To be honest, a postmortem was indicated when Hudson went down and the team officially died; the corpse is starting to smell.
Could the 2008 Braves have won the division? Sure. This wasn’t really a 72-win team, not when Hudson was healthy and Teixeira was at first base. At worst, it was a .500 team, and a .500 team can win the division with a little luck. But all the Braves’ luck was bad — this team had the karma of a arbitrageur.
The Braves have been, each of the last three seasons, a profoundly underachieving team, according to Pythagorean projections. This season, they went beyond that; not only did they win less than their runs scored and allowed would indicate, they scored many fewer runs than their offensive components would indicate — 30 to 80 runs fewer, depending upon your assumptions and methods.
Why is this? Well, probably Bobby’s ridiculous bunts had a little bit to do with it. Most of it is probably just luck, but when the team consistently underperforms, it is appropriate to take a look at the manager and coaching staff. Nobody in Atlanta really seems too eager to do so, and they’re saying everyone will be back.
Terry Pendleton comes in for a lot of abuse, and I’m not sure that teams really need hitting coaches — I’ve said many times that I think individualized instruction would be best — but it’s hard to say that he’s doing a bad job. The Braves only finished sixth in runs scored, but (a) sixth is not that bad, and (b) what he comes in most criticism for, “aggressiveness”, doesn’t actually appear to be a problem. The Braves were third in the league in OBP, third in batting average, third in walks, and second in fewest strikeouts. They seem pretty selective to me, and that’s with Jeff Francoeur sucking up a team-high 652 PA.
The Braves’ biggest offensive problem was a lack of home run power. They finished fourteenth in the NL in home runs. They managed tenth in slugging because of a high batting average and being fourth in doubles. This was a teamwide phenomenon. McCann led the team with 23 homers; this is, I believe, the lowest team-leading total for the Braves since 1992. Only three Braves hit 20 or more homers, and one of these (Teixeira) was traded, after playing only 109 games, for a player with 15-homer power. Last season, nine Braves hit ten or more homers. This year, only six did, and nobody else was close.
This isn’t the entry to examine the failings of individual players, though obviously that played a large role, but of systematic problems. One problem is simply that the team did not consider power to be a major concern in designing the ballclub. But another problem goes back to the aforementioned fondness for one-run strategies — not just bunting, but “hitting behind the runner” and “putting the ball in play” and “get the run home”.
As Bill James has written, the number of runs produced by one-run strategies is “effectively zero”. And that’s if you’re good at it. The Braves were very bad at one-run strategies in 2008, failing on numerous bunt attempts, consistently not getting runners from second to third with no out, not getting the runner in from third or even getting him thrown out at the plate. Continuing to use these strategies — which at the best of times are suboptimal — despite continuous failure has a lot to do with the Braves’ low home run totals and with their inability to score as many runs as a team third in the league in OBP should.
None of that has much to do with Terry Pendleton; it is a matter for Bobby Cox and perhaps Chino Cadahia. If TP had anything to do with the home run drought, it would seem to me to be reflected in the low strikeout total referenced above. Contact and power are not necessarily conflicting concepts, but they can be competitive concepts. A team that doesn’t strike out may be a team that doesn’t hit home runs as often as it might. At any event, it seems more likely that (if the Braves have the sense God gave a goose and recognize that the low home run total is a problem) that they will address this through roster design rather than a coaching change.
Pitching coach Roger McDowell got a lot of praise early in the season, only to see the pitching basically collapse in the second half. A lot of that was the loss of Tim Hudson; removing the team’s best and most durable starter put too much pressure of the rest of the staff. The Braves simply could not replace him, and he still finished third on the team in innings pitched and tied for third in starts, as well as leading them in ERA.
However, the pitching collapse was at least as much a result of the usage pattern of the first half, in which Cox and McDowell used the bullpen very hard to preserve the starters, and tended to ride the hot hand even after it had dramatically cooled off. This only accelerated after the losses of Smoltz and Glavine. The Braves lost three of their top four starters during the season (four of five if you include Chuck James, whose misuse and misdiagnosis is a problem for another day) but were able to only find one replacement, Jorge Campillo.
The result was using a lot of relievers to patch up holes, and it worked, for awhile. In the second half, it caught up to them, and the Braves went from second in the league in ERA to twelfth. The only thing that the pitching staff was good at was denying home runs, as they finished fifth in that. They were eighth in hits allowed, and eleventh or worse in everything else. In most of these things, they were good or decent before the break, only to be the worst in the league, or close to it, after.
Still, I find it hard to blame either the manager or the pitching coach for this. They did what they could with what they had. I’d much rather see a reliever go down than a starter. The pitching coach could be blamed for not getting more out of the young starting pitchers from the Braves’ system, Reyes and Morton. I’d certainly like to see what Leo Mazzone could do with Reyes, who seems desperately in need of a pitching coach who will kick him in the ass and tell him to throw strikes low and outside, but again that’s a matter for another day.
I think there is a good case to be made for the removal of two coaches. One is Chino Cadahia. The Braves’ bench coach is expected to deal with defensive positioning (which often seemed lacking, especially in the outfield) and with tactical matters (never one of Bobby’s strengths). When I ran a poll asking which coach would be the best to bring back to the Braves, I voted for Pat Corrales. Corrales, recently fired by the Nats, is available.
The second is Brian Snitker. I won’t go into some of the misadventures of the Braves’ baserunners or the number of times they got thrown out by fifteen feet. Suffice it to say that when in the last few weeks he put up a permanent stop sign, it was a massive improvement.
Is it time for Bobby Cox to retire? I am reluctant to say so, but I would be lying if I said I hadn’t considered it. I have generally felt that his tactical shortcomings were really not a big concern, that you don’t lose games that way. However, I am reevaluating this position. The Braves have badly underperformed their expected record three years in a row. This cost them the division title in 2007 and possibly winning records the other two years. While a lot of this is just “luck”, I now feel that the affection for one-run strategies is having a negative impact on the offense. It is not just that he’s bunting and playing for one run too much, he’s bunting and playing for one run with players who aren’t good at it or who are too good to be giving away outs.
I have long been a proponent of the view that the tactical stuff didn’t matter as long as Bobby had control of the clubhouse. However, this year (for the first time I can recall) he seemed to lose his grip on that as well. The most important was the Francoeur situation, where a player who was losing games for the team left and right seemed to be making the decisions rather than the general manager or the manager. While Bobby perhaps did take Francoeur’s side (some have indicated this) Bobby never should have allowed a player to seem in that position of authority. Running the team, not running the games, is the most important part of a manager’s duty, and if Bobby isn’t in control of the ballclub anymore it is indeed time for him to go.