Projecting the 2011 Division Race: Phillies vs. Braves (Offenses)

In looking back at the 2010 season from today's vantage point, it's almost hard to believe that the Phillies, who ended up with the best record in baseball, spent so much of the season (over three months, from May 31 through September 6) trailing the Atlanta Braves. Once the Phils finally caught up, they dominated September so thoroughly and mercilessly that the final margin of victory wasn't particularly close. But it wasn't quite as easy as it now feels like it was.

The Phils are the clear-cut favorites to win the division in 2011, but most would agree that the Braves again present the biggest threat to their hopes for a fifth straight NL East title. (What, were you expecting the Mets?) I want to take two or three posts to examine just how big the threat is, starting with a comparison of the two teams' offenses.

First, the Braves.

The Braves' lineup scored 738 runs in 2010, which placed them fifth in the National League. Their batters came to the plate 6,252 times, with the following ten players appearing the most frequently. 

Name PA OPS+ wOBA
Martin Prado 651 119 .352
Jason Heyward 623 131 .376
Brian McCann 566 124 .361
Melky Cabrera 509 83 .294
Omar Infante 506 111 .340
Troy Glaus 483 102 .331
Chipper Jones 381 120 .358
Eric Hinske  320 114 .341
Yunel Escobar 301 71 .290
Alex Gonzalez  292 83 .292


These ten players accounted for about 74% of the 2010 Braves' PAs (79% if you exclude pitchers).

In predicting how the Braves will do in 2011, the three most important questions are:
(1) How do their new faces compare to their departed players?
(2) Did any of their returning players perform significantly better or worse in 2010 than they should have?
(3) How will their returning players be affected, if at all, by age?

I'll take these in order.

(1) New Faces vs. Old Faces

The Braves' projected 2011 lineup looks something like this:

C McCann
1B Freddie Freeman
2B Dan Uggla
3B Jones
SS Gonzalez
LF Prado
CF Nate McLouth
RF Heyward

So essentially, there are three newcomers (Freeman, Uggla, and McLouth) who will be taking at-bats that previously belonged to Cabrera (released), Infante (traded), and Glaus (not re-signed). That's an oversimplification, but we're taking the 10,000-foot view here.

This is all good news for the Braves.

- Infante hit surprisingly well last year, but Uggla is the second-best offensive 2B in the league (behind Chase Utley).

- Cabrera was simply terrible in 2010 - one of the worst, if not THE worst, starters in the league. There's no way McLouth won't be an improvement over Cabrera at the plate. I know that 2010 McLouth somehow was actually worse than 2010 Cabrera, but unlike Cabrera, McLouth isn't really that bad.

- Glaus was streaky and ended up with rather uninspiring numbers for a 1B. Freeman, being a rookie, is a question mark, but I think there are very good odds that he'll at least match, if not outperform, 2010 Glaus even if he goes through rookie growing pains.

(2) Any 2010 Flukes?

The short answer is no. Well, Omar Infante might have been one, but he's one of the players who's been replaced. None of the returning players (McCann, Jones, Gonzalez, Prado, Heyward) had performances that now seem flukish.

Incidentally, that list of non-flukish performances includes the fact that Chipper Jones played so little. Jones is about to turn 39 years old and is an enormous injury risk. 381 PAs for him seems like it's about par for the course.

(3) Effects of Age?

The Braves' five returning players have the following birthdates: 

Name DOB
Jones April 24, 1972
Gonzalez February 15, 1977
Prado October 27, 1983
McCann February 20, 1984
Heyward August 9, 1989


A baseball player's prime years generally run from ages 27-29 or thereabouts. I think this means that Prado and McCann can be expected to improve slightly, Heyward can be expected to improve a lot, Gonzalez can be expected to decline slightly, and Jones can be expected to decline a lot. In all, a slight net gain for the Braves.

Conclusion

The Braves made some noticeable improvements to their lineup this offseason. Their returning players will probably improve slightly compared to last year too. They scored the fifth-most runs in the NL in 2010. This year they could end up in the top three.

