Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rebuilding: Truth and Consequences - Braves

I am restarting a series that died after one post about a year ago, because I keep getting the same questions asked again, and I want to be able to point them to this series on rebuilding and move on. The first in the series covered the Brewers (linked here) and my thoughts on why the Giants and Sabean are on the right track, or at minimum, should not be changed right now.

Braves Are the Holy Grail

People like to point to the Braves as the epitome of how to rebuild a team. And there is a lot to like, as I think they have done a great job of extending their period of goodness for as long as they have. But most people forget that there were hard times that lead to the great times, and the Braves are a perfect example of this.

Pre-Historic Braves

People forget about the bad times, they just remember the good times and therefore all must have been good. That's the fallacy. At the start of the 1991 season, here is what the scenario for Braves fans, which is not unlike what the Giants fans are facing today, and in many ways worse:
  • The team has had 6 straight losing seasons. In fact, 4 of those 6 they were sixth in the division, and in the other 2 they were fifth, plus they were the worse in the majors once, second worse twice, third worse one, fifth worse once, and sixth worse once. The remedy for this? The GM appointed himself manager and promoted his top assistant to take over as GM. The Giants have gone through 4 straight losing seasons, with two 10th worse, one fifth and one sixth.
  • In 1990, they had two superior offensive players, who were both also young, David Justice and Ron Gant, and rest of the lineup were average or much worse, with a superstar who was not aging well and another vet who was hitting well. Their pitching staff was full of young but mostly unimpressive pitchers that season. Smoltz and Glavine were on the rotation but their ERA+ was basically average, and with low K-rates (6.6 K/9 and 5.4 K/9) and low and poor K/BB (1.9 and 1.7) plus a high WHIP of 1.44 for Glavine, the future was not exactly rosy for either of them based on those peripherals, though they did have nice 1989 seasons to give hope. Their best pitcher was a 33 year old Charlie Leibrandt. Steve Avery had a 5.64 ERA, Pete Smith 4.79 ERA, Derek Lilliquist 6.28, out of starters who got at least 10 starts. In the relief corps, most were above 4.50 ERA except for Tony Castillo (4.23) and Kent Mercker (3.17). Their team ERA was 4.58 and despite some good offensive players, they averaged only 4.2 runs per game, resulting in a 65-97 record, the worse record in the majors.
  • Thus, heading into 1991, the Braves had two plus young players in Justice and Gant, and a bunch of average and/or unproven players on their team. That is much like the Giants heading into 2009, Lincecum and Cain are the plus young players, the rest look around average and/or unproven.
  • So how did they improve in 1991 to a 94-68 record? Well, both David Justice and Ron Gant experienced a drop in OPS+, as did Greg Olson (C) so it was other players who delivered improvement. They signed a 30 year old 1B, Sid Bream, who was an improvement over Dale Murphy, who lost his spot when David Justice moved to RF. Jeff Treadway (2B) improved greatly in his 28 year season. They improved greatly by signing Terry Pendleton to play 3B, and that appears to be the key improvement in the lineup. On the pitching staff, Steve Avery and Glavine had a breakout year and a number of young pitchers came through in the bullpen as well.

And that was about it as far as young (under 30) players go, except for the addition of Greg Maddux in 1993 as a free agent and Fred McGriff in 1993 in a trade (where they did not give up one top prospect to the woeful Padres), until 1994 when Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko joined the starting lineup, but the really good addition was in 1995 when Chipper Jones joined the lineup. Thus it was 4 years from the time they started getting good again when they added someone significant to their lineup (Chipper) and 9 years from the time they started losing big-time.

In comparison, the Giants have "only" gone through 4 losing seasons and were not the worse team in the majors in any of them, unlike the Braves, and look to break above .500 in 2009. They have good young players in Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Wilson, Romo, Lewis, Sandoval, already on the major league roster, and like the Braves when they were emerging from losing, two of them plus players (Lincecum and Cain) the rest looking at least average, plus a mixture of free agents and promising prospects.

However, we have a number of potentially good players coming up soon. Posey, Bumgarner, Alderson, and Villalona are probably between 1-3 seasons (2010-2012) away from joining the major league team, and they are potentially plus players.

Apples with Apples: Braves After Fourth Losing Season

However, that was their 6th season of losing. After their fourth losing season, the Braves were 54-106. They had just selected Steve Avery with the 3rd pick overall but, ultimately, no other significant player but noteworthy players Turk Wendell and Mark Wohlers. But more on that later.

What did they do to improve in 1989 (which turned out to be their 5th losing season)? They oftained Jody Davis, who was a huge decline from Ozzie Virgil. They had brought up Ron Gant in 1988 to play 2B, but he regressed greatly in 1989, so much that he lost his starting position to Jeff Treadway. Jeff Blauser came up to replace Ken Oberkfell and did above average but really just OK. Andres Thomas regressed at SS. They traded Dion James, an average but young OF, for Oddibe McDowell, a good, young but a little older OF. Terry Blocker was replaced by a declining Dale Murphy in CF before they made the trade for McDowell, inserting a below average Tommy Gregg into RF. On the pitching staff, Glavine made improvements, as well as Smoltz, plus they added Derek Lilliquist to the mix and Marty Clary, who pitched well in about half a season.

So there was no small, let alone bigger, free agent acquisition to bolster the team for 1989, they were hoping that the young guys would improve.

  • Their best hitter in 1989 was the 33 year old Lonnie Smith, who only got into less than 50 games in each of the previous two seasons, but then had a career season of 168 OPS+, where his high OPS+ anytime he played 130+ games in a season was 130 OPS+.
  • Their second best hitter was mid-season acquisition Oddibe McDowell, 136 OPS+
  • Their third best hitter, and this is telling, was Jeff Blauser with 108 OPS+.
  • Everyone else were under 100, some very under: C Jody Davis (40 OPS+), SS Andres Thomas (53 OPS+), Dale Murphy (89 OPS+), Tommy Gregg (77 OPS+).
  • They not much better the year before in 1988: many were between 90 and 110, Gant 112, Thomas 76, and Blocker 51.
  • Despite all that sucking, they acquired no hitter between 1988 and 1989.
  • Their pitching was better but not all that good in 1988 too, but they didn't acquire any free agent pitchers either. Good thing too, as they drafted Chipper Jones with the first pick overall in 1990.
  • They improved from 54-106 to 63-97

Thus, at the similar point of their evolution into a franchise that many today want to emulate, their lineup was in no better shape with young prospects than we are (they had Gant, Gerald Perry, Jeff Treadway, added Jeff Blauser, and eventually added Oddibe McDowell, but remember he was not there at the start of the season, which is about where we are today with the Giants) and they had some promising young pitchers in Pete Smith, Tom Glavine, Zane Smith, who had ERA+ of 99, 85, and 80, respectively, not good but not bad either, plus a bunch of young pitchers with ERA over 5, including John Smoltz, which compared to what we have today, without benefit of hindsight, the Giants are way ahead with Matt Cain established and Tim Lincecum a superstar in the budding, plus Sanchez, Wilson, Romo, and Hinshaw.

I believe the 2008 Giants have a better roster than the 1988 Braves going into the season following their fourth losing season in a row. Their lineup is not as good as the Braves, but have a number of average level hitters in the lineup plus a couple of question marks that should balance out with other clear advantages:


Pos ATL SF (2008)

C 93 98 (Molina)

1B 109 99 (Ishikawa)

2B 112 81 (Burriss)

3B 95 118 (Sandoval)

SS 76 84 (Renteria)

LF 100 105 (Lewis)

CF 51 94 (Rowand)

RF 106 105 (Winn)

Obviously, Sandoval's and Ishikawa's OPS+ are questionable for 2009, but Renteria's prior OPS+ was 104 in 2006 and 125 in 2007, plus Rowand is a huge improvement over the Braves CF, which should balance with the deficits at 1B and 2B, so overall the Giants lineup is similar to the Braves lineup at the same time in their rebuilding.

Overall, the Braves situation is very similar to where the Giants are right now, both offensively and pitching wise, and, while Braves fans might have been calling for Bobby Cox's head at that time, it took two more seasons for them to see that he had the team in the right direction and start their amazing playoff run. The key was to see the long-term progress happening.

And I am not saying that Sabean is as good as Cox, but what I've been saying is that the team is progressing well enough that we should give him more time (i.e. the previous two year extension) to see if he can turn things around, because a change now would probably throw us into another rebuild, which could mean more losing years (see Pirates for example).

