Good riddance: A postmortem for the 2008 Atlanta Braves (Part I: Manager and Coaches)

To be honest, a postmortem was indicated when Hudson went down and the team officially died; the corpse is starting to smell.

Could the 2008 Braves have won the division? Sure. This wasn’t really a 72-win team, not when Hudson was healthy and Teixeira was at first base. At worst, it was a .500 team, and a .500 team can win the division with a little luck. But all the Braves’ luck was bad — this team had the karma of a arbitrageur.

The Braves have been, each of the last three seasons, a profoundly underachieving team, according to Pythagorean projections. This season, they went beyond that; not only did they win less than their runs scored and allowed would indicate, they scored many fewer runs than their offensive components would indicate — 30 to 80 runs fewer, depending upon your assumptions and methods.

Why is this? Well, probably Bobby’s ridiculous bunts had a little bit to do with it. Most of it is probably just luck, but when the team consistently underperforms, it is appropriate to take a look at the manager and coaching staff. Nobody in Atlanta really seems too eager to do so, and they’re saying everyone will be back.

Terry Pendleton comes in for a lot of abuse, and I’m not sure that teams really need hitting coaches — I’ve said many times that I think individualized instruction would be best — but it’s hard to say that he’s doing a bad job. The Braves only finished sixth in runs scored, but (a) sixth is not that bad, and (b) what he comes in most criticism for, “aggressiveness”, doesn’t actually appear to be a problem. The Braves were third in the league in OBP, third in batting average, third in walks, and second in fewest strikeouts. They seem pretty selective to me, and that’s with Jeff Francoeur sucking up a team-high 652 PA.

The Braves’ biggest offensive problem was a lack of home run power. They finished fourteenth in the NL in home runs. They managed tenth in slugging because of a high batting average and being fourth in doubles. This was a teamwide phenomenon. McCann led the team with 23 homers; this is, I believe, the lowest team-leading total for the Braves since 1992. Only three Braves hit 20 or more homers, and one of these (Teixeira) was traded, after playing only 109 games, for a player with 15-homer power. Last season, nine Braves hit ten or more homers. This year, only six did, and nobody else was close.

This isn’t the entry to examine the failings of individual players, though obviously that played a large role, but of systematic problems. One problem is simply that the team did not consider power to be a major concern in designing the ballclub. But another problem goes back to the aforementioned fondness for one-run strategies — not just bunting, but “hitting behind the runner” and “putting the ball in play” and “get the run home”.

As Bill James has written, the number of runs produced by one-run strategies is “effectively zero”. And that’s if you’re good at it. The Braves were very bad at one-run strategies in 2008, failing on numerous bunt attempts, consistently not getting runners from second to third with no out, not getting the runner in from third or even getting him thrown out at the plate. Continuing to use these strategies — which at the best of times are suboptimal — despite continuous failure has a lot to do with the Braves’ low home run totals and with their inability to score as many runs as a team third in the league in OBP should.

None of that has much to do with Terry Pendleton; it is a matter for Bobby Cox and perhaps Chino Cadahia. If TP had anything to do with the home run drought, it would seem to me to be reflected in the low strikeout total referenced above. Contact and power are not necessarily conflicting concepts, but they can be competitive concepts. A team that doesn’t strike out may be a team that doesn’t hit home runs as often as it might. At any event, it seems more likely that (if the Braves have the sense God gave a goose and recognize that the low home run total is a problem) that they will address this through roster design rather than a coaching change.

Pitching coach Roger McDowell got a lot of praise early in the season, only to see the pitching basically collapse in the second half. A lot of that was the loss of Tim Hudson; removing the team’s best and most durable starter put too much pressure of the rest of the staff. The Braves simply could not replace him, and he still finished third on the team in innings pitched and tied for third in starts, as well as leading them in ERA.

