2019 NLDS Braves/Dodgers Spin Zone

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Last night, both National League Divisional Series went to decisive fifth games, and, in both games, the teams favored to win the series lost in dramatic fashion. For the Atlanta Braves, the drama came very early, while it arrived late for the Los Angeles Dodgers (I assume; I went to sleep when they were up 3-0). Of course, the only question today for both teams is: Whose fault is this?

For the Braves, you might think it had something to do with the disappearance of its star hitter or team’s failure to address sufficiently its lack of pitching depth and experience. For the Dodgers, it would seem to make clear and natural sense to point the accusatory finger at Clayton Kershaw, who totally and perennially stinks in October.

Obviously, those thoughts, which involve the teams’ players, coaches, and front-office management, are wrong thoughts. That’s because the blame actually lies at the feet of MLB itself and Commissioner Rob Manfred.

The Braves and Dodgers are successful teams built to succeed in the sport’s current era, the defining factor of which is the baseball itself. Changes to the baseball have driven massive increases in home runs, and the two NL favorites heretofore thrived in this extreme offensive environment.

What, then, to make of a report out this morning that the baseballs used during postseason play are radically different than those used during the regular season such that the playoff baseballs effectively suppress home runs to a significant degree? In light of that news, can it be a coincidence that the NL playoff teams that were the most homer-reliant during the regular season were the losers last night?

NLDS guillen # 2019

Commissioner Manfred, whatever you have against the cities of Atlanta and Los Angeles (to say nothing of poor Milwaukee), you are reminded that it is not a crime to ask questions.

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Previously
The 2018 All-Star Game was one for the Age

 

Brief Atlanta Braves 2019 NLDS Update: Your Eyes and Ears do Not Deceive You

Yesterday afternoon, the St. Louis Cardinals forced a decisive fifth NLDS game against the Braves, which will occur tomorrow evening back in Atlanta. Each of the Cardinals’ two wins came by a single run, while the Braves have claimed their wins in low-scoring 3-1 and 3-0 affairs. All of the games have been full of the sort of tension-built excitement that makes October baseball so much fun.

Atlanta was and remains the favored team and has home-field “advantage” for game five, but it’s clear that they’re going to need more from the full depth of their lineup if they’re going to top this plucky Cardinals team. If the Braves’ roster has looked (and sounded– local radio coverage > TBS national telecast coverage) consistently inconsistent this series, your sensory receptors aren’t deceiving you. Take a look at the current status of the 2019 postseason cWPA leaderboard:

playoff cwpa 10-8-19

Atlanta fans probably have been saying to each other, “Wow, Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall and Ronald Acuña and Mike Foltynewicz have been huge for the Braves this series, and, moreover, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis have been completely useless, and Mark Melancon and Julio Teheran have been killing us!” As cWPA confirms, the analysis by those Atlanta fans has been spot on!

As good as the good guys have been, it’s difficult to imagine the Braves advancing without getting something– anything, at this point– from Freeman, whose .535 OPS in this series indicates he’s been worse at the plate than any qualified hitter in the 2019 regular season. (Even 2018 Chris Davis had an OPS of .539! Since 1988, only two qualified hitters ever have posted a regular-season OPS below .535: Matt Walbeck (.530 in 1994) and MLB Network’s own Billy Ripken (.518 in 1988).) Sure, it’s only been four games, but Freeman’s been practically invisible– just two hits, one walk, and one run scored across eighteen plate appearances in which he struck out five times in a key spot in Atlanta’s lineup– at times when the Braves really need him to shine. This isn’t necessarily news, as he entered the postseason on a cold streak, but he’s going to have to snap out of it quickly.

Game five starts tomorrow in Atlanta at 5:02 pm. Indications are that Foltynewicz, winner in game two, will start for the Braves, and Jack Flaherty, owner of a dominant second half leading into these playoffs, will start for the Cardinals.

