The Braves are loaded. There’s a reason FanGraphs gives them the highest odds of any team to raise the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the year at 12%, which is a full percent higher than anyone else. They are expecting All-Star caliber production at six positions this year and boast arguably the most complete pitching staff in the league. This is going to be another fun year in Braves Country, but as we’ve documented all offseason, the situation in left field is bleak.
The Braves are hoping Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario bounce back and at least become average players, which they’ve been over their entire careers, outside of last season. If that happens, they’ll be in fantastic shape, but if not, they’ll need to scramble for an answer. Externally, that will be difficult to find until much later in the season, but there might be an option internally that could step up if Ozuna and Rosario falter — little known Sam Hilliard, who Michael Baumann of FanGraphs recently made a case to be the team’s starting left fielder in 2023.
“The first thing to like about Hilliard is that he has what I like to think of as pass-catching tight end athleticism,” Baumann states. “He’s 6-foot-5, 236 pounds, and has 85th percentile sprint speed and 97th percentile maximum exit velocity. (“Wait, this guy is almost exactly the same listed height and weight as Josh Allen and he still only slugged .264 for the Rockies?” Settle down.) That’s compelling in its own right, because everyone loves a huge guy who can run fast.”
As we know, athleticism can only take you so far in the game of baseball, but here’s where things get interesting. Hilliard is a slugging left-handed bat, whose value has been hamstrung considerably in the past by the shift, which is now no longer in play.
“Hilliard, being a big left-handed hitter capable of hitting the ball at 115 mph, got shifted quite a bit,” says Baumann. “At the same time, he did what every cranky color commentator wants every left-handed power hitter to do in that situation: Try to go the other way.”
“Last season, 402 players hit at least 40 fly balls. Of those, Hilliard’s pull rate ranked 345th, his hard contact rate ranked 209th, and his wRC+ on fly balls ranked 360th. Last season, the league hit .222/.217/.646 on fly balls, for a wRC+ of 131. Hilliard hit .159/.159/.386, for a wRC+ of 29. This after posting a fly ball wRC+ of 250 or higher in each of his first three seasons. (Bryce Harper had a fly ball wRC+ of 252 last season, for comparison.)”
Something I’ve talked about ad nauseam over the years since Alex Anthopoulos has taken over as general manager is his ability to find production where others are unable. He’s been incredible at finding diamonds in the rough, whether it be in free agency or via trade.
The flashy long-term, team-friendly extensions may be what captures all the headlines, but this is actually the area where he’s been the most impressive. There is a lengthy list of players most people have never even heard of that have come to Atlanta and all of a sudden experienced an uptick in production, and Hilliard is a prime candidate to be the next in line.
As Baumann says in the piece, I’m not expecting Hilliard to start producing like an All-Star, but there is a situation where he is the Braves’ best option to play in left field on most nights. He doesn’t need to hit .300 and accrue 5.0 WAR. That’s not going to happen, but Hilliard could end up being the best defensive option and slug 15-25 homers, given his profile. It’s probably not what the Braves are hoping for; they’d like Ozuna or Rosario to return to form. However, Hilliard is a legitimate factor in Atlanta’s left field conundrum, and there’s a chance he ends up starting in half the games for the Braves and producing much better than people anticipate.
Photographer: Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire