Going all the way back to the turn of the previous century, the worst team wRC+ was posted by the 1920 Philadelphia Athletics, who finished at 67. The worst mark in more modern baseball came from the 1963 Mets, who finished at 69, and then if you look at the more recent era, the 2013 Marlins finished at 73. Terrifically bad offenses, all. This year’s Braves are sitting at 57.
They won’t finish at 57, because the franchise would fold itself before it would let that happen. But the situation to this point has been absolutely dreadful, and it’s made a bit worse by the fact that the front office spent the offseason assuring people the team, and especially the lineup, would be better. This is from a mid-January Twitter takeover, in response to a fan asking why someone should bother even showing up at the park:
Better offense at every position, chance to see many impact prospects make MLB debut, last year of Turner Field https://t.co/CaJh0UXIdL
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) January 14, 2016
You’ve probably seen some of what’s been going on. It’s been almost impossible to ignore. But let’s review anyway. Sometimes a few images can pack a bigger wallop than a table of statistics.
The Braves lost to the Red Sox on Monday. No big deal, even the best teams lose a lot of games. In the process, the Braves were shut out. Well, all right, shutouts happen. Obviously, because the Braves were shut out, they didn’t homer. Nothing unusual about a homerless game. But then you think about context. The Braves have been playing a lot of homerless games. At least, homerless for the half when they’ve been batting. The Braves’ last home run was hit on April 10, when the Reds had the second-best record in baseball. The homerless streak is alive at 14 games, and David Price is looming tonight. The last team to have a longer homerless streak: the 1991 Cardinals, at 18 games. This season alone, the Braves have an active streak of 14 games, and the second-longest streak has been five.
And when the Braves hit a few homers early, it’s not like they delivered four weeks’ worth. Back then, they hit three, which means today, they still have three. How many is three home runs? In isolation, it’s three home runs. In a league context, it’s basically zero home runs.
Look at that. Look at that, and don’t stop looking at that. All right, now you can stop. The Braves have been completely and utterly powerless, and that’s led to the following, which is slightly less dramatic, but only because the plot above is genuinely frightening:
Oh, there have been some bad teams. Like, look at the Phillies: they have a wRC+ of 72, and their hitters have combined for a WAR of -0.4. Yet, Braves hitters have combined for a WAR of -2.6. If the Braves had a WAR of positive 2.6, they’d slot in in 13th place. They’ve been the negative of that. The defense has been slightly negative, and the baserunning has been slightly negative, but mostly, this is about having no opportunities to run the bases in the first place, because the offense has sucked.
“It’s hard to pinpoint something,” Freeman said. “It seems like we’ve been getting double-digit hits every game. We just haven’t been getting those hits to turn into runs. As long as we keep hitting, I think things will start to change here. It is a little more magnified since we got off to this start.”
Okay, so, in fairness, there have been some baserunning opportunities. All the overall numbers are bad, but in the past nine games, the Braves have batted a respectable .253. Yet they’ve slugged .297, because 67 of the 81 hits have been singles, and the other 14 have been doubles. Everyone understood coming in that the Braves were fairly light on power threats, but things were never supposed to be this low.
Let’s reflect back on the assurances the offense would be better. This year’s Braves have played 19 games. Here’s a plot of last year’s Braves, in terms of team OPS over rolling 19-game windows:
Twice, last year’s Braves had slides somewhat comparable to this. Indeed, everything is harder to hide when this is how the season began. But the lines above never cross — last year’s Braves were never this bad over the same amount of time. Most of the time, they were much much better. How couldn’t they have been? You always think you’ve seen the worst, until you see worse. There’s always worse.
In the Braves’ defense, there’s something important to say, that doesn’t get enough early-season attention. You can shrug this off based on sample size if you want. Or, you can shrug this off because the Braves weren’t supposed to be competitive anyway. But while schedule strengths mostly balance out over full seasons, they don’t necessarily do that over a few weeks at a time. Here’s what I mean. The Braves have 718 plate appearances. By opposing pitchers, they’ve seen Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer the most, for 51 plate appearances each. Clayton Kershaw’s in third, with 32 plate appearances. Then there’s Steven Matz, at 28, and so on and so forth. The league-average ERA is 3.97. Out of curiosity, I looked at the Braves’ opponents so far, and all the pitchers they’ve seen project for a combined 3.38 ERA. To put this more simply: A huge reason the Braves haven’t hit is because they’ve faced some really good pitchers. They’re definitely not a good offense, and they’ve struggled against mediocrities, but the schedule has been weighted against them. They’re not going to keep seeing aces so much.
I projected the Braves out to try to see about where they might finish. I blended their numbers so far with projected playing times and performances the rest of the way. Because we don’t project pitchers at the plate, I gave the Braves’ pitchers a projected average performance (as pitchers go) (which sucks). Here are some estimates of end-of-season numbers:
- wOBA: .289
- wRC+: 81
- Homers: 104
The numbers are bad. They were always going to be bad. Last year’s Braves finished with an 85 wRC+. But at least based on the projections, the Braves should avoid being historically awful. There are, of course, ways to change that. The pitchers could hit horribly. Erick Aybar might never recover. Maybe Freeman is broken in some way, maybe in his wrist. Freeman is the only hitter in the lineup you worry about, and right now people are worried about him in a different way. He’s probably fine, but if he isn’t, holy hell, it’s a nightmare. A nightmare in a rebuilding season, but a nightmare nevertheless.
The odds are that the Braves will start to look more like a real baseball team. They’ll be delighted to get Ender Inciarte off the disabled list. Yet people will be more reassured when they see good things actually happen. For now, damage is already done: where the Phillies entered the year projected for the worst record, now it’s the Braves, by almost four games. For a team focused on drafting, you could spin that into a good thing, but drafting first feels good only one day out of the year.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.