In too deep: Braves Outfielders

Moving right along after yesterday’s way-too-long post about the Braves’ infield, let’s talk about the outfielders.

Andruw Jones, CF

It has been a rough year so far for Andruw.  He’s only hitting .235/.348/.439 so far, which represents an increase in his walk rate but a decrease in pretty much everything else.  Joe Simpson has been on his case all year about not going the other way, and you have to figure Terry Pendleton’s been saying the same thing.  What they don’t seem to realize is that Andruw pulls the ball when things are going well for him.  While it would be nice to see him hit to all fields, that’s not really his M.O.  What is troublesome is that he’s striking out too much, but hitters like Andruw tend to have these spells, even if they usually don’t last this long.  I think he’ll be fine.

Andruw is also getting criticism now for being the most overrated CF of all time, according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark.  I’ve liked Stark in the past because he likes to look at the numbers, even if they’re usually numbers that don’t matter (You can usually expect something like this: “…he’s hit three doubles in a game five times in his career, and every time it’s been in June, so look out next month…”).  Of course, now Stark is writing his book, and he’s putting the most controversial “finding” out there on the front end, calling Andruw out for being overrated.  I’m not linking to the story because the premise of Stark’s book is ludicrous, as are his conclusions about Andruw.  Read J.C.’s take if you want more.  Let’s get back to Andruw’s performance this year.

Andruw is hitting a few balls out of the park (14.8% of his fly balls), but that’s not as well as he usually hits.  He typically hits over 20% out, and if he were doing that this year, he’d be close to his normal production.  His PrOPS is (are?) .841, so he’ll return to form as the NL’s best-hitting center fielder if he somehow gets the balls to go out like he has in the past.

Right now, Andruw is in the red for the season in WPA.  He started off slow but had a hot streak in late April that pushed him up to +.251 on 4/30.  Another cold week cost him a whole win, but he had another hot streak that got him over the +.500 mark.  Then, of course, another cold week made him fall back below zero, and he’s been stagnant there for about a week and a half.  Right now, he’s at -.068, or about one-seventh of a win below the average player.

Jeff Francoeur, RF

Frenchy has clearly made some adjustments this year, and as a result, he’s a full win above average with a WPA of +.535.  His strikeout rate is down (17.5% of AB), and he’s walking considerably more (6% of PA).  No one would really call that good plate discipline, but it’s a step in the right direction.  His isolated power is down a bit, but his OPS is way up, and he’s actually helping the team now rather than looking foolish by swinging at pitches in the dirt.

Jeff is hitting more ground balls than you’d expect from someone with his power, and actually his batted ball stats don’t look like a power hitter’s at all.  His HR/FB rate is only slightly better than average, so you have to wonder if he has actually sacrificed some power in order to get on base more.  He’s actually hitting worse than his OPS suggests by about 30 points, since he’s possibly been a bit lucky with his .329 batting average on balls in play.  I’d still take the new Francoeur over the old one, though, even if the old one was a bit more exciting.

Francoeur’s improvement is particulary notable because he’s made all these changes at the major league level.  I would expect to see continued improvement, now that we know he can do it.  At least, that’s what I’m hoping for, because an .806 OPS (.292/.342/.464) would still be a disappointment based on the expectations for his career.

Matt Diaz, LF

So, you thought that the Braves dumping Ryan Langerhas was a sign that Diaz was going to get more playing time?  Me too, and we were both wrong.  The platoon guy with no real lefty/righty split is hitting .345/.358/.487 now, which isn’t half bad.  Like Frenchy, though, he needs to keep that average up to contribute to the team.  He hits for better average than Frenchy, but he doesn’t have the power, and he’s even more impatient.  PrOPS says he’s been a little bit lucky this year, and I probably would have said he won’t keep this up even before seeing that.  I like him better than Willie Harris, and I hope he keeps getting at bats, but he’s not really this good.

