Braves Leadoff Hitting


Hello Tomahawk Take readers! I am Julien Benjamin, the newest blogger to the site. I use a sabermetric approach to analyze the game, and I hope to help readers to get a better understanding of these metrics. I will try to not beat you guys over the head with these new-age stats, but do know that I use them heavily. Now, let’s talk about Simmons.

Those of you that have watched the games (all, I hope!) probably by now have noticed that the team’s leadoff hitter, when not Jordan Schafer, has struggled mightily to get on base. For a while, B.J. Upton was the culprit. The rest of the time, however, it was Andrelton Simmons. If we take a look at the team’s on-base percentage (OBP) from the leadoff spot, we see a .243/.302/.368/.670 batting line. Much of this is due to Simmons, who has batted leadoff in 44 of the Braves 81 games (54%). His overall batting line is pretty terrible, .240/.276/.332/.609, but when he bats leadoff it’s even worse; .218/.250/.311/.561. Compared to the production that the team got from Bourn at the leadoff spot, this is pretty pathetic.

Why is Simmons struggling at leadoff? We don’t really know for sure (we most likely never will), but from watching him play, we can make some reasonable assumptions. First, there is the fact that he was rushed up from AA to rescue us from Pastornicky’s glove. He wasn’t brought up here to be a hitter. He shocked some people with his results last year, but that was likely “inflated” because pitchers didn’t have a scouting report on him. Now they do, and he hasn’t yet adjusted. Second, his approach at the plate leaves much to be desired. Quite often, he is swinging at the first pitch he sees, regardless of the situation. As noted here in Jordan’s post, he sees under 3.5 pitches per AB. As he continues to do this, pitchers will continue to exploit him by throwing to his weak zones; offspeed pitches in the lower third of the plate, and fastballs away, since they know that he will readily swing. Third, his swing itself could be the issue. As shown by his slugging percentage, he’s not really making consistent hard contact, and is struggling to put the ball in play for hits regularly.

Below, I have included (from Fangraphs) Simmons’ plate discipline profile, in addition to this year’s NL plate discipline profile.

 

 

There are some slight difference in his swing percentages across the two stats, but that isn’t an issue; they are calculated differently, which I won’t get into here. What we need to do is compare his stats vs. the stats of all NL players. When doing so, we see that his swing percentage, especially his in zone and out of the zone swing percentages are pretty near league normal. So is his contact rate. So what is the issue? Since his plate discipline stats look pretty normal, his swing must be the issue. Let’s take a look at his batted ball profile.

This is what shows what Simmon’s problem is. He pops out way too much, over double the rate of the average NL hitter. He also hits fewer line drives. His reduced line drive rate, along with an increased fly ball rate, and overly high infield fly ball rate all lead to a lower expected batting average for Simmons, which has been the case to this point. He is hitting under too many pitches, at times because he’s trying to be a slugger, and at other times it’s because he was plain outmatched. Add in the fact that he rarely walks, and voila, we end up with a .243/.302/.368/.670 hitter.
Now, I don’t believe that Simmons will remain a bad hitter for his career, though there are some signs that point this way. I believe that with a slight modification to his approach, he can become a bigger threat at the plate. What do we do in the meantime? First, we put Simmons 8th in the order, allow him to develop his bat. He’d only played 44 games in the “advanced minors”, and 1 full year of minor league ball (Lynchburg in 2011), so he never got exposed to the better pitching of AA and AAA. Forcing him to hit 8th may cause him to learn a little patience as there will be times that he will effectively be pitched around in favor of the pitcher.

What do we do with the leadoff spot, then? First, we would need to find someone who is at least an average baserunner, and that has good plate discipline. This would include Jason Heyward, BJ Upton, Justin Upton, Dan Uggla, Tyler Pastornicky, and Jordan Schafer. Schafer will need to be moved off of this list, since all three of our OF are heating up. He won’t, or at least shouldn’t, get enough plate appearances to factor into this decision. Justin is our #3-4 hitter, so it won’t be him either. What we’ve got left is Heyward, Upton, Uggla, and Pastornicky.

Being realistic, I doubt Pastornicky will figure into the decision much, as I don’t see him stealing too many starts from Uggla as Dan is starting to heat up at the plate. If he did, however, he’d be the best choice for leadoff in my opinion. He makes good contact, despite the fact that he doesn’t walk a lot. He also works counts, which is a big plus from a leadoff hitter. The ability to see 5, 6, even 8 pitches in just 1 at-bat is huge, especially  the player who is getting the most at-bats.

Realistically, the two options for leadoff are BJ Upton and Jason Heyward. Both guys had rough starts to the year, but at the moment are currently in hot stretches which they started in June. They have track records of success, and so we should be willing to trust that they will hit enough to be worth using as leadoff men. For the season, both Jason and BJ walk in over 10% of their plate appearances, compared to Simmon’s 5%. Their OBPs are also over .300 now, and steadily rising. The lineup construction would get Simmons hitting 8th, which is where he was last year, and was comfortable down there. He’s still a young bat with good potential, the Braves need to let him come along at his own pace.

In Jeff’s blog last week, he posted a poll on who you guys would like to see bat leadoff- the majority answer was Schafer. However, since he likely won’t be a starter, I’ll re-do the poll, and also include a few sample lineups. Feel free to vote!

 

Who Should Bat Leadoff?

