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Braves 2017 Player Projections: Infielders

Freddie Freeman leads the charge with Dansby Swanson providing plenty of intrigue, but a lot of the supporting cast is worrisome.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to another installment of 2017 player projection reviews. The topic du jour is infielders, which includes the man that will presumably be the best Braves player in 2017: Freddie Freeman. As was done for catchers, what follows below is a quick Q&A that you can skip if you’ve already read it, or plain don’t care, then the table with the projections, and then some player-by-player text and tidbits.

Introductory Q&A

What projections is this exercise looking at?

Three: Steamer, ZiPS, and a very rudimentary system I’ve come up with myself, which I jokingly call IWAG. Steamer and ZiPS are both featured on Fangraphs. As best I can tell, Steamer is maintained by Jared Cross, Dash Davidson, and Peter Rosenbloom. ZiPS, of course, is curated by the inestimable Dan Szymborski. The data from Steamer and ZiPS were collected off of Fangraphs’ individual player pages. The only adjustments I made were pro-rating the values to a different number of PAs, to put each projection on equal footing.

What stats is this exercise looking at (for hitters)?

Three: wRC+, Def/600, and WAR/600. You can find a quick rundown of these in many places, including last year’s post or the Fangraphs glossary.

Essentially, wRC+ is a great catch-all offensive stat that credits hitters for good results at the plate (e.g., homers, walks, etc.) while ignoring anyone on base in front of them, the game situation, and so on. It’s park-adjusted, and the best thing about it is that it’s scaled to 100, meaning that a 150 wRC+ indicates a hitter produces 50 percent more runs than a league-average hitter, while a 75 wRC+ indicates a hitter produces 25 percent fewer runs, etc.

Def is Fangraphs’ method of combining how well a player fields his position with the inherent value granted a player for playing a given position. (This latter chunk is referred to as the positional adjustment.) The positional adjustment is +2.5 for second and third basemen, +7.5 for shortstops, and -12.5 for first basemen over a full season of play, and so are a little lower on a 600 PA basis.

WAR is the biggie, and attempts to quantify a player’s overall production, across hitting, fielding, and baserunning. For hitters, WAR is neutral with regard to context (whether runners are on base, or whether it’s a close game), so it’s really just an assessment of the specific outcomes the player was involved in, whether that’s hitting a double versus making an out, making a play versus failing to field the ball, or taking an extra base versus going station-to-station.

Why not counting stats? Aren’t you excluding most of what the projection systems actually do?

Yes, but I don’t find the counting stats that interesting. Is it possible to project RBI for every hitter? Absolutely, and Steamer/ZiPS do it. But RBI aren’t fully-influenced by the player’s own skillset, and don’t give you a great sense of the player’s overall production or skill level by themselves. I’ve chosen three manageable endpoints that give you the big things you probably want to know about a player: how well he hits, overall; how well he fields, adjusted for the difficulty of position; and, his total projected value for the upcoming season, over a full season’s worth of play.

Blah blah I know all this already. What’s changed since last time?

For hitters, not much. The only major thing I’ve been tinkering with (and still haven’t fully resolved) is a good way to align (or smush together) the additional hitting information available for players with recent minor league stints with the relative paucity of fielding information for these players, especially if the players spent entire seasons in the minors. (As you can tell, this is a big concern for the Braves, who are going to be leaning heavily on young players in the immediate future.)

Where this disconnect occurs, the Def and WAR values are going to be highlighted in gray, and will look somewhat weird, because these will be the cases where the listed wRC+ and the listed Def don’t suggest the listed WAR. The short explanation for this is that the Def and WAR projections I use (and again, this is only for IWAG, Steamer and ZiPS are much more sophisticated and have already solved this problem, if they’ve ever even encountered it) lean very heavily on the player’s major league results, while the wRC+ projections incorporate more minor league data, leading to a disconnect. If I had to choose, I’d go with the WAR values listed for these players over adjusting them to account for different (usually better) offense, but I think the minors-influenced wRC+ numbers are interesting in and of themselves, too.

The current Braves roster contains a varied assortment of potential infielders. You’ve got the presumptive around-the-horn starters of Freddie Freeman, Brandon Phillips, Dansby Swanson, and Adonis Garcia, some backups that might see substantial playing time like Jace Peterson and potentially Rio Ruiz, and then some non-contending roster jetsam, like Micah Johnson and Chase d’Arnaud. You also have the very exciting Ozzie Albies waiting in the wings, as well as the very unfortunately injured Sean Rodriguez.

*Projections for other players can be provided on demand, though at this point I’m not super-clear on who else is worthy of a projection that may see time at an infield position in 2017. Perhaps Johan Camargo? Anyway, ask away in the comments if you’re interested in other infielders.

The projections for the infielders look like this.

A player-by-player review follows. Players are not listed in alphabetical order, as above, but in terms of my own judgment potential relevance/interest to the 2017 Braves team.

Freddie Freeman

In some ways, Freddie Freeman is the Atlanta Braves. Even with that accolade, however, the natural regression-to-the-mean tendency of projection systems tampers down expectations for him in 2017. Freeman’s career wRC+ is 135; his wRC+ last year was 152. The projections hew closer to the former, though IWAG is more willing to heavily weight his 2016 offensive outburst. The same also holds for his WAR: he’s been about a 3.3 WAR/600 player so far, career-wise, and one season with a 5.3 fWAR/600 is a lot to buy into.

Last season, though, Freeman made the projections look daftly conservative. Can he do so again? If so, you’ll probably see a very strong uptick in his expected offensive output for 2018.

On the defensive end, Freeman has made substantial strides since some pretty poor defensive marks in 2011 and 2012. He’s an above-average first baseman, and once again, IWAG is more heavily weighting recent history in giving him a run or two over Steamer and ZiPS.

In the end, and this can’t be said for most of the 2017 Braves team, we know that Freddie is going to be awesome. The question is more about how awesome he’ll be. Also, just in case you’re wondering why the WAR numbers seem a little low relative to his career stats — Freeman generally puts up over 600 PAs a season. Therefore, WAR/600 undersells his potential WAR totals a bit. He hit 6.1 fWAR last season in nearly 700 PAs, while the WAR/600 mark was 5.3 for that total.

Dansby Swanson

Where Freeman is the Braves, Swanson may be the heir apparent, and also the hair apparent. Sorry. (Not actually sorry.) Both Steamer and ZiPS think that he’s got some offensive development to go, saddling him with a below-average batting line. Where they differ is his defense, with ZiPS going whole hog on giving him some above-average defensive accolades and boosting him to an above-average regular, while Steamer plays it conservatively, giving him slightly below-average defense that results in a slightly below-average WAR/600 total.

The dark gray shading in the IWAG column indicates that I had to make some special modeling assumptions for Swanson, mostly because he lacks a sufficient professional track record for the model I have to do its complete set of work. Ideally, the IWAG model tries to use about 1,800 professional PAs before coming to a conclusion; Swanson’s had 714 of those so far. In fact, if he plays every day, he may accumulate more PAs in 2017 than he has in the rest of his professional career.

With all that said, IWAG is working off of the consideration that while Swanson probably won’t continue to benefit from a .383 BABIP, he will offset that drop by posting a sub-20% strikeout rate and by using his speed and contact skills to add some additional extra-base hits to his batted ball mix. Optimistic, perhaps, but he’s shown the ability to do both of those things in the minors. To compensate, IWAG heavily (and downwardly) regresses his defense, mostly due to a lack of information. The result is a solid performance closer to 3 WAR than 2 WAR (and not too far off from ZiPS, though the component pieces are different).

Regardless, even Steamer’s conservative approach has Swanson at close to a league average player in 2017. That’s a pretty good sign, given his room to grow.

Ozzie Albies

Unless something crazy happens, Albies will not make his major league debut in April 2017. He may not even make it until June 2017, or, if he struggles at AAA, perhaps September 2017. Regardless of what happens, though, his raw potential represents one of the most salient considerations for the Braves, not just for 2017, but for the foreseeable future as well.

As is perhaps prudent for a kid that hasn’t done much at AAA, much less the majors, Steamer and ZiPS give Albies an 80ish wRC+ expectation for 2017. They combine that with pretty good defensive marks (a solid 2B, or an average-y SS) to give him a WAR/600 of around a single win.

By contrast, IWAG (who again, lacks any major league defensive track record to work with, hence the dark gray shading) incorporates his recent pounding of AA pitching, and in concert with a less-than-stellar showing at AAA (89 wRC+ in 247 PAs) and his earlier domination of the minors, settles on a league average 102 wRC+ for 2017. Lacking any defensive information, he gets more or less the straight positional adjustment for second base, which adds up to an above-average 2.4 WAR/600 tally. Albies (and Ruiz, below) are two of the biggest deviations between Steamer/ZiPS and IWAG this year, and it’ll be really interesting to see what happens. If IWAG is being too aggressive on guys like Swanson, Ruiz, and Albies, who hit well in the minors, that’ll be a good tweak to make for the following season.

Brandon Phillips

If the recently-acquired Brandon Phillips has a primary job in 2017, it may be trying to avoiding the stalking horse known as age-related decline. After a six-year run where he put up at least 2.7 fWAR and five seasons with league average offensive production or greater, Phillips has averaged a wRC+ of about 90 the past four years. He’s declined off his peak, for certain, but was still plenty productive until 2016, when his defensive value continued to fall and he only totaled 0.9 fWAR for the season.

Steamer and ZiPS, likely looking forward, see the 35-year-old as due for another step back offensively. Combined with some average-to-above defense, they peg him as essentially a backup. IWAG is willing to be the slowpoke with regards to Phillips, believing that if he can put up a 97 wRC+ as a 31-year-old, and a 92 wRC+ as a 32-year-old, he should be able to stay right around there as a 33-year-old. The same logic holds for his defense, making him something like a below-average regular instead of a bench player.

Rio Ruiz

Rio Ruiz hit for a 118 wRC+ in AAA last year. That’s gotta count for something, especially since he was just 21 years old at the time. Steamer and ZiPS don’t care much, saddling him with a wRC+ in the 80s that looks a lot like the one projected for Ozzie Albies. Steamer is also very vindictive about his defense, which I’m puzzled by. In any case, neither expect much of anything from Ruiz in 2017: Steamer thinks he’ll be below replacement level, and ZiPS has him at a meager 0.6 fWAR/600.

Rounding out the “young guys with modest track records” trio, IWAG takes the AAA performance with greater weight, figuring him for a low-90s wRC+ in the majors. Combined with the “I plead the Fifth about his defense” fielding value, that makes him out to be something between a bench player and a below-average regular. The reason this is pertinent is because...

Adonis Garcia

Adonis Garcia is his own entity. He’s played only about a full season in the majors so far, but is going to be 32 years old in 2017. His highest non-rehab stint minor league ISO was .203, but in his first stint with the Braves, he put up a .220 ISO and 10 home runs in about 200 PAs. His defense often looks atrocious (in fact, so atrocious that the Braves keep vacillating between third base and left field for him), but somehow the metrics have not been unanimous in decrying his fielding (-10 DRS, -2 UZR over about a full season, which is a pretty wide disparity and we lack the additional data we need for things to potentially settle into a pattern).

For all of that strangeness, though, what Adonis Garcia generally hasn’t been is a guy that shows sustainable signs of serving as a productive major leaguer. For his career, he has a laughably low walk rate (under four percent), and his homer outburst in 2015 was tempered by a power outage in 2016, where it appears he focused a wee bit more on getting on base, at the expense of the one thing that made him playable at the major league level. He also doesn’t run the bases well, and, well, even if it’s not a bad defender, he’s probably not a good one. As a slow guy whose upside is maybe-average hitting and defense, there’s not a lot of there there.

Which, of course, is why Steamer and ZiPS have him hitting like he did in 2016 (or worse), and fielding somewhat poorly, en route to being barely/somewhat above replacement. IWAG has a more complicated relationship, thinking that he could eke out another league average batting season based on him pounding AAA pitching over the past few seasons and thinking that, in a vacuum, his defense may be unremarkably bad, but in the end also settles on pretty much what you’d expect from a guy that only made his debut due to a lack of any better options for a rebuilding team: essentially replacement level.

To that end, why not give Rio Ruiz a try? What’s the worst that could happen?

Jace Peterson

Jace Peterson seemed like an exciting get in the Justin Upton deal. He didn’t really display above-average tools anywhere, but beat up on minor league pitching at pretty much every level. Even though it wasn’t clear exactly what his path to success in the majors might be, there was the hope that like other well-rounded players before him, his lack of overt weaknesses would make his overall skill package play up.

As you know, that’s not at all what happened. Despite showing some good plate discipline, Peterson’s first season in the majors featured pretty unimpressive contact authority. The defense looked and played well, but it looked like adjustments were definitely on the menu for him to stick as a major league regular.

Enter 2016, where, despite a month-long banishment to AAA, Peterson further improved his good walk rate and cut down on his strikeouts while increasing his power some, becoming almost an average hitter. On the flip side, though, his defense cratered, making him far less valuable in 2016 than he had been in 2015, weak batting line and all.

Swanson and Albies are imminently going to be the up-the-middle combo for the Braves. The Front Office felt so little confidence in Peterson’s ability to man the keystone in 2017 that they brought in the aging Brandon Phillips. The projections largely feel the same way, running the gamut from “poor hitter who can’t field” to “fairly poor hitter who isn’t great at fielding.” Harsh? Perhaps. But Peterson hasn’t given any system much to go on, despite 1,000 PAs in the majors. If he puts it all together, it’ll have to be in a utility role, and it may not even come with the Braves.

