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Mucking through the Braves’ LF/DH morass

The Braves have a lot of options, but there isn’t a clear path forward. Can we figure one out in real time?

Houston Astros v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2022 Atlanta Braves are a great team with a great roster. In addition to a top-three overall pitching staff, their position players generally rank in the top 10 among all MLB teams relative to their peers. The exceptions are the positions where injuries took hold (2B, RF), and of course, the small-scale disaster that has been the Braves’ LF/DH situation all year.

The problem itself is pretty easy to identify. The Braves have used eight different left fielders this season; Adam Duvall’s 0.9 fWAR in 100 PAs there is still their best mark, and Duvall’s been injured for the last two-plus months. Everyone else has combined for -0.7 fWAR while playing left field for the Braves in 2022. Meanwhile, the inaugural full-season DH spot for the Braves has been similarly ghastly: Ronald Acuña Jr. has 0.7 fWAR as a DH in 127 PAs, and everyone else has combined for -1.9 fWAR. As a whole, including Duvall and Acuña, the Braves have gotten a 97 wRC+ and some pretty horrid defense (over seven runs below average) from left field, and an 84 wRC+ from DH.

Again, the reasons why aren’t that complicated.

  • Eddie Rosario: -1.1 fWAR in 270 PAs
  • Marcell Ozuna: -0.6 fWAR in 507 PAs
  • Robbie Grossman: 0.2 fWAR in 157 PAs as a Brave; -0.3 fWAR in 477 PAs overall in 2022
  • William Contreras, who doesn’t belong here except in the sense that he DHes: 2.4 fWAR in 376 PAs.

All of this has already happened, and it does little to answer what the Braves should do to maximize their chances of winning a bunch of short series in their immediate future. Contreras seems like a no-brainer to start, but he’s also outhitting his xwOBA a ton; Ozuna remains on the roster and has a giant xwOBA underperformance.

I don’t actually know what the Braves should do. Maybe you do, but I don’t. So, in the interest of doing things a little differently, rather than doing the work and then crafting the article around that work, I’m just going to do it live. Again, I have no idea what answer I’m going to get to.

The very basics

Okay, let’s just take the very basic stats for these guys. Just 2022, since they’re still playing at, y’know, the conclusion of the 2022 season.

If we stop right here, this is... pretty clear. Contreras should DH, because out of everyone, he has the best offensive stats. Ozuna should probably play left field, despite his fielding, because the run value difference between a .337 xwOBA and a .281 xwOBA is about 27 runs over a full season, which is way bigger than... four runs.

However, I have no intention of stopping right here. One year is one year, and we’ve got a bunch of variables in the mix. Below is the same table, but we’ve also got: stats since becoming a Brave (including postseason), the last three years, and the latest projections, such as they are.

To be fair, this does little for us. As Braves, Ozuna’s xwOBA goes up relative to his 2022, and while Grossman’s defense has at least been non-horrid in his tiny-sample Braves exposure, it doesn’t give him any real leg up. If you take the wide view, Grossman’s offense gets a boost, but it’s still likely in Ozuna’s favor even if you take defense into account. At least it’s kind of close — the difference over a full season between a .313 wOBA and a .370 mark is about 11-12 runs, compared to the eight-run difference on defense.

Probably the only place it gets more interesting is if you just look at the projections, but use one of the recent defensive track records. (The reason why this is done is because projection systems generally don’t start assuming playing time for a guy at a position he’s likely not going to play, so it’s hard to do apples-to-apples projections with everyone in left field, for instance.) In any case, using the current Fangraphs Depth Charts projections, the difference between Grossman and Ozuna over a full season in terms of batting runs is about five, and there’s a decent chance that the defensive gap between them is bigger than that. Poor Eddie Rosario, though. Or, really, poor Braves for giving Rosario a two-year deal.

So, basically the above suggests Contreras at DH and Ozuna in LF, defensive issues and all, or for those with an aversion to goofiness in the outfield and a big discounting of Ozuna’s quality of contact, Grossman in LF in his place.

But of course, overall batting lines aren’t the only rationale for starting assignments. For the most part, teams know the identity of the starter they’re facing in a given game, and what hand said starter throws with. So, we can take this table, and focus just on xwOBA by handedness.

Things vary a bit depending on which table you look at, and the implications for both batting and defensive runs therein.

