The Atlanta Braves dominated their weak division in 2013 en route to a 96-win season and home field in the first round of the playoffs. The Braves were beaten twice by Clayton Kershaw in the National League Division Series and their season ended on the West Coast at Dodger Stadium. The Braves were the National League’s top team against opponents with a .500 or better record and held the league’s top mark at home with a 56-25 record.
The Braves enter 2014 on a rather impressive run, winning 89 or more games every year since 2009. In fact, since 1991, the Braves have finished a season below .500 only twice. A lot has changed over that time as the team had three Hall of Famers in its rotation during the 1990s with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz and is now led by a trio of talented outfielders and one of the game’s most dominant closers.
The Braves won 96 games in 2013 by using their organizational pitching depth and staying remarkably healthy in the everyday lineup. Eight players had 400 or more plate appearances and nine different pitchers made starts. The Braves led the National League in runs allowed per game, giving up just 3.4 runs per game. They dominated at home, dominated in their division, and pulled away to win the NL East by 10 games over Washington.
This season, the Braves enter the year with tempered expectations according to the oddsmakers at the Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV. The win total for the Braves is set at 86.5, a total they have surpassed in each of the last four seasons. The Superbook at Las Vegas Hotel and Casino set the Braves win total at 87.5.
Key additions: Gavin Floyd, Ryan Doumit
Key losses: Paul Maholm, Tim Hudson, Brian McCann, Scott Downs, Eric O’Flaherty, Luis Ayala
It’s easy to see why the oddsmakers are down a bit on the Braves. The team hasn’t gotten any better this winter, but lost six key contributors in varying roles. Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson combined to make 47 starts covering 284.1 innings of work. While Maholm graded out as a below average starter, Hudson was solid, accumulating 1.7 WAR in his 21 starts.
Brian McCann moved on to richer pastures, signing a free agent deal with the New York Yankees. McCann, who spent his entire career with the Braves, leaves as one of the franchise’s most productive catchers with a .277/.350/.473 slash line and 29.4 WAR over nine seasons.
Scott Downs, a trade deadline pickup, had some command issues in his 14 regular season innings with the Braves, but has held left-handed hitters to a .213/.280/.300 slash line. Eric O’Flaherty, another matchup southpaw, only made 18 appearances for the Braves last season, but was an integral part of their bullpen prior to last season.
Gavin Floyd will be called on to try and ease some of the loss of the departed veteran starters, but he’s hardly reliable. Floyd made just five starts last season for the White Sox.
The Braves made a fairly savvy, under-the-radar move by acquiring Ryan Doumit from the Minnesota Twins in December. Doumit has some versatility, playing catcher, first base, and each of the corner outfield positions in his career. Doumit is a switch hitter, giving him a bit more value, and he’ll give the Braves a decent bat in a pinch hit role.
Why bet the over?
The Braves ranked seventh in pitcher WAR last season and ninth in position player WAR. McCann accounted for 2.7 WAR, but Evan Gattis, the Braves’ new starting catcher, showed tremendous power in his 382 plate appearances. Gattis hit 21 home runs and ranked 12th in ISO among players with at least 350 plate appearances.
Justin Upton was the impact player that the Braves expected he would be when they acquired him from the Arizona Diamondbacks prior to the 2013 for the versatile Martin Prado and intriguing prospect pitcher Randall Delgado. Upton hit 27 home runs and posted a .352 OBP. Some people will make mention of the fact that Upton hit 12 of his 27 home runs in April last season. He hit just 15 home runs over his final 531 plate appearances. However, Upton was a better offensive player in the second half, posting a .361 wOBA, seven points better than the .354 he posted in the first half. Outfield mate Jason Heyward dealt with injuries, but still slugged .427 and accounted for 3.4 WAR.
