Friday, June 25, 2010

The Braves Blog: Detroit Series Preview

If you read my last blog, you know that I was concerned about the series in Chicago. However, I have to admit that I didn’t expect the Braves to have that tough of time. I would have been content with winning 1 of 3, but to get swept, particularly in the fashion that it happened, was hard to take. The Braves are still 42-31, but their hold on 1st place in the East is in jeopardy. The Mets are just a half game back, and the Phillies are now within 2.5. While the competition isn’t getting any easier, at least we are back home. It’s a good thing, because the Braves really need to win this series. You don’t want the slide to extend much farther.

Detroit Series Preview

The Braves face another tough test this weekend, as the Tigers come to Atlanta for a 3 game series. Detroit comes in 39-32 (.549), in 2nd place in the AL Central, just a half game back of the 1st place Twins. Working in the Braves’ favor, the Tigers are just 14-21 (.400) on the road, and unlike the White Sox, Detroit isn’t red hot. They are just 2-3 in their last 5, although they are 10-5 in interleague play.

It’s no surprise to see the Tigers near the top of the standings, as they were in the World Series just a few years ago, and they have become one of the big spenders in the MLB. However, when you look at this year’s club, their record is perhaps a little better than it should be. To begin with, they’ve only scored 2 more runs than they’ve allowed (321-319). In addition, they are below average in a number of key categories. The Tigers haven’t excelled in many areas so far in 2010. They are 8th in the AL in runs scored and 9th in runs allowed. Detroit’s defense has also been lacking this year,

This Detroit team is not the long ball threat that they have been in the recent past. They are just 8th in the AL in homers. They aren’t a big base stealing team (currently 12th in the AL in steals) either. However, Detroit is 5th in the AL in OBP and 4th in OPS, so they are a capable offensive club.

The Tigers haven’t been a great pitching team this season. They are 8th in the AL in ERA and 9th in WHIP. Mostly, it’s been the starting pitching that has disappointed. Their starting pitching ERA is 12th in the AL. On the other hand, the bullpen has been very good. Detroit is 3rd in the AL in bullpen ERA and tied for 1st in Save%.


Andrew Oliver vs. Kris Medlen

The opener of the series is an intriguing game, primarily because the Tigers’ starter is a bit of a mystery (at least to me). Oliver will be making his first appearance in the big leagues after only a few months in the minors. He was a 2nd round pick for the Tigers in 2009 and has never pitched above AA. All of his experience in pro ball so far has come this year. He was 6-4 in 14 starts at AA, posting a 3.61 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP over 77.1 innings. The one thing to worry about for Braves fans? He’s a lefty.

Can’t say a lot of negative things about Kris Medlen at this point. The kid has a 3.67 ERA in 8 starts, and the Braves are 7-1 in those games.


Max Scherzer vs. Kenshin Kawakami

The Braves will face another young pitcher in the 2nd game of the series, but they are a bit more familiar with Max Scherzer. Scherzer is clearly a talented right hander, but so far he hasn’t quite been able to put it together enough to have consistent success at the Major League level. In 13 starts with the Tigers this season Scherzer is 4-6 with a 5.67 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP. He has 6 quality starts, but the Tigers are just 5-8 with him on the mound, and opponents have an .844 OPS off of him. On the road, Scherzer has been crushed. The Tigers are 1-6 in his 7 starts away from home, and Scherzer has a 6.20 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP in those games.

While those numbers are hideous, it must be noted that much of the damage off of Scherzer came earlier in the season, before he was sent back down to the minors in the middle of May. After dominating in 2 starts, Scherzer was brought back to the big club and he has pitched much better since. In 5 starts since being recalled, Scherzer is 3-2 with a 3.48 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. He has struck out 41 in just 31 innings over that span. The righty has thrown 3 straight quality starts, and has just a 3.10 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP over 20.1 innings in those 3 games.

I don’t want to spend too much time on Kenshin Kawakami. He’s been an abject disaster; simple as that. In 14 starts so far in 2010, KK is 0-9 with a 4.78 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP.


Justin Verlander vs. Tommy Hanson

The Braves will face Detroit’s ace in the series finale. Justin Verlander didn’t get off to a great start this year, but he is now 8-5 in 15 starts with a 3.94 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. He has 9 quality starts and the Tigers are 10-5 with him on the mound. Fortunately for the Braves, Verlander hasn’t been as tough on the road this season. He is just 4-3 with a 5.03 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP in 8 starts away from Detroit. Also, Verlander was roughed up in his last start, allowing 5 runs on 5 hits and 3 walks in just 2 innings of work against the Mets in New York.

The Braves will be going with Tommy Hanson on Sunday, and will be interesting to see how he comes back from what was one of the worst starts in his short career on Tuesday. The Braves have still won 11 of Hanson’s 15 starts, but his inability to go deep into games is becoming a bit of a concern. He has lasted less than 6 innings in 6 starts this season, and that obviously takes away from his value.


I described the previous series as “tricky” and you could say the same about the series this weekend. The difference is that the Braves had some margin for error in Chicago. Now that they’ve been swept by the White Sox, the margin for error is much slimmer. In fact, the opener on Friday night could end up being a fairly significant game. If you look at the pitching matchups in this series, it’s obvious that the Braves don’t want to be going into Saturday’s game with a 4 game losing skid. Let’s face it: the Braves probably aren’t going to win the 2nd game of the series, as Kawakami is on the mound for Atlanta. And you certainly can’t call the Braves favorites to win the finale, as Verlander has shut the Braves down in the past. On Monday, the Braves will be going against that rookie for the Nationals who is supposed to be pretty good. So, yeah, Friday is pretty big. I’m a little bit scared at this point. While it will be tough, I think we really need to win this series.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Braves Blog: Chicago White Sox Series Preview

The Braves finally got a bit of a break from a brutal stretch of the schedule last weekend, drawing the Kansas City Royals in a 3 game set at home. But in a way, the Braves 3 game sweep of the hapless Royals was almost as impressive as the series wins over the Rays and Twins that preceded it. How many times over the last few years have the Braves gone up against an overmatched opponent and done exactly what they were supposed to do? It hasn’t happened all that often to my knowledge. The Braves were supposed to win all 3 games last weekend and they went out and got it done. That’s what a great team does. An extended home stand is in the near future, but first the Braves have to go out on the road again for a 3 game set on the South Side.

Chicago White Sox Series Preview

Beginning Friday, the Braves will play 9 consecutive games at home, running through July 4th. Before that, however, the Braves will have to get through a bit of a “trap series” if you will. The White Sox are just a .500 team, while the Braves have the best record in the NL, have won 5 straight, and have been playing as well as anyone over the last 6 weeks. The trouble is that the Chi Sox have been the hottest team in the game over the last two weeks.

At the end of play on June 8th, the White Sox were 24-33, and I was sizing up players that we might be able to pluck from their roster in potential deadline deals later this summer. Since then, the Sox have gone 10-1 to get back to .500 at 34-34. They are now 3rd in the Central, just 5.5 games out of 1st. Chicago has won 6 straight and they are an amazing 10-2 in interleague play. The Sox have been a bit lucky. They have been outscored 294-310 (-16) and are 14-8 in 1-run games, but that also speaks to their deep and formidable bullpen.

Offensively, this White Sox team is different from many of the Chi Sox teams during the Ozzie Guillen era. Remember how there was all that talk about playing “small ball” under Guillen in 2005? But then that ended up just being a talking point that the media seized upon and refused to let go of, as the Sox got off to such a great start that year. In reality, they actually had a lot of power to go along with speed. Over the next few years they became more and more a slow, old, long ball hitting club, finishing 1st or 2nd in homers from 2006-2008, but never finishing better than 7th in steals. This season they have an offense similar to the 2005 team, as they have power (5th in the AL in homers) and speed (2nd in the AL in SB). Still, it hasn’t really translated to a lot of scoring, as they are 10th in the AL in runs per game (by the way, they finished 9th in runs per game in 2005). The Sox make a lot of contact, but they don’t draw many walks, and they really have not been a great hitting team so far this season. If you can keep them in the yard they are limited. They are a prolific base stealing team, but that are only 11th in OBP, so you can limit their opportunities.

The Chi Sox have been a mediocre pitching team this season, despite a staff loaded with talent and recognizable names. The starting rotation has been a major disappointment. They have a very good pen and they are a solid defensive team, but they are 9th in the AL in runs allowed, as their starters’ ERA ranks 11th out of 14 in the American League. When they have delivered a lead to the relief corps, the bullpen has done a good job of nailing things down, as they are 3rd in the AL in Save%.

This could be a very tricky series. The Braves are going on the road against a hot team, right before a 9 game home stand, and they will have to face a pair of lefties during the 3 game set. The series will be played under American League rules, with the DH in play, and those are the settings under which the Sox were built to play. The Braves can put a very good lineup out there with a DH against a righty, but against left handers the Braves are limited, and at a disadvantage when the DH is in play. McCann, Heyward, and Cabrera are all lesser hitters against south paws. The platoon players—Hinske, Gregor Blanco, and Omar Infante—are also not ideal options against left handers (Infante, while right handed, is not a better hitter off lefties).

