Braves Journal, The House That Mac Built

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18 Dec

The Jadeite Jewel: Showing Off the Arm

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: Split ‘n Throw vs. Run at Your Own Risk

Split ‘n Throw

Editor’s Pitch: I’m not sure which is more impressive: that Simmons got to this ball while he slipped, or that he threw the runner out from the outfield grass without taking a step, while still in a split-like position. Okay, I do know which was more impressive–that throw was insane. Usually Freddie Freeman provides the splits in Simmons’s highlight reels, but since Regression was playing first I suppose Simmons felt the need to provide the split himself. I’m not complaining.

Run at Your Own Risk

Editor’s Pitch: When a ball splits the gap and bounces away from even the most accomplished of outfielders, you pretty much concede the runner on first will score and focus on keeping the hitter held to a double. Not Simmons. Michael Cuddyer was over halfway home, but Simmons, well onto the outfield grass, threw a perfect strike to the plate to nail him. The ball could not have landed in a better place for Brian McCann had Simmons walked it in and handed it to him. Just wow.

17 Dec

Alex Wood (by Rusty S.)

Alex Wood has been impressive in each of his two major league seasons, albeit in a limited number of starts. Wood, who turns 24 in January, owns a 1.119 career WHIP and has struck out almost exactly one batter per each of his 249 career innings. However, only 35 of his 66 career games have been starts, including 24 out of 35 in 2014.

As the Braves are still searching for a 5th starter at the moment, Wood will undoubtedly be used as a full time starter in 2015. This should be the season that we finally get the answer to the question, “How many innings could Alex Wood chuck, if Alex Wood could chuck innings unencumbered by some arbitrary restrictions placed by management?”

The good news for the Braves is that Wood has actually pitched better as a starter, so it is not as if he has been padding his stats with short, maximum effort relief appearances, and he also has a sustainable .306 career BABIP as a starter. He averaged 6.5 innings pitched per start in 2014, so he goes relatively deep into games by today’s standards.

One caveat: Wood has an unusual delivery, and the Braves have been leading the way in MLB’s Tommy John revolution for some years now. If reading some random guy on the internet makes you feel better, my gut tells me that Alex is going to stay healthy this year (please don’t read the same prediction that I made last year for Kris Medlen). I don’t believe that anyone has ever put a finger on what really causes pitcher injuries, be it mechanics, pitch counts, year round baseball, or whatever, but I’m not worried about Wood’s delivery in the short term. As he ages and loses flexibility, he may see some issues à la Tim Lincecum, but I predict good times for Alex Wood in 2015.

15 Dec

The Jadeite Jewel: Down with the Cardinals

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: Take the Easy Out vs. The Pop-Up Throw

Take the Easy Out

Editor’s Pitch: Simmons is so good he probably could have tossed the ball over his shoulder and gotten the runner out at first, but he didn’t want to show off so he went after the runner heading to third. If you’re trying to teach your children the proper fundamentals of throwing a ball, don’t have them watch Simmons. They’ll come away with the impression that your body can literally be in any position you want it to be and the throw will still go exactly where you want it to go. He was not only on his knees when he released that throw, he was still sliding. Yet his throw was on target and he got the out to end the inning. Ho hum. All in a day’s work.

The Pop-Up Throw

Editor’s Pitch: Double plays are one of the prettiest things in baseball, but when Andrelton Simmons is involved their beauty is worthy of masterpiece status. This play is just so smooth, yet it involved running, sliding, getting up, and throwing. He did all of those things so well he killed two Cardinals with one stone. That alone is worthy of accolades and adulation.

11 Dec

The Jadeite Jewel: Caution, Wet Floor

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 Slip ‘N Slide vs. Lost Your Feet

The Slip ‘N Slide

Editor’s Pitch: Simmons not only kept up with the path of the ball when his feet slipped out from under him, he caught it and threw it from his knee without any hesitation, as if he had planned to do it that way all along. His arm is strong enough that he got the out. From his knees. On the outfield grass. With a throw that was chest high when Freddie Freeman reached out to catch it. Chip Caray’s “Are you kidding me?” was spot on.

Lost Your Feet

Editor’s Pitch: The best thing about this play (after the fact it upset a Gnats player) is that it started as the most routine play possible for a shortstop, and ended up not routine at all. Simmons did not hesitate when his feet slipped and he ended up in a position that makes it nearly impossible to get anything on a throw at all. He merely threw the ball across the diamond from the seat of his pants, proving that his arm is completely his arm and has nothing to do with his body momentum at all. I mean, if you just watched this play unfold from his waste up, you would never know anything had gone wrong. Clearly, Simmons has to wonder who needs legs to play baseball?

08 Dec

The Jadeite Jewel: HoF Version

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 Jeter vs. The Chipper

The Jeter

Editor’s Pitch: With the Braves clinging to a 3-2 lead with 2 outs and a runner on 3rd in the bottom of the 8th, Jordan Walden got Travis d’Arnaud to hit a ground ball. Unfortunately for the Braves, it was headed toward the hole and looked destined to tie the game for the Mets. Fortunately for the Braves, they have Andrelton Simmons playing shortstop, and he ranged to his right, snagged the ball, leaped, and threw the runner out with nanoseconds to spare. ESPN will tell you this type of play was patented by Derek Jeter, but there are some notable differences between Jeter making the play and Simmons making the play. Jeter would leap because, unlike Simmons, he did not have a strong enough arm to take the time to plant himself and get the throw off in time. Simmons leaped because he had ranged so far to his right that he was able to get to a ball Jeter never would have even thought to try to get to, and, with as far as he had to run, had he tried to stop his momentum to plant himself and fire across the diamond, he probably would have fallen over. Although he made this look easy, it was anything but.

The Chipper

Editor’s Pitch: While Chipper was never a stellar defensive third baseman, he was the master of charging to barehand a ball and nab the runner. It’s pretty typical to see third basemen make—or try to make—that play, but shortstops really don’t have the time to even try (in fact, when Alcides Escobar tried to make a similar play in the World Series, Harold Reynolds made the comment that he had not seen a shortstop make a play like that since Omar Vizquel. Fortunately, we all know Harold Reynolds the commentator is an idiot.) Simmons, however, has a strong enough arm that he has enough time to do pretty much anything he wants. It’s really not fair.

04 Dec

Nick Markakis

So, the Braves signed Georgia boy Nick Markakis — he went to high school in Woodstock — for four years, $44 million. On its face, I don’t like this deal. On reflection, I don’t like this deal. On a bit more reflection, I’m basically ambivalent.

If you were an Orioles fan, Nick Markakis would have been a massive disappointment to you. The seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft, he debuted in 2006 as something pretty close to the guy he is now: 147 games played, 542 PA, .291/.351/.448 with 16 homers, 2.5 rWAR. He was 22 years old. Then, at 23, he picked up to 23 homers and 4.2 WAR, and at 24, he had the best season of his life, hitting .306 with good defense and accruing 7.4 WAR. But like Carlos Baerga, it turned out that he peaked at 24.

Since then, he’s basically been a two-win player every year (except for a terrible, injury-plagued 2013), with negative defensive marks (good arm, bad range), a good batting average and OBP, and somewhere between 10 and 15 homers. His defense isn’t great but it won’t kill you, his offense isn’t great but in this context it’s above-average, and he stays on the field which gives him positional value.

The free agent math to get to his contract basically goes like this: if you assume that he will be a 2.0 win player in 2015 and 2016, that in the subsequent two years he will lose an average of 0.5 WAR a year due to aging, injuries, and so on, and that it costs $7 million to buy a win on the open market, then:
Year 1: 2.0 * 7 = $14 million
Year 2: 2.0 * 7 = $14 million
Year 3: 1.5 * 7 = $10.5 million
Year 4: 1.0 * 7 = $7 million
Total: $45.5 million

Those are pretty aggressive assumptions, but that’s basically how you get to the number they paid.

There are basically two pressing questions. First, what is his true power? And second, given that he plateaued in his early 20s, is he due for a massive crash in his early 30s (like, say, B.J. Upton)?

The power question is partly tied to his wrist. He had hamate surgery in 2012, and his power has plummeted in the years since: .159 ISO before surgery, .098 ISO after. If you believe that he’ll get some of his power back, then he could be a value buy, but hamates are no joke, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll ever slug .470 again, as he did in 2012. Still, if he can get back to .440, that would be a big help.