The biggest surprise of the Braves’ season was 24-year-old Curacao native Andrelton Simmons. Simmons showed stunning power, belting 17 home runs after hitting just six over 237 games in the minors. That’s no small feat in the National League East, a division with more pitcher-friendly parks. Simmons was a defensive wizard, posting a WAR of 4.7, due largely to his defensive prowess. Simmons was the second-most valuable fielder according to Fangraphs and the most valuable shortstop by a very wide margin over Kansas City’s Alcides Escobar. By defensive runs saved (DRS), Simmons was 29 runs better than the next best shortstop.
Freddie Freeman now has financial security to go along with his big bat. Freeman had an enormous season at the plate for the Braves, posting a .319/.391/.501 slash line with a .387 weighted on-base average (wOBA). By weighted runs created plus (wRC+), Freeman was 50 percent better than the average Major Leaguer at the plate. Freeman, who will turn 25 in September, is entering the prime of his career, so production like this should continue.
The Braves’ rotation is an interesting group of guys with great control that is tailored perfectly to their home ballpark. Braves starters posted a 2.70 ERA at home and held opposing batters to a .278 wOBA, the second-best mark in baseball, trailing only the Pirates, who play in an extreme pitcher’s park. Turner Field is slightly more neutral, but the park is one of the deepest down the lines the fences at 335 feet down the left field line and 330 feet down the right field line. With a rotation that doesn’t walk guys and a field where a lot of balls in play become outs, the solid, but unspectacular group was able to thrive.
Kris Medlen was unable to repeat 2012’s dominance, but he was a well above average starter for the Braves in 2013. Medlen worked deep into games and there are encouraging signs that his strikeout total may go up this season, with the ninth-highest swinging strike percentage in the league last season. More swings and misses will help Medlen out and could elevate him even more.
Mike Minor was the shining star of the Braves pitching staff in 2013. Minor boasted a phenomenal 3.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio and improved in nearly every important pitching statistic. With a small difference between his ERA and FIP, it’s reasonable to believe Minor should be as good or better this season. With Minor and Medlen, the Braves have a very underrated one-two punch atop their rotation.
The “X” Factor for the Braves is the development of Julio Teheran. Teheran, just 23, was terrific in his first full season in the big leagues. Prior to the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Teheran was Baseball America’s fifth-best prospect. A very shaky 2012 in Triple-A forced scouts into re-evaluating Teheran, which they did, dropping the wiry righty to #44 on the list. Teheran was one of three Braves to make 30 or more starts and he accounted for 2.4 WAR in his 185.2 innings of work. Teheran boasted an above average swing and miss rate and a 3.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Perhaps most impressive, Teheran was third among qualified pitchers in swing and miss percentage on pitches in the strike zone.
The front of the rotation has tremendous upside, with three guys that could exceed three WAR each if they stay healthy. The picture isn’t as clear in the back of the rotation, but the Braves do have intriguing options because of their starting pitching depth. Alex Wood was extremely impressive for a 22-year-old in his 11 starts with a 3.54 ERA and a 3.05 FIP. David Hale has shown promise in his minor league career and had a two-start stint with the Braves last season. Crafty veteran Freddy Garcia will be in the mix as well. If healthy, Gavin Floyd will be another option.
The bullpen is anchored by one of the game’s best in Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel, who just signed a four-year, $42M contract extension, is a dominant closer and having an elite closer helps put the rest of the bullpen in order. David Carpenter came from relative obscurity to post a 1.78 ERA in 56 appearances. Failed Angels closer Jordan Walden found a new lease on life in his setup role with the Braves as he struck out 28 percent of opposing hitters. Luis Avilan posted a 1.52 ERA in 75 appearances. With the exceptions of Downs and O’Flaherty, who weren’t big parts of the team for most of the season, the Braves bullpen remains in tact.
The Braves have had some losses that oddsmakers could be overreacting to. With competent replacements in place, the Braves may not lead the National League in name recognition, but there is plenty of talent on this ballclub and a rotation that has the potential to be one of the five best in baseball.
Why bet the under?
