If the Braves Fail, It Will Be for the Right Reasons

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Atlanta Braves president John Hart sports a tan this spring, which in itself isn’t particularly strange for someone in the baseball industry. In Hart’s case, the cause is the time he’s spent on the back fields, perhaps his favorite spot in the organization’s Disney-based complex. He rose to front-office prominence via an unorthodox path, having started on a managerial track in Baltimore until Hank Peters identified him as an executive candidate and brought him to Cleveland. He’s spent countless hours evaluating, coaching and encouraging on chain-link fields. It’s where the future is this time of year. But he also loves the back fields of the Braves’ complex this spring because of what he sees. It’s there where a small army of tall, lanky, projectable pitchers resides.

The Braves are the third franchise Hart is attempting to transform into a winner, and this rebuilding approach has been more pitching focused than his previous efforts in Cleveland and Texas. The Braves have four pitching prospects ranked in Baseball America’s top-100 rankings, five among Eric Longenhagen’s top 100, where two more just missed the cut in Sean Newcomb and Joey Wentz.

While the Braves have top-end positional prospects like Dansby Swanson (acquired via trade) and Ozzie Albies (signed by the previous regime), prospect talent acquired under Hart and general manager John Coppolella — particularly through the draft — has been pitching heavy.

I was curious to ask Hart about the subject after having interviewed him previously on the topic of the risk/reward dilemma presented by pitching prospects — particularly those drafted out of high school — back when Hart was an MLB Network analyst and I was a beat reporter covering the Pirates. At that time, I’d asked him about Pittsburgh’s Pitch-22 philosophy — i.e. the notion that most pitching prospects fail, but small- and mid-market teams must develop their own pitching.

The Pirates had made a historic commitment to pitching at the time. In three drafts from 2009 to -11, Pittsburgh expended 22 of their first 30 picks on pitchers. Seventeen were prep pitchers. The Pirates signed 18 of them to bonuses totaling $25.6 million.

Said Hart at the time:

“A truism is if you have 10, you can really count on two of them making it,” Hart said. “I came up in the (1980s) and never believed it. I said, ‘Come on, there can’t be that much attrition.’ Then bang: This guy gets hurt. This guy doesn’t develop a third pitch. … You can never have enough pitching.”

Hart’s estimate is pretty much in line with the success rate for pitchers rated as 100 prospects.

Back in 2011, Scott McKinney of Royals Review researched the failure rates of top-100 prospects. In examining Baseball America’s top-100 rankings from 1990 to 2003, he classified 77.4% of top-100 pitching prospects as “busts,” pitchers that either failed to pitch in the majors or averaged less than 1.5 WAR per season in the highest level.

In 2013, Jon Shepherd conducted a similar study for Camden Depot, extending the period of BA’s top-100 prospect lists from 1990 to 2006. The bust rate for pitchers remained a nearly identical, 77.5%, and he found them to be a more risky demographic than compared to position players (66% bust rate). And even among the elite prospects, those ranking 1-20 on lists, he found pitchers were still more likely to fail (51.7% bust rate) than succeed.

Hart knows the risks, yet the Braves have adopted a pitching-heavy approach nonetheless.

All three of the Braves’ first-round picks during the Hart Era have been high-school pitchers. Twelve of their first 14 picks in the 2015 draft were pitchers, and seven of their first eight picks in 2016 were pitchers. I wrote about the Braves’ risk tolerance last month. So, last week, I was curious to learn more about their approach by speaking directly to the key actors involved.

“Part of the reason we focused on pitching is that you need a lot of pitching,” Hart told FanGraphs. “When you go to try and buy it in the market, in the long term, it’s just not really an effective use of your dollars. You start buying starters in their 30s coming out in free-agent market, and you start having extended years, it usually doesn’t end well… When it came time for us to draft or make trades, we felt the best available prospects we could get were pitchers. A lot of guys were position players that we sought after that [teams] wouldn’t trade in some of the deals. When we started doing this, it wasn’t like we had three or four years left on deals of players that were All-Stars. Other than Craig Kimbrel, we traded Jason Heyward and Justin Upton on one-year deals on last years of contracts.

“We are a little pitching-centric and those are the reasons why: it’s cost prohibitive in the market, the attrition rate of what it takes to get there, and ultimately what presented itself in drafts and trades.”

But part of the strategy is also perhaps because of a risk tolerance that is greater than that of most clubs. As Coppolella suggested from the Champion Stadium dugout as the Braves took batting practice last week — a passerby joking about his heavy volume of trades — the Braves appear to be one of the least risk-fearing teams in the industry.

“If we are going to be wrong, we are going to be wrong for the right reasons,” Coppolella said. “We want to fail for the right reasons. You want to fail with upside guys… We have to take some risks. We don’t have as large a market, or the same TV deals, or the same revenues, as teams like New York, Washington and Philadelphia. So if we win, it will be about taking chances on guys with upside.”

Not only have the Braves taken pitchers early and often in drafts, Coppolella notes the Braves have taken the youngest pitchers on the board. The Braves’ 2015 first-rounders, Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, were 17 at the time of the draft. Rany Jazayerli found back in 2011 for Baseball Prospectus that younger prospects in the draft tend to perform better as professionals.