The second question is harder to answer, but it’s worth looking at his similarity scores on on baseball-reference. This contract will pay him until he’s 34, and seven of his top ten most similar hitters were out of the league by 35. That isn’t determinate, but it’s a serious concern.

So: why am I anything other than deeply negative about this deal? First, I’ll point to David Lee’s article in the Augusta Chronicle and Martin Gandy’s blog post; both are smart, serious followers of the Braves and they offer much more full-throated defenses than I’m about to. But it basically boils down to this: the Braves badly need warm bodies, and this free agent market is absolutely insane, as evidenced by the $30 million deal given to Billy Butler, an iffy 28-year-old hitter who can’t play defense, or the $57 million deal given to Nelson Cruz, a 34-year old whose low OBP and indifferent defense offset his substantial power. Or, for that matter, the $3.8 million that the Athletics gave Ike Davis, who is the literal definition of a replacement-level player.

Given the scarcity of even average hitters and the Braves’ desperate need for one, Markakis fits the bill. The Braves’ upper minors are a wasteland, which means that league-average players are worth more to the Braves than they are to many other teams, and the Braves are paying this league-average player less per win than those other teams are paying the players that they got. Markakis doesn’t have a lot of upside beyond the player he is now, but if he’s able to remain this player for two more years (per the assumptions above), he’ll be worth this contract and well worth the gamble. That may not be the likeliest-case scenario, but it also may have been the Braves’ best option to fill a major hole in their roster without creating an even bigger hole elsewhere.

03 Dec

The Jadeite Jewel: Getting Fancy

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: Shortstop…or Left Fielder? vs. Hot Potato

Shortstop…or Left Fielder?

Editor’s Pitch: No one saw this coming. All eyes were on Justin Upton, wondering if he would get to the ball in time, since the left fielder is really the only person who has a chance at that ball. The only problem is, Simmons does not think like the rest of the world, and he seems to be out to prove he could man the entire left side of a baseball field without any assistance if he needed to. He not only ran at full speed with his back to the infield toward a fence, he dove toward that same fence to make the catch without thought to personal safety. As if the effort itself wasn’t incredible enough, he actually made the catch and hung on for the out. That just doesn’t happen.
(Bonus points: Kris Medlen was pitching and was the beneficiary of Simmons acting absurd, which is really apropos of nothing except he’s my favorite Brave and authoring this post allows me to point that out.)

Hot Potato

Editor’s Pitch: David Carpenter nearly caught this ball, but after he was only able to tip it, it seemed destined to find its way to center field. Simmons, however, stumbled onto the scene and put an end to that nonsense, converting what looked to be a hit into an out. Simmons was sliding/falling when he actually caught the ball, and he was moving fast enough he could not stop himself to get the throw off. A small thing like skidding over the ground never deters him, though, so he reached into his glove and underhanded the ball to Dan Uggla with an overhand grip while he was in mid-air. Seriously, hit pause at the 20 second mark and you will see—there was no part of him touching the ground when he released the ball. Despite that, his throw was right on the money. CRAZY.

01 Dec

Keltner List: Billy Wagner

Once a year, Mac used to write up a Keltner List for a retired Brave, as a way of debating whether he deserved to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Two years ago, I wrote one for Kenny Lofton; last year, Sansho wrote one for Deacon White, who played for the Boston Red Stockings in the National Association and the National League, the team that is the forerunner to the modern Braves.

Here’s Mac’s standard preamble to Keltner lists: The Keltner List was developed by Bill James as a device to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. In The Politics of Glory James says that it is probably his favorite tool to do that. (You can read about the background in that book, or do a Google search, for further information.)

So let’s run it for Billy Wagner, whose last year in the big leagues was 2010, which means that he’ll be eligible soon.

  1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

    Absolutely not.

  2. Was he the best player on his team?

    No, but he played with two should-be Hall of Famers in their prime, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. He had the highest pitching WAR on the 2003 Houston Astros, ahead of Roy Oswalt, but it’s hard to ask a closer to be the best player on his team.

  3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

    If you’re willing to consider the closer as a unique position — as opposed to just a subset of pitchers — then Wagner was one of the best players at his position for about a decade and a half. But he was never the best in baseball, because his career had the misfortune of entirely overlapping with the greatest closer ever, Mariano Rivera. He was either the best or the second-best closer in the National League, behind Trevor Hoffman.

    Wagner was fourth in the Cy Young voting in 1999, and sixth in 2006. Hoffman was second in the Cy Young voting in 1998 and 2006, fifth in 1996, and sixth in 1999. They both made seven All-Star teams. Wagner’s career ERA+ is 187, far better than Hoffman’s 141, but Hoffman pitched 186 more innings and racked up 179 more saves, which is something that modern Hall Voters may find compelling.

    Career-wise, Wagner leads Hoffman 23.6 to 23.0 in fWAR, and trails him 27.7 to 28.0 in rWAR. Hoffman leads him in career Win Probability Added, 32.98 to 28.78. In all, neither was significantly better than the other.

  4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

    Unclear. Billy Wagner went to the playoffs seven times, with four different teams: with the Astros in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2001; with the Mets in 2006; with the Red Sox in 2009 (though he only threw 13 2/3 innings for them all year); and with the Braves in his final season, 2010. He had near misses with the 2003 Astros, the 2005 Phillies, and the 2007 Mets, each of whom finished their season either a game back in the division race or the Wild Card. So he clearly played on a lot of successful teams.

    That said, it’s hard to definitively demonstrate that he was the main reason that his successful teams reached the playoffs. On the six playoff teams for which he played a full season, there was a combined record in one-run games of 154-122, a .558 won-loss record; that’s the equivalent of a 90-win season over 162 games. Not bad, but not enough to show that he had an outsize effect on their success in close games.

    On the other hand, over the course of his career, he was terrific in high-leverage and in Late & Close situations. His career triple slash allowed was .187/.262/.296, a .558 OPS against; in Late & Close situations, batters hit him to the tune of .194/.270/.310 (.581 OPS), and in high-leverage situations, it was .202/.280/.318 (.598). So when the chips were down during the regular season, he was awfully good.

    But for some reason, he was absolutely terrible in the playoffs. He pitched in 14 games for his seven playoff teams, and he gave up 13 earned runs and three homers in 11 2/3 innings — his entire playoff career was basically what Hunter Strickland did this year.

    In all, it’s hard to give Wagner much credit for his performance down the stretch, but it’s also hard to ding him too severely for his poor playoff performance in a relatively small sample size.

  5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

    One of the most remarkable things about Wagner is that, unlike Hoffman, he basically had no decline. His final year in Atlanta was one of his strongest seasons. Despite his occasional injuries — he only pitched a total of 62 2/3 innings in 2008-2009 — he was basically always effective when he was on the mound.

  6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

    No. That’s probably Tim Raines, but in any event, there’s a long list ahead of him.

  7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

    No, though the ranks of baseball closers in the Hall have been swelling over the years. He has roughly the same number of career WAR as Lee Smith, who almost certainly will not get in. Wagner did it in nearly 400 fewer innings, which is impressive, but then again, it’s hard to see the Hall of Fame inducting someone with only 903 career innings pitched. Old Hoss Radbourn threw 678 innings in 1884 alone.

  8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

    No by most measures. Though he’s well above the standard for Bill James’s Hall of Fame Monitor, he falls short on Gray Ink, Hall of Fame Standards, and JAWS.

  9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

    No. He didn’t introduce any new innovations to the game, nor was he especially noteworthy for anything he did off the field. He was a very good closer for a very long time, but that’s well reflected in his numbers.

  10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

    It’s hard to separate him from Hoffman and Smith, closers who racked up a lot more saves and threw a lot more innings but whose ERA+ doesn’t look as impressive. He and Hoffman retired in the same year, and because Hoffman has a lot more saves, he will probably receive a few more votes. But the BBWAA will have trouble giving them more than a few perfunctory votes, knowing full well that Mariano Rivera will be eligible in a few years. Mo is the Mike Schmidt of closers; Wagner and Hoffman are Ken Boyer and Darrell Evans.

