In too deep: Braves Infielders

My weekly Braves post often doesn’t seem like the right place to dive in to player analysis.  Usually, I just whip out the weekly WPA stats and leave it at that, but I want to start looking at the 2007 season as a whole.  Today I’ll look at the Braves’ infielders and catchers, and I’ll move along through the rest of the team.

Kelly Johnson, 2B

Johnson has exceeded pretty much every expectation since the beginning of spring training.  He has learned to play second base, converting from shortstop via the outfield, and he has done quite well manning his position defensively.  So far, he has displayed what could best be described (based on available defensive metrics) as a league-average performance at second base.

Offensively, Kelly has been outstanding.  He has shown that his game is not entirely based on solid plate discipline, hitting for a decent average and plus power so far this year.  His .386 OBP is second among Braves qualifiers, and his .865 OPS is third.  Johnson has struck out quite a bit (1 in every 5 ABs), but he’s walking about as often as he’s striking out.

From a batted-ball-type perspective, his numbers are fairly pedestrian (45% GB/36% FB/19% LD), and his PrOPS (J.C. Bradbury’s predicted OPS based on batted balls and the “three true outcomes” – walks, Ks, and HRs) of .828 is actually lower than his actual OPS so far.  That only means he’s probably hitting a little bit over his head, but the difference is small enough that his performance is completely reasonable.

Johnson is the Braves’ leader in batting WPA, entering today’s game at +1.475, or about three wins above average.  His leverage-neutral WPA (WPA/LI) is +1.097 (also a team-high for hitters), leaving +0.378 to clutch hitting.  Overall, he’s been an exceptional leadoff hitter, and he’s even shown solid baserunning ability, stealing successfully five times while only being caught once.

Recently, Johnson’s offense has stagnated, and he’s basically been stuck at his current WPA level since the end of April.  He contributed almost four wins above average during a two-week span from 4/16 to 5/1, and the remainder of the season he’s been merely average.  Still, I’ll take it.  He’s probably been one of the most valuable players in the league, when you consider the preseason expectations and his league-minimum salary.

Edgar Renteria, SS

I was pretty hard on the Braves’ management for giving up Andy Marte in order to get Renteria, whom I saw as a past-his-prime, no-field shortstop whose contribution was mostly wrapped up in a mediocre, empty batting average.  Luckily for them, Marte has not panned out yet, and (so far) Renteria has been worth the large amount of money the Braves are paying him.

Edgar is hitting a remarkable .317/.374/.492, which is well more than enough to get by at shortstop.  His WPA has trended upward for pretty much the whole season, even though he has already suffered through the flu.  He has been able to handle a power spot in the lineup since Chipper Jones got hurt.  He has struck out 15% of the time and walked about 3 times for every 5 Ks.

Renteria has made very good contact all year, hitting 22% line drives.  That’s great, when you consider that about three-fourths of all line drives fall in as hits, while three-fourths of both grounders and fly balls turn into outs.  He has hit slightly more ground balls than fly balls, and about 11% of his fly balls have left the park (an average number).  Like Kelly Johnson, he’s playing about 40 points over his head in OPS when you consider his .820 PrOPS.

The downside with Edgar is fairly well known, as he is a well-below-average fielder.  He has arguably been the worst in the majors this year, sporting both the lowest range factor and the lowest zone rating among qualifiers.  I’m not thrilled with using those as the primary defensive measures (I’d much prefer John Dewan’s plus/minus if it were readily available), but even a subjective evaluation of his fielding can tell you he’s not good.  His small range is the reason he only has four errors so far.  He’s only 31, but it’s likely his range will only decrease, and if his bat also declines, it will be time to hand his spot over to one of the glut of SS prospects in the Braves’ system (Escobar, Lillibridge, or Andrus).  For now, as long as he’s hitting, the defense is tolerable.

Chipper Jones, 3B

At this point, you know what you’re getting with Chipper Jones.  When he’s healthy, he’s one of the best hitters in the league, but he’s not going to be healthy for more than 75% of the season.  True to form, he leads the team with a 1.017 OPS, but he’s already missed a handful of games.  Jones has hit for impressive power, even for him, knocking out 12 homers and 27 extra-base hits for a .325 isolated power.

How does he hit so well?  For starters, he’s a veteran power hitter who knows what he’s doing when he swings for the fences.  21% of his fly balls have gone out, a rate twice the historical league average, and he has hit more fly balls than ground balls (41% to 39%).  Throw in an average line drive rate of almost 20%, and he’s creating a mess of runs.  A lineup of nine Chipper Jones would be scoring 8 runs per game this year, assuming they could field an entire team all the time.

Chipper is still very patient, sporting the best BB/K ratio on the team at .893.  Given how much he hits for power, his 17% strikeout rate doesn’t seem bad, either.  He has very little speed nowadays, and he hasn’t attempted a steal, nor should he try.  Defensively, he has done a pretty good job fielding balls hit at him, though his range is predictably below average.  Like I said, you know what you’re getting.

