Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Baseball Blog: Thoughts at the Quarter Mark

Weirdness Abounds in the MLB

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but hasn’t this been one of the more bizarre MLB seasons in recent memory? Do you realize that if the season ended today the Reds and Padres would be in the playoffs? Jose Bautista has 15 times as many homers as Todd Helton. There’s a relief pitcher on pace for 24 wins. It’s been strange.

The Long Ball

The current home run leader board is off the wall. It’s like the top 25 in NCAA Football for Play Station or Xbox, when the computer doesn’t seem to understand that it’s a bit weird to have Marshall, Fresno State, and Wake in the top 5 at the end of the year. Not only are many of the usual suspects absent from the top of the homer leader board, the guys who are at the top don’t seem to belong. Almost 30% of the season has been played, and Jose Bautista is the Major League Leader in homers with 15. He’s the only player in the Majors on pace for 50 homers. Last year Bautista was tied for 139th in homers with 13. Paul Konerko is by no means a stranger to the home run leader board, but his presence there this season is a bit surprising. Pauly is 2nd in the MLB with 14 dingers, after hitting 28 last year to finish tied for 32nd in homers. Then you got another random guy: Ty Wiggington. Wiggington is 3rd in the Majors with 13 homers. He was tied for 167th with 11 homers in 2009. Like Konerko, Vlad Guerrero has been a great power hitter during his career, but there was no reason to expect him to be among the league leaders in homers this year. Vlad was tied for 115th in HR last season, hitting just 15 all year. He is currently tied for 4th, having hit 12 already this year. A pair of 2nd basemen are tied with Vlad for 4th with 12 bombs. Dan Uggla is known for being a powerful hitter (though even Uggla is on pace to hit 41 homers, which would be 9 more than he has ever hit in one season before), but Kelly Johnson is not. Johnson hit 8 homers all of last season, finishing tied for 219th in the MLB. He’s got 12 this year. Jose Guillen is currently tied for 8th with 11 homers, after finishing tied for 199th last year with 9. Scott Rolen rediscovering his power stroke is absolutely befuddling. He was tied for 167th with 11 homers last year; he’s tied for 12th this year with 10. Alex Gonzalez also has 10, after finishing tied for 219th with 8 homers all of last year. Rod Barajas hit 19 homers last year, tied for 88th in the MLB; he’s got 10 so far this year. Finally, Andruw Jones has 9 homers, tied for 22nd in the Majors, after hitting 17 to finish tied for 100th in homers last year.


The decline in power across baseball as a result of the war on PED’s has continued this season. No player reached 50 homers in either of last 2 seasons, and only Bautista is on pace to get there this year. And Bautista is barely on pace for 50. Albert Pujols led baseball with 47 homers last year, and it’s possible that no one will match even that number this year. Last season, 5 players hit at least 40 homers and 3 hit at least 45; there are currently 7 players on pace for 40 homers and 3 on pace for 45. Right now Johnson and Mark Reynolds are on pace to lead the National League with 43 homers. If that holds up, it will be the lowest total for an NL homerun leader since 1995 (Dante Bichette, 40), and the lowest in a full season since 1992 (McGriff, 35). On the other hand, the AL leader may have at least 40 homers for the first time since 2007.

Power Swinging Back to the Pitchers

Along with the overall drop off in offense over the last few years, it seems that quality starting pitching is starting to become a more common commodity around the league. It has certainly been that way thus far in 2010. Last season 11 qualified pitchers posted ERA’s under 3.00, and 4 finished with ERA’s under 2.50, with Zack Grienke leading the Majors with a 2.16 ERA. There are currently 24 qualified pitchers with ERA’s lower than 3.00, 12 under 2.50, and 6 under 2.10. 2 pitchers have ERA’s of 1.14 or less, with Ubaldo Jimenez leading the Majors with a 0.88 ERA. Last season, 6 qualified pitchers ended the year with a WHIP below 1.10, with Dan Haren leading the MLB with a 1.003 WHIP. This year, 15 qualified pitchers currently have a WHIP under 1.10, and 4 have WHIP’s under 1.00, with Jimenez leading the way with a 0.93 WHIP.

No pitcher won 20 games in the Majors last year. Right now there are 14 pitchers on pace to win 20. Jimenez is actually on pace for 32 wins at the moment. The list of pitchers projected to win 20 should probably be lessened to 13. That’s because 1 of the 14 currently on pace to win 20 games has not made a start all season. In one of the more bizarre developments of this weird year, Washington setup man Tyler Clippard has pitched in 24 games, all as a reliever, and has compiled a record of 7-3. When you add in Clippard’s 10 Holds, he has factored into the decision in 20 of his 24 appearances. The Save stat is always pretty random. Brian Fuentes led the MLB with 48 Saves last year. There are currently 2 pitchers on pace to save at least 50 games this year, including Matt Capps, who is on pace to be the first NL closer to record 55 Saves since Eric Gagne in 2003. Roy Halladay appears poised to lead the MLB in both Complete Games and Shutouts again this year. He had 9 CG and 4 SHO last year, and he has 4 CG and 2 SHO already this season.

The Standings

11 of the 16 NL teams are currently over .500, while 8 of 14 AL teams have winning records. Last year, 8 teams finished over .500 from each league. All 5 teams in the NL East are currently over .500, while 4 of the 5 teams in the AL East and NL West have winning records. Last season, only the Yankees won at least 100 games, finishing with 103 wins. The Rays are the only team currently on pace for at least 100 wins this year. In fact, even after losing 3 straight to the Red Sox, the Rays are on pace to win 110 games. The Nationals were the only team to lose at least 100 games last year, dropping 103 games in 2009. The Indians, Orioles, and Astros are currently on pace to lose at least 100 games, with Houston on pace for 106 losses and Baltimore on pace to lose 110 games.

The Luck Factor

So far, Oakland has been the most fortunate American League team, going 8-2 in 1-run games. The A’s are 24-23 despite a -11 run differential which says they should be more like 22-25. The Nationals have been outscored by 18 runs, a number that suggests they should be around 22-25, but they are 10-6 in 1-run games, and have an overall record of 24-23. Incredibly, the Pirates, who are just 20-27, have actually been the luckiest NL team. The Bucs have a horrid -114 run differential (the next worst run differential is Houston’s -73), a number that suggests they should be around 12-35, but their 10-5 record in 1-run games has them just 7 games below .500. In contrast, the Brewers have a -29 run differential, yet they are 10 games under .500 at 18-28. The Mets are 24-23, but their run differential says they should be more like 26-21. Their 5-11 record in 1-run games is keeping them close to .500. The Mariners have been one of the more disappointing teams in baseball this year with an 18-28 record. They haven’t had a lot of luck, as they are 6-12 in 1-run games. The Royals are 6-11 in 1-run games and just 19-28 overall on the year, heading for another miserable season. The most surprising team in baseball has been the Padres, but their 28-18 record is legit, as they have a +46 run differential. Even after losing 3 straight to the Red Sox, the Rays have Baseball’s best record at 32-15, and they have the best run differential as well, at +87.

Cut on and Missed

At this point my preseason predictions are not looking so hot. 13 teams are on pace to win at least 8 games more or less than I projected. My AL East predictions are seriously struggling. I had the Red Sox winning 99 games; they’re on pace to win 91. I picked the Rays to win 88 games; they’re on pace for 110. I thought the Blue Jays would win only 66 games this year; they’re on pace for 89. I may have seriously misjudged the AL West as well. I had the A’s winning just 73 games, but they’re on pace to win 83. I had the Angels winning 95 games, but they’re on pace for just 76 victories. I thought I was being fairly conservative in predicting the Mariners to win just 84 games, but Seattle is currently on pace for only 63 wins. My NL Central picks are likewise looking dubious at the present time. The Cubs are on pace to win 76 games; I had them winning 87. I had the Brew Crew winning 83 games, but they’re on pace for just 63 W’s. And the Reds have shocked me. I predicted just 73 wins for them, but Cinci is on pace for 93 wins. I had the Nats winning only 62 games, but they’re on pace for 83 wins. The White Sox are on pace for 70 wins, not close to the 86 wins I predicted. It appears I was giving Arizona way too much credit in predicting an 81 win season, as they are on pace to win only 69 games. Finally, my worst prediction at this point by a wide mile appears to be San Diego winning only 60 games. The Padres are currently on pace to win 99 games.

Surprising Strugglers

While a number of veteran players are experiencing unexpected comeback years so far, a handful of perennial All-Stars appear to have fallen hard and fast. Todd Helton is batting just .275/.392/.345/.737 with 7 doubles, only 1 homer, and 9 RBI. Chipper Jones has gotten off to a miserable start, hitting just .219/.377/.336/.712 with 9 doubles, 2 homers, and 14 RBI. Derek Lee is hitting a shocking .239/.341/.381/.722 with 7 doubles, 6 homers, and 23 RBI. And Carlos Lee has so far batted just .199/.236/.322/.558 with 4 doubles, 5 homers, and 19 RBI.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Braves Blog: Thoughts After 45 Games

Head Above Water After 45 Games

Back to back losses, but I would definitely have taken 23-22 if you’d offered it to me 3 weeks ago. We’re definitely fortunate to be where we are, but the Braves are playing better. The Braves are just about where they have been at this point in the season over the last 6 or 7 years. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Here’s a look at the Braves’ record after 45 games, along with their record at the end of the year going back to 2004 (and there’s no reason to look back farther than that, as the Braves were still being run more like a major market team before that):

2004: 22-23 (96-66)
2005: 26-19 (90-72)
2006: 23-22 (79-83)
2007: 27-18 (84-78)
2008: 24-21 (72-90)*
2009: 23-22 (86-76)
2010: 23-22 (???)

