Braves: Climbing out of the rebuild had a lot to do with Kevin Seitzer

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We often analyze the improvements of players by looking at numbers across various seasons, as they are constantly evolving every year. Maybe a hitter improves his approach and exercises more patience at the plate, resulting in a jump in his walk-rate; or a starting pitcher increases the spin on his fastball and starts generating more swings and misses, which in turn increases his strikeout-rate. It’s a cliche, but baseball is all about adjustments, and the very best players are the ones able to successfully make those adjustments year in and year out, and the very best teams do the same, with every player buying in. 

However, what about the coaches that kickstarted these adjustments?… the teachers who put these improvements in motion? The plan must start somewhere, and frankly players can’t receive all the credit, especially when an entire lineup or starting rotation has experienced drastic improvements from such changes… seemingly all at the same time.

For the Braves, Kevin Seitzer is the one to thank for the team’s transformation on offense and the ability to come out of a four-year rebuild with one of the top lineups in baseball. Here’s the proof, year by year…

The hire

It was the fall after the 2014 season, and the Braves had just wrapped up its first losing campaign since 2008. The official beginning to the eventual rebuild was soon to intensify in the coming months, as general manager Frank Wren and the Braves quickly traded several key hitters from that ’14 lineup, and eventually, only Freddie Freeman would survive the madness.

Greg Walker, the Braves’ hitting coach for the last three seasons, failed to produce results with a lineup that featured Freeman, Evan Gattis, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Chris Johnson, and he resigned in late September before Wren had a chance to fire him. At the time of his resignation, it seemed like perhaps Walker could’ve done better with his offense, but when the Braves’ front office began trading away pieces left and right, it became evident that the organization was more interested in rebuilding than bringing in more help. Walker’s offense was dreadful during that ’14 season, ranking second-to-last in runs per game (3.54) and tied for 19th in home runs (123). Only four teams finished the year with a lower AVG (.241), and the lineup’s inability to hit the fastball — finishing with the third-worst rating versus fastballs, according to FanGraphs Pitch Values — resulted in a horrid 86 wRC+ overall (the fourth-lowest mark in the majors). The Braves were about to lose a ton of games, but the team needed a hitting coach that could help develop the next group of core players for when they were ready to compete again. And along came Seitzer.

The Braves hired Seitzer on October 27, 2014 (along with hitting assistant Jose Castro) — roughly a month after Walker hit the road. The former third baseman and Blue Jays’ hitting coach was believed to bring more of a contact-centered hitting philosophy to the Braves, which fit perfectly considering the team was in the process of shipping out all of its power-hitters. And his credentials were quite impressive. In his one season in Toronto (2014), Seitzer led the Blue Jays’ offense to a fourth-place ranking in the AL in runs and AVG, and a second-place finish in OPS, which was a rather substantial turnaround compared to Toronto’s offensive woes the previous season. Fortunately for the Braves, the Blue Jays and Seitzer couldn’t come to terms with a deal for his return, allowing Atlanta’s new president of baseball operations, John Hart, to swoop in and land the 52-year-old.  

 

2015 — Year 2 of rebuild

With a massively downgraded lineup in 2015 (only Freeman, Simmons and Johnson remained from the season prior), Seitzer’s first year with the Braves was far from magical. Finishing 4th in the division with just 67 wins, even the then-25-year-old Freeman couldn’t carry the Braves punchless offense. His 18 home runs in ’15 was a team-high, as only Freeman, Adonis Garcia, and Cameron Maybin finished the year with double-digit home run totals. The run environment in the majors was drastically different then, but the Braves ranked last in runs, home runs, SLG%, and wRC+ that season. Even worse, there was no sign of any future improvements in the power department, given the Braves posted a 24.9% hard-hit rate, also the worst in the majors. Overall, this was a lineup that simply lacked any thump, and with the team’s incredibly young starting rotation (that year, the staff’s average age was 23.5-years-old), it was the perfect mixture for a disaster season, as well as the fewest wins in 25 years. 