RKB: At deadline, Tigers move their best player*

A year ago yesterday, on what may have been MLB’s last-ever non-waiver trade deadline, the 2018 Detroit Tigers made one move, trading Leonys Martín, then their best player of that season, to Cleveland. Yesterday, depending on how you look at it, they marked that anniversary by doing the same thing again. Shane Greene was the 2019 Tigers’ only All Star, and he led the team in cWPA, a metric I’ve contended should drive MVP-type analyses. By some other measures, Greene was not the 2019 Tigers’ best player, but, in holding a steady hand on the closer’s tiller, he gave the team something for which it desperately had been seeking, particularly in its competitive years. [insert sweaty joaquin benoit face.jpeg] Now, Greene, a thirty-year-old who hasn’t hit arbitration eligibility, likely will receive his first chance to close games in the playoffs, assuming he and the Braves hold it together down the stretch.

The “modest” return the Tigers received in this trade was comprised of two “prospects.” One, Joey Wentz, is a lefthanded pitcher the Braves picked out of high school in the first round of the 2016 draft. He spent all of 2019 to date at Double-A Mississippi, where he posted a 4.72 ERA (4.36 FIP, 116 cFIP) in twenty starts. Wentz missed substantial parts of 2018 with oblique and shoulder problems, which is not what you like to hear. On the other hand (but the same hand, actually, since we’re talking pitchers), maybe he throws his fastball like Clayton Kershaw throws his?

The second, Travis Demeritte, is a hitter the Texas Rangers picked out of high school in the first round of the 2013 draft. He reached Triple-A for the first time this year in the Braves’ system, all of which he spent in Gwinnett, posting a .286/.387/.558 line in 399 games. Baseball Prospectus credits the jump in his power numbers to the introduction of the major-league ball at the Triple-A level, which, yeah. (We actually have covered Demeritte at this site before. Three years ago, he starred alongside Dansby Swanson in the 2016 MLB futures game before the Rangers traded him to the Braves for two pitchers who both appear to have exited professional baseball soon thereafter.)

Would it have been nice for the Tigers to receive some more exciting players from Atlanta’s fairly deep system in exchange for Greene? It would have. It also is hard to be picky when it comes to trading a closer whose BABIP and ground ball rate are way out of whack with his career norms. Greene always seemed like a nice and thoughtful guy, and I suspect the native Floridian will appreciate the opportunity to work a little closer to home.

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Previously
RKB: A Wild Rosenthal Appears – 7/16

Related
Have the Atlanta Braves discovered the secret of the ooze?
Whose All Stars?
2019 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Miguel Cabrera in the bWAR era
Miguel Cabrera continues to shine in the DRC era

The Braves think their fans are idiots (via Hardball Talk)

The Braves unexpectedly won the NL East last year and they did so with a bunch of exciting young players that should be around for a good while. That’s the stuff that sustains you as a fan: winning baseball and guys you want to root for. But I’m having a really, really hard time enjoying the Braves at the moment because, quite simply, the team’s front office thinks I’m a friggin’ moron.

That’s the only conclusion I can draw from this interview of Braves team president Terry McGuirk and general manager Alex Anthopoulos, conducted by David O’Brein and Jeff Schultz of The Athletic. It’s a masterwork of condescension, dishonesty and, at the end of the day, constitutes a clear signal that the Braves care about profits, first, second, third and foremost. “Sure, winning baseball is pretty spiffy, but let’s not keep our eyes off the prize, which is ‘financial flexibility,’” the Braves brass seems to be telling us.

Don’t just take my word for it. … Read More

(via Hardball Talk)

2018 Rapid Review

The year 2018 was a year. Here are some of our favorite things from the year that was 2018.