Furthermore, the Braves are going to have to be cautious with how much they use their closer, Billy Wagner, in this series, as he has been getting too much work lately. The Sox, on the other hand, have a versatile bullpen that can be used to mix and match against key Braves hitters late in the game. Plus, the depth of the pen may offset the Braves ability to wear down the starting pitchers.

I’m not wild about the pitching matchups either. In the opener, the Braves will have to face Chicago’s best starter, a lefty. They face a crafty left hander in the middle game. The White Sox will be going with their weakest starter, a righty, in the finale, but the Braves will be going with their most inconsistent starter, who has particularly struggled on the road. The Braves do have their best 2 starters (and arguably their top 3 starters at this point) going for them in this series. I just hope they aren’t cancelled out by the potentially even matchups.


Tommy Hanson vs. John Danks

The Braves went up against lefty aces in the openers of both the Minnesota and the Tampa Bay series, and they lost both games. The Braves will again be going up against the best starter their opponents have to offer in the opener of this series, and again it will be against a left hander. John Danks has easily been Chicago’s best starting pitcher so far this year, going 6-5 with a 3.18 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP over 13 starts, including 9 quality starts. Despite these good numbers, the White Sox are just 7-6 with Danks on the mound. Another thing that can give Braves fans confidence, is the fact that Danks does not lock down left handed batters the way that many south paws do.

Unfortunately, Danks has been excellent at home this year, posting a 2.20 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP over 49 innings in 7 starts at new Comiskey (original name). He has 6 quality starts among those 7 home starts, though his record in those games is just 3-3, and the Sox are actually 3-4 in those 7 games. Danks is not easy to run on. In fact, he’s allowed only 1 SB in 7 attempts this season, and 4 of those 6 caught base stealers were picked off. Just about every White Sox pitcher has been pitching well over the last 2 weeks. Danks is 2-0 in his last 2 outings, allowing just 2 runs on 5 hits and 7 walks with 10 K over 15 innings.

Trying to match Danks in the opener for Atlanta will be Tommy Hanson, who appears to have found his good stuff again following a bit of a speed bump earlier in the year. Hanson is now 7-3 in 14 starts with a 3.38 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP. In contrast to the hard luck Danks, Hanson has been a good luck charm for the Braves this year, as they are 11-3 in his 14 starts, only half of which have registered as quality starts.

Hanson does not seem to have a problem pitching on the road, as some youngsters do. He is 4-1 in 7 road starts with a 2.34 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP over 42.1 innings. He has thrown 4 quality stars on the road and the Braves are 6-1 in road games with him on the mound. Since getting pummeled by the Reds on May 20th, Hanson has gotten into a groove, going 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP over his last 5 starts, fanning 28 in 31 innings. He has recorded a quality start in 4 of his last 5 outings, and the Braves are 5-0 in those games.


Tim Hudson vs. Mark Buehrle

Buehrle has struggled mightily this season and he appears to be on the downside of his career, but he’s kind of scary for Braves fans because we don’t always excel against crafty lefties. Buehrle is 5-6 with a 4.71 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP in 14 starts so far this year. He has thrown only 6 quality starts and the Sox are 7-7 with him on the mound. He is 3-2 in 7 home starts, and the Sox are 4-3 in those games, but Buehrle has not really pitched any better at “The Cell”, posting a 5.11 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP over 44 innings. Only 3 of his 7 starts at home have been quality starts.

Unfortunately, the Braves are catching Buehrle (like all of the Chicago pitchers) at a bad time. Buehrle has won both of his last 2 starts, allowing just 2 runs on 14 hits and a walk with 13 K over 14 innings. On the positive side for Braves fans, left handed hitters have held their own against Buehrle this year. As with Danks, one thing to be aware of against Buehrle is his pickoff move, which is nifty except when it’s being erroneously called a balk. Base stealers are 2 for 5 this year against Buehrle, but those numbers are deceiving. He has picked off 5 runners this season, but 2 were credited with an SB when they reached 2nd safely due to an error. So basically, it’s very, very difficult to run on Buehrle and Danks.

The Braves will have their best starter going up against Buehrle in this one. Tim Hudson is now 7-2 in 14 starts with a 2.34 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. He has thrown a quality start in 12 of 14 tries, yet the Braves are just 8-6 with Huddy on the mound. He has been more than a little unlucky this year. Huddy is 3-1 with a 2.61 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP over 58.2 innings in 9 road starts this season. Strangely, while Hudson has posted a quality start in 7 of his 9 road games in 2010, the Braves are just 4-5 in those games. Hudson has been consistently great all season. He has yet to pitch a bad game.


Derek Lowe vs. Gavin Floyd

The Braves will finally face a right hander in the finale of this series. Gavin Floyd has also been the Sox’s worst starter in 2010. He has a 5.20 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP in 14 starts, going 2-7 so far. He has 7 quality starts but the Sox are just 4-10 in his 14 appearances. Floyd hasn’t been any better at home than on the road this year. In 7 starts at the new Comiskey Park, Floyd is 1-2 with a 5.86 ERA and a hideous 1.68 WHIP over 40 innings. He has thrown 3 quality starts out of 7 tries at home and the Sox are 2-5 in those games.

Unfortunately, while Floyd has been the White Sox’ weakest starter this year, he is also their hottest starting pitcher. The Sox are 1-2 in Floyd’s last 3 starts, though he has posted a quality start in each of his last 3 outings. During his last 3 starts, Floyd has yielded just 3 runs on 13 hits and 6 BB with 22 K over 22 innings. Despite posting a 1.23 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP, Floyd has just an 0-1 record over his last 3 games. Floyd has actually been pretty solid for the last month. He has notched a quality start in 5 of his last 6 appearances, posting a 3.08 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP with 35 K over 38 innings during those 6 games.

While Derek Lowe has not been the Braves worst starting pitcher in 2010, he will be the weakest that the Sox will face in this series. Lowe is 9-5 but has only managed 7 quality starts in 15 tries this season. Despite Lowe’s 4.77 ERA and 1.42 WHIP, the Braves have won 10 of his 15 starts. However, Lowe has clearly been a worse pitcher on the road than at home this year. He is 3-3 in 7 starts away from home, and the Braves are 4-3 in those games, but he has posted a 6.00 ERA and an unimaginably bad 1.72 WHIP over 39 IP. He has thrown a quality start in 3 of his 7 road games.

Like Floyd, Lowe has really been pitching better over the last month or so. In fact, Lowe has thrown a quality start in 6 of his last 8 games, going 5-2 over that stretch. The Braves are 6-2 in his last 8 starts, and Lowe has posted a 3.73 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in 50.2 innings during that time.


I don’t know why but I’m worried about this series. I still think it might be a trap. The Braves have the best home record in baseball but they are just 18-21 away from Turner Field. Looking at the bright side of things, they were able to take 2 of 3 from the Twins in Minnesota, where only one other team had won a series all season, and the Sox are just 15-18 at home. I think it’s realistic to hope that the Braves will take 2 of 3 in this series. But all things considered, as long as they pull out 1 of the 3, I won’t be that discouraged.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Braves Blog: Thoughts After 70 Games

A Splendid Turn of Events

Things are going well. I have to admit that things are probably going a little bit better than I ever expected. I hoped things would go well, but I was worried (and that was before the start of the season and the 9 game losing skid). I picked the Braves to win 89 games (and there’s always a little bit of hope and heart in my predicted win total for the Braves). They have a chance to do a lot better than that. They’ve been playing great baseball for 6 weeks now. Let’s enjoy it! Nothing more needs to be said about that.

Status after 70 Games

The Braves are now a season best 14 games over .500 at 42-28 (.600) and on pace for around 97 wins. They are in 1st place in the NL East, 2.5 games up on the hated Mets. They have the best record in the National League, a game and a half better than the Padres. They have the 4th best record in all of baseball.

This is just the 3rd time since 2004 that the Braves have had a winning record 70 games into the season. This is the 1st time in the last 7 years that the Braves have been in 1st place in the East after 70 games. The last time the Braves had the best record in the NL after 70 games was in 2003. That was the last truly dominant Braves team, in terms of the regular season, as they began trimming payroll and acting more like a “small market” team after that year. Check out where the Braves have been after 70 games over the last few years:

2010: 42-28 (1st place in the East, 2.5 games up; best record in NL by 1.5 games)
2009: 34-36 (4th place, 4 games out)
2008: 34-36 (3rd place, 6.5 games out)
2007: 37-33 (2nd place, 1.5 games out)
2006: 30-40 (5th place, 14 games out)
2005: 37-33 (3rd place, 3.5 games out)
2004: 32-38 (4th place, 6.5 games out)
2003: 46-24 (1st place, 7 games up; best record in NL by 3.5 games)

The Surprising and Delightful Offensive Revolution

Yeah, so when and how did the Braves turn into the most patient and intelligent hitting team in the NL? I’ll be honest: it’s a bit of a puzzler for me too. It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s still hard to explain the Braves’ dramatic leap forward in plate discipline even from last year to this season. How is it that the Braves are now easily the most patient team in the NL? They work the count, they draw walks, and they make good contact. Suddenly, all of those annoying things that the Braves used to do offensively have seemingly disappeared. All of the sudden, the Braves have the offensive game plan and approach that you always dreamed they would have.

