Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Setting the tone for winter

What a bizarre post-apocalyptic landscape the Atlanta sports scene has become a little more than 24 hours after the season's final loss.  As if things couldn't get any weirder, Mike Axisa dropped this little nugget yesterday around lunch:

"Evidently, Braves players were not happy Jones had gone on the radio earlier in the day with the team's flagship station, 680 The Fan, and predicted the Dodgers would win the NLDS in four games. So no player volunteered to catch the pitch."

If you believe the national media, the ethos of the Braves runs parallel with that of Ebenezer Scrooge, and they've got plenty of "evidence" to retroactively apply the narrative to, citing the Jose Fernandez and Carlos Gomez incidents as prime examples of Atlanta's proclivity to suck the fun out of the game.  That's a very reactionary stance but completely unsurprising given the source.  However, it's good that the media is bringing attention to the situation, even if their intent was misguided, as it deserves to be analyzed from all sides.  Let's start with the team.

This team demonstrated an acute ability to overcome adversity since before the start of the season, but that's very different than exceeding expectations, something they did not do.  As the injuries piled up toward the end of the year, there had to be a sense of disbelief on the part of the players with regard to their misfortune.  Couple that with the general nature of a team environment, not to mention the plethora of pundits that doubted the Braves ability to withstand the onslaught, and you've got a recipe for an "us against the world" mentality.  The Fernandez and Gomez incidents, as well as the crazy mid-September series with the Nats, likely solidified those feelings further, and perhaps losing the race for the best record on the season's final day added a toxic, cynical element to it.  We'll likely never know for sure.

So for Chipper Jones, the face of the franchise for two decades, a guy that is known and (I assume) respected by most within the clubhouse, to come out and pick against them on the city's most listened-to sports radio station had to feel like dissension in the ranks.  To not get the vote of confidence from a high-profile figure in a very visible situation is probably extremely annoying and frustrating.  To ostracize that person is symptomatic of the aforementioned mentality ruling the day.

Now, Chipper's perspective is much simpler to understand, but it should be prefaced with this: if there's anything we've come to find out about Chipper since his retirement, it's that he's not afraid to speak his mind in any medium, be it social media, local sports radio, or elsewhere.  He's a somewhat controversial figure.  Instead of drinking the Kool-Aid, he weighed variables many Braves followers were either ignorant of or weren't willing to consider.  Oh, and it turns out he was exactly right.  

As polarizing as Chipper can be, I find it hard to believe that he would go on 680 The Fan with the intention of alienating himself from the very team that he helped build.  He calls it like he sees it, and like many others, he saw a Dodger team radically different from the one the Braves handled with ease back in the summer.  Had he been wrong, the narrative would be "Braves win in spite of Chipper's prediction; Won't let him share in their reindeer games" or something like that.  

So, what do we know?  We know that each side is justified in their initial feeling - the Braves and their isolationist mentality, Chipper and his objectivity - and we know that each side is suffering from a bruised ego, likely adding fuel to the fire.  But both sides are also foolishly wrong.  

The team has no business shunning Chipper.  Even if they don't like him taking to the radio to pronounce his skepticism, you don't rob him of the privilege of throwing out the first pitch of the playoffs at Turner Field.  Why?  Because he built that stadium the same way Babe Ruth built Yankee Stadium.  That in and of itself is worthy of respect.  To take that away from him is not only disrespectful toward Chipper, but also the franchise and to the game itself.  He has earned the right to say what he wants with regards to this team.  Whether or not what he says is worth listening to is another story, but that doesn't change the fact that he has put in the necessary work to be able to take that stage.  

Why Chipper felt compelled to go on 680 and pick LA to win in four is something I will never understand.  Sure, he was right.  His unflinching honesty is refreshing in an era dominated by non-answers and coach-speak.  But how important is to be right in this situation?  Who benefits from this (correct) prediction?  No one does.  Chipper could not have anticipated this backlash; none of us could have.  It's a rather immature reaction on behalf of an entire team of grown men.  But why was he there in the first place?  Was he trying to light a fire under their asses to help motivate them?  Regardless of intent, outcomes are what they are, and while it's clear that the team is being silly in the way it reacted to this, it's worth wondering why the hell Chipper felt compelled to say any of it to begin with.  Being right in this situation doesn't come with any accolades; he's not Nate freaking Silver during the 2012 election.  A modicum of tact is called for when you're in the position Chipper is in.  It's the Heisenberg principle - the observer is part of the system.

