Braves Journal, The House That Mac Built

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26 Jan

A Note on Kelly Johnson

“How do you call among you the little mouse, the mouse that jumps?”

“We call that one muad’dib.”

“I am Kelly Johnson. It is not right that I give up entirely the name my father gave me. Could I be known among you as Kelly-Muad’Dib?”

“You are Kelly-Muad’Dib”

Look. All I’m saying is Kelly Johnson’s name is a killing word, alright?

23 Jan

B.J. Upton

B.J. Upton’s first two years in Atlanta have been famously, catastrophically bad, and I’m not going to linger too long on the specific numerical details of it. Mostly because after two years, we’ve passed the point where B.J. Upton is evaluated as a baseball player, and we’ve moved on to B.J. Upton the symbol.

For some, he’s synecdoche for an argument in favor of a particular form of team-building: pay a free agent, and he will suck the life out of your team. For others, he’s the avatar of Frank Wren’s tenure in Atlanta: solid trades, extensions, and bargain-basement signings, but huge whiffs on free agent gambles. And for some he’s the face of the franchise right now: just slogging out the next couple of wretched years until everyone moves on to new ballparks and contracts.

B.J. Upton is a symbol to me too though. He embodies one of the things I fear the most, and so there’s a bit of a horror-film element to watching him continue to patrol center field in Atlanta.

I’m a lawyer by day. Ten years ago I went off to a well-respected law school; seven years ago I passed the bar. Since then, I’ve worked in a position in which I attempt to make the legal situations of average people better. I can easily craft a narrative of achievement: graduation, bar passage, entry position, promotion, promotion, the occasional anecdote where things went charmingly right, etc. It looks good on paper, the way B.J.’s resume did prior to arriving in Atlanta. Second overall pick, debut at 19 years old, an All-Star-caliber season, a 28-homer season, all by age 27!

But the other truth about it is there are days I’m convinced I don’t even know how to lawyer at all. It’s minor things, like someone casually name-dropping a case or a statute I’m not familiar with, or asking how to handle a situation I’ve not dealt with. Or even just struggling, college-kid-with-an-8-a.m.-class-style, to wake up early enough to get into the courtroom before the judge takes the bench. It’s easier than you might think to fall into a feeling that all these other people in the room are lawyers, and I’m just a guy in a suit making things up as he goes.

The psychological term for this is impostor syndrome, and while I’ve learned to shake it off and let the results speak for themselves, I still have a baseline dread of some hypothetical day where I’m called to show a particular skill, an audience is watching, and I flop. This background nightmare of mine is B.J. Upton’s actual reality, and the thing I’m most curious about right now is how he’s handling it mentally.

Both Upton and the Braves organization wrote off 2013 as an aberration, perhaps caused by trying too hard to live up to a big contract and/or the hype of “Upton Here, Upton Here”, and B.J. vowed that 2014 would be better. It wasn’t. In mid-season he made a mechanical adjustment to hopefully quiet his hands as he loaded his swing. It didn’t. By August, it was harder to find a direct B.J. quote and the line coming out of the organization was that he continues to work hard, and what else can you do?

Indeed — what else can you do? That’s the scary part. I’d be quite curious to read a follow-up interview to that above-linked Marietta Daily Journal piece, because after the reasons 2014 was supposed to be better than 2013 turned out not to be true, what can B.J. Upton tell himself to pull out of this funk in 2015 and beyond?

He’s not old (this will be just his age-30 season), he’s not lazy** (a common thread in almost any B.J. writeup is how much time he puts in the cage), he’s not injured (that we know of), and he’s not untalented (#2 overall pick with universally acknowledged elite tools). By process of elimination, that means we have to at least consider the idea that B.J. is lost in his own head, which is a much more difficult place to be than just on an improper swing plane or hand position.

He’d never admit it if that were the case, of course. One of sports culture’s most sacred tenets is that self-improvement is always available to those willing to make the sacrifices necessary, and every B.J. interview out there indicates this is the path to redemption he’ll attempt to follow until he’s shown the door. Granted, that didn’t work last offseason, but do you have a better idea? We’re talking about mechanical adjustments at a level of precision none of us with office jobs can comprehend; the difference between being one of the best 0.01% of baseball players in the world vs. just one of the best 0.02%, that sort of thing. Whatever dropped him off that thin edge — physical, mental, or otherwise — I’m still rooting for him to fix it.

I’m not saying this just as an armchair GM hoping to move him for more productive widgets in the future. B.J. Upton is publicly living your nightmare and mine in which we’re performing in public without pants on, and if he’s able to pull himself out of that, it could be the most positive thing to come out of what will likely be an otherwise dismal season.