Who saw this coming? In Terry Pendleton’s first 6 seasons as the Atlanta batting coach (2002-2007) the Braves never ranked higher than 5th in the NL in walks. They were tied for 6th or worse in BB in 5 of those 6 seasons. The Braves’ plate discipline/patience was fairly consistent during the first few Francoeur/McCann/Johnson seasons. The Braves averaged 3.30 BB/Game in 2005, 3.25 BB/Game in 2006, and 3.30 BB/Game in 2007. Not so good.

Then in 2008, with Mark Teixeira in the lineup for much of the season and Brian McCann starting to become more selective, the Braves walk total increased by a fairly significant amount. They went from 534 walks in 2007 (3.30 BB per game, 7th in the NL) to 618 walks in 2008 (3.81 BB per game, 3rd in the NL). Last season, with Teixeira gone, the Braves walk total fell off only slightly to 602 (3.72 BB per game, 5th in the NL). So, the Braves were basically averaging 0.5 more walks per game in 08-09 than they were in 05-07.

This season the Braves have made even bigger improvements. The Braves have drawn 317 walks in 70 games this season—by far and away the highest total in the league—averaging 4.53 walks per game. Honestly, I can’t entirely explain this development. Some of the different reasons for the dramatic increase in bases on balls are not hard to identify. The removal of Frenchy from the everyday lineup and the replacement of Frenchy in right field with Jason Heyward has been huge. In parts of 5 seasons in Atlanta, Jeff Francoeur amassed 2632 plate appearances and drew a total of 127 walks; about 1 BB ever 20.7 PA. In less than half of a season, Jason Heyward has amassed 287 plate appearances and has already earned 42 walks; about 1 BB ever 6.8 PA. Heyward arrived at the Majors with a great eye and great discipline. Also, teams quickly discovered that he wasn’t the guy to challenge in the Braves lineup.

Early on, before Jason Heyward proved how good he was, and before Troy Glaus proved he was still dangerous, teams were pitching around Brian McCann and Chipper Jones constantly. Mac has steadily become a more disciplined hitter, and with teams not challenging him his BB total has increased. Chipper has always been willing to walk rather than extend his zone. It appeared to me, especially early on in the season, that Chipper was even more willing than usual to layoff pitches just outside the zone. It seems that he understands that he is simply not as capable of doing damage as he once was, and thus he’s been even more selective. Then Troy Glaus started making pitchers pay for pitching around others in order to get to him. As teams have become more careful with Glaus, he has been taking more walks himself.

And I guess it just becomes contagious. The Braves have taken to that game plan of working the count and working the pitcher and not making outs and turning it over to the next guy. The Yankees and Red Sox in the American League, as well as the Phillies in the National League, have used this team approach at the plate to great success over the last few years. The only major difference with the Braves is that they have not been a very powerful team. The Braves have been able to score lots of runs without hitting a lot of homers. It’s not like they’ve been hitting at some absurd clip with runners in scoring position, though they have hit well in those spots (including with RISP and 2 out). They’ve simply had so many base runners that they are bound to score runs.

This has actually cured the Braves of one of the weaknesses that they have had in recent years. After getting off to a very slow start, the Braves have been a much more consistent offensive team this season, as they have been less reliant on homers and luck. Martin Prado leads the NL in hits and batting average, but they don’t have anyone else in the top 20 in the league in either category. Troy Glaus is tied for 6th in the NL in homers but no one else is in the top 20 in the league in HR, and the Braves don’t have a single player in the top 20 in the NL in Slugging. However, the Braves have 4 players in the top 15 in the NL in walks (Chipper, Heyward, Glaus, Mac); 5 players in the top 14 in the NL in OBP (Chipper, Heyward, Glaus, Prado, Mac); 3 players in the top 16 in the NL in pitches per plate appearance (Heyward, Mac, Glaus); 5 players in the top 12 in the NL in BB/PA (Chipper, Mac, Heyward, Glaus, Escobar); and 3 players in the top 7 in the NL in BB/K (Chipper, Escobar, Mac).

The Braves have a plan of attack at the plate this season and they are working it to great success. Despite being 12th in the NL in homers and 14th in stolen bases, the Braves lead the league in runs scored per game. Despite being 13th in Slugging, the Braves are 4th in OPS, as they lead the league in walks and OBP. They are 6th in strikeouts (fewest), 3rd in batting average, 2nd in doubles, and 2nd in sacrifice hits. And the Braves’ great OBP is no fluke; they are tied for 14th in HBP.

The Braves may eventually slow down offensively. On the other hand, they could get better. While guys like Eric Hinske, Prado, and Glaus may come down to earth at some point, Chipper Jones, Mac, Escobar, Melky Cabrera, Nate McLouth, and Matt Diaz are all guys that could be stronger offensively from here on out. Let’s be positive, and expect bigger and better things. Why the hell not? We’ve been pleasantly surprised so far.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Braves Blog: Kansas City Series Preview

Another test, another satisfactory performance. The Braves are now a season high 11 games over .500 at 39-28. Last weekend they won 2 of 3 against the AL Central leading Twins on the road. The AL East leading Rays came to town this week and the Braves took 2 of 3 from them as well. In each series, the Braves lost the opener (both times against lefty aces), only to come back and take the final 2 games to take the series. The Braves are now 21-7 at home, but they must continue to play good baseball, as the Mets are breathing down their necks, just a half game out and red hot. With the Royals coming to town next, there’s no room for a letdown.

Kansas City Series Preview

This should be one of the least challenging series the Braves have encountered in quite a while. The Royals are as bad as usual this season. KC won on Wednesday to bring their record to 29-38. They are 4th in the AL Central, 9.5 games out of 1st. The Royals come to town with a 15-19 road record. They have a -33 run differential; 11th out of 14 in the AL.

One interesting thing about this year’s KC team is that they are really not that bad offensively. They are in the middle of the pack in the AL in runs scored and towards the bottom in homers, but the Royals have the 2nd fewest strikeouts and the highest team batting average in the league. Despite leading the AL in hitting, the Royals are just 7th in OBP, due to the fact that they are 13th out of 14 in walks. You’d expect a team full of contact hitters to use the stolen base as a weapon but Kansas City has stolen just 43 bases in 65 tries (66.2%, 12th in the AL).

The Royals may be improved offensively, but they have taken a step back in the pitching department this season. They are 13th in the AL in runs allowed and ERA, and last in batting average against. They’ve allowed the 2nd most homers in the league. The starting rotation has been a disaster; the worst in the AL. Their relievers have been better but they’ve still blown 11 saves. The fact that the Royals are a poor defensive team has not helped matters.

The Braves will see the Royals’ best pitcher in this series, but they’ll face a righty starter in every game. Considering the pitching the Braves have seen recently, nobody they’ll face in this series should scare them. The Braves won’t have either of their top 2 starters pitching in this series, so the hitters need to do what they should do against below average pitching.


Brian Bannister vs. Derek Lowe

Bannister is 6-4 in 13 starts this year, but he has a 5.40 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP over 75 innings. KC is 7-6 in his starts. Bannister has given up 14 dingers in his 13 starts. He’s 1-3 in 6 starts on the road, with the Royals going 2-4 in those games. He has been far worse on the road than at home, boasting an 8.22 ERA and a 1.73 WHIP in 30.2 innings during his 6 road games.

Despite these hideous numbers, the young right hander had been on a major role prior to his last start, having won 5 in a row with a 3.66 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP over that stretch. However, the Reds pummeled him in Cincinnati in his last appearance, as Bannister allowed 11 runs (9 earned) on 10 hits, giving up 3 homers.

Derek Lowe is still far from a sure thing each time he takes the mound these days. You never know when he’ll go out there and just have to scratch and claw to get through 5 innings without the game getting out of hand. Still, over his last 7 starts Lowe is 5-2 with a 3.74 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP over 43.1 innings. While his overall numbers are poor, Lowe has been much, much better pitching at Turner Field. He’s 4-2 in 7 games at home with a 3.65 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP over 44.1 innings. The Braves have won 5 of his 7 home starts.


Zach Greinke vs. Kris Medlen

By far the toughest pitcher the Braves will face in this series will be Greinke. The young righty blossomed last year on the way to winning the Cy Young Award, but 2010 has been a struggle. Greinke is just 2-8 in his 14 starts with a 3.94 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. While clearly his W-L record does not compute with those other stats, Greinke has been nowhere near the pitcher he was in ’09. After allowing 11 homers all of last season, Greinke has given up 12 homers already this season. Even more concerning for KC fans, Greinke’s K/9 average has dropped from 9.5 last year to 7.9 so far this season. Kansas City has gone just 3-11 in his 14 starts.

Despite a 1-5 record in 8 road starts, Greinke has done some of his best work away from home, including a pair of complete games. He has a 3.33 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP on the road, yet the Royals are just 2-6 in his 8 road starts. The bad news for the Braves is that Greinke is coming off one of his best outings of the season, a complete game performance at Cincinnati, during which he held the Reds to just 3 runs on 5 hits, striking out 12 without a walk (though he did allow 2 more homers).