*49-56 before Teixiera trade.

Chipper Struggling

The Braves bats—frigid in April—were bound to heat up sooner or later, and most of the struggling hitters are doing better this month. Of the Braves batters who got off to very poor starts (Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Troy Glaus, Yunel Escobar, Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera) only Troy Glaus has ever really gotten “hot,” and he appears to be coming back to earth. Diaz will be on the shelf for at least a month and Cabrera has been relegated to the bench due to the emergence of Eric Hinske. Mac has been coming around since going back to the glasses. I’ll get to Esco and McLouth later. The most important of all these bats by far is Chipper.

If Chipper doesn’t come around, the Braves aren’t going to win. It’s as simple as that. I don’t know that enough Braves fans understand this reality. Chipper has to start playing more like himself or the Braves aren’t going to contend. Quite honestly, I’m starting to get worried. He was starting to get on a mini roll until last night, when he went 0 for 5 with a GDP, 0 for 3 with RISP.

Chipper is now hitting just .226, but his average isn’t the major problem, it’s the lack of authority with which he has hit almost all season that is the real issue. In 32 games, Chipper has drawn 33 walks and struck out only 19 times in 157 plate appearances, but he has just 11 extra base hits and 2 homers. He is slugging .347. This is what sets Chipper’s current “slump” apart from the rest of his career basically. Looking at his numbers through 32 games from the last few years it is the drop off in power that is most striking. Take a look at his numbers after his first 32 appearances from 2009 (a disappointing year, 2008 and 2007 (both excellent seasons), and 2004 (the worst year of his career to this point). Keep in mind that his first 32 games have often spread out due to injuries.

2009 (40 hits, 8 doubles, 1 triple, 4 homers, 28 BB, 24 K .305/.429/473/.902 in 161 PA)

2008 (63 hits, 9 doubles, 11 homers, 20 BB, 15 K, .412/.474/.686/1.161 in 175 PA)

2007 (46 hits, 14 doubles, 1 triple, 12 homers, 24 BB, 25 K, .309/.405/.655/1.062 in 173 PA)

2004 (26 hits, 2 doubles, 9 homers, 25 BB, 33 K, .217/.361/.458/.819 in 147 PA)

Now look at his numbers through 32 games this year:

28 hits, 9 doubles, 2 homers, 32 BB, 19 K, .226/.382/.347/.729 in 157 PA

The power numbers stand out. Even in 2004 when he was clearly hurt and screwed up at the plate (8 more strikeouts than walks is highly unusual for CJ) and last year when he had his worst season since that ’04 campaign, he was still slugging over 100 points higher through 32 games than he is right now.

The numbers alone are troubling, but watching Chipper play is even more discouraging. At times, even when supposedly healthy, Chipper appears feeble at the plate. He has been beaten consistently by less than overwhelming stuff and at other times he just appears to be “off.” Batting from the left or right side he has never been consistently on the ball this year.

Heading into the 2009 season there was talk that Chipper was going to make a conscious effort to get back to “driving” the ball more. Chipper made some comments insinuating that during his flirtations with .400 during the 2008 season he had unconsciously started focusing on getting hits rather than slugging. I’m sure this was partly the case, but it may also have been that Chipper naturally adjusted to some declining skills. Instead of going after a pitch on the outside and either driving it in the air to right center/right or pulling it on the ground to second, he started serving it into left/left center for a base hit. He is such a smart and talented hitter that it translated into a career year in terms of batting average, while at the same time taking away some of the power.

Last year the power numbers didn’t drastically decline but he obviously wasn’t as successful getting base hits. This year everything has dropped way off other than his walks (which may never decline). If Chipper consciously or unconsciously started serving the ball rather than driving it in 2008 and the early part of 2009, I believe he is trying to adjust again this season (consciously or unconsciously).

The difference, perhaps, is that where his ‘08/early ’09 changes were the wise adjustments of a brilliant veteran, the changes he is making now are the desperate attempts of a former start in the twilight of his career. Unless Chipper is just guessing wrong more often than normal (which doesn’t seem likely), he’s simply guessing more often than normal. Why? Perhaps he knows (consciously or unconsciously) that he can’t react like he used to and he’s frustrated so he’s just over thinking. Other times he seems to be doing mechanical things that are very unusual for him. He’s flying open on outside pitches as a right handed batter and lunging at outside pitches as a left handed batter. I watch a lot of the game in slow motion (literally) and there are many times when you can tell before the point of contact that he has no chance of hitting the ball hard.

Again, I don’t think he’s getting fooled all the time, I think he’s either just way off in his mechanics from both sides of the plate, or he’s overcompensating because his swing has slowed down and he doesn’t have the strength in his legs anymore, or both. Worst of all, there have been times recently where Chipper almost appeared to give in, taking weak, defensive swings at pitches just to put them in play. In two different at bats in last night’s game it appeared that once it was clear that the pitcher wasn’t going to work around Chipper, CJ simply gave in and just tried to make contact, and on both occasions the result was a weak grounder to the left side.

I don’t know; I could be making too big of a deal out of some of these things, but Chipper is just not Chipper right now, and he hasn’t been all season. This is going to continue to be a major problem for the team until/unless he gets his game back. Some fans don’t seem to want to admit that Chipper can’t just be moved up or down the lineup or benched or something like that. People that want Chipper to retire are not only detached emotionally in a way I don’t understand (or maybe it’s the other way around), they are also failing to grasp the reality of the situation. The Braves need Chipper.

Excluding Jason Heyward from the situation—because he either hasn’t hit his first rookie bump yet or he’s really, really, really special—Chipper is still the Braves best hitter, in terms of knowledge, discipline, versatility, and talent. Chipper is still (or at least he was until this season) the only guy in the lineup who hits consistently for both average and power. Unlike Mac, Chipper isn’t neutralized by lefties, and he isn’t painfully slow like Mac and Glaus. Chipper is the only #3 hitter on the roster other than Heyward, and Heyward is hitting in the number 2 spot in front of Chipper because it’s a safe spot where he will be likely to see a lot of fastballs.

Chipper just has to start hitting for the Braves to win over the long haul. It’s as simple as that.

McLouth Coming Around (Maybe)

Nate McLouth is still struggling to keep his average above .200 and he’s still striking out too much, but he’s been contributing more lately. Fortunately, Nate is the one guy out of the players still hitting closer to .200 than .250 that is hitting for some power. In his last 11 games, Nate has hit .263/.349/.447/.796 with 4 doubles, a homer, 1 SB in 1 Attempt, 5 BB, and 11 strikeouts. He needs to make more contact and he needs to steal more bases.

Escobar-ed Out

I gotta be honest, I wouldn’t mind if we got rid of Escobar. I know it’s not going to happen because he’s still coming cheap and the Braves don’t have anyone to replace him, but I really don’t need to see him anymore. Let’s look at Escobar’s assets: He doesn’t have an expensive contract; overall he appears to be improving at the plate from year to year; he has a great arm and good instincts at shortstop; he has the ability to battle pitchers; he makes good contact; and he has an uncanny knack for coming through in clutch situations.

All of this is good. Here are the negatives: He is prone to mental mistakes in the field and on the bases; he pouts and seems generally uninterested whenever he is struggling or even when he isn’t directly involved in the action; he seems to lose focus and give up at bats; he has no speed and isn’t much of a base stealer; he has little power outside of an 8 game stretch last year when he hit 4 homers; he gets injured quite a bit for a young position player, causing him to miss time and causing his performance to suffer when he plays hurt; he rarely hustles out of the box; he is slow and usually hits the ball on the ground, making him a GDP machine; and he acts like a spoiled brat a lot of the time.

Maybe Escobar will eventually get going this year and have as good as or even a better year than last season. But his play has been poor this season and his attitude has been worse. His slump at the plate extends back to last season. In his last 58 games, Escobar is 44 for 206 with no homers, hitting .214 with a .267 Slugging PCT over that time. This season, Escobar has hit .175/.271/.219/.490 in 32 games, with 5 doubles, no homers, 15 BB, 12 K, and 6 GDP. He is 3 for 3 in stolen base attempts. In 10 games since coming off of the DL, Escobar has hit .086/.146/.114/.260 with a double, no homers, 6 BB, 3 K, 1 SB, and 3 GDP.

The slow start to the year is unusual for Escobar. In his first 32 games as a big leaguer back in 2007, Escobar hit .299 with 8 doubles and a homer. Through 32 games in 2008 Escobar hit .333 with 4 doubles, a triple, and 3 homers. Last season in his first 32 games Escobar hit .297 with 9 doubles and 3 homers. On the other hand, Escobar has been a much better 2nd half player than 1st half player during his brief career, hitting .277/.342/.383/.725 before the All-Star break, and .312/.398/.447/.845 after. Hopefully he’ll start contributing soon, because all of the attitude and personality “quirks” are much harder to accept when he’s sucking.

