Moving on to baseball, I thought it might make sense to take a look at the Braves hitting prowess thus far as they prepare for the rubber game tonight against the Phillies in what has proven, thus far, to be an exceptionally well-pitched series by both teams thus far.
The Braves offense, as I’ve often said, is built around a high on base percentage (OBP) accompanied by power hitting. This is similar to last year’s team from an OBP perspective, but this year’s team should have a lot more power with the addition of Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman, having Jason Heyward without an injured thumb, having a healthy Chipper Jones, having Alex Gonzalez for a full year, plus having a resurgence from Nate McLouth. Believe me, this is a lot more power. By analyzing recent performances from other teams with similar profiles and comparing them to the Braves teams of 2010 and 2011 thus far, this year’s team should score 7-10% more runs than last year’s team, assuming that this team reaches base at the same frequency of the 2010 team, which should be a realistic target. If one assumes an equal pitching performance to last season, the 770-800 runs scored would be enough to generate a projected record in the general vicinity of 98-64 (.605). I think that most everyone in Braves Country would be pretty happy with that outcome. But, alas, 20% of the season is gone and the team has yet to play even near Pythagorean levels.
So, how’s the offense look thus far? The short answer is that the offense is an enigma. The team has only batted .240 thus far (which is up by over 10 points in the past week and a half) and has an anemic OBP of .302 (which is also up from the .295 area it has set at most of the year. Even with the recent improvement, the team still sits 11th in batting average (BA) and 13th in OBP put of 16 teams in the NL. The saving grace for the team is that they sit third in home runs (HR) with 34. This allows the team to rank fifth in runs scored, which is really hard to do with an OBP of .302. The team also has hit very well with runners in scoring position at .326. On the flip side, they only average 7 AB’s a game with runners in scoring position; that’s near the bottom of both leagues. All-in-all, though, baseball-reference.com has their current Pythagorean (or expected) record at 23-12, 3 and 1/2 games worse than they have played. To put that in perspective, if NOTHING were to change between now and the end of the season, the team’s expected record would be 106-56 (WOW!!), while their actual record would be 88-74. Of course, no one would expect that big a disparity to continue, but then again who would expect some of the bullpen decisions that have been made up to now?
The way I see it, if the hitting improves it’s OBP to .340 from here on out and the “isolated power” (basically a way of factoring out the impact of reaching first base from slugging numbers), the team should score 740-750 runs on the season, even with a bad first 20% of the season. Since the team in total has hit in bad luck thus far (its batting average for balls in play is .278 versus a league average that currently sits at .293 but will likely sit at about .300 at season’s end), a good portion of this improvement will come from luck. The rest should come from the Braves hitters returning to career norms, rather than having the whole starting nine under-performing. And, as a side note, pinch hitting has been abysmal for most of the year, though it has improved a little lately but still sits at .167 BA on the year. Given the current Pythagorean projections, the reasonable expectation of increased run support should mean that 90+ wins should be at the bottom of expectations. Admittedly, this analysis basically assumes that the Braves pitching remains status-quo. However, since the Braves have basically pitched to expectations thus far (they have not been over-performing) and the Braves pitching depth is arguably the best in the majors, this seems to be a reasonable assumption.
So, if the Braves can start to even out on the luck end and our on-the-field decision making can improve to an average (or even just defensible level), the Phillies should not get too comfortable with their lead. At least, that’s my take. What’s yours?