Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Where Has All The Power Gone?

For the past 20 years, Braves baseball has meant solid, if not stellar, starting pitching. Whether it be Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz or Hudson, Hanson and Lowe, Atlanta's starting rotation is more often than not one of the best in the league. With a prospect pipeline that includes Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino, Brandon Beachy, etc, etc., that trend should continue. But while a strong rotation has been the hallmark of the franchise over the past two or three decades, the team's unprecedented division dominance from 1991-2005 also included some bats with power. Comparing those 15 years to the 2006-2010 seasons, we begin to see what's perhaps a notable factor as to why the Braves haven't tasted much divisional success recently.

From 1991-2005, the Braves had big poppers like David Justice, Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, Chipper Jones (in his prime) and Andruw Jones to anchor the middle of the order. Over the past 4 or 5 years, as Chipper's power has declined, much of that load has been placed on Brian McCann's shoulders. While Brian is certainly one of the best hitting catchers in the game (as evidenced by his 4 Silver Slugger awards), he's not the type of player who Braves fans can expect hit 30 HR a season. McCann has led the team in homers each of the last 3 seasons without hitting more than 23 (in 2008). A serious power bat would give the Braves a true one-swing walk-off type threat instead of continuing to rely on stringing together 2 or 3 hits in tight late-game situations.

Let's take a look at the team's home run leader each season since 1991:

1991 - Ron Gant (32)
1992 - David Justice and Terry Pendleton, Tied (21)
1993 - David Justice (40)
1994* - Fred McGriff (34)
1995 - Fred McGriff (27)
1996 - Ryan Klesko (34)
1997 - Ryan Klesko (24)
1998 - Andres Galarraga (44)
1999 - Chipper Jones (45)
2000 - Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones, Tied (36)
2001 - Chipper Jones (38)
2002 - Andruw Jones (35)
2003 - Javy Lopez (43)
2004 - JD Drew (31)
2005 - Andruw Jones (51)
2006 - Andruw Jones (41)
2007 - Chipper Jones (29)
2008 - Brian McCann (23)
2009 - Brian McCann (21)
2010 - Brian McCann (21)

* - strike-shortened season

From 1991-2005, there were only 3 seasons ('92, '95, '97) where the team leader had less than 30 home runs. Conversely, the Braves haven't had a player hit at least 30 home runs since Andruw Jones did so in 2006 (Mark Teixeira hit 30 HR and 33 HR total in 2007 and 2008, respectively, but only 9 (in '07) and 20 (in '08) were for Atlanta). The 'average' team leader through 1991-2005 seasons hit more than 35 HR. Through 2006-2010, that number dropped to 27 HR. Remove Jones' 2006 season and that post division-run average drops to less than 24. Yes, thanks to PED testing and/or better pitching, the prevalence of home runs has decreased since the years of McGwire, Sosa and Bonds bashing 60+ in a season, but the Braves are still suffering from a power drought when compared to the rest of the league. In 2010, 61 players had more homers than McCann's 21. In 2009, it was 73 with more than McCann's 21 and in 2008 it was 54 with more than McCann's 23.

Hopefully things will change in 2011. With the signing of Dan Uggla, the Braves may now have the legitimate power threat they've been missing for the past few seasons. Uggla has notched more than 30 HR each of the past 4 seasons, setting his career high with 33 in 2010. His power may also help the Brave hitting in front of him (whether that be McCann, Chipper, Heyward, etc.) see some better pitches. Uggla's certainly not getting any younger, so hopefully his past success at Turner Field continues.

FanGraphs' Bill James predicts a bit more good fortune for the Braves in the power department. Dan Uggla should hit 31 HR. That right there would end the Braves' 30 HR 'drought.' Reigning home run leader Brian McCann is projected for 24 HR. That would tie a career high set during McCann's first full season in 2006. While Braves super-rookie Jason Heyward should develop notable home run power, he's pegged at 22 HR for 2011. Well-past his (power) prime, Chipper's looking at 17 HR, while rookie Freddie Freeman is projected to mash a respectable 16 homers.

Dan Uggla should improve the Braves power output flirting with 30 HR over the next few years while Jason Heyward continues to develop his naturally impressive swing to the eventual tune of 30 HR per year, but I'm not sure that the team has a Andruw Jones 51 HR or Andres Galarraga 44 HR type threat in its immediate future. We shall see.

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