Living on the Fringe: Frank Wren’s Bench Composition

Atlanta-Braves-Dugout-LevelEDITOR’S NOTE: You may remember Brandon from works such as this Uggla/Upton/Johnson retrospective. After much bribery and hand-greasing we are proud to welcome Brandon to the BGS family. We hope you enjoy what he brings to the table, which is expert analysis written in a way that normal people (read: non-Stephen Brown/non-sentient machines) can understand. 

One of the enduring problems for the 2014 Atlanta Braves has been the underwhelming performance of the fringe pieces coming off the bench. Considering piecing together those replacement level players has always been one of general manager Frank Wren’s strong suits, I decided to take a closer look at how the 2014 version has stacked up historically.

The result was the image that follows, that I tweeted out a few days ago:

Braves_Top8_Bench_wRC

The graph itself is a little straight-forward, but I’ll breakdown the methodology a bit.
The position players were broken down into two distinct groups: the top 8 players sorted by plate appearances, and everyone else.

The top eight were chosen for the first group because for the most part, the same group of eight players are going to accrue the majority of plate appearances over the course of 162 games.

Of course, there are exceptions: injuries, platoons, and trades are going to affect all teams at some point during any given season. These players, along with those guys coming off the bench on a daily basis are the ones who make up the second group.

Also, I chose to look at strictly offensive output here, as overall value via fWAR on the non-Top 8 tends to balance itself out rather easily with most living in the -1.0 to 1.0 range.

2008

The names of note for the “bench” portion of the 2008 season are:
Mark Kotsay, OF
Martin Prado, UT
Greg Norton, LF
Casey Kotchman, 1B
Josh Anderson, OF
Matt Diaz, OF
Brandon Jones, OF
Ruben Gotay, IF

There are two names on the list we can eliminate from the discussion rather early. Mark Kotsay was the team’s primary CF through August before being sent to Boston. That, along with injuries would keep him from being classified as a regular. The other is Casey Kotchman, who assumed the role of everyday 1B after the Mark Teixeira trade at the deadline.

Omar Infante’s name is also a glaring omission from this list because he ended up starting a total of 77 games because of a revolving door at a number of positions. This amount of playing time was enough to bump him into our Top 8 category.

So that leaves us with Prado, Norton, Anderson, Diaz, Jones and Gotay as the primary players off the bench in 2008.

The 2008 season was when Martin Prado really burst onto the scene with the Braves. Not only was he productive offensively (123 wRC+), but he also laid the groundwork for how versatile a player he would become by starting at all four infield positions, as well as LF. Ruben Gotay would end up serving a similar role, albeit on a much smaller scale. He only started a handful of games, but would contribute an 80 wRC+ in 117 PA.

Greg Norton proved to be the best pure bat off the bench for Bobby Cox. Considering Gotay was the only other regular bat used, it certainly wasn’t without reason. In 2008, Norton amassed a 108 wRC+ in 202 PA. He provided one of the best PH options during the Wren era.

The remaining players, Anderson, Diaz, Jones, along with Top 8s Infante and Gregor Blanco, would make up the game of musical chairs that was the Braves outfield. All told, the Braves would use seven total starters in LF in 2008, with Blanco and Anderson splitting time in CF after the Kotsay trade. Among the trio of Anderson, Diaz and Jones, only Diaz would prove to be completely ineffective (48 wRC+). Anderson and Jones, both 25 at the time, would prove to at least be serviceable options, with Anderson putting up a 100 wRC+ (146 PA) and Jones an 82 wRC+ (128 PA).

I left backup catchers Corky Miller and Clint Sammons off this list, because the less said about them the better. The two would only combine to start 30 games, as Brian McCann was still just 24 and very much in workhorse mode at this point. They were downright abysmal at the plate, with Miller putting up a -27 wRC+ (67 PA) and Sammons a 13 wRC+ (59 PA).

2009

Frank Wren’s second year on the job would prove to be another one of transition for the team’s offense. (For more on Wren’s tenure and all the moves, check out my full retrospective here: The Ballad of Frank Wren.)

Because of that, there were a number of moves, which resulted in a number of players splitting time. This created a convoluted list of players rounding out the bench portion of the team in the above calculation.

Here are the primary names:
Casey Kotchman, 1B
Jeff Francoeur, RF
Adam LaRoche, 1B
Omar Infante, UT
Jordan Schafer, OF
David Ross, C
Ryan Church, OF
Greg Norton, PH
Diory Hernandez, IF
Brooks Conrad, IF
Gregor Blanco, OF

Right off the bat, we can eliminate a few of the names in terms of what they added to the actual bench: Kotchman, Francoeur and LaRoche. Kotchman and LaRoche were traded for each other, and Francoeur started all but three games while with the Braves before being traded. Another name we can probably scratch off the list is Jordan Schafer. He would start the season as the Braves CF, but struggle mightily for two months before being replaced after Nate McLouth was acquired.