Jessie Chavez = Dead Weight?

I know Jessie Chavez’s role on the team doesn’t seem that important. Getting good work from the 6th man in the bullpen is obviously not as crucial as getting production from your #3 hitter or ace starter. But consider that the Braves have played 45 games, and Chavez has appeared in 15 of them; only 1 fewer than Kris Medlen and Billy Wagner. I mean the guy’s pitched in a third of the games this year, so he’s not exactly the 3rd catcher on an AL team. The point is, he’s getting a lot of work out of the Braves’ pen, and it isn’t going well.

Chavez’s numbers overall aren’t terrible. Well, they’re pretty terrible, but they don’t reflect how bad he’s been lately. In 15 games, Chavez has posted a 7.71 ERA with a 1.43 WHIP over 21 innings, though he has struck out 21 batters with only 6 walks. However, in his last 8 appearances, Chavez has been horrible (his solid 3 innings against the Reds in the miracle comeback game being a rare exception). Over his last 8 outings, Chavez has given up 17 runs (all earned) on 19 hits and 5 walks over 11.2 innings for a 13.11 ERA and a 2.06 WHIP. Over those 11.2 innings Chavez has fanned 12, but he’s also yielded 8 doubles and 5 homers. There may not be a better replacement at the moment. Obviously there isn’t, considering that the Braves just brought up a similarly average pitcher to add to the back of the bullpen in Cristhian Martinez.

Final Thoughts

The Braves need to go ahead and win these last two games with the Marlins to keep the momentum they gained from the series wins over the Reds and Pirates. They should have the edge in the starting pitching match up in each of the next two games. It will be important to win this series and not slip up against the Pirates at home this weekend, because 13 of the next 17 games after that will be against division leaders and the red hot Dodgers. A home series with the Phillies next week starts that tough stretch. After 3 with the Phils, the Braves go on the road for 11 games in 11 days. That road trip does include 4 games against the D-Backs, but it starts with 4 against the Dodgers and ends with a 3 game series in Minnesota. When the Braves finally do come home they will have to deal with the Rays. So the Braves need to win at least 4 of their next 5 in order to be in good position to deal with that rough spot in the schedule.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Hawks Blog: Road to the Playoffs

I like to break long seasons down into stretches. During the regular season, the Hawks were not the streakiest team ever but they did cause me to suffer from frequent mood swings. The following is a look back at the ups and downs of the Hawks 2009-2010 regular season.


Record During Stretch: 11-2

Overall Record: 11-2

The Hawks got off to an excellent start to the season, immediately serving notice that they were serious about taking that next step as a team. They opened the year with back to back 11 point wins over Indiana and Washington at home. Their first loss of the season came in just their 3rd game, as they had to go on the road to play the Lakers, but they hung tough with the defending champs. They showed us something by winning in Portland a few nights later, and then whipped Sacramento on the road to go to 4-1. The last game of the first road trip was in Charlotte and the Hawks continued to struggle with the Bobcats, as they suffered their first non-competitive loss of the year, losing by 20. All things considered, however, a 4-2 start was just fine, and the Hawks were about to go on their longest win streak of the season.

From November 7th to the 20th the Hawks won 7 in a row. But this wasn’t just a win streak; they did it against some tough teams. They started the streak with a 20 point win over the Nuggets at home. Then after winning by double digits in New York, the Hawks went up to Boston and beat their rivals at the new Boston Garden. This was one of the biggest wins of the season. In my opinion, this was perhaps the biggest regular season win for the Hawks in a decade. They had lost 9 straight in Boston, including all 4 in the first round of the 2007-2008 playoffs, each loss coming in decisive fashion. Furthermore, the way that the Hawks won this game was impressive. They out hustled and out muscled the Celtics, winning by 9 points. The Hawks returned to Atlanta and completed a stellar 4-0 home stand, destroying New Orleans, beating Portland in OT, winning by 15 over the Heat, and pulling out a tight, 2-pt win over the Rockets. That gave them a 7 game win streak and an 11-2 record to start the season. The Hawks were in 1st place in the Southeast. It was at this point that I came to a startling conclusion. The Hawks were a great team.


Record During Stretch: 2-4

Overall Record: 13-6

The Hawks win streak ended with a loss in New Orleans. They then returned home for a big game against the team they were competing with for the division title, the Orlando Magic. It turned out to be one of the most disappointing performances of the entire season. The Hawks were coming off of 4 full days of rest, while the Magic had lost the night before to the Heat at home, but the defending Eastern Conference champs came into Atlanta and won convincingly. It really wasn’t close in the 2nd half, as the Magic dominated the inside game and controlled the boards throughout, dealing the Hawks a 17 point defeat, their first loss at home all season.

The Hawks rebounded with a 14 point win at Philly the following evening, but then on Sunday afternoon they suffered their first truly bad loss of the year in Detroit. Against a Pistons team that had lost 7 in a row and was playing without Richard Hamilton, Tayshun Prince, and Ben Gordon, the Hawks were thoroughly whipped on the boards and lost a game in which they simply got outworked. The Pistons even lost Charlie Villanueva to a broken nose during the game but still led throughout and beat the Hawks by 6. The Hawks had a home game against Toronto next and that seemed like just what the doctor ordered for a team looking to get back on a roll, as the Raptors refrained from playing any sort of defense, allowing the Hawks to score 146 points in a 31 point rout.

In hindsight, it may not have been such a blessing, because the Hawks tried to play a similar type of game against the Knicks at home a couple of nights later and it wound up biting them in the ass. In one of the more disturbing games of the season, the Hawks fell at home to the lowly Knicks, to the delight of the New York fans in attendance at Phillips. Josh Smith was ejected, the Hawks trailed by double digits at the half, and they wound up losing by 7, for their 2nd home loss of the year, to a Knicks team that had lost 6 of their last 7. It was the Hawks 4th loss in their last 6 games, and I was forced to consider the possibility that we hadn’t taken quite as big a step forward as I had believed 2 weeks earlier.


Record During Stretch: 6-0

Overall Record: 19-6

Thankfully the Hawks responded to their first rough stretch of the season by going on a 6 game win streak, their 2nd longest of the season, and their only other winning streak of more than 4 games. It started with a return to defense and a huge road win over the Mavericks. The Hawks weren’t playing against the same level of competition as they had been during their 7 game win streak, but 5 of the 6 wins during this streak came by double digits. And really, taking care of business and pounding weak competition was just as positive a sign as beating great teams would have been at this point. The Hawks beat the Jazz by 13 at home on December 18th to win their 6th in a row and improve to 19-6 after 25 games. This helped restore the high hopes of earlier in the year which had been dampened by the losses to Orlando, Detroit, and New York. At the end of play on the 18th, the Hawks were back in 1st place in the Southeast, percentage points in front of Orlando.


Record During Stretch: 2-6

Overall Record: 21-12

It looked like the Hawks would match their season high win streak of 7 games and likely surpass it, but the nice run came to a disappointing end, as they blew a late lead and lost in overtime to the Bulls in Chicago. They wound up going 2-2 on the trip, blowing out Indiana and Minnesota, and losing by 20 at Denver. They then returned home for a daunting back to back set with the top team in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unfortunately, the game against the Cavs at Phillips was very reminiscent of the first game against the Magic at home. The Hawks played out of control on offense and lost the inside battle on both ends. It was never really that close, and the Cavs won by 11. The Hawks now had to pull out a win at Cleveland the next night just to get a split. Almost nobody wins in Cleveland but the Hawks were in great position to do so. They had an 8 point lead in the 4th, but Lebron James took over, and the Hawks were the victim of a blown call by the officials that ended up costing them the game. It was a very disappointing defeat, but it was nowhere near as hard to swallow as the next loss on the night of January 1st. For the 2nd time in the span of about a month the Hawks somehow lost to the Knicks at home, this time with Nate Robinson basically beating the Hawks by himself. The game went to overtime and the Hawks wound up losing by 4. Things were starting to pile up for the Hawks.

A few days later they went to Miami and played one of their least competitive games of the season, losing by 17 to a mediocre Heat team they had toyed with previously in the season. The Hawks had now lost a season worst 4 straight and 6 of their last 8. They were 3 games back of the Magic in the division and I was worried that the quest for a special season could end soon. It wasn’t only the current slump, but also the tough schedule the Hawks faced ahead that had me thinking that perhaps thoughts of competing with the elite teams in the East had been premature.


Record During Stretch: 8-2

Overall Record: 29-14

It’s possible that the Hawks season long 4 game losing streak would have become a much longer slump, if not for the fact that the next game on the Hawks schedule was almost certainly the most winnable game they could possibly have had. At that time, it didn’t get any easier than a home game, after a day off, against the 3-31 Nets who had played the night before. The Hawks won by 30 to snap the 4 game losing streak. It would be the only time all season that the Hawks lost more than 2 games in a row.

But now the Hawks had to get ready for stiffer competition, as they faced a crucial 4 day stretch, during which they would face Boston at home and on the road, as well as the Magic in Orlando. First the Celtics came to town. Just as they had in the playoffs a couple years earlier, the C’s found the Highlight Factory to be a hostile environment. The Hawks won decisively again, taking the victory by 8 points. This was really a big win—it’s always big to beat Boston—because the Hawks were less likely to win either of the next 2 games, and if they had lost this one it was easy to see them sandwiching a 4 game losing streak and now a 3 game losing streak around a home win over the Nets. That wouldn’t have been pretty. It definitely wasn’t pretty the next night in Orlando, as the Hawks were pummeled by the Magic in a 32 point loss. Going into the game the Magic had lost 4 in a row to mediocre and below mediocre teams, and they had played the night before just like the Hawks. It was this game, coming on the heels of the win over Boston, that convinced me that the Magic would be the toughest matchup for the Hawks in the playoffs, including any of the teams from the West that they might meet in the NBA Finals.

There was no time for the Hawks to sulk, as they had just one day off before a date with the Celtics in Boston. It seemed unreasonable to expect the Hawks to beat the Celtics for the third game in a row and the second straight time in Boston, but they did it. Having gone 2-1 in the 3 games in 4 days stretch against Boston and Orlando, the Hawks were now able to take some confidence into a nice 5 game home stand. The Hawks would go 4-1 in those games, pulling out a miracle win against Phoenix, losing a tight game to the surging Thunder, and beating 3 weaker teams by double digits. The schedule was about to get very tough again. Their next game—a road contest against Houston—was a big one, because while it wouldn’t be easy, it was winnable, and there were much tougher games ahead. The Hawks took care of business in Houston for their 8th win in 10 games. At the end of play on January 25th the Hawks were 29-14 and once again alone in 1st in the Southeast, a game in front of the Magic.


Record During Stretch: 5-6

Overall Record: 34-20

The next game was in San Antonio where we never play well, and the Hawks lost by 15 to the Spurs. Next up was another Friday night game against the Celtics in Atlanta. The Hawks again won handedly, taking a 9 point win to complete an improbable 4 game season sweep of the Celtics. I believe this is the single greatest feat the Hawks have achieved in at least the last decade. Perhaps not surprisingly, number two on my list would be taking the eventual NBA champion Celtics to a 7th game in the first round of the 2007-2008 playoffs.

Once again, the Hawks would have to play the Magic right after playing Boston, and it would be on the road without a day off in between. The Hawks had a half game lead over Orlando, so this game was for the lead in the Southeast. Despite the fact that the season was more than halfway over, the Hawks lead in the Southeast seemed hollow, mostly because you expected the Magic to stop losing games that they should win at some point. It was also because the Magic had beaten the Hawks so convincingly in their first two meetings. They would win convincingly again in this game, whipping the Hawks by 18 points.

The Hawks had to travel to Oklahoma City next. They had lost to OKC already at home and the Thunder were much tougher at their place. The Hawks lost to the Thunder again for their 3rd loss in 4 games, but the rest of the schedule leading up to the All-Star break was much easier to deal with. The Hawks had to fight harder than expected to beat the Clippers and Bulls at home, and they were then expected to fly to Washington for a game against the Wizards. But the terrible weather conditions in that part of the country caused the postponement of the game. I was worried that this would end up coming back to hurt us, but in the end it amounted to nothing. If anything it may have helped us.

The Hawks beat the Grizzles by double digits on the road and then game home to play the Heat the next night in the final game before the break. The Hawks came out with a surprising and disheartening performance, losing by 18 points to Miami. It wasn’t all that shocking, as you could understand the Hawks being a bit checked out and ready for the break. But it was disappointing, as it ended the “first half” on a bad note, and because the Heat were a possible first round matchup, and a team that had taken the Hawks to 7 games in the first round the previous season.

The Hawks went to the break with a 33-18 record and they began the final 31 game stretch with a trip to the west coast. After whipping the Clippers in the first game after the break, the Hawks hung around with the Suns in Phoenix but wound up losing by 8. The Hawks then headed to the Bay Area to face the Warriors in the always hostile environment of Oracle Arena. The Warriors had only 8 healthy players and had lost 11 of their last 13 games. It was a game the Hawks knew they should win and for most of the night it appeared they would do so, as they built an 18 point second half lead and took a 17 point lead to the 4th. However, it soon turned into an early morning nightmare (for fans back in Atlanta), as the Warriors scored 16 straight points to tie the game. Then in the final moments, Jamal Crawford drew a hideous technical foul (I believe any ref that calls a technical foul on a player for complaining during the 4th quarter of a tight game should be suspended) that proved to be the nail in the coffin, as the Hawks lost 108-104, being outscored 35-14 in the 4th quarter. The sickening loss left the Hawks just 5-6 over the last month and they were now 2.5 games behind the Magic in the Southeast.


Record During Stretch: 11-4

Overall Record: 45-24

Fortunately the Hawks were able to get a big win the next night that helped them get past the loss at Golden State. They ended the road trip by winning the next night against the Jazz, in perhaps the toughest place to play in the NBA. The fact that Deron Williams didn’t play certainly made the result less impressive, but that really didn’t take much away from it for Hawks fans who were looking for a reason to feel good. In a way, it kind of canceled out the loss against the Warriors because going into the road trip you hoped to go 2-2 and the Hawks were able to do that.

But there was another sickening collapse just ahead. After a blowout win over Minnesota at home, the Hawks welcomed in the new and improved Mavericks for a showdown at Phillips on a Friday night. The Hawks suffered another come-from-ahead loss, this time blowing a 15 point 4th quarter lead and losing in overtime. This one was one of the worst losses of the year for me. Perhaps the worst moment of the season occurred when Jason Kidd intentionally ran into Mike Woodson (who was not actually on the court by the time Kidd made contact with him; a point I have still not heard anyone else make) and got the refs to call a technical foul.

Again the Hawks were able to put the loss behind them and win a tough game in their next time on the court, fighting off the much improved Bucks in overtime at home. The Hawks then blew out the Bulls in Chicago and took care of business against the Sixers and Warriors at home. Suddenly they had won 4 in a row and they were starting to put the losses to Golden State and Dallas behind them. Unfortunately, the streak ended with back to back tough defeats. They lost on the road at Miami, their 2nd straight defeat to the Heat. They then did the unthinkable, losing for a 3rd consecutive time to the Knicks, this time losing by a point at Madison Square Garden on a put back at the buzzer.

The Hawks were supposed to have 4 days off after that but instead they would go to Washington to make up the game with the Wizards. The Hawks won their 41st game of the year to take the bad taste out of their mouths from the loss to the Knicks. However, the blown leads and losses to bad teams did have a tangible effect on the season because they essentially knocked the Hawks out of the race for the Southeast Division. The Magic did eventually play better while the Hawks stumbled and thus it became a race between the Hawks and Celtics for the 3rd spot.

The Hawks came home and beat the Pistons by 13 to clinch a winning record for a 2nd straight season with their 42nd win. The next game was in New Jersey and they crushed the Nets by 24 before heading on to Toronto to face the Raptors. The Hawks looked to have the game won but they ended up getting beat on a last second shot to lose by a point. It was a heart breaker. That was the start of a dramatic stretch of the season during which the Hawks played 5 straight games that went to the buzzer. They returned home and had to fight off a furious effort by the Bobcats to win in OT. On Sunday they pulled out an OT thriller over the Spurs at Phillips for their 45th win of the season and their 5th win in their last 6 games.


Record During Stretch: 4-5

Overall Record: 49-29

The night after beating the Spurs the Hawks were up in Milwaukee playing the Bucks, a scary team who they had a good chance of meeting in the first round of the playoffs. The Hawks played the Bucks down to the wire but ended up losing by 3. The Hawks then got a day off before the Magic came to Phillips. It was the Hawks last shot at Orlando this season. After getting demolished by the Magic in 3 previous matchups, the Hawks finally played their game against Orlando and they had a chance to win. With the game tied, Josh Smith went up and dunked down an offensive rebound to give the Hawks the win at the buzzer.

That victory, which offered hope that perhaps the Hawks could compete with the elite Magic, was followed up by another troubling road loss to a bad team, as the Hawks lost by 7 to the 76ers. The Hawks came home next and beat the Pacers by 14. Next up, the Lakers came to Phillips for their only visit of the year on the final day of March. The largest crowd in Phillips Arena history turned out and for once the Lakers fans were drowned out constantly by the fans of the home team. The Hawks dominated the Lakers from start to finish, winning by 17.

Having beaten the team with the best record in the West, the Hawks went up to Cleveland for a showdown with the team with the best record in the NBA. Once again the Hawks had a chance to win in the end, but Lebron willed the Cavs to victory, beating the Hawks by 5. The next day the Hawks pulled out a tougher than expected win over the Pistons at home to pull within 1 win of 50. Unfortunately, the Hawks would have to wait a while to get that 50th win. They struggled as always in Charlotte, losing by 9 to the Bobcats, but it looked like their 50th win would come the next night in Detroit. The Hawks led most of the night but they faltered down the stretch and dropped another very winnable road game. It was their 6th straight road loss and their 8th loss in their last 9 road games. This was a very discouraging trend, as it didn’t bode well for the playoffs, where the Hawks had been 1-8 on the road the previous 2 seasons.


