Tuesday, March 5, 2024
AnalysisAtlanta BravesMLBNational LeagueNL East

Going To WAR With The National League East

Major League Baseball, in the midst of an analytics revolution, has expanded the base of information available to both teams and fans tremendously over the last five years. While dozens of new metrics have been created to measure different aspects of the game, the all-encompassing WAR cannot be overlooked or undermined. WAR isn’t perfect, but it plays a huge role in helping provide a basis for determining the ‘un-measurables’ like luck and sustainability.

Atlanta Braves position players posted 26.9 fWAR in 2019 en route to the team’s second straight National League East title. To almost nobody’s surprise, that mark was tops in the division, albeit besting the Nationals by just 0.9 WAR. Currently, both clubs are suffering from the losses of star third basemen, and the ability to bounce back from such a loss looks to be the deciding factor in who takes home the 2020 NL East crown.

On the mound, the Braves found themselves strides behind both the Nationals and the Mets, as Atlanta’s pitching staff amassed a humble 12.3 fWAR. The Nationals (22.3 WAR) and Mets (20.4 WAR) both clearly boast more star power within their respective rotations, but both bullpens have been known to be shaky. In fact, no bullpen in the National League East posted a higher fWAR total than the Braves’ measly 1.3 mark, which was good for just 21st in baseball.

Going to WAR with bombs

In 2019, neither of the top two home run hitting teams made it to the World Series. The Yankees (306) and the Twins (307) both hit 18 more home runs and scored 19 more runs than any other team in baseball throughout the regular season, and yet came up short in the game’s most crucial moments.

Fangraphs’ formula for WAR doesn’t directly use home run totals to assess value. This is where other methods of analysis come in handy, one of my favorites being HR/WAR. A lower HR/WAR could suggest that a team is either good at getting runners on base before home runs, or good at finding ways to score outside of the longball, usually the latter. It’s a means of measuring how effective teams are outside of just hitting home runs. HR/WAR numbers vary surprisingly not only league-wide, but specifically among teams that played in a Division Series.

Notice the top three teams in the tweet above. The Astros and Dodgers were widely viewed as the two best teams in baseball throughout most of 2019, so that checks out. The Nationals won the World Series, so that definitely checks out. Obviously, as you get towards the bottom of the HR/WAR numbers, they begin to look funny for teams who amassed fewer than 20 position player WAR. However, an enhanced perspective can help break down how important a relatively small difference in HR/WAR is to contending clubs.

Last season, MLB saw roughly 1.4 home runs per game. Let’s take the Dodgers and Twins, two reputable playoff teams, and set them to this constant. At a rate of 1.4 home runs a game, they’d both have 223. Now, divide each team’s HR/WAR total into the 223 home runs. The Dodgers wind up producing 37.8 WAR, while the Twins come in at just 23.0. The perceived 14.8 WAR difference is greater than the difference between the 18th ranked Mariners (16.4) and 29th ranked Marlins (2.6).

Despite the Dodgers’ offense generating 53 fewer runs than Minnesota, they played a more sound game both defensively and on the basepaths, resulting in a substantial difference between themselves and one of the American League’s two perceived offensive powerhouses. The Dodgers scored 3.18 runs for every home run they hit, and the Twins scored 3.05 runs per home run hit. At the same constant of 223 home runs, that’s a difference of 21 runs scored over a 162 game season. Although this was not actually the result, the Dodgers still won 106 games, five more than Minnesota.

Assembling a team whose primary strength is hitting home runs is a dangerous game. The dingers will come and go depending on several different factors, but good defense and consistent small-ball runs follow you anywhere you go.

Is it still an arms race?

As mentioned earlier, the Atlanta Braves were third in the NL East in terms of pitching WAR, with just 12.3 between the rotation and bullpen combined (11 from the rotation, 1.3 from the bullpen). The rotation was anchored by a young Mike Soroka, and Max Fried‘s overall numbers don’t tell the same story as his game-by-game performances throughout 2019. Seldom are pitching wins useful in analysis, but Max Fried’s 17 wins in 2019 were crucial to the Braves’ division dominance. In 16 of those starts, Fried allowed 3 or fewer runs, and gave up just 4 in the other one.

Julio Teheran will be missed in a weird, emotionally abusive ex-girlfriend sort of way, but the additions of Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez on one-year deals (Felix’s is $1M non-roster) soothe the need for a veteran presence. Hamels’ successful career has largely been predicated on an effective change-up, and there are hopes that the pitch might rub off on young lefties like Max Fried and Sean Newcomb. Newcomb used a change-up 19.1% of the time in 2018, yet backed off the pitch last season, with just a 6.9% usage rate.

This young Braves pitching staff is bound to see improvements from guys like Fried, Soroka, and Sean Newcomb. Fried had a 4.02 ERA, but a 3.72 FIP, and he also suffered from a .336 BABiP against, 21 points higher than the year before. Mike Soroka won’t turn 23 until August, and the poise and maturity he demonstrated on the mound in 2019 aren’t traits that come and go. He will he elite for a decade or more, barring injuries.

Atlanta Braves fans can also look forward to a bounce back season from a healthy Mike Foltynewicz. The righty battled injuries early on, landing him on the Injured List to begin the season. Foltynewicz was anything but good upon making his delayed debut, struggling fiercely until being demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett in late June for a mental reset that proved to be effective. Folty made 10 MLB starts following the stint in Gwinnett, posting a 2.65 ERA with much improved pitch location. He’ll be 28 for the entire 2019 regular season, so look out for Mike Foltynewicz to make a return to his 2018 form.

The market bodes well

Fortunately for Atlanta, the market boasted many power bat options outside of Josh Donaldson, and the draft pick acquired as compensation for losing Donaldson helped give Anthopoulos the confidence to pull the trigger on a one-year, $18 million deal for Marcell Ozuna, who received a Qualifying Offer from the Cardinals earlier this offseason. Ozuna’s elite batted ball metrics (49.2% hard hit, 12.6% barrel rate, & .548 xSLG) are a sign that his bat may be on its way back to 2017 form, something the Braves are apparently willing to bet on. Ozuna also provides value with his glove, trailng only Michael Brantley among left fielders in Defensive Runs Saved, and posting a league-best 8.6 UZR/150.

The only remaining potential hole the Braves have is at third base, and that’s if you discount both what Johan Camargo did in 2018, and Austin Riley’s work with Chipper Jones, among other names, in the offseason. If Atlanta does decide to upgrade the hot corner, there’s a vast market filled with talented, affordable bats, and Alex Anthopoulos is one of the more creative general managers in baseball. As Spring Training inches near, deals of all sorts will start to fall into place, and there’s still a good chance the Braves will be involved.