The Atlanta Braves finished below .500 for the first time since 2008 with last year’s 79-83 campaign and they look poised to do that again this season. The Braves have not had consecutive losing seasons since 1989-90, when they posted a combined record of 128-194-1. The roster make-up for this season is significantly different than what the Braves had last season. Many of the faces from last season’s team have been moved as part of John Hart’s purge of the roster after taking over for deposed GM Frank Wren in September.
Fredi Gonzalez managed to keep his job, much to the chagrin of the Braves faithful. The team’s second half collapse could have led to Gonzalez’s dismissal, but Hart evidently felt that Gonzalez was a good man for the job while rebuilding on the fly. After a 52-43 first half, the Braves went just 27-40 the rest of the way and provided absolutely no resistance for the Washington Nationals, who won the NL East by 17 games. The Braves went 7-18 and scored 59 runs in the month of September. Scoring runs was a problem all year for the Braves with just 3.5 per contest.
As a team, the Braves finished 14 percent below league average in a sabermetric stat known as wRC+, or weighted runs created plus. Only the Padres, Reds, Phillies, and Diamondbacks were worse in that category. Only three teams, the Cubs, Astros, and Marlins, struck out more often than the Braves last season. Strikeouts are tolerable if a team hits for power, but the Braves only hit 123 home runs as a team last season and not being able to put the ball in play exacerbated all of their offensive problems.
Perception will not be high on the Braves, who left bettors with a lasting impression based on how poorly they finished the season. Not only that, but John Hart tore down the position player core that was in place with the Braves and the roster looks so much different. Uncertainty in the betting market is often met with a significant amount of caution and oddsmakers were going to be very careful with where they put Atlanta’s win total for this season.
The win total for the Atlanta Braves is the polar opposite of optimistic. Atlantis Sportsbook set the market by opening Atlanta at 73.5. Westgate Superbook and BetOnline both followed with the same number. 5Dimes and Bovada are also at 73.5 as well.
Key additions: Shelby Miller, Jim Johnson, Nick Markakis, Alberto Callaspo, AJ Pierzynski, Jason Grilli, Dian Toscano, Jonny Gomes, Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried, Jace Peterson
Key losses: Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Ervin Santana, Emilio Bonifacio, Jordan Walden, Aaron Harang, Kris Medlen, David Carpenter, David Hale
All of this player movement has been fascinating. The Braves have tried to acquire pieces for the future via trade while adding proven veterans via free agency to contend while rebuilding. More often than not, that strategy is a losing proposition, but the Braves are going to try.
Hart has tried to acquire velocity this winter, which is an interesting development. The Braves were right around league average in terms of average fastball velocity last season, but to see them take chances on big arms like Shelby Miller and Mike Foltynewicz could be signs of how Hart wants to construct the pitching staff. That will be something to watch going forward and could dictate how the Braves make additional moves going forward.
The Jason Heyward trade was predicated on money. Heyward is an impending free agent after the season and it was highly unlikely that the Braves could retain his services in the open market. The same could be said of the Justin Upton deal that didn’t work out as the Braves had hoped. Upton was not the singular piece to put them over the top and they got what they could before losing him to free agency.
The deals that Hart made signal his trust and confidence in Atlanta’s player development staff. Some of the prospects that they acquired, like Rio Ruiz and Max Fried, are long-term projects. Fried just finished his first season at Single-A in the Padres organization. These are deals that cannot be fully evaluated for several years, but the idea of competing with the last drops of production from veterans while trying to build up the farm system is not going to resonate with bettors this season.
Why bet the over?
Perception will be the biggest reason to bet the over. The Braves win total number came out lower than it should have, but this is a team that still has some talent. In trading Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis, three of Atlanta’s top five players in fWAR from last season are no longer on the roster. The two remaining are Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons. Simmons was 29 percent below league average offensively last season. With Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang on different teams, two of Atlanta’s top four pitchers in fWAR are also gone. Extend it further and five of the top eight in fWAR are no longer on the roster.
As a result, oddsmakers have a very pessimistic stance on the Braves. It’s completely understandable in this instance. However, the key to making money betting on sports is to prey on overreaction and it’s fair to say that there’s an overreaction to the Braves based on this number.
At this point, readers and handicappers have to be asking the question, “What’s left?” Well, the Braves do have two very good, young starting pitchers in Julio Teheran and Alex Wood. Teheran is your standard four-pitch mix guy that uses his offspeed stuff more for inducing weak contact than looking for swings and misses. Teheran was among the top 30 in inducing pop ups, which are effectively strikeouts for a pitcher. He averaged over 6.2 innings per start and gave the Braves the length that they needed in most of his outings. He’s a very fine starter.
Wood is a bit more of a wild card because he has some mechanical inconsistencies and a funky delivery, but he can miss bats and comes from a tricky arm slot as a 6’4” lefty. He only uses three pitches, but they were highly effective last season and Wood’s development with the knuckle-curve allowed him to exceed expectations.
The “X-Factor” in the rotation will be Mike Minor. Minor was a quality #2/#3 starter during his 2013 campaign, but a shoulder injury in Spring Training derailed the start of his season and he never seemed to be able to get on track. There are two ways to look at Minor’s 2014 season. His HR rate dropped so much in 2013 that it was the big reason for his success. It returned to 2012 levels in 2014 and Minor posted a 4.77 ERA as a result. Minor went from being worth 3.5 wins above replacement player to being replacement-level. The strikeout and walk rates were constant and his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was the second-highest of his MLB career, so there’s hope for a bounce back season.
It remains to be seen whether Mike Foltynewicz and Shelby Miller are both in the rotation. Miller is likely a lock, given what the Braves gave up and the fact that he started for St. Louis for two seasons and has enough experience. Foltynewicz profiles as a bullpen arm in the back-end, but the Braves have nothing to lose by letting him start. These two guys throw hard and have some sharp breaking stuff. Unfortunately, neither guy has achieved much consistency.
The reason that oddsmakers and bettors are so low on the Braves is because of what they have done to the position player side of things. The starting eight for the Braves looks more like the free agency pool of a video game than a Major League Baseball starting lineup. The silver lining to this is that the Braves now have guys that will put the ball in play and have an idea of how to hit. There’s plenty of veteran experience and there are guys that will mentor Atlanta’s young depth.
Freddie Freeman should have no problem putting together another strong season. The guy just knows how to hit. He’s got subtly good power and a tremendous eye at the plate. Only 10 players walked in a higher percentage of their plate appearances than Freeman. Among that group, Freeman had the third-highest slugging percentage. Nobody in baseball hit more line drives than Freeman last year at 31 percent. The dude is a pure hitter with one of the game’s best swings. That leads to consistent production.
The Braves had too many swings and misses last season and that’s why guys like Nick Markakis, AJ Pierzynski, and Alberto Callaspo were brought in. The thought process is that more contact will lead to more offense. These are veteran hitters that will also help the organization in Spring Training. They understand what is going on here and that should keep a better culture in the clubhouse.
The last area to address is the bullpen. Craig Kimbrel is obviously one of the elite arms in Major League Baseball as the anchor of this bullpen. There are a lot of moving parts to this group because of the trades this offseason. Frankly, trying to grade this group or use them as rationale to take the over is hard. There are far too many unknowns at this stage of the game. Roles are completely undefined and 111 innings of David Carpenter and Jordan Walden need to be replaced.
Why bet the under?
Well, because the Braves offense is going to be atrocious. There’s a good chance that the Braves walk less than six percent of the time this season. The lowest walk rate since the mound was raised in 1969 belongs to the 2002 Detroit Tigers at 6.1 percent. That team was 18 percent below league average offensively when all was said and done. They finished 55-106. Three other teams in the 2000s have tied with a BB% of 6.3 percent. The Tigers did it in 2005 and went 71-91. The Mariners were 88-74 in 2007. The Kansas City Royals did it in 2014 and went 89-73 and went to the World Series.
