Friday, June 5, 2015

Next Up: The Atlanta Braves

Sweeping the Giants at AT&T Park...didn't see that coming. Going into the series, as I noted, the Giants had the best record in the National League over the prior 30 games. Now, the team with the best record in the National League over the prior 30 games is...the Pittsburgh Pirates.

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the past 30 days, there have been four pretty good teams in the National League: the Pirates (17-10), Nationals (16-10), Cardinals, and Giants (both 16-12). There have been four pretty bad teams: the Marlins (9-18), Brewers (10-17, Reds (10-16), and Phillies (11-16). Everybody else is between 13-15 and 15-12. That includes the Braves, 13-13. They've scored 4.1 runs per game, seventh in the league. They've given up 4.3, which is ninth. They're pretty much .500 at everything.

What's Going Right? The offense hasn't been anything special, but