With the 2014 Atlanta Braves season set to kick off tomorrow, I thought I would have some fun with some pre-season predictions on certain performance thresholds.
Julio Teheran Wins: 14.5
As the de facto #1 starter and ace of the staff now, Teheran will have every opportunity to showcase the talent that brought him to the big leagues with high expectations. Barring injury, he should see about 33 starts. After struggling in his first 3 starts of the year, Teheran settled in and finished with a very good 14-8, 2.81 ERA campaign (3.88 FIP). There is no reason to believe that he can’t post similar, or better, numbers while becoming more acquainted with MLB hitters and entering his prime. He has the stuff to be a front of the rotation pitcher, he’s aggressive when he needs to be, and he’s still learning.
I’ll take the over, with a prediction of 17-10, 3.46 ERA.
Freddie Freeman Batting Average: .3105
Fresh off a very lucrative extension driven by a ~5 WAR season, Freddie Freeman is poised to become one of the best young first basemen in the game. He hits in a favorable spot in a lineup that can score runs in bunches, he has a good combination of power and line drive ability, and he has shown to be fairly consistent in his batted ball and plate discipline numbers. Freeman has garnered a reputation among Braves’ fans as a “clutch” hitter, and his batting average with RISP last year surely helped contribute to that. He hit .319 last year overall, and .443 w/ RISP. But, in a great example of why batting average is a stat that shouldn’t be trusted, we see that in 2012 Freeman hit .259 overall, and only .219 w/RISP……despite having virtually identical batted ball numbers in each year. His Line Drive rates were nearly the same (26.0% v 26.7%), his Ground Ball rates were functionally the same (38.0% v 37.1%), his HR/FB rate was practically the same (15.0% v 14.8%), and his K rates (10.3% v 10.5%) and BB rates (20.8% v 19.2%) were close. The difference in 2013 was his very likely unsustainable .371 BABIP….some of those line drives and dribblers and cans of corn that were fielded in 2012 managed to find holes in 2013. Can that be repeated?
This time, I’ll take the under…say, .276 for the season.
Freddie Freeman RBI: 105.5
RBI totals are very much a function of the other players in the lineup as much as they are the individual batter. A great hitter can’t get any RBI if there isn’t anyone on base, and that was the problem through the first 1/3rd of the year in 2013, as Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, and BJ Upton struggled at the top of the lineup. However, Freeman took advantage of every RBI opportunity, driven largely by that previously mentioned .371 BABIP (which was actually an even more unsustainable, and, frankly, unbelievable, .505 BABIP w/RISP). BJ Upton looks to be penciled in to the #2 spot in the order, and Jason Heyward flashed the potential we all have been waiting on once he was moved to the leadoff spot late last year (you’re welcome Braves fans….my stalking of Dave O’Brien and Fredi Gonzalez to make that move is well-known and documented, and DOB has acknowledged as much), and Chris Johnson seems to be the (at least initial) cleanup hitter protecting Freeman. With BJ Showing signs of life this spring, this lineup could be nasty, and Freeman could see even more RBI opportunities than he did last year. Still, even with more opportunities, there is just no possible way Freeman can repeat a.505 BABIP w/ RISP.
I’ll take the under, but not by much….we’ll call it 103 RBI for the year.
Craig Kimbrel Saves: 45.5
I love having Craig Kimbrel on the team. Based on his work so far, he’s clearly one of the best pitchers in baseball, and arguably the best individual pitcher to come along in a generation. So it kills me to see him used in useless situations, like recording the last three outs of a 5-2 game against the Marlins’ 7-8-9 hitters. There is just no reason to save him for that spot, except to get a ‘Save’. Saves have killed strategic thinking in baseball managers. Managers feel like they have to save their best pitcher to get three largely useless outs to win a game, when the reality is that, more often than not, a game is won on matchups and situations in the 5th, 6th, or 7th innings. In a 3-2 game in the 6th, with a struggling starter and bases loaded, why do you go to your ‘1st’ setup guy? Why not go to the best guy in the history of the game at striking out batters and preventing runs? The game is saved then, not two innings later. And the idea that ‘it takes a special pitcher with a special mindset to be a closer and finish games’? Hogwash. Since 2000, there have been 96 different pitchers who have saved 30 games in a season, including such closers as Bob Wickman, Dan Kolb, David Weathers, and Chris Ray, among other highly sought after, notable, stalwart, game saving pitchers.
I think a more potent offense this season, combined with some questionable early season pitching due to injuries, yields fewer save opportunities as there will be fewer close games.
I’ll take the under, but barely….42 saves.
Jason Heyward Home Runs: 20.5
I think this is the year that Jason Heyward puts it all together. There has been some talk of him being inconsistent, or injury prone, or even being a ‘bust’. But let’s be realistic….since Heyward entered the NL in 2010, no other RF has been better overall than he has. And only two in MLB have been better over that time. Has he been an ‘inconsistent bust’, or have fans had unrealistic expectations? He’s only 24, and he’s already had a 6 WAR season, and appendectomy, and a broken face. When he is on, there is no player on the Braves’ team that makes as much of a difference as he does. His defense in RF is overlooked, and we saw how good he was when he was in CF. He could be every bit as good in the OF as Simmons is at SS. And, he can hit. His sophomore season was lost largely due to a change in approach that was forced on him by Bobby Cox. Once he went back to his own way of doing things, Heyward lit it up in 2012 with a 6.4 WAR season. He is, in my opinion, the Braves’ most likely candidate to be an NL MVP, and I think he goes off this year.
Over. All Day. I’m thinking 28 HR.
Justin Upton Home Runs: 25.5
Justin Upton hit 27 home runs in 2013, with 20 of them coming in the first and last month of the season. The middle 3 months were largely a black hole for Justin. Logic says that he isn’t going to repeat a 12 homer April; it also dictates that he isn’t likely to take a mid-season vacation again, either. Looking at Justin’s history reveals that he seems to have alternating good years and bad years in regards to home runs. His last 6 seasons: 15, 26, 17, 31, 17, 27…..there seems to be a pattern, even if it can’t be explained. It seems his LD rate is slightly increasing and his FB rate is slightly decreasing, indicating a possibly more leveled off swing.
I’ll take the under….19 HR (but I think he may still have a productive year).
Dan Uggla Batting Average: .2195
I used to think that MLB players didn’t just forget how to hit. Dan Uggla was never a high batting average guy, anyway….but the last 3 years have been pretty dreadful. Sadly, he’s been the best of the available options for Atlanta, and his potential power and ability to draw a walk still add value, despite his horrible average. Maybe his eyes are bad. Maybe the forearms and wrists just can’t get through the zone as fast. Since he has come to Atlanta, his Infield Fly Ball rate has doubled (or more), indicating that he may have gone to a more uppercut style swing in an effort to hit Home Runs. Regardless, I got nothing on this.
I’ll take the over…call it .238.
BJ Upton Batting Average: .2395
In 2013, BJ Upton had one of the worst seasons ever in MLB by a regular player. His season was so bad, Jeff Francouer laughed at him. I won’t try to figure out what went wrong, other than to point out that he hit significantly more ground balls, and an amazing 19% of his batted balls were infield flys. That would seem to indicate he just wasn’t seeing the ball.
Over, at .248.
Atlanta Braves Victories: 86.5
Last year’s team over-achieved in spite of a slew of injuries. This year’s team is starting with 60% of the projected starting rotation on the DL. I think Harang and Floyd will turn out to be key additions that can provide some veteran pitching leadership and innings, Heyward will break out, Freeman will be just as consistent as ever, and Uggla and BJ will contribute more than they did last year. I think many are expecting the Nationals to win, but the last time they won the division, it required career years from multiple players…I just don’t see that happening again.
Take the over….92 Wins.