Braves Journal, The House That Mac Built

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18 Nov

Shelby Miller

So, there was a blockbuster trade, where the Braves and Cardinals swapped one year of a talented but fragile left-handed right-fielder for a young Southern fireballing right-handed pitching prospect. If you started thinking that the Jason Heyward-Shelby Miller trade is slightly reminscent of the J.D. Drew/Adam Wainwright trade, you’re not wrong.

One main difference is that Drew was older and Wainwright was younger at the time of the trade than their present counterparts: Drew was 28 when traded and Heyward is 25, while Wainwright was 22 when traded and Miller is 24. Heyward has frankly been a much more effective player than Drew: in his five full seasons, he has averaged 136 games played and 4.9 rWAR, while Drew averaged 117 games played and 3.4 rWAR.

On the other hand, Wainwright had just spent the year in Double-A, whereas Miller has already thrown 370 innings with an ERA+ of 111. Wainwright, it must be said, was never quite the prospect that Miller was: before the 2004 season (around the time of the trade), Adam was Baseball America’s #49 prospect, and his top prospect ranking was as BA’s #18 prospect before 2003. Miller, meanwhile, was rated as BA’s #8 prospect before 2012, when he had his first cup of coffee, and as their #6 prospect before his 2013 rookie season, when he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting.

On the other other hand, Heyward and Drew have slightly different skillsets. Drew played in a very different offensive context — the Steroid Era, to be blunt — but still, his pretrade triple slash was .282/.377/.498, a 124 OPS+, while Heyward’s is .262/.351/.429, a 114 OPS+. On the other hand, while Drew was a fine fielder, with 43 TotalZone fielding runs before the trade, Heyward was more than twice as good, with 98 fielding runs. (They were equally effective baserunners, each contributing nine runs on the bases.)

Generally speaking, hitting ages a lot more gracefully than fielding, because as hitters get older, they get slower but they also gain more power and draw more walks. (“Old player skills.”) Heyward still hasn’t put it all together as a hitter, and most of the value that he has contributed has been from skills that are not likely to age well; this is undoubtedly one of the reasons that the Braves were unwilling to pay what they believed would be the market price for Jason’s services. (Another is that, generally speaking, their owners are skinflints.)

Still, even if Jason Heyward isn’t exactly a sure thing, he’s a pretty known quantity, at least for a year: he’s one of the best players in the National League, even if you’re not sure whether the defensive numbers imply that he should be ranked in the top 10 or the top 30. He immediately makes the Cardinals better for a 2015 playoff push, and, you have to admit, he makes their team a little less hateable in the short term.

Shelby Miller is less of a known quantity, because he had a rough year last year. Tyrell Jenkins is almost a completely unknown quantity, a live arm in High-A with a big fastball who could wind up turning into anything from a workhorse starter to a power reliever to a washout, but his upside is significant enough that he’s worth watching. (Arodys Vizcaino, acquired in the La Stella trade, is two Tommy John surgeries past being considered as a starting pitcher, but he’s another live arm who could help in the pen.)

Anyway, here’s the thing with Miller: he was one of the top pitching prospects in the game before 2012, and then he had a really up-and-down year, pitching terribly in the first half. In late June, his ERA stood at 6.00, and his team tried to tinker with his mechanics and forbade him from shaking off his catcher. And, well, it worked: in the second half, he put up a “2.88 ERA in his last 10 starts, with a spectacular 70/7 K/BB in 59 innings.” He was so good in the second half that BA actually improved his prospect ranking from #8 to #6.

That reminds me of nothing so much as Julio Teheran, the #5 prospect in baseball coming into 2012, when Miller was #8. Julio also struggled in 2012. The Braves tweaked his delivery, too, and he didn’t even have as much of a second-half improvement as Miller. But then he went back to his original delivery, and you remember what happened: he was #5 in the Rookie of the Year voting last year (behind Miller at #3), and this year he was an All-Star.