The very public airing of dirty laundry (or as I like to call it, "club business") is not something Atlanta fans are accustomed to.  In my 22 years following this team, I struggle to recall a situation similar to this - the David Justice fiasco back in '95 is the only thing that comes immediately to mind.  Spats such as this are part of the game - hell, they're part of life - but keeping them behind closed doors is of utmost importance.  If no one is willing to catch a pitch from Chipper, Fredi needs to grab a glove and spare him the humiliation.  And the last place Chipper needs to vent is to the idiots on Twitter who, when left to their own devices, will help to foster an environment in which this turns into a much bigger deal than it needs to be. 

There are a few different takeaways from this situation I'd like to highlight.  First, as is so often the case, the degrees of right and wrong for each side are difficult to measure from an outsider's perspective, and while that ambivalence may be perplexing to some, the truth is that both sides are more wrong than they are right.  Second, someone in this organization needs to put a stop to this, whether it's Gonzalez, Wren, Schuerholz, Cox, McGuirk; someone, anyone.  The longer this festers, the worse it will get.  Finally, there's a good chance that this very public and entirely superfluous ordeal is symptomatic of a larger issue within the clubhouse environment.  Without access to the team it's hard to even speculate as to what the issue may be, but something is there.  Teams don't cut off their nose to spite their face on a whim.  Conveniently, we've got all winter to diagnose it. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Marginal Efficiency

The concept of marginal efficiency is fascinating as it relates to baseball.  In the context of the regular season, it is largely ignored by practically all fans, and likely a substantial amount of men working in the game as managers, players, etc.  Making decisions at the margin is often fraught with weighing myriad repercussions as a manager ponders the best way to leverage the talent at his disposal.  Over the course of 162 games, the impact of these individual decisions can carry on largely unnoticed, and the positive/negative effects therein are also easy to overlook. 

Until they're not.  The playoffs essentially act as a magnifying glass, exposing the good and bad with unrelenting and indiscriminate zealousness.  Due to the fleeting nature of the games, the marginal dynamic goes from being of little significance to, literally, life and death.  Knowing how to make that adjustment is paramount to a manager's ability to do his job. 

You can talk to me about losing Venters and O'Flaherty.  You can talk about losing Huddy and Beachy, Maholm falling apart, BJ and Dan Uggla playing their way out of starting jobs, and the rash of injuries that have plagued this team all season long.  The list goes on, and each point is valid, helping to paint the picture of a team that, quite frankly, had no business winning 96 games to begin with.  This team made the playoffs in spite of all of that. 

A manager leverages talent in order to maximize their potential for a positive impact in any given situation.  This concept transcends baseball.  Last night, Fredi managed the 8th inning as if it were any other game.  He either wasn't aware of the stakes, chose to ignore them, or genuinely thought that his chosen course was the best option.  All of those scenarios are wholly unacceptable and entirely unbecoming of a manager of the Atlanta Braves. 

There is a lot to like about this franchise.  There is an abundance of young talent, the front office has proved to be very savvy when it comes to developing and dealing with/for said talent, and the fan base is as loyal and passionate as any in baseball, despite being skewered by the national media for the better part of two decades.  But you're only as strong as your weakest link, and with three seasons of data with which to judge, the returns are trending toward that weakest link being Fredi Gonzalez's instincts.  No, he can't help the injuries, nor can he make BJ and Uggla back into what they were.  He can only control what he controls directly: the marginal efficiency of the team itself.  Unfortunately, it is in that position that a manager of his caliber is most dangerous.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Take a second to catch your breath

The Braves find themselves in a good position after the first two games of the NLDS.  The series now moves to LA for two games, Sunday night at 8:07, and Monday night at 9:37.  That's right - I said 9:37 PM, on a work/school night.  But then I remembered that tomorrow's showdown between the NFL's Chargers and Raiders doesn't start until 11-freaking-30.  This must be what it's like to be an American sports fan living in western Europe.  I shudder to think.

From the perspective of the Braves, the biggest variable they had to account for going into this series was Kershaw, and he showed why in game one.  That guy is unbelievable, and he wasn't even on his A-game.  You will be hard-pressed to find anyone that really thought the Braves were going to touch him up for a few runs, but the degree of sloppiness from the Atlanta defense was equally unfathomable, particularly from Elliot Johnson. 

Gattis also had a less-than-stellar showing, but the bar isn't set as high for him defensively.  Him making a play on a hard-sinking liner with some tail is about as likely as me winning an award for most hair.  With that said, his baserunning mistake, while it may not have made much of a difference anyway, was rather egregious.  You can't put yourself in that situation with Puig's arm in RF.  That's a fundamental mistake on his part.