That leaves us with Infante, Ross, Church, Norton, Hernandez, Conrad and Blanco. Of the group, only Infante, Ross, and Norton would be present the majority of the season.

Norton would prove once more to be Bobby Cox’s primary bat off the bench. Unfortunately, 2009 was not nearly as kind as 2008 was. Norton struggled to the tune of seeing his wRC+ literally sliced in half, dropping to 54 as the team’s primary PH.

Because of all the shuffling of pieces and struggles, the Braves bench would lose Diaz and Prado to primary starting jobs. Diaz would split time between the corner outfield positions and Prado would spend his time in a platoon at second with Kelly Johnson and filling in at third for Chipper Jones.

When the Braves lost Infante in the middle of the season to a broken bone, rookie Diory Hernandez would end up filling the infield backup role, and would be a complete phantom offensively (-7 wRC+ in 93 PA).

The shining spot for the bench in 2009 would be the addition of new backup catcher David Ross. During his time bouncing around the National League over the past decade with a number of teams, Ross had proven he could serve as both a very good defensive backstop and the rare backup commodity that wasn’t a liability at the plate. In his first season with the Braves, he would set the pace for the rest of the Braves subs with a 138 wRC+ in 151 PA.

The other name not mentioned, but worthy of note is Brooks Conrad. The 29 year old utility player was a scrapheap pickup by Wren the previous November who would spend the majority of 2009 with Gwinnett. He would only see 58 PA with the big club, and put up a 67 wRC+, but bigger things were on the horizon.

2010

In 2010, things would start to stabilize a bit. A lot of the same names would continue to pop-up, but this would also be the year where Wren would make moves down the stretch to shore up the offense. With these moves, the team got a big boost with the addition of a couple names.

2010’s key figures:
Yunel Escobar, SS
Alex Gonzalez, SS
Nate McLouth, OF
Matt Diaz, OF
Brooks Conrad, IF
Derrek Lee, 1B
David Ross, C
Rick Ankiel, OF
Gregor Blanco, OF

Obviously, right from the start, Esco and Seabass can be shaved off the top, as they would be swapped for each other and combine to fill the starting SS role. And Lee and Ankiel would start almost every game they were in with the Braves.

So, that leaves us with McLouth, Diaz, Conrad, Ross, and Blanco. We can further lump Blanco in with Ankiel, as he was included in the package that went to the Royals. So, let’s focus on McLouth, Diaz, Conrad, and Ross.

McLouth is probably the most interesting of the group. He spent much of the first half as the team’s starting CF before being destroyed by Heyward in the RCF gap in Arizona in late July. Down the stretch he would prove to be a key piece in the Braves OF, however, as the once again revolving door between CF and LF would need to be patched together on a nightly basis.

Unfortunately, out of the group who would occupy LF and CF, none would prove overly effective. McLouth would put up a 70 wRC+ (288 PA), Diaz a 94 wRC+ (244 PA), Ankiel a 79 wRC+ in 139 PA after the deadline deal. Blanco would be the only productive member at 109 wRC+ in a mere 66 PA. The name not included is that of Eric Hinske, who would end up starting more games than he came off the bench for, and amassed a crazy 320 PA on the season. That would be balanced out by Melky Cabrera’s sad 77 wRC+ in 509 PA, but that’s not why we’re here…

The two names we haven’t yet mentioned for 2010 are the two names we finished up 2009 with: David Ross and Brooks Conrad. This would be the year that two legends were cemented. With Ross it was more of the same: excellent defense, excellent offense, and providing starting catcher numbers as a backup. With Conrad, however, it became something magical. Somehow, this thirty year old MLB castaway with a mere 77 career PA would absolutely explode onto the scene off the Braves bench. Conrad would only start 24 games with the Braves, but would appear in 103 total. He tallied 177 PA and an electric 118 wRC+ capped off by one magical Thursday afternoon against the Reds.

2011

As with the previous years, the 2011 season would be no different with the number of moving pieces amongst the Braves position players.

Our key non-Top 8ers:
Eric Hinske, OF
Michael Bourn, CF
Jordan Schafer, OF
David Ross, C
Brooks Conrad, IF
Jose Constanza, OF
Joe Mather, OF
Julio Lugo, IF
Jack Wilson, SS
Matt Diaz, OF

And, honestly, the list goes on and on. The Braves amassed a ton of players in 2011 who would have less than 100 PA off the bench, but I’m only gonna focus on a few here.

