Sometimes baseball just leaves you speechless. I was 0 for 4 with my Division Series predictions thanks to four teams I clearly underestimated. You really cannot predict baseball. Or at least I can’t. The American League side of the postseason has seen utter domination by both the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Royals. Sadly Atlanta Braves fans have not seen the team advance this far in the postseason since losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 NLCS.
The Orioles took down the Detroit Tigers and their powerful rotation in a three game sweep that saw the Orioles outplay the Tigers in every facet. Whether it was shutdown innings by Andrew Miller, Delmon Young bases clearing hits, or Nelson Cruz game-winning homers the O’s found ways to win in all three games.
Kansas City has become the lovable underdogs of baseball with their fascinating extra inning affairs. Former Braves executive Dayton Moore (and maybe future Braves executive..?) has built an exciting brand of baseball focused on speed, pitching and defense. Little known players such as Terrance Gore, and Jarrod Dyson have burst onto the national scene with their late inning pinch running and defensive heroics. While Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have turned into postseason heroes after disappointing regular seasons.
What this ALCS features is two types of offensive tactics when it comes to winning baseball games. More than new school vs. old school, this series represents power vs. speed. Of course these distinct styles apply mostly to the regular season. In the postseason you win baseball games any way you can, and both teams have done that. Can the Braves learn any lessons about how each of these teams built their teams?
Buck Showalter and his Orioles represent the power. This Orioles team is built around their power bats. Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz, Chris Davis, Steve Pearce, and even JJ Hardy all are capable of bringing home runners with extra base hits, and they do it often. During the regular season the Orioles led the league in homeruns, were 3rd in slugging percentage, and 3rd in extra base hits. On the flip side they ranked last in stolen bases only attempting 64 all season.
Rather than playing small ball, they are the embodiment of Orioles Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver’s famous strategy of “pitching, defense, and the three run homer.”
The Royals on the other hand rely on small ball tactics, most notably their fantastic base-running. They led the league in stolen bases, were 7th in American League in sacrifice bunts, while being last in homeruns and 23rd in extra base hits. Ned Yost relies on the speed of his base-runners and the execution of his hitters to score runs. Yost is not afraid to bunt a guy over and rely on his batters to get timely base hits with runners in scoring position. He would rather force the action than wait on a double or homerun to bring home the runner from first.
Where the teams become similar is with defense and pitching. Good pitching and defense is not advanced metrics vs. traditional baseball, it’s just smart baseball. You cannot win championships if your defense fails to make plays. Just ask the Tigers. Baltimore was 3rd in AL in ERA and Kansas City ranked one spot below the Orioles in 4th. In the field they also were similarly successful. Baltimore also ranked 3rd in the majors in defensive runs saved while the Royals were once again 4th. They score their runs in different ways, but the real key to their success might be their run prevention.
The Royals and Orioles are not the only organizations to employ either of these types of strategies, but their recent success makes them interesting case studies. The Atlanta Braves have seemed to be building around the power strategy in recent years.
During the Frank Wren era they have acquired players who are most known for hitting homeruns and have chosen not to worry about playing small ball or the excessive amounts of strikeouts. Players like Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, and Dan Uggla are all or nothing type guys, but the idea was they would provide enough slugging to offset any dip in on base percentage or the excessive strikeouts.
Unfortunately, that strategy has not worked as well as in Baltimore. The homeruns have dipped this season, and the fact of the matter is the Braves hitters do not get on base enough. The team ranked 24th in baseball in on base percentage, and 29th in slugging percentage. For a team that was supposed to be built around power they sure lacked punch.
I’m not suggesting that the Braves flip the script and go full small ball like the Royals. It takes specific personnel to play that way. That type of personnel is not readily available for purchase and the Braves only have a few rising prospects who fit that playing style (Jose Peraza comes to mind). The Braves need to take a little bit from each type strategy to form a new “Braves Way”. Coming up with an identity, signing players who fit that mold, and drafting players you can develop to fit that identity will go a long way in improving your organization. Unless that identity is “grit”, that idea set the Diamondbacks back several years.
To remedy the Braves struggles I would suggest a balanced approach on offense. Do not build an offensive strategy focused primarily on hitting homeruns, but also do not bunt yourselves to death. Assemble a team filled with players who get on base, run the bases well, and play solid defense. If you have guys on base when the big boppers come up good things will happen eventually.
The B.J. Upton’s, the Chris Johnson’s, and the Dan Uggla type players have no place on this roster and I’d assume the new front office is well aware of what kind of player they should avoid. This new brand of Braves baseball should be all about balance. That may seem obvious, but if it was obvious or easy everyone would do it. The pitching and defense side of things has remained consistent even through these troublesome years with the bats. Fredi Gonzalez certainly has his hands full in 2015, but if the bats can catch up the Braves can get this ship turned around, and hopefully win a postseason series for the first time since 2001.
If Dayton Moore makes his way to Atlanta after his Royal fairy tale is over it’s possible he will try to emulate what has turned out to be successful with Kansas City. No matter which vision you choose I think that the most important thing is sticking to your vision and bringing in players who can help you execute that plan. However the “Braves Way” is reborn I hope it eventually rewards this organization with the postseason success it has lacked in recent years.
In the end the simple truth is that you can win a baseball game in a variety of ways. You can hit a single, steal a base, drop down a bunt, and score a run on a sacrifice fly. You can also slug a walk-off homerun. Though I tend to agree more with Showalter’s decision making than Yost’s that does not make Yost wrong necessarily (you cannot argue with results). This game is too challenging, and too unpredictable to be solved with one strategy. That is part of what makes baseball so great.
PS: The ALCS is currently 2-0 Royals, and my prediction was that the Orioles would come out on top. In the National League I like the Giants over the Cardinals. Currently I’m on pace to go 1-5 in my predictions. I will not quit my day job.