Kris Medlen doesn’t have overpowering stuff but he’s starting to become a trusted member of the pitching staff. He was excellent in relief early on in the year and he has been more than adequate in 7 starts since filling Jair Jurrjens spot in the rotation. Medlen is 3-0 in 7 starts and the Braves are 6-1 in those games. Despite giving up 7 homers, Medlen has posted a 3.59 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP over 42.2 innings as a starter.


Kyle Davies vs. Kenshin Kawakami

The Braves will face a former teammate in the finale of this series. KD has been he’s usual self for the Royals this year, occasionally looking good, but pretty much sucking more often than not. He has a 4-5 record in 13 starts with a hideous 6.01 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP. In spite of those poor numbers, the Royals are actually 7-6 with Davies on the mound. He’s been at his worst on the road, posting a 6.47 ERA and a 1.69 WHIP over 40.1 innings in 7 starts. Again, despite those terrible numbers, the end result hasn’t been that bad, as KD is 3-2 in 7 road starts and the Royals are 4-3 in those games.

However, Davies has been absolutely brutal over the last 6 weeks or so. Most of his decent appearances came early on, as he is just 2-4 over his last 8 starts, and the Royals are just 3-5 in those games. But that record doesn’t accurately reflect how awful Davies has been. During those last 8 starts, opposing batters have hit .329/.385/.476/.861 off KD, and he has a 7.94 ERA and a 1.82 WHIP over just 39.2 innings during that stretch.

There’s really no point in spending time on Kawakami. We’re familiar enough with him at this point. We know that he’s very unlikely to have a great performance. There’s a chance that you’ll get a decent game from him, but it’s probably more likely that he’ll suck, and have to work really hard to keep the other team from scoring 10 runs over the first 4 innings. KK is now 0-9 in his 13 starts.


We really should sweep this series. It’s not that the Royals are the worst team ever or that the pitching matchups are just so overwhelmingly in our favor. But if the Braves are going to win the East and get back to the postseason, they really need to go out and get it done against weaklings like the Royals, especially at home. KC has actually been decent lately. They are 18-15 over their last 33 games, and they’ve won 5 of 7 coming into the series. The Braves have won 5 of 7 as well, but they haven’t won 3 in a row since their 9 game win streak came to an end 2 weeks ago. I think it’s fair to expect a 3 game sweep here. At the very least, the Braves cannot afford to do any worse than 2 out of 3, as they try to hold on to their slim lead atop the division.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Baseball Blog: The Middling Middle

The Central Getting Squeezed by the Coasts

There are currently 8 AL teams over .500: 4 from the East; 2 from the Central; and 2 from the West. There are 9 teams currently over .500 in the NL: 3 from the East; 2 from the Central; and 4 from the West. That’s a combined 7 teams from the East divisions and 6 teams from the West divisions, against a total of 4 teams from the Central divisions. Last season, 3 teams finished over .500 in both of the East divisions and both of the West divisions, while only 2 teams finished over .500 in each of the Central divisions. This is not just a recent trend.

In the 12 seasons prior to this one, dating back to the last change in alignment, 33 teams have finished the year over .500 in each of the East divisions; 27 teams have finished over .500 in the AL West; and 33 teams have finished over .500 in the NL West. Only 25 teams have finished over .500 in the AL Central and 30 NL Central teams have finished over .500. Combining the divisions, that’s 66 teams over .500 for the East divisions; 60 teams over .500 for the West divisions; and only 55 teams over .500 for the Central divisions.

The differences are even clearer when you bring percentages into play. Recall that there are 6 teams in the NL Central and only 4 teams in the AL West. Thus, over the 12 year period, 72 AL Central teams had a chance to finish over .500, while only 48 NL West teams could finish over .500. With that in mind, check out these numbers.

Percentage of teams finishing the year over .500 from 1998-2009 from highest to lowest:

AL West: 27 of 48 (56.3%)
AL East: 33 of 60 (55.0%)
NL East: 33 of 60 (55.0%)
NL West: 33 of 60 (55.0%)
AL Central: 25 of 60 (41.7%)
NL Central: 30 of 72 (41.7%)

West Division Teams: 60 of 108 (55.6%)
East Division Teams: 66 of 120 (55.0%)
Central Division Teams: 55 of 132 (41.7%)

Clearly, something is going on here. And perhaps it’s just a matter of the number of “small market” teams that there are in the Central divisions, as opposed to all of the big spending teams in the East and West divisions. The West divisions have the LA teams and San Fran, while the East divisions have the New York teams and the clubs from other east coast cities where baseball is huge. This is a part of it, but it doesn’t come close to explaining everything. For one, there are several “big market” or big spending franchises in the Central divisions: both Chicago teams, Detroit, Houston, and St. Louis. Also, there are plenty of “small market” teams in the other divisions: Tampa, Oakland, San Diego, Florida, Washington, etc. Plenty of teams have had consistent success despite a small payroll, including the Twins, from the AL Central. And while not everyone is going to be able to consistently win 90 games the way the Twins do, it doesn’t take a big budget to win 82 games every once in a while.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that the 2 worst franchises in baseball reside in the Central divisions, along with another club that ranks in the bottom 10 franchises or so. In addition, several of the teams in the Central divisions have had extended periods of failure. Kansas City and Pittsburgh are easily the two worst franchises in the game. The Royals have had just 1 winning season over the previous 12, while the Pirates haven’t had a single one. The Reds’ futility is a bit underrated because the Pirates are so bad, but Cincinnati has had only 2 years above .500 over the last 12 years. The Tigers are having success now and they are spending like a big market club, but it’s easy to forget how bad they were before their surprising run to the World Series in 2006. Detroit still has had only 3 winning seasons since 1998. Then there are the Brewers, who are just coming out of a long stretch of futility, and to date, Milwaukee still has had only 2 seasons over .500 since 1998.

It seems like the Brewers have had more success than they really have because of the group of young players that they have developed and who all got to the Majors around the same time. But the Brewers seemed to miss their window of opportunity, just as the Indians have done. And this is really where the small market thing comes into play. When one group of players from a Cleveland or a Milwaukee team doesn’t reach its potential, they simply have to rebuild again, and those cycles can last a long time.

There have been some radical ideas thrown about concerning possible realignments based on things other than geography. Not one of these plans is worth considering. The teams in the Central divisions can win. The problem is that some of those teams either aren’t trying, have been poorly run, or both.

The situation may not change anytime soon. The Reds are having a surprisingly good year so far, but the White Sox have again disappointed. Detroit has emerged as a consistent contender, but it’s looking more and more likely that the Brewers will have to trade away some of their key parts and start over. The Cubs are having a rough year but they have certainly tried to get things right. The Astros, on the other hand, appear to be transitioning back into a “small market” team, and their minor league system is a long way from offering any help. The Central could be the weak spot in the MLB for many more years to come.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Braves Blog: Tampa Bay Series Preview

The Braves are finally through the longest road trip of the season, and they came out of it with a 6-5 record. They have now played on 20 consecutive days. There’s barley any rest for the weary, as the Braves will get just one day of rest before facing the Rays in a 3-game set at Turner Field.

Tampa Bay Series Preview

It will be another tough series for the Braves. The good news is that the Braves will be at home, where they have the best record in baseball at 19-6. The bad news is that the Rays have the best road record in baseball at 22-8. Tampa is now 40-23, tied with the Yankees for the best record in the Majors. They also have the 2nd best run differential in the ML (+97), behind only the Yanks. The Rays are 3-3 so far in interleague play.

Like the Twins, the Rays are a very balanced team. They are an excellent offensive team and they have perhaps the best pitching in the American League. They have a super starting rotation and a very good bullpen. They are a below average defensive team, which is their only weakness. Fortunately for the Braves, Tampa has only 1 left handed starter and 1 lefty reliever. The pitching matchups actually look pretty favorable for the Braves.


David Price vs. Kenshin Kawakami

Just like in the series against the Twins, the Braves will face the toughest starting pitcher and the only left hander in the opening game of the series with Tampa. Price has been one of the best starters in the AL this year. The former #1 pick has gone 9-2 in 12 starts with a 2.23 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP over 80.2 innings. He leads all qualified AL pitchers in ERA and his tied for 11th in WHIP. He is tied for 1st in the AL in Quality Starts with 10 and in QS% at .830. Price has been tough at home and on the road. Away from home he is 5-1 in 6 starts with a 2.54 ERA and 1.28 WHIP over 39 innings. In his last 4 starts Price is 3-1 with a 3.12 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP over 26 innings, posting 3 QS.

The opener looks like a serious mismatch, as the Braves will be going with their weakest starting pitcher, Kenshin Kawakami, who is now 0-8 in 12 starts. It’s certainly looks bad for the Braves on paper, and it may turn out that way on the field, but Kawakami hasn’t been nearly as bad as his record suggests. If Price has an off day, the Braves might be able to win it, as KK has been keeping the team in the game lately.

0-8 is bad any way you slice it, but KK’s 4.48 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP over 68.1 innings are better numbers than you would expect for a guy who is winless in 12 starts. Kawakami is 30th in both ERA and WHIP out of 48 qualified NL pitchers. The guy just behind KK in ERA is Johnny Cueto, who is 6-1 despite a 4.50 ERA. Aaron Harang’s ERA and WHIP are both far worse than KK’s (5.17 ERA and 1.45 WHIP), yet Harang is 5-5. Kawakami has thrown Quality Starts in 6 of 12 starts, but has yet to get a win, in large part due to the Braves scoring just 3.06 runs a game during his starts.

