The Braves and Sabrmetrics

Andrew Bare discusses the Braves interest in the sabrmetric scheme, or lack thereof. Will this anti-sabrmetric philosophy affect the Braves on both the playing field and on the draft table?

Few combinations interact worse than the above two phrases. Oil and water maybe. Probably J-Lo and monogamy. Certainly Kyle Hawkins and attractive women. (You can't fire me boss, I'm union.) In fact, the Braves represent a bastion of traditional baseball ideals and methods of evaluation against a rising tide of sabrmetric thought in major league front offices.

Before going any further, it's probably best to briefly discuss sabrmetrics for those of you who don't order Baseball Prospectus, read BaseballPrimer.com, or buy any of Bill James' Abstracts. What is sabrmetrics?

Well, a sabrmetrican will likely define it as "the search for objective truth in baseball." That's a cute definition, and it gives everybody involved a warm, fuzzy feeling. But what does it mean?

Believe it or not, exactly what it says. Sabrmetricians believe in making player evaluations based on tangible evidence. In pursuit of this goal, they attempt to acquire every bit of evidence about a given player or team as is possible. None of this sounds so revolutionary.

Of course, not all data points are created equal, and here's where things take a different turn. Sabrmetricans (or "statheads", in the slightly less pretentious vernacular) believe that the traditional evaluational baseball statistics (batting average, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, wins/losses for pitchers, etc) are flawed. In their place, these statheads offer statistics such as On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, and OPS (merely the sum of OBP and SLG), to begin with. In an attempt to reach even higher levels of precision, more complex stats are used, statistics like VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), ERA+ and OPS+ (a stat that indicates how far above league average a players OPS and ERA are), Linear Weights (OK, I don't get those myself), and Bill James' newest creation, Win Shares.

The sabrmetricians attempt to put a run value on almost every event that occurs on a baseball field, from a sacrifice bunt to a single with runners on first and second and 1 out. Many of the conclusions they draw from their research come as shocking to the traditional methods of thought. They reject many of the old statistics, as mentioned. They believe that many traditional on-field strategies hurt more than they help. It's all very fascinating stuff, and it's easy to become a sabrmetrics believer. (As I have, in the interests of full disclosure) And many front offices around the league, especially those in Toronto, Boston, and Oakland are run by sabrmetric devotees.

So where do the Braves fit in this grand, sabrmetric scheme? By and large, they don't. As a team, they don't emphasize On-Base Percentage, working counts, drawing walks. And as a result, the Braves have few position prospects in the minors who have displayed good command of the strike zone. And this is only one of many areas in which the Braves do not toe the line with sabrmetric doctrine.

Indeed, that is what made the recent series between Atlanta and Oakland so interesting, even beyond the good baseball played. Oakland General Manager Billy Beane is in the vanguard of sabrmetric thought among major league GMs. His work was chronicled by Michael Lewis in a new bestseller entitled "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game." In it, Lewis details many of the innovations the Oakland front office has introduced to the organization. In an attempt to successfully run a team with limited financial resources, Beane and his lieutenants have become sabrmetric darlings.

Perhaps the area in which the differences between Oakland and Atlanta are most striking is in the amateur draft. One of the more controversial beliefs of sabrmetricians is that college players are substantially safer bets than are high school players, especially pitchers. The Braves represent the polar opposite viewpoint, believing instead in taking high ceiling, raw kids, preferably from Georgia, and schooling them in the "Braves-way." Look at the last several first round draft picks for these teams.

This year, the Braves used their first pick (a supplemental round choice) right handed pitcher Luis Atiliano, an 18 year old from Puerto Rico.

In 2002, they chose high school outfielder Jeff Francoeur.

In 2001, it was lefty Macay McBride out of Screven City HS in Georgia.

In 2000, the choice was lanky right hander Adam Wainwright. You guessed it, a high school pitcher from Georgia.

In fact, the Braves haven't used their first selection on a college player since 1991, when they tabbed Mike Kelly out of Arizona State. This year, the Braves didn't use a draft pick on a college player until the 7th round with Ryan Basner.

The Braves scouting department, when pressed on the issue, inevitably points towards the 2000, 2001, and 2002 drafts, which they claim shows that the Braves drafting strategy often bears fruit. Indeed, those drafts brought high schoolers like Adam Wainwright, Scott Thorman, Kelly Johnson, Macay McBride, Jeff Francoeur, Zach Minor, Kyle Davies, Anthony Lerew, and Brian McCann, who have turned into excellent major league prospects. It's an impressive haul for 3 drafts. But what about pre-2000 draft picks?

It's a decidedly uglier picture. In reverse order from 1999, the Braves first draft choices have been Matt Butler, Matt Belisle, Troy Cameron, AJ Zapp, Chad Hutchinson (who's currently the Cowboy's starting quarter back), Jacob Shumate, Andre King, and Jamie Arnold. All high schoolers, and only Butler and Belisle have realistic chances to have decent big league careers. The question is, in 4 years will the 2003 draft evoke memories of the 2000 haul, or the 1999 massacre?

For Braves fans who are also believers in sabrmetrics, the last 12 years, as well as the present and immediate future, present an intriguing conflict. One can't help but be overjoyed at the years of success. And yet, they came at the expense of many of the principles these fans hold dear: An emphasis on OBP, an aversion towards high school pitchers, a general belief in the overarching quality of the right statistics. The prospect of a front office shift towards sabrmetrics is slim. Probable Schuerholtz successor and current assistant GM Frank Wren holds many of the same views as his boss.

One of the most interesting stories of the next few years will be if the Braves continued intransigence comes back to haunt them. If it does, stathead Braves fans will be faced with the prospect of seeing the principles and beliefs they hold dear overwhelm the team that they love.

Andrew Bare can be reached at AndrewBare29@hotmail.com He encourages your email because…well, because he's desperately lonely and wants the company.

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