The Other Way the Braves Can Improve

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PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 18: Shane Greene #61 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the ninth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates during inter-league play at PNC Park on June 18, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

As the trade deadline approaches, every team in baseball is evaluating and exploring ways to improve. With just one trade deadline this year, teams have a little more than a week to go out and get better. For the Braves, there seems to be, at least externally, a consensus about how exactly they should do that. See if you can spot the common thread:

Every question asked and every conversation started about Atlanta’s trade deadline is centered around pitching. How will they improve their pitching? Which pitcher will they get? Will they get a starter or reliever? Or both?

And those aren’t dumb questions. Nor are they baseless ideas. Here was the tale of the tape for the 1st half:

Runs Scored/game: 5.40 (5th in MLB)

Runs Allowed/game: 4.75 (14th in MLB)

While the pitching has steadily improved as the season has progressed, it’s still the weakness of this team. It’s still the area that most obviously needs improvement. Atlanta has wrecked other teams with their offense this year knowing, at times, they’d have to outscore their own pitching staff. So adding reinforcements to that staff makes the most sense.

But as much sense as shoring up a weakness makes, and as much as pitching is clearly a weakness for this team, it isn’t necessarily the best way forward. There is a compelling argument, in this market, that the best way Atlanta can use its resources in the next 8 days is to add a hitter.

Braves’ GM Alex Anthopoulos was giving an interview with the AJC last week and dropped this nugget in response to a question about adding pitching:

Q: Will the bullpen again be an area you try to address in the month ahead?

A: “Everyone’s always looking. It’s the most challenging thing to get at the deadline because everyone has that need. Same with front-line starter. If you’re searching for a position player at the trade deadline, it’s team specific. If we need a second baseman or a left fielder, how many other contenders are going to have those same needs? From a competitive negotiating standpoint, it’s a lot easier. Every contender can add a quality reliever. Every contender can add a starter.”

This quote is fascinating on a couple of levels. Anthopoulos made the very relevant point that trying to acquire the thing everyone else is trying to acquire is like swimming upstream. And he’s right. How many contenders could use another reliable reliever? Or an upgrade in the rotation? Almost every single one of them. The demand will be high, the supply is low, and the prices will be set accordingly.

And if you don’t believe me, consider this:

The Tigers are asking for Washington’s top prospect for Shane Greene. Not Matt Boyd and Shane Greene. That’s the price just for Greene. Now even in this market, that’s an absurd asking price that’ll never be met, but it is a glimpse into the dangers of attempting to buy the commodity everyone else wants.

But then read the other part of that Anthopoulos quote. I’ll highlight it again so you don’t have to scroll back up:

“If you’re searching for a position player at the trade deadline, it’s team specific. If we need a second baseman or a left fielder, how many other contenders are going to have those same needs? From a competitive negotiating standpoint, it’s a lot easier.”

Purely from an acquisition standpoint, adding a bat is easier. As Alex said, not every contender wants or needs an outfielder. Every contender wants and needs more pitching. Simply, the supply and demand ratio is more to your favor when trying to add something fewer teams are trying to add.

But this is not just a supply and demand argument. There’s also the idea that a team whose strength is already offense, gains more value by adding more offense.

SAN DIEGO, CA – MAY 5: Hunter Renfroe #10 of the San Diego Padres celebrates after hitting a grand slam walk off home run during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Petco Park May 5, 2019 in San Diego, California. The Padres won 8-5. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

Let’s say, for example, Atlanta added Hunter Renfroe from San Diego to play RF/LF. Renfroe has a 126 wRC+, so that’s what the Braves would be adding to their lineup. Except they’d actually be adding more than that.

In Atlanta’s lineup, Renfroe’s production, that 126 wRC+, would lead to more runs than it did in San Diego’s lineup because he’d be coming to to the plate with men on base more often. Atlanta has a .337 team on-base percentage. San Diego’s is .309. With other great hitters around him, his offense becomes more productive. Not because the myth of protection, but simply because the number of opportunities he’d have to change the score with his production increases. As it stands now, the amount of times one of his hits leads to a run is limited by his team as a whole. That would improve in Atlanta.

And conversely, the more times he comes to bat with men on base, the more likely his production would go up as well. Hitters generally hit better with men on base, so not only are you getting more runs from his current production, but you can reasonably expect an increase in his performance as well. It’s a snowball effect.

This is why team offense isn’t linear. It isn’t just a collection of weighted numbers added together. We take context out of the equation when assigning value on the individual level, as we should, but context is extremely important on the team level. Production feeds off production. Having better offensive players around you makes you better and vice versa. The more great players you add to an offense, the more that offense becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

This is how Atlanta could acquire value on top of value. Adding a better hitter improves any offense. But the better the offense you’re adding to, the greater the impact. And conversely, the worse the offense you add to, the lesser the value of the addition. Miami trading for a 126 wRC+ and Atlanta trading for one leads to very different results. Even if the production is the same in both places. Atlanta’s advantage is they already have a good offense and adding more improves them by more than just what the metrics say.

The biggest argument against this idea is that offense is already a strength for Atlanta, and they need to address their weaknesses. But there are no diminishing returns on scoring runs. A run scored is never less valuable than a run prevented. All that matters is outscoring the opponent and adding to one side is the same as subtracting from the other.

But even aside from cost-efficiency or non-linear impacts, Atlanta could just use another bat. Austin Riley is still adjusting to adjustments, and while his long-term outlook is bright, these struggles could easily carry on through the rest of this season. Nick Markakis still can’t hit left-handed pitching, the catchers have regressed a bit offensively and Dansby Swanson still isn’t a sure thing with the bat. There’s nothing wrong with adding some insurance, on top of everything else.

My guess is Atlanta will add pitching of some sort. They’ve been linked to Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, Boyd, and a host of relievers. And they might do both. This isn’t an either/or proposition. But if they go the other way, if they double down on what they’re already doing well, you’ll hear criticism. You’ll hear people say those resources would’ve better been spent improving weaknesses. But stepping back and taking the entire picture into account, Atlanta’s most prudent step may be making a really good offense even better.

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