KK has been pitching better lately. In his first 7 starts, KK was 0-6 with a 5.79 ERA and a 1.74 WHIP over 37.1 innings. It was even worse than that, as KK had allowed 3 unearned runs, making his Runs Allowed Average 6.51. He threw just 2 quality starts in those first 7 appearances and the Braves were 1-6 with him on the mound. He averaged just 5.1 innings per start, 5.54 K/9, and allowed 6 homers (1.45 per 9 innings). Batters hit .291 with a .875 OPS against KK during those first 7 starts.

In Kawakami’s last 5 starts, however, he has thrown 4 QS, posting an ERA of 2.90 and a WHIP of 1.26 over 31 innings. He is 0-2 over his last 5 starts but the Braves are 2-3 in those games. KK has averaged over 6 innings per start and 6.1 K/9. He has held opponents to a .252 batting average and a .716 OPS, allowing just 2 homers (0.58 per 9 innings). KK has also been better at Turner Field this year. In 4 home starts, Kawakami is 0-1 with a 3.68 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP over 22 innings. He has a 6.50 K/9 in those 4 starts and has held batters to a .259 batting average and a .700 OPS, allowing just 1 homer. Most importantly, the Braves are 3-1 in KK’s 4 home starts.


Wade Davis vs. Tommy Hanson

The Braves should have almost as big of an edge in the pitching matchup in the second game of the series as the Rays have in the opener. I say should because Tommy Hanson hasn’t quite pitched up to his potential this year. Hanson is 6-3 in 13 starts and the Braves have gone 10-3 with Tommy on the mound. He has a 3.69 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP over 75.2 innings. However, Tommy has thrown just 6 QS in 13 tries for a .460 QS%. Much of Tommy’s struggles have come at home, as he is just 2-2 in 6 starts at the Ted with a 5.40 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP over 33.1 innings. The Braves are 4-2 in Hanson’s 6 home starts.

Hanson has been pitching better as of late, going 3-0 in his last 4 starts with a 2.63 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP over 24 innings. The Braves have won all 4 of those starts and Hanson has yielded just 1 homer while holding batters to a .226 batting average and a .685 OPS. There is something to worry about, however, and that is Hanson’s escalating pitch count in recent starts. Hanson has had some difficulty getting outs without expending a lot of effort. He’s been striking guys out but it has taken a number of pitches to get the job done. Some control issues have also run his pitch count up. This has resulted in an inability to pitch deep into games. Recently, however, Tommy has had to throw a lot of pitches just to get through 5 or 6 innings. In an attempt to save the bullpen, Cox has let Hanson max out on pitches in his last few starts. Over his last 3 starts, Tommy has averaged 116 pitches. While this is unlikely to result in an injury for Hanson, it may hinder his performance at some point.

In another similarity to the series against the Twins, the Braves will be facing Tampa’s weakest starter in the second game of the series. Wade Davis is a right hander who is neither a strikeout pitcher nor a control artist. Davis is 5-6 in 12 starts this season with a 4.91 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP over 66 innings. He has 5 QS in 12 tries for a .420 QS%. The Rays are 6-6 with Davis on the mound. Davis has been at his worst on the road, going 2-2 in 5 road starts with a 5.04 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP over 25 innings. Davis has really struggled in his last 7 outings, going 2-5 with a 6.57 ERA and a 1.65 WHIP over 37 innings. He has allowed 9 homers over that stretch, and batters have hit .309 with a .898 OPS off of him.


Shields vs. Hudson

The Braves will again have the clear starting pitching edge in the finale. Tim Hudson is the only Braves starter having a truly great season. He is 6-2 in 13 starts with a 2.43 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP over 85.1 innings. Huddy is tied for 2nd among qualified NL starters with 11 QS and a .850 QS%. Strangely, the Braves are now just 7-6 in Hudson’s 13 starts.

Hudson has been at his best at Turner Field, going 3-1 in 4 home starts with a 2.03 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP over 26.2 innings. He has allowed just 1 homer at home and has held batters to a .202 average and a .552 OPS. Huddy is 1-1 over his last 4 starts with a 3.24 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP in 25 innings. The Braves have gone 2-2 in those games, while opponents have hit .263 with a .671 OPS and 2 homers off of Hudson.

James Shields is the closest thing the Rays have to a power pitcher but he is around the plate a lot and can be hit. The righty has been decent this year but comes into this series struggling. In 13 starts, Shields is 5-5 with a 4.55 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP over 85 innings. He has 9 QS (tied for 5th in the AL) and a .690 QS% (tied 10th in the AL) and the Rays are 7-6 with him on the mound. Shields has pitched better in 6 road starts, going 4-2 with a 3.43 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP over 42 innings. Even in those 6 starts away from home, however, opponents have hit .299 with a .772 ERA against Shields.

Lately, Shields has gotten shelled. He has lost his last 4 starts but his last 3 starts have been truly awful. Over his last 3 outings, Shields has yielded an 11.49 ERA and a 2.23 WHIP over 15.2 innings. His total Runs Allowed Average over his last 3 starts is 13.21. He has given up 4 homers and allowed batters to hit .411 with a 1.149 OPS off of him over those last 3 starts.


I can actually say that I feel pretty good about things going into this series. This series looked daunting a couple of weeks ago, and it could prove to be a tough one, but I feel much better about the Braves chances against the Rays than I did before the road trip. 3 weeks ago the Rays looked like easily the best team in baseball. On May 23rd, the Rays had the best record in the Majors at 32-12 and they were 6 games up in baseball’s toughest division. Since then, however, Tampa has gone just 11-18 (3-3 on the road). They have lost 3 of their last 4 and they are coming off of losing 2 of 3 at home to the Marlins, a series in which they were outscored 25-16. Their 6 game lead in the East is gone. I like the way the pitching matchups set up for the Braves in this series. The Braves will be back home where they have been tough to beat this season and the Rays will be without a DH. The Braves should win this series.

The Braves Blog: Thoughts After 64 Games

Still Standing Tall

The Braves ended their longest road trip of the season in fine fashion, winning the last two games to take the series in Minnesota. Going into the 11-game road trip, I had said that going 5-6 would be adequate. The Braves did 1 better, going 6-5. To get through this trip 1-0-2 in 3 series is pretty big. While going only 1 game over .500 during and 11 game stretch doesn’t really sound like a team that is red hot, the Braves have continued the good baseball that they played during June. Of the 5 losses the Braves suffered during the 11-game road trip, 4 were by 1 run.

Status after 64 Games

The Braves are now 10 games over .500 at 37-27 (.578). They have the 4th best record in the Majors, just 3.5 games behind the Yankees and Rays. They have the 2nd best record in the NL, a half game behind San Diego. And most importantly, they are in 1st place in the East, 1.5 games ahead of the Mets, and 3 games in front of the Phillies. The Braves are still just 18-21 on the road (.462, 11th best in the MLB), but they return home now where they have the best record in the Majors at 19-6 (.760).

The Braves also have the 3rd best run differential in baseball at +61. They haven’t had the best luck, going 11-11 in 1-run games and 2-3 in extra inning games. In fact, the Braves run differential suggests that their record should be more like 39-25. Lately, even when the Braves have lost they have still played well. Since May 16th, the Braves are 20-8, having outscored opponents 156-85 (+71) over that time. They are just 6-6 in 1-run games and 0-2 in extra innings during that stretch. Of their 8 losses since May 16th, 6 have been by 1 run, and the other 2 losses were by 2 runs and by 3 runs. During their first 36 games, the Braves lost 7 games by at least 4 runs. In their last 28 games, the Braves have not lost a single game by more than 3 runs.

The Best Braves Team Since the Baby Braves?

While it’s still pretty early (there are still 98 games remaining), there is reason to be positive about the Braves chances of making it back to the postseason this year. At the very least, there’s reason to think that this Braves team might be a true contender down to the final days of the season. The Braves have their best record after 64 since 2003, and that was also the last year that the Braves have been in 1st place at this point in the season. During the previous 4 years, the Braves never spent even a day in 1st place after May 15th. In addition, the Braves never had a lead of more than 2 games at any point over the last 4 years, while they have already led by 3 games at one point this year. The Braves spent 31 days in 1st place in 2007 but all of that came before May 16th. In 2006, 2008, and 2009, the Braves were in 1st place for a combined 9 days, and never after April 13th. The Braves have already been in 1st place in the East for 20 days this season. The Braves are on pace to win about 94 games, which would be their most since 2004. Since June 27th of last season, the Braves are 89-63, the best record in the NL over that time, just ahead of the Phillies (87-64, -1.5 games).

What’s Ahead

The Braves have played every day for the last 20 days and will finally have a day off on Monday. Their tough stretch isn’t quite over, as they have series against the Rays and Tigers coming up over the next couple of weeks. At least they are back home, however, and won’t be playing so many consecutive days without a break over the next few weeks. The Braves play 15 of their next 18 games at home and (including Monday) they will have 3 off days during that time. All of that comes before a tough week that will take us back on the road and into the All-Star Break.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Braves Blog: Improving the Team

Possibilities of Improving the Team

This Braves team has done pretty damn well so far, winning 35 of their first 62 games. However, it’s going to be very tough to get back to the postseason. It’s likely that the Braves will have to make some improvements in order to win the East or win the wild card. They could improve without making any moves at all. A great number of players currently on the active roster are not yet playing as well as they normally do (McCann, Chipper Jones, Yunel Escobar, etc.). But it’s interesting to think of changes that the Braves might be able to make in order to get better.