Let’s start by getting Bourn out of the way. He ended up with 249 PA and a 86 wRC+ with the Braves after coming over from the Astros in a trade that involved another name on our list, Jordan Schafer. Speaking of our old friend Slim, he would once again struggle in CF (76 wRC+ in 220 PA) after taking over the CF job after McLouth continued to battle the injury bug.

The names we’ve come to expect: Hinske (98 wRC+, 264 PA), Ross (113 wRC+, 171 PA), and Conrad (96 wRC+, 122 PA). They did the things you would imagine, so we won’t bother there.

The wildcard in 2011 was Jose Constanza. Now, buckle up, because you won’t see this kind of complementary behavior from me concerning him again: The guy was a key part of the Braves bench for a stretch. Fredi may have ridden the proverbial (and non-existent, btw) hot hand a little too long, but Constanza did put up a 103 wRC+ in 119 PA that season. Unfortunately, we’re still dealing with the ramifications of that little blip three years later. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose.

lick_constanzaThe key problem with the Braves bench in 2011 was filling the backup infielder role. Granted, Uggla and Seabass were relatively healthy and Prado was available to fill the role left by Chipper’s many maladies, but the Braves managed to find nearly 100 PA for Julio Lugo and Jack Wilson. Now, granted, neither has ever been the type to light the world on fire offensively, but the Lugo/Wilson combination was dreadful for what it was worth. Lugo would stumble his way to a -0.2 wRC+ in 48 PA, while Wilson would struggle to a 30 wRC+ in 45 PA after coming over from the Mariners at the end of August.

2012

The 2012 season would be another season of abnormalities with regards to the calculations here. The reason being one of the bench bats made his way into the Top 8 group because of the Braves inability to keep a healthy shortstop on the field for 162 games. Juan Francisco, was acquired from Cincinnati to be a LH power bat off the bench, would only see 205 PA and put up a 88 wRC. Keep that in mind as we dig into the ether of shortstops here.

The names to ponder:
David Ross, C
Tyler Pastornicky, SS
Paul Janish, SS
Andrelton Simmons, SS
Eric Hinske, LF
Matt Diaz, OF
Reed Johnson, OF
Jose Constanza, OF
Jack Wilson, SS

So, yeah, as I was saying: shortstops everywhere. Oh my god, the shortstops! Pastornicky started the season there. Andrelton took over mid-season, broke his hand. Wilson took over for four innings, broke a finger. Janish took over after a trade from Cincinnati. And Simmons ended the season there. Simmons was the only one who wasn’t garbage offensively – 103 wRC+ in 182 PA. Strange knowing what we now know, right? Pastornicky (66 wRC+, 188 PA), Wilson (-2, 77), and Janish (42, 186) were all putrid.

Ross was Ross; fourth verse, same as the first three.

The other area the Braves would end up having to find a fill-in for on a daily basis was LF during those times where Prado would take over at third when Fredi didn’t want to write Fat Juan’s name in and Chipper had a yeast infection and couldn’t answer the call. Enter the three-headed monster of Jose Constanza, Matt Diaz, and Reed Johnson.

Or, as we’ll simply call them here: a club sandwich of three different types of crap. Constanza would thankfully only see 86 PA, but would make us all suffer through a 62 wRC+, Diaz would make us endure a 65 in 118 PA, and Reed Johnson would bring his lack of talents from Chicago and post a 72 wRC+ in 105 PA.

2013

There’s no denying that the Braves 2013 bench may be one of the best groups this organization has ever pieced together. Top-to-bottom there was a lot of depth and very little struggle.

Let’s look at the pieces:
Evan Gattis, C
Jordan Schafer, OF
Gerald Laird, C
Reed Johnson, OF
Juan Francisco, 3B
Ramiro Pena, IF
Elliot Johnson, UT
Joey Terdoslavich, OF
Paul Janish, IF
Tyler Pastornicky, IF
Jose Constanza, OF

The bench was pieced together rather interestingly. Gattis ended up as the primary catcher for the first month while McCann recovered from shoulder surgery. Francisco was planned as a 3B platoon with Chris Johnson. Laird was onboard to now replace Ross as the backup catcher. Pena was brought on as a Yankees castoff to shore up the infield after the 2012 struggles and Reed and Slim were the righty/lefty options as fourth and fifth outfielders.

