Aug 15, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves left fielder Justin Upton (8) celebrates a home run with third base coach Doug Dascenzo (28) against the Oakland Athletics in the second inning at Turner Field. Upton's been hot but the Braves find it hard to score without a homer. What's behind that freeze? Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Why Is It So Hard For The Braves To Score

My post of Braves RISP failures generated some discussion about whether those numbers were really that bad. I’ve been digging in deeper to see if I can see anything that gives us a clue. After ruminating over more numbers than I care to see again for a month, this is what I’ve found.

RISP in retrospect

In my last post I looked at numbers for The Baseball Cube and Baseball-Reference and concluded among other things that overall the Braves were a middle of the league team with RISP. However when behind, in tie games, in two out RISP situations as well as well as high leverage events they were near the bottom of the league.

One of our former writers disagreed saying that using leverage instead of RISP he didn’t think clutch hitting was that bad. Specifically he said that using Fangraphs clutch scores the Braves were 12th in wOBA in both high and medium leverage situations and 28th in low leverage situation for all of MLB.

He went on to say that the Braves had the eighth best clutch score (excluding pitchers) in MLB and therefore the problem was not RISP failures but lack of RISP opportunities.  He pointed out that the Braves overall OPS is 11th in MLB and therefore they should be expected to have the worst stat lines for every situation and that since all non-pitchers have a combined OPS that’s 13th when leading off an inning we were less likely to score period.

Most of his points actually support my position I took in the later part of the post that hitters mindsets in general are the reason for RISP failure whether it’s getting on base in the first place or moving the runners once they are on base.  Rather than explain that again I’ll refer you to the last post beginning with “Don’t blame the hitting coach.” Listen particularly to the audio from the interview with Pete Rose.

RISP numbers in a new way

I went back to the Baseball Cube to dig deeper into the numbers. In my mind taking the game as a whole doesn’t address the issue. So I split the game into thirds and looked at NL teams. AL teams have almost nothing in common with NL teams as they rarely use pinch hitters, don’t have to double switch and generally the bench isn’t a factor. Besides doing this for 15 teams is a time consuming task .

I also limited the players being considered to the eight players with the highest number of at plate appearances in RISP situations. That eliminates pitching and pinch hitters leaving essentially each teams primary lineup. While most teams have a pretty solid first 8 a few don’t so rather than make this specific to individual sets of players I stayed with the number of plate appearances. Where there was a tie I took the player with the best numbers.

Before I started RISP numbers I wanted to look at the players leading off the innings – again in three inning segments – and their traditional slash lines.  The tables are large and don’t format well to a blog so what you see are the results.  These statistics cover around 120 games.  I say around because some teams have makeup games to be played and so might be as far as three games adrift. I did look at adding in an extra game that was played affecting two teams but it made no difference to to the numbers so I stopped trying to play catch up and went with the list I had.

Leadoff man malaise?

Let me reinforce here that this isn’t the team’s leadoff man but the eight players that led off innings most frequently.   In the first third of the game the combined slash line for the Braves leading off the innings  – .243/.308/.352/.660 – surprisingly turned out to be lower than the .296/.295/.397 line in the last third.

Braves Leadoff Men Inn. 1-3 Inn 4-6 Inn 7-9
Total Plate Appearances 1st 1st 6th
Batting Average 11th 15th 4th
On Base Percentage 10th 15th 8th
Slugging 14th 15th 6th
OPS (OBP + SLG) 12th 15th 6th

So our OBP overall for leadoff men may be low but for our prime eight it isn’t that shabby. I’d love to give you specifics but as I said it’s just too many numbers but the top three names are interesting. Remember this is by three inning split so don’t choke on the names.

Even though we get less PA after the sixth inning our slash line for our prime eight leadoff men comes in ahead of the league average in this sample (.246/.303/.380/.683.)  Now back to RISP.

Hitting with RISP splits

It was pointed out that the Braves had less RISP opportunities and the overall numbers do show the Braves 12th of the 15 teams with 1098 PA as of today. Looking only at the eight players with the most opportunities in each third the picture changes.

