Defense On The Rise

Defense On The Rise

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.

13 Comments

Tommy….Dansby Swanson will probably never be an elite offensive hitting shortstop (he simply cannot resist swinging at that slider low and away). However, if he can continue raking with the glove like he has during the 1st half of The 2018 Season, he’ll have a place long term with The Braves.

However, given that Ender Inciarte is another ‘glove first/anything he gives offensively is a plus’ type player in center…makes 2 out of 8 regulars who arent pluses offensively. AA is going to have to address this in the offseason. Nick Markakis, for all the talk of his ‘rebound/possible MVP-like year’, only has 8 homers so far in 2018 (not very many from a cleanup hitter as we approach the halfway point of the season).

The only way it makes sense to have Inciarte’s and Swanson’s glove in the lineup long term..is if AA acquires some serious power/run production to play 3rd and left field (Acuna will be shifting to right field for 2019 and beyond). Great defense at premium defensive positions like short and center is great to have…however at the end of the day, The Braves are going to need more than Freddie as a legitimate offensive power threat…while Albies and Acuna continue to develop into what we all think both will eventually become: perennial MVP candidate type players.

I believe the Braves are considerably improved and you may be right about they way they’re using analytics. I just wish the metrics could more easily be measured/compared with the hitting and pitching metrics. Almost never see a WAR measurement associated with defense. At Fangraphs, the Braves are listed as 9th, which is great but there seems to be a tier which is a step function better among the Cubs, D’Backs, and Brewers. These are also teams whose pitching staff appears to be doing better than they should much like the Braves. Is it defense that is sparking the improvement. Seems to me that a lot of the Braves’ staff has an ERA lower than their FIP, which would lead me to believe that the fielding is improving the pitching results. Was the same true last year (i.e. did poor fielding make everyone pitch worse than their FIPs?). Obviously, it also helps if a pitcher can pitch to the defense (e.g. pitching inside when a shift is on).

I don’t agree that defense is boring. Defense is exciting as much as hitting or pitching (one of the reasons for our ongoing love affairs with Andrelton and Ender). A good defending team is much more fun to watch and root for than a poor defending team. I am waiting to see more spectacular defense from Acuna and Ozzie and, eventually, Pache. If we could add Bryce next year to replace Nick, our defense might be even that much better (Acuna in RF and Bryce in LF – Bryce’s stats this year in RF are horrible for some reason, but good in CF).

The Braves have been doing great in the field. I didn’t see neck getting better in his defense–but he has. Dansby might be a streaky hitter but his defense this year has been strong and steady. Carmago at thrird has been awesome. I agree with Tommy that Carmago is better suited at 3rd–but no matter what the numbers say-he made some awesome plays at short-missed some easy ones–I’m glad he’s at 3rd. Its only eye test stuff–I have no actual numbers to quote–but i really believe Acuna is better in left than Kemp–could be me…Ender is doing his usual. Freddie is great–esp taking bad throws. Also the catchers dont throw out runners like mad or anything–but they steal strikes…esp flowers. I love the team d so far—and i hope that if we add Riley or Peterson or a free agent in left….(Harper would be weird and he would have to take some kind of 8 at 30 per or 5 at 38 something like that–esp since he is not quite playing like himself…maybe haircut….there are plenty of other free agents)–either way. A 3rd baseman and a left fielder perhaps—but at catcher …..i would love to stay with what we have….maybe they will get grandal….I hope not.

I’ll admit that I find defense boring- and I hate the shift as a whole, because I feel like it takes away from the game. I suppose if everyone’s going to do it though, the team has to embrace it. It’s hard to argue that something’s elevated Swanson’s game this year, and if that’s the big change…

I do hope, big picture, that a traditional slugger is placed somewhere on the field to pair with Freddie, though- glove, or not. To me, third seems the obvious spot. I won’t pretend to understand what an ultimate zone rating is, or any of these other defensive stats- but is Camargo just better at 3B than he was at SS, or is he actually *good* at 3B as it relates to the elites around the league?

A better use of our considerable talented prospect resources..will be around The 2019 July Trade Deadline (1. after a full year of body of work to go on when it comes to evaluating/developing the likes of Albies, Acuna, Soroka, Phillips, Fried, Biddle, Winkler, Minter…as well as others on their way up in the next year…..2. AA taking FULL ADVANTAGE of which READY FOR PRIME TIME Free Agents he’s going to target/sign once THE DEAD WEIGHT of DEAD CONTRACTS all come off the books at the end of The 2018 Season. 3. AA finds a taker for Teheran and his $11 mil 2019 Salary, along with his $1 mil 2020 team option buyout).

This time in 2019…AA will have A MUCH BETTER GRASP on NOT ONLY what fixable holes are worth fixing..BUT ALSO which prospects The Braves can stomach losing the most.

2 days ago, I was all set to see The Braves lose their grip on 1st place to a resurgent Philly team. However, what a difference 2 days makes (I was wrong….not the 1st time, probably not the last time, lol). Tomorrow, The Braves will open with a 3 1/2 game lead over Philly, 4 games over Washington. Hopefully Tampa and The Yankees will continue giving those two a tough time…while ‘maybe’ The Braves can take care of business against the 2nd worst team in all of MLB (The Reds)?

I would sure be nice to win the so called ‘easy games’ that cross our path. Starting Friday…The Braves face probably our TOUGHEST STRETCH of games all season long. 3 in St. Louis, 3 at Yankee Stadium and 4 in Milwaukee. 10 straight games…no off days.

Washington plays at Philly for 4 straight starting Thursday (our last off day before this 10 game trip starts). A lead of 4-5 games would be a VERY NICE CUSHION to have….to soften ‘a bump’ in the road.

With July approaching, these next 10 road games for The Braves will show whether The 2018 Braves have it in them to stay in The Playoff Race.

Currently, The Braves are ahead of Philly by 2 games, The Nationals by 4. By going 2-4 against BOTH The Orioles and The Reds (two of the worst teams in MLB), The Braves SQUANDERED a GREAT opportunity to pad their division lead.

Let’s see how The Braves play these next 10 games…..then I’ll post what direction I feel they should go (Trade Deadline…whether to be buyers or sellers) after The All-Star Break.

Every time it looks like The Braves are going to come ‘falling back down to Earth OR that Philly/Washington will overtake The Braves’……The Braves buckle down and simply get a MUCH NEEDED WIN!

Teheran pitched a gutty 6 innings tonight. The bullpen did what it had to do..to get the last 9 outs. While late, the offense did the same thing from the 7th inning on!

1. Teheran..tonight
2. Fried….tomorrow
3. Folty….Sunday
4. Newomb…Monday
5…..?…..Tuesday

Sanchez? Wisler? Biddle?….why not Kolby Allard? With Mike Soroka out for almost the next 2 months, I feel that Allard is a SERIOUS UPGRADE over both McCarthy and Sanchez. I would like to see what Allard can show when it comes to evaluating him for The 2019 Season.

Calling up Evan Phillips from AAA and Kyle Wright from AA (I know that he’s a starting pitcher long term…however he has 2 really plus pitches that play well as a reliever who doesn’t need to use his secondary pitches in a shot relief stint.

Offensively, I’d like to see The Braves call up Austin Riley to insert at 3rd/in the middle of the order (for the right handed power option that they DESPERATELY NEED)….which would result in Carmago being a super sub for The Infield (along with Culberson). I’d like to see Michael Reed to also get called up. I know, he’s been a career MILB/AAAA-type player. However, it’s seems to have clicked for him in 2018. Reed seems like a player who can play center and spell Inciarte when a tough lefty is facing The Braves (Inciarte simply SUCKS when a lefty is facing him).

While injuries/unexpected ‘tough time adjusting’ have affected a number of The Braves Starting Pitching Prospects in The System…..I cant help but say that I’m pleasantly surprised by how Bruce Zimmerman has come from seemingly ‘nowhere’ to become a rising prospect. He pretty much DOMINATED at Low A to start The 2018 Season…and Braves Management seemingly made a bold move to have Zimmerman to skip High A..and promoted him to Double AA Mississippi.

Zimmerman started tonight for Mississippi…and put up some pretty impressive numbers: 6 1/3 innings…4 hits…1 run…3 walks…10 strikeouts!

Depending on how Zimmerman does for the rest of 2018…he could very well be a candidate for The Braves Rotation come The 2019 Season! He’s left handed (will be 24 years old in February), doesn’t walk a lot of hitters, strikes out well over 9 per 9 innings, pitches deep in game….seems like a legit prospect (just without the blazing fastball/nasty curve that makes scouts cream in their pants)!

Soroka being out 2 months is a real disappointment…however the games go on. AA will have some interesting decisions to make once The All-Star Break is over (about 2 weeks left before The July Trade Deadline once The ASB is over). How The Braves play the last 9 games of this road trip (1-0 to start it…is HELLA PROMISING) will play A HUGE FACTOR (along with how Wash/Philly play once they are done playing each other on Sunday).

Great win tonight. I hope we can swap with folty.

Fried–I hope we can let him stay in the rotation regardless of MLB or AAA–just let him keep being a starter.

Also I think Touki did well today.

Things are looking up.

Between July 2 and July 22nd (the next 3 weeks), The Braves schedule is CONSIDERABLY harder than EITHER The Phillies or The Nationals.

Braves play: 3 at Yankee Stadium, 4 in Milwaukee, 2 at home against Toronto, 3 at home against Arizona…before playing The Nationals in Washington right after The ASB for 3 games (15 games total…only 2 against under .500 teams).

Phillies: host The Orioles for 2 games….3 at Pittsburgh, 4 at The Mets, 1 at Baltimore (make up game) 3 in Miami…..then host San Diego for 3 games right after The ASB (16 games total….ALL against under .500 teams).

Washington: hosts Boston for 3, hosts Miami for 4, at The Pirates for 3, at The Mets for 4…..before hosting The Braves for 3 right after The ASB. 11 of 17 against under .500 teams).

If you look back at the runs that BOTH Washington and Philly went on early in the year…BOTH beat up the under .500 teams (that’s why IT HURT to see The Braves go 2-4 AT HOME against Baltimore and Cincy).

With Philly winning in the 13th inning against Washington…The Braves have a 3 game lead against Philly….6 game lead over Washington. Even though I still feel that Washington is the team to fear (because they WILL SACRIFICE their future come The July Trade Deadline…Victor Robles and others, Juan Soto excluded, will be packaged to get BOTH JT Realmuto AND Manny Machado at The Trade Deadline….Washington has too much invested in this team…to just let BOTH The Braves and Philly run away from them)…..I expect Philly to ‘make a move’ on The Braves during the next 3 weeks. Their schedule is TOO EASY…while The Braves have to play seemingly all the good teams during the next 3 weeks!

If Boston beats up on Washington this week…(especially if The Braves continue to win games by beating The Yankees at least 2 of the 3 games at Yankee Stadium)….expect Washington to make some trades in order to take advantage of the upcoming 11 game soft spot of their schedule. They CANNOT afford to not take advantage of those games.

If The Braves are still in 1st place on July 23rd….that is when it is realistic to believe that this team has a LEGIT chance to win The Division….in 2018!

However…if Brian Snitker keeps MISMANAGING the bullpen like he did today (1. Shane Carle IS NOT a ‘more than 1 inning kind of guy’. 2. Jesse Biddle SHOULD have faced more than 1 hitter today. 3. Peter Moylan is simply NOT someone any SANE manager puts in a high leverage situation).

Why is Evan Phillips NOT on the 25 man roster? If Vizcaino doesnt come back as his semi-dominant self when he’s activated tomorrow…The Braves are going to have some serious bullpen issues come the 2nd half. Expecting Winkler and Minter to be LIGHTS OUT every time out..is unrealistic. An injury to either/both of them…would pretty much DOOM any 2018 playoff hopes.

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