However, the pitching collapse was at least as much a result of the usage pattern of the first half, in which Cox and McDowell used the bullpen very hard to preserve the starters, and tended to ride the hot hand even after it had dramatically cooled off. This only accelerated after the losses of Smoltz and Glavine. The Braves lost three of their top four starters during the season (four of five if you include Chuck James, whose misuse and misdiagnosis is a problem for another day) but were able to only find one replacement, Jorge Campillo.

The result was using a lot of relievers to patch up holes, and it worked, for awhile. In the second half, it caught up to them, and the Braves went from second in the league in ERA to twelfth. The only thing that the pitching staff was good at was denying home runs, as they finished fifth in that. They were eighth in hits allowed, and eleventh or worse in everything else. In most of these things, they were good or decent before the break, only to be the worst in the league, or close to it, after.

Still, I find it hard to blame either the manager or the pitching coach for this. They did what they could with what they had. I’d much rather see a reliever go down than a starter. The pitching coach could be blamed for not getting more out of the young starting pitchers from the Braves’ system, Reyes and Morton. I’d certainly like to see what Leo Mazzone could do with Reyes, who seems desperately in need of a pitching coach who will kick him in the ass and tell him to throw strikes low and outside, but again that’s a matter for another day.

I think there is a good case to be made for the removal of two coaches. One is Chino Cadahia. The Braves’ bench coach is expected to deal with defensive positioning (which often seemed lacking, especially in the outfield) and with tactical matters (never one of Bobby’s strengths). When I ran a poll asking which coach would be the best to bring back to the Braves, I voted for Pat Corrales. Corrales, recently fired by the Nats, is available.

The second is Brian Snitker. I won’t go into some of the misadventures of the Braves’ baserunners or the number of times they got thrown out by fifteen feet. Suffice it to say that when in the last few weeks he put up a permanent stop sign, it was a massive improvement.

Is it time for Bobby Cox to retire? I am reluctant to say so, but I would be lying if I said I hadn’t considered it. I have generally felt that his tactical shortcomings were really not a big concern, that you don’t lose games that way. However, I am reevaluating this position. The Braves have badly underperformed their expected record three years in a row. This cost them the division title in 2007 and possibly winning records the other two years. While a lot of this is just “luck”, I now feel that the affection for one-run strategies is having a negative impact on the offense. It is not just that he’s bunting and playing for one run too much, he’s bunting and playing for one run with players who aren’t good at it or who are too good to be giving away outs.

I have long been a proponent of the view that the tactical stuff didn’t matter as long as Bobby had control of the clubhouse. However, this year (for the first time I can recall) he seemed to lose his grip on that as well. The most important was the Francoeur situation, where a player who was losing games for the team left and right seemed to be making the decisions rather than the general manager or the manager. While Bobby perhaps did take Francoeur’s side (some have indicated this) Bobby never should have allowed a player to seem in that position of authority. Running the team, not running the games, is the most important part of a manager’s duty, and if Bobby isn’t in control of the ballclub anymore it is indeed time for him to go.

59 thoughts on “Good riddance: A postmortem for the 2008 Atlanta Braves (Part I: Manager and Coaches)”

  1. Well done, as always. But I really think you should let the anger flow.

    Even peaceniks tear up the temple when it needs it.

  2. Btw, anybody else fascinated to see how Hudson comes back?

    I’m kinda using this as the test case of the legend of TJ surgery – that pitchers come back with BETTER stuff than before. Hope Hudson is the proof.

  3. Nice work, Mac.

    This team sucked in the second half because it couldn’t field enough good or healthy players on a daily basis. When I think of the Braves ’08 season, I’ll just remember that injuries depleted this team’s roster and, ultimately, its spirit.

    While the managerial strategies could be infuriating—I began to somehow accept that Escobar would always bunt after the leadoff guy got on in the 1st inning—it can’t be the entire reason we saw them end up with 90 losses.

    Yes, it’s up to the manager to understand what his club can and can’t do, but unfortunately, this team couldn’t play little ball or long ball. It wasn’t equipped for either.

