Player Watch: the Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta Braves have had a lot of roster turnover the last couple of years, but GM John Coppolella’s plan has been clear from the start: rebuild the team in time for the new stadium in 2017. Coppolella has excelled in pursuit of a complete rebuild, acquiring a plethora of young talent.

Over the last few seasons, the Braves have cut ties with many of their veterans, including Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, and the Upton Brothers (Melvin and Justin). However, a good collection of familiar veterans flesh out what is otherwise a youthful roster, so let’s look at a few players to watch as spring training picks up.

Please note: fWARe = 2015 fWAR extrapolated to 2016 projected PA

Major Players

Julio Teheran, SP

2015 fWAR: 1.1

2015 fWARe: 1.1

2016 Projected fWAR: 1.9

 

A large part of Teheren’s step backwards in 2015 can be tied to changes in his delivery. Per Brooks Baseball, the horizontal release-point on all of his pitched shifted nearly 6 inches to the right (from catcher’s perspective) while his vertical release-point was lowered about 3 inches. This seems a bit extreme for just a new arm slot, and it appears that he was trying to stride less toward third base, before moving to the first base side of the rubber later in the season.

September 2014

tehran 1

April 2015: Opening Day

tehran 2

September 2014

tehran 1.5

April 2015: Opening Day

tehran 2.5

The camera angles can be deceiving, but the change in Teheran’s stride is still there. From his (blurry) shoulders, it looks like Teheran’s arm was further out in front of him, creating a lower release-point. This arm action allowed for some increased movement, but caused Teheran to lose touch with his command.

The two pitches that were responsible for an improvement in 2014, the changeup and curveball, were the main culprits in Teheran’s step backwards in 2015. Looking at Teheran’s changeup heatmaps, we see a general loss of control:

tehran 3tehran 4

In 2015 (on the right), the O-Swing% (42.0%) on the changeup was the highest of Teheran’s career though. Its Zone% was just a bit lower than in 2014 (on the left), so maybe a slightly larger break was really fooling hitters when the pitch actually fell out of the zone. It’s more likely however, that Teheran’s changeup caught too much of the plate, or never challenged the strike zone too often, because the overall results were not pretty.

In 2014, Teheran’s changeup had a wRC+ of 54, but in 2015, it jumped to 145. This helps explain why Teheran had a difficult time getting LHB out. Of Teheran’s changeups put in play by LHB the past two seasons, we see that the cluster of groundouts on the right side is absent in 2015, meaning more balls landed in the outfield.

2014: 45 balls in play

tehran 5

2015: 50 balls in play

tehran 6

This certainly is not a recipe for success, and Teheran will have even more trouble in 2016 if he can’t get his changeup back on track.

The curveball similarly took a hit last year. The way batters approached it starkly contrasted the typical trend.

CU PITCH f/x Plate Discipline:

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2013 35.4% 55.8% 44.7% 57.5% 89.7% 75.9% 45.8% 10.8%
2014 32.1% 53.4% 42.0% 48.3% 83.9% 69.4% 46.6% 12.9%
2015 24.7% 38.0% 30.8% 54.3% 89.1% 74.1% 46.0% 8.0%

Batters basically refused to swing at Teheran’s curveball, despite a consistent number of pitches in the zone, so they were able to improve their contact rates from 2014. A large decrease in SwStr% leads me to believe that the curveball was simply much easier to pick up out of Teheran’s hand.  The movement was very similar per Brooks Baseball, but a >1 MPH decrease in velocity along with a lower release-point made it appear less sharp.

There is another point to make here though. If you go back and look at Teheran’s stride over and over again from different 2015 games, it seems Teheran’s direct stride toward home is much less consistent with breaking balls, particularly curveballs. It could be that Teheran was tipping his curveball to the batter by taking a more obvious stride toward third.

In the following gif we’ll see four images of Teheran facing the Marlins in May of 2015, and we want to note where Teheran is striding. I urge you to keep your cursor on where Teheran plants his left foot to the first batter, and see how it lines up with the two curveballs and the fastball in the following images.

The first still is a fastball to Michael Morse (K), then a curveball to J.T. Realmuto (L4), a fastball to Martin Prado (K), and finally a curveball to Giancarlo Stanton (HR).

In this instance at least, it seems Teheran strides more toward third when throwing his curveball.

This may have been corrected by moving Teheran to the other side of the rubber and allowing him to take a more natural stride, around mid-August.

tehran 7

In the next still, we see Teheran’s stride on a high fastball that struck Paul Goldschmidt out.

tehran 8

And in the following still, we see the stride on a curveball that struck out Wellington Castillo.

tehran 9

These strides are consistent with each other, and quite similar to Teheran’s 2014 stride.

After and including this start against Arizona, Teheran posted a 2.87 ERA in 62.2 IP. Excluding his 4.1 IP 8 ER start against the Yankees, Teheran pitched to a 1.85 ERA. So there’s hope that Teheran largely struggled while making a mechanical adjustment, though he did still struggle with his control (3.3 BB/9 over the same span).

I’m optimistic of his potential, regardless of which side of the rubber he stands on, as long as he can maintain a consistent and natural delivery.