There’s no question that the Braves enter the 2014 season with a lot of unknowns, the biggest of which being the starting rotation. The Braves lived on the long ball offensively, leading the National League with 181 home runs. The Cubs were the next closest NL team with 172. No other NL team hit more than 161 home runs. Can they repeat that sort of power performance this season?
While the offensive loss of McCann may be mitigated somewhat by Gattis’s power, McCann’s a much better defensive catcher than Gattis. McCann regularly finishes in the top five among catchers in terms of pitch framing and getting additional strikes for his pitchers. With a Braves rotation dependent on control and getting those strike calls, one has to wonder how much of an effect a shift to Gattis will have on the pitching staff.
Chris Johnson was light years better offensively than anyone could have imagined. He batted .321/.358/.457 in his first full season with the Braves, but that appears unlikely to continue in 2014. Johnson’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .394, an unsustainable mark for any player, let alone one who doesn’t have the speed to beat out bunts or ground balls. This is now a two-year trend for Johnson, whose BABIP in 2012 was .354. BABIP, which tends to range from .290-.310 on average, usually regresses to a manageable number, and that’s a problem that Johnson should face this season. For an offense that already graded as average last season, any drop-off will be hurtful.
In the rotation, there are questions of both health and performance. The biggest one is wondering if Kris Medlen, who had Tommy John surgery in 2010 and spent much of 2011 rehabbing. For Medlen, there are concerns on whether or not he can manage the strain of back-to-back high workload seasons. Medlen’s 197 innings were 46 more than his previous career high for a season. His 31 starts more than doubled the number of Major League starts he had under his belt at the beginning of the season.
Is Julio Teheran going to be able to repeat his 2013 performance? The Braves certainly think so, as they awarded him a six-year, $32M contract extension on Friday. While the financial security gives Teheran some peace of mind, we’ve seen countless examples of players struggling in their first season after signing a big contract as a result of putting additional pressure on themselves to live up to their salaries.
Unknown commodities like Alex Wood and David Hale showed promise last season, but young pitchers are always a question mark, especially ones that had the benefit of pitching against hitters that had very little experience facing them. The difficulty for young pitchers comes when they have to face a team for the second or third time, after that team has had the ability to watch video and make adjustments.
Some of Atlanta’s bullpen guys are due for regression. Alex Avilan, who had a sparkling 5-0 record and a 1.52 ERA, posted a poor 1.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a number that doesn’t look good for a matchup lefty reliever. David Carpenter stranded over 90 percent of his runners, a number that a miniscule number of pitchers can repeat in back-to-back seasons, let alone sustain over a long period of time. His high strikeout number will keep him above average, but 90 percent is beyond a lofty expectation.
The losses of Downs, O’Flaherty, and Luis Ayala hurt the overall depth of the Braves bullpen. Having a proven, elite closer like Kimbrel helps guys fall into roles, but the Braves will be extremely reliant on a few guys in high leverage spots and the depth really falls off after those guys.
Play: Over 86.5
Personally, I’m a believer in the Braves rotation. An injury to Medlen could severely impact this bet, as the depth of starting pitchers is full of adequate bodies, but nobody is really capable of replacing Medlen’s production. An in-depth study of Teheran’s stuff and performance would indicate that he should be for real and may be even better this season. Alex Wood is a very exciting pitcher who has a great chance to outperform both Hudson and Maholm.
This is an offense that shouldn’t miss a beat without McCann and didn’t seem to get the appreciation it deserves because the Braves’ run prevention was so good. If you take the pitchers out of the equation, this was a top-10 offense last season, posting a wRC+ of 107. This team should be above average again defensively. The bullpen has hard throwers and the Braves just seem to have a knack for developing pitchers from within.
The Braves will need to stay pretty healthy, but this is a good group in a favorable division with guys who know how to win games. It’s possible that you may get a better number on the Braves if you wait a little bit, since the perception of the Braves is certainly down with some of their losses, but this team could definitely fly under the radar and challenge the Washington Nationals for the NL East crown.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.