    Mr. Wren’s got a lotta work to do between now & opening day.

  4. Great write-up Mac. After the terrible season that the Braves have had, I wasn’t expecting such an insightful recap of what’s happened this year in such a short time span. I don’t like to admit that Bobby Cox should retire, but as you point out, the handwriting seems to be on the wall. I think loyalty is winning out more and more over good baseball sense, and this, along with very questionable strategy, (which has been around for a long time) is a deadly combination.

    As Mac pointed out, our biggest offensive problem was lack of power. I like Kotchman, but I hate to admit that I don’t think he’s a good fit for the Braves – unless we mysteriously find three more home run threats. I say we look to trade him during the offseason while his value is still fairly high.

    Anyway, thanks again for the writeup Mac. And thanks guys for commiserating through a very long season with me.

  5. I think that the venom (and the sarcasm, oh, the sarcasm) will be saved for Pt. IV.

    Pt. II: The Good. (This will be fairly short.)
    Pt. III: The Bad. (This will be quite long.)
    Pt. IV: The Ugly. (Guess who!)

  6. How about #7? :D

    Nice job, Mac. I think the idea that the Braves were neither equipped for power ball nor small ball is the most accurate description of their offense.

  7. Good job Mac, thanks for another good season here.
    Thanks to everyone else to for their comments, they helped get through such an ugly season.

    Bobby’s time has come, no doubt in my mind. He seemed confused at times. Didn’t he have Brian McCann attempt a sac bunt one game?

    Wren has a brutal job this offseason, poor bastard.

  8. @8. I think McCann tried that on his own because the sun was in his eyes, if I remember correctly. Either was, this team simply underperformed. I actually feel bad for Chipper Jones, having such a good season for such a crappy team

  9. Josh, if I’m not mistaken, that was a Simpsons quote, sort of. True story?

    Great review so far, Mac. I couldn’t agree more. It’s tough for me to talk about the season right now.

  10. @8 – Wren has a brutal and yes, impossible job this offseason if he wants to make the Brave WS contenders next year. If he takes a more realistic two year approach and plugs some keys voids, but understands that next year they won’t be world beaters (most likely), I think that is doable. My hope is for the latter approach and it’s the only realistic hope we have – imo.

  11. Hardly anyone here will agree and certainly noone in the Braves organization will say it out loud, but the best move the Braves could make would be to trade Chipper in the offseason for two MLB ready top prospects.

    Now, we know Chipper won’t sign off on such a deal and the Braves couldn’t do it in fear of the backlash, but this team needs to get as many young premier players as they can to add to what looks like a very promising group of prospects in the minors.

  12. Haha, Josh. What was the original quote? I do that all the time when I “don’t want to reveal someone’s name”.

  13. Great write up.

    This was a frustrating season. I only got to see the braves play on tv twice b.c. tbs killed the games and is now dead to me.

    Mac your site has enabled me to continue to follow the team. Thanks for all you do.

  14. I agree we should just move on. Why do they want to deal with Hampton again? Just to prove that they didn’t make a mistake? They would have made another mistake if they decide to keep him. I would prefer he does well elsewhere than seeing him resigning with the Braves.

  15. Justin,

    I hardly believe that they could actually do that myself. Two MLB-ready rookies is probably asking a lot for a soon-to-be-37 injury-prone star. I can’t think of a contending team that needs a third baseman that badly, either.

  16. At least we have liquor and SEC football season to drown our sorrows. The poor NY Mutts fans have 2 years of epic (choke) fail to miss the playoffs and Syracuse/Rutgers/Army/Columbia/Buffalo football.

  17. Just back from a conference from Venice where I was without internet (and any contact with American sports_ for 4 days! I come home and check on the college football scores and DAMN!…Vandy is looking better all the time….Glad to see the METS choke once again–which amounts to an invitation to the Braves to get it together in 2009.

