AA Was Right and I Was Wrong: The Division-Winning 2019 Braves

(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:

28 thoughts on “AA Was Right and I Was Wrong: The Division-Winning 2019 Braves”

  1. I think everyone was justified in being frustrated with the lack of moves in December through March. After all, the whole rebuild seemed to have led up to this offseason being The Big Offseason, and then it was the exact opposite.

    I feel different towards Alex than I feel to national writers/talkers who buried the Braves in February and March. The difference I make with Alex vs., say, Craig Calcaterra is that Alex is a disgruntled fan (as we all were), and people like Casey Stearn on MLB Network Radio or Craig Calcaterra all bled together as seemingly uninformed people who are blaring a talking point that was more of a prediction than a statement of fact. “Oh, the Braves are going nowhere! Look at what this ownership is doing to this team! Until Liberty sells the team, expect the Phillies and Nationals to put the Braves in the cellar!” I draw the line with where the person’s attitude is coming from, and I think Alex’s was decidedly better. I consume MLB Network Radio and Twitter regularly, and I just simply couldn’t avoid tales of doom from people who seemed more interested in telling tales of doom than actually getting it right.

    For me, going forward, the question is over whether this is good enough. As SunTrust Park and the Battery become more and more of a real estate success, and therefore the bad TV deal becoming seemingly less and less of an issue, is a league average payroll good enough? Everyone can agree that if the season ended with March payroll numbers, that would have been awful. When the pessimists can find agreement with the homerists of homers, then it’s clear. But what about league average? Ought there be an expectation for more?

    If you squint, you can see that with some teams, payroll is fluid from year-to-year, and it’s dependent on where the team is on win curve. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but teams like the Phillies and Nationals have dramatically increased their payroll over the last couple years, seemingly pushing their chips to the table. Has Atlanta done that? And if in their minds “pushing their chips to the table” means a league average payroll, is that enough?

  2. Thank you for the lovely retrospective and confessional, AAR! It’s always a joy to read your work. You’re a huge part of the engine that keeps this little blog going.

  3. Rob and Alex,

    I think that the frustration each of you seem to share, possibly in different doses, is your perspective on “efficiency” as it relates to FO operation.

    AA has shown that he will not operate “inefficiently.” That is essentially an absolute for him. He may pay a significant haul and take on a significant salary, but only to fill a gaping hole with a least a good probability of moving forward (think Beck for Melancon with a hanging 2020 salary).

    So, if your judgment on the coming offseason is “are we spending a lot of money” or “are we making a splash” then you will again be disappointed.

    They perceive the general need for pitching as low. On that, they probably offer arb to Folty, elect Teheran’s option, and offer arb to Greene. Otherwise, they will only get at most, one starting pitcher. And, that pitcher will be a bargain, as perceived by the FO. Example: there is a 4/5 type available and the FO is convinced that Fast can turn him into a 3. Or, there is a 3 that they think Fast can turn into a 2 or fringy 1. With all of the still unbroken upper minors pitching talent, they will not go out and get any relievers or more than 1 starter, and he will have to be a bargain by their test.

    They will spread money more than you will think appropriate. If you trade Ender and don’t resign Markakis, that gets you half way to a Brantley type (if one is out there). With Waters and Pache in AAA, they want to be sure they avoid the suck. I know AAR spent quite a few words over the “rebuild” (and even before) complaining about the absolute suckitude of Melky, Mudge, and Struggla (the premise being, if we were just average rather than negative WAR, how much better we would be). AA would rather avoid below replacement performance than add elite performance.

    FO will also make any large free agent moves early in offseason. If BoreAss wants to string out to February, FO will move on. The big ticket item(s) will occur early, to allow alternative plans to be implemented.

    FO will value the loss of a draft pick highly. Not meaning they WON’T accept an FA that will cost a pick, but they will put the value of the pick into the calculation at a high number before they do that.

    FO MAY extend one or more “young uns.” They will not let getting new outside talent get in the way of what FO deems to be a favorable extension.

    So, all of that is to say “the man knows his crap. Chill out.”

  4. On the plus side, Alex, that paragraph you cited (the one with the Sharper Image putting greens and frozen orange juice concentrate futures) was probably my single favorite take-down of Liberty Media all offseason and pretty much perfectly encapsulated my thoughts at the time, as well.

    And I do still wonder why, if the whole thing was a choice by AA, why did they not just say so rather than making themselves look like idiots with ham-fisted talk about real estate “edifices” and paying down debt and all of that?