Chase d’Arnaud

On the other end of the possibly-replacement-level-utility-guy spectrum from Jace Peterson, you have Chase d’Arnaud. He’s 30 years old, he’s spent parts of five seasons in the majors, he has a career 61 wRC+, he’s not a particularly noteworthy fielder, he’s got no power, but hey, did you hear he has a band? Only a team with so little position player oomph like the Braves would have given d’Arnaud 260+ PAs last season, but that’s exactly what happened.

Steamer and ZiPS don’t really get why he exists, giving him abysmal marks offensively (and who can blame them), and a sub-replacement projection overall. IWAG is somewhat more generous, figuring that with enough PAs, he might be poor rather than terrible with the bat, but there’s still little upside there. It probably won’t matter for the 2017 Braves, but hopefully the Front Office takes a little more care to stock the bench with better players when the Braves are legitimately ready to contend.

Micah Johnson

The Braves acquired Micah Johnson from the Dodgers for essentially the lowest price you can pay: a player to be named later or cash considerations. After hitting for a 145 wRC+ in 351 PAs for the Charlotte Knights, Johnson struggled in 114 major league PAs, and then was traded to the Dodgers, where he was unable to repeat his performance for the AAA affiliate (82 wRC+) in Oklahoma City.

Never regarded as a good fielder, Johnson doesn’t really have much going for him. Steamer and ZiPS have him as equally or less valuable than Chase d’Arnaud, albeit with better hitting and worse defense. IWAG can squint and see a below-average but livable hitting line based on some success he’s had against minor league pitching, but even so, this isn’t a guy that should be taking up a roster spot, even with those considerations in mind.

Again, it’s kind of weird to think that Johnson could shore up a major league bench, but that’s the position the 2017 Braves found themselves in. Of course, this is fairly moot at the moment, as Johnson will be missing some time with a wrist injury, and will likely need to work his way back through the minors before he gets a shot at the big league level for the Braves.

Sean Rodriguez

The Sean Rodriguez signing ($11.5 million, two years) was a great one by the Braves, both for the sake of team quality, and also for interest. Rodriguez is hyper-flexible defensively: he’s stretched at short and can’t play catcher, but can hack it everywhere else. Rodriguez hits left-handed pitching quite well (career 112 wRC+ against lefties). Most intriguingly, Rodriguez provided an interesting test case for projections, as he changed his approach in 2016, leading to by far his best offensive season. The extent to which projections would/would not have picked up on that in lieu of projecting solely on past performance (which included the improvements in 2016, but also pre-adjustment numbers as well) would have been very interesting to examine.

Alas, Rodriguez was hurt in horrific circumstances, and may be doubtful to see the field in 2017.

Had Rodriguez been healthy enough to play, though, projection systems would be interestingly split on him. In general, the projection systems have him as losing a lot of defensive value, combined with a bat around average. Once again, with heavier weighting on recent results, IWAG is the most sanguine, pegging him at a 105 wRC+, while Steamer sees him as replacement level by combining a 91 wRC+ with a loss of eight runs defensively.

In general, though, Rodriguez is (well, would have been) a strange case. The projections assume he faces a standard pitching mix; in reality, a team using him properly would most deploy him against lefties, and no doubt the projections would be higher if they mostly factored in his performance when he had the platoon advantage. Similarly, while Rodriguez played all over the place recently, including shortstop (where he’s stretched), first base (where the positional adjustment is hard to overcome), and the corner outfield (same as first base, but to a lesser extent), his overall defensive numbers are negative. With more deployment at second and third base, as he was potentially likely to see in a Braves uniform, his defensive values could also have improved (or not, small sample defensive values are very thorny to think about). Given that, I would not be surprised if a properly-deployed Sean Rodriguez put up 2 or 3 WAR on a rate basis, as compared to the 1ish WAR IWAG had him pegged as for “standard” player usage.

Overall, the Braves’ 2017 infielders project to have a very good producer in Freddie Freeman, an average-to-good producer in Dansby Swanson, and some potentially solid contributions from second base in the form of Brandon Phillips and Ozzie Albies, although each has substantial downside risk. The remaining slots, including both third base and the bench, represent substantial sore points. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s how it really plays out, or if any of these players can pull a rabbit out of a proverbial hat.

Next time: the very scant list of current Braves outfielders.

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