Batting Average is Overrated: A Look at the 2013 Braves Offense

I saw someone pose this question in the Atlanta Braves group that I am in on Facebook:

Do you think the Braves will have a batter hit over .300 when the regular season ends? If so, who?

A solid question, and certainly one to spark a fun debate among a forum. I want to take a deeper look into this question and determine whether or not it will actually matter for the 2013 Atlanta Braves.

The Braves enter a baseball season for the first time since 1995 without Chipper Jones being a regular in their lineup. He takes with him a career .303/.401/.529 line and one of the few threats to hit for .300 over the last few years for Atlanta. Add in the trade of Martin Prado (career .295 hitter) and the likelihood of a Brave posting a .300 average over a full season of at bats seems unlikely.

The significance of batting average is debatable. It’s a bit overrated in my opinion. I suppose you figured that much from the title of the article, but hear me out.

Are you getting a .300 average from Joe Mauer or Albert Pujols? Let me dig a little deeper.

In 2010, Albert Pujols finished with a .312 average while Joe Mauer finished at .327. Neither led their respective league in hitting, but despite a similar batting average — Pujols significantly outproduced Mauer. You can tell that much by simply looking at the major offensive categories, but you can also use a metric that is an absolute favorite of mine: wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created). wRC+ is a metric that quantifies a player’s total offensive value and measures it by runs. The “+” means that it is park adjusted and league adjusted. Here’s more information from FanGraphs glossary:

“Similar to OPS+Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average.  League average is 100, and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. For example, a 125 wRC+ means a player created 25% more runs than league average. Similarly, every point below 100 is a percentage point below league average, so a 80 wRC+ means a player created 20% fewer runs than league average.

wRC+ is also park and league-adjusted, allowing one to to compare players who played in different years, parks, and leagues.  Want to know how Ted Williams compares with Albert Pujols in terms of offensive abilities?  This is your statistic.”

So how did Mauer fare in terms of wRC+ when compared to Pujols? It wasn’t all that close. Pujols posted a 164 wRC+ that year while Mauer posted a very respectable 136 wRC+. Pujols finished 4th in wRC+ that year, but you didn’t really need that statistic to determine whether you would want Pujols or Mauer in your lineup.

Let’s give it another try. Shin Soo-Choo hit .300 in 2010 with a wRC+ of 145. It’s a bit closer this time, but Mauer did finished 27 points ahead of Choo in batting average. Would I have rather had Choo’s offensive output over Mauer’s that year? Putting their defensive position aside — the answer is yes for me.

Consider Juan Pierre. He had a career .297 average, but he finished his career with a wRC+ of 86. That’s not awful, but it’s not great either. Give me Jeff Bagwell’s career .297 average and 145 wRC+ any day. Give me Nick Markakis’ .298 career average and 118 wRC+ any day.

My point is: forget the batting average — how is this player impacting the offense? So let’s take a look at the projections for the Braves 2013 regulars.

2013 Batting Average Projections  
Player Bill James ZiPS Baseball Prospectus
McCann 0.266 0.258 0.264
Freeman 0.282 0.274 0.267
Uggla 0.238 0.238 0.239
Francisco 0.272 0.252 0.256
Simmons 0.289 0.278 0.257
J Upton 0.289 0.263 0.272
B Upton 0.248 0.251 0.245
Heyward 0.272 0.265 0.258
C Johnson 0.280 0.254 0.264

The consensus from the projections seems to point toward Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman leading the team in average, with Andrelton Simmons possibly challenging as well. Before you question Bill James’ sanity, his .272 projection for Francisco is in half a season’s worth of at bats. ZiPS projections seem about right to me, although I find it hard to believe that Justin Upton will hit .263.

There are no projections for wRC+, but I basically agree that Freeman and Upton are the two Braves hitters who will challenge for a .300 batting average. I think both will ultimately fall short, but what they contribute elsewhere will be more valuable.

Freeman hit .301 for his career in the minor leagues. In two big league seasons, he’s posted a .282 and .259 batting average. You can find the difference between his rookie campaign of .282 and his sophomore season of .259 pretty easily. His luck on balls falling for hits in fair play (or BABIP) was significantly lower last season than it was in 2011 (.339 compared with .295). Freeman makes a lot of solid contact — his line drive rate was actually higher in 2011 — so you’d expect his batting average to receive a nice upgrade this season. In addition to poor luck, Freeman improved his discipline ever so slightly last season.

Percentage of ABs Resulting in a Walk
2010 – 8.3%
2011 – 10.3%

Percentage of ABs Resulting in a Strikeout
2010 – 22.4%
2011 – 20.8%

If Freeman continues to trend in that direction, we could see him flirt with .300 this year. And I’d put my money on him if I had to make a choice. Both Upton (Justin) and McCann have hit .300 before, but I really don’t see McCann doing it with his inconsistency against left handed pitching. And I’m just taking a chance on thinking Freeman will lead the team in average (but not total offensive output).

The Braves will have a lot of strikeouts, mostly from the elder Upton (B.J.) and the baseball version of Popeye (Uggla), but this doesn’t mean they won’t be an effective offense in 2013. It’s a lineup that boasts potential — with rising stars, proven veterans, and a couple of darkhorse MVP candidates in its stead. I think the most valuable offensive players of this offense will be the J-Hey Kid and Justin Upton — though both could post an average south of .275.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment box below. You can e-mail me suggestions or questions at jtmcadams@aol.com. Follow me on Twitter @JoeSportswriter.

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