Chipper is third among hitters in WPA (+.568), but he’s a long way behind Edgar.  Most of that is because he hasn’t performed well in clutch situations this year.  He’s sporting a great WPA/LI of +.923, but a bad clutch rating of -.409.  He had a good two weeks in mid-April that helped him reach his current level, and it’s been up-and-down since then.

Scott Thorman, 1B

Thorman is the kind of guy who doesn’t really project to have a high ceiling as a major-league first baseman.  He’ll probably be a decent power hitter, but his swing seems too long to keep up the good average also necessary for a mashing corner infielder.  He’s actually quite similar to his predecessor, Adam LaRoche, minus the experience, which is probably why the Braves thought LaRoche was expendable.

While splitting time with Craig Wilson and (gasp!) Chris Woodward, Thorman hasn’t been able to keep up his batting average (.239).  Combine that with below-average plate discipline (.172 BB/K), and he’s not having a particularly great year.  His solid power (.196 ISO) will keep him in the lineup, but it’s possible that he, like LaRoche, will not be part of the Braves’ long-term plans.  Not surprisingly, he’s not making great contact, with an anemic 12% LD rate.  He’s also hitting a lot of ground balls, which is not good for a player with his lack of speed.  13% of his fly balls have been home runs, so if he could put more balls in the air without sacrificing his contact skills, that would be ideal.

Thorman gradually increased his WPA despite his irregular playing time, and by May 16 he was looking pretty good at +.663.  Since then, he has fallen into the negative numbers.  It remains to be seen if he will begin losing ABs to backup catcher and top prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has been taking grounders at first base.  It’s not like Thorman can’t handle the position defensively, though.  He’s actually more athletic than most, and you could make the case that he’s been among the best first basemen in the league.  I’d still rather have a great hitter.

Brian McCann, C

McCann was simply a stud last year, and he has experienced a slight dropoff this year that is even more pronounced after he started 2007 on a tear.  Since the first week of the season, he has fallen from +0.8 in WPA to just north of zero, and his hitting line of .276/.335/.434 is still great for a catcher, but not quite in line with what was expected from him.  Hopefully his injuries have been partly to blame, and he’ll turn it on again soon.

Brian is hitting a fair amount of line drives and fly balls, the types of hits that suit him the best, but his problem has been that not enough of the fly balls are leaving the park (6%).  That’s keeping both his real OPS and PrOPS down, so it’s not like he’s just hitting the ball right at people and suffering from bad luck.  He’ll need to turn that warning-track power into home runs again to remain an elite hitting catcher.  His walk rate is decent enough, and he doesn’t strike out a lot, so I wouldn’t get too worried about his current slump.

McCann has made more than a few defensive mistakes behind the plate, and he leads all MLB catchers with six errors.  Throw in four passed balls, and it’s obvious he could improve his play defensively.  He has thrown out 21.7% of runners attempting to steal, which is toward the bottom of the league, though teams aren’t taking advantage of him more than other catchers.  I think he’s probably better than he has been so far, but he’s probably not going to be a great defensive catcher.  As long as the pitchers don’t have a problem with him and he keeps hitting, he’ll be fine as the backstop of the Braves present and future.

Chris Woodward

Woodward has logged time all over the infield, even at first base, where his bat makes him slightly worse than “completely incompetent.”  To put it a bit more nicely, he should probably be toiling away in AAA somewhere.  Okay, so that didn’t come out nice either.

Let’s try this again: Chris Woodward is probably a nice enough guy.  Unfortunately, he has a career OPS+ of 77, meaning that his OPS has been 77% of the league average over the course of his career.  It was 58 last year, and it’s 56 so far this year.  PrOPS doesn’t help him out, either, pegging his OPS almost right on the money as an impatient fly ball hitter who strikes out a lot and whose flies always stay in the park.  As long as he doesn’t have to play much, though, that’s probably okay.  He’s also a below-average fielder, for what that’s worth.  The less Woodward plays, the better off the Braves are.

Pete Orr

Pete has been taking up a roster spot for the Braves for a while now, and there’s not really any rhyme or reason to it.  His baserunning skills seem somewhat overrated to me, since he only does okay advancing around the bases, and he’s not really a stolen base threat.  Never mind that baserunning skill isn’t a particularly great reason to keep a virtually worthless hitter (who doesn’t even play a premium defensive position like SS) on the roster.

Orr is a worse hitter than the aforementioned Chris Woodward, a tough feat to accomplish for a player who has been on a major league roster for 2+ seasons without any previous track record of success.  He’s hitting predictably bad this year, though Bobby Cox has fortunately used him only sparingly.  Guys who can produce a .418 OPS in the major leagues are a dime a dozen.  PrOPS has him pegged at .620, but it’s not like that really matters.  76% of the balls he hits are ground balls, and only 12% apiece are line drives and fly balls.  If he could beat out those grounders even 1/3 of the time, he might be a decent player, but if that were the case, he’d probably be training as an Olympic sprinter.  There’s really not much more to say here.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C

The Braves have two Catchers of the Future right now, so it’s likely that one of two things will occur: A) one of them will not remain a catcher, or B) one of them will get traded.  Neither is likely to happen to Brian McCann, which is why I’m constantly pondering the future of the budding power hitter we know as simply “Salty.”