[UPDATED: Looking at the numbers a fifth time last night I decided that the base runner advance number should include scored so I adjusted the formula to provide that number. In the end it made a significant difference in only the first three innings raising the Braves from 12th in advances to second in advances +scoring. In the middle innings it made no difference in rank and in the last three it dropped the Braves for 10th to 11th. The changes reinforce the conclusion regarding when the Braves score the most runs. You can see the changes clearly in the text.]

In the first three innings of a game the Braves prime eight have the sixth most PA (256) behind the Dodgers (293), Brewers (290), Mets (285), Giants (271) and Pirates (265) however they were 12th second in advancing or scoring the base runner (.117) (.477.) The league average is .139  .409.

Their strikeout rate (.184) is seventh of the 15 teams and better than the league average (.189)

The Braves come in last for for pitches/PA at 3.4 behind the league average (3.7) with Freeman (1.8), Heyward (2.9) and Justin (1.5) were under 3.1 pitches while Gattis, BJ and Simba were all over 5.3.

The middle innings have been a scoring black hole for the Braves compared to the rest of the league and some of that is as was suggested, due to a lack of opportunities.

In the 120 or so games in this sample the Braves managed just 251 middle inning RISP chances for the prime eight, ahead of only the Padres (206), Diamondbacks (.209), Cubs (208) and Giants (233). The league average in these games was 258.3 opportunities.  Having said that they didn’t do well with the chances they had. The Braves ranked next to last in advancing or scoring those runners ahead of only the Pirates.

Braves With RISP Inn. 1-3 Inn 4-6 Inn 7-9
Total Plate Appearances 6th 11th 2nd
Pitches/PA 15th 1st 8th
Base Runner ADV PA 12th 2nd 14th 10th  11th
K 7th 12th 11th
K-Swinging 8th 13th 13th
K-Called 7th 5th 8th
GIDP T-9th T-7th 12th

That inability to advance runners draws us to the most obvious culprit; strikeouts. The Braves were 12th in strikeouts (.183) worse than the league average (.169) behind the Diamondbacks (.165) and ahead of just the Pirates (.171), Giants (.180), Cubs (.183) and Marlins (.224.) .

For innings seven through nine the Braves were second in number of prime eight RISP opportunities with 259 behind only the Marlins who had 261. They also improved saw a decrease in their base runner advance or score runners from .117 to.135 .386 to .355 but that still left leaving them 10th 11th of the 15 teams and behind the league average of .154 .399.

While pitches per PA stayed level their strikeouts rose from  .184 in the first third and .183 in the middle third to .216, the great majority as you would expect, swinging. As the double play is often seen as being another serious issue with RISP I looked at those numbers as well.

Double plays with RISP are about midtable in the first two thirds of these games but in the last third they fall to 12th ahead of the Cardinals and Giants and somewhat surprisingly the Dodgers. The actual increase is small – from 2.5% to 3.1% but seven of other clubs saw their rate drop though some of those saw an offsetting rise in strikeouts. In raw numbers double plays were almost flat through the nine innings (8-6-8) the but the number of opportunities to hit into a DP dropped in the final third making the percentage climb.

After all that what do we know?

Maybe that should say think we know.  Many of you are going to say “well I knew that” to many of these conclusions but there are some small surprises and at least we can confirm or deny the eye test in some cases.

Get ‘em on

The players leading off the inning in innings one through six have been . . .  awful.  In the final three innings they climb back up to middle of the league or slightly above and produce more RISP opportunities but of course that’s the part of the game where runs are hardest to come by.

Get ‘em over

We’ve seen that the Braves do not move runners as well as other teams. Fangraphs shows that  our non-pitchers have the fourth highest overall swing rate in the NL and are last in contact. Here are all those numbers.

Swing% Contact% Z-Swing% Z-Contact% O-Swing% O-Contact%
49.5% 76.0% 70.1% 84.0% 32.7% 63.6%
4th Last 2nd Last 4th 12th

Get ‘em in

The splits I presented above represent the players with the greatest opportunity to drive in runs or at least move runners forward. Those players do get enough opportunities late in the game compared to their counterparts to create runs. They move runners along better than in the early going but in the end they just don’t do it as well as other teams.

Clutch?

One of the comments on the last post was that Fangraphs’ said the Braves were fourth in “clutch” so lets look at that.

According to Fangraphs the Braves non-pitcher clutch score of –0.35 is fourth in the league. Being fourth on that scale however isn’t saying that Braves are good. In fact Fangraphs explanation of their clutch rating says that score is just below average.

The majority of players in the league end up with Clutch scores between 1 and -1, with zero being neutral, positive scores being “clutch”, and negative scores being “choke”. Only a few players each year are lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to have extreme Clutch scores.

Rating Clutch
Excellent 2.0
Great 1.0
Above Average 0.5
Average 0.0
Below Average -0.5
Poor -1.0
Awful -2.0

Score early

As we saw Friday night the Braves do their best run scoring in the first  three innings of the game and they do their best when hitting home runs; this is also when they strikeout least.  As of today the team as a whole has scored 175 runs in the first three innings putting them in third place behind Milwaukee and Colorado. If you had the fourth inning to that they’ve scored more runs there (234) than in the last five combined (212.)  It doesn’t matter which of the first three innings; 58 (12th),54(4th),63(2nd.).

By the time the Braves get to the middle three innings they really need to be ahead because they create the fewest scoring opportunities for the prime eight in these innings and those eight players are bottom of the league in delivering in the ones they have. To date they are dead last in runs scored –136 – for innings four through six. As I noted above the fourth is the best inning; 59(8th),35 (14th),42 (15th.)

If they don’t make it through the sixth with a lead the have just a 50/50 chance of scoring as they are tenth in the league in runs scored in the final third with just 135 tallied so far. Digging deeper we find that shutting the Braves down in the eighth is the key as they score about twice as many runs in that inning as in the seventh or ninth; 31 (15th), 66 (1st), 38(7th). The ninth inning only comes about when a team is behind so a low number there isn’t a bad thing and the rank is largely irrelevant. Please not however that the Braves have had four walk off wins this season.

Conclusion

Not sure what there is to conclude that’s new. This team strikes out too much and in spite of Johnson’s sacrifice bunt, has too many players who unbutton the top button for every swing forgetting that their job is not to hit a home run but to keep the line moving. I have no problem with players taking a cut for them early in the count in most instances but when the pitcher gets ahead the hitter’s job is to put the ball in play and force the issue.

Strikeouts are wasted at bats period. The only way a hitter reaches base on a strikeout is on a wild pitch (why did he swing) or past ball when they recognize it quickly enough and run hard enough (not always a certainty) to beat the throw. When the ball is put in play at least one other player has to handle it correctly. Errors aren’t common I know but 38 times this year a Brave reached base on an error. That’s 38 base runners we don’t have if the hitter strikes out. Last night the error on Heyward’s dribbler to the first baseman turned into two runs. If Heyward strikes out those runs do not happen.

What’s happened to the Braves lineup isn’t the hitting coach’s fault. Most of these players are pretty set in their ways and all the coach can do ia offer perspective. Some listen, some think they listen, some pretend to listen but in the end changing a player’s mindset has to be something initiated by the player as Brian McCann did when he told the Yankee hitting coach to do anything he wanted because BMac admitted he was completely lost at the plate.

This isn’t the manager’s fault though he’s flubbed his share along the way  He’s been handed a roster of sluggers or players who think they’re sluggers. Asking them to play small ball is a not something they’ve done with any regularity and so they don’t do it well.

That’s A Wrap

I’m sure there are holes to pick in the way this was done. I’m not a statistician nor do I play one on TV.  I didn’t use any intricately calculated weighted numbers are complicated formula. I did enough  stats in college to understand their purpose in formula but this subject isn’t all that complicated. These numbers reflect what actually happened when the eight players who get most of the RISP chances were at the plate. Aside from rounding to three decimal points the numbers are pure numbers.

Living in Texas I’ve seen formula tried over and over again in Arlington without success. The cause is simple, the mix of players is wrong.  This is not about “hating” any player. Players are what they are, I believe that even the poorest performing player is doing his best all of the time; all of the players all of the time.

When pitchers prepare for a game they look at a lineup and figure out which player they aren’t going to let beat them. Depending on the day there are three bats they might try to avoid.  Then they look to see where they can get an out if they get in a jamb and need one. When they look at this lineup they see at least five spots they can do that.  We might string together a long winning streak; I hope we do. But permanently correcting the situation, – balancing the roster with the right mix of players – isn’t going to happen this season.

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