Record During Stretch: 4-0

Overall Record: 53-29

With 4 games remaining in the season the Hawks were tied with the Celtics for the 3rd best record. Despite the fact that the Hawks had won the season series 4-0, the Celtics would win the tie-breaker because of a typically stupid NBA rule that gave preference to a division winner. The Raptors were without Chris Bosh when the Hawks beat them at home on April 9th for their 50th win of the season. The Celtics lost at home to the Wizards that night and the Hawks moved a game ahead of them in the standings with 3 games left. The next night the Hawks went to Washington and beat the Wizards to snap their road losing streak and stay a game up on the Celtics. On Monday the Hawks went back up to Milwaukee where the Bucks were still battling for playoff position but were now without Andrew Bogut. The Hawks won handedly for their 2nd straight road victory, also gaining some confidence in case they did indeed face the Bucks in the playoffs. The next night the Celtics lost in Chicago, clinching the #3 seed for the Hawks. The Hawks hosted the Cavs in the final regular season game of the year but neither team had anything to play for and thus it was a game played entirely by reserves. The Hawks won by 16 to finish the regular season with 53 wins and head into the postseason on a 4 game win streak.

The Hawks Blog: Regular Season Review

The Hawks disheartening exit from the playoffs has taken away all of the good feelings from what was a very successful and encouraging regular season. However, it’s worth going back and looking at that regular season, primarily because I wrote an extensive regular season review before the start of the playoffs and am just now posting it.


Season Grade: B+

The Hawks had their best regular season in many years. They improved their win total from the previous year for the 5th straight season, going 53-29, for their most wins in a season since 1996-97. They averaged 101.7 points per game, their highest number since the 1992-93 season, scoring over 100 a game for the first time since 1993-94. They allowed 97.0 points per game, up from 96.5 points allowed per game last year, but still their 2nd best average since the 2000-01 season. Their average scoring differential of +4.7 points was their best number since the 1996-97 season. The Hawks were 34-7 at home (.829), their best home record since the 1996-97 season. They were still just 19-22 on the road (.463), but that was their best road record since the 1998-99 season (it was their best road record in a full season since the 1997-98 season). Joe Johnson and Al Horford were both All-Stars, giving the Hawks more than 1 All-Star representative for the first time since the 1997-98 season. Joe Johnson became the first Hawk to be elected to 4 straight All-Star teams since Diekembe Mutumbo from 1996-2000 (no game in 1998-99) and the first Hawk to be elected to the All-Star team in 4 consecutive seasons since Dominique Wilkins made it 9 straight years from 1986-1994. The Hawks finished 2nd in the Southeast Division for the 2nd year in a row. Their #3 seed in the playoffs was their highest playoff seeding since the 1993-94 season. Josh Smith finished 2nd in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, and Jamal Crawford was voted Sixth Man of the Year. Johnson was named 3rd team All-NBA and Josh was named 2nd team All-Defense.

The Hawks finished the season 53-29 (.646) and in 2nd place in the Southeast, 6 games back of the Magic. They finished 3rd in the Eastern Conference, 8 games behind Cleveland. They were tied for the 6th best record in the NBA, 8 games behind the Cavs. The Hawks averaged 101.7 points per game (13th in the NBA) and 97.0 points allowed per game (10th). Their average scoring differential of +4.7 was 7th best in the NBA and they were 7th in the NBA with a +4.44 Simple Rating (average scoring margin and strength of schedule). The Hawks were 34-7 at home (.829), tied for the 2nd best home record. They were 19-22 on the road (.463), tied for the 12th best road record. The Hawks went 32-20 against the Eastern Conference and 21-9 against the Western Conference. They were 25-20 against teams with winning records (.625) and 28-9 against teams under .500 (.757). In games decided by 3 points or less the Hawks were just 4-6 but they were 31-9 in games decided by double digits. The Hawks were 4-3 in overtime games this season. Against the Cavs, Magic, and Celtics the Hawks went 6-6. The Hawks were 9-7 against Western Conference playoff teams.


Season Grade: B-

The Hawks were definitely an improved offensive team this season. As usual the Hawks were at their best when they could get out and run and use their athleticism. Of course their ability to play that full court, fast break game was often the result of good defense (or just plan mistakes by the opposition). The Hawks do a great job of running the court and whipping the ball outside and around for open shots before the opposition can recover. When the game became more of a half-court battle the Hawks offense was again limited and prone to go stagnant over long stretches. As has been the case over the years, when the Hawks were forced to play a half court game the offense basically boiled down to Joe Johnson making plays. He was pretty damn good at it again this year. The biggest key to the Hawks improvement offensively was Jamal Crawford, who gave the Hawks a second true scoring option behind Joe; something the Hawks had been missing for years. Jamal played all year coming off the bench and won the 6th man of the year award. Both Crawford and Joe made a handful of game winning shots.

The continued maturity and development of Josh Smith was another critical factor in the Hawks becoming a better scoring offensive team. Instead of being a liability during fast breaks and on normal half court possessions, Josh was a force as a scorer and facilitator. Al Horford was consistently solid again whenever the team looked to him to score.

The Hawks were not a great offensive team this year but they were certainly solid. They were above average in most categories. They were 13th in scoring and 10th in FG%. The Hawks were 14th in 3-pointers made and 9th in 3-pt%. They were 11th in Effective FG% (this takes into account the fact that 3-pt shots are worth more than other field goals). The Hawks finished 14th in points per shot. The Hawks were a better free throw shooting team this year, finishing 15th. In the rebounding department the Hawks continued to be a mixed bag. Their lack of a true center and their lack of a lot of bulk in the front court kept them from being a truly great rebounding team. However, Horford, Josh, and Zaza were excellent again on the offensive glass, as the Hawks finished 6th in offensive boards and 5th in Offensive Rebound Percentage (the percentage of available offensive boards a team collects), as well as 13th in opponents defensive rebounds.

That the Hawks finished 12th in Assists shows the dependency they still have at times on “Iso-Joe.” Still, the Hawks were 1st in the NBA in Assist to Turnover Ratio. Also, they were just 23rd in free throws attempted and 23rd in FT/FG Attempts. There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, the Hawks are a team that relies on long jump shots and thus they are less likely to be fouled. Also, the Hawks don’t throw it down to the post to a big man and have him score as often as other teams, and that is the type of play that often results in foul shots. When the Hawks do put it in the hands of one of their forwards inside, it’s usually Josh who ends up getting fouled. Josh likes to head straight for the hole and ends up getting hacked a lot of the time. Because he doesn’t have the height of other big men, Al often ends up falling away from the basket when he does try to score from inside, thus he doesn’t get fouled as often as if he were taking it to the hole. Similarly, Joe’s style is such that he ends up going to the line far less frequently than most other scorers. Joe will often give a fake drive and then step back and shoot a jumper or drive in and then put up a runner, and those types of plays are less likely to draw fouls than taking it straight to the basket.

The Hawks were 15th in opponents’ steals and 14th in opponents’ blocks. This makes sense to me because the Hawks seem to be an average team as far as ball handling and shot selection go. They don’t get themselves into bad positions as often as they used to. One of the more impressive stats for the Hawks offense this season was that they had the fewest turnovers in the NBA by a large margin. The Hawks were also 1st in the NBA in Turnover Percentage, which is turnovers per 100 possessions. They do take care of the ball, but I think it also has to do with the tendency for the offense to settle into running one man possessions. Joe might take one possession, then Jamal, then maybe Josh takes a possession. I think there just aren’t as many opportunities for turnovers because they often just pass the ball around the outside of the three point line until someone decides to shoot or drive to the basket. This dribbling around and letting the shot clock run down is part of the reason that the Hawks were 27th in Pace Factor this year. Where a team ranks in PF isn’t really important on its own. Pace Factor is the number of possessions a team has per 48 minutes. While the Hawks style of offense can lead to scoring droughts, you’d have to admit that it still works a lot of the time, as the Hawks were 2nd in the NBA in Offensive Rating, which is a measure of points scored per 100 possessions. If the Hawks were 27th in the League in possessions per game and they still finished 13th in scoring, that would seem to be pretty good.


Season Grade: B-

The Hawks allowed 0.5 more points per game this season than last year, but they were an improved defensive team. While there were certainly moments when the Hawks defense was lacking, they were a solid defensive team overall. The biggest reason for the Hawks improved defense was Josh Smith’s presence as a shot blocker and his relentless effort. He was constantly disrupting shots, knocking balls away, or running a shot down from behind and swatting it away. Joe Johnson was usually the Hawks best defense against the opponent’s best offensive player. Al Horford was again a great shot blocker despite not being as tall as other “centers.” And Marvin Williams, Mike Bibby, and Jamal Crawford were usually good for a steal every once in a while to set up a break the other way. Zaza is actually pretty adept at knocking the ball away for steals as well.

The Hawks were usually a solid defensive team this year. There were some ugly moments but the Hawks were above average in most categories at the end of the year. They were actually 10th in the NBA in points allowed and they were 13th in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). But at times the Hawks were vulnerable to jump shooting teams. The Hawks were just 16th in opponents FG% and 16th in Opponents Effective FG%. Atlanta was 9th in the NBA in opponents points per shot. The Hawks were tied for 5th in fewest 3-pointers allowed and 9th in opponents 3pt%. They were 20th in turnovers forced and 19th in Opponents Turnover Percentage (turnovers per 100 possessions), while finishing 17th in opponents assists.

