(Ed. note: yesterday was dumb and there’s your recap.)
I’ve been cranky almost all of 2019.
I was ecstatic when Alex Anthopoulos was hired and excited when he brought in Josh Donaldson on a one-year deal last winter. But as the calendar turned from 2018 to 2019 and no additional moves came, I soured. Hard. It was clear that the Braves were not a flawless team — the Braves needed help in the bullpen, and were thin at catcher, outfield depth, and the starting rotation — and I was furious at the front office’s willingness to stand pat. Here’s what I wrote then:
Thank God being a Braves fan means I get to watch Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and forget about the venal morons in the executive chambers who are too busy four-putting the Sharper Image smart greens on the master suite Persian rug while short-selling frozen orange juice concentrate futures to be bothered to improve the team.
Well, scoreboard. Anthopoulos signed Dallas Keuchel midseason, swung deadline deals for three fine relievers to plug major holes in the pen, and made key August waiver acquisitions of a backup catcher, backup infielder, and backup outfielder, finally addressing every area I’d been so incensed they’d failed to fix before April. And the team proceeded to waltz through the division, winning more games than any Braves team in the last 16 years.
In retrospect, Anthopoulos’s strategy seems pretty clear: the Braves had a young starting core and a really strong farm system, so it was reasonable to bet on the existing talent to provide a strong offense, and to play wait-and-see when it came to pitching, in order to avoid being locked into an overlong contract for a hired gun in case any of the young players on the cusp firmly established himself as deserving a permanent role.
Frankly, he was absolutely right. Even though right field and catcher were really just as weak as a pessimist might have feared; even though the starting rotation that was supposed to be anchored by guys like Mike Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman, and Sean Newcomb saw something near a worst-case scenario out of all three; even though the best position player prospect on the farm, Austin Riley, turned back into a pumpkin shortly after a scorching start; and even though the bullpen was a Superfund site for much of April, the team nearly won a hundred games. “See how it goes and tweak from there” was maddening on the hot stove, but it was the right call.
Why was he right?
I was too focused on the narrow specifics: the projected starters for right field (Markakis) and catcher (McCann/Flowers) were weak. The starting rotation and bullpen, which on the second game of the regular season of the season featured Bryse Wilson, Wes Parsons, Jonny Venters, Jesse Biddle, Chad Sobotka, and Josh Tomlin, were weak.
Didn’t matter. Why? Because “starting five” is a polite fiction. One hundred sixty-two times a year, you’re going to pencil someone into the “P” slot, but a lot of them are going to wind up being fill-ins, injury replacements, hot-hand callups, and other motley spot starters. So the measure of a team’s starting pitching performance isn’t just the top five — it’s how they got to 162.
If you’re lucky, 70-80% of those 162 will be made by guys you trust. But you won’t know how lucky you are till you look at the number of zeroes on the invoices from the doctor’s office. What really matters is how confident you are that you’ll be able to fill any holes you have, whether due to ineffectiveness or injury.
The 2018 Braves had very good starting pitching: second best in the NL. Their top four starters accounted for 72% of their starts: Folty, Teheran, Newcomb, and Anibal Sanchez twirled a combined 116 starts. Kevin Gausman, Mike Soroka, and Max Fried tossed in another 20 very effective starts. The other 26 starts were mediocre to bad, from Brandon McCarthy, Touki Toussaint, Matt Wisler, Bryse Wilson, Kolby Allard, Luiz Gohara. That’s a good case study of a good frontline with good depth.
The 2015 Braves had really bad starting pitching: sixth-worst in the NL. Their top two starters, Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran, accounted for 66 starts, and then they had three other starters who made either 19 or 20 starts, so their top five guys only accounted for 77% of their starts. (The #3 starter, Alex Wood, was good. The #4 guy was Williams Perez, and both of them stunk. #5 was Matt Wisler; enough said.) After that came Folty, before he was good, and 22 dreadful starts from Manny Banuelos, Eric Stults, Trevor Cahill, and Ryan Weber.
(All stats via baseball-reference.com.)
Just typing out those names illustrates the depth issue: Perez and Weber were fringe prospects; Stults was a mediocre journeyman; Cahill and Banuelos were once hotshots but injuries made it unclear whether they’d ever succeed; Wisler and Folty were prospects who clearly weren’t ready for prime time but got 34 starts anyway.
The comparison between 2015 and 2019 is instructive: in 2015, Folty made a ton of ineffective starts. In 2019, he got sent to the minors and figured it out. Wisler was kept; Gausman was cut.
And, of course, Anthopoulos went out and got Dallas Keuchel on a half-year contract, one which I loathed at the time — I wanted a multiyear deal, and I wanted Kimbrel. I thought the bullpen was an even bigger problem. But the trades for Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Chris Martin addressed that hole far better than Kimbrel could have, and Keuchel provided the stability that the rotation was sorely lacking.
If he had missed out on Keuchel, he would have needed to bring in a different starter by trade. But his decisive actions demonstrate that he would have.
In the end, the 2019 Braves are somewhere in between 2015 and 2018: sixth in the NL in starting ERA, but firmly in the upper half of the league. The top three starters, Teheran, Soroka, and Fried, were very good and accounted for (as of this writing) 57% of the team’s starts; then came Foltynewicz, Keuchel, and Gausman, who supplied another 34%, which were mediocre on the whole (Gausman was terrible, Keuchel was great, Folty was both). The remaining 8% or so came from Newcomb, Wilson, Wright, and Toussaint, and while they were bad they were also very limited. You can’t take that performance to the bank, but you can live with it.
It’s Billy Beane’s old strategy, of course: as paraphrased by Tom Verducci, Beane “regard[ed] the season in thirds: the first to see what you have, the second to fix it and the third to let it ride.”
I’ve been a curmudgeon for much of the year, stubbornly insisting that I was right to be annoyed about the lack of major action between January and March. But the team knew what it was doing. They were right. I was wrong. Like Rob said: