23 walks in 24 innings. What was Alex Anthopoulos thinking this offseason? Why did he go into this year with the same exact bullpen and starting pitching as last season? Why didn’t he make moves to upgrade the pen? Why won’t Liberty Media spend more money? Didn’t they say that they’d be able to shop on any aisle?
A lot of people have been asking legitimate questions about the Atlanta Braves’ offseason after seeing their beloved Braves get swept by a Phillies team that spent a lot of money to get a lot better. Meanwhile, the Braves only added Josh Donaldson on a one-year contract and a Brian McCann, which may or may not be a shell of himself from years past. By traditional metrics, this seems like a very bad offseason.
Before we dive in, let’s rewind the clock a couple of years. It wasn’t that long ago when John Coppolella had put the Braves’ rebuild into over-drive while compiling one of the greatest farm systems in all of Major League Baseball. Of course, then it all came crashing down. He was banned from baseball for getting caught being a bad boy on the international prospects front and the Braves lost thirteen prospects because of it.
While many fans were thinking that Kansas City’s Dayton Moore (an old school Braves regime product) was a shoe-in for the GM position, the Braves shook up the fan base and selected Alex Anthopoulos to come in and manage this bevy of assets that the Braves had in their fold. Braves fans on Twitter (especially “analytically-minded” Braves bloggers) rejoiced! Finally! Analytics would reign supreme in the Home of the Braves.
Now fans are wondering if Anthopoulos has lost his will to make moves. They wonder if Liberty Media is cheap, and they wonder why their team didn’t add big name players. All of which are very legitimate questions.
I’ve seen bloggers, beat writers and fans alike scratching their head trying to understand what script the Braves’ Front Office is playing by, and seemingly coming up with few answers that aren’t simply emotional, lazy fall backs about greed, fear, and stupidity.
The truth is, the answer isn’t a single simple thing, but instead it has a core foundation that can be seen clearly when examined from a 20,000 ft. view.
When you hire a GM that thinks and manages using advanced analytics and statistical measurement, he will make decisions based on what those analytics tell him. In a way, it’s simple. In a way, it’s not simple at all.
Before we dive deeper, I think we have to understand the “lay of the land” in baseball today. In the last 10 years baseball performance has advanced more than in the previous 40 years (excluding steroid cheaters). Don’t believe me? The average fastball velocity in MLB in 2008 was 90.8mph, in 2018 it was 92.1mph. That might not sound like very much, but when you consider the sheer number of faster fastballs that have to be thrown in MLB just to move that number 1/10th of a digit, that’s a HUGE increase in velocity. On top of that, ask any scout who’s watching high school players today. 90-mph consistent fastballs in high school used to be rare, but now it seems like every kid sits 90-91. It’s an entirely new game.
Why? Because we’ve learned more about kinesthetics and the science of baseball. We’ve also gained the computing ability to assess players and help them develop better mechanics at even the lowest levels. Places like Driveline Baseball now help high school kids develop strength and power in ways we’ve never before seen. You can only imagine if the results are that significant at the high school level, the MLB level is seeing even greater change.
How does that play into the Atlanta Braves not spending money? Well, it goes back to analytics. This is going to be a little bit of a deep dive, but hang with me. Sorry for getting so analytical on here.
Close your eyes, and imagine who the best pitchers in the game were 10 years ago. Their fastballs were sitting 95-97 mph with a 2800 rpm spin rate, and they were dominating hitters like no one else.
Baseball is an interesting sport, rather than having to just get better than yourself, you also have to get better than everyone else around you. Imagine that same top tier player gets 1% better over the next two years. You would think that this would keep him at the top of the game. But when all of baseball is seeing the kinds of improvement that has happened over the last several years, it’s a much different story. While the best pitcher in baseball might be getting 1% better, guess what? The rest of the league has been getting 3,4,5% better. So, in truth, that elite pitcher isn’t actually getting 1% better than the league, instead he’s losing 2-4% to other players.
Now, the best pitcher in the game has a fastball sitting 98-100, his spin rate is 3500 rpm, and he makes that guy from a few years ago look like a journeyman.
Now imagine the elite pitchers, mentioned above, from 10 years ago hitting age-30 or age-33. Advanced metrics tell us that players over 30 rarely regain their upward performance. Sure, there are unicorns like Nolan Ryan and Justin Verlander, but that is the exception not the norm. If we want to add that player to the team, we now have to build in the growth curve of the rest of the league to assess his performance. Trends also tell us that after age 30 players’ skills don’t just stall, they tend to regress, and that regression tends to compound. In other words, if that top-tier closer has lost a little on his fastball in the last 2 years, not only is it unlikely that he gets it back, it’s also likely that he continues to lose performance by ever increasing margins. To quote Kyle Boddy from Driveline, “the best players in the game can go from top of the game to unemployed in 24 months.”
I hope by this point you’re connecting the dots and seeing why no team in MLB has offered Craig Kimbrel more than 2 years. (Notice it isn’t just “cheap” Liberty Media and the Braves).
Now let’s take this a step further. Try to imagine that you’re not the best closer in baseball. Instead, imagine that you are a slightly above average 8th inning kind of guy. You’re 29 or 30. You are close to your baseball ceiling at this point, there isn’t much further you’re going to go. You’re above average today, but the pack is getting faster and they’re catching up quickly. Now imagine convincing a GM (and his cabinet of analytically-driven folks who have access to real data) to give you a contract of any kind when you’re only 1% ahead of the pack but cost three times as much. Guess what will happen? Before you and your agent know it, it’s the beginning of April and you’re not playing baseball on live TV.