  • Using 2022 alone: A combination of Contreras and Grossman is the no-brainer against lefties. A combination of Contreras and Ozuna is the no-brainer against righties. Grossman has been so bad against righties that defensive considerations don’t override anything.
  • Using Braves tenure only: Since this gets away from Ozuna’s strange 2022 xwOBA handedness splits, where he’s only really hit righties and not lefties inputs-wise, this makes the Contreras-Ozuna pairing the clear winner no mater the handedness of the opposing starter. Grossman hasn’t actually hit lefties that well as a Brave in terms of inputs, though its a really small sample to base anything off of.
  • Last three seasons: This is probably more in line what what you’d expect to see without doing this exercise, I’d guess. .010 of wOBA is about a five-run difference over a full season, but the defensive difference over the same dataset between Ozuna and Grossman is bigger, on the order of about eight runs. So this is probably Contreras-Grossman against lefties and Contreras-Ozuna against righties, just like 2022.
  • Regressed platoon splits. A big thanks is warranted to Ian Malinowski of DRaysBay for doing the legwork and letting me just yank these without calculating them myself. This is another clear Contreras-Grossman combo against lefties. Against righties, you can probably argue it either way. Fundamentally, the defensive single-season difference between Grossman and Ozuna looks like somewhere in the range of four to eight runs, and the difference between Ozuna’s regressed-and-meh .315 against righties and Grossman’s regressed-and-terrible .299 is seven or eight runs, so this is probably a toss-up. If you don’t want to start Ozuna at all, this is probably what you’re pointing to, but it involves setting his xwOBA, including whatever is going on with it in 2022 in terms of platoon splits, aside.

Also, pobrecito Rosario. I’m pretty confident he’ll make the playoff roster, but it’s hard to justify it based on any of the above. He generally just seems strictly worse than Grossman, and while he’s been somewhat better in September and it’s kind of hard to tease out him being baseball-blind and then coming back very quickly from a rehab assignment from his other numbers, the reality is that he had -2 OAA in September alone and finished that month with a .274 xwOBA that only goes up to .284 when facing righties, so yeah, I don’t know what he’s really here for at this point.

Okay, so really, you could stop there. But, just to push it a bit further, what if we think about pitches? Hitters have different success rates against different pitches, and of course, opposing starters have different arsenals. So we can take that last set of tables, and really dice them up into all sorts of nonsense.

Gray = less than 20 PAs ending against the given handedness plus pitch type.

Honestly, this is about as much of a mess as the whole exercise in the first place. Recall that just above, we settled on something like Contreras-Grossman against lefties, and Contreras-Ozuna against righties, with maybe some leeway towards Contreras-Ozuna for both. The question is whether anything leads us to change any of this.

2022 alone is a fairly small sample, and the only suggestion here is that maybe Ozuna should start against a slider-heavy lefty that actually throws that slider to righties. That seems unlikely enough that it’s probably not a huge concern. Grossman, meanwhile, has been bad enough against righties across the board in 2022 that there’s not much to point to here to dissuade the Contreras-Ozuna pairing.

If we use just their Braves tenure, Grossman’s samples are pretty small. You may consider starting Ozuna against a sinker-heavy lefty and/or a lefty that uses a non-slider secondary. There’s still not much to suggest that Grossman should start over Ozuna against a righty in the pitch splits.

Probably the most useful of these tables is the one for the last three years, where the samples are something other than teensy. Here, you can probably justify starting Ozuna over Grossman if a lefty starter uses a breaking pitch against right-handers instead of a cutter or changeup. Given how much Contreras struggles with breaking pitches, this may also be the rare case where you bench him against say, a lefty with a gyrospin-type, one-plane downward-break slider, but I can’t even think of who qualifies as that that the Braves might face. Against righties, this mostly just reinforces that the Braves don’t have good options here; maybe Rosario’s only use is to start against a righty who throws mostly sinkers, but how is that hypothetical pitcher even starting a playoff game?

Bottom line: draw your own conclusions from the above, but it looks like Contreras-Grossman against lefties and Contreras-Ozuna against righties.

One final note: I know there’s the temptation to use smaller samples, i.e., performance-since-August or from September-onward to try to catch lightning in a bottle. Fundamentally, there’s no indication that either A) recent performance better predicts immediate future performance than larger-sample performance; or B) that we should use anything other than fairly large-sample performance given that the Braves will have nearly a week of off-days before they start play. As such, I haven’t entertained any of those splits here, but if you find some backing for them, that would be interesting!

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