Team Needs and Weaknesses

It’s not blatantly obvious but if you really look at the situation, the Braves aren’t exactly great in any area. The lineup has several weak spots and is severely limited by left handed pitching. They are a generally average fielding team. The Braves don’t have a true “ace” starting pitcher and the back end of the rotation is downright mediocre. In addition, due to a number of factors, the Braves have had to use their bullpen a lot. This frequent use of the bullpen--and a reliance on a handful of trusted relievers--is eventually going to thin out an otherwise rock solid relief core.

Clearly there is room for improvement in a number of areas. At this point, the Braves are in pretty good shape in terms of their everyday lineup and their bench. The only major trouble spot is in the outfield, where they need to stabilize the left field situation, and more importantly, find an everyday center fielder. They could really use another right handed bat. Pitching wise, the Braves could definitely use another solid reliever or two, preferably a right hander. While a top line starting pitcher would certainly be a big help, it isn’t the most pressing need. Middle relief help may not seem like a pressing need at the moment, but I believe it will become one in time. With these things in mind, let’s look at how the Braves might be able to address some of these issues.

Help from the Side

The quickest and most likely way for the Braves to improve is simply by getting back some of their injured players. It didn’t take long for Takashi Saito’s absence in the 8th inning/setup man role to disrupt the Atlanta bullpen. Obviously, getting Saito back from the DL on (hopefully) June 19th will immediately make the Braves bullpen much stronger. The starting rotation should get a similar boost from the return of Jair Jurrjens (hopefully) in a couple of weeks. JJ was not off to a great start to the year before he hurt his hamstring, and there were those who expected his performance to drop off this season, but Jurrjens is certainly a solid middle of the rotation starter. He might not match last year’s numbers, but in his 2 years with the Braves he has gone 27-20 with a 3.10 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP over 65 starts. There’s no reason to think he won’t return to something close to that upon his return. He will give the Braves innings and give the team a chance to win on most nights.

The bullpen will also be aided by the return of Jurrjens, as one of the current starting pitchers will be moved to the pen. While Kris Medlen has certainly proven to be a capable starting pitcher, and I believe his future will eventually be as a starter, I think it will be Medlen that goes to the bullpen and not Kenshin Kawakami. The main reason is that Medlen’s tools just seem to be more of an asset in relief than Kawakami’s. Medlen has also had more experience in a bullpen role and has already shown that he can be successful in that capacity. And the Braves could use another right hander for the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings. Kawakami is 0-8 but he is an acceptable 5th starter. While Medlen might be more valuable as a starter, he does still have significant value as a reliever. Conversely, I don’t think KK would have much value at all in the bullpen.

Offensively, the Braves should also get a boost from a returning player, as Matt Diaz is expected to be back sometime later this summer. Matty was off to a slow start before his injury, but Diaz has proven over the last few years that he can hit. In 1350 plate appearances with the Braves, Diaz has hit .308/.355/.453/.808. That’s a pretty significant sample size. Matty will produce when fully healthy. And Matty’s presence will be particularly helpful to this year’s team, as he is a right handed batter that murders left handed pitching. This could work out very well, as his potential platoon mate in left, Eric Hinske, is a left handed batter who handles righties but is very limited against southpaws. A Hinske/Diaz platoon in left could be very good.

Help from Below

The Braves farm system is in good shape, but I don’t think we can expect much significant help from the minors this year. The main reason is that many of the Braves top prospects are very young players currently in the low minor league levels. They are far from their big league debuts. Most of the highly regarded prospects who are ready for prime time are already there (Hanson, Medlen, Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward). There are several guys in the high minors who might be of some help this year, but even then the contribution might be minimal.

Of the few players who I could see making an impact on the big league level this year, all are pitchers. There’s not a single position player in the Braves minor league system that I could see coming up and being a valuable addition. There are a few pitchers who could help out.

Chris Resop, who pitched briefly for the Braves in 2008, is one of those guys with talent who has never been able to make it happen on the big league level. He rose quickly through the minor league ranks in the Marlins system, but his results at the major league level in 2005 and 2006 ranged from bad to disastrous. He was ineffective for the Braves in 08. He missed all of last season but he has been very good at AAA Gwinnett this year. Resop has worked exclusively as a starter this year, and has gone 5-2 with a 1.84 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP in 13 starts, fanning 81 and walking 27 over 73.1 innings. Resop has never made a start in the majors. It’s possible that he simply has enough stuff and experience to dominate AAA hitters and wouldn’t be any better than before at the big league level. In fact, that seems to be the consensus around Major League Baseball. Resop’s contract stipulates that if he isn’t on the Major League roster by this Tuesday, he has to be traded or allowed to become a free agent. As yet there has been little interest in Resop despite his success at AAA. Right now it looks like he’ll be called up in a few days to replace somebody in the bullpen.

Scott Proctor is a reclamation project who is primarily known for being Joe Torre’s sacrificial lamb in 2006. Proctor pitched in 83 games for the Yankees that year, posting a 3.52 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP over 102.1 innings. He pitched in an additional 3 games and completed 4 innings in the postseason. The Yanks used him 52 more times the next season and then traded him to LA at the deadline, knowing he was just about spent. Proctor fell apart in 2008 and missed all of last year with injuries. The Braves picked him up off waivers last winter. Proctor actually seems like a guy who could get back to being an asset but so far it hasn’t gone well. In 8 games with Gwinnett, Proctor allowed 10 runs on 18 hits and 2 walks over just 8 innings, though he fanned 10. He was shelved for about 6 weeks and is now pitching with Myrtle Beach. He has allowed 1 run over 2 innings in 2 appearances so far.

Vladamir Nunez is another veteran righty who might have something left in him. Nunez is now (at least) 35 and it has been nearly a decade since he was a valuable pitcher in the majors. In 2001 and 2002, Nunez pitched in 129 games for the Marlins, posting a 3.08 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP over 189.2 innings. He saved 20 games in 02, but he fell way off over the next couple of years, and then did not appear in an MLB game from 2005-2007. He pitched in 23 games for the Braves in 2008, posting a 3.86 ERA but with a 1.56 WHIP over 32.2 innings. Last season he was very good in AAA all year but in his only appearance with the big league club he allowed 2 homers and 4 runs in an inning of work. Nunez has dominated for Gwinnett so far this year, throwing 18 innings during 11 appearances, and posting a 2.00 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP with 16 K and 5 BB. Again, who knows how much of this is guile and experience, and how much is Nunez actually having stuff that could get big league hitters out.

The Braves were widely criticized when they selected Vanderbilt pitcher Mike Minor in the 1st round of the draft a couple of years back. A common view was that Minor projected as a soft tossing left hander who would be a back of the rotation guy at best, and that the Braves had picked Minor because he would be easy to sign and relatively cheap. Yet in Minor’s 2nd year of pro ball he is currently leading the entire minor leagues in strikeouts. He is just 1-5 in 12 starts at AA Mississippi, but he has a 4.24 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP, with 93 K and 29 BB over 70 innings. It’s doubtful the Braves would bring him up this season but you never know.

Michael Dunn is a left handed reliever who came over in the Javier Vazquez deal, and he actually might be the guy most likely to help the Braves out this season. Dunn is a flame thrower but he has always had control problems. He struggled in 4 games with the Yankees last year, but he has dominated at AAA Gwinnett this season. Dunn has made 20 appearances and has posted a 0.68 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP with 36 K and 11 BB over 26.2 innings. He has 4 saves.

Stephen Marek and Brandon Beachy are two other relievers having good seasons at the high minor league levels for the Braves this year. There are a few others who are doing well at those levels but they’re unlikely to pitch for the big league club this season.

Help from the Outside

I usually don’t spend much time thinking up different trades that the Braves could potentially make to improve their team. It’s almost silly to speculate on such things, as even the most avid fan really doesn’t know what general managers and other team executives are thinking. It’s not fantasy baseball. I don’t know how aggressive the Braves will be in the trade market, and I don’t know how much money Frank Wren will be allowed to add to the payroll. I also don’t know which players other teams are going to be willing to give up. Having said all of that, we can still look at what teams might be sellers this summer, and which players might be of value to the Braves if they could be acquired.

Right now there are about 6 teams who should be sellers: Baltimore, KC, Cleveland, Houston, Pittsburgh, and Arizona. 3 others could very well join them by the All-Star break: Chicago White Sox, Seattle, and Milwaukee. Others could join this group but for now everyone else still has a reason to think they can contend this season. Honestly, I really don’t see that many guys who seem like they could be on the block and would both help the Braves and be affordable.

There are plenty of middle relief types who could be available but many are perhaps out of the Braves price range. If the White Sox decide to cut their losses, Tony Pena, Matt Thornton, and JJ Putz are all relatively cheap and would not be under contract after this season (excluding club options). Two former Braves—Will Ohman and Octavio Dotel—could also be available and are not under contract after this year (excluding club options).