The Hawks strength on defense is their athleticism and they have an opportunistic style that is very beneficial at times. The Hawks were 2nd in the NBA in Steals and 7th in Blocks. Despite this style of play, the Hawks do a good job of not fouling too much. They were 6th in opponents FT attempts and 8th in opponents FT/FG attempts.

The Hawks certainly have their weaknesses in the defense department. For some reason the Hawks seem to struggle at times with identifying shooters and getting out on them before they can shoot a wide open jumper. When an opposing player gets hot, the Hawks often seem slow to catch on or at least to react in a way that might make things harder for the hot shooter. At other times the Hawks leave players wide open for 3’s on the wings, even in the middle of a normal half court possession. I honestly don’t know what happens in these instances. I don’t know if it’s because someone strays too far away in reaction to something and it leaves the guy wide open, or if there is just confusion about who is supposed to go out and put a hand in the guy’s face. But in a number of the crushing, come-from-ahead losses this season the opposition was allowed to keep firing jumpers even after several had been made in a row.

Another weakness for the Hawks on defense is their lack of height and bulk down low. Because of this teams often get offensive boards and second chance points against the Hawks. The Hawks were tied for 20th in opponents offensive rebounds and 15th in opponents total rebounds. They were just 24th in Defensive Rebound Percentage, 23rd in total defensive rebounds, and 17th in overall rebounds. Josh Smith is the Hawks main inside force on defense. This is different from a lot of other teams which have thick 7 footers playing the enforcer. The way Josh defends the paint for the Hawks is by being a mobile shot blocker. This is totally necessary for the Hawks to succeed, but it also takes him out of position and away from the basket a lot of times, and this makes it even harder for him to get rebounds against the bigger bodies of the opposition.

The Magic are the worst matchup for the Hawks because they are able to exploit basically all of the Hawks defensive weaknesses. They have size inside that the Hawks don’t have much of an answer for. They also have tall perimeter players who can contend with the Atlanta forwards for rebounds and shoot over them. In addition, the Magic have a lot of great shooters, and as mentioned earlier, the Hawks have a tendency to give shooters too much room. So it’s just a vicious cycle for the Hawks defense against Orlando.

The Hawks Blog: Season Wrap-up

I’m going to be making a number of posts about the Hawks over the next few days. If you’re reading this blog then you’re probably fully aware of the fact that I don’t do a very good job of putting out new material on a consistent basis. I’ve written a lot about the Hawks but I haven’t posted any of it yet. Annoyingly, I always end up with a lot of material that I can’t post because too much time has passed. Usually this is because I have a frustrating habit of biting off more than I can chew. Often I spend a lot of time working on a project and by the time I’m 75% finished a few months have passed. I’m trying to avoid that situation here. Anyway, if you’re a Hawks fan you’ll find these posts interesting. And if you ever feel like reading a ridiculously in-depth review of the 2008 NFL playoffs, give me a holler; I’ve got what you need.

The Song Remains the Same

What an awful way to end what had been a very fun and exciting season, one filled with much hope. It may end up being the end of more than just the 2009-2010 season for this Hawks team that has grown and developed for 6 years. For many local fans wanting to get behind the Hawks, this year’s playoff run has the feeling of “here we go again.” For these folks it has been just another instance of an Atlanta sports team letting them down. It’s provided more reason for them to be resistant and to doubt. For me, a die-hard fan of all Atlanta teams, the feeling is different, yet similar at the same time. While my interest in and loyalty to my teams is not greatly affected by their success or failure, I certainly have a sense of “here we go again.” Once again, something that should have been a positive, something to feel good about and bring excitement, has turned into something to feel bad and embarrassed about. Once again one of our teams is being trashed and laughed at across the country, and the fans of the team and the city of Atlanta are included in the mocking criticism. Once again, there have been hard feelings between the fans and one of the star players of a local team. Once again it seems like the process of becoming a legitimate and respected contender has been stopped short of the goal and things will be moving backwards now, until sometime in the future when the quest will be taken up again.

Low Highlights

Anyone who knows me knows that my passion for my hometown teams is something that I cannot change or turn off. For passionate Atlanta sports fans there are two issues that cause us all heartache. The most obvious is the lack of success of our teams throughout their histories. The other ever present problem is that the interest in and support of the local sports teams in and around Atlanta is as weak and tepid as in any area of the country. There is one issue that continues to cause diehard Atlanta sports fans pain, and this one is less discussed. This is the fact that so often during the few moments of success in Atlanta sports history the high points have been tainted or dampened by negativity, discontent, and humiliation.

I’m sure it goes back long before I came on the scene but naturally I tend to dwell on the moments which I was a part of. There have been many moments. When you think of all that the Atlanta Braves accomplished during their stretch of 14 consecutive division titles, you’d imagine that it should bring a sense of pride to the area, and it should have been something that created a lasting bond between the people of the area and the team. Yet all the near misses and disappointments became the legacy of that would-be dynasty. Somehow the Braves became linked with the Buffalo Bills. Then there were the empty seats during the playoffs in the later years, bringing derision on the fans of the Braves and the people of Atlanta from around the country. I have to tell you that one of the things that bothers me the most about that long run of continued success is the fact that the one World Series title the team did achieve came immediately after the strike. Think about the fact that on the one night in Atlanta sports history when one of our teams achieved a world championship—game 6 of the 1995 World Series— the two central heroes were players who many fans and many locals resented and were not entirely happy with. Only days before, Dave Justice had criticized Atlanta fans for being spoiled, and he was actually booed by some fans during game 6, hours before he would homer to drive in the only run of the game. Tom Glavine, who held the Indians scoreless over 8 innings in game 6, was the mouth piece of the Players Union during the strike and many fans in this area resented him for that and never really forgave him.

There have been, of course, many other bittersweet moments. In 1998 the “Dirty Birds” pull off one of the all-time upsets in the NFC Championship Game to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in team history. And what happens? One of the leaders of the team gets arrested for soliciting an undercover cop the night before the big game and then gets burned on the field as the Falcons get embarrassed by the Broncos. During one of the Hawks best seasons, back in 1993, the greatest Atlanta Hawk of them all, one of the most beloved athletes in Atlanta history, is traded away to the Clippers. I don’t even need to get into Michael Vick. Hell, even the hockey team has been in on the curse, whether it’s Danny Heatley’s DUI and the death of a teammate, or finally reaching the playoffs for the first time and getting swept in humiliating fashion. It’s just sad.

A Great Season Ends on a Sour Note

So now a new chapter in Atlanta sports history has been written. Again, success that should have brought pride and increased interest moving forward has instead been met head-on with disharmony between the fans and the team, and the jeers of fans and critics across the country. The Hawks’ climb from the bottom of the NBA back to respectability has been drawn out and at times wrought with problems, but their growth had been steady. Starting from rock bottom in Mike Woodson’s first year as head coach back in 2004, when the Hawks won only 13 games, the team has made improvements each season. They doubled their win total the next season, Joe Johnson’s first in Atlanta, and then won 30 in 2006. In 2007 the team finally made it back to the playoffs for the first time since the 1998-99 season, and shocked the world by pushing the eventual champion Boston Celtics to 7 games in the first round. Last year the Hawks finished with a winning record and won a playoff series for the first time since that 1998-99 season. There was a lot of momentum going into this year.

This year the goals were to win 50 games, again achieve one of the top 4 seeds in the East, and hopefully reach the conference finals for the first time since the franchise relocated in Atlanta. The regular season goals--winning 50 games and claiming one of the top 4 seeds in the East—were done with room to spare. While many (including yours truly) had conceded midway through the regular season that it was probably going to be very, very difficult for the Hawks to win 2 playoff series and get to the conference finals this year, there were still other goals that could be accomplished in the postseason. There were steps to take that could signify further growth and hope and momentum for the future. The first goal was to take care of an overmatched first round opponent in convincing fashion. That was something the Hawks had been unable to do the year before, when they were blown out twice on the road, lost once at home, and needed 7 games to defeat a middling Miami Heat team. Another goal was to play better overall on the road in the playoffs and be more competitive and consistent from game to game. In the second round, unless the Hawks somehow ended up playing Boston, many Hawks fans understood that it was highly unlikely that the team would be able to advance further, as the Cavs or Magic could beat the Hawks even if they played their very best. However, there was hope that the Hawks could make things difficult on one of those teams, something they hadn’t been able to do against Cleveland the year before, as they were swept in 4 straight, losing all 4 games by double digits. It wouldn’t be a happy ending but it would mean something to defend the Highlight Factory and maybe force Orlando or Cleveland to 6 games or so.

Just as the gap between the top 2 teams in the East and the Hawks became clearer as the regular season neared its conclusion, it also became clear that the #5-#8 teams in the East were much better than previously thought. Still, the Hawks would be expected to take care of business against any of those teams without too much trouble. It ended up that the Hawks would be playing the Bucks, a team that would be without their best player and the only guy who could have posed a matchup problem for the Hawks (Andrew Bogut). Taking the next step for the Hawks would be to swiftly and decisively dispose of this lower seeded team with no hope of making noise in the playoffs.