**To the extent that there are fans who put the “lazy guy who got paid and stopped working” narrative on B.J., it probably says more about our need for a universe that has clear causes and effects than it does about B.J. himself. It’s emotionally cleaner to boo a guy who isn’t trying (Melky Cabrera, you still suck!) but this is a stranger case without a clear cause, I think.

21 Jan

The Jadeite Jewel: Honorable Mentions

Andrelton Simmons standing on a baseball field with a glove on his hand is a web gem waiting to happen, and this winter Braves Journal is going to determine which of his gems is the best of his best—his Jadeite.

Before we launch into the second round in our series, I wanted to take a moment to honor the plays that did not make it into this contest. Having to cut some of these was hard, but ultimately they had to go, either because a similar play was already included or because there were other plays that were just better.

As I sorted through these one last time after I filled out the bracket, to make sure nothing slipped through the cracks on me, I thought with amazement that for some shortstops, plays like these would easily be in their top five. For most MLB shortstops, these plays would at least make it into their top ten. For Andrelton Simmons, though, they didn’t even crack the top 32. That, I think, may be the most insane thing you will see in this whole contest.

There is no voting for these—just enjoy! Think of this as the lull before the storm. The competition will definitely heat up in round two!

And, really, what better thing is there to do during than offseason than sit around and gorge yourself on clips of Andrelton Simmons being really awesome?

19 Jan

Evan Gattis

I’m on a long-running group text thread with about 12 of my friends, and one schtick I’ve been on for the past two summers is to post “EVAN GATTIS” in all caps whenever I’m watching or listening to a Braves game and El Oso puts one in the seats. It started because I was bragging about finding waiver-wire fantasy gold early in 2013, and it continued because Evan Gattis is fun as hell to root for.

It’s nice to have players who are fun to root for, and Gattis leads the returning Braves in that quality, so naturally he’s next up on the trading block. I don’t anticipate we’ll be writing him up in this space next winter, because the Braves are moving Gattis from catcher to left field this offseason. As a catcher, he’s basically a league average defender; as a left fielder, he’s a statue. But the point of Gattis in left field isn’t to make the 2015 Braves an optimized construction, it’s to get his bat in the lineup as they showcase him for AL teams who could use a DH.

Though he doesn’t have a lot of major league miles on him due to his early-twenties hiatus from baseball, Gattis still has some wear and tear, and he might not be long for catching. He spent almost a month between late June and late July last year on the DL with a bulging thoracic disk in his back, and he was never quite right after that. Pre-DL, El Oso hit 16 home runs at a .900 OPS; post-DL, six homers at a .672 OPS. He was mostly shut down in September after 28 plate appearances with a .148/.178/.259 slash line, only coming back to play in the final series of the year. Back injuries are no fun, and catching is probably not the way to manage them, so I get it.

We’ve seen the Gattis-in-left-field routine before, and it ended in tragicomedy at Chavez Ravine in the 2013 NLDS. But his defensive mobility issues aside, it’s a more or less ideal spot to try to keep him healthy and hope he regains his first-half power stroke. Plus the backup options at this point are Jose Constanza and all the career journeymen the Braves signed offseason, so why not?

Outside my office, there is a sign for Gattis insurance. The Braves don't have much of this.
Sign outside my office. The Braves don’t have much of this.

His offensive skillset is that of the prototypical Frank Wren masher; he doesn’t really get on base, but when he does, he tends to clear them. His career line is .263/.317/.493, forged over two seasons where he hit basically that line, give or take. He swings hard, and often does run into them. Watching him hit is fun, the way watching monster trucks crush cars and occasionally flip themselves out of commission is fun.

That monster truck ethos has pretty much come to an end in Atlanta, though, so I anticipate Gattis will be moved if and when he showcases his bat and his health. (Probably for a B+ pitching prospect rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, because you can never have enough of those.) Most of the projection systems have El Oso hitting something approximating his career line or a little worse; in an era where random joes can get outs but a .800 OPS is a rarity, I hope the Braves and their trading partners remain cognizant of his value.

IMG_20150113_114643
You’ll always have an Atlanta home on my windowsill, Mr. White Bear.

17 Jan

The Jadeite Jewel: Switching Things Up

Andrelton Simmons standing on a baseball field with a glove on his hand is a web gem waiting to happen, and this winter Braves Journal is going to determine which of his gems is the best of his best—his Jadeite. For the full rules, check out the introduction.

Round 1: Double ‘Em Off vs. Tricked You

Double ‘Em Off

Editor’s Pitch: Unless an attempted steal was happening, runners are usually not doubled off on looping line drives, especially looping line drives to short. When Andrelton Simmons is involved, though, words like “unless” and “usually” mean very little. If there’s a play to make, Simmons will be all over it.