Diaz is actually half a win below zero in WPA because of remarkably poor performance in the clutch.  His WPA/LI is actually +.401, but his clutch rating is -.645, giving him a -.244 WPA overall.  It’s depressing to see a guy who is hitting so well do it only when it doesn’t matter, but I expect that to even out over the course of the season.  His season graph looks like someone’s EKG with the ups and downs he’s had, and right now he’s on a down slope, having lost a full win in the last week.

Willie Harris, LF

Harris is simply knocking the cover off the ball.  He’s hitting .389/.463/.528 in 82 PAs since his call-up, and he was tearing it up in Richmond before that.  At the major-league level, he’s controlling the strike zone pretty well (.769 BB/K ratio), but I think the key for him is that a staggering 38% of his batted balls have been line drives.  Anyone who can do that is going to experience some success, but I don’t think that’s sustainable.  Like most speedsters, he has hit more balls on the ground than in the air, but with such a small sample size this year, it’s hard to tell what to expect from him in that area.  He’s 6-for-8 in stolen base attempts, which means he’s made a small net contribution to the team in that area.  It’s also nice that he can play CF if something happens to Andruw.

Once we can agree that Harris will cool off, we can begin to decide how much.  He has a career minor league OPS of .772, which doesn’t bode well for his long-term future.  On the bright side, he’s shown patience at each level, and if this improvement in his contact is in any way real, he could be a decent fourth outfielder down the road.  Even as well as he’s done, I don’t see him as much more than a part-time player this year or in the future.  I wouldn’t mess with him right now, but there will be a time to set him aside later.  At age 28, the Braves can’t afford to show as much patience with him as they did with a player like Francoeur, who also got off to a blistering start with the team before going ice-cold.

Harris’ WPA has been consistently positive, and he is currently at his peak for the season so far, nearly a full win above average (+.458).  His clutch impact has been fairly small at +.069, with a leverage-neutral WPA of +.385.  On a per-plate-appearance basis, he has been almost up with KJ, Chipper, and Renteria.

Minor Leagues

Gregor Blanco is the only Richmond outfielder hitting well, with a .303/.393/.389 line right now.  He hits the ball almost exclusively on the ground and has plus speed.  His 2006 season showed an increasing ability to make contact, which helps his value tremendously, as he was already quite patient.  He could be an interesting candidate for a starting job as soon as next year, if the Braves don’t hand the LF job to Diaz, Harris, or a more-talented all-around player.

The trio of Bill McCarthy, T.J. Bohn, and Doug Clark are basically non-prospects at Richmond, and none of them is playing particularly well.

Brandon Jones is the other prospect making a little noise this year.  Some have speculated that he will replace Andruw when the elder Jones departs as a free agent, but I’m not sure on either count.  He has decent, but not great power potential, and this year’s performance (.275/.348/.488) is not too far off from his career minor league numbers (.285/.363/.456 entering the season).  At 23, he’ll have to keep improving each year as he moves up, and if he does, he may force a decision on the glut of players at Richmond by year-end.  Interestingly, both he and Blanco were born within a week of my own birthday (Jones 12/10/83 and Blanco 12/12/83).

Carl Loadenthal is performing well at Mississippi as their leadoff man, although he’s been old for his league every year and shouldn’t be considered a top prospect.

Matt Esquivel has hit 12 homers for Mississippi, although he is probably more of a fringe guy unless he keeps up this power surge.  Esquivel shares my birthday but was born a year earlier.

Josh Burrus may be nearing the end of the road, as the trio I just mentioned have relegated him to pinch-hitting duties at AA.  He is also 23 and is a former first-round pick, but he has shown a complete inability to make contact in the high minors.

Jordan Schafer is the only prospect at Myrtle Beach, which has a reputation as a pitcher-friendly park but has played fairly normal the past few seasons.  He’s just 20 and is hitting for good power there (.275/.316/.505), but his lack of plate discipline would keep me from rating him too highly.

No one in Rome is performing well enough to warrant mentioning.

Overall, the minor-league system is thin at the outfield spots, with a handful of washed-up guys surrounding 3-4 decent prospects, none of whom project to be stars.  Blanco is the most major-league ready, and Jones projects the best in the long run.  If the Braves re-sign Andruw, they’ll only have one spot available for the foreseeable future.

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