Ultimately, defensive issues or not, game one against Kershaw is a tough way to start the series.  Without an equally impressive performance by the opposing starter (which didn't happen) and no fielding miscues (also didn't happen), beating him is a tall order. 

It's worth noting, too, that teams who faced Kershaw twice within a span of a couple weeks always fared better the second time around, which is consistent with what you'd expect from any pitcher.  As daunting a prospect as it may seem to face him twice in a five-game series, it could work out in Atlanta's favor. 


Winning last night's game was absolutely essential if the Braves are to advance, and win they did.  They won in a fashion that is not foreign to this team - flashy defense, good starting pitching, timely hitting from the BABIP King Chris Johnson - so that's a reason to feel encouraged.  Plus, they beat the Dodgers' No. 1A pitcher in Greinke, and even rattled the cage of LA's second-best reliever, Paco Rodriguez.

I wasn't really crazy about seeing McCann come out of the game with a few innings left to play, but I also understand that one run in that situation means the world.  But why would you ask Simmons to lay down a bunt to move the runners over for Elliot Johnson?  That's asking a lot of a guy that is a defense-first type of player.  Had LA not inexplicably walked Constanza and allowed Heyward to do his thing, that move probably gets magnified and dissected by pundits and prognosticators ad nauseum.


BJ Upton needs to start game three in CF.  Gattis is not a good fielder - it's ok, he has never portended himself to be - and there's no reason to set him up to fail on a big stage in a hostile stadium whose outfield he has never patrolled.  Plus, he hasn't exactly been raking lately, nor is he an OBP machine.  He really shouldn't be starting any of these games in the OF, but if it has to happen, it can't happen outside of Turner Field.

See you on Tuesday.  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ughla and the Dahjas

The Braves released their NLDS roster today, and without getting into too much detail (the full list can be found here), they made some interesting moves at the margins.  Chiefly, the lack of Dan Uggla and Paul Maholm (more on them later), but also the exclusion of Joey Terdoslavich and Scott Downs, not to mention David Hale getting a spot.

Looking at this roster, one thing becomes immediately clear to anyone that has been paying attention this season: defense.  Not just defense, but DEFENSE.  If the Falcons continue to bomb, we may see the D + picket fence combo in the Turner Field stands.  And why not?  The dynamic in the playoffs is entirely at odds with the dynamic of the season.  Ask Brooks Conrad how big a defensive miscalculation can turn out to be. 

That's why Uggla isn't here.  We all know what he has done with the bat, but he hasn't done much lately.  If his glove were even league-average, he'd almost certainly be a sure thing for a spot.  Instead, Janson (Janish/Johnson, pronounced YAHN-son) gets the spot, and during a series in which defense could play a huge role, there's really no valid argument against that.  These games are too important.  On a side note, one has to wonder what this means for Uggla's career as a Brave.  He's a three-time All-Star that wants to play, so this is a really tough situation for him.  The dynamic between him and the front office has probably seen better days.  That's a situation that will command more attention down the road.

Also, with regard to Maholm: he has almost certainly thrown his last pitch as a Brave, barring being added to the NLCS roster, if the Braves make it that far.  He turned out to be a very shrewd addition by Frank Wren, and I wish him well in his journey. 


Now, onto LA.  I have not made it a secret that I do not like this match up.  At the same time, the caveats are what they are.  Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu may as well be Koufax, Sutton, and Walter friggin' Johnson.  If the Braves are going to hit it doesn't really matter who is pitching.  Their volatility will make or break them.  I'd cite some regular season stats to back this up, but this is playoff time.  You can't take a huge data set like that and expect to make it fit within a five-game series; it is entirely disproportionate.  Random outcomes within that small of a sample size simply can't be accounted for in a predictive, meaningful way.

That's the magic of playoff baseball.  Anything can happen.  It's somewhat daunting to "let go" of stats, of reason, of logic, of the metrics that can be used to assess and investigate the game.  At the same time, it's also liberating.  It extracts the cold, unfeeling data and analysis and replaces it with the whimsical, carefree enjoyment of fall baseball.  It is very gratifying to apply statistical methodology to this game, and doing so is essential to gaining a deeper, more enriched knowledge and appreciation of the game itself and the men who make their living playing it.  But to do so without balancing it with the occasional suspension of concern for those very principles it to do one's self, and the essence of the game, a grave injustice.

Braves take it in five.  Heyward or Medlen is the MVP. 