So all I’m saying is that young pitchers can struggle and then they can figure it out. The Braves are buying low on Miller, and that’s appropriate — we wouldn’t have wanted to pay the price that it would have cost us a year ago. To say the least, it would have cost a lot more than a single year of Jason Heyward. But Miller has very good velocity, he has succeeded at every level including the majors, and the Braves pitching coaches have a track record of success.

That said, his struggles have been diagnosed, and they’re real. His swings-and-misses and his strikeouts are way down. He suffered from shoulder soreness in spring training in 2013, and after he pitched only one postseason inning in October, the team admitted that he was suffering from shoulder soreness in September, too.

That said, his 2014 ended a lot better than it started — from April-July, he had a 4.14 ERA, 81/55 K/BB in 121 2/3 IP, while in August and September, he had a 2.93 ERA with a 46/18 K/BB in 61 1/3 IP. With his fastball, you’d prefer to see something much closer to a strikeout per inning, but getting that K/BB back above 2.5 is absolutely crucial. Eno Sarris thought that part of his renewed success had to do with an increased reliance on high fastballs, and that’s certainly plausible. It’s also very possible that Miller is like Mike Minor, a pitcher whose shoulder soreness did not affect his stuff so much as it affected his command, but after half a season of struggling he finally managed to find his touch again. We’ll see.

There are generally three ways to get pitchers like Shelby Miller into your system: pay them $100 million on the free agent market, trade a boatload of prospects for them, or draft four pitchers like Shelby Miller and hope that one of them pans out. The Braves got themselves a Shelby Miller, and even if he’s not as shiny as he was when he rolled off the assembly line, I think that there are a fair number of reasons to be confident.

That doesn’t mean that this trade doesn’t existentially suck. The Braves didn’t cry poverty and trade Chipper Jones right before he turned into a free agent because they were owned by an eccentric billionaire who made all of his money in cable television and was the biggest private landowner in the United States, and who liked spending on baseball. Now they’re owned by a eccentric cable TV billionaire landowner who doesn’t like spending on baseball, so the team sold one of its best players for scrap. Still and all, the scrap they got back is pretty intriguing.

14 Nov

New Contest

The Hot Stove season is fueled by debate. Ideas are hashed and rehashed; beliefs are shared and argued and changed. Some fans thrive on the endless speculation, enjoying it more than the baseball season itself. Others just engage in it to pass the time and have a connection to baseball until the weather warms, the flowers bloom, and the crack of the bat signals winter’s over. Me? If Opening Day were tomorrow, I would not complain a bit. But I must let nature run its course and Hot Stovers have their day in the overcast wintery weather…I mean sun. The debates over roster construction, team goals, and contract extensions have been cooking for awhile across baseball. Many valid points have been made and argued and many more will be made and argued over the next three months. Such is the life of a baseball fan during the offseason.

That Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in the world and that Braves fans have been lucky enough to witness some incomparable plays he has made is not a point against which anyone can argue (wow, proper grammar can be awkward). Just 2+ seasons into his career, he has taken all of the suspense out of shortstop defensive awards. The man is insane.

However, there is one point surrounding Simmons’s defense that is debatable, and that is a point that Braves Journal is going to settle once and for all over this offseason: Which of Simmons’s jaw-dropping plays is his best?

To determine this answer with a throwback to Mac’s famous Road from Bristol, we’re going to follow the tried and true bracket method and the rules Mac laid out:

  • Vote for the play you think is the best of the two in the comments to the appropriate entry.
  • One person, one vote.
  • Posts shall remain active for at least 48 hours, at which time I will call the winner and close comments.
  • Other comments are welcome.
  • If a contest is close, I may send it to overtime. Contests may also remain up longer for weekends and holidays.
  • I am the sole judge.

While I could easily find 64 plays that are deserving of nomination for such a contest, for the sake of time we are only going to go with 32. I’ll do the initial condensing to get to those 32, but this is a democracy and I want everyone to have a voice.

