You wonder what the Atlanta Braves thought earlier in the month when Clayton Kershaw became the second pitcher to win a Most Valuable Player award in the last four years. Maybe they got a little angry when they saw a pitcher win, because just a year ago their own Freddie Freeman finished fifth in the National League MVP voting. Maybe they issued a zealous whistle, glad that their division foe Giancarlo Stanton didn’t embarrass them even further.
Or maybe they snapped their fingers and said, “That’s it, forget the lineup.”
The third possibility doesn’t seem mad when you consider their recent moves and interests—moves and interests that suggest that the Braves have seemingly given up on hitting as an important part of their team, just a few years after pumping up their lineup and committing to it.
First, there was Jason Heyward. When the Braves traded away their 25-year-old homegrown talent Monday in a package that brought Shelby Miller to Atlanta, maybe they hoped they gave the St. Louis Cardinals a raw deal and will get the 2013 Miller. But really what that trade said was that the Braves didn’t believe in his hitting anymore.
Heyward didn’t have a great 2014 season. While he was one of the best defensive outfielders in Major League Baseball and will earn a handshake of dollars because of that, he only hit above average for his position. He got on base at an impressive .351 mark, but his power numbers (.384 slugging percentage and 11 home runs) dragged him down from superstar status.
But even though he didn’t belt the ball at the plate, Heyward was still one of the Braves’ best hitters this season. The Braves’ lineup this year was in a word, yikes. Heyward ranked fourth among the Braves’ regular hitters in OPS+, despite a mark of only 108. When it wasn’t Justin Upton, Freeman, or Evan Gattis, it was Heyward who answered the call.
Yet the Braves dealt him to the Cardinals. For the team that only ranked above the San Diego Padres in runs scored this year to trade away one of its few run producers, says to the rest of baseball that it is willing to part with just about any hitter. If any team cared about its lineup, why would it let such an important cog go when it already has pitchers?
If that was the only move the Braves did or talked about, then you would seem skeptical about a supposed focus away from the plate. But a few days ago reports came out that Atlanta wants to make Jon Lester an offer.
Yeah, any team would love to have Lester; a 1.102 WHIP and a 4.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio in any free agent’s most recent season will just about assure that. But this free agent comes will come with a long-term contract of at least five years. When it comes to pitchers, that’s someone who’s with you for the long haul. What that says to a team’s fans is that it wants to win on the mound.
That would be fine if the Braves made big lineup additions too, but they have yet to match it. So far it’s pitching staff 1, lineup 0, with the possibility of the score moving to 2-0. And even if they don’t get Lester, the decision to make the pitch to him right after they traded Heyward indicates that they don’t care about the lineup even close to as much as they do their pitching staff.
Someone might then make the argument that, well, maybe the Braves just wanted to amp up their pitching and still intend to keep their lineup whole, or maybe even make a move. Someone might say that only trading away Heyward isn’t enough evidence to show that the Braves could rid themselves of any hitter.
Yeah, tell Upon that.
A deathblow to a lineup being the apple of a team’s eye is when the club wants to trade away arguably its best hitter. What was once a whisper has become a scream to Braves’ fans, as Atlanta reportedly intends to shop Upton on the trade market.
There’s no way the Braves can say sending Upton away is a positive, even with his defensive woes. Upton may have posted a -0.9 Ultimate Zone Rating in 2014, but he had the second-highest OPS+ (132) on the Braves and led them in homeruns (29). Upton doesn’t have a lengthy pedigree for that kind of production, but he still has put up an OPS+ of at least 124 three out of the last four seasons.
When a club puts the guy who is at worst its second-best hitter on the trading market, it completely shows that it doesn’t care about hitting anymore. The Braves, after all, were an anemic long ball team, going yard only 123 times, 11th fewest in the league. There’s essentially no way an MLB team can argue it is protecting its lineup when it wants to send away roughly 25 percent of those homeruns.
It’s not as if the Braves’ moves wouldn’t play to their strengths. The only reason Atlanta didn’t finish with nearly 90 losses is because its pitching saved it. The entire staff posted an earned run average of 3.38, the fifth-best mark in the majors.
The Braves may have sent one of their top relievers, Jordan Walden, to St. Louis in the Heyward trade, but they still have Anthony Varvaro (139 ERA+) and Craig Kimbrel (I’ll give you his 1.61 ERA, just to show you how good he was across all boards) to carve up opposing lineups late.
Add that to a rotation that includes Alex Wood and Julio Teheran and will see Kris Medlen return—all of whom posted Fielding Independent Pitching totals under 3.50 in their most recent seasons—and it makes sense to focus on pitching more.
But to hamstring your lineup at the same time? That’s when it gets a little odd.
Do it a few years after you invested in that lineup, and that’s when it gets a little crazy.
A few seasons ago, the discussion about the Braves’ lineup was centered on locking it up for the long haul. Remember that crazy time, not even two years ago? They signed B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75 million contract two years ago; traded for his brother Justin before the 2013 season; and in February gave Freeman the largest contract in team history, an eight-year, $135 million deal. Now the Braves look determined to trade one of those pieces, they already sent away their homegrown talent Heyward who they wanted to keep forever, and they wish they could find someone to take B.J. Upton off their hands.
These moves aren’t even about the payroll, however. Many people see the Braves’ interest in trading away Heyward and the Uptons as a sign of the Braves looking to the future, focusing on cutting down large contracts, and rebuilding for 2017 when they move into SunTrust Park. That seemed like the rationale after they traded Heyward, who is set for free agency in 2016, before they did a 180 and showed interest in Lester. Lester, the guy who would cost them more than $100 million.
The Braves’ hitters certainly contributed to the front office backtracking on its quest to keep them together, that’s for sure. The strikeout totals—at least 1,300 the past two seasons—are well documented, but the lineup didn’t crumble until its power numbers plummeted. Just a year before, Atlanta had four 20-home run hitters and were first in the NL in home runs.
But as hitting becomes more and more fallible and hard to come by, and teams are willing to over deal and send great pitchers only for good and above-average hitters, the Braves look like they caught on, saw the bright spots on their roster—most of which had an ERA accompanying their names—and adapted accordingly. It’s not a silly decision, and the Braves may be late to the party and likely won’t see one of their players up high in MVP balloting again for a while, but the moves are in place for them to follow the crowd’s trend: to pitch their way to victory.
In the meantime, those Braves players at the plate will just have to hope another team cares about them.