Tricked You

Editor’s Pitch: This was one of those “wow, he almost made that play?” moments that he juuust missed. Fortunately, he came close enough—and opposing players know that he can make plays like this—that he was able to still get an out, just not the one he was initially going for. In the bottom of the ninth in a tie game with two runners on, that is a pretty big deal. Just when you get used to Simmons doing the exceptional in a certain way, he changes things up and does the exceptional in a different way. Just to keep things interesting.

15 Jan

The Jadeite Jewel: Is This Real Life?

Andrelton Simmons standing on a baseball field with a glove on his hand is a web gem waiting to happen, and this winter Braves Journal is going to determine which of his gems is the best of his best—his Jadeite. For the full rules, check out the introduction.

Round 1: The Cannon vs. A League of His Own

The Cannon

Editor’s Pitch: No matter how many times I watch Simmons do the impossible, I still am amazed by it. He pounces on this ball then has to slide to stop his momentum from going toward left field. All of that, and he still has time to stand, turn, and throw the runner out by a step. The whole thing is incredible, but he makes it look effortless. I feel like I’ve written that before.

A League of His Own

Editor’s Pitch: He’s not fair. He’s really just not fair.

13 Jan

Where Do We Go From Here? Andrelton Simmons (by cliff)

What can we say about Andrelton Simmons? The most important question goes to his offense. But, that will follow. First, his defense.

‘Rissa has given us a wonderful journey through what almost seems like a fictional world. Just as we mere mortals do not understand how Samson killed 1000 Philistines or how Hercules shifted a river to clean a stable, we do not understand Andrelton.

So, I will compare Andrelton to other spectacular defenders known to me. My watching baseball began when the Braves were in Milwaukee in 1965 and had broadcasts into the Southeast to get ready for the new team in 1966. Dizzy Dean was the color announcer and it was really fun to listen to Ol’ Diz. Then, “Games of the Week” on NBC with Joe Garagiola, Sr. and Tony Kubek and then the Braves on TBS and Cubs on WGN, and on and on. So, the legends of the “pre Cliff” past will not be part of this.

THE ARM.

Arm strength (for non pitchers) is most needed at 3 positions: catcher, shortstop, and right field. Then come 3rd base and center field. Then 2nd base. Then left field.

Comparing to shortstops, there are 2 who I remember with spectacular arms. Shawon Dunston and Rafael Furcal. As compared to Furcal, Andrelton can get more on the ball with less windup. Otherwise, “80” arms for both on the scale. The other “80” arm I have seen was Dunston. Nobody else could do what they did, until Andrelton. CLEARLY, Andrelton had a vastly superior arm to the “offense shortstops” (Nomar, A-Rod, Jeter, Ripken) and to the other “defense shortstops (Ozzie, Omar Vizquel, Mark Belanger).

THE RANGE.

First, Andrelton utilizes his arm strength to position himself deeper than any shortstop I have ever seen play on grass. Occasionally, guys on turf would play that deep because the ball got to them so much faster. That means that theoretically, he has more left and right range. In practice, over the long run, only Ozzie seemed close in this. Andrelton covers more ground than anybody I have ever seen. You have to get to the ball, or you don’t catch it. Range sets an outer limit. This guy’s limit is beyond compare. The professionals say 75, but to me, he is an “80” here as well.

THE GRACE AND MOVEMENT.

Here is where anybody who saw Ozzie Smith over and over could be mesmerized. Diving while rolling horizontally. Throwing and flipping from bizarre positions and bizarre angles. Seeing insane hops and reacting to them quickly and without panic or jerkiness, just a smooth movement. But, Ozzie never tossed a ball behind his back to get it to his throwing arm. “80” times two, Ozzie and Andrelton, but ONLY times two.

THE CONSISTENCY.

Here is where Vizquel, Belanger, and Jeter get in the discussion. Seemingly always making the play when they were in decent position. Early last year, Andrelton slipped a little on that. By mid season that slippage was gone. If we average his consistency over his career, he probably falls a little short. So, a “75.”

The greatest defensive players I have ever seen (while there defense was still spectacular, which knocks out Willie Mays) are, in order: Andrelton, Ozzie, Andruw Jones, Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Dave Parker, and Johnny Bench. These were guys that over and over did things you couldn’t believe, but none of them was the equal of Andrelton Simmons.

NO, WHAT ABOUT THE OFFENSE?

If Andrelton Simmons were the offensive player he was in the second half of 2013 OR in the early part of 2012, then we say “Inner Circle Hall of Famer.” But, there are 2014 and the last half of 2012 and the first half of 2013. So, if Andrelton’s offense is the average of its previous manifestations, a player you still want, a guy that will make the Hall because of otherworldly defense, but not that utterly transcendent player.

The guy sees the ball and doesn’t miss it much. That is good. He swings at things that are 8 to 10 inches out of the strike zone quite often. That is bad. He has a powerful stroke and has good power for a shortstop, but does he “sell out” for power and kill the rest of his offense?