I think we have been rewarded thus far with the 2008 season, so far so good, but like Neukom said he would do, the time to make the decision on Sabean being extended beyond 2009 should occur after the 2009 season, unless the Giants happen to really do very well in 2009, in which case, it can be moved up.

Braves Drafts 1986-2007

Let's go over their draft results, from 1986 as that is the first draft year after Bobby Cox took over the Braves, plus I'll throw in Baseball America's top 10 prospects for recent years prospects who have not made the majors yet, to give a flavor for how recent drafts have went, though it must be cautioned that prospects do fail, so while I will discuss their draft to 2007, I will only analyze to 2004's draft. I will cover players who got extensive play in the majors (or top prospects) then assess who were good:

1986: Kent Mercker #1 (5th overall), Steve Finley #11, Tim Salmon #18, Ben McDonald #27; Finley and Salmon were good, Mercker average but Finley, Salmon and McDonald didn't sign with them, so Mercker was their only OK pick in the draft (0 out of 59 picks among the various drafts still in effect at that time).

1987: Derek Lilliquest #1 (6th), Brian Hunter #8, Mike Stanton #13; Lilliquist fizzled after a nice start, couldn't even make it relieving, which Mike Stanton has been able to, and Brian Hunter was a below average hitter (0 out of 50 picks, there is only one draft now).

1988: Steve Avery #1 (3rd), Turk Wendell #5, Mark Wohlers #8; Avery was a good pitcher for much of his pre-free agent years, but after a nice three years, was average for the most part, and the other two were just OK. I would not have included Avery as good in my draft study but since he actually was good for a number of years for the Braves, I will count him (1 out of 69; not one of the extra 19 ever made the majors FYI).

1989: Tyler Houston #1 (2nd), Ryan Klesko #5, Todd Greene #27; Klesko was the star of this draft, and the other two didn't even last more than a few seasons at best, with around mid-1,000 ABs (1 out of 62).

1990: Chipper Jones #1 (1st), Tony Graffanino #10; Chipper is the clear star of this draft, and Graffanino, while useful, is not that good, which is what people want in a draft (1 out of 67).

1991: Mike Kelly #1 (2nd), Jason Schmidt 8th; Schmidt is the star of this draft, Kelly didn't even make it to arbitration (1 out of 62).

1992: Mark Hendrickson #13, Jose Cruz Jr. #15; neither was that good, and neither signed with the Braves, while their first round pick was Jamie Arnold with 21st pick (0 out of 50).

1993: Kevin Millwood #11, Jermaine Dye #17, John Rocker #18; Millwood and Dye were good selections, Rocker not so much but I mention him because he's known, while their first round pick was Andre King with 24th pick, never even saw the majors (2 out of 56).

1994: Wes Helms #10, Mark Hendrickson #32; neither was that good and Hendrickson shunned the Braves again, while their first round pick was Jacob Shumate with 27th pick, never saw majors (0 out of 58).

1995: nobody of note drafted, their first round pick was Chad Hutchinson with 26th pick, just had a cup of coffee (0 out of 56).

1996: Jason Marquis #1s, Eric Munson #2, Mark DeRosa #7, Marcus Giles #53; they were all just OK, but nobody to build around, and A.J. Zapp their first round pick, 27th overall, never saw the majors (0 out of 61).

1997: Horacio Ramirez #5; but he was not that good, with Troy Cameron their first round pick, 29th overall, who never played in the majors (0 out of 69).

1998: Mark Belisle #2, Ryan Langerhans #3, Dallas McPherson #44; did not sign McPherson but none of them were any good, and there was no first round pick (0 out of 49).

1999: nobody of note drafted, and there was no first round pick (0 out of 49).

2000: Adam Wainwright #1 (29th), Kelly Johnson #1s, Zach Miner #4, Delwyn Young #13, Adam LaRoche #29, Tony Gwynn Jr. #33; they did not sign Young or Gwynn, but Wainwright and Johnson are on their way to being good, so I'll count the two as it will get murkier now as prospects will have less experience and have to make judgement calls (2 out of 55).

