Braves: Ten tools that will be crucial to the 2020 season

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All the way back to when big-league players were scouted as amateurs, there has been something specific that has separated each player from the next, oftentimes translated on paper using the term “tools”. Whether it’s something quantifiable like being able to field well or hit a fastball, or maybe an intangible like composure or makeup… each and every player offers something of their own to the team. Sometimes, those tools can evolve, as over time players can develop more in certain areas; but more times than not there’s always going to be that “certain something” that a player holds on to, which is ultimately what carries him throughout his career.

Below are ten tools or strengths from ten different Braves players that will be essential to the team’s success in 2020. Some of these tools are newly developed while some have been with the player from Day 1… but they all will be required for the Braves to win its third-straight division title, and possibly a World Series:

 

Home run suppressionMike Soroka, P

I’m sure you’ve read this plenty by now, but in case you haven’t: Soroka finished 2019 with the lowest home run rate in the NL and second-lowest in the majors (among starting pitchers), allowing 0.72 HR/9 — or 14 HRs allowed in 174.2 innings. And guess what… there’s more to come too (or less?), given last season was Soroka’s highest HR rate in any of his professional seasons in which he pitched at least 30 innings (he had a 1.0 HR/9 in ’18, in 25.2 IP). Who knows what the baseball will be like in 2020, but at least Soroka knows how to keep it in the park.

 

Dominant sliderWill Smith, P

Over the last two seasons combined, Smith has been the face of the slider community among relievers, throwing the most dominant slide-piece in the majors, according to FanGraphs’ Pitch Value. In 2018 and 2019 combined, the former Giants’ closer has allowed a .107 AVG and has struck out 55.8% of batters faced with the offering. And get this… Smith has allowed an incredibly pitiful -5 wRC+ in that span (yes, there’s a minus before that 5!). Folks, this is why the Braves gave him $40 million.

 

Pitch-framingTyler Flowers, C

It’s true that Flowers has lost a bit of what he once had with the bat, primarily due to his increasing struggles versus left-handed pitching; but when it comes to doing his job behind the plate he is one of the best. In just 85 games last season Flowers was worth 19 Def WAR, better than all but five major league catchers, most of which played almost twice as many games as he. All of that defensive WAR in 2019 came from his ability to turn balls into strikes, illustrated by his 13 Runs From Extra Strikes total (a statcast metric that converts strikes to runs saved), which ranked second in the majors. Flowers also tallied 9 Runs From Extra Strikes in 2018… good for a third-place tie in all of MLB. 

 

Dominant curveballMark Melancon, P

Melancon has thrown over 2,000 curveballs in his 11-year career and thus far has surrendered a whopping 8 home runs with the pitch. In fact, in more seasons than not (6 of 11) he hasn’t allowed a single homer with the offering while allowing a measly .155 AVG and 13 wRC+ throughout his big league career. So it’s no surprise that in 2019 Melancon paced all NL relievers in curveball Pitch Value (8.6) while also ranking third in the majors. You don’t see it very often, but Melancon will be a closer with a deadly curveball instead of fastball. 

 

Line-drive hitterFreddie Freeman, 1B

Freeman actually hit 29 fewer line drives (130 / 159) in 2019, though he still led all major league first baseman in line-drive rate (27.5%), just ahead of the Yankees Luke Voit. Overall, Royals’ outfielder/infielder Whit Merrifield was the only player ahead of Freeman in that regard, as the Braves’ franchise player rode that ability to square the ball up to a .295 AVG and 4 WAR. Since 2010 — the year he entered the majors — no other player in baseball has hit line drives at a higher rate than Freeman’s 27.7%.

 

Hard hitterMarcell Ozuna, OF

Since his first full season in the majors (2014), Ozuna has averaged a decent total of 24 home runs per year, an average not too outlandish for a guy expected to hit cleanup for the Braves this season. But starting in 2016 he began hitting the ball harder, increasing his hard-hit rate by about 3% (34.5% to 37.4%). Fast forward to 2018 and Ozuna’s 45.2% hard-hit rate tied for 10th in the majors and sixth in the NL, followed by another 3% jump last year that propped him up all the way to the top 10 in all the majors (sixth). Ozuna also likes to pull the ball, so his hard-hitting, pull-hitting ways make for the perfect home run hitter, especially with the new Happy Fun baseball.

 

Elite defenseEnder Inciarte, OF

Last year featured a lost season for Inciarte as he only played 65 games due to injuries, and finished with just a .740 OPS (granted, his career OPS is just .728). The Braves need him to return in 2020 as that same elite defender he was back in 2018, when he tallied 21 OAA (Statcast’s range-based defensive metric), trailing only Lorenzo Cain among big league outfielders. The Braves’ outfield will be dependent on how well Inciarte can hold down his centerfield position. 

 

Breaking-ball masherRonald Acuna Jr., OF

Of the 411 curveballs Acuna has seen in his two seasons in the majors, he has slashed an incredible .342/.390/.614 with 17 XBHs and a 170 wRC+. Who does that kind of damage against curveballs? Well… his teammate Freeman has career .292 AVG / 146 wRC+ against the pitch, but then the rest of the players found on the Pitch Value leaderboard near Acuna include guys like Bregman, Rendon, Yelich, and Arenado… so basically not many “normal” players.

 

Dominant changeupCole Hamels, P

I recently wrote about Hamels and his career-long domination throwing the changeup. His offspeed pitch is almost what Mariano Rivera’s cutter was, as Hamels has thrown the best changeup in the game since he cracked the big leagues with the Phillies in 2006, even better than Felix Hernandez’s and primetime Jason Vargas (if he ever had a prime). For more details on his filthiness, read this. It’s a shame we’ll have to wait until May to see Hamels in a Braves’ uniform.

 

Batter’s eyeOzzie Albies, 2B

I also wrote about Albies earlier this month, complimenting him on his drastic improvements in 2019 regarding his plate discipline. But if you read that piece you would know that it wasn’t necessarily the fact that Albies simply walked more… no, it was that he started walking more when it mattered the most (with RISP, 2 outs… etc), which is like walking more times two! Though, Albies did in fact actually walk a bit more last season, raising his BB rate by about 2.5%. It’s a small improvement, but given that he was able to do it in more high-leverage situations last season may mean the changes are here to stay. Albies went from a free swinger to more of a patient hitter, and the Braves will need a continuation of that in 2020. 

 

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