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Entries in Atlanta Braves (42)

Thursday
Feb062014

Receding Stuff Makes Craig Kimbrel (More) Expendable

Craig Kimbrel got the short end of the monetary stick this week when the Atlanta Braves elected to sign Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward to contract extensions. Just six years into a 20-year local TV contract that has and will assuredly limit the team's cash assets for the foreseeable future, the organization has been put in a difficult financial situation this offseason, and these limitations have manifested through not being able to sign players to long-term deals, such as Kimbrel.

In a perfect world, the Braves would extend each of their three budding superstars. But we don't live in a perfect world, which meant Atlanta essentially had to decide whether Heyward or Kimbrel was more valuable for the organization moving forward (since Freeman seemed a near guarantee to get his extension after a career-best 5.4 bWAR 2013 campaign). With three consecutive 40-plus save seasons and a 1.48 ERA that ranks best among pitchers with 200 innings since 2011, one could certainly make the argument that Kimbrel deserved to get paid -- not Heyward, who owns an underwhelming career line of .259/.352/.443.

But for as dominant as Kimbrel has been since his rookie 2011 season, he actually regressed in several areas in 2013, which more than likely had a big say in Atlanta's decision not to extend him.

Craig Kimbrel
 AVGwOBAK/BBZone%Miss%Chas%ClStk%InPl%
2012 .126 .170 8.29 52.9% 41.6% 34.1% 40.9% 21.0%
2013 .166 .222 4.90 50.5% 32.5% 30.7% 34.0% 28.7%

 

Across the board -- both in terms of opponents' weighted on-base average against him and in "miss-ability" of his offerings -- Kimbrel's stuff depreciated significantly. And while it seems silly to expect anyone to consistently perform at a level he did in 2012 (where he posted a 1.01 ERA, league-best 0.65 WHIP and 16.6 strikeouts per nine innings en route to a 3.3 bWAR), regressions such as these shouldn't go unnoticed. Of course, now the question becomes: Why did he take a step back last season?

Erractic Release Point

Kimbrel's Release Point Frequency, 2012

 

Kimbrel's Release Point Frequency, 2013


 

As a true two-pitch reliever (fastball and slider), deception is of the utmost importance for Kimbrel, whose gaudy strikeout numbers have been more of product of his ability to generate swings-and-misses (accounting for 89% of his career strikeouts), rather than called strikes (11%) in order to punch out batters. While wacky deliveries and varying arm slots can be deceptive, Kimbrel's traditional 3/4 arm slot makes vital the repetition of his release points between fastball and slider, as a more limited arsenal makes pitch recognition easier for batters if release points aren't consistent.

Surely enough, this was Kimbrel's downfall last season. Take a look at the first image shown above, which depicts the release point frequency of Kimbrel's offerings two seasons ago. Looks to be very consistent, no? Now take a gander at the bottom image, showing his release point frequency in 2013. While the red and yellow areas of his release points remain nearly identical as two seasons ago, his overall release points were much less defined.

Evidently, batters picked up on this lack of consistency and capitalized off it, increasing their in-play rate against his stuff by 7.7% over the last two seasons while generating a .222 wOBA against him, up from .170 in 2012. What's more, Kimbrel's inconsistent release point caused opponents to swing at roughly 5% less, chase at 4% less and swing-and-miss nearly 10% less in 2013 than two seasons ago.

For Kimbrel, deception is the name of the game. Last season, he didn't have it (as much), which is probably a main reason why Atlanta chose to extend Heyward over him.

Wednesday
Feb052014

Chris Johnson: Junk-Ball Hitter Extraordinaire

Chris Johnson isn't what most would deem a "lethal threat" in the batter's box. With a career slash line of .289/.328/.438, 108 OPS+ and 6.7 offensive wins above replacement over his five years in baseball, the statistical output from the former fourth round selection of the Houston Astros has been more toward that of league average production (.263/.331/.418 since Johnson's 2009 rookie campaign) than anything close to lethal. But last season did shed some light on his most 'lethal' attribute as a hitter: Hitting bad pitches.

While Johnson has maintained a reputation for finding holes in defenses (owning a .361 BABIP since his entrance into the league in 2009), he was exceptional in his respect in 2013, posting a .394 BABIP that ranks as the highest single-season in-play average among qualified batters since 2008 -- second only to Austin Jackson's .396 mark in 2010. But Johnson's insane in-play average mark last season was considerably higher than his .354 mark two seasons ago. As we're about to find out, this increase is confusing for a few reasons.

Two seasons ago, Johnson garnered a .354 BABIP thanks in large part to his 24.4% line drive rate. This LD% was not particularly dominant, mind you, but it did narrowly miss (by 0.4%) the cut to be among the top 10% of all qualified batters that year. Last season, Johnson posted a league-best .394 BABIP, but his line-drive rate actually decreased to 24.3%.

If you can recall past research, no other factor correlates to a player's BABIP better than his line-drive rate. In fact, since 2008, for every 3% increase in line drive rate, a player's BABIP increases by roughly .020 points. Boost your LD% by 6%, and you're looking at a .040 BABIP jump. Considering this, I bet you're wondering: How the hell did Johnson's BABIP rise despite a steady (albeit minimally decreasing) line drive rate? This is where those 'junkball' hitting skills come into play.

Comparing Johnson's out-of-zone BABIP over the last two seasons

Johnson's BABIP on pitches in the strikezone last season was .385, up from .361 in 2012. This again defies logic, as his line-drive on pitches in the zone two years ago was 26.4% compared to 25% last season. But when we shift our focus to pitches out of the zone, we begin to understand his overall BABIP increase. On non-zone pitches last season, Johnson posted a 21.3% line drive rate en route to a .434 out-of-zone BABIP -- second only to Carlos Gomez (.452) among qualified batters. This is a stark increase from 2012, when only 17.6% of Johnson's out-of-zone hits were line drives, giving him a .329 in-play average that was much closer to the .278 league average BABIP on non-zone pitches since 2012.

Call him 'lucky' if you must -- I certainly think luck has at least something to do with it -- but Johnson showed last season that he's getting better at hitting bad pitches, which gives reason to believe his career .361 BABIP mark is sustainable.

Plate discipline be damned.

Tuesday
Jan212014

Andrelton Simmons: Two-Way Threat?

Everyone knows that Andrelton Simmons can pick it. The Atlanta Braves shortstop and 2013 Gold Glove Award winner, possesing range that makes trotting out a third baseman optional and gun-you-out-from-the-seat-of-his-pants arm strength, has saved more runs through his first two major league seasons (60) than any player in history, according to Baseball-Reference. But don't sell Simmons' bat short, either -- the 24-year-old excelled offensively during the second half of the 2013 season, crushing fastballs with a more polished plate approach. Is he about to emerge as a two-way terror?

Simmons fit the all-gove, no-hit archetype during the first half, batting just .243 while getting on base at a .282 clip and slugging .348. That's lousy, even by banjo-strumming standards of the position (shortstops batted a collective .254/.308/.372 last year). After the All-Star break, however, Simmons morphed into a slugger (.255/.316/.472). His Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) more than doubled, from .105 to .217, and he hit fly balls over 20 feet farther on average (240 before the break, 262 after). As the season progressed, the potential heir to Ozzie Smith as the game's greatest defensive shortstop started lashing fastballs into the gaps and over the fence.

Simmons' slugging percentage vs. fastballs before the All-Star break, 2013

Simmons' slugging percentage vs. fastballs after the All-Star break, 2013

Simmons slugged a paltry .309 versus fastballs during the first half, which was 120 points below the MLB average and fifth lowest among qualified batters. But after the Midsummer Classic, he boosted that mark by nearly 200 points (.508 slugging percentage). A better grasp of the strike zone played a part in Simmons' improvement: he swung at 64.6 percent of fastballs thrown over the plate in the second half, up from 60.1 percent before the break and above the 64 percent big league average. That change benefited him in two ways: he fell behind in the count less often by taking fewer called strikes, and he took a cut on the sort of pitches that hitters tend to pummel (MLB batters slugged .502 when swinging at fastballs thrown in the strike zone in 2013).

As a junior college product who was originally drafted as a pitcher and barely took 1,000 trips to the plate in the minors, Simmons might just be scratching the surface of his offensive abilities. His Baseball-Reference comps through age 23 indicate that potential for two-way stardom, with Barry Larkin featuring prominently on the list. It's easy to forget that the first-ballot Hall of Famer actually scuffled offensively during his first two years in Cincinnati (81 OPS+ in 1986-87) before evolving into one of the better hitting shortstops in recent memory (116 career OPS+). J.J. Hardy isn't as sexy a name, but he has been quite valuable by playing vacuum cleaner D and routinely clearing the fences.

With sublime, perhaps even unprecedented defensive skill, Simmons merely needs to avoid being an automatic out at the plate to be one of the more valuable shortstops in the game. But if even a portion of his second-half gains carry over into 2014 and beyond, Atlanta could have its first MVP since Chipper Jones 15 years ago.