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Entries in Atlanta Braves (42)

Wednesday
Feb262014

Mike Minor: President of the Andrelton Simmons Fan Club

The Atlanta Braves continue to follow the John Hart model of locking up pre-arbitration talent, inking Andrelton Simmons to a seven-year, $58 million contract extension last week. The 24-year-old Simmons must be thrilled with the deal, which makes him the most handsomely compensated domestic player in history with less than two years of major league service time. But those cheers you hear emanating from Atlanta's Disney World Resort spring training complex? It's Braves pitchers celebrating that fact that the dean of shortstop defense will have their backs through the 2020 season.

Simmons is absolute death to grounders hit deep into the hole. In 2013, Atlanta pitchers had a collective .103 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) when opponents hit a ground ball to the left-center portion of the infield. That was over 30 points lower than the next closest club, the Colorado Rockies. Since the advent of Pitch F/X, only the 2008 Rockies (.101) had a lower team BABIP on grounders hit to left-center.

Lowest team BABIP on ground balls hit to left-center, 2013

 

Pretty much all Braves hurlers got a boost from Simmons' mound-worthy arm and exquisite range (the highest BABIP on grounders hit to left-center belonged to Tim Hudson, at .167), but Mike Minor must be giddy that his shortstop is locked up. The lefty enjoyed a .054 BABIP on grounders hit to left-center, lowest among all MLB pitchers who put at least 50 balls in play to that location on the diamond. The since-departed Paul Maholm (.084 BABIP) owes Simmons a debt of gratitude, while Kris Medlen (.154 BABIP) and fellow new millionaire Julio Teheran (.154) will benefit from pitching in front of this generation's Ozzie Smith for years to come.

Wednesday
Feb192014

Smart Pitchers Throw Away From B.J. Upton

B.J. Upton would be the first to tell you: He wasn't very good last season.

In his first year donning the Tomahawk, the now 29-year-old posted career lows in batting average (.184), on-base percentage (.268), slugging percentage (.289) and OPS+ (53) en route to a -1.8 offensive WAR (another career-low digit), according to Baseball Reference. He also struck out at a career-high rate (33.9%), stole fewer bases (12) than in any of his 100-plus game seasons prior and again couldn't stay healthy, missing a good chunk of the season with a groin injury.

While Upton has never been one to maintain a high average (.248 career BA), lofty power numbers (.409 SLG%, 100 OPS+) or tremendous plate discipline figures (26% strikeout rate, 10.5% walk rate), his offensive regressions last season are concerning. After all, the Braves paid Upton a healthy $12.5 million last season to be less valuable (-1.8 bWAR) than a replacement-level player and are on the hook to shell out roughly $15 million on average over the next four seasons to the former Tampa Bay Rays top prospect.

Exactly what caused Upton's offensive setback last season? As in most cases, many things contributed. But there was one thing that smart pitchers picked up on: Upton's struggles with the outer-half of the plate.

Comparing Upton's Contact Rates over the Last Three Seasons

Upton's offensive regressions have stemmed mainly from his inability to put bat on ball. In 2011, his overall contact rate stood at 76.7%, fell to 70.6% the following season and plummeted to 66.9% last season with Atlanta, which was the third lowest among batters with at least 400 plate appearances, trumped only by Pedro Alvarez (66.1%) and Chris Carter (65.4%), according to FanGraphs.

Three seasons ago, he was able to place contact on just about any pitch in the strike zone -- boasting a 84% in-zone contact rate, which was just a shade under his career-high mark of 86.8% set in 2006. But over the last two seasons, his contact rate has faded almost exclusively to the inner-half of the plate. This has affected his ability to put outer-half offerings in play, posting a feeble 29.6% in-play rate on such pitches last season, which was fourth-worst among batters with 250 plate appearances. Knowing this, pitchers threw 49.4% of their offerings 'away' from Upton last season -- an increase from 45.6% in 2012.

Word on the street is that Upton showed up to Braves camp this past weekend with an improved swing that's eliminated unnecessary pre-swing movement. "He's a lot more efficient," Braves hitting coach Greg Walker told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. For Upton's sake, I hope he's right, because pitchers are beginning to recognize and attack his most glaring weakness -- the outer-half of the plate -- which has transformed him from former five-tool prospect to liability for Atlanta offensively.

Monday
Feb172014

Teheran Gets Paid; Can He Tame Lefties Next?

The Atlanta Braves have locked up another franchise cornerstone, signing Julio Teheran to a six-year, $32.4 million deal that includes a $12 million option for the 2020 season. The 23-year-old righty was arguably the best of the Braves' home-grown rotation as a rookie. Teheran compiled the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.78) among qualified rookie starters and posted a park-and-league-adjusted ERA that was 21 percent above average, trailing just Miami's Jose Fernandez.

While Teheran has already established himself as one of the better young arms in the game, he could enter elite territory by limiting hard contact against left-handed hiters. He's not Charlie Morton Jr. or anything, but Teheran showed a sizable platoon split in 2013. He shut down righties, striking out 26 percent of batters faced and limiting them to a .317 slugging percentage. Against lefties, however, Teheran whiffed only 17 percent of hitters and allowed a .483 slugging percentage. To become platoon-proof, Teheran must miss bats with his fastball and better locate his breaking stuff.

Teheran isn't really a power pitcher, with an average fastball velocity (91.4 MPH) slightly below the big league average for right-handers (91.7 MPH). Don't tell that to righty hitters, though -- they swung and missed 24.4 percent of the time against Teheran's modest heat, the highest clip for an NL starter in righty-vs.-righty confrontations and fourth in the majors, behind Yu Darvish (28.4%), Hisashi Iwakuma (26.4%) and Anibal Sanchez (25.6%). Lefty hitters, by contrast, didn't have near as much trouble connecting against Teheran's fastball.

Righties' contact rate by pitch location vs. Teheran's fastball, 2013

 

Lefties' contact rate by pitch location vs. Teheran's fastball, 2013

Lefties swung through Teheran's fastball 13.3% of the time, below the 15.5% MLB average for righty starters against opposite-handed hitters and barely above the likes of punchout-challenged arms like Jeremy Guthrie and Kevin Correia. Righty hitters barely made a peep against Teheran's fastball (.339 slugging percentage), but lefties routinely reached the gaps (.490 slugging percentage).

Teheran's low-80s slider and slurvy, low-70s' curveball were also much more effective versus same-handed batters than lefties. Though he generated an equal number of whiffs with his breaking pitches (hitters on both sides of the plate swung and missed a third of the time), Teheran stifled righties (.315 slugging percentage) and got lit up by left-handers (.490).

Why the big difference? Command. Teheran threw 23.7% of his sliders and curves to the horizontal middle of the plate versus righties (under the 24.2% average), but 27.7% against lefties. Pitchers get pummeled when they leave breaking pitches over the middle of the plate -- hitters slugged a collective .451 last season -- and that's especially they case with Teheran. When he left a breaker over the middle, left-handers took him deep five times and slugged .765.

Teheran is remarkably polished for such a young pitcher, and he's already an asset despite a big platoon split. If Teheran starts deceiving lefties with his heat and spotting his breaking stuff, GM Frank Wren will look like a genius for buying out his potentially pricey arbitration years and a season or two of free agency.