The Braves passed the halfway pole of the season yesterday by scoring five runs against Felix Hernandez (I know, I’m as surprised as you are) to complete a sweep of the Mariners in Seattle and move 12 games over .500. Despite an offense that has been painful to watch, the Braves have a three-game lead over the field for the wild card spot. As we learned repeatedly through the 90s and 00s, all that matters in baseball is getting your playoff lottery ticket. When it comes to winning the World Series, William Munny was right: deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.
So why are the Braves having a good season? The pitching is an obvious answer. As Joe Lemire points out, the Phillies and Braves are both in striking distance of becoming the first teams in 22 years to have a team ERA below 3.00. This morning, I want to give credit to a less obvious candidate: Alex Gonzalez. I was not happy when the Braves swapped Yunel Escobar for Gonzalez, reasoning that we were buying high on a player who was hitting at an unsustainable level. A year later, my fears about Gonzalez regressing to the mean offensively have been realized. Gonzalez has a miniscule .274 on-base percentage and an OPS+ of 76, which means he is well below the norm in terms of his production at the plate. After his 23 homers last year, he has all of seven this year.
Despite being close to Uggladom with the lumber, Gonzalez is second among the Braves’ position players in WARP (Wins Over Replacement Player). How is that possible? Well, according to the Baseball Prospectus, Gonzalez has been the most valuable fielder in all of the majors in 2011. His glove work has generated ten runs of value for the Braves above and beyond what a replacement-level player would have done in the same spots; no other player in baseball is above nine runs of value. This is one of those instances where an advanced fielding metric matches up with what our eyes tell us. I am certainly not alone among Braves fans in having marveled at Gonzalez’s work in the field this summer. It’s been a pleasure to follow my Twitter feed during games to see fans repeatedly compliment the guy for being an ace with the leather. Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, and Tim Hudson – a trio of low strikeout, low walk, groundball machines – ought to be particularly grateful to be playing with Gonzalez. If there is any justice in the world, then Gonzalez will win a Gold Glove. It’s just too bad that he’s not in the AL so he could lose to Derek Jeter.
It’s good that Gonzalez is having such a good year, because otherwise, it’s a grim season for Braves position players. Because of an average year at the plate and a bad season in the field, Chipper has been a tick below replacement level. Freddie Freeman has been at replacement level, which is good by the standards of Braves first basemen since Andres Gallarraga and is forgivable for a young player in his first year as a regular in the majors, but still isn’t going to get a team to the playoffs. Whether because of a sophomore slump or bad instruction (I refuse to consider that he isn’t going to be a great player), Jason Heyward has been one of the lowest-performing right fielders in the NL. Martin Prado has recovered from a bad start to be solidly average, but that’s a major step down from his 2010. Nate McLouth is only passable in comparison to his lost 2010. And the less said about Dan Uggla, the better. The Braves have experienced a team-wide offensive collapse. Other than Brian McCann, every player on the team is at or below expectations offensively. That’s a sign of a coaching failure, which means that the Braves need to be thinking about making a change with the hitting coach. It would be a shame to waste an MVP-type season from McCann, a Gold Glove-type season from Gonzalez, and a terrific season from the pitching staff collectively because Larry Parrish has apparently told the Braves to go up there and swing at everything that moves.
The team’s weak performances with the bats make me a little leery of the idea that trading for a big bat in the outfield will be a panacea. Normally, I would look at this team and say to myself “man, we are one bat away from being right there with the Phillies. It makes financial sense for the Braves to push themselves over the top. Let’s not let the desire to save money in left field be the difference between making the playoffs and staying home in October.” That said, if Parrish can turn Dan Uggla into the second-worst second baseman in the National League, then what is he going to do with Carlos Beltran?
I can also see an argument on the part of Liberty Media that the team’s attendance does not justify an increase in the payroll. The Braves are 15th in the majors in attendance, despite the facts that they are coming off of a season in which they made the playoffs and they have been over .500 for the vast majority of the year. At times, it has seemed as if the Braves have more fans on the road than they do at home, a popular team that doesn’t draw at home as well as they should. Liberty Media is not in the business of losing money, so the argument for taking on a big, expensive bat in the outfield is less persuasive than it would be if the team were drawing 35,000 per game.
How did I start this post singing the praises of Alex Gonzalez and then end on such a grim note?