In terms of position players, the Braves biggest need is an everyday center fielder. There simply aren’t many everyday center fielders who are going to be available. When Wren traded for Nate McLouth last season it appeared that he had found an everyday center fielder, but it hasn’t turned out that way. I had been thinking that McLouth could benefit from a trip to the minors, and I honestly think that might be the reason why they put him on the DL for concussion like symptoms. Melky Cabrera is quite serviceable as a 4th outfielder but he is not an everyday player. Cabrera doesn’t do anything great but he can do a lot of things okay, and that’s the definition of a bench player. The Braves are already going to be going with a platoon in left so they really need to find a center fielder who can play every day. There may not be a guy like that out there who can be had. The Brewers would probably be willing to get rid of Jim Edmonds, but I’m not sure how much interest the Braves would have, considering that they showed no interest this winter. One guy who the Braves might have interest in is David Dejesus, and the Royals are going nowhere this season. Dejesus has played only 3 games in center since the start of the 2009 season, but I don’t think he would be a down grade defensively from Melky or McLouth. Those are really the only guys who seem likely to be available and would be affordable.

Help from Within

The bottom line is that the Braves are probably going to have to help themselves. What I mean is that there aren’t many answers in the minors, and trade options could be limited by the team’s budget restrictions and the lack of available players. If the Braves are going to get help, it will probably have to come by way of key players performing better. There are several players who are currently playing below their usual standard.

Over his first 4 complete seasons (06-09), Brian McCann hit .295/.357/.506/.863. He is currently hitting .268/.393/.429/.822. During his first 2 complete seasons (08-09), Yunel Escobar hit .294/.371/.418/.790 and averaged 12 homeruns. He is currently hitting .243/.351/.289/.641 and has yet to homer. Both of these guys should get going eventually.

Melky Cabrera hit .270/.332/.387/.718 in his first 4 complete seasons (06-09), averaging 9 homers and 11 SB a year. Melky is currently hitting .256/.321/.324/.645 and is on pace to hit just 3 homers and steal 8 bases. Cabrera’s numbers in New York are probably a bit skewed due to the lineup he played in and the fact that his power numbers took a tremendous leap last season when the Yankees began playing at the new, extreme hitter’s park.

I don’t know that we can expect Nate McLouth to get going at any point this year. From 2007-2009, McLouth hit .265/.353/.467/.820 and averaged 31 doubles, 3 triples, 20 homers, and 21 SB a year. So far this season he has hit .176/.295/.282/.577 and was on pace for 25 doubles, 0 triples, 8 homers, and 11 SB before going on the DL on Friday. I’m not expecting McLouth to come back and post an .820 OPS over the rest of the season.

Of far greater concern is the possibility that Chipper Jones may never start playing at a higher level than he has over the first 2 and a half months. Chipper’s production dropped way off last season when he hit .264/.388/.430/.818 with 23 doubles, 18 homers, and 71 RBI. But those numbers look great compared to his stats so far in 2010. Chipper is hitting .228/.375/.341/.716 and is on pace for 9 homers.

I’m starting to think that it’s also pointless to look at Derek Lowe’s past numbers and expect that sooner or later he’ll get back to pitching the way he did for the Dodgers. Lowe is 37 years old now and no longer pitching at Dodger Stadium and against the NL West. From 2005-2008, Lowe posted an ERA of a 3.59 and a WHIP of 1.23 for LA. He’s on pace for a 21-13 season this year, but he has an ERA of 5.04 and a WHIP of 1.45.

If at least a few of these guys start playing to their expected level it will make a major difference.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Braves Blog: Minnesota Series Preview

Minnesota Series Preview

The Braves are 8 games into their longest road trip of the season and so far the road has been tough. They’ve lost their setup man to injury, nearly lost a starting pitcher to an injury on the base paths, and had two outfielders run into each other (nearly resulting in the death of the smaller of the two). They’ve been unlucky, losing 3 games by 1-run. And yet, things could have gone (much) worse. The Braves managed to split both of their 4-game series on this trip. While you’d like to win every series, I thought that splitting both series was a realistic goal going into this tough stretch of games. Yesterday was a huge game, as the Braves had a clear pitching advantage, and the victory allowed them to get through the first two stops of this 3-city road trip with a 4-4 record. If they had lost, 3-5 would have been a big disappointment heading into a tough 3 game series with the Twins in Minnesota this weekend. There would have been pressure to win at least 2 of 3 over the Twins. Splitting the first two series on this trip is all the Braves needed to do. Now they really only need to win one in Minnesota in order to come home with a satisfactory (in my opinion) 5-6 record on this trip.

Minnesota Series Preview

The series with the Twins this weekend will be a tough one. Minnesota is currently 35-25 and they are 20-10 at home. They are a well balanced team, with good pitching, a strong lineup, and a very tough bullpen. Looking at the bright side of things, at least this series will not be played at the Metrodome. The pitching matchups for this weekend are actually not as daunting as they have been for much of this road trip.


Tim Hudson vs. Francisco Liriano

Liriano is the toughest pitcher the Braves will face in the series and the only lefty. Liriano is not quite back to the dominance he displayed before arm injuries a few years back, but he has had a good year so far. He is 5-3 in 11 starts with a 3.10 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP, having struck out 76 over 72.2 innings. Liriano is especially tough on lefties which is bad for the Braves who are a much weaker offensive team against southpaws. Another bit of bad news is that like all 3 of the pitchers the Braves will face in the series, Liriano is a better pitcher at home. He’s 2-1 in 4 home starts with a 2.25 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP over 28 innings. Liriano hasn’t been quite as sharp lately. In his last 6 starts, the lefty is just 1-3 with a 4.66 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP. Liriano will be a challenge. Fortunately, the Braves will have their best pitcher on the mound as well, and Huddy won’t have to deal with the ridiculous surface of the Metrodome.


Derek Lowe vs. Nick Blackburn

Prior to his last start, Lowe had made 3 consecutive solid starts, giving us some hope that he had figured things out. That was before he got beat up by the D-Backs in his last outing on Monday night. Who knows what to expect now. Fortunately, Nick Blackburn is Minnesota’s most average pitcher. A soft tossing right hander, Blackburn is 6-3 in 11 starts on the year, but he has a 5.21 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP, having yielded 93 hits with just 17 K over 67.1 innings. Blackburn was actually pretty good in May, but in his last 2 starts he has allowed 10 earned runs on 20 hits and a walk without striking anyone out over 6.1 innings. However, Blackburn has been significantly better at Target Field this season, going 4-0 in 5 starts there so far, with a 3.31 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP over 35.1 innings.


Kris Medlin vs. Kevin Slowey

The Braves got a major scare on Tuesday night when Medlin injured himself sliding into home plate. For now it appears to be just a scare, as Medlin is expected to make his start on Sunday. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the injury to his non-pitching shoulder has any affect on his performance. Like Blackburn, Slowey is a right handed control pitcher, but he’s much more capable than Blackburn. Slowey is 7-3 in 12 starts this year, posting a 3.45 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP. Slowey is the Twins hottest pitcher at the moment. In his last 3 starts he has allowed just 2 runs on 14 hits and 2 walks over 20.2 innings with 11 strikeouts. And Slowey is also a better pitcher at Target Field, having gone 4-2 in 7 starts there this season, with a 3.16 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP over 42.2 innings.


The Braves have a decent chance of taking 2 of 3 in this series. All things considered, however, a realistic goal is to get out of town with at least 1 win. That may sound like too modest a goal, but this road trip was about treading water, not making hay.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Braves Blog: Arizona Series Preview

Series Preview

The Braves’ long road trip continues this week with a 4-game series in Arizona and a 3-game set at Minnesota. While last weekend’s series in LA could have gone better, the Braves did what they needed to do, and that was get a split. Considering the pitching matchups, how hot LA had been, and the bad luck the Braves encountered, we should probably feel good about getting out of there with 2 wins in 4 games.

The Braves are now 33-24 and 2 games up on the Phillies at the start of play tonight. They have a 14-18 road record. The most challenging part of this week for the Braves will be working around all of the injury issues that they are dealing with right now. They have faced a number of tough pitchers already on this road trip and that will continue throughout the week.

Arizona Series Preview/Pitching Matchups

The Diamond Backs are currently 22-35, having been outscored 335-270, and they are in last in the NL West, 11.5 out of 1st. They are tied with Houston for the worst record in the NL, but they are a .500 team at home. The D-Backs are starting to come out of a hideous stretch of play that saw them lose 10 in a row. They took 2 of 3 from the Rockies this last weekend to snap that skid. And in their last 7 games, they are 2-5, with all 5 losses coming by 1 run. So they aren’t playing terrible baseball.

Offensively, Arizona’s strength is the long ball. They are 3rd in the NL in homers; 4th in BB; and 4th in runs per game. But Zona’s weakness at the plate is related to that free swinging strength, as they lead the league by a wide margin in strikeouts. On the other side, Arizona is a solid defensive team, but they are worst in the NL in runs allowed per game and ERA. And as big of a strength as the home run is for the Snakes offensively, it’s an even bigger weakness as a pitching staff. Arizona has allowed far and away the most home runs in the NL this season.