2016 — Year 3 of rebuild

Seitzer didn’t get much help in 2016, though the additions of catcher Tyler Flowers, outfielder Matt Kemp and a full-season from Garcia at third provided a little pop in the lineup (plus a 14-homer season by Nick Markakis). Acquiring the defensive wizard, Ender Inciarte, also gave the Braves’ lineup more length and speed, as the former D-Back hit .291 with 16 steals in his first year with the Braves. But despite a breakout year from Freeman (34 HR / 91 RBI), the team was still one of the worst offensive groups in the majors. Again, last in runs, last in homers and an overall 86 wRC+ (28th) meant non-contention for the Braves in ’16. However, young guys like Dansby Swanson, Johan Camargo, and Ozzie Albies were just a year away, and a fresh young group of prospects was just what Seitzer and the Braves needed. 

 

2017 — Year 4 of rebuild

The foundation Seitzer had been constructing over the last two seasons finally started showing up on the stat sheet for several players within the Braves’ lineup during the 2017 season. Flowers had the year of his life and put up 4.5 WAR, thanks to more contact and fewer strikeouts; Brandon Phillips came over from the Reds and hit .291 with 11 homers; Inciarte started squaring up the ball more and slugged 11 homers as well (he had just 13 spread out over his last three seasons before that); Kemp, as bad as he was on defense, stopped chasing bad pitches as often and managed 19 home runs despite only playing in 115 games. Perhaps most impressive, though, was the seamless transition Matt Adams had once acquired from the Cardinals in May of that season (to fill-in for an injured Freeman). 

Seitzer was also able to work with some young talent in 2017 finally. Because of all the losing, the Braves started landing much better draft picks, and the development of the organization’s prospects was moving along nicely. Albies, then 20-years-old, got in 57 games for the Braves down the stretch and showed plenty of promise with a .810 OPS. Camargo covered third base and shortstop beautifully while hitting .299. Even failed Royals prospect Lane Adams joined in on the fun and posted a .807 OPS in 85 games.

This was no longer a putrid Braves’ offense, but one that was beginning to fire on all cylinders. The contact evolution that Seitzer was supposed to be incorporating began to provide results in 2017, and the Braves finished the year with the third-lowest strikeout-rate and tied for the fifth-highest AVG in the majors. The veteran group on offense and the pieced together starting rotation gave the Braves 72 wins in what turned out to be the team’s final season of the rebuild. It was a year that offered a glimpse of what was to come sometime in the future hopefully, but everything the Braves and Seitzer had been building for finally came together surprisingly the very next season. 

 

2018-19 — Two-time NL East champs

The 2018 and 2019 seasons have featured the two most prolific lineups this franchise has seen since the late-90s and early 2000s, and in just five years Seitzer and the Braves have groomed this offense into one of the top groups in baseball, building a potential dynasty from the ground up . What was once an old and boring lineup, is now comprised of a young and talented core with even more room to grow.

The players may have changed over the years, but instead of being known only for solid pitching and great defense, the Braves are an organization that has prioritized growth at the plate. Yes, a rebuild filled with losing will restock a franchise and allow it to draft closer to the top, but as alluded to in the intro… a team-wide transformation stems from changes within the organization, and that guy has been Seitzer these last five seasons.

Last year — granted, with the help of a surging Josh Donaldson — the Braves finished among the top-three teams in the majors in hard-hit rate (41.3%), thanks to a whopping 16.4% increase since Seitzer’s first season back in 2015. This new lineup hits the ball hard (even harder now with Marcell Ozuna joining the fun), but maybe more than anything, it has developed a special kind of approach at the plate. As a team last season, the Braves posted a 9.8% walk-rate (3rd-highest in MLB), thanks to the impressive strides of Albies, Swanson, and Acuna (all three saw a jump in walk-rate).

And the philosophy Seitzer has brought to the Braves has also improved the lineup’s performance against specific pitches. No longer is this a one-pitch offense, only able to capitalize on certain offerings or mistakes by the opposing pitcher. In 2019, the Braves finished in the top-10 in its rating versus fastballs and in the top-3 against breaking balls, according to FanGraphs Pitch Values. We witnessed that turnaround first-hand with Swanson as he started going the other way last season — even hitting several opposite-field homers.

The Braves rebuild was supposed to be about pitching, and the team certainly has its fair share of elite arms; but many fans fail to realize what really took place during those losing years. It took trading away several fantastic hitters and players –and there were four-straight seasons of non-contention — but through it all, the Braves completely overhauled their offense… and it has Kevin Seitzer’s name all over it.

 

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