Adonis Garcia, 3B

2015 fWAR: 0.9

2015 fWARe: 2.4

2016 Projected fWAR: 1.0

Adonis Garcia was a pleasant surprise for Braves’ fans in 2015. At 30 years old, he broke into the majors, showing decent contact skills and good range (albeit in a small sample size) at third base. Garcia managed to post almost 1 WAR in about a third of a season. While it all made for a fun story, an encore performance shouldn’t be expected.

The most glaring issue is an absence of plate discipline. Garcia posted a 2.5% BB% that was 10th worst out of all batters with at least 150 PA in 2015, but his .220 ISO ranked 40th best in a pool of the same batters. Of the bottom 30 in BB%, Garcia was one of three with a wRC+ over 100 (Jonathan Schoop and Dee Gordon were the others), so it’s safe to say Garcia’s production in these terms was unusual for his talents.

Despite swinging often and not making contact at above average rates, Garcia was not prone to strikeouts because of an ability to hit most types of pitches.

PITCH f/x (per 100 pitches):

Pitch Values wFA/C wFT/C wFC/C wFS/C wSI/C wSL/ wCU/C wCH/C
Garcia 0.90 -0.65 2.43 6.83 5.01 -4.87 1.34 3.14
League Average 0.14 0.32 -0.26 -0.26 0.17 -0.44 0.04 0.00

Some pitch types are left off here, but the general idea is clear. Sliders gave Garcia a lot of trouble while other pitches did not, and this is supported by a strong platoon split favoring LHP. When he got behind in the count though, he really struggled.

Many years in the minors could cause that struggle, as many MLB pitchers attack you quite differently from MiLB pitchers, and are just better overall, so I think a full season should allow him to use his pitch recognition to work counts better and take a few more walks. That won’t be enough, though, to replicate his 2015.

Garcia profiles best as a platoon partner, but he’ll likely land the starting third base job. His poor fielding (89.9% routine fielding percentage), unsustainable 21.7% HR/FB rate, and free-swinging tendency unfortunately suggest Garcia could be one of the worst regular third basemen in the league in 2016.

Ender Inciarte, OF

2015 fWAR: 3.3

2015 fWARe: 2.9

2016 Projected fWAR: 1.5

Many experts, such as the USA Today, claimed that the Braves received “an incredible haul” in the deal that sent Shelby Miller to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Inciarte and prospects. Part of this is because Inciarte is under control longer, and was just as valuable; according to a 3.3 fWAR that nearly matched Miller’s 3.4 in 2015 (not to mention a much superior rWAR).

Coupled with the volatility of fielding metrics, Inciarte’s roughly league average bat could contribute to a rather large step backwards.

Last year, Inciarte’s 100 wRC+ was an improvement upon 2014, partially thanks to hitting changeups better. This adjustment helped Inciarte’s 2014 wRC+ of 90 against RHP jump to 123 in 2015, as it boosted his numbers across the board. Against LHP though, Inciarte’s wRC+ dropped from 80 to a lowly 38. A couple screenshots show a slight difference in Inciarte’s load that may have been affecting his production.

2014

inciarte 1

2015

inciarte 2

In 2015, Inciarte’s hands were clearly lower during his stride. How much this actually affected his ability to hit LHP is uncertain, but we can postulate that his lowered hand position tilted his average swing path slightly up.

Considering how the ball travels from a LHP vs. RHP, I think this gave him more lift against RHP, but made him susceptible to rolling over pitches from LHP. Inciarte’s decreased GB/FB vs RHP and increased GB/FB vs LHP, as well as a 10% increase in Soft% vs. LHP, are evidence of this assumption, but inconclusive.

Inciarte’s speed and base-running, as well as great range in all three outfield positions, make him a legitimate everyday option despite his limited offensive game. Continued struggles against LHP could limit his appearances as the season wears on, but Inciarte should hold down the Braves’ center field job for most of the season, while getting some time in the corner outfield positions as well.

With a couple good seasons under his belt now, Inciarte is certainly talented, but it’s hard to see him as a true commodity given his skill set. And this is reflected appropriately in his projected fWAR.

Impact Minor-Leaguer

Mike Foltynewicz, RP

The Braves have enough veteran depth to avoid rushing position players like Dansby Swanson and Mallex Smith into the big leagues, but the pitching staff is full of young arms that will get plenty of opportunities to play in the majors. Though Foltynewicz is not rookie-eligible, he is expected to start in the minors. I think Foltynewicz could take a good step forward this year with a change in role.

A non-competitive team like the Braves has little use for high-end bullpen arms, so there isn’t a huge incentive to move Foltynewicz to the bullpen soon, but his repertoire is better suited for short outings. Foltynewicz’s fastball can touch 100 MPH, and his breaking pitches have decent depth to them, but LHB have absolutely crushed him.

Foltynewicz didn’t have amazing statistical success in the minors, but his raw pitches offer much more optimism. At some point this season, the Braves may realize what they could have in Foltynewicz and not waste too much time trying to stretch him out into a starter.

At 24, Foltynewicz doesn’t seem to have much potential as a starter, but does as a reliever. His floor is much higher, and Foltynewicz could make a solid tandem with Arodys Vizcaino in the near future.

Statistics provided by: FanGraphs.com, BrooksBaseball.net, baseball-reference.com, and baseballsavant.com

Images thanks to: Getty Images 

One thought on “Player Watch: the Atlanta Braves

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