Two of the Atlanta Braves’ three Johns — Schuerholz and Hart — went on TV during last Wednesday’s game and said their primary offseason focus was on upgrading the bullpen. The third John — Coppolella — was asked during the press conference held the next day to announce his promotion to general manager what the P.O.F. would be. “The bullpen,” he said, making it unanimous.
I understand that part: The Braves’ bullpen was terrible. It finished next-to-last among big-league teams in ERA and blown saves; it was third-worst in opposing batting average. It was seventh-worst in bullpen losses, a ranking that actually improved over the season’s final two months, there having been so few leads after the trade deadline.
So then. Bullpen: Awful. Bullpen: Needs improvement. Check and check.
Here’s the thing, though. The Braves were second-worst in the majors in relief pitching. They were worse — meaning they were the worst — at scoring. They were 30th of 30 teams, and not a close 30th.
The second-worst offensive team (Miami, essentially without Giancarlo Stanton) outscored the Braves by 40 runs. The Mets, who were so desperate for offense they raided the Braves for the journeymen Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe, outscored the Braves by 110 runs. Philadelphia and Cincinnati, the two teams that lost more games than the this one, outscored the Braves by 52 and 67 runs, respectively.
The Braves needed three home runs in the season’s next-to-last game — the opener of a double-header on the season’s last day — to crack triple digits for the year. Even so, their 100 home runs trailed the second-worst yield (also Miami’s) by 20. The Braves finished 15th in the majors in batting average and 17th in on-base percentage, putting them in the middle of the pack. They had the second-fewest strikeouts, trailing only Kansas City. It wasn’t that they didn’t put the ball in play; it was that the balls they hit amounted to so little.
Even as we stipulate that two baseball games are the tiniest of sample-size blips, we note that the winners of both wild-card games had two things in common. First, both the Astros and the Cubs had a 20-game winner and possible Cy Young winner starting for them. (Dallas Keuchel for Houston, Jake Arrieta for Chicago.) Second, the Astros and Cubs scored a total of seven runs in the two games. Five came via the home run.
The Astros finished second in the majors in homers. The Cubs were fifth among National League teams. Of the 10 teams that made the playoffs, seven finished among MLB’s top 12 in homers. But I’ve buried the lede, as we say in the news business, for effect:
The team that led the National League in strikeouts? The Chicago Cubs.
The team that led the American League in strikeouts? The Houston Astros.
The Braves’ three Johns obviously hated everything the one and only Frank Wren did, but the thing they hated most — maybe second-most, after Wren’s alleged neglect of the farm system — was the clout-or-out approach to building a lineup. His Braves led the National League in home runs and strikeouts in 2013; they also won 96 games and the NL East. It was only in 2014, when the homers stopped coming, that the Braves’ offense (and record) went south.
As constituted, the Braves have one power hitter, meaning Freddie Freeman — and even he’s not apt to be a 30-homer man. (His career high is 23.) Cameron Maybin’s best power season was the one just completed, when he managed 10 home runs. Throw in Adonis Garcia, the 30-year-old Cuban who doesn’t really have a position, and you have the entire list of Braves who hit double-figure home runs in 2015. Nick Markakis, the 31-year-old right fielder, had three. Apart from Freeman, no Brave had even 60 RBIs.
The great hope is that Hector Olivera, another 30-year-old Cuban, will develop into a big bopper. That the Braves felt compelled to trade three major-leaguers and a highly-regarded-by-some prospect to the Dodgers for the unproven Olivera underscored the absence of power-hitting prospects in their higher minor leagues. Hart and Coppolella have moved heaven and earth to find young pitchers, but we note that the Cubs went the other way — they targeted young hitters — and just won 97 games plus one in the postseason.
I like that the new Braves are smart and creative. I like that they have a plan. If you do your work well enough in this era of baseball, it’s possible to get really good after being really bad. The Cubs and the Astros and the Royals and the Pirates have done it. The Rangers just won 88 games a year after losing 95, which is how many the Braves lost. I think there’s a real chance the Braves won’t be lousy for very long. My hedge is this:
At some point, they have to find hitters, and not just Hector Olivera. They’ve positioned themselves to use some of their pitching stockpile to make a trade for a position player, but all the young pitching in the world plus a presumably beefed-up bullpen can’t win a game 0-0.
The worst-to-first season of 1991 wouldn’t have happened without Glavine and Avery and Smoltz (and Leibrandt, too), but it wouldn’t have happened without Otis Nixon, whom Schuerholz plucked from Montreal on April Fool’s Day and who scored 81 runs and stole 72 bases while hitting .297. And it wouldn’t have come close to happening without the free-agent signee Terry Pendleton, who won the batting title and was named the league’s MVP. Between them, Pendleton and Nixon had a value of 8.3 Wins Above Replacement. The Braves won the NL West by one game.
OK, they also needed a late-season bullpen jolt — Alejandro Pena, acquired from the Mets on Aug. 28 — to finish first. But that’s my point. If you’re good enough, you can find a reliever almost any time. I’m not sure that needs to be Job 1 of any offseason, least of all for a team that finished last in runs.