Cut me off if you have heard this bedtime story before, but the genesis of the Braves' dynasty - the one that made us all so miserable - was John Schuerholz shoring up the team's defense in conjunction with the young pitching staff led by Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery coming of age. The 1990 Braves were a defensive abomination, especially on the left side of the diamond where Jim Presley, Jeff Blauser, and Andres Thomas combined to be 41 runs below average. David Justice played first base for the '90 Braves and tacked on five more runs below average. Ron Gant and Oddibe MacDowell manned center field and were a combined eleven runs below average. For a team that was outscored by 139 runs on the season and finished 67-95, the defensive issues on the infield and in center field were not the difference between success and failure, but the team clearly left a lot to be desired defensively. The 1990 Braves finished dead last in the NL in defensive efficiency, converting a wretched 67.6% of balls in play into outs.
Schuerholz and Bobby Cox took one look at that problem and decided that the team needed a defensive makeover. Out went Presley and in came the defensively adept Terry Pendleton. Jeff Blauser's platoon buddy at short changed from Thomas to Rafael Belliard, a guy who fashioned a 17-year career despite a .530 OPS because he was an expert with the leather. David Justice moved to right field so Sid Bream could play first and add to the defensive revolution. Finally, center field was shored up by Otis Nixon with help from Deion Sanders. The Braves rocketed from last in the NL in defensive efficiency to first, converting 71.4% of batted balls into outs.* That figure was the best figure posted by the Braves in 17 years. More impressively, the Braves haven't equaled their .714 defensive efficiency number since, despite a moderately successful 14-year streak of winning their divisions.
* - Inexplicably, the '91 Braves were first in the NL in defensive efficiency and last in fielding runs above average, which causes me to question using FRAA, at least for older season where zone information is less reliable.
This little trip down memory lane is useful because the current version of the Braves could rival the '91 Braves in terms of defensive prowess. The team's .699 defensive efficiency is nothing too notable, as it is good for sixth in the National League. That number, though, would be the Braves' best defensive efficiency number since 2003 if the team sustains it for the entire season. In fact, one can look at defensive efficiency and see the team's decline after the dynasty. In the 15-year period from 1991 to 2005, the Braves finished sixth or better in the NL in defensive efficiency eleven times. In the six years since, the Braves haven't finished higher than sixth. The Braves' average rank in defensive efficiency during the 15 years of plenty was 4.73; in the six years of lean since, the average rank has been eight.
The picture for the 2012 Braves is even better according to FRAA. (You know, the stat that spat out a ridiculous number for the '91 Braves that caused me to question its value.) The Braves are first in the NL in this category, having turned in a performance 46 runs above average over the first 85 games, a full 26 runs ahead of second-place Cincinnati. The team's outfield has been its collective bell cow, as Michael Bourn is 16 runs above average while Jason Heyward and Martin Prado are each nine above average. It's funny that the outfield has been the team's Achilles heel for so long and this year, it is without a doubt the team's strength, both offensively and defensively.
The picture gets even better when one considers the upgrade that the team experienced when switching from Tyler Pastornicky to Andrelton Simmons. In 40 starts, Pastornicky was eleven runs below average; in 33 starts, Simmons has been eleven runs above average. A Braves team with Simmons is elite defensively, which is a statement that can lead to optimism ("our good defensive numbers are dragged down by a shortstop who is currently in Gwinnett learning to be a utility guy!") or pessimism ("lord, what are we going to do without Andrelton for a month?")* The next four weeks could be an exercise in treading water until Simmons returns, as in a comparison of former Pirates, Jack Wilson does not have a glove to cover for the absence of a bat like Rafael Belliard did. Frank Wren, make the magic happen!
* - On the heels of foolishly claiming that Isaiah Crowell was the most irreplaceable Georgia Bulldog next to Aaron Murray, Steak Shapiro pooh-poohed the Simmons injury on Monday by saying "it's not like they lost Michael Bourn or Freddie Freeman." Point taken with Bourn, but Simmons has been significantly more valuable than Freeman this year. By WAR, Simmons has been worth 2.5 wins and Freeman has been worth 0.7. (Insert caveats for sample size and that Simmons' offensive performance is likely to regress. A guy who had a .759 OPS in the Carolina League last year is unlikely to sustain a .788 OPS in the majors.) It's really impressive that Steak is a sports talk fixture in this town without knowing much about its teams.
Speaking of Wren, the team's strong defense is worth considering when the Braves have to decide whether to go for broke this year by trading for someone like Zack Greinke. One school of thought is that the team's starting pitching is fairly weak and the club has too many holes, so they should just bide their time with a young roster, take their chances with what they have, and not give up prospects in a gamble on 2012. That line of thinking ignores the fact that the team's offense is quite good (fourth in the NL in runs scored, fifth in OBP and OPS) and the defense is very good. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was inscribed with the phrase "know thyself;" the Braves should know that they have a team that can compete for a title this year. Add in the fact that fielding runs above average correlates with postseason success (along with having a great closer; check!) and you have a strong argument for going for the ring in 2012.
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