Therefore, in this thread, please nominate any plays you would like to see in the contest, and include a video link if possible (so I can make sure I get the right play…and to save me the trouble of having to track down a video myself!) Also, such a contest is deserving of its own name, and my creative juices are just not flowing right now. If you come up with a catchy title, please share.

The grind of the baseball season can sometimes make it difficult to enjoy brilliance in the moment, so let’s take advantage of the lull of the offseason and bask in some highlights of outstanding defense. Come Spring Training the winner will be crowned and we will have permanently settled the issue of Simmons’s best play…at least until he makes his next one on Opening Day.

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13 Nov

A baseless, idiotic, and likely pointless attempt to distract you from this depressing off season, if only for a minute or two

Here are the first 10 tracks from y 2014 End Of Year compilation(s.) They have nothing to do with baseball.

1 – “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” From Most Messed Up (2014) by Old 97s
2 – “I Don’t Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore” From Rented World (2014) by The Menzingers
3 – “Raindance In Traffic” From The Greatest Generation (2013) by The Wonder Years
4 – “Smalls” From Circulation (2014) by JPNSGRLS
5 – “Born To Kill” From Desperate Ground (2013) by The Thermals
6 – “Prom Song” From Pythons (2013) by Surfer Blood
7 – “Two Good Things” From You’re Gonna Miss It All (2014) by Modern Baseball
8 – “Drinking With The Jocks” From Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014) by Against Me!
9 – “El Dorado” From From Parts Unknown (2014) by Every Time I Die
10 – “Parade Of Idiots” From Jaded & Faded (2014) by Cerebral Ballzy

09 Nov

Open Thread: The Return of the Cleaners From Venus

This is presented apropos of literally nothing whatsoever. You may not be familiar with the Cleaners From Venus. In that (very likely) case, this blog post will not strike you as terribly relevant — though I do hope at the very least to introduce you to a band that you ought to get to know.

The Cleaners from Venus was basically a one- or two-man band with a sort of Beatlesesque jangle-pop sound. This was in the ’80s, and while they were thousands of miles away from janglers in the Paisley Underground like The Three O’Clock or southern bands like Let’s Active and R.E.M., there are some interesting sonic similarities. But the Cleaners from Venus were far, far more English. Over to the right, I’ve embedded maybe their best song, “Julie Profumo.”

The bandleader and mastermind was Martin Newell, but he worked with a couple of other collaborators. One of them was Giles Smith, who later became a journalist and wrote a memoir about his time in the band, the superb Lost in Music. The Cleaners self-distributed their own tapes in an underground tape exchange market; interestingly, another British band that did the same thing at the same time was Chumbawumba. This is how Smith described his collaboration with Newell:

   This was the Martin Newell whom I joined full-time in the Cleaners from Venus: an angered pop guerrilla with his own agenda, a one-man music-biz resistance unit. Contrast these bristling principles with my own musical attitude at this time, which was, roughly, ‘fame at any price’.
   For two people about to set out on a journey into the world of pop, matters on which Newell and I held conflicting views were, I suppose, dangerously numerous. For example:
   Newell: big on artistic integrity; vehemently opposed to anyone from a record company imposing a marketing strategy upon his music.
   Me: ready to talk.
   Newell: firmly averse, on well-founded left-wing principles, to wasting time and money in expensive foreign recording studios, ‘like the rest of those pampered nancies’.
   Me: the Bahamas look nice.
   Newell: angry that machines have taken over many of the performance aspects of pop music, replacing its flawed but vital heart with a brutal perfectionism; concerned to reestablish a sixties ethic – energy first, accuracy second.
   Me: unhealthily obsessed with the clean lines of Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche, an album on which nobody does anything unless a computer says so.
   Newell: strictly anti-producer.
   Me: hoping very shortly to have Trevor Horn’s home phone number.
   Newell: strictly anti-touring, on the grounds that it is unnecessary in the age of television and video, wasteful of resources and endangers a songwriter’s mental equilibrium by removing him from the life that inspired him to become a songwriter in the first place.
   Me: looking forward to Wembley.
   Newell: hostile towards partying, schmoozing, ligging, showbiz insincerities and ‘all that “star” rubbish’.
   Me: Rod! Great to see you!
   Newell: utterly convinced of his moral responsibility, in the event of success, to remain unaffected by staying close to the normalizing influence of his roots at home.
   Me: the Bahamas look nice.
   As if this wasn’t enough, we presented a striking visual contrast, too: Newell with his shaggy hair and Fagin kit, and me with my spiked crop and Oxfam suits, continuing a phase begun at university. (Newell frequently referred – satirically but with a hint of jealousy, I sometimes felt – to my ‘sensible teaching trousers’.
   Then, again, consider what we had in common. Both of us believed in the sanctity of the three-minute pop song. Both of us were fundamentally pro-Beatle. Furthermore, though Newell was a Lennon man and could accurately ape the gritty disdain of his singing voice, neither of us hated McCartney. Both of us considered the theme tune for University Challenge to be the funniest piece of music we had ever heard. And both of us thought jazz was for tossers. This was, surely, more than enough cement for a musical relationship.

They were a great band, but they never made it as rock stars, just local cult heroes. XTC’s Andy Partridge produced Martin Newell’s terrific first solo album, “The Greatest Living Englishman,” and Newell has proceeded to periodically release solo albums over the past two decades. He then resurrected the Cleaners moniker for two recent albums, “English Electric” and “The Late District,” and has begun digitally re-releasing the old albums in box sets, called Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3.

(Amazon’s selling the first two, the equivalent of seven CDs worth, for $16. The material can be uneven, but within those seven albums are a whole lot of good songs.)

Another highlight is “Ilya Kuryakin Looked at Me,” whose title refers to one of the main characters on “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Oh, and here’s the theme for University Challenge:

Now, back to the thoroughly exciting baseball offseason!

06 Nov

At First I Thought The Braves Were Just Badmouthing Wren Because They Fired Him

But the list of people who left the team during his tenure, and who are coming back now, just keeps getting longer:

In the latest of the rash of front office and scout personnel returning to Atlanta, California scout Tom Battista has left the Boston Red Sox and returned to the Braves’ organization as a crosschecker (essentially a scout who oversees other scouts and corroborates their reports in a particular geographical area), per ESPN’s Keith Law.

Law’s tweet alludes to two of Battista’s best signings, Tommy Hanson and Freddie Freeman, both of whom were discovered during Battista’s tenure as an amateur scout and crosschecker on the West Coast from 2004 until 2010. Other signings attributed to Battista during his time in Atlanta include Kris Medlen and current Arizona Fall League participant Aaron Northcraft.

Roy Clark is back too, of course, and he’s a bigger name, but this is starting to become kind of a pattern. Maybe Wren really was a tough person to get along with.

03 Nov

Buster Olney Thinks Maybe We Should Trade Heyward and Jupton

Buster Olney notes that this offseason, there’s a ton of pitching available — Scherzer, Lester, Shields, Liriano, Hamels, Santana, Volquez, and Samardzija are just the top names he lists. There’s a ton of pitching available and barely any hitting. So he suggests that teams may want to take advantage of the weak hitting market and trade some bats.

With options for upgrades in the free-agent market few and far between, some executives believe that teams could take advantage of that by dangling some veterans for trade, including:

Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves: The 25-year-old Gold Glove winner will be a free agent after next season, and if Atlanta president John Hart determines that the team will not be able to re-sign him to a long-term deal, the best play for the team could be to trade him now, to recoup as much value as possible. And within the context of the current position player market, Heyward would look like a gem.

Yes, he has been erratic offensively, but he has power, he takes walks, and he is regarded as a shutdown defender at a time when the industry places a high priority in that.