Everything started off according to plan, as the Hawks won the first two games at home easily, just as they should have. But things didn’t go well in Milwaukee. For whatever reason, the Hawks’ problems on the road, particularly in the playoffs, cropped up again, as they lost handedly in both games 3 and 4. The Hawks still held home court advantage, but they were not protected from the criticism of analysts and fans around the country. Hawks fans and people in the Atlanta area weren’t pleased with the developments either. But there was still confidence that the team would find itself in game 5 and put the pressure back on Milwaukee. For almost the entire game it looked like that would indeed occur. But then something that had been a recurring problem during the regular season reared its head at the Hawks at the worst of times. They blew a 4th quarter lead and lost at home in game 5 to fall behind 3-2 in the series, sending the raucous crowd at the Highlight Factory home disgusted.

It was one of the tougher losses I’ve ever had to take as a Hawks fan. But in the time between the end of game 5 and game 6, the thought occurred to me that perhaps this would end up coming to some good. I understood that even if the Hawks swept the Bucks in 4 games it still didn’t mean they would have a shot at getting past the Magic. If the Hawks simply mowed over a crippled underdog and then got ousted by the Magic it might bring a kind of unsatisfied ending to the whole season, one that might not keep momentum going towards next year. However, now that the Hawks had their backs against the wall, and had dug this hole, if they could dig themselves out of it, perhaps it could springboard them into the next round. Even if they weren’t able to upset the Magic it would provide some momentum towards the future. It really appeared that this was exactly what was going to happen, as the Hawks took control of game 6 in Milwaukee, winning in a rout to bring it back to Atlanta for game 7, and then ran over the Bucks in the finale to take the series. The Hawks had put the disappointing road losses and the stunning game 5 loss behind them and gotten past Milwaukee the hard way. The fans who were momentarily disheartened by the 3 game losing streak were now rejuvenated. Those around the country who had mocked and bashed the Hawks after losing games 3, 4, and 5 were now withholding judgment again. The next step for the Hawks was to put on a respectable performance in the conference semifinals and hang in there against the Magic.

But the goodwill and momentum that the Hawks gained from the comeback against the Bucks was defaced brutally almost as soon as the series with Orlando began. Eventually all the hope and sprit behind the team would crumble from the Magic’s continuous pounding, as they demolished the Hawks in 4 games. It started in game 1, when the Hawks took one of the worst beatings in NBA playoff history, losing by an embarrassing and soul crushing 43 points. But the Hawks did their best to put it behind them and they came out in game 2 and gave Orlando everything they had. They had a sizeable lead for much of the game and trailed by just a point at the start of the 4th quarter, but by the final buzzer they had again lost by double digits. The Game 2 loss may have somehow been even more demoralizing than the loss in Game 1. It wasn’t just that the Hawks had played with all out effort. They had played close to as good as they could have, and it hadn’t been close to enough. I believe that this was a more serious blow to the team’s psyche than the 43 point loss in game 1 had been.

There was still reason to hope that the Hawks could use their home crowd to help them get back in the series in Atlanta in game 3, but I think the players were very much doubting whether or not they had any chance of actually winning the series. Surprisingly, the Hawks didn’t appear to get any boost of energy or confidence at all from playing on their court, as the Magic dominated game 3 from start to finish. In the end, the Hawks had lost by 30 at home, and they were now down 3-0. The crowd booed the Hawks’ effort, in particular directing their anger and annoyance at Joe Johnson, who was not having a good series. After the game, things continued to unravel, as Johnson told reporters that he didn’t care whether Hawks fans showed up for game 4 or not. As expected, some fans booed Johnson early in game 4, and Johnson’s poor play continued. Even though the Hawks were clearly the desperate team, the Magic were able to hold them at arm’s length throughout the final game, as they wrapped up the most lopsided series in NBA history with a 14 point win. Suddenly the future of the Hawks was cloudy and it was impossible to ignore the thought that this version of the Hawks had reached its end, with the ultimate goal never even within sight.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Braves Blog: One fifth of the way through

Painful to Watch

The Braves are kind of in a holding pattern at the moment. Injuries and a team wide slump have limited Bobby Cox’s options. It doesn’t seem to matter who he puts in the lineup, they just aren’t hitting. Numerous injuries have helped keep the Braves from getting on any sort of a role. There’s not much to do other than sit and wait and hope that guys start playing better.
And the Braves should start hitting at least a little bit better than they have so far this year. If you just look at past performance, nearly every Atlanta position player is performing below their normal standard. Batting average isn’t the greatest stat in the world, but I’m going to use it in this instance because the Braves power and OBP numbers have been so screwy this season. As you’ll see below, 6 Braves regulars are hitting well below their career batting average going into this season (career batting average going into this season followed by current average).

Nate McLouth .260 .169

Yunel Escobar .301 .215

Chipper Jones .307 .230

Brian McCann .293 .229

Matt Diaz .310 .171

Melky Cabrera .269 .194

Until at least one or two of these guys start hitting it’s useless to speculate on the Braves’ chances of contending for a Wild Card. You simply can’t have 6 of 9 players in the lineup hitting below .230 and expect to have any sort of success.

Fearing the Future

I know that most people have long been aware of the gap between the Phillies and the Braves, but it has become even more obvious during the first 30 or so games of 2010. It’s not even close. The Phillies are better than the Braves in every area. What’s scary is that the Phils have already won 3 consecutive NL East titles, and you wonder if they aren’t setting up for a run similar to the one the Braves had during the 90’s and early 2000’s.

It’s not just the talent and makeup of the current rosters that should have Braves fans worried. The Phillies are now in a different league than the Braves in terms of payroll size. The Braves aren’t as financially strapped as the cheapest teams in the East but they don’t spend anywhere near as much as the most expensive teams in the division. The Braves are in the middle, well above the Marlins and Nationals, but well below the Mets and Phillies. Ironically, the Phillies were in the same position the Braves are in now about 10 years ago. It took a long time for the Phillies to break through and it could take just as long for the Braves to get back to the top of the division now that they’ve fallen.

If the Braves are going to turn things around as a franchise it will probably have to start with making better use of the money they do have. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the Braves currently have a payroll of around $85 million, while the Mets and Phillies are both around $140 million. It’s hard enough to compete with teams that have nearly double the payroll that you have. Right now, the Braves are in rough shape because their money isn’t going to good use. Consider that Derek Lowe ($15 million), Chipper Jones ($14 million) and Kenshin Kawakami ($7.3 million) are the #1, #2, and #4 highest paid players on the roster respectively.
While Chipper’s sharp decline and his inability to stay healthy have made his salary no longer acceptable, it’s the two pitchers who are really the problem. Right now the Braves are getting worse than nothing from Lowe and Kawakami. If you throw in Nate McLouth at $5 million a year (7th highest on the team), that means you’re getting next to nothing from 4 of the 7 highest paid players on the team, and there’s not much hope of any of these players turning things around (apart from maybe Chipper).

You think back to a couple of offseasons ago when Frank McCourt was just throwing money at anybody who would take it and you wonder what he could have been thinking. He was acting like the Braves were playing with the kind of money that the Phillies and Mets have. If that sort of thing continues in the future the Braves are going to be mediocre for a long time.

I have never seen Chipper struggle like he is right now. Injuries are part of it but he just doesn’t seem to have the ability anymore. He isn’t hitting the ball hard. He’s actually had several fluky hits recently that have helped his average stay above .200. Since the start of last season, Chipper has played in 170 games and had 575 at bats, during which time he has hit .259 with 20 homers, while slugging .421. Those aren’t Chipper numbers but they’re much better than he’s putting up right now. In fact, if you go back to August of last season the numbers are pretty dreadful. In his last 69 games, Chipper is just 38 for 226 with 5 homers and 10 doubles for a .168 average and a .279 slugging percentage. Yikes.

McLouth appears hopelessly removed from his career year of 2008. Going back to the middle of last September, in his last 46 games McLouth has gone 24 for 155 with 4 homers and 6 doubles for a .155 batting average and a .271 SLG PCT.

The Braves highest paid player, Derek Lowe, is currently their worst starting pitcher, and he has been for some time. Lowe has been a disaster. In 41 career starts with Atlanta, Lowe has a 4.91 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP. What’s scary is that his first 2 months with the Braves were actually solid. If you go back over his last 28 starts, Lowe’s numbers are jaw-droppingly bad. Over 149 innings, Lowe has posted a 5.74 ERA and an unimaginable 1.74 WHIP, while allowing 19 dingers. He has gone 6 innings just twice in 7 starts this season and has yet to go further in any game. Over his last 28 starts, Lowe has pitched 7 innings only twice, and has never pitched deeper than that.

As for Kawakami, the guy just flat out isn’t very good. His stuff is average and he doesn’t have the makeup to be a good MLB pitcher. The Braves totally whiffed on this guy. In fact, it’s probably the biggest blunder the Braves have made since before John Schuerholz came to Atlanta after 1990. KK has lost all 6 of his starts so far this season, posting a 5.73 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP while allowing 6 homers and striking out just 16 batters over 33 innings.

