Atlanta Braves season review 2014: Outfield


The 2014 season was not an entirely successful one for the Atlanta Braves. The team finished with a 79-83 record after basically a complete collapse down the stretch, and as a result, virtually nothing is certain as the team transitions toward the 2015 season and beyond. In this space, we will be reviewing what happened during the 2014 campaign, dissecting the roster piece by piece and grading each player based on their performance against what was expected of them. In the first installment, we evaluated the infield, and in part two, we will break down the outfield.


Jason Heyward

At one point during the 2014 season, I peddled for Jason Heyward as a potential MVP “candidate”, and while that may have been slightly overstated, he was quite good this season. With his glove, the now 25-year-old outfielder led the Major Leagues in defensive runs saved (DRS) with 32, while finishing second in ultimate zone rating (UZR) at 24.1. In short, Heyward was arguably the best defensive player in baseball this season, and there is virtually no argument against the versatile outfielder receiving another Gold Glove award.

Unfortunately, many fans and would-be “experts” do not value defense as a crucial part of the game, and that has greatly hurt the perception of Jason Heyward. Heyward was billed as a potential .300/.400/.500 hitter in the mold of Chipper Jones as a prospect, and that simply hasn’t come to pass at this point. He was certainly productive at the plate this season, posting a walk rate north of 10% to achieve a .351 on-base percentage, but Heyward blasted only 11 home runs in 149 games (down from 27 home runs in 2012) and his slugging percentage of .384 was nearly 100 points lower than his career-best.

With that on the table, it would be plainly inaccurate to characterize Heyward as a “negative” offensively, especially when considering his tremendous base-running (20 stolen bases and numerous “highlight” plays with his legs). Heyward is often compared, at least by some, to Andrelton Simmons in terms of defensive value and with good reason, but because Heyward’s bat does play in an above-average capacity, the gap between the two players in overall value has been significant, especially during the 2014 season.

No one is fully “happy” with where Jason Heyward is at the plate right now, but when factoring in his incredible production in every other area of the game, he is an All-Star level player even with his 2014 offensive output.

Grade: B+

B.J. Upton

Well, B.J. Upton was much better in 2014 than he was in 2013. Sadly, that is where most of the positives evaporate.

His 2013 output of .184/.268/.289 with 9 home runs and 12 stolen bases was “good enough” to provide a negative WAR. In 2014, that production improved across the board, as Upton posted a .208/.287/.333 slash line with 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Quite obviously, that slash line is unacceptable for a full-time player at any position, but there were occasional glimpses of the power-speed combination that made Upton a top free agent target, and if he simply could have gotten on base with more regularity, the “counting numbers” were perfectly respectable.

On the defensive side of things, it is easy to recall some high-profile mistakes and/or errors from B.J. Upton, but in the end, he probably wasn’t as bad as you remember. The now 30-year-old outfielder finished as a “positive” in overall defense according to FanGraphs, and while he was “worth” -7 DRS (yikes), that overall ranking from FanGraphs placed him ahead of names like Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Denard Span (who all finished with worse DRS numbers, also) while finishing 8th in MLB among qualified center fielders.

With all of the qualifiers on the table, B.J. Upton isn’t very good at baseball right now. There is something to be said for somewhat “hidden” value in his legs and, potentially, on the defensive end of the game, but his bat does not play as an MLB regular at this stage, and only the faint hopes of a change in hitting coach stand between Upton and a quick end to his tenure as a potential contributor at this level. “Better than 2013” is, unquestionably, a good thing, but it isn’t enough to warrant a passing grade, especially given his lofty salary.

Grade: D

Justin Upton

Justin Upton was the best power hitter on the Atlanta Braves roster this season, and the burly outfielder was in a dead heat with Freddie Freeman for best overall offensive performance. Upton narrowly trailed Evan Gattis for second place on the team in slugging percentage (.491 to .493 for Gattis), but Justin led the team in home runs (29) and runs batted in (102) while finishing second in offensive WAR and wRC+ to Freeman.

On a more global scale, Justin Upton finished eighth among all MLB outfielders in slugging percentage and tied for fifth (with Baltimore’s Adam Jones) in home runs. Overall, he was extremely effective as a power producer for a team that desperately needed that type of showing (imagine where the offense would have been without him), and his offensive abilities are simply not in question.

However, not everything was positive for Justin Upton, even on the offensive side of things. His 26.7% strikeout rate was easily the highest on the team for someone not named “B.J. Upton”, and it ranked fifth-worst among qualified MLB outfielders. The debate rages on as to whether strikeouts matter a great deal in today’s baseball, but striking out nearly 27% of the time is probably less than ideal, regardless of where you stand on the issue.

The biggest problem, though, is Justin’s defense, and he has been alarmingly bad at times. He was rated as the second-worst defender on the roster (to Freddie Freeman) by FanGraphs, and third-worst in the same category (behind Freeman and Chris Johnson) by Baseball-Reference. He certainly isn’t disastrous by left field standards across baseball, as many teams simply place a power hitter with no defensive acumen in that spot, but for a player billed as a “five-tool” guy in Arizona, his defense has noticeably lagged behind his other traits.

With the “complaints” out there, Justin Upton was very good this season. He may never be a full-fledged MVP candidate and he is very streaky, but Upton has produced two seasons with 27 home runs or more while in a Braves uniform, and his power and overall contributions were vital to keeping this team somewhat afloat for most of the year.

Grade: B


Stay tuned as we continue our post-season evaluation of the 2014 Atlanta Braves, and follow ATL All Day for all the latest on the state of Atlanta sports.