See you on the other side. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Retroactive turning points

 "Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."

 -Lincoln, Twain, Keynes, Confucius, etc.

Diversified interests are important.  Don't get me wrong, there are undeniable benefits to narrowing one's focus for appropriate lengths of time, but the returns are diminishing, especially if the object of interest is something that is, ultimately, superfluous.  Baseball is a game, nothing more, nothing less.  To be sure, it is a game that I love, but in terms of importance, it ranks well behind my education, and lags infinitely behind social obligations, up to and including being a husband.  And don't even get me started on Breaking Bad.  So there's my excuse for having not written in a month.

Listening to a local sports radio station the other day in the car, I heard one of the personalities wax poetic about how the Gomez/McCann incident could prove to be the spark this team needs to go deep into the playoffs; a turning point, if you will.  Maybe, maybe not.  The fun thing about subjective analysis is that you can mold it to fit whatever argument suits you at the time.  Oh, the Braves rolled off 15-straight wins after the Gomez incident?  Boy, that guy must've gotten them fired up.  Aw, the Braves got swept in the first round and the players decided to go join the circus?  Geez, that Gomez fella really got into their heads, huh?  Subjective questions disguised as hard and fast analysis are the equivalent of Upward leagues: everybody wins, everybody gets to feel good, like their opinion matters.  Gross.  Thankfully, most of the time, random distributions come along and rob those feelings of any validity and render them entirely inept.  Reality is on the phone, and it told me to tell you that you're an idiot.  Boom, roasted.

Look, September hasn't been a great month for this team.  The freakin' injuries, man.  The cruel, unfeeling reality of random outcome distribution cares nothing for our concerns.  The race for the best record coming down to the final weekend of the season has huge implications for this team's playoff outlook.  If they can hold, they'll get the winner of the WC playoff.  If they don't, they get the Dodgers.  This is where ambivalence rears its' ugly head.

Part of me believes that this team would be in a much better position playing anyone but the Dodgers.  My rationale for feeling that way can be summed up in three words: Kershaw, Greinke, Ryu.  Those guys can shut down an offense, especially one as inconsistent as Atlanta's.  Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, while they are both quality teams, are probably a notch below the talent level of LA, so naturally, facing them is the outcome all rational Braves fans should be hoping for.

On the other hand, if there is one thing we should all know by now, it's that the playoffs exist in a type of vacuum.  That is to say, what happened during the season, statistically speaking, is largely irrelevant in terms of predictive power as it relates to postseason outcomes.   To put it as simple as possible: anything can happen.  It's a roll of the dice.  Just ask the Giants.

The identity of this team has been static throughout the season.  When it's clicking, they're at least as good as Detroit, Boston, and St. Louis.  Mediocre teams don't string together two double-digit win-streaks in the same season.  When it's not,'s not.  And we've seen just how futile things can be for this club when the offense isn't producing.

I've said it all season: this team is built to win the World Series.  The ability is there.  The desire is certainly there.  Will they do it?  Who can say?  Even if they don't, it would be hard to argue that the 2013 Braves haven't improved the lot of the franchise, and in the long run, isn't that what we should really be striving towards?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Marlins series...ugh, who cares?

Look, I know you're sick of reading about the Marlins, and quite frankly, I'm sick of writing about them.  They have sucked this year, but they've got a nice foundation of talent to build around for the future.  They're not a team of any consequence as it relates to the playoffs, so that's as far as I'm going to go with that.  

Atlanta isn't a city that is known for diehard fans, particularly when it comes to baseball.  The announced attendance at last night's game was ~22K, but given the authority afforded to me by virtue of my attendance, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that's not even close.  Try 15K.  The traffic heading into the stadium was thin, the pedestrian traffic even more so.  The Nalley lot was half-empty, as was the Green lot.  It was one of the quietest crowds I've witnessed first-hand.  When Brian McCann hit his homer, the crowd didn't even start cheering until the ball cleared the fence.  The guy sitting behind me, a native Clevelander who seemed to think that Medlen only throws fastballs and changeups, remarked about the dull crowd: "This is a first place team!" he said, "Where is everyone?"  His buddy promptly informed him that the Falcons were playing a meaningless preseason game less than five miles away, not to mention live SEC football on TV, and that explanation is as fitting as any I suppose.  It's almost September.  The division is decided.  While this is the best team in baseball, they're on cruise control for the next month, and I can't say I blame my fellow Georgites from wanting to indulge in some football, be it pro or college, if for no other reason than to break up the monotony.