  • Atlanta United winning the MLS Cup, at home, in their second year of existence.
  • America’s women’s hockey team beating Canada to win gold at the winter Olympics.
  • Phish summer tour. My first time seeing them three nights in a row. That they never repeated a song during that stretch was notable but not terribly surprising. What was remarkable and never received the treatment at this site that it deserved was the overall quality of the performances, especially on Friday, August 3 but really consistently throughout the weekend, where a wide array of songs from across their thirty-five-year catalogue provided launching pads for fresh, collaborative jams time after time. It feels like the band has reached a new level.
  • Hamilton College’s Francis Baker, the American hockey goalie who stood up to Hitler. This was your most-read story posted on this site in 2018.
  • Steve McNair: Fall of a Titan. This, from Sports Illustrated, was my first foray into the true-crime podcast genre. The gist: what we were told was an open-and-shut case probably has a lot more to it than what the investigating police department allowed to meet the public eye. Story had some additional resonance for me because I had been living in Nashville at the time.
  • Maryland-Baltimore County beating Virginia to become the first-ever sixteen seed to beat a one seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
  • Justify‘s dominant Triple Crown achievement.
  • Baseball Hall of Fame adding Alan Trammell. Still no Cooperstown spot for teammate Lou Whitaker, though.
  • The Supreme Court clearing the way for states to authorize sports wagering.
  • J.R. Smith delivering the most memorable moment of LeBron James’ final series with Cleveland.
  • Shohei Ohtani making his major-league debut.
  • The Vegas Golden Knights reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their first year of existence.
  • Vanderbilt beat Tennessee in football again. The Commodores have won five of the last seven games in this series. (If you’d lost track of him, Derek Dooley’s currently working as the quarterbacks coach at Missouri.)
  • Baseball Prospectus revised its flagship bating metric and now concedes that Miguel Cabrera, not Mike Trout, deserved the 2012 and 2013 AL MVP awards.
  • Tiger Woods winning the PGA Tour Championship at East Lake.
  • In personal news, I published my first article at Baseball Prospectus, which took a look at whether MLB teams were colluding to depress player wages.
  • In memoriam:

Thank you for your readership this year. Look for more great content here in 2019.

Two kinds of Braves reunions

MCCANN

The Atlanta Braves made MLB offseason headlines yesterday with two short-term free-agent acquisitions that find the team taking calculated chances on former stars.

First, with Kurt Suzuki leaving in free agency, the Braves sought out a familiar face in Brian McCann to serve as a veteran backup to presumptive starting catcher Tyler Flowers. McCann made his major-league debut with the Braves in 2005 and quickly and consistently achieved success, earning all-star honors in all but one of his eight full-time seasons in Atlanta and tacking on silver-slugger recognition five times and down-ballot MVP votes once. As one would expect, McCann did this by being one of the best offensive and defensive catchers in baseball over that stretch. The following table notes his yearly offensive (by wRC+) and defensive (by FRAA) rankings among fellow catchers from 2006-2013.

mccann braves ranks

A pretty nice run indeed. McCann’s departure after the 2013 season, which marked Atlanta’s last appearance in the postseason before this year’s surprise early return, marked the beginning of the Braves’ dismantling of their last promising, young, cheap core. (Remember when Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, the Upton brothers, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, and Alex Wood all played for the same team?)

Now Atlanta has another promising, young, cheap core to which McCann returns to provide his brand of veteran leadership. His bat settled down to “decidedly average” status during his five years away (three in the Bronx, then two in Houston), still nice for a catcher, though his 82 wRC+ in 2018 marked a low point in his career, and his 216 plate appearances were his fewest of any season save his ’05 debut, a reflection of his new, backup status. McCann also hasn’t been an above-average defender since 2016. At one year and $2 million, though, the Braves probably aren’t too worried about those trends and instead are banking as much on McCann’s perceived intangible contributions as they are on those that register more explicitly in modern stat books.

Baseball Prospectus sees good things on the horizon for McCann as a backup in his return to Atlanta, and FanGraphs also is optimistic, though it reminds us about the two months McCann missed last season as a result of a knee injury. For the team and the player it seems that this signing came down to a mutual desire for a homecoming:

Here’s hoping it’s a happy return.