For what it's worth, here's a chart of the James and Marcel projections for their eight likely starters. 

Pos Name J PA J wOBA M PA M wOBA
C McCann 566 .372 538 .361
1B Freeman 552 .343 212 .329
2B Uggla 666 .362 604 .359
3B Jones 473 .389 450 .353
SS Gonzalez 430 .300 563 .303
LF Prado 625 .351 576 .350
CF McLouth 500 .332 403 .334
RF Heyward 677 .395 512 .379
-- Total 4489 .358 3858 .347


Now, let's take a look at our guys.

The Phillies were second in the league in runs in 2010. The ten players who batted the most last year were: 

Name PA OPS+ wOBA
Jayson Werth 652 145 .397
Shane Victorino 648 102 .339
Raul Ibañez 636 112 .341
Ryan Howard 620 128 .367
Placido Polanco 602 95 .323
Chase Utley 511 124 .373
Carlos Ruiz 433 128 .366
Jimmy Rollins 394 86 .317
Wilson Valdez 363 79 .294
Ben Francisco 197 104 .345


These guys combined for 80% of the team's PAs.

(1) New Faces vs. Old Faces

There's only one new face in the Phillies' lineup this year. Jayson Werth is gone, and either Domonic Brown or Ben Francisco or some combination of the two will take over for him.

That's a tall order because Werth had a great 2010. Brown is a tremendous talent, and I won't be surprised at all if he seizes the job in spring training and plays at Werth's level. But that would be a best case scenario. I could also see him struggling, as many very good players have in their rookie seasons. Chances are that the Phillies will lose something in this department in 2011.

(2) Any 2010 Flukes?

This question is a little more hopeful. Ruiz might have had a career year last year, but then again, maybe not - he's had kind of a weird career trajectory, so who knows. Meanwhile, Howard, Utley, and Rollins all did worse than projected. Bill James and Marcel both project better 2011's for all three, as well as for Ibañez.

Also, the Phillies probably suffered from bad injury luck in 2010. They aren't a young team and so injury risk undoubtedly has to be built into their equation. But still: Utley 511 PAs, Ruiz 433 PAs, Rollins 394 PAs? I think they missed a bit more time in 2010 than it would be reasonable to project for 2011, even after recognizing that they have some legit injury risks.

(3) Effects of Age?

The Phils' seven returning starters' birthdates are: 

Name DOB
Ibañez June 2, 1972
Polanco October 10, 1975
Rollins November 27, 1978
Utley December 17, 1978
Ruiz January 22, 1979
Howard November 19, 1979
Victorino November 30, 1980


None of these guys are pre-prime. Ibañez and Polanco are post-prime (I kind of have my doubts as to whether either one will actually decline much in 2011, but for purposes of this model, you have to assume that they will). Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, and Howard might also decline a bit - at the very least, age is unlikely to make them better.

Conclusion

The Phillies' lineup is probably worse than it was last year. I think some of their hitters underperformed flukishly last year, but they're also collectively somewhat past their primes: those two things will cancel each other out. So it all comes down to whether Brown can maintain Werth's level this year. While I think that's possible, it would be unfair to Brown for anyone to expect or demand it.

And here are the James and Marcel projections. 

Pos Name J PA J wOBA M PA M wOBA
C Ruiz 435 .341 454 .328
1B Howard 682 .393 580 .363
2B Utley 625 .380 524 .370
3B Polanco 636 .322 568 .318
SS Rollins 605 .336 470 .319
LF Ibañez 596 .346 574 .336
CF Victorino 664 .342 593 .338
RF Brown 596 .372 235 .320
-- Total 4839 .355 3998 .338


The Bottom Line

If Brown can hit as well in 2011 as Werth did in 2010, the two offenses will be close to equal. In the more likely event that he can't, then the Braves will probably have the better offense. The edge is unlikely to be enormous, but it won't be nothing either.

Pitching comparison to come in a few days.

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