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Inside the Braves’ second-half offensive resurgence

It’s no secret that the Braves have been raking in the second half. Let’s look at exactly how, and maybe why.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images

A few seasons ago, as the tri-John-umvirate began to methodically dismantle the remnants of the 2014 Atlanta Braves to forge forward with a monumental rebuilding effort, they focused primarily on acquiring pitching. Many of these young pitchers filtered through to the big league team in 2015 and 2016, but the relative dearth of young, talented position players acquired in the rebuilding efforts left an understandable void as far as offensive production.

In 2015, the Braves finished third-to-last in the majors with a 91 wRC+ from their position players. Their 569 runs scored were the fewest in the majors, over 30 runs behind the second-worst team (the Marlins, who played in a far more run-suppressing park).

That pattern did not appear to be changing as April 2016 came around. During that dreadful month, Braves hitters put up a mythically-bad (and basically unheard of) 65 wRC+ for the month. In May, that mark was a still awful 72. By June, the Braves climbed out of the cellar but still had an unimpressive 90 wRC+ mark. But then... something started to happen. In July, it had climbed to 95, only 20th in the majors, but within the realm of relative respectability. In August, the Braves mashed their way to a team 112 wRC+, good for fifth in the majors. While not over yet, the Braves currently lead the majors with a 120 wRC+ for the month of September, and have a 13-9 record during the month to show for it.

The turnaround has not only been impressive — it’s been unprecedented. Since 2001, there have only been 18 teams who have changed 20 or more spots on the team wRC+ rankings across the first and second halves. 11 of those teams “jumped” 20 or more spots higher following the All-Star Break, but only one leapfrogged 28 spots: the 2016 Atlanta Braves.

Specifically, the first-half 2016 Braves crew put up a dismal 77 wRC+, good for last in the majors. Their second-half counterparts? A 112 mark, good for second-best. No team has done that... well... potentially ever. (I only checked through 1997, as the league had fewer than 30 teams before then.) Below is a table of the big second-half risers and fallers since 2002 — you can see the Braves reign supreme in their offensive ascendancy.

No team either jumped as many ranks or gained as many “points” of wRC+ as the 2016 Braves have. In addition, you can see that essentially all of the other big gainers started at a “pretty bad but not abysmal” threshold in the first half, before becoming a good offensive team in the second half. The Braves are the only team to start from as low as they were and get up to well beyond plain respectability, even if a number of other teams have historically hit better in the second half overall.

That this happened at all is already fairly interesting. But, from there, it bifurcates into two valuable lines of questioning. First, how exactly did this happen? And second, what does this mean for the future?

Changes by Player

Probably the most obvious way to examine the augmented offense is to simply take stock of how individual players performed in the first half versus the second half. That’s fairly easy: there were 11 Braves position players with who got more than week’s playing time in both halves of the season, and their offense looked like this across the two halves:

Sometimes, reading numbers can be annoying, so maybe you can just look at the visual below for a more striking view. Each line is a single player, and the thickness of the line represents the relative number of PAs that player has had this season.

If you’ve been paying attention, this may not be surprising to you. In short: the players with lots of playing time (thicker lines) have largely improved, and the players whose batting lines have declined have also been the ones that haven’t started as often. Big, impressive offensive gains from Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis, Adonis Garcia, and Ender Inciarte have poured coal into the belly of this offensive train. I also want to give a shout out to Tyler Flowers who somehow managed to be the exact same guy in terms of offensive production between the two halves (at least so far), while everyone else evolved or devolved around him.

Of course, what the above table and chart don’t do is focus on changes in the cast of characters between the two halves. Dansby Swanson and Matt Kemp are both glaring omissions. Therefore, it also makes sense to look at the differences between the two halves by position, rather than just in terms of how certain players have changed.

Changes by Position

Gaze upon this horrifically ugly clip art baseball field, and un-despair.

This chart tells the story fairly well - with the first bar being (hopefully obviously) the first half performance for a given position, and the second bar being the second half performance, by wRC+. Only one position was anywhere near acceptable in the first half (and in fact, very very good) — Freddie Freeman at first base. The rest were somewhere between “pretty bad” and “avert thine eyes.” Since the All-Star Break, however, one position has been full of rampage (still Freddie Freeman at first base), another has been very, very good (Ender Inciarte in center field), four others have been above average, one has improved from being laughably bad (shortstop) but is still average-ish or below, and one has stayed pretty poor (second base).

In terms of the specific cast of characters at each position, here’s largely what the changes have been:

  • Catcher: Tyler Flowers and AJ Pierzynski split time in the first half, while the second half has been mostly new addition Anthony Recker (124 wRC+ on the season, all in the second half) and Flowers in a timeshare, with a few PAs from a much-improved Pierzynski. The real improvement: less playing time for a terribly hitting AJ Pierzynski.

  • First base: Largely just the Freddie Freeman show, with huge improvements in the second half. (Brandon Snyder got some PAs but not enough to move the needle in either case.) The real improvement: Freddie Freeman’s Summer of Opposing Pitcher Pain.

  • Second base: In the first half, second base was a four-way timeshare between Jace Peterson (average), Kelly Johnson (really bad), Daniel Castro (even worse than Erick Aybar), and Gordon Beckham (surprisingly really good). That averaged out to something really poor (72 wRC+). In the second half, it’s been a platoon-type situation with Peterson (below average) and Beckham (hyper-bad), and the end result has been the same. The real improvement: there wasn’t one at this position.

  • Third base: In the first half, it was mostly Adonis Garcia (really, really bad) with a sizable chunk of Chase d’Arnaud (still bad, but not as bad). In the second half, it’s been mostly Garcia, who’s surprised with an above-average batting line, but whatever other PAs have gone to d’Arnaud have dragged it down with a second-half wRC+ in the 50s. The real improvement: Adonis Garcia putting together a pretty good eight weeks of hitting after a really bad first half.

  • Shorstop: For the first half, this was really a contest of Erick Aybar and Daniel Castro vying for the coveted title of “worst major league performance,” with Chase d’Arnaud providing some “stability” in the form of a below-average but not physically painful batting line. In the second half, Erick Aybar actually rebounded to post a 111 wRC+ before being traded, and Dansby Swanson came up to contribute his own slightly-below average wRC+ of 90ish, while Chase d’Arnaud continued to get some PAs as his production declined. The real improvement: a combination of Erick Aybar looking like a major leaguer and Swanson holding his own after Aybar’s departure.

  • Left field: The Braves used six different players semi-consistently in left field in the first half, but only Jeff Francoeur and Mallex Smith got over 50 PAs. Both had a wRC+ in the 80s in the first half. In the second half, this shifted to new arrival Matt Kemp (119 wRC+) and about 60 PAs to an even-more-struggling Jeff Francoeur (who eventually departed himself). The real improvement: Matt Kemp’s resurgent bat.

  • Center field: This was Ender Inciarte and Mallex Smith in the first half, weighed down heavily by an Inciarte batting line full of weak contact. In the second half, Inciarte has ridden a tsunami of BABIP and better contact to a crazy-good batting line. The real improvement: Ender Inciarte hitting a new offensive gear (plus BABIP and so on).

  • Right field: Nick Markakis has played nearly every game for the team in right field. His first half looked like the usual age-related decline from a guy who saw his power and hard contact evaporate in 2015, leaving him to try and spray liners or pops over shortstop, which he actually did pretty well. However, for one reason or another, Markakis began a turnaround in the second half, as he began to pull the ball more in general, as well as increasing the frequency with which he made contact with authority. The real improvement: Nick Markakis showcasing a more traditional middle-of-the-order approach with power and pulling the ball.

So, there you have it. The offensive surge has been driven by both replacing offensive holes with better performances (catcher, shortstop, left field), and by players making critical adjustments and improvements elsewhere (first base, third base, center field, right field). Second base has been the only sour spot in the second half, but having six offensive positions producing at an above-average rate while another is average-ish is plenty good.

With that said, I think it’s useful to say a few words about the second group above - the four steady starters who have made large gains in performance in the second half. These guys all bat largely together, and part of the reason the Braves have scored so many runs in the second half is because their collective OBPs make it fairly easy to score when they bat consecutively in a given inning. Ender Inciarte on base with Freddie Freeman getting an at-bat later that inning gives you a great chance to score a run, and that’s been happening early and often for the Braves of late.

Ender Inciarte

Inciarte has had the total package of better hitting and better luck working for him. On the better hitting side, you have:

  • Increased walk rate (from 5% to 8% this season, holding across both halves);
  • Way more line drives (23% before this season, down to 20% in the first half, and up to 27% in the second half);
  • Keeping the ball down (a 2.20 GB/FB ratio in the second half that’s better than his pre-2016 mark, compared to a first half where he got too fly ball-happy with a 1.47 mark);
  • More emphasis on pulling the ball rather than weak contact to the opposite field (pre-2015 he was at 34/33/33 in terms of pull/center/opposite, in the first half it was 27/35/38, and he’s up to a 35/35/30 approach that still uses all fields but takes advantage of being able to hit the ball harder); and most importantly
  • Getting away from really poor quality of contact in the first half that saw him hit more balls “soft” than “hard,” which is a bit of a rarity for a major league hitter. His second half has seen him hit 27% of balls “hard” and 20% “soft,” compared to 25% and 19% for those marks pre-2016, and 19%/26% for them in the first half.

On the better luck side, you have:

  • A .403 BABIP in the second half, on the heels of just a .255 BABIP in the first half. Inciarte is a speedy guy who could likely sustain a BABIP above .300, but you shouldn’t expect him to maintain a .400 average on balls in play in the future.

It’s hard for me to speculate whether the stark differences between the first half and the second half are mechanical, mental, physical, or something else entirely. But, something I found interesting has to do with his plate discipline. His pre-2016 and second half 2016 stats are pretty consistent in this regard, but his first half 2016 stats feature an increase in o-contact% (contact made on pitches outside the strike zone) and a corresponding decrease in whiff rate. My guess is that Inciarte was somehow swinging, and making more contact, on bad balls that he should not have offered at but could still put in play. Since then, he’s gone back to swinging and missing a bit more, perhaps saving him from that kind of weak contact here and there, which has let him ride a wave of BABIP and better overall contact to great success.

Still, the plate discipline is perhaps only a small part of the story. It’s undeniable that he’s hitting the ball better than he has in the past. While he may not be able to maintain a 130s wRC+ going forward (because that would be crazy, and make him a fringe MVP candidate with his sparkling defense), he should see an improvement in his overall offensive output if he can maintain the better quality of contact he’s shown in the last few weeks, along with the better walk rate he’s had all season.

Adonis Garcia

Adonis Garcia has been a definite enigma in his season-and-a-half as a major leaguer, if not a particularly effectual one. In 2015, he hit 10 homers in about 200 PAs while basically never walking, appearing to be a guy with massive raw power (albeit a HR/FB% of over 20%) but an approach that could be exploited by pitchers. When 2016 started, he showed some gains in walk rate (from minuscule to really low), but at the complete expense of the power that made him kind of interesting as a hitter. To wit: a .290 OBP with a .500 SLG (Garcia’s 2015 line) is appreciably above league average (about a 110 wRC+), but a .290 OBP with a .350 SLG is just a really awful hitter with few redeeming attributes (and a wRC+ below 70).

In what’s been fortuitous for both him and the Braves, Garcia somehow managed to both build on his poor first half while harnessing some of the intriguing power he showed in 2015. His second half ISO is up to .175, not quite the .220 from 2015 but still much better than the first-half mark of .100. That return in power, combined with a .020 jump in BABIP, and another small climb in his walk rate, has gotten him in to the 110s in wRC+ again in the second half.

What’s weird about Garcia’s resurgence is that his quality of contact has not changed very much across 2015 or the two halves of 2016. His LD% has been pretty much the same across those three periods, as has his hard%, and his softly-hit percentage has actually increased, which renders it fairly strange that he’d have a resurgent second half. One big change is that he started to heavily pull the ball in the second half, compared to a more up-the-middle approach that wasn’t working for him in the first half.

Overall, though, it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in Garcia going forward, if only because these surface stats don’t suggest he’s doing anything all that much better. The walk rate is better but still low, and looking at his plate discipline stats suggests that he’s actually swung at more balls and fewer strikes in the second half, though he has cut down his whiff rate a bit. It’s unclear what Garcia will do going forward, though his career line of around a 97 wRC+ seems like as safe a bet as anything. Still, whatever happens, it’ll probably be interesting, though it remains to be seen whether the Braves will continue to roll with him at third base or seek alternatives for SunTrust Park.

Freddie Freeman

Eric and I covered Freeman in depth during an earlier point of the Freddie Freeman National League Pitcher Pain World Tour 2016, and he’s just kept on keeping on since. He’s still walking like crazy, his ISO is above .300, and his wRC+ is maintaining at the 180 range in the second half. The .406 BABIP doesn’t hurt either. Yes, his HR/FB% is still above 20%, and may (will likely?) come down a bit, but he’s hitting nearly 50% of his balls “hard” in the second half, which is fairly crazy.

He’s still being pitched around to some extent, and he’s being more selective as a result, though pitchers who throw him strikes do so at their own peril. It remains to be seen whether this is a really delicious, extended hot streak, or whether he’s basically reached a new plateau of production, but we’re going to all find that out together next season and beyond.

Nick Markakis

Nick Markakis has a long track record, but he’s also getting on in age, and his first season as a Brave (2015) was pretty different from his career to date. It wasn’t so much that his 2015 batting line was bad, it was just unremarkable: a 106 wRC+ with a high walk rate, but almost no power (three homers, .080 ISO). In fact, his OBP and slugging were with .006 points of another (.370 and .376).

For those trying to read the Greek-flavored tea leaves regarding his future performance, the first half of 2016 was a potentially worrying sign. Markakis crawled to an 86 wRC+ in the first half, courtesy of an uptick in power but a decrease in BABIP. There was a lot of intrigue with that 86 wRC+, however, as it appeared using Tony Blengino’s detailed examination of contact quality that Markakis was getting very, very unlucky on his grounders and liners despite hitting them really hard during the 2016 season’s first half. Part of what makes this sting more is that, as part of his increased power output relative to 2015, Markakis began to hit more balls in the air rather than on the ground or on a line: while this usually depresses BABIP, the increase in SLG is worth it for many hitters. Instead, Markakis got a double whammy of depressed BABIP both from luck and the emphasis on fly balls, and as a result, the power uptick couldn’t compensate.

(Another way you know he was getting unlucky: his HR/FB% doubled from 2015, and his LD% stayed the same, while his hard% went up from 26% to 34%, and yet his BABIP and overall productivity fell, without substantial changes to his walk and strikeout rates. Poor guy.)

Anyway, sob stories aside, Nick Markakis seemingly turned over a new leaf in the second half and went back to being the type of guy you might expect to hit in the middle of a lineup. While his 115 wRC+ isn’t Freeman-level, it’s still a marked improvement from both his 2015 and first half 2016 outcomes.

More striking, however, is how he’s done it. His LD% has jumped by 5% in the second half. He’s continued to trim his GB/FB ratio by lofting balls: he was hitting neary two balls on the ground for every one in the air in 2015, had cut that to about 1.4 in the first half, and is now about even for the two in the second half. Along with that, he’s also hitting the ball much harder: while his hard% is the same as the first half, his soft% has fallen down to 10%, meaning there are few slow rollers or wounded ducks coming off his bat at this point. Critically, he’s begun to pull the ball with authority: after a 29% pull proportion up until 2016’s second half, it’s spiked up to 39%, with a corresponding 10% drop in the amount of balls he tries to take the other way. Not surprisingly, this combination has increased his HR/FB% from a utility infielder-esque 5% to a more normal 9%. His BABIP has also rebounded to the .320s, which may be a bit high given his speed, but suggests he doesn’t have that far to fall even if it goes back to the .300 range.

