The Braves are the group of stability. At six of 9 offensive positions, they’ve locked an above-average-to-star-level participant right down to a contract that can maintain him beneath membership management for no less than the following 5 seasons. We might most likely get away with actually not writing any Braves roster building thinkpieces till 2026 or so. However, I need to choose on the one imperfection in Atlanta’s cavalcade of cost-controlled stars: the entire left subject/DH scenario. Particularly, I need to suggest an concept that isn’t a joke, or a bit, or a troll… nevertheless it’s additionally not not a joke, or a bit, or a troll: Make Sam Hilliard the beginning left fielder.
Right here’s what the Braves have occurring on the market: First, Marcell Ozuna, who’s coming off two straight sub-replacement-level seasons. He nonetheless has two years at $18 million per, plus a membership choice, left on a deal he signed after a scalding 2020 season. Since then, he not solely has didn’t dwell as much as that deal on the sphere however has additionally been suspended for a home violence incident and arrested for DUI. On condition that historical past, his contract, and his efficiency, Ozuna might be untradeable, however the Braves would most likely choose to not give one other 507 plate appearances’ value of enjoying time to him if he posts one other sub-90 wRC+.
Vaughn Grissom is at present penciled in at shortstop, and given his age and offensive upside, he ought to get a number of rope at that place. But when he can’t stick there defensively, he ought to obtain loads of enjoying time in left subject. The nominal incumbent there’s Eddie Rosario, who parlayed his 2021 postseason heroics right into a two-year extension, then hit .212/.259/.328 in 2022 with below-average protection. He’s arrange for a platoon with newcomer Jordan Luplow, who was horrible in 2022 (.176/.274/.361) however often hits for energy and posts a bonkers stroll charge. The Braves ought to name him Operation Gladio, as a result of he’s been introduced in to crush lefties. It’s going to take me till mid-June, most likely, to keep in mind that he’s not Robbie Grossman.
Lastly, Travis d’Arnaud will most likely get some enjoying time at DH. Brian Snitker wasn’t shy about utilizing final yr’s backup catcher, William Contreras, in that spot. Plus, it’d be an enormous waste to spend $8 million on a participant who posted a 120 wRC+ final season and solely begin him in day video games that come after an evening recreation.
In order that’s two positions to be break up amongst a backup catcher, an thrilling teen who’ll solely transfer off shortstop if issues don’t go in keeping with plan, a platoon man, and two over-30 hitters who have been each sub-replacement degree final season and would most likely not be on the group proper now if not for his or her contracts. The Braves gained 101 video games and the NL East final season with principally this roster, solely in 2023 they’ll have (presumably) full seasons of Grissom, Raisel Iglesias, Ozzie Albies, Mike Soroka, and Ian Anderson, plus Sean Murphy. It’s onerous to fault the roster building general.
With that stated, it’s honest to ask why the Braves didn’t exit and get a left subject improve because the Phillies and Mets went berserk in free company. Hoping Ozuna and Rosario determine it out is a plan, simply not the one I might’ve chosen.
In fact, they did exit and get a left fielder: Hilliard. You most likely don’t keep in mind that commerce, as a result of it occurred proper after the World Sequence and probably the most well-known individual concerned was Sam Hilliard — not precisely headline information. However the Braves now have a prodigiously gifted fifth outfielder. “Gifted?” I hear you ask. “An virtually 29-year-old who slugged .264 who performed half his video games at Coors final season?” Sure, gifted.
The very first thing to love about Hilliard is that he has what I like to think about as pass-catching tight finish athleticism. He’s 6-foot-5, 236 kilos, and has eighty fifth percentile dash pace and 97th percentile most exit velocity. (“Wait, this man is nearly precisely the identical listed top and weight as Josh Allen and he nonetheless solely slugged .264 for the Rockies?” Calm down.) That’s compelling in its personal proper, as a result of everybody loves an enormous man who can run quick. (Apropos of huge guys who run quick, I’ve watched this Duhan van der Merwe try about 100 instances for the reason that weekend. It’s attainable I’m projecting this onto Hilliard.) Whereas Hilliard hasn’t performed sufficient to construct a reliable pattern — 1,378 defensive innings over 4 years, rather less than half of which have are available in left — the instruments are promising. And if nothing else, he’s virtually definitely higher on the market than Rosario and Ozuna.
So let’s speak concerning the bat. Normally, when an outfielder posts a 44 wRC+ and attracts bodily comparisons to a hulking Scottish rugby union participant, that conjures photos of an absolute no-hoper on the plate. (I don’t need to single out anybody by mentioning Bradley Zimmer, so I gained’t.) However Hilliard is definitely fairly selective, maybe an excessive amount of so for his personal good.
Sam Hilliard on the Plate, 2022
minimal 200 PA (358 hitters)
In 2022, Hilliard improved principally each side of his plate self-discipline from the yr earlier than — O-Swing%, contact charge inside and outside of the zone, whiff charge, the entire 9 yards — and his wRC+ dropped from 84 to 44. Preserve that behind your thoughts for a second.
When the commerce broke in November, Alex Eisert wrote his personal optimistic tackle the deal from the attitude of Hilliard and the Braves. There are two elements of Alex’s article I need to spotlight: First, the headline, which makes use of the very same “What within the Sam Hill…” pun I wished to make within the title of this put up. I’m livid about this and shall be difficult Alex to a duel on the earliest alternative.
Second, he discovered one thing attention-grabbing within the shift knowledge. Hilliard, being an enormous left-handed hitter able to hitting the ball at 115 mph, bought shifted fairly a bit. On the identical time, he did what each cranky shade commentator needs each left-handed energy hitter to do in that scenario: Attempt to go the opposite method.
It was an unmitigated catastrophe. The explanation most lefty energy hitters tried to undergo the shift is that it’s a must to be Tony Gwynn to position a pitched baseball with that type of precision; Hilliard is an outsized rugby union winger with iffy contact abilities. Alex discovered that his method led to an reverse field-heavy spray chart on batted balls of all kinds in 2022. With the shift being mitigated by the brand new rule set for 2023, he can simply pound grounders to the best facet once more and revenue from it.
However the anti-shift adjustment Hilliard made final yr was much more damaging than that. Final season, 402 gamers hit no less than 40 fly balls. Of these, Hilliard’s pull charge ranked 345th, his onerous contact charge ranked 209th, and his wRC+ on fly balls ranked 360th. Final season, the league hit .222/.217/.646 on fly balls, for a wRC+ of 131. Hilliard hit .159/.159/.386, for a wRC+ of 29. This after posting a fly ball wRC+ of 250 or increased in every of his first three seasons. (Bryce Harper had a fly ball wRC+ of 252 final season, for comparability.)
In brief, the minute Hilliard arrives for spring coaching, the Braves ought to inform him to knock all that reverse subject crap off and let it eat. Perhaps he’ll strike out 30% of the time and hit .210, but when he walks his customary quantity and hits for energy, that’s a tradeoff each participant and group ought to leap on the likelihood to make. And given the uninspiring options the Braves have at Hilliard’s place, they need to give him common enjoying time so he can see if it really works.