With 29 games remaining, the Braves have a better-than-average chance of reaching the 100-win mark for the first time since the 2003 Braves went 101-59.  They'll need to go 19-10 to make that happen, and when you look at the remaining schedule, there's no reason to think they can't pull that off.  Winning 100 games will almost certainly distinguish them as the team with the best record in the NL, barring a late surge by LA and StL, though realistically, 96 wins should clinch it.  Given the what the situation looked like entering this season, that's an impressive accomplishment by Frank Wren and Fredi Gonzalez.

So while the remaining games won't exactly have a playoff feel to them, there's still plenty of reasons to watch or be in attendance.  Tonight's pitcher for Miami, Jose Fernandez, is as good a reason as any.  So far the Braves have missed him in each series they've played against the Fish, but their number finally comes up tonight.

Fernandez's performance in 2013 has been a silver lining in an otherwise disastrous season for Miami, and he stands out amongst a particularly strong rookie class that includes the likes of Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller, and the Braves' own Julio Teheran.  He is 2nd only to Harvey in FIP amongst rookie starters at 2.65, and he boasts a tERA and SIERA of 3.40 and 3.22, respectively.  He's not a guy that relies on smoke-and-mirrors to do the dirty work, instead, he boasts excellent command and control of his pitches.  His fastball sits in the mid-90's, and he features a plus curve that serves as his out-pitch.  Here it is in all its' glory:

He can also throw a change and a slider in any count, and it's not often that he misses his spots with these pitches.  He doesn't give up many homers, though part of that is likely attributable to the cavernous expanse of territory known as Marlins Park.

Fernandez flew through the Marlins' minor league system, pitching less than 150 total innings above rookie ball.  He was on the national prospect radar before the season, but the consensus at that time was that the Fish would wait until late this season or even 2014 to call him up.  Doing so would have been in their best interests as it would delay the start of his arbitration clock, not to mention they had nothing to gain from him dominating at the major league level since they had no chance of competing anyway.  Despite all of that circumstance, they called him anyway, and haven't looked back.  It may not be what Andrew Friedman would do, but then again, this is Jeffrey Loria we're talking about.  He doesn't have to make sense.

This guy is an excellent young pitcher, and although the upcoming series probably isn't very compelling for some baseball-weary members of Braves country, if you have to watch one game from it, tonight's game is the one.  This may be the only opportunity we get to see this kid pitch until next season, so make the most of it. 

Series matchups:

Tonight, 7:30 (local broadcast)

Jose Fernandez v. Julio Teheran (watch this game!)

Saturday, 7:10 (local broadcast)

Jacob Turner v. Mike Minor

Sunday, 5:00 (local broadcast)

Nate Eovaldi v. Alex Wood (underrated matchup here!)

(Stats via FanGraphs)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Back into the swing of things

I suppose it's safe to come out now.  After a sudden rash of injuries and less-than stellar offensive showings, the team seems to be, again, rising from the mat before the ref hits five.  Not unlike the bizarrely wet summer Georgites have dealt with, the Braves have been inundated with trips to the DL, doctor's visits, and nagging issues.  Their ability to fight through it all and win the division, the quality of the competition notwithstanding, is impressive; maintaining the best record in the game even more so. 

Tonight, for the last time in the regular season, the Braves will match up against a team that could be considered in the "playoff hunt", although Cleveland is a borderline contender at best.  Tonight's game will mark only the 44th game against a "playoff caliber" team that Atlanta has been involved in all season.  In the 43 games prior, their record is 25-18.  That record comes against PIT, KC, DET, CIN, AZ, LAD, StL, and CLE.  That's almost a .600 winning percentage, rougly consistent with the type of ball the Braves have played all season.  If the total number of games against good teams seems rather low, remember that Washington was supposed to be much better, and if we include them in this picture, the Braves' record jumps to 37-22, a win percentage of .627.

Although the injuries have piled up in a way not often seen, the Braves have had some good fortune this year.  Washington tanking is far and away the biggest contributor to that surplus.  Though the health issues have been abundant, very few of them have been serious.  The unfortunate ones that are serious have been dealt with accordingly without the win/loss record suffering.  That's all well and good for the regular season, but the playoffs are another matter. 

The most important angle with regard to this team right now is the health of Jason Heyward.  He's the key to this team doing more than just winning the division.  Schafer appears to be a viable platoon option in CF with BJ, but there is a rather expansive gap in his game versus Jason's game.  That's no slight to Jordan, a guy that has really stepped up this season, just a fact.  This is still a good team without Heyward, but he's the catalyst that takes it from good to great.