    Oh, it was probably appropriate that Corky Miller drove in the last Braves run of the season–without getting a hit…..

    Anyway, I want to echo the points made above about Mac’s insightful write up. More important, now that this ugly season is behind us I want to express my gratitude to Mac for his insights and sense of humor. Let me add that I want to thank those who daily make up the commenary on Braves Journal as well. The ability to log on here made a huge difference during a painful and forgettable season.

    That said, I have to mention that whenever my wife sees hampsters she thinks of Mac!

  18. Venice…what a lovely place that city is. Stephen, I hope you enjoyed your time there.

    I hope we have seen the last of Corky Miller. Should Bobby retire? If the Braves bring back Corrales and Yost to support Bobby, I think there are enough people to at least question Bobby’s thinking. I think the problem right now is that everybody has too much respect of Bobby that nobody questions his move. I mean, what the heck, let’s bring back Jimy Williams.

  19. I have great admiration for Bobby and I look forward to seeing him in the HOF. That said, I really wish that Bobby would go–one of the things which I liked about Mac’s analysis is that it effectively–if quietly–makes the case for Cox’s departure. Virtually any other manager would be offered the door. Wren really needs to clean house….

  20. Mac;
    What a great write-up! I’ll never forget how you kept grinding this September with fresh content every day in this blog (“He stayed at his post while the others ran!”).

    I also admire that you gave prominent notice of Braves’ bad luck. All long term fans recognize it, but take good luck for granted. I didn’t until lately. “Luck is the residue of design” or pick your platitude.

    But my daugter’s love of NASCAR really illustrated how cruel it can be. They race for four hours at 180 mph, come in for the last pit stop, and if their jackman slips and falls, they finish ninth instead of first.

    So, for the one Atlanta Brave who can make the biggest difference betwen now and April, I say:

    Good Luck, Mr. Wren.

  21. Lots of speculation as to who Wren is going to go after, but at LEAST it looks like he’s going to go after SOMEBODY and not try and stand pat. I would be very interested in them taking a flier on bringing back Pat Corrales in some capacity. I don’t recall how good he was at his job, but I recall feeling better about the team when he was bench coach than I do right now.

  22. Great stuff Mac! I echo JB’s thoughts. I didn’t get to watch much (thank God) but there is always Braves Journal.

    Ok. At the risk of being ridiculed to death here. Why not re sign Hampton, if he is relatively cheap? The dude is the bionic man….completely rebuilt. Now if Hamp demands anywhere north of 5 mil then see ya don’t want to be ya.

    You know the free agent market sucks when the best hitter out there is Pat Burrell.

    Anyone hazarding a guess how much the Yankees will pay CC Sabathia?

  23. Oh, it was probably appropriate that Corky Miller drove in the last Braves run of the season–without getting a hit…..

    LOL, Stephen.

  24. I agree about being open to the idea of signing Hampton. I think someone will probably be willing to throw him more money than I would be, but I’m not averse to signing him out of principle or anything. I think the need to field a capable pitching staff outweighs any need to “move on.”

  25. PS:

    (Going for the triple-post…)

    Having seen them for the first time in person last Friday, I could not more strongly recommend catching the Avett Brothers live. I knew from their records that their music was great, but you have to see them in person, I think, to get a sense of the energy those guys have for what they’re doing. Lots of fun.

  26. Yeah, what Stu said. As much as I hate the sunk cost in him, and the inherent risk regarding his health, the right deal could be made (hell me way WANT to make the right deal with the Braves, and I wouldn’t begrudge him it).

    I think I’ve said before that I’d be open to us re-signing our old guys to low base pay high incentive deals, especially if ownership is willing to make it a “one time” expense (AND that they don’t view that as their entire pitching shopping in the off season).

    For that matter I’d be happy if they could get Glavine/Smoltz (if healthy) to do the Wakefield thing of an open ended $X mil a year deal till their arms fall off (or they chose to retire). Make it enough to be not insulting, but not so much that it’s crippling the team.