“We’ve really tried to exploit that,” Coppolella said. “We draft guys that have room to grow, not the finished off college guy. If it’s Kris Bryant, I get it, but many of the best players never make it to college especially with new slotting rules.

“That nice analytics guy you take at the end of the first round, let’s call it what it is… you are going with a lot of safe college picks.”

A player with a higher floor but a lower ceiling.

It’s not just in the draft where the Braves have embraced risk. Consider the Justin Upton trade in December of 2014. The No. 1 asset for which the Braves asked in the returning package was pitching prospect Max Fried, a former first-rounder, who had Tommy John surgery several months prior to the trade.

I asked Hart about taking on that level of risk, not only a recent high-school pitcher, but one whose left elbow had been repaired.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” said Hart from a golf cart, situated near the batting cage covering the home plate area. That was a Hart-ism for saying he fully embraces risk.

“You don’t want to be crazy, don’t want to shoot from the hip,” Hart said of taking on risk, “but we did analytics on it, we did scouting reports on it. All the cadre of guys we have working in the front office worked on this deal, as well as the scouts. We went for the upside guy.

“We bought the player, we believe in [him]. We did a lot of research on the surgery. We know who did the work. We felt he had the most upside. We could have traded for two or three guys in that deal, but we took Fried as the lead player. How is it looking right now?”

It’s looking quite good.

Fried was dominant at the close of last year’s minor-league season and has been impressive this spring, touching 97 mph while showing a biting curveball.

“I think it’s instructive if you look at the Justin Upton trade,” Coppolella said. “Part of the catch in getting Max Fried is that he was hurt. He was going to be out for all of 2015 with Tommy John surgery. Could we have gotten him if he was healthy? Probably not. We kind of went with upside. We didn’t know if he would get back all the way. But we want to fail for the right reasons. That was a leap of faith that we took. What if it breaks again? Should we go with this guy? Well, we went with upside. The biggest thing for me personally is process over outcome.”

The Upton package also included Mallex Smith – flipped for Mariners pitching prospect Luiz Gohara this offseason – and second baseman Jace Peterson and cash savings. Coppolella said they used the cash savings to acquire pitching prospect Touki Toussaint from Arizona by taking on the contract of Bronson Arroyo, Coppolella described the deal as an “NBA-style” trade.

The Braves are well aware that not every pitcher will work out, with Coppolella citing Manny Banuelos as an arm the club acquired but who had faltered. And while the Braves are aware of the industry’s pitching attrition rate, they are also hopeful they can beat it — or at least create the depth that will produce multiple, quality controllable rotation arms.

“We feel that depth is going to go,” Hart said. “I don’t know that I’m quite as stringent on, you know, it takes 10 to get two. But, again, until these guys get here, we’ll see.”

While the idea that a club can beat historical attrition rates when it comes to pitching prospects seems to contain the perils of hubris, Hart said the club has focused on size and delivery in scouting. They’ve targeted prep pitchers in part because they have less wear and tear than a college arm, and they will better know their history compared to a college arm. They drafted a cold-weather arm in Ian Anderson with the third-overall pick last June.

And the Braves have also become more conservative in timetables for rehabbing pitchers. For instance, Fried had Tommy John surgery in August of 2014 and did not pitch at all in 2015.

“We didn’t do Jonny Venters, Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen any favors in rushing them back from Tommy John surgery,” Coppolella said. “Beachy came back nine months. His first pitch was 95 and his last pitch was 81. He hasn’t really been back since… We don’t want guys back in 10 months or 12 months. We want to try and extend it to 15-18. Give them flexibility.”

Coppolella also believes, and rightfully so, that it’s easier to trade from a surplus of pitching than one of position players. So while Hart’s first two successful rebuilding projects in Cleveland and Texas were largely built around position players, the Braves have been nimble and have adopted for this pitching focus due to attrition, market conditions, and a greater willingness to take a risk. Said Coppolella: “We feel like we’ve done all that we could to put the Braves in the best spot possible.”

And if the Braves’ bet on pitching works, perhaps that spot will perhaps soon be at the top of the NL East.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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7 years ago

The Process, Part 2: We Want To Fail For The Right Reasons

7 years ago
Reply to  JEdward

Yeah, the whole, If we fail we want to fail because we stuck to our philosophy, does not imbue me with confidence in their rebuild.

7 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

I guess that depends on whether you think the philosophy is sound or not.

7 years ago
Reply to  Joser

I’ve had my doubts. As others have mentioned, their infatuation with high risk high upside pitching prospects is not a philosophy I care for. The Braves need to hit on too many prospects to be playing fast and loose with those kinds of odds.

7 years ago
Reply to  Joser

I think it’s sound. It would have been nice if there had maybe been a couple more position prospects, but as they noted, they weren’t going to take position prospects just for the sake of it; they had to be both available and worth it.

I hope some of these high-upside prospects pan out, and given the performance of many of them, particularly at lower levels, it seems like there is a good shot. But the idea of overloading the cupboard to account for prospect attrition generally, and pitcher attrition specifically, is definitely a good one.

7 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

All you can do is stick to your philosophy. What is the alternative? Changing directions every year or trying to replicate something that already happened. Those are far worse ideas!

7 years ago
Reply to  JEdward

This reminded me of Cam Cameron, which made me laugh: http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-preseason/09000d5d80154651/Cameron-Fail-Forward-Fast