A lot has been written about the surprising – and did I mention surging? – 2018 Atlanta Braves. Many credit Brian Snitker for his steady hand and guidance for a young squad. Others look at Alex Anthopoulos for astute trades and free agent additions after replacing disgraced John Coppolella last winter. Even others will credit Coppolella for the farm system he built.
Certainly, all of these things and many more deserve credit. But I’ve always gravitated toward what I can quantify and for the 2018 Braves, a few things quickly stand out. Most of what I am about to go over has been discussed at different times by me on Twitter, but I feel the need to expand on these thoughts today.
#1 – Defense, Defense, and more Defense
Coppolella did a lot of things, but one thing he didn’t do is put much of a focus on defense. The addition of Matt Kemp makes that pretty clear. Anthopoulos came into town after watching the Los Angeles Dodgers become a better fielding team in their rise from also-rans to NL Champs. They ranked second in DRS and first in UZR/150 last season and, while defense isn’t everything, it goes a long way to hiding problems on your pitching staff or making their staff look even better.
Anthopoulos sought to bring the same kind of focus on defense to the Braves, but couldn’t overturn an entire roster overnight. While he notably traded Kemp – to those same “defensively-minded” Dodgers – Anthopoulos retained most of the regulars from a defense that ranked among the worst in baseball during 2017.
He gambled on two things – one, the defense would improve with experience and better defenders coming into the fold like Ronald Acuña Jr. That certainly happened with Ozzie Albies outplaying Brandon Phillips, Johan Camargo‘s sparkling defense at third, and the significant improvement made by Dansby Swanson. But that wasn’t the only thing Anthopoulos banked on. While Coppolella was expected to bring a new era of analytics to the Braves with his background, the on-the-field product was lacking behind compared to most teams in using the available data and utilizing it. The Braves shifted less than most teams, for example.
The number crunchers in the Braves front office took the data and, with the help of Ron Washington and Eric Young, were able to translate what the spreadsheets said into a way for their defenders to understand. And this approach has trickled down throughout the organization. Last month, I talked with Danville catcher Zack Soria, who made it clear that, “our new GM is really big on shifting and focusing on analytics.” As someone who attends Danville games, it was shocking to me how often the team utilized the shift after rarely doing so the previous year. And this was at the rookie-level where the data is not nearly as extensive.
The new approach has yielded immediate and striking results. In 2017, the Braves finished 24th in UZR/150 and 23rd in DRS. This season, despite most of the same cast, the Braves are tenth in UZR/150 and 6th in DRS.
2. Working the BABIP
All of these reasons build onto one another.
With the improved defense, the Braves could manipulate another stat that we often consider more when talking about offensive players – Batting Average on Balls in Play. More commonly known as BABIP, the Braves finished with the eleventh-worst mark last season with a .302 BABIP by the pitchers. This points to several factors – frequency of hard-hit balls for one. But where team-wide pitcher BABIP is often used is with the stat Defensive Efficiency. It looks at the rate a ball put into play is turned into an out. In 2017, the Braves had a .683 Defensive Efficiency. While not the worst, it still ranked 13th. This season? They rank 4th.
How important is this number? Ask the Oakland A’s, who lead baseball with a .714 Defensive Efficiency. Oakland was expected to be non-contenders this season. Instead, they have been the hottest team in baseball due, in no small part, to playing the percentages in every facet. Their rotation includes Sean Manaea, Edwin Jackson, and Brett Anderson – who all have FIP’s above 4.20, but ERA’s under 3.60. This group of starters doesn’t get strikeouts. They need a defense that strives for efficiency in both their preparation and performance.
The Braves are no different. As a number, the Braves are just percentage points behind the Diamondbacks for third place with a .705 Defensive Efficiency. While most national commentator still focus on archaic numbers like errors, the real approach to defense should be related to how effectively they turn balls put into play into outs. The Braves are among the best.
3. Getting With the Program
In an era where strikeouts are rising to numbers-never-before-seen, the Braves were lagging behind. From 2015-17, only five teams struck out a lower percentage of batters than the Braves pitchers did. This becomes a problem for two reasons. The first is obvious – strikeouts are almost always outs. Aside from the occasional hitter who strikeouts, but still reaches base, getting the K is a sure out. While Crash Davis believed strikeouts were fascist, in terms of efficiency, they are the best result of an at-bat from a pitcher’s standpoint.
The other reason weak strikeout totals are bad is a bit more nuanced. Again, I’m building on the reasons I’ve already pointed to. If you lack the kind of defense that routinely turns balls in play into outs as frequently as the 2018 Braves do, the hits start piling up. The last thing you want for a team with Matt Kemp and Adonis Garcia in the field is more balls put into play.
This season, the Braves have jumped into the Top 10 in strikeouts with a 23.4% rate. That’s not only going to break some franchise records, but it takes more pressure off the defense to make plays. While the Braves defense is very good, getting sure outs is still better than a defense that turns roughly 70% of balls in play into outs.
4. Stepping Up
Again, we’re building onto each reason. So, the defense and strikeouts are playing a big role into changing the Braves from pretenders into contenders. From a pitching standpoint, though, the young Braves arms are growing up. More accurately – they are stepping up.
Win Probably Added helps us put some numbers behind the idea that pitchers are “clutch” when needed. The Braves ranked near the bottom for much of the last three seasons as pitchers often came apart in high-leverage moments of the game. It’s impossible to compete under those circumstances. Again, we can point to a defense that rarely did its pitchers any favors and a staff that couldn’t get strikeouts – which almost never lead to runs – as huge culprits. With those areas improved, it should surprise no one that the Braves are in the Top 10 in WPA.
How big is this? Of the nine teams ahead of them, two are currently not in a position to go to the playoffs (Rays and Phillies). All of the teams ahead of them have at least 68 wins, though.
Another metric goes more into this. David Appelman developed a stat called “Clutch,” which looks into how well or poorly a player does in high leverage situation. Similar story as WPA, which Clutch utilizes, as the Braves have moved up to ninth in the league. They are one of five teams to rank in the Top 10 in both WPA and Clutch.
We can go an extra mile and look at the Braves starters, who rank fourth in WPA and fifth in Clutch. Of particular note here is Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, who each rank in the Top 30 among pitchers (min. 100 innings) in WPA. While the Braves definitely could use a front-of-the-rotation arm, they’ve been plenty impressive without the typical “ace” leading the young guns.
5. Run Prevention Is Everything
All of this leads to this one overarching point. One of the things that bothers me the most about the film “Moneyball” is how little attention is given to pitching. That’s surprising for a team that had one of the best rotations in baseball. In the film, Jonah Hill’s character comes to a total of runs scored the A’s would need to get to the playoffs. But the idea of run prevention isn’t even considered.
Getting to a total of runs scored is a good goal, but the real goal should be tied into a strong run differential. To win, you need offense, pitching, and defense. If you don’t have one of these things, you will be in trouble.
Let’s look at the Phillies, who led the NL East for most of July. Since August 5, they are 6-11 and their 1.5 game lead is now a three-game deficit. Some of that is the pitching staff’s fault. Also, one could blame the offense. They’ve scored more than four runs just five times in their last 17 games. But the bigger picture here is that the Phillies, for all they are good at, are a complete failure defensively. Historically-bad. The worst team DRS since 2008 goes to the 2012 Rockies with a -116. The Phillies are at -100 with a month of games left to play.
You can hide a weakness. For instance, the Braves bullpen and bench have both been pretty weak this season. They’ve added to both in hopes of improving and to some degree, they have been successful. But neither area of their team was as inept as the Phillies’ defense. While Philadelphia fans will rightly point to some huge losses (24-4 to the Mets for one) as a reason to discount run differential, the Phillies have scored just nine more runs than they’ve given up.
It’s not that the pitching staff is terrible. In fact, it’s actually very good. Jake Arrieta‘s 4.01 FIP is the highest in the rotation and the bullpen core of Seranthony Dominguez, Tommy Hunter, and Adam Morgan is very solid. Offensively, they have been pretty poor, but with their pitching staff, they should still have a pretty stout run differential. The reason they don’t is defense. Only six teams have a weaker Defensive Efficiency.
Whereas the Braves tried to improve their weaknesses (bench, bullpen, and even the rotation), the Phillies sought to improve their offense, adding Asdrubal Cabrera, Wilson Ramos, and Justin Bour. Cabrera, who the Mets played at second base in no small part because he’s below-average across the bag, has become the Phillies’ latest starting shortstop. He’s already added -3 DRS. But their bigger problems aren’t so easy to fix. Carlos Santana was given $60 million to play first base through 2020. The decision to sign him meant that Rhys Hoskins, a perfectly fine first baseman, is now doing his best Ryan Klesko in left field. It’s not so easy to fix that.
As a result, the Phillies rank 13th in team-ERA in the majors. The Braves rank ninth. The Phillies, though, have about a 20-point edge in both FIP and xFIP. I talked a good deal about WPA, but the Phillies are ahead of the Braves. On paper, Philadelphia has the superior pitching staff, but in reality, Braves pitchers are more successful because their defense is simply better.
That might be most clear for a guy like Kevin Gausman. If the Phillies have the worst defense in baseball, the Orioles are second. The 27-year-old right-hander has nearly the same exact xFIP with the Braves as he did the Braves. His ERA, however, is two-and-half runs lower since coming to the Braves. Now, of course, that’s sample size driven. But Gausman, like Newcomb and Foltynewicz, has been handed a gift that goes beyond their impressive pitching arms. They have a defense that is both talent-and-analytically improved. That only makes them look better.
I quoted Crash Davis from “Bull Durham” earlier, but here’s a better quote from that movie which explains the Braves’ success. “You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.” The 2018 Atlanta Braves are doing all three and have the second-best record in the National League as a result. There’s no smoking gun for this success. No single reason they have matched their win total from 2017 in 34 fewer games. On the field, in the dugout, and in the front office, Atlanta has gotten better in a variety of ways.
If a movie is made about the 2018 Braves, it should be called Efficiency. Okay, that’s not as snappy as Moneyball, but you get the idea.