    All of which is to say that I’m very glad they opened up the pocketbook midway through the season, but they’re still a corporate behemoth and I still only trust them as far as I can throw them.

  5. @7, all absolutely right. Honestly, that should probably be its own post. Very sharp analysis. And absolutely right with respect to my own views on avoiding sub-replacement-level production. That’s one area where the 2019 Braves have been vastly superior to the 2019 Natinals.

  6. As someone trained to see option value in waiting for uncertainty resolves before committing, I was never that troubled by AA’s stance as the rest of you. But I also agree with Nick — you confuse people when you tell them you’re going to spend money and you don’t, and you brag to your shareholders about all the money you’re making which is only indirectly related to baseball operations. Plus, AA is (we now know) a guy who gives very few hints about what he’s doing, and doesn’t respond to public pressure to clarify his thinking.

    Nice writeup AAR, and more people ought to link to Sloan. Plus, it adds to our Canadian content for the local Sorokans who check in from the Frozen North. (My favorite song is Fading Into Obscurity, but we sure aren’t ready for that song yet!)

  7. @9, and also @7

    Ehhh…. I don’t know how one can say that the team will add, at most, one starting pitcher and in the same breath state that the team views the general need for pitching as low. If you are in the market, then you don’t view the need as low.

    As evidence that they do, in fact, view the need as more than low, let’s look at what they did this season. They added Dallas Keuchel. As the trade deadline approached, they continued to be in the market for starting pitching with multiple stories linking them to TOR for Stroman and DET for Boyd. There was also interesting Mike Minor with TEX. The Braves were interested in trading Folty and acquiring another starter. The conclusion is that the Braves are interested in making changes to the rotation.

    The rest of what @7 says is pretty reasonable, but I don’t believe that we will see the same song and dance from the front office every off-season. Last off-season, it wasn’t clear that the team had entered the window for contention and there was a sentiment that the young wave of talent may have played over its head early. That picture has cleared up a lot this season and it’s evident now that we are in the window of contention. I believe the playoffs will have some bearing as to how far the chips will be pushed forward.

  8. By the way,”wait and react” has one big downside as a strategy. If you come out of the gate really, really badly, you never spend the money (since you can’t do so efficiently.) THEN the fans burn you at the stake at the corner of Peachtree and West Peachtree. And if you spend the money at midseason and come up just short, you will get a lot of second guessing as well.

  9. My favorite Sloan song is probably tossup between Penpals and Underwhelmed. For anyone on the blog who doesn’t know Canada’s best power-pop band, basically what you should do is listen to Twice Removed, then if you really like it, you should probably listen to One Chord to Another, then Between the Bridges, and if you like that you should listen to Never Hear the End of It, at which point you should listen to every note they’ve ever recorded (bearing in mind that you should leave their debut album and their debut EP, Peppermint, for last).

    If you’re all about the Spotify playlists like the youths these days, then in addition to the songs mentioned earlier, be sure to check out “A Side Wins,” “Delivering Maybes,” “The Other Man,” and then listen to the first five songs of Never Hear the End of It in a row because they all seamlessly slide into one another and do a wonderful job of showing off the band’s range.

  10. When Alex gets to the Golden Gates the receptionist will ask him, ‘obsessive baseball or obscure melodics?’

    In the first instance he and his glove will be sent to the original Elysian Fields, Wash will be at third, daily practice.

    In the second, unwise answer, all citizens within a one mile radius will be gifted with noise cancelling earphones. Como, Sinatra and Crosby will applaud.

    Alex, I want to see you on the front page of the Post, your writing deserves it.

  11. Alex, I know I’m a late-comer but excellent piece. Thanks. I think that one unmentioned aspect of last winter is how much work AA may have been doing on a lot of other deals that did not happen. If he could have gotten “efficient” deals or “value” on his terms then the offseason may have been more active than it appeared. And that goes back to the old cliche of the deals not made may be some of the best deals of the season.

    That being said, just the contrast of the top 3 core pitchers over time mentioned in Alex’s posts is a really good mirror of the rebuild (exclusive of single year add-ons):

    2015 = Miller, Teheran, Wood
    2018 = Folty, Newk, Teheran
    2019 = Soroka, Fried, Folty/Teheran

    How all the pieces, AA has added over the whole year are deployed next year will be a fun part of the offseason this year. There are so many that just seeing what decisions are made on current players could fill the offseason.

