Thursday, August 28, 2014

Flyover: Atlanta Braves

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month.

The Atlanta Braves are currently 69-64, 11-16 over the past 30 days. They are second in the National League East, 6.5 games behind Washington, and 1.5 games out of the second National League wild card slot, tied with Pittsburgh.

How Are They Doing? The Braves won the division last year but after losing catcher Brian McCann to free agency and starting pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery, a lot of observers (including On The Field of Play) figured they were a second-place team this year. They spent most of the year in first but relinquished the lead on July 21 and have been second to the Nationals ever since. They're tied with the Mets for the fourth-worst record in the league over the past 30 days. The pitching hasn't been bad, allowing the fifth-fewest runs in the league in the past month, but they've scored only 94 runs of late. Only the Diamondbacks have scored fewer. 

What's Going RIght? The starting pitchers have been decent, with a 3.51 ERA over the past month, sixth-best in the league. However, their peripheral stats aren't as impressive: fifth-fewest percentage of batters struck out, fifth-highest percentage of batters walked, middle of the pack in terms of both throwing strikes and getting batters to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone. The bullpen's also had a low strikeout rate and high walk rate. All this suggests that the pitchers have probably been a little bit lucky. 

The offense hasn't been good, but it hasn't been terrible. They've walked in 8.8% of plate appearances, fourth-best in the league, helping Braves batters draw 3.9 pitches per plate appearance, second-most in the league, wearing down opposing pitchers. Braves hitters haven't been hitting a lot of fly balls (31% of batted balls, third-fewest in the league) but when they do, 10.7% go over the fence, the fifth most.

What's Going Wrong? It's hard to score a lot runs when you strike out in 24% of your plate appearances, as the Braves have over the past 30 games. Their .244 batting average is fifth-worst, .314 on-base percentage sixth-worst, and .365 slugging percentage fourth-worst. Their home field, Turner Field, favors pitchers, but only slightly. The offense really has been bad. As for the pitchers, as noted above, the starters haven't struck out a lot of batters and have walked a lot. Based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed, Braves starters have been fourth-worst in the league, belying their sixth-best 3.51 ERA.

Who's Hot? The starting pitchers, other than Aaron Harang (1-2, 4.62 ERA) have been decent, though as alluded to above, every one of them has an ERA that is probably a little lower than it ought to be, given their strikeout, walk, and home run rates. Closer Craig Kimbrel has seven saves and has allowed only five hits in 9.1 innings. Middle relievers David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, and James Russell have pitched 33.2 inning, striking out 29, allowing just 29 baserunners, and compiling a 2.41 ERA.

Left fielder Justin Upton (.313/.402/.606 slash line), first baseman Freddie Freeman (.330/.442/.510), right fielder Jason Heyward (.311/.360/.444), and second baseman Phil Gosselin (.311/.340/.400 in limited play) have all been really good. Upton's hit 7 homers (tied for fourth in the league) and driven in 28 runs (tied for first), and his slugging percentage is third best. With four hitters that good, how can the Braves have a bad offense? Keep reading.

Who's Not? Other than the four batters listed above, the rest of the lineup has been terrible. Catcher Evan Gattis is hitting .227 and has a 29-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last 95 plate appearances. Were he striking out and walking at league-average rates--and remember, this is the league in which pitchers bat--he'd have 20 whiffs and 7 walks. Gosselin's playing because second baseman Tommy LaStella has turned into a pumpkin with a .225 batting average. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons remains astonishingly good in the field, but he's batting only .212. Third baseman Chris Johnson has an OK .250 batting average but over the past month he's gotten only six walks and six extra-base hits, making his batting average empty, not backed up by on-base skills or power. And then there's center fielder BJ Upton, to whom I alluded in the last Trailing 30 report. He's got a .135/.264/.243 slash line over the last 30 games, and has struck out in 34% of his plate appearances. There has been speculation that the Braves might drop him--he's hit .195 in two seasons in Atlanta--but that would mean the Braves would have to eat the remainder of the $13.45 million he's owed this year. And the $14.45 million he's owed next year. And the $15.45 million he's owed in 2016. And the $16.45 million he's owed in 2017. You get the picture. 

As for the pitchers, Kimbrel has struck out "only" ten batters in his 9.1 innings over the past month (his season rate is 14.5 per nine innings) and he's walked seven, none intentionally. He's gotten 45% of his pitches in the strike zone compared to a season average of 49%, possibly indicating a loss of command. Among the starters, Alex Wood (.236), Julio Teheran (.254), and Mike Minor (.247) have given up batting averages on balls in play way below the league average of .292, suggesting that they may have been a little lucky. 

What's the Outlook? It's probably not realistic to expect the Braves to defend their divisional title unless the Nationals collapse. They're still in the hunt for the wild card, though. In order to make it, the starters will need to remain strong, Kimbrel will have to remain unhittable, and somebody other than Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, and Jason Heyward to generate offense. That may be a bit much to ask for.

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