Justin Upton, Atlanta Braves: Like Heyward, the 27-year-old Upton will be eligible for free agency after next season. Coming off a summer in which he had 29 homers among 65 extra-base hits, he’s worth a lot more in trade now than the draft pick the Braves would get if he walked away as a free agent next fall. If the Braves don’t think they can afford to sign him to a long-term deal, then trading him this winter — in the thin market for power hitting — could be the smart move.

30 Oct

Where Do We Go From Here? 2014, Part 1: What Do We Do With BJ? (by smitty)

Note to Braves Journal newbies: Every offseason here at Braves Journal, we run a series of posts called “Where Do We Go From Here?” The first one of the 2014 offseason is from Smitty.

Other than hiring a General Manger, the most important decision the Braves face this offseason is, “What do we do with BJ Upton?” Ultimately, the final answer of this question could determine the next two to three seasons.

As you know, BJ Upton was signed by the recently departed Frank Wren prior to the 2013 season. This signing and the theft of his brother, Justin, were probably the best and worst moves of the Wren era. While Justin’s performance has been outstanding, BJ has been terrible. Whenever you have a season where you add 24 points to your batting average, and people still claim your season was a failure, it’s bad!

Let’s break it down by options:

A key reference point here is that BJ is owed $45,350,000 through the 2017 season, according to Baseball Reference.com.

1. The Win the Powerball Twice and Develop Superman Powers Scenario: The Braves trade BJ Upton to a team willing to pick up the full tab

There is no way I see this happening. There was a better, albeit small, chance last offseason of this scenario happening. However, when you put up back to back negative WAR seasons, no one will want you. Unless I am hired by the Phillies to be their GM, no one is going to pick up the $45,350,000 contract of doom.

2. The One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure, or Something Scenario: The Braves trade BJ Upton to a team that will pick up the tab, if we throw in value and/or take a bad contract back

There were rumors abound in July that the Cubs and Braves discussed an Edwin Jackson for BJ Upton deal. Baseball Reference notes Jackson is owed $22 million for 2014-2015 and had an ERA of 5.58 over his last two seasons in the Friendly Confines. While the money doesn’t match up, the Cubs might kick in some salary relief if the Braves include, say, Mike Minor.

I think there are a few teams that may listen to us (Rangers, Dodgers, Yankees…) and may take BJ off our hands. A deal like this would cost obviously cost us something of value.

I actually think this is the scenario that will happen. It will test our new GM right out of the gate and could be the move that defines him early on.

3. The Dan Uggla Scenario: The Braves release BJ Upton

This scenario may happen if the Braves don’t find a taker before the start of Spring Training. I am not sure Liberty Media will be too happy with this, but if the Braves don’t feel BJ can contribute and no one will take him, this is what you probably have to do. Another season like the last two will start to be a massive clubhouse distraction. We know how the Braves feel about that.

Under this scenario, the Braves may save some money if anyone picks up BJ, though it probably wouldn’t be more than the league minimum. Maybe Liberty Media agree it is sunk cost and since we have played the “front office shuffle,” they will eat some of the cost and allow the Braves some payroll latitude.

4. The Left Field Scenario: The Braves keep BJ Upton

As noted above, BJ’s brother is on the team and is a free agent next year. I am sure the Braves would like to keep him and they way they handle this could will be a factor in that decision. Maybe Justin gives the Braves a discount for the way this all goes down and to play with his brother for a few more years. Maybe the Braves decide to give the new hitting coach a shot to correct BJ’s issues. Maybe BJ starts taking PEDs and shows off in winter workouts.

5. The Gold Watch Scenario: BJ Upton Retires

This is the scenario that ranks up there with me being named GM of the Phillies. I guess there is a chance BJ is mentally fatigued and says, “I’ve lost it.” After a winter of failing to make contact with 75 mph fastballs from a machine, BJ calls a press conference at Turner Field. With his brother and father flanking his sides, he tearfully makes the following announcement:

“After playing a game all of my life, I now have reached the end of my life in baseball. When I came to Atlanta a few years ago, I dreamed the organization would take the next step and we would hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy as the (Royals/Giants) did a few months ago. I became even more excited when the Braves added my brother to the roster and was able to live a dream of playing with my brother and best friend.