Where do we go from here?

The Braves are an interesting crossroads for many reasons, but the second-half offensive surge adds another complicating factor to the mix for the Johns. Given that the second-half crew of position players is either under contract for 2017 or can easily be retained, there may be a distinct temptation to think that the position player side of the roster, aside from the bench upgrades, may largely be set for the next competitive Braves team.

Indeed, this is what the Front Office may already be thinking, or at least willing to give public voice to, given that John Coppolella’s latest public-facing statements have focused on obtaining starting pitchers rather than upgrades at catcher, third base, or the outfield. And hey, the second-half Braves have the 5th-highest position player fWAR in the league, albeit with some defensive deficiencies thanks to Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis, two of the guys they would be counting on to produce in this scenario.

So, looking ahead, here’s what I think the pitfalls are:

  • A few things look somewhere between highly and moderately unsustainable, including BABIPs for Inciarte, Freeman, and Garcia. The Braves have the highest team BABIP in the second half (.333), but only the fifth-highest LD% and the 12th-highest hard%. That suggests that even assuming the cast of characters discussed at length above are playing at a performance level they can replicate, the overall offensive performance will take a step or three back over a larger sample. Hardly a death knell or a reason to press the panic button, but still something to keep in mind.
  • Adonis Garcia is really confusing to me, and perhaps to the Braves as well. Coppy did not quite give him a vote of confidence in his latest Twitter session, so an upgrade (or sidegrade?) may be in the cards for 2017. I’d peg third base as a potential thorn in the paw of a SunTrust Park team that wants to be competitive, because Garcia may do something closer to his first half than his second half, and the Braves do not have great alternatives at the hot corner within the organization, aside from the untested Rio Ruiz.
  • I didn’t cover Tyler Flowers in any detail here, and he really deserves his own post. He hits the ball incredibly hard (45% hard%) but not at a great angle, and struggles to make contact or avoid outs via the strikeout. He’s also running a high .364 BABIP; while his hard-contact tendencies have made him a high-BABIP hitter (.career BABIP in the .320s) despite being blessed with catcher’s speed, his stick stops looking like a great option longterm if his overall wRC+ dips below 100 or further still below 90 or so. Even with 2016 under his belt, Flowers has a career wRC+ of 88, and is not getting younger.
  • Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies remain relative unknowns. Swanson has held his own and has represented a world of improvement over Erick Aybar at shortstop, but has so little major league exposure that questions abound. Still, at least he’s shown he can dive right in and be fairly productive right away. Jace Peterson and various infield backups have backstopped the keystone position with a pretty low bar of offensive production, but it hasn’t impeded the team overall. Albies should be a theoretical improvement over them once he is promoted, but there may be an adjustment period. There’s no stellar advice or takeaway here, but just a note of additional question marks up the middle beyond the ability of the key actors of the second half to sustain their runs.

No matter what happens in 2017, however, the ability of this gang to light up the scoreboard as 2016 winds to a close has been a much-appreciated and highly entertaining sight. Whether the first five spots in the lineup creating an uphill climb for opposing pitching or the occasional big blow from Tyler Flowers, Anthony Recker, or Dansby Swanson, it’s been a fun turnaround to watch.

If the offense comes out churning on all cylinders in 2017, there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to point to something here and say, “I told you so.” On the other hand, if they scuffle and various guys start looking like their general pre-second half 2016 selves, nothing will change — there’s an argument to be made that hot streaks happens, and an “I told you so” in the opposite direction. Either way, it’ll be fun to find out.

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