Now let’s add in the other part of this story. A LOADED farm system. The Atlanta Braves have 14 pitchers that are all MLB-caliber pieces who have barely hit the majors. Some of these kids are projected to be some of the best in baseball. Their ceilings are far higher than some “middling 8th inning guy” who’s just 1% better than the pack. Are these kids there yet? No, but they are just behind that 8th inning guy with a ceiling that is much higher.
Here is the question that GM’s are so loudly answering. “Do I waste these young prospects’ innings on their arms in meaningless games at AA or AAA, waiting for them to develop, or do I simply put them in the bullpen, let them continue to develop there, and give me value at the major league level along the way?” This is a no brainer for the stats-driven front office. First of all, sure they’re cheap, but that’s not even the primary reason for doing this. If you put Max Fried in the bullpen and his potential is that of a solid #3 future starter, this is a pitcher who is far better than a 30-year-old LHP with more name recognition who has already peaked and is facing the backside of his career. Fried might not give you the consistency on the front side of the year that the more accomplished name might, but over the course of the season he is more likely to evolve and give you higher ceiling material than that other player ever would (the one who’s older and costs much more).
Imagine it this way (these numbers aren’t exact, they’re just an example). If there’s an 85% chance Max Fried can be just as good as the more recognized reliever, he already makes an appealing choice simply by factoring in his age and the league average growth that will benefit him. Now imagine that there is a 30% chance that Fried not only accomplishes the same as the other reliever, but far exceeds the ceiling of the more recognized player. This just makes too much sense for a front office that is playing the averages and looking at analytics.
Now back to why the Braves didn’t spend. You probably can draw some conclusions from the data that you’ve already seen. But let’s back this up with more than just theory. The Braves’ Front Office has been adamant about not giving out long-term contracts to middle aged players. Despite their need, they have been patient and unwilling to offer Kimbrel more years simply to fill a perceived need. They were unwilling to offer long contracts to guys like Brantley and Pollock who were not only quickly approaching the midpoint of their careers, but also had major warning signs about their health in previous years. On top of that, we’ve heard that, had they not signed Donaldson, they really didn’t have anyone else on the free agent list that they were really all that interested in.
Let’s look at the current bullpen. The one the Braves didn’t upgrade. Sure, if you look at the combined stats from 2018, the bullpen looks average at best. But, if you look at their performance from April-June, the majority of the badly maligned bullpen performed extremely well. Shane Carle led baseball for nearly two months in ERA and was lights out. Biddle was untouchable for an extended period. Winkler was lights out and simply dominated everyone he faced from the left side for nearly two months. Even terrible Luke Jackson had one of the best years he has ever had (the results were mediocre because he was used in mop-up duty, but his peripherals weren’t total trash). This isn’t a defense of Luke – when the bullpen is fully healthy he probably shouldn’t have a role on this team. But this pen is not as bad as its overall numbers would make it look. Aside from Peter Moylan and Sam Freeman, no one in the 2018 pen had more than one year of experience before the trade deadline. When you realize that, it makes sense that they hit a wall late in the season and their numbers suffered because of it. This is more proof that the front office believes in young guys, and their ability to grow and develop. It’s also more proof that they aren’t worried about temporary results that might fit a narrative presented by people who aren’t thinking in terms of the advanced analytical framework that this current front office is using.
You are welcome to disagree with this strategy, and I’m not trying to offer a particular defense of the Front Office (although statistically, a lot of it does make sense). I’m simply trying to help answer some of the ambiguity of what it seems this front office is doing (or not doing) and why they are doing it.
I think what people should recognize is that when you are excited about a GM that builds his system around analytics and brings in guys who think in terms of expected performance and statistical growth, like Perry Minasian and Mike Fast, you shouldn’t be surprised when he and his team make decisions that fit with that analytical line of thinking. You don’t have to like it, but there is no reason to not understand the general picture of it.
It’s not greed, it’s not a lack of guts, and it’s certainly not stupidity. You’re welcome to hate it because it doesn’t glorify your team with a lot of media darlings and it isn’t very faithful to a player as they move past their prime. But if you want a team with the best chances on the spreadsheet of winning, it’s a savvy way to operate. If this Front Office isn’t loyal to a player because of their name/past performance, why do you think they care about having to meet an emotional plea from fans? They understand that winning is the goal. I’m not saying they won’t spend, in fact I expect them to spend significantly in specific areas, but they aren’t likely to go sign the big name free agent or trade for the dominant monster at the peak of his career. They are much more likely to go sign the next superstar that no one knows about. They are much more likely to promote prospects quickly and drive them to meaningful positions within the major league roster. And they are likely to be patient with them on the front side of their debuts expecting them to struggle into their ceilings and into being the most dominant players in baseball.
At the end of the day, there is an obvious plan if you look just a little deeper. There is strategy in every word that Anthopoulos has said (notice I didn’t say McGuirk), and every move that he has and hasn’t made. If you have some knowledge about the current climate of Major League Baseball performance, you should be able to see it clearly. You don’t have to like it, most folks don’t like analytics and data when they aren’t clearly understood, but hopefully now you know what they might be thinking.