Easier Schedule Ahead

Over the next few weeks the Braves should be able to tread water, even if the hitting is slow to pickup and the injuries linger. The Braves have 2 more games in Milwaukee against a Brewers team that is below .500. After that the Braves come home for 7 games against the D-Backs, Mets, and Reds, before going on the road to play the Pirates. The Braves should be able to hold their own against those teams and perhaps they can do a little better if they can get a couple of guys going offensively.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Braves Blog: Thoughts After a Month

One Month into the Season

Now that the Dust Has Settled

The losing streak seemed like it lasted a month, but in fact the Braves lost 9 games in 9 days. They went from 3 games over .500 and tied for 1st in the East, to 6 games under .500 and in last place in the East, 5 games out of 1st. During the losing skid the Braves were outscored 44-17. They were shut out 3 times, lost 3 1-run games, and lost by 5 or more runs 3 times. During the skid Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, and Kenshin Kawakami went a combined 0-6.

All things considered, the Braves are fortunate to be 10-14, and even more fortunate to be only 4 games out of 1st. They are last in the East and tied for 12th in the NL but they are still only 6 games back of the best record in the League. That isn’t good, but considering that they lost 9 games in a row it isn’t as bad as it could be. The Braves caught a break by having a home series with the Astros mixed in with a couple of road trips. The Astros are the only team with a worse record than the Braves and we’ve been able to get back to back games from them. Sunday’s finale is actually a huge game because things will get tougher again next week.

Some Historical Perspective

Obviously the Braves are no longer the dominant team that they were in the 1990’s, but it’s still revealing to look at their recent history and compare it to the teams of the last 20 years. The Braves have not dug too deep a hole to recover. They fell back 5 games but they overcame large deficits a number of times during their streak of division titles. During the first 3 years of their streak of 14 straight division titles (1991-1993), the Braves made up at least 7 games in the standings each year. During the final 5 years of the streak (2001-2005), they made up at least 3.5 games each year and came back from at least 4.5 games out in 4 of those years. Falling into the cellar in the division isn’t a death blow either, as the Braves have been in last place early on in several division winning years.

However, the 9 game losing streak took away much of the Braves margin for error the rest of the way. They can’t afford to lose 7 of their next 10 or something like that. During their 14-year streak of division titles the Braves fell 6 games below .500 or worse twice, but they never dropped more than 7 games under .500. The Braves were 6 games under .500 at their lowest point last season. The Braves 8-14 record after 22 games was their worst since they were 7-15 in 1990, the year before the Miracle Season. Last year the Braves were 11-11 after 22 games. Their current record of 10-14 is their worst after 24 games since they were 10-14 in 2006. They never had as bad a record through 24 games during their streak of division titles as they do now. Still, the Braves are only 1 game off last season’s pace, as they were 11-13 after 24 games last year.

The length of the recent losing streak was unusual for a Bobby Cox team and does not bode well for the rest of the season. From 1991-2005, the Braves never lost more than 6 games in a row in any season. Over the last 3 seasons, the Braves never had a losing streak of more than 6 games. Only in 2006 did the Braves have a similar skid, losing 10 straight at one point that year. The Braves need to win the final game of the series with the Astros to win 3 games in a row for just the second time so far this year.

The Braves have already lost 4 games by 5 runs or more. That isn’t the worst the Braves have done over the last 20 years but it’s among the worst. From 1991-2000, the Braves never lost more than 3 of their first 24 games by 5+ runs. Over the last 6 years the Braves never lost more than 3 of their first 24 games by 5 runs. However, from 2001-2003 the Braves lost at least 5 of their first 24 games by 5 runs or more each season. So it may not mean much.

The most disturbing trends so far are all related to the Braves offense, or lack of offense. During the streak of 14 straight division titles, pitching excellence was the one constant that tied each year together. In 2006, the Braves had by far their worst pitching season in many years, and their streak of division titles finally came to an end. In the years since, quality pitching has returned to Atlanta but the Braves have not returned to the postseason. The reason for this is that the Braves hitting has not been up to snuff over the last 3-plus years. From 1991-2006, the Braves were never shutout more than 9 times in any season. Over the last 3 years, however, the Braves have been shutout at least 10 times each year, and this year they have already been shut out 5 times. Surely some of this is the result of a drop in offense league wide, but there’s no denying that the Braves have been a much weaker hitting team since the start of the 2007 season. This year’s Braves team may be the weakest hitting squad since the 1980’s. The Braves were held scoreless in 5 of their first 21 games for the first time since 1988. From 1989 through last season, the Braves were never shutout more than 3 times in their first 21 games in any year. The Braves have scored 4 runs or less in 18 of their first 24 games; the most through 24 games since they did it 19 times in 1988.

While the Braves are fundamentally flawed offensively, they could and should improve over the rest of the season. A number of the Braves regulars are hitting well, well below their career averages. But a few of those players are older and on the decline. And there’s no law that states that 6 or 7 players can’t have the worst year of their career all in the same season.

Oh Yeah, did I Mention the Braves Can’t Hit?

The Braves are currently 14th in the NL in runs scored per game; tied 14th in home runs; tied 12th in stolen bases; 14th in batting average; 15th in slugging; and 14th in OPS. There are only 16 teams in the NL. Amazingly, the Braves lead the National League in walks. To lead the League in walks and be 14th in runs and 14th in OPS is hard to do. One other note: only 2 NL teams have hit into more ground ball double plays than the Braves so far this season.

Chipper’s Absence

I was on a message board the other day and I got into an argument with several fans about Chipper Jones. The argument being made by these fans was that even when healthy Chipper is no longer good enough to bat 3rd. I was adamant that Chipper was still easily the best hitter on the team when healthy. That was about a week ago and I’m starting to wonder if perhaps Chipper isn’t good enough to be the team’s biggest bat anymore.

If Chipper really isn’t going to start hitting more like himself at some point the Braves are in big trouble, because there’s still no one obviously better on the team. Some of the fans I was arguing with contended that Chipper should no longer be hitting 3rd. I was dubious at first, but having a few more days to think it over, I’m starting to think that he may not be a #3 hitter any more. The problem is that there isn’t a better option on the team. If Chipper’s knowledge of the strike zone and ability to earn walks is the only remaining strength he has, then he should probably be hitting 1st or 2nd. But there’s no good candidate to replace Chipper in the #3 hole.

Chipper is currently hitting just .215, yet his OBP is .378. He has slugged just .369 with 2 homers and 4 doubles in 65 at bats. Those aren’t Chipper Jones numbers. If you take Chipper’s numbers last year and his numbers through 1 month this year he has played in 163 games. Over those 163 games Chipper has hit .259/.386/.423/.810 with 20 homers. He can still hit 3rd with those numbers, but if he continues to struggle as he has, it might be better to move him to 2nd or 5th and try Prado in the #3 spot. I just hope moving him out of the #3 spot doesn’t become an issue. Chipper is currently in a 1 for 18 slump.

Mac not Producing Either

Going back to that argument I was having with some fans on a message board about Chipper, when I said CJ was still easily the best hitter on the team, one fan came back with 3 guys he thought were currently better: Prado, Heyward, and McCann. Prado is currently the only Braves hitter having a great offensive season. But that doesn’t mean he’ll continue to hit that way. And Prado isn’t the power threat that Chipper is. Heyward has played 1 month and is still figuring things out. It’s really not worth discussing any further than that.

Brian McCann would be the 2nd best hitter on the team in my opinion. However, he isn’t getting it done so far this year. Mac is hitting .234/.378/.391/.769 with 2 homers and 4 doubles in 64 at bats. Mac should eventually get hot and start putting up his normal solid numbers, but I still don’t think he’s ready to take over for Chipper as the most dangerous bat in the lineup. Against lefties, Mac is just 4 for 18 this season. He is just 2 for 14 with RISP and 0 for 6 with RISP and 2 out. He is just 6 for his last 39 with 1 double and no homers.

Glaus Starting to Come Around?

For most of this season Troy Glaus has looked finished. He hasn’t been able to handle tough pitching and he hasn’t been able to jump on average pitching either. Recently, however, he has played better and perhaps it is a sign of things to come. Over his last 8 games, Glaus has gone 8 for 23 with 2 doubles, 5 RBI, 7 BB, 6 K, and only 1 GDP. He’s hit .348/.500/.435/.935 during those 8 games. Those are modest numbers and it’s a small sample size, but those numbers are still way better than his stats from earlier in the year. Glaus is crucial to the Braves success, as I’ve pointed out many times on this blog.

Leadoff Problems

Towards the end of the losing skid, Bobby Cox began using Yunel Escobar as the leadoff hitter, but an injury knocked Esco out of the lineup. Cox has since used Omar Infante or Nate McClouth as the leadoff hitter, depending on whether the opposing starter was left or right handed. While the injury to Escobar is bad news, I think it could be a blessing in disguise as long as he is able to come back quickly. You don’t want Escobar leading off. He’s not at all suited to that spot and he has had success hitting lower in the order. As for McClouth, he isn’t really suited for the #1 spot either, but I think he’s the best option we have at this point, at least against right handers. Infante is a very good option against left handers. McClouth has not gotten off to a good start this year but he’s doing a little better lately, going 5 for 19 over his last 6 games, with a double, a homer, 2 RBI, 2 BB, 2 K, and 1 SB in 2 attempts. Infante has started 5 of the team’s last 9 games and has gone 8 for 21 with 2 doubles, 2 RBI, and 1 SB.