  27. Nice write-up Mac – I guess it’s our turn to “wait until next year”. I think Stu will like this (appreciate is probably a better word) – Rany Jazayerli has a recent post on Kyle Davies. It looks like he may well have turned a corner. He has had 3 great starts in a row, and looks to have (maybe? hard to truly say for sure with young pitchers, and as has been pointed out several times, Davies is still just 25, and I believe younger than Greinke {edited-he’s a month older than Greinke}) really turned a corner.
    Seeing the Rays success this year reminds me how important it is to have good, young pitching. You can win with a mix of old guys & young guys (DBacks in 01, Red Sox recently) if you’ve got the right guys (having Schilling & R Johnson be the ‘old guys’ helps). Hopefully Wren will make some good decisions this offseason for our team…

  28. Wow, just noticed that Kyle Davies went 4-1 in September with a 2.27 ERA. The loss wasn’t a total blow-out, and the wins all ranged from decent starts (5 innings, one run) to pretty danged good (8 innings, no runs, no walks, and 8Ks).

    In other “ex-Brave” info (because I’m waiting on info before I can do more work):

    Joey Devine ended up with a 0.59 ERA in 42 appearances over 45 and 2/3 innings.

    Salty ended up with an OPS of only .716

    Matt Harrison ended up 9-3 with a 5.49 ERA.

    LaRoche ended up with an OPS of .841

    Renteria only hit .270 with an OPS of .699

    Tex hit .358 with 13 HRs (OPS of 1.081) for the Angels

    Kotsay only hit .226 for the Sox

    And of course Andruw ended up hitting .158 with 3 HRs and who knows if he’ll be back next year.

  29. A Blue Jays fan friend of mine asked me the other day: “So, is Jimy Williams the consensus worst manager in history?” He then pointed out that Jimy had two different teams make the playoffs under new managers after he was fired midseason: the 1989 Blue Jays and the 2004 Astros.

    He certainly did earn the hatred of a lot of teams, the Jays, Boston Red Sox, and Astros. But for all his stupid roster management he has a 910-790 lifetime record. What do you think — is he really the worst?

  30. #38

    I’ll go with Butch Hobson.

    I’d be willing to sign Hampton to a reasonable one-year contract. Tradeable asset.

  31. I also think that signing Hampton to a one year incentive based contract makes good sense….

  32. looking for the worst manager? check the braves history. there’s several outstanding candidates there. i’d go with chuck tanner.

  33. I don’t know, I don’t want to see the Braves to commit anymore resources on a question mark like Hampton. The Braves will already need to spare resources for Smoltz and Glavine.

  34. At this point, don’t we have to consider Smoltz and Glavine bigger question marks than Hampton? S & G are just hoping to eke out one more season in the bigs, and there’s a high probability neither will be able to do it, and almost zero chance of their contributing to a Braves playoff team. Glavine especially.

  35. I think Stu will like this (appreciate is probably a better word) – Rany Jazayerli has a recent post on Kyle Davies. It looks like he may well have turned a corner. He has had 3 great starts in a row, and looks to have (maybe? hard to truly say for sure with young pitchers, and as has been pointed out several times, Davies is still just 25, and I believe younger than Greinke {edited-he’s a month older than Greinke}) really turned a corner.

    But is all that more valuable than the 7 2/3 innings of 91 ERA+ we got from Octavio Dotel?

  36. This season, they went beyond that; not only did they win less than their runs scored and allowed would indicate, they scored many fewer runs than their offensive components would indicate — 30 to 80 runs fewer, depending upon your assumptions and methods.

    OPS isn’t perfect of course but the Braves were 15th in baseball in OPS and 16th in runs scored. They were 27th in stolen bases, implying that they don’t get around the bases very fast once there, and since they don’t hit many homers, the baserunning becomes an issue. This what happens when the two best hitters can’t or shouldn’t run the bases well. Overall, I have a tough time believing we were ‘tough lucked’ out of a bunch of runs.