Jarrod is hitting .313/.405/.438 since his unexpected callup from Double-A Mississippi.  He has a positive WPA in limited ABs while spelling Brian McCann.  He’s also been taking ground balls at first base, so it’s possible he’ll start occasionally for Scott Thorman down the road.  Salty has played far too little to speculate about his hitting at this point, but most people are projecting him to be a player who hits for both average and power.  So far, over half of his batted balls have been in the air, which would be fantastic if more than 6% of them were going for home runs.  I wouldn’t read too much into that, though.  It looks like he’s going to be a serviceable major leaguer right away.

Martin Prado

Prado had an outstanding spring while battling Kelly Johnson for the second base job, ultimately losing that battle and getting demoted to Richmond.  He doesn’t project to be much more than a singles hitter over his career, and his plate discipline isn’t good enough to make up for that and turn him into a valuable hitter.  Still, I’d rather have him than Orr or Woodward, despite his slow start since being called back up.

Minor League System 

Yunel Escobar (SS) is hitting .329/.374/.457 at Richmond, but he’s probably only getting the call if Renteria or Woodward has to miss an extended period of time.  He’s not my favorite Braves prospect, but he has proven over the last year or so that he at least deserves a chance at the major league level.

Brayan Pena (C) has been passed over by Salty on the team’s depth chart for now, but he could get the call from Richmond again if the team trades Jarrod or moves him to first base.

Brent Lillibridge (SS) is a guy I really like, but he’s not really tearing it up at AA Mississippi, with a .725 OPS and 13 errors.

J.C. Holt (2B) was off to a fast start at Mississippi, but he’s not hitting well since he was called up to Richmond.

Van Pope (3B) was very high on many prospect lists because of his glove work, but he’s off to an awful start with the bat in Mississippi, hitting just .146 with a little power.

Diory Hernandez (SS) has been on fire to start the year, but his age-relative-to-league (23 in AA after playing almost two years at A+) means that’s what he’ll need to keep moving up, especially in a system loaded with shortstops.

Kala Kaaihue (1B) is hitting for decent power in A+ Myrtle Beach, but his .243 average leaves something to be desired.  An .846 OPS including eight homers in such a pitcher’s park is actually pretty good, though.

Eric Campbell (3B) is another one of my favorites, but he’s off to a terrible start at Myrtle Beach, hitting .211.  Like Kaaihue, he’s still hitting for decent power, so I’ll hold out hope that he turns things around with a solid season and passes Van Pope on the team’s 3B depth chart.


5 thoughts on “In too deep: Braves Infielders

  1. Johnson has been amazing. He sometimes looks really awkward making routine plays at second (e.g. his footwork when he starts a 4-6-3 double play), but he also makes some amazing plays. If he stays at 2B, I think he’ll develop into a very good fielder.

    Thorman reminds me of Paul Bunyan, but sadly, the resemblence is more in the way he looks than the way he hits. The thing is, if everybody is healthy, he should be the 8-hole hitter, and you’ll take a .235-.265 with 20+ HR power at the 8 spot.

    That being said, as good as Salty appears to be offensively, a lineup with him at first instead of Thorman and Diaz/Harris platooning at LF would be pretty formidable: really no easy outs 1-8.

    Starting pitching is still a problem, and because of that, we might shop Salty. I would hate to lose him, but it would also be hard to complain if we got a big-time pitcher for him.

  2. It’s also a concern that most of the Braves minor leaguers are not taking any bases on balls at all. About the only one who showed great plate discipline and the ability to draw walks was Saltalamacchia in AA. Granted most of the recognizable Braves prospects don’t have ridiculous strikeout totals, but if they aren’t taking pitches at lower levels, it doesn’t bode well for higher levels. If that keeps up, I bet there will be new hitting instructors across the board next year.

    Your Atlanta Braves minor league infield analysis did not mention the ultimate poster boy of nepotism- Jonathan Schuerholz. He received a callup after a beautiful .182/.182/.308 line in AA Mississippi. He’s 1 out of his last 20 at Richmond, though I will compliment his improved plate discipline- 5 BBs to 3 Ks, whereas he was 2 BBs with 9 Ks at Mississippi.

  3. I saw Schuerholz’ line, and I guess the only positive thing about him being in the system is that it keeps the Braves from rushing real prospects. Still, he has a career minor league OPS of 600, with no single year higher than 718. Obviously he doesn’t have a major-league future.

    I had no recollection of Woodward, but I guess there was no reason to remember him while we were chasing the Ben Grieves and Miguel Tejadas of the league.

  4. I remember the year that Huntsville had Grieve & Tejada on the same team for a couple months. Tejada was probably 170 lb. soaking wet when we saw him @ 1998. The “Vitamin B-12” shots did wonders for his musculature. We missed Andruw Jones by one day because of the rainout. He was called up to AAA that evening and wasn’t there for the next day double header.

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