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The bigger news from yesterday was Atlanta’s Josh Donaldson signing. It too was a one-year agreement, though for about ten times as much money ($23 million, to be exact), and a reunion of sorts, though not with the Braves per se but their general manager, Alex Anthopolous, who previously brought Donaldson to the Blue Jays. As they are with McCann, the Braves are banking on a rebound by Donaldson, who fell apart last year, just three seasons removed from an MVP-winning campaign. Predicated on that perennial proviso, “if healthy,” BP likes the gamble:

Donaldson offers a much more dynamic risk profile, but a simpler one. If he stays healthy, there’s no reason not to expect him to rake. Even when he played last year, his power was seriously sapped (a still-impressive .203 ISO represented a major step back from the .274 he averaged in his first three seasons with the Jays), and that presents a real risk that simple projection systems will underrate. However, if the Braves believe that decrease in pop stemmed from the compromised state of Donaldson’s lower half, and if he’s going to be healthy going into 2019, then he could easily bounce back in that department.

He’s no longer a plus with the glove or on the bases, and he’s not going to be the MVP again. There’s tons of room, though, between his decidedly average 2018 and his peak performance, which is why BP ranked him as the no. 3 free agent available this offseason. If healthy, he fits nicely into the middle of the Atlanta batting order.

The Braves still have more money to spend on 2019 payroll, and they already look to be in excellent shape to contend in what again should be a competitive division. (It is as I foretold.)

Atlanta Braves move their games to a location outside Atlanta accessible only by car, then have the nerve to sue entrepreneurial car company for bringing people to those games

braves suit

That may not be exactly what’s going on in this lawsuit the Atlanta Braves filed in federal court yesterday, which, in reality, probably is little more than a routine filing intended to protect intellectual property rights, but moving your stadium to the middle of an interstate highway interchange that’s outside the city limits and then suing a taxi driver who’s only trying to help fans get there– I’m assuming only the best intentions on the part of Hector Tirado– is almost as bad a public-relations move as telling fans they should just ride their bikes to the game.

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Previously
“Atlanta” Braves seek millions more from Cobb County
Ted Turner on the Atlanta Braves’ move to Cobb County

2017 Atlanta Braves Season Preview
Braves finally strike a positive note in move to new stadium
The political costs of a new baseball stadium
Previewing the 2016 Atlanta Braves
The Braves are failing on their own terms
New Braves stadium project continues to falter
Georgia Supreme Court Upholds Cobb’s Braves Stadium Bond Deal
Braves Break Ground on Baseball Boondoggle
The yard sale at Upton Abbey continues
From Barves to Burbs: What’s happening to baseball in Atlanta?

One-Paragraph Preview: 2018 NLDS – Dodgers-Braves

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The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves begin their best-of-five National League Divisional Series tonight at Chavez Ravine. There are dozens of articles on reputable baseball websites previewing this series, all of which will leave you with the impression that the Dodgers are the superior team and probably but not definitely will prevail in this round. I write separately for the sole purpose of highlighting a conflict in the literature. Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, PECOTA, gives Los Angeles a solid (57%/43%) advantage. Interestingly, a postseason-prediction formula sabermetric forefather Bill James originally developed in 1972 that Rob Mains recently updated likes the Braves in this round. My own view is that it’s difficult to find an exploitable weakness in any phase of the Dodgers’ game, but I can’t count the Braves out in a competitive developmental environment that, more and more, seems to run on Coughlin Time. First pitch is set for 8:37 pm on MLB Network.

“Atlanta” Braves seek millions more from Cobb County

The Atlanta Braves aren’t getting along well with their new neighbors. After the Cobb County government asked the team to cover $1.5 million in utility expenses the County says is due under the development agreement between the two, the Braves responded by demanding that the County pay the team another $4.6 million for various items, including:

  • $2.6 million for building permit fees the team says the County improperly assessed;
  • $1.5 million for transportation improvements; and
  • $500,000 for project-management expenses.

The development agreement requires the parties to resolve disputes through “private mediation,” and the news report indicates that they will proceed in that direction.

Cobb County taxpayers already paid $392 million to the Braves for SunTrust Park, plus more for necessary transportation improvements, and they are sending additional millions on ongoing basis for maintenance and other public services, such as police officers to assist with traffic management.