Gattis exploded out of the gates and did a phenomenal job as the primary bat off the bench after McCann returned. Setting Atlanta ablaze with Gattitude and a 109 wRC+ in almost 400 PA, he eventually became the team’s starting LF for their playoff series against the Dodgers. Francisco would lose out on the 3B platoon, but still put up a respectable 90 wRC+ in 115 PA off the bench before being inexplicably DFA’d and sent to Milwaukee. And everyone was surprised at how well Laird did filling the backup catcher role that had been vacated when Ross signed with Boston.

Also surprising was the success of Ramiro Pena, who had been void of offensive value during his time as a backup infielder with the Yankees. Before going down for the year with a shoulder injury, the switch-hitter posted a 115 wRC+ in a little over 100 PA.

But probably the most surprising development was the early success of Johnson and Schafer before injuries knocked each out of action. While they ended the season with an 85 and 91 wRC+ respectively, both were above league-average in their production.

After injuries riddled the bench and 2B Dan Uggla forgot how to hit, Wren again went to the stockpile of available replacement level players and found Elliot Johnson, who would see playing time at five positions over the season’s six weeks. Just as everyone else on the 2013 bench before him, EJ put up career high numbers with Atlanta, posting a 88 wRC+ over 102 PA.

2014

If 2013 was the year everything went right with the Braves bench and all of Wren’s moves came up aces, 2014 was certainly the year when it all came crashing down. Two weeks remain in the 2014 campaign, but let we’ll breakdown where the team currently stands.

Our list:
Gerald Laird, C
Ramiro Pena, IF
Ryan Doumit, OF
Dan Uggla, 2B
Jordan Schafer, OF
Emilio Bonifacio, UT
Phil Gosselin, IF
Christian Bethancourt, C
Tyler Pastornicky, IF

Problem is, all the luck of 2013 seemed to have run when we all watched Juan Uribe’s flyball sail into the LF stands at Dodger Stadium.

The 2014 bench has been an unmitigated disaster. And that may be putting it lightly.

Phil Gosselin has been the best the team has had to offer, and he didn’t see his name on the Major League roster until late July. Everyone else may as well have been replaced by a steaming pile of elephant dung.
Laird, Pena, and Schafer all fell back down to earth. Laird has accumulated a higher than normal number of PAs as backup catcher thanks to minor injuries and new-catcher-syndrome striking down Gattis on occasion. Laird has reached the 150 PA plateau already this season and has struggled to keep his wRC+ over 50 for most of that time. Pena may have been the most consistent of the consistently bad, at least, posting a 71 wRC+ over 146 PA. And Schafer was so bad in 93 PA (33 wRC+) he was run of town for the equally horrible Emilio Bonifacio, of all players.

Doumit was supposed to be the bench’s answer to Gattis now being an everyday player. The Braves were thought to have acquired the former three-win player at a bargain when they traded failed first round pick Sean Gilmartin to the Twins, but the switch-hitting backstop-turned-OF-turned-PH has bombed. Over 140+ PA thus far, he’s struggled to keep his wRC+ above 50.

Uggla had become so bad that once he lost his starting 2B job to Tommy La Stella at the end of May, he would only see 31 total PA over fifty games.

If there’s been one slight glimmer of a bright spot in 2014, it’s been Christian Bethancourt, if you can call a 70 wRC+ through 65 PA a bright spot. Which, given his surroundings, I think you really have no choice but to. He may only have one XBH and two walks to his credit, but somehow he’s right with Pena as having the highest wRC+ on the Braves bench in 2014. Yet, Bethancourt is the player whose hit tool we were all supposed to be concerned about.

***

So, there you have it.

The players may not always be the names you expect to produce, but up until two of the past three seasons, Frank Wren has pieced together the backend of his team with the right pieces to get the job done. Bench players usually end up being those marginal replacement level players that anyone can pick up for no cost and throw together hoping for success. Some general managers are better at it than others. And where those pieces fail, it’s in-season moves and acquisitions that help round out that long list of position players used on a yearly basis. Whether those pieces come together and thrive like in 2013, or essentially the same group falls flat on their face like in 2014, we never really know until the games start to add up.

Brandon (@_bg37) is that dude K hates because of his love affair with Little Caesars. As a result of this, the two have been entangled in a years long debate over the sabermetric value of $5 pizza. Brandon‘s path to the Store has been a twisted one, involving studies in statistics and sports marketing and having been a member of the Braves online community since most were wee lads. He’s back in the writing game despite spending his free time chasing around a toddler and telling people not to buy hamsters.

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3 comments on “Living on the Fringe: Frank Wren’s Bench Composition
  1. Nice recap Brandon. Anyway you could modify the chart to show PA for the bench (on the secondary axis)? Would be interesting to see how much variation there is, how often the team had to rely on the bench.

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