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Lineup Construction

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  • cheadrick

    Let me start by saying I know the business of baseball, and the politics involved. Fred, Alan, and I have discussed this ad nauseum. I realize that with what we are paying B.J., he is going to play, pure and simple. That said, you say that Jordan Schafer should be taken off the list since some other viable LO candidates are beginning to heat up a touch. You say that Jordan won’t or shouldn’t get enough plate appearances to factor into the decision. That’s probably true, unfortunately, but I would vote more for the “won’t” than the “shouldn’t”. I don’t think with the current $$ and politics of the B.J. situation, that Jordan will get the plate appearances he deserves, but I will go on record again as saying, that at least in a perfect world, he should.

    • http://tomahawktake.com/ Julien Benjamin

      BJ and Heyward just had their best months of the season, primed for even more success… Justin is the only one I’m worried about, he may get DLd possibly when Gattis comes back (at least in my opinion). If that happened though, Gattis would get the majority of those ABs.

      If Justin isn’t hurt, though, he’s got so much talent, and he’s shown it to us earlier this year that I’d want him playing the majority of the games. Schafer wouldn’t be more than a 1gm a week starter for me, esp. while we have Reed who needs to play as well.

  • fireboss

    I think there’s an atmosphere on this team that say’s if you swing often enough and hard enough you’ll hit enough to be okay.That atmosphere affects young players more than we might imagine. Here he is 23 years old with as you pointed out minimal minor league at bats and he has Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman Justin Upton and BJ Upton as role models. Here’s where that’s a bad thing.

    Simba swings at the first pitch twice as often as Freeman and JUP, 4 times as often as BJ but hits just.238 doing it. That’s 100 points behind Jason and Freddie and 30 behind BJ. When he’s behind or even he hits just .158. It’s way past time for Walker and Fletcher to pull him aside and say “Ya know Andy this isn’t working, why not try something different? You aren’t Jason, Justin, or BJ, you can’t do what they do so let’s try taking the ball the other way. Here’s some film of Prado, watch it and emulate it. Unless it’s impossible I want you to do go oppo most of the time.”
    Fletcher has said he wasn’t going to ask anyone to choke and poke though honestly I never heard or saw anyone suggest he do that, But asking Simmons to be a gap to gap line drive hitter isn’t that and you might say boxing him in like that won’t work. But he’s shown he can do that and he did it a lot in the minors now he thinks – as you noted – that he’s a slugger but he isn’t ripped so he tries to swing harder. This crews up his timing and causes his infield popups. Getting him back into his game -wherever he hits in the order – is best for his long term development. This is where Chipper helped him last year – he mentioned it in interviews – and what’s missing now.

    On the who bats leadoff thing, I wouldn’t let BJ anywhere near one or two in the order. I’d be inclined to move everyone up, not that I love Heyward leading off but the alternatives are worse. So Heyward, JUp, Freeman,McCann, Uggla, BJ, Johnson, Simba would be my vote.

  • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

    I tend to believe that the “leadoff batter” thing is a little over-rated. On average, the Braves are getting 4.2 batters per inning. So your “leadoff” guys each inning (on average) bat 1st, 5th, 9th, 4th, 8th, 3rd, 7th, 2nd, and 6th in the order. In other words, EVERYBODY leads off at some point. [That oversells the point, but there's a purpose here].

    Managers mess with lineups because of the usual need to manufacture runs (get ‘em on, move ‘em over, drive ‘em in). This Braves roster is not like that. It’s a lot more about raw power… gap-fillers to seat-rattlers. So maybe we should treat it that way?

    This team has been hitting a bunch of solo homers. Why not try to fill the bases in front of the power, then? Here’s one way:

    1st: Chris Johnson… .370 OBP
    2nd: Jason Heyward….370 OBP in June
    3rd: Freddie. .392 and can drive in the first two.

    Frankly, I don’t care after this. Uggla had an OBP of nearly .400 in June, but I’m scared to put him in the top three. Ditto with BJ’s .357 in June.

    With all that said: I still think Schafer’s best value is to use him off the bench to replace a pitcher late in a game. Nobody else – nobody – has a weapon like that available. Ditto on Gattis, for that matter.

    • cheadrick

      I think Jordan has proven he’s much more valuable than to simply come off the bench in, say, the 6th or something to replace a faltering pitcher. We all know his play will be limited under the current regime, but I’m often baffled by how little confidence people have in him when you look at the numbers he tends to put up when he does play. It’s entirely possible for a player to evolve if given ample opportunity. Oh well…

    • fireboss

      The leadoff man bats more often than any other hitter barring a perfect game of course. I don’t want Johnson there at all ever, in any circumstance; you get my point. I can live with Heyward/Justin/Freddie/Mac/ etc. but the “leadoff man isn’t important” spin like much of this statistical wisdom is just wrong. Scahfer getting more time is moot, barring injury he won’t. Gattis story is a good one but even though they say he’s okay behind the plate he’s raw as a catcher at game calling so in a critical game I prefer Laird. That leaves bench player/ role player for 2013 which is what his profile would be were it not for the aura of his back story. Laird has come through with big hits when he’s played and while he doesn’t have a legend he does have a history of being a fine catcher on winning teams.

  • Tim Wing

    When Schaeffer is healthy I would bat him leadoff, play him over BJ Upton. But on most days this should be the order…………1 Heyward, 2 Justin Upton, 3 Freeman 4 Johnson 5 McCann 6 Gattis/BJ Upton 7 Uggla 8 Simmons