  12. Hey, I was wrong about the end result. And I’m really glad I was. I probably predicted 72-90. They got the regular season right in that they won the division.

    However, we’ve witnessed some things that, as fans, can make us feel all sorts of ways:

    1. If the end result is acceptable, does that mean the front office can mislead fans in the off-season? We all heard what was said the last couple of years. What’s wrong with just saying, “We trust the team we have,” and being done with it? “Shop in any aisle” and “financial flexibility” still grinds my gears.

    2. Baseball has a free agency problem. Why the hell was Keuchel unsigned as long as he was? Why couldn’t AA have signed him in the off-season?

    3. Are we ok being used to continuously increase the value of the franchise/real estate deal as long as they win some games? I understand the team wants to monetize everything now, but prices continue to rise for everything from tickets to being able to meet a player at ChopFest ($100 to get in line for a pre-signed Acuña, Jr. lithograph, for example, that may as well have been lightly scribbled by Charlie Freeman). They are pricing many folks out of attending.

    Maybe I don’t know anything. While I will celebrate like a madman if they win a postseason series (especially the big one), part of me still has the above issues in the back of my mind. Go Braves!

  13. @17

    very well said….and

    Trey Harris and Justin Dean off to a flying start in the AFL…our two young pitchers very much less so.

  14. Reading AAR’s excellent post and the thoughtful responses it generated has been almost cathartic. I had a meltdown on this board back in May, after one of the many, many early-season bullpen implosions. In especially irrational fashion, I claimed I was done with the Braves and would start following the Pirates! It might have been the most cringe-worthy thing I’ve ever written–including the trove of ill-advised expressions of romantic devotion from my youth. I never even looked to see what kinds of responses it may haver gotten, knowing that those of the withering kind was all it deserved.

    Anyway, I could no more give up the Braves than I could give up loving dogs–or, for that matter, “obscure” bands like Sloan. (I can’t claim it’s one of their best, but “Money City Maniacs” always amps me up.) And I’ve been frequenting this blog, almost exclusively as a lurker, since Mac and I both lived in Tuscaloosa in the late ’90s. (We never met, alas.)

    So . . . like, AAR and others, I was wrong–but in a much, much less elegant and entertaining way. Thanks for helping me heal.

    Now, about the NLDS . . . I have concerns. But those can wait until next week.

  15. I give us about a 70% chance of winning the first round of the playoffs, a 40% chance of winning the 2nd round, and a 30% chance to win it all. I will consider the season to be a success as long as we win the first round. Losing in the 1st round would be devastating given the season we’ve had.

  16. All I want is for the Braves to knock out the Cardinals for 2011 and 2012. If they turn right around and get swept out of the NLCS, so be it, but please just beat the Cardinals.

  17. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
    Our Dallas, dear Lord, make him all he can be
    insist he stay low, not ascending the heights
    and no more than five till the night of all nights.

  18. @17 Those are all fair questions.

    Every GM across baseball uses the art of “GM speak”, so as not to tip their hand. I get the need for it. Anthopolous, in particular, seems very versed in the art. That’s part of what frustrated me so much last offseason, though. As a fan, when you’re telling me you can “shop in any aisle”, how am I not supposed to be frustrated when you come home with day old donuts and a promise of ice cream cake later on?

    Anthopolous did a masterful job this season, however. He added the perfect piece to the puzzle in the form of Josh Donaldson. He added in season, as promised, by signing Keuchel and trading for some bullpen upgrades. It’s hard not to give the guy an “A” on the report card.

    In the same breath, a little more transparency would’ve been nice. Tell me you’re happy with the team as constructed going into the season, and even if I don’t like the inaction, I’ll understand it. Just don’t spend an entire offseason emphasizing how much money there is to be spent and leave me wondering why you aren’t filling glaring holes that even we, as fans, can see.

  19. Since everyone is wondering, here is what I would do for the NLDS rotation:

    Game 1 Keuchel
    Game 2 Folty
    Game 3 Soroka
    Game 4 Teheran
    Game 5 Keuchel

    And then in an NLCS at LA

    Game 1 Soroka
    Game 2 Keuchel (assuming rested)
    Game 3 Folty
    Game 4 Fried
    Game 5 Soroka
    Game 6 Keuchel
    Game 7 Folty/Fried tandem

    Fried out of the pen in LDS and Julio in LCS

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