  11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

    No MVP-type seasons. He received 4% of the vote share in 1999 and 1% in 2003, which doesn’t really count. His fourth-place Cy Young finish in 1999 is more impressive. By Win Probability Added, he looks a lot better: his 5.32 WPA in 1999 was not just the highest in baseball that year, it’s one of the highest marks in the last decade and a half: in many seasons, no reliever reaches a mark that high. (The last reliever in the major leagues to do so was Jim Johnson in 2012.)

  12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?

    Wagner went to seven All-Star Games, which is none too shabby. Twelve pitchers have played in seven All-Star games, and five have been elected to the Hall; of those, one is a reliever, Rollie Fingers. Fingers played in seven All-Star Games and got elected, though he benefited from the halo effect of the early ’70s Oakland A’s, just like Catfish Hunter: both were pretty good players who probably would never have made it into the Hall if they had played for a different team.

    The other two relievers to reach seven All-Star Games? Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman.

  13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

    Absolutely not. That’s not his fault, it’s just a fact. On the 2010 Braves, Wagner threw 69 1/3 terrific innings. But the team’s Wild Card slot owed far more to Jason Heyward, who played 1196 1/3 defensive innings, literally 17 times more. Heyward was worth 6.4 rWAR that year, while Wagner was worth 2.4 rWAR. Very good numbers for a closer, but only with that caveat.

  14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

    No.

  15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

    As far as we know, yes. He was a generally well-liked teammate, albeit outspoken.

Wagner is a member of the Hall of Very Good. It’s hard to build a Hall of Fame career from the back of the bullpen, and he didn’t. Worse players are in the Hall of Fame, like Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter, but the odds are very high that he will not join their ranks. Nor should he.

26 Nov

The Jadeite Jewel: Body Parts Optional

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: Who Needs Eyes? vs. Who Needs Feet?

Who Needs Eyes?

Editor’s Pitch: This was done so smoothly and unobtrusively that nobody really noticed it at first. Ballplayers are supposed to reach into their gloves to transfer the ball and do it in front of their bodies, the way arms naturally bend. Although Simmons didn’t make the play, he almost made the play, a feat that no other ballplayer could have come close to pulling off. I mean, that should be an easy hit right there, but Simmons nearly got the out. Of course he did.

Who Needs Feet?
Note: The audio is very low, but this is the best clip I could embed. There’s a better-quality clip here.

Editor’s Pitch: Simmons wasn’t playing deep, so just making this stop was impressive and that alone would have benefitted his pitcher by keeping him out of a first-and-third/one-out situation. But even though he was nearly lying on his side with his momentum taking him toward third, Simmons is never content to just put the ball in his pocket and he had to try to make a throw. The throw was not only accurate and hard, it was accurate and hard enough that it enabled Uggla to turn the double play and get the Braves out of the inning. And he threw it from his leg. Are you kidding me?

23 Nov

The Jadeite Jewel: So It Begins

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 Blind Basket Catch vs. The Video Game

Narrowing down Simmons’s top plays to 32 is hard, so I’m throwing you voters straight into the fire. Voting will stay open through Wednesday night since I’m posting on a weekend before a holiday. Feel free to include an explanation of why you are voting the way you are to try to persuade others to vote your way!

The Blind Basket Catch

Editor’s pitch: The runner was going with the pitch, which creates a distraction for the defenders before the batter even swings. To make the play, Simmons is running with his back to the infield straight toward two outfielders barreling in. It’s nearly impossible to track a ball in that situation, much less make a basket catch over top of Emilio Bonifacio‘s glove. Then Simmons not only avoids a collision and holds the ball, but spins around and throws to try to double off the runner. The blend of athleticism and mental awareness is beautiful.

The Video Game

Editor’s pitch: The video is worth a thousand words of commentary, so just watch it again. Okay, now watch it one more time. Can a mere mortal even bend like that? He’s covering the bag, bends against his momentum to catch the ball, and then flips back to tag the base. The baserunner was already running and was nearly on top of him…and he got the out. This play defies the laws of physics and it made his pitcher laugh in disbelief. The cherry on top is he tried to turn the double play and was disgusted with himself that he couldn’t. Unbelievable.

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