Since this is “where do we go from here,” we need to try to take this mess and “project.” Fantasy Pros has 8 projections with a low of OPS 694 to a high of 772. With a very slight advantage in the age curve, a new hitting coach, and maybe a little recognition of just how bad the overswinging has been, I will say this is the year that establishes Andrelton at a range of 700 to 750 OPS for the next 5 or 6 years. A little better walk rate, power not quite like 2013, a little better batting average. Almost good enough offense to be “inner circle”, but not quite there. Someday he will enter the Hall of Fame as the recognized greatest defensive player in MLB history, with a slightly better contextual offensive profile than Ozzie.

11 Jan

The Jadeite Jewel: Ranging Far

Andrelton Simmons standing on a baseball field with a glove on his hand is a web gem waiting to happen, and this winter Braves Journal is going to determine which of his gems is the best of his best—his Jadeite. For the full rules, check out the introduction.

Round 1: Out of His Way vs. On the World Stage
Note: Both of these videos contain multiple plays; the competing plays are the first ones that you see in both clips.

Out of His Way

Editor’s Pitch: Shortstops are really never supposed to be in the area that Simmons caught this ball in, but he doesn’t play by the same rules a typical shortstop competes under, so, of course, he gets to foul territory in enough time to slide and make the play. He then popped right back up, ready to throw the ball to keep the runner on second. His instincts are incredible.

On the World Stage

Editor’s Pitch: Simmons’s skills are not confined to the regular season. He was in mid-season form in March, during the World Baseball Classic. Seeing a 6-3 double play is not rare, but seeing a 6-3 double play from centerfield is very rare. He was once again in an area most shortstops never see, and he once again made an incredible play and was ready to throw immediately. In this case, he was able to get a second out. I know I just said it, but it bears repeating: his instincts are incredible.

09 Jan

The Jadeite Jewel: Nothing Gets Through

Andrelton Simmons standing on a baseball field with a glove on his hand is a web gem waiting to happen, and this winter Braves Journal is going to determine which of his gems is the best of his best—his Jadeite. For the full rules, check out the introduction.

Round 1: You Shall Not Pass vs. The Ballerina

You Shall Not Pass

Editor’s Pitch: I’m really not sure how Simmons got to this ball. He had to dive, obviously, but then he had to reach up to actually catch it. I wouldn’t have guessed his arms were long enough to make this play, but the one lesson I have learned from watching Andrelton for three years is to always expect the impossible. And this certainly looks impossible.

The Ballerina

Editor’s Pitch: Spinning around while bending and running seems like the perfect recipe for falling flat on your face. Simmons, however, not only manages to look graceful while doing this, he actually uses the move to record an out in major league baseball. And it’s not even a close play. Phenomenal.

07 Jan

Where Do We Go From Here: Chris Johnson (by Smitty)

You could make an argument that in each of his first two years with the team, Chris Johnson’s performance has been the Braves’ biggest surprise.

Chris Johnson was brought over in the Great Justin Upton Heist of 2013. The Braves felt Juan Francisco was in need of a right handed platoon partner to help replace Chipper Jones and tricked the D-Backs into including CJ in the deal. Remember all of the cute “He’s from the same town as Chipper,” stories?

In 2013, the New CJ was arguably the team MVP. He hit .321 and finished second for the batting title. That’s pretty good for a guy that was to be a platoon player and first bat off the bench. At age 29 he seemed to be coming into his prime and ready to be more than just a platoon/role player.

Seeing this performance, the Braves felt like they needed to buy out his arbitration years and locked him in through 2018. Of course, Johnson then went on to have the worst season of his career.

In 2014, the Eww CJ was terrible. He hit .263 and only got on base 29 percent of the time. His approach at the plate and constant temper tantrums became his hallmark and over shadowed his improvement in the field (only six errors compared to double digits in previous seasons.) Now this extension looks bad and was one of the reasons Frank Wren was shown the door.

I’m not sure it is time to cut bait on Johnson just yet. Is he as good as his 2013 numbers? Probably not. I also don’t think he is as bad as the 2014 numbers indicate. I think it is reasonable to think he was exposed a little in 2014 and didn’t make the adjustments. It would also be wise for the Braves to find a serviceable back up that can handle righties. Johnson crushed lefties to a tune of .395/.435/.553 in 2014 (compared to .231/.256/.533 to righties—that’s B.J. Uptonian).

I also wonder if Johnson’s performance is tired to his attitude. When he gets frustrated, the throws things at Terry Pendleton, sulks and seems like an ass. If he can learn to keep his cool, maybe he would relax and put the ball in play more. Who knows?

If Johnson can put up numbers somewhat closer to his 2013 mark, he may have some value come July for a team in contention. However, the Braves have little organization depth at third base and may elect to ride it out with Johnson. When you are rebuilding, you can afford to be patient.

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