmons may be able to help you out there, but Gomes, the Johnsons, and Maybin are going to account for more than enough strikeouts to balance out the others. They have, however, been lucky enough to find that balance so far. Going from top three to bottom five in the NL is certainly an improvement, regardless of how much emphasis you put on strikeouts vs other outs. Factor in that the team is next to last in the league in IFFB%, and there are a lot less automatic outs being accounted for.
What does this all leave us with?
The lyrics I posted above.
For two weeks now, more times than not essentially everything that could go right has. But as the last two games in the Marlins series and the first game in New York have shown, this team is also prone to look very bad, as well.
So far the Braves have had a lot of luck in close games. Six of eight wins have been by two runs or less, whereas three of their five losses have been by three runs or more. This isn’t a team that is going to blow teams out every night, but if they are able to keep games close, anything is possible. And so far that’s been the story of the season.
Everything has mostly gone exactly as expected, at least statistically. There is still tons of noise because of how early in the season we are, but there have been tons of contact, very few swings and misses, and the batted ball types have gone exactly as expected.
Can this team continue to compete? Who knows. All conventional wisdom tells us that the success so far is entirely luck based given the number of one-run games. But that is what this team was built around. You put the ball in play and whatever happens, happens. Get a pitch to hit, hit the ball hard, and hope it finds some outfield grass. You live by contact, you die by contact. And all those other trite and played out cliches.
It can make you look like one of the best teams in baseball, or it can make you look like that team everyone projected to be ten games under .500. So far, we don’t know which team we are going to get night to night.
Maybe we shouldn’t get too comfortable just yet.