2001: Macay McBride #1 (24th), Kyle Davies #4, Delwyn Young #29; they did not sign Young again, and none of these players appear to be doing well, plus Josh Burrus was another first round pick, 29th overall, who didn't make the majors (0 out of 53).

2002: Jeff Francoeur #1 (23rd), Dan Meyer #1s, Brian McCann #2, Chuck James #20; only McCann has been good, Francoeur has fizzled since a nice start, same with James, and Meyer is only mentioned because he was traded to get Hudson, who has been good (1 out of 52).

2003: Jarrod Saltalamacchi #1s, Jo-Jo Reyes #2, Brandon Jones #24; while Salty looks to be good, he's not yet, and while they used him to get Teixeira, they ended up with Casey Kotchman at 1B, and Brandon Jones was #4 BA prospect for 2008, and there was no first round pick (0 out of 53).

2004: nobody of note drafted and there was no first round pick (0 out of 49).

2005: Joey Devine #1 (27th), Yunel Escobar #2, Jordan Schafer #3, Tommy Hanson #22, Tyler Flowers #33; only Escobar so far, but the other three looks like they will be good (Jordon Schafer #1 BA prospect for 2008, #3 for 2009; Tommy Hanson #9 BA prospect for 2008, #1 for 2009; Tyler Flowers #12 for 2008; Joey Devine #17 for 2008), but prospects do fizzle sometime so I'll count them as two (2 out of 52).

2006: Cody Johnson #1, Cory Rasmus #1s, Jeff Locke #2, Kris Medlen #10, Cole Rohrbough #22; nobody of note thus far, though Cole Rohrbough was #7 BA prospect for 2008, #6 for 2009, Locke was #8 and #7, Cody Johnson was #11 in 2008, and Medlen was #24 and #9, with Cody Johnson rated as best power hitter in Braves system. I will count them as one (1 out of 54).

2007: Jason Heyward #1 (14th), Freddie Freeman #2; Jason Heyward was #2 BA prospect for 2008 and 2009, rated best hitter for average and strike-zone discipline, and Freddie Freeman was #19 and #5, so I will count them as one (1 out of 52)

Overall, counting from 1986 to 2004, where most of the prospects have graduated to the majors or not (and thus I didn't have to make a judgement call, as I did above for 2005-2007), here are the stats for the Braves:

  • 9 good players out of 1,079 players drafted, or 0.8% success rate
  • 4 good players out of 546 players drafted in the last ten years, 1995 to 2004, or 0.7% success rate
  • 3 good players out of 16 first round draftees, or 19%
  • 2 good players out of 7 first round draftees, 1-15th overall picks, or 29%
  • 2 good players out of 5 first round draftees, Top 5 overall picks, or 40% (which is roughly what my study found)
  • 1 good player out of 10 first round draft picks, 21-30th overall picks, or 10% (which is roughly want my study found), since they started winning. This is what I've talking about, at this rate it would take the Braves 20 years of winning to find the same number of good players in the first round, as they did in 5 years of losing. How's that for speeding up rebuilding?
  • 6 good players out of 1,063 non-first round players, or 0.6%, vs. 10% for late first round vs. 40% for Top 5 picks. I think that shows how much more likely you are to find someone in the first round than later rounds, particularly at the top.
  • Dividing between winning and losing, from 1986 to 1991, they found 4 out of 369 picks, or 1.1% success rate, and from 1992 to 2004, they found 5 out of 710 picks, or 0.7% success rate. Thus the success rate fell 35% from when they were losing compared to when they were winning.
The Braves, based on their performance with first round picks, were not that much more successful than what I had found in my study of the draft, they were right in the ballpark, almost spot on. As one can see from the vast numbers of non-good prospects (under 1% success rate), you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find that good player. And the odds improve greatly with a Top 5 overall pick, roughly 40+ times more likely.


  1. Great post! Those are some amazing numbers abou the draft picks. I have not seen anything like that before. Stumbled.

  2. Ah, the days of the "Never Say Die" Atlanta Braves. The '88 Braves were DREADFUL- they were so bad that they had an infielder, Jim Morrison, pitch three games for them (and he had the best ERA on the team). The Braves ultimately used a good combination of home grown players, budget free agents, or in the case of John Smoltz, outright thievry in trades. Home grown should have priority, but ultimately I think you need a mix of all three to sustain success.



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