It’s not a kiss of death, but it is a problem. The entire point of hitting is not to make outs. Walks are guaranteed baserunners. Any ball in play, on average, has a 69 to 71 percent chance of being an out. Whether or not you agree with the Moneyball generation of baseball thinking and the idea that OBP > BA, everyone can agree that not making an out is a positive outcome. Of the 30 teams to post a BB% of 6.7 percent of lower, four of them performed above league average by wRC+. Only one of them, the 1972 Pittsburgh Pirates, was a National League team.
This offense has the potential to be the worst in all of baseball. It’s Freddie Freeman and then a bunch of guys. That’s terrifying as a Braves fan.
One of the inefficiencies in the baseball betting market is how to properly value defense. Some research into bad defensive teams yielded some interesting under trends over the last few seasons, which will be released in a future article, but the Braves are a bad defensive team that got substantially worse with the trades of Jason Heyward and Justin Upton. I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about how elite Andrelton Simmons is at the shortstop position. Being elite defensively at that position can hide a lot for an infield defense and that’s exactly what happened. Simmons posted a +28 in defensive runs saved in 2014. It was a drop-off from his +41 season in 2013, which, by the way, was the best season ever for a shortstop since 2002 when DRS was introduced as a stat. Simmons’s +28 tied for the fifth-best.
Simmons wasn’t the only elite defender for the Braves. Jason Heyward saved 32 runs defensively. Heyward is now gone. The Braves had two players accumulate 60 defensive runs saved and they finished +19 as a team. Take away Heyward’s 32 DRS and the Braves are a -13 with the game’s best defensive shortstop. The next highest player in defensive runs saved was pitcher Julio Teheran at +5. That’s going to put a ton of pressure on the pitching staff and, more importantly, the offense. The offense will have to outhit the team’s defensive shortcomings and that’s not going to happen.
The starting rotation has some potential, but they do need to replace 400.1 innings from Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana. Those two also combined for 5.3 fWAR, so they were decidedly above league average. A bounce back from Mike Minor would help and eight or nine additional starts from Alex Wood should close the gap, but Shelby Miller and Mike Foltynewicz are not guarantees. Also, the Braves took away some of their depth by trading David Hale and by letting Gavin Floyd walk. Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy pursued other opportunities on the heels of their second Tommy John surgeries. With Minor’s shoulder trouble last season and Wood’s funky mechanics that suggest higher injury potential, the Braves are very thin here.
There are a lot of appearances and innings to replace in the bullpen as well. If the Braves fall out of contention, a Kimbrel trade may not be far away. He’s one of their biggest assets and a lineup full of stopgaps suggests that the Braves are going to be building for the future. Now that Shae Simmons underwent Tommy John surgery, the forecast for the Braves bullpen is really awful. There’s next to no experienced depth. There are relievers available in the market that the Braves could go sign, but as of now, this bullpen is bad in front of Kimbrel.
Pick: Under 73.5
This number is lower than I expected it to be and I really thought that there would be value in going against the Braves in the 75 or 76 range, but the oddsmakers have correctly pegged the Braves as a team due for a major regression. They lost two of their most valuable players and everything points to a down year.
The Atlanta Braves could be the worst team in the National League this season. The NL East is an improving division and there’s even a small chance that the Phillies could improve with some better health for Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. There are some reasons to be optimistic for the future, but this team will have some serious offensive problems and they have no depth on the pitching staff.
The Braves are a poor fielding team outside of Simmons and a collection of older guys like Jonny Gomes and Nick Markakis is not going to help in that regard. Chris Johnson is a poor third baseman. The idea of adding velocity and increasing the rotation’s punchout potential is a great idea, but it’s going to take time to come to fruition. It’s going to be a long season in Atlanta.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
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.