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Previously
Ted Turner on the Atlanta Braves’ move to Cobb County
2017 Atlanta Braves Season Preview
Braves finally strike a positive note in move to new stadium
The political costs of a new baseball stadium
Previewing the 2016 Atlanta Braves
The Braves are failing on their own terms
New Braves stadium project continues to falter
Georgia Supreme Court Upholds Cobb’s Braves Stadium Bond Deal
Braves Break Ground on Baseball Boondoggle
The yard sale at Upton Abbey continues
From Barves to Burbs: What’s happening to baseball in Atlanta?

Tilde Talk: The Empty Ureña Suspension

Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Ronald Acuña, Jr. has been on a tear. Entering last night’s game against the floundering Fish, he had just become the youngest player (since at least 1920) to homer in four straight games, joining Miguel Cabrera as the only two twenty-year-olds to accomplish the feat. He leads all rookies in slugging percentage. He’s amazing, and he’s a big part of the reason why the Braves have reclaimed first place in the NL East.

The Miami Marlins stink. Their new ownership group, led by Derek Jeter, has spent its inaugural year at the helm casting off virtually every remotely valuable member of the team, which has a .390 winning percentage in 2018 and is unlikely to compete in any respect for years to come. I didn’t call the Marlins franchise a tax shelter, but somebody else might.

The Marlins pitching staff isn’t really getting anybody out, as a -180 run differential somewhat suggests. Only the Orioles and Blue Jays have been worse in that regard, and they spend a lot of time in the AL East getting beaten up by the Red Sox and Yankees juggernauts. If you care about ERA, the Marlins have the worst such mark (4.85) in the National League.

Acuña has enjoyed an extreme degree of success, even by his standards, against Miami: .339/.433/.714 (201 wRC+). They just can’t get him out, at least as the rules of baseball define that term, especially lately. In the first three games of the four-game series with the Marlins that ended last night, Acuña reached base ten times in fifteen plate appearances, which included four home runs and a double.

The Braves’ half of the first inning last night began like this:

I’ve watched Jose Ureña’s first pitch from last night, which came in at about ninety-seven miles per hour, as well as his subsequent reaction to his pitched ball hitting Acuña on the arm, about a dozen times. There is no doubt in my mind that Ureña took the mound last night with the intent to hit Acuña with his first pitch and did what he intended to do. The umpiring crew apparently agreed and ejected Ureña after that first pitch.

For those unfamiliar with Ureña, a collection of humans that, prior to roughly twenty-four hours ago included very nearly the entirety of the human species, he is a twenty-three-year-old pitcher who has spent all four years of his major-league career with the Marlins, mostly as a starter. Among regular starters, Ureña has been one of the harder throwers in 2018, but there’s little else remarkable about him. The current season has been the best of his career so far (1.7 WARP to date), and there’s a not-unreasonable argument that he ought to be done for the season.

This evening, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred decided to suspend Ureña for six games and fine him an undisclosed amount of money. Suspensions for this sort of thing often are of the five-game variety. For starting pitchers, five-game suspensions really are one-game suspensions, because most starting pitchers only pitch once every five games. It’s a bit of a charade by the Commissioner’s office.

Manfred has not released an explanation of his somewhat unusual decision to push Ureña’s suspension to six games, but it’s reasonable to assume that he wanted to appear tougher to avoid the usual critiques of the standard five-game suspension. It’s readily obvious, of course, that, for starting pitchers, a six-game suspension suffers from almost precisely the same practical defect that attends a five-game suspension. Indeed, as reporters immediately noted, it’s a very real possibility that Ureña won’t even miss his next start.

This isn’t the first time Manfred has acted in a way he knows is purely symbolic and entirely without practical consequence. It’s becoming a bad habit of his, made all the more frustrating by the ready availability of effective alternatives. Here, if Manfred really wanted to communicate a message to players that he will not tolerate intentional, unsportsmanlike behavior like that Ureña exhibited last night, he could have done any of the following:   Continue reading