Oh, I’m alive. Started a new job which has kept me sidetracked a bit, but I’m alive. And as are the Braves. Despite an underwhelming series against the Orioles, the Braves are still in first place. We always hear about the reasons for that – the team’s offense has been mostly pretty good. The starting staff, led by Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz, has improved. Even the bullpen, minus a terrible outing the other night, has been decent.
But the thing that often gets overlooked by not only the national media but by Braves fan is team defense. And that’s a shame because it’s pretty good.
Of course, it should be. One key area that Alex Anthopoulos spoke of that needed to be improved was team defense as he took questions from Braves A-list members last winter. It’s why the Braves signed Ryan Flaherty and Peter Bourjos before the season. While not the biggest reason, some of the rationale in dealing Matt Kemp was related to his woeful defense – among the worst in baseball last season.
But overall, Anthopoulos didn’t make a lot of moves to improve the defense. Of last season’s nine regular players (including the catching tandem) that were everyday players toward the end of the year, the Braves returned all but Kemp. That team ranked 28th in rPM, 23rd in DRS, and 24th in UZR/150. If these numbers are new to you, I recommend visiting Fangraphs and cycling through their defensive metrics.
Kemp was a big reason for those awful marks. As was Matt Adams, Johan Camargo (at shortstop), Dansby Swanson, Brandon Phillips (at second base), and Nick Markakis. Were all these metrics fair? Debateable, but the result was one of the league’s worst defenses. Anthopoulos saw this and wanted to change things. But he couldn’t change the whole roster nor could he be sure that changing the whole roster would fix the root problem. And that problem? The Braves were stuck in the past.
In 2017, the Braves ranked 10th in the league in most PA without utilizing a shift. Of the nine teams in front of them, just two made it to the playoffs. The direction of the league, whether you like it or not, is headed toward analytics being used to affect on-the-field decisions. It’s a copycat league that saw the Astros (who had a thousand fewer PA without a shift than the Braves) win it all. Are shifts perfect? Absolutely not – but they work enough to be worth the potential danger that goes along with using them.
This season – as with every level of the organization – Anthopoulos has added analytics whereas the previous regime only talked about it. Only eight teams have had fewer non-shift PA this season.
Here are the basics of how this works: the front office relays the information to Ron Washington and Eric Young who bring it to the players. No player has benefitted more from this switch to a more analytical approach than Dansby Swanson. Many people were ready to count his defense has yet another disappointment. It wasn’t great by any means in his cameo in 2016 and was a weakness for sure in 2017. Beyond the more traditional numbers like errors (20, including 13 fielding), Swanson’s defensive metrics were awful. He had a -7 DRS and a -2.8 UZR/150. But this season, things have changed. He’s one of four shortstops with at least 6 DRS and 10 UZR/150. The other three? Francisco Lindor, Orlando Arcia, and Andrelton Simmons.
Swanson’s been the team’s most impressive defensive player – a pretty amazing accomplishment when you have Ender Inciarte in center field. Inciarte, by the way, ranks third in Outs Above Average, one of the statcast defensive numbers. Johan Camargo has been stellar at third base, which suits his range limitations better than shortstop did. Ozzie Albies gets to balls Brandon Phillips just couldn’t anymore. Even Nick Markakis has appeared to benefit from the analytical switch. No longer a defensive plus since coming to Atlanta, Markakis is on his way to a new personal high in OOZ – Out Of Zone Plays Made.
Defense is a boring subject, I know. And defensive metrics have their issues, I agree. But the Braves have embraced something that many of us who criticized their direction as a non-analytical franchise dreamed of. And nowhere was this more on display than last Tuesday in Danville, Virginia. The young D-Braves were playing the first game of the year. There was plenty of ceremony and hope. The Pulaski Yankees won the game, taking advantage of some defensive miscues along the way.
But what you didn’t see in the boxscore that night was an infield that was shifting nearly every at-bat. New Danville second baseman Greg Cullen often played on the shortstop side of the bag. As someone who saw a half-dozen or so games last year, this was a bit of a shock. The 2017 Danville Braves rarely shifted at all. For that matter, few Appalachian League teams did. But baseball is always evolving and under a new general manager, the Braves are bringing analytics into play even in the rookie leagues.
It’s looking more and more like the analytical changes we have seen in 2018 under Anthopoulos may only be the tip of the iceberg.