Strangely, Arizona has some decent pitchers. In fact, the pitching matchups in this series are not that advantageous for Atlanta. I would actually have to say that Arizona has the advantage in the pitching matchup in the first 3 games of the series (Derek Lowe vs. Dan Haren; Kris Medlen vs. Edwin Jackson; Kenshin Kawakami vs. Ian Kennedy), with the Braves having a clear advantage in the finale (Tommy Hanson vs. Dontrelle Willis). The good news is that only Willis is a lefthander.

Haren has not had a good year so far, though it’s difficult to see why. He is 5-4 with a 4.83 ERA and a 1.317 WHIP, despite having struck out 83 while walking only 15 over 82 innings. However, Haren has allowed 93 hits and 16 homers. Haren is coming off of one of his best starts of the year, going 8 shutout innings against the Dodgers his last time out. He did throw a season high 126 pitches in that outing. Jackson is just 3-6 with a 5.33 ERA and a 1.352 WHIP, but he too is coming off of his best start of the year, going 9 shutout innings against the Dodgers, allowing just 3 hits in that game. But like Haren, Jackson threw a season high 123 pitches in that last start. Kennedy has been Arizona’s best starter so far, going 3-3 with a 3.46 ERA and a 1.168 WHIP, though he has allowed 14 bombs. Willis was recently picked up by Arizona after the Tigers gave up on the left hander. In his first start he got the win against Colorado, throwing 6 shutout innings. While Willis may pitch better back in the NL, he wasn’t much better against the Rockies, giving up 5 hits, walking 4, and hitting a batter. That won’t normally equate to a scoreless night.

Outlook: At first glance, I’d like to say that the Braves should come in with the goal of winning at least 3 of 4, and go no worse than 2-2. However, because of the pitching matchups, and the fact that the Braves are nowhere near 100% physically, it might be more realistic to shoot for a split, and hope for better.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Braves Blog: Pleasantly Surprised

What a Month

The Braves have gone from worst to first in just over a month’s time. At the end of play on April 29th, the Braves lost their 9th straight game to fall to 8-14. They had been outscored 81-101 on the year and they were in last in the East, 5 games behind the 1st place Mets, 4.5 behind the Phillies, 4 games behind the Nats, and 3 games behind the 4th place Marlins. They were tied with the Dodgers for last in the National League, 7 games behind the team with the best record.

Since then the Braves have gone 21-8, outscoring opponents 167-102. The Phillies have gone just 16-13 during that same time, and after the Braves beat Philly yesterday they moved a half game ahead of them in 1st place in the East. The win was the Braves’ 6th straight and it pushed their record to 29-22 on the year. They are now 3.5 games ahead of the Nationals, Mets, and Marlins, and they are tied for 4th in the NL (again with LA), just 2 games behind the team with the best record. During their first 22 games, the Braves were outscored by more than 3 runs 5 times. They’ve lost by more than 3 runs just twice in their past 28 games. That’s how you get back in it.

We haven’t had a turnaround like this in a while. The last similar reversal came in 2004 when the Braves started off 33-39, falling into 4th place, and dropping as far as 6.5 out of 1st, before going 63-27 the rest of the way to win the division again. But while the Braves haven’t been this hot since then, it’s not like the Braves are in an unusual place.

In fact, the Braves are not far off from where they have been at this point in each of the 4 seasons since the final division title in 2005. The only major difference is that nobody in the NL East has been better than Atlanta to this point. In 2006, the Braves were 27-24 after 51 games (2 games off the current pace) and in 2nd in the East, 4.5 out of 1st. In 2007, the Braves were 29-22 (the same record they have now) and in 2nd place, 4 games out of 1st. In 2008 the Braves were 28-23 (1 game off the current pace) and in 2nd in the East, 2.5 out. Last year they were 26-25 after 51 games (3 games off the current pace) and in 3rd in the East, 4.5 out of 1st.

I don’t have to remind you that in each of those last 4 seasons the Braves have finished 3rd or worse in the East, finishing below .500 twice, and never winning more than 86 games. Also, in the 2 losing seasons the Braves have had since 1991 (2006 and 2008), the Braves started the season with a poor March/April and then rebounded with a good month of May, just as they did this year (9-14 in April; 20-8 in May). In 2006, the Braves went 10-14 in April and 18-11 in May; in 2008, the Braves were 12-15 in March/April and 17-12 in May. In both cases, the Braves fell back off in June. In ’06, the drop-off was extreme, as the Braves went just 6-21 in June. In 2008, the Braves went just 11-16 in June. In 2006, 2007, and 2008 the Braves best month of the year ended up being March/April or May. Last year was a change, as the Braves’ 17-10 record in September was their best of the year.

I don’t bring all of this up to say that there’s no reason to get excited about this year’s team. It’s just hard to ignore the fact that while this year’s team may FEEL different right now, their season so far has been remarkably similar to the first two months of the last 4 seasons. But there are some reasons to think that that the Braves may have turned a corner. They went 51-36 in their last 87 games last year and their 29-22 start to this year makes them 80-58 (.580) over their last 138 games. If you take away the Braves’ 6 game losing streak to end last season—the last 5 losses of which came after the Braves were eliminated from the postseason—the Braves have gone 80-52 (.606) since the middle of June last year. Again, it’s been awhile since the Braves have had that good of a record over a long period.

Everybody Contributing

This Braves team has had a handful of players having outstanding seasons (Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, Tim Hudson), but mostly the Braves have been getting a little bit from just about everybody. Fortunately, as others have fallen off or missed a game or two with injuries, somebody else has stepped up. Recently, there have been signs that two of the guys expected to carry much of the load for the Braves might be coming around. As I’ve mentioned before, the Braves will not be able to contend if they have to go an entire season without Chipper Jones ever becoming Chipper Jones again. Chipper has started to show signs of life at the plate in the last week or so. Chipper is in a modest hot stretch, going 14 for his last 45 to hit .311/.415/.422/.837 with 2 doubles, a homer, 12 RBI, 8 BB, 7 K, 1 GDP, and 1 SB in 1 attempt. He finally went deep again yesterday for the first time since mid-April, and hopefully he’ll keep rolling from here.

Yunel Escobar is another key player for this Braves team who has struggled so far this year. He also is starting to come out of it a bit. Again, he hasn’t caught fire yet, but he’s 9 for his last 23 with a double, 4 RBI, 3 BB, 1 K, and 0 GDP, hitting .391/.462/.435/.897 during that stretch. Escobar’s defense and focus in all areas of the game seem to improve when he’s hitting well, so getting Esco going is crucial.

I didn’t expect much from Melky Cabrera. I still don’t expect much from Melky Cabrera, but he’s been damn close to decent recently. He’s 13 for his last 31 with 2 doubles, a homer, 2 RBI, a walk, 5 K, and 2 SB in 2 tries. He’s hit .419/.438/.581/1.018 over his last 11 games. He’s bound to struggle because he hacks a lot and doesn’t have much power or speed, but he’s been better than Nate McLouth lately.

Speaking of McLouth...

He looks like he could use a trip to Gwinnett. Honestly, he’s just getting abused at the plate right now. It looked for a moment like he was starting to heat up (or at least defrost a bit), but he’s definitely going wrong way at this point. Nate went 0 for 4 yesterday and in his last 10 games he is 2 for 31 with no EXBH, 3 BB, 10 K, 1 HBP, 2 SH, and 2 SB in 2 attempts. He’s hitting .065/.171/.065/.236 over that stretch. Nate is 3 for 39 with 2 outs. He’s 0 for 13 with 5 K’s and only 1 walk with 2 out and RISP.

Buzz at the Stadium? Maybe, but not yet at the Gate

At the close of the game the other day, Chip Carey was raising his voice and advising viewers that if they hadn’t made it down to Turner Field yet there was starting to be a buzz about this team. That would seem to be true in a way. There are a lot of excited people at Turner Field, but it’s been that way since opening day. The crowds at the Ted are getting better if not bigger. Despite rainy weather and a totally uninteresting opponent, the Braves drew crowds of 29,134 on Saturday night and 31,078 on Sunday. That’s not disappointing in my opinion. And Sunday’s crowd was there to root and not just to watch and eat hot dogs. They booed the umpires, gave Kenshin Kawakami a very nice hand as he left the game, and they were very lively during the top of the 9th. Then on Labor Day the attendance was 42,543. If the Braves keep playing well, maybe the buzz will extend beyond the outfield seats.

As of yet, the “buzz” hasn’t turned into inspiring returns at the gate. The Braves are averaging 28,891 a game, despite home series with the Cubs, Phillies, Mets, and Rockies. They are 14th out of 30 MLB teams in average home attendance. On average, Turner Field has been filled to 57.7% capacity (15th in the MLB). Those numbers are actually down from last season, when the Braves averaged 29,304 a game. Now, attendance is of course affected by school being in or out of session, and there are a million other things that can cause attendance to go up or down. But so far, Jason Heyward, late game dramatics, moderate success on the field, and a tsunami of Bobby Cox promotions has not led to an increase in fans coming out to the Ted. If the season ended today, the Braves would have their lowest average attendance in the history of Turner Field. Hopefully more folks will start coming out as summer gets underway.