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The 2015 Braves: a sabermetrical case study

A look at what the Braves' transition might teach us about baseball.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In science, there are theories about the world that cannot be effectively tested because of the immorality inherent in testing the theories. Despite this, there are instances in which circumstances will present themselves which will allow the theory to be tested by way of a case study. An outlier case study is when unusual circumstances allow insight into subjects that are generally difficult to study. For example, it was theorized that if a child was not taught language during the early years of their lives they would at some point lose the ability to ever be taught language. Denying children the opportunity to learn a language just to test a scientific theory would be unethical, so the only way to test this theory is by observing the rare case studies of children who, due to unusual circumstances, were not taught language in their early years. By examining these case studies, scientists are able to learn a great deal of useful information about the way human beings develop.

The 2015 Atlanta Braves may serve as the sports equivalent of an outlier case study. Baseball fans love to argue about the value of things like clubhouse chemistry and leadership in terms of helping a baseball team win games. The Braves declined noticeably from 2013 to 2014 without the roster really undergoing a massive overhaul. The major losses from 2013 were Tim Hudson and Brian McCann, two veteran leaders whose production was replaced statistically by Aaron Harang and Evan Gattis. While Harang and Gattis may have matched Hudson and McCann in terms of statistical output, some observers of the Braves said the lack of leadership from the departed veterans caused the team as a whole to perform worse.

One major theme of the Braves' offseason thus far has been correcting the perceived leadership void left by the departures of Hudson and McCann. A.J. Pierzynski, Jonny Gomes, and Nick Markakis have all been touted as players who will contribute to the team not only with their ability on their field but also with their leadership. The thought is that while a player like Gomes may not be a great hitter or defender at this point in his career, his leadership and experience will help the team in ways that cannot be measured statistically.

These sorts of theories about leadership are difficult to measure. The impact of leadership cannot be measured statistically, which is why leadership is labeled as an intangible. The 2015 Braves are unique because they can be considered an outlier case study due to the extreme changes the team has undergone in one offseason. The Braves seem to have lost a lot of talent and ability, but the team has added a group of players generally renowned for their leadership and winning attitude.

Losing players like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis and replacing them with veterans approaching retirement ensures the team will have a net loss in overall talent.  Jonny Gomes is certainly a poorer baseball player than Justin Upton at this point in their respective careers. The question is if adding Gomes, a World Series champion, has some hidden value that won't show up in the stat sheet, but will show up in the wins column. The 2015 Braves may provide some of the best data ever as to the specific value of adding leaders and respected veterans to a clubhouse.

There are other areas besides leadership where the 2015 Braves will provide some answers to questions about the hidden value of certain types of baseball players. The Braves will almost certainly hit fewer home runs than they did in 2014 while making contact at a higher rate. The departure of Justin Upton sees the Braves lose one of the best power hitters in baseball as well as one of the hitters most likely to strike out in a given at-bat. Gattis is a similarly high power, high strikeout player. Heyward was actually a below-average power hitter in 2014, who made contact at an above-average rate, but his direct replacement, Markakis, makes contact at an even higher rate. The Braves also added one of the top five hitters in baseball in terms of making contact in Alberto Callaspo, while strikeout machine Dan Uggla will not be around for even part of the season.

As a result of these moves, the Braves have undergone one of the most extreme changes in terms of approach on offense that can be imagined. The Braves in 2015 will likely be one of the worst power hitting teams in the NL, but also one of the best at making contact. Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is generally viewed by statistically-oriented people as the best statistic for measuring offense in baseball, and trading power for contact is usually a negative by this measure. If the 2015 Braves make contact at a higher rate than the 2014 team, hit for less power, have a lower wRC+, but score more runs, that would suggest there is hidden value in contact that sabermetrics have, to this point, failed to quantify. Certain segments of baseball fans have argued exactly this before, but it takes an outlier case like the 2015 Braves to make progress in answering whether there is hidden value in trading power for contact.

The final area in which the 2015 Braves will be a useful case study is in the measurement of defense. Jason Heyward has often been a central figure in the sabermetrics vs. old school baseball holy war. Heyward has generally been rated an elite player by wins above replacement, while folks who don't subscribe to the church of Fangraphs view Heyward as an average and disappointing player.

The primary reason for the difference in opinion on Heyward is that advanced stats rate Heyward as an elite defensive player, which caused Fangraphs and Baseball Reference to rate Heyward as the Braves' best player in 2014. While no baseball fan would argue that defense is irrelevant, non-sabermetrically-inclined fans generally don't believe a slightly above-average offensive player like Heyward can be more valuable than an excellent offensive player like Freddie Freeman by way of excellent defense. By replacing the player that Fangraphs rated as the best defensive right fielder in baseball in 2014 with a player that Fangraphs rated as allowing 20 more runs on defense than Heyward, the Braves will test just how valuable defense really is.The Braves allowing noticeably more runs in 2015 than 2014 might be evidence that Heyward actually is the elite baseball player that advanced defensive metrics say that he is.

For the 2015 Braves to serve as a proper case study, there must be appropriate hypotheses to be tested. Therefore, I will formulate some guesses as to how I expect these changes to play out for the Braves. Overall, I expect the changes the Braves made this offseason to make the team worse in 2015. The Braves were a bad offensive team in 2014 with only four of their position players being above league average by wRC+. Three of those four players are gone, and their replacements are all projected to have lower wRC+ figures in 2015 than the 2014 players had. It can be supposed that Christian Bethancourt will have a lower wRC+ than 2014 Gattis, the left field platoon of Gomes and Zoilo Almonte will be worse than Justin Upton offensively, and that Markakis will have a slightly lower wRC+ than 2014 Heyward. While these new players plus Callaspo at second will increase the Braves' contact rate, I do not expect this to make the team better on offense.

Nor do I expect the leadership provided by these players to provide enough hidden value to overcome the loss of overall talent. While leadership and chemistry are vital things to have, I do not expect the extra value from these intangibles to outweigh the tangible statistical losses that the 2015 Braves will suffer. This is not to say that leadership isn't an important quality for a team to have, just that the positive effects of leadership won't make up the difference in overall production between Justin Upton and his left field replacements. Finally, I think that the Braves will allow more runs in 2015 due to the loss of Heyward's defense. Suffice to say, my hypothesis is that the case study of the 2015 Braves will reveal the limits of the old school approach to team building.

Now, it is important to establish the methods by which we can isolate the impact of leadership, contact rate, and defense on the fortunes of the 2015 Braves. Baseball is a complicated sport with many variables, and natural variation will provide statistical noise in terms of isolating the impact of the specific things we seek to measure in this case study. For example, it is possible that the Braves get better on offense in 2015 without that improvement being due to the team's higher contact rate.

Theoretically, some of the players leftover from 2014 could drastically improve in 2015, causing the team's offense to improve without that improvement being due to the offseason strategy of replacing high power/high strikeout players with low strikeout/low power players. If Chris Johnson returns to his 2013 form, BJ Upton experiences an offensive renaissance, and Andrelton Simmons becomes effective at the plate, the offense could improve without this telling us anything useful about the value of contact rate. By the same token, if the Braves' pitchers strikeout batters at a higher rate and walk opponents at a lower rate, the team could allow fewer runs despite being worse on defense. This would not mean that Heyward's defense was overrated; it would just mean the Braves' pitching improved more than the defense declined.

To help control for these variables, let's set out some benchmarks which would indicate the efficacy of the Braves' offseason approach. If the Braves score more runs in 2015 than 2014 despite a lower wRC+, this could indicate that there is hidden value to contact rate not accounted for in sabermetrics. If the Braves allow fewer runs in 2015 despite a FIP similar to the 2014 team, this could indicate that the difference between an elite defender and average one is overstated. Finally, if the Braves win more games in 2015 than in 2014 despite what seems like an obvious loss of talent, this could be evidence of how important leadership and experience are to winning games. Drastic improvement by a large number of players, especially young ones, might help to quantify the impact that veterans can have on a team.

I do not expect these things to happen. I think the team will be worse in 2015 than in 2014. My hypothesis is that the leadership upgrade isn't important enough to offset the loss of most of the team's best players, that trading power for contact is a poor trade-off which will result in a worse offense, and that getting worse on defense will lead to the Braves allowing more runs in 2015 than in 2014. If my predictions are wrong, though, the 2015 Braves will cause me to re-examine some of my core beliefs about what goes into winning baseball games.

No matter what the outcome is, the Braves have undergone a drastic change in style and approach over one offseason. This drastic change over a short period of time has created a unique outlier case study to be examined. The upcoming Braves season has the potential to provide fascinating evidence in the debate between sabermetrics and the old-school approach. No matter what happens, the results should be fascinating.

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