I would like to thank God, my family, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves for making this an incredible ride. I am thankful the Braves will allow me to serve as Assistant Secretary of Minor League Base Running Development and Overseer of Baseballs.”

Assistant Secretary of Minor League Base Running Development and Overseer of Baseballs does have a nice ring to it.

27 Oct

Crowdsourced Sopranos Comparisons

John Schuerholz: Tony Soprano (spike)
John Hart: Paulie Walnuts (spike), Silvio Dante (Edward)
John Coppolella: Christopher Moltisanti (spike)
Frank Wren: Big Pussy (Adam R), Phil Leotardo (Ububba)
Bobby Cox: Uncle Junior (spike)
Fredi Gonzalez: Bobby Bacala (spike)
Terry McGuirk: Johnny Sack (spike)
Li’l Jonathan Schuerholz: AJ Soprano (spike)

So, is John Malone Livia Soprano?

21 Oct

The Last Week Before the Offseason

I’m rooting against the Giants because Posey was out.

I’m rooting for the Royals because if they win the World Series, there is no chance that Dayton Moore gets hired away.

20 Oct

Where Do We Go From Here: Why I Believe In Retooling, Not Rebuilding

We’ll get to the meat of the offseason content after the World Series, but in the meantime, I wanted to point to an interesting article by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, where he tries to wrestle with what he got wrong about the Royals. Of course, basically no one predicted that they would reach the World Series this year, but Cameron panned the James Shields trade specifically because he thought that it was so unlikely that they would experience quick success as a result of it.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that when the results of the postseason don’t align with expectations, that our expectations were clearly wrong to begin with. The playoffs — like most short tournaments between competitors of mostly equal stature — are mostly random, with the outcomes swinging wildly on things that simply couldn’t have been predicted in advance.

But while I think I can defend my analysis of the Royals talent level, that doesn’t make the overall argument correct. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen essentially unparalleled parity in MLB, and this year, we have a World Series match-up between two teams who made the playoffs via the Wild Card. In 2012, the Tigers got to the World Series with 88 regular season wins; in 2011, the Cardinals won it all after winning just 90 games. While better teams are still more likely to win out in the postseason, the structure of the playoffs gives a real chance to every team who simply qualifies, even if they sneak in via the Wild Card. So maybe I underestimated the potentially positive returns from being on the good side of mediocre.

This is the crux of why I always land on the “retool” side of the “retool versus rebuild” argument. The 2014 Braves, for all their flaws, nearly won 80 games, and these days, pretty much any 80-win team is in range of a year like the 2014 Royals had — getting lucky and winning five or eight extra games in the regular season beyond what their Pythagorean record would have predicted, and then riding a Costco tub of pixie dust through the playoffs. The only way to guarantee you’ll miss the playoffs altogether is to rip off the bandaids and blow up your team, the way the Diamondbacks did in the firesale that netted us Justin Upton, or the way the Marlins did in 1998 and 2012.

As a lot of people have grumbled (including me), baseball has become less of a regular season sport and more of a postseason sport. What happens in the first 162 games is not completely meaningless, but since 1/3 of all teams play on past the regular season, the odds are incredibly good that the best teams in the regular season will not play particularly well in the playoffs, and that teams that were mediocre in the regular season will play great in the playoffs.

But that’s the world we live in, and that’s the world in which the Braves have to play. There’s almost no added advantage in winning 95 games in the regular season rather than 90. So that means that the ultimate goal must be to build teams that always have a pretty good chance of winning 90. There’s no harm if you overshoot that. But there’s significant harm if you foreclose on that possibility altogether.

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