    I had this as a 82 win team in the preseason, then all the pitchers got hurt and it ended up a 72 win team. Seems pretty reasonable.

    Regarding Bobby, I have no problem if he wants to continue for next season. He’s earned the right. But it’s going to be more of the same, I’m not sure why he would want the aggravation.

  37. You can’t compare the Braves to the majors, you have to compare them to the league, because there is still a DH effect… OPS, or OPS+, is a bad measure for the Braves, because it counts OBP and SLG as equal, which they are not. One point of OBP is worth at minimum 1.4 points of SLG. (Some estimates say as high as three points, but that throws off the calculations.) The Braves were very good at getting on base, so this obviously hurts them.

  38. Ok the Braves were 7th in OPS in the NL and 6th in runs in the NL. My apologies that my original post was so misleading. And yes I’m aware of the limitations of OPS thanks. I’ll stand by my assessment. OBP can be devalued somewhat by poor base running and bad situational hitting. Home runs always work.

  39. I wouldn’t underestimate the benefit Devine gained from being away from Atlanta.

    Let’s be honest, giving up 2 grand slams and a season ending home run in an epic playoff game isn’t the best start to a career and once he left he got a fresh start where none of that mattered.

  40. I’m not much for stolen bases, but while the Braves didn’t steal many, they had a high success rate — 68 percent. There is basically no correlation between stolen bases and runs scored. The “situational hitting” is covered above; the Braves were very bad at it, I think because they were too willing to take outs rather than try to get hits.

  41. they had a high success rate — 68 percent.

    They were 24th in the majors in success rate. But my point was really about baserunning to which stolen bases are only a piece. A team that does not get the extra base, or worse makes an out trying (I’m looking at you Yunel), will naturally underperform their run projection. It’s not luck, it’s the makeup of the team.

    Sabermetrics (This is not meant to label you a sabermatician, but just a general statement) greatest weakness by far is labeling anything and everything luck.

  42. Anything more than 67 percent is good. There just aren’t a lot of runs involved in advancing from first to second. As for baserunning other than stolen bases, I will check the stats, but you’re simply wrong if you’re insinuating that sabermetricians aren’t studying baserunning, because a lot of strides have been made in recent years.

    I don’t think you’d find thirty, much less eighty, runs in the baserunning either. It may be a lack of “timely hitting”, but that really is luck — there is no demonstratable ability to hit better in any clutch situation you can name. A guy hits .350 with runners on one year and .250 the next, that’s just luck, not a sudden attack of cowardice or whatever.

  43. Maybe I’m a semantic stickler (or something else), but this definition of luck has always bothered me, too.

    I think I’ve understood what sabe-types mean when they refer to “bad luck,” but I don’t exactly subscribe to that definition. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s not always “luck” in my book.

    To me, luck is when a good player gets hurt, a ball takes a wicked hop, a Texas Leaguer drops in, an ump kills you with a lousy call or when you get rained out while losing 7-0 in the 4th inning.

    I don’t think having a bad year in one category is exactly luck either. Do we call Francoeur’s bad year, for extreme example, “bad luck”? No, we say he sucked this year.

    If a guy hits .200 with runners on base in 2008, I say he sucked in 2008 in that situation. If you want to call it luck because he hit .300 in that situation the year before, go ahead.

    I’ll just say he had a good year in ’07 & a lousy one in ’08. I wouldn’t necessarily call him an overall choke artist or a clutch guy unless he’s shown a career of it—especially in the world of the extra-round post-season where you now see players roll up scads of games, all of them huge by definition.

  44. I think a large reason we didn’t score as many runs as we should have is we had Francouer batting 5th or 6th for a large portion of the season. When you have a player who bats .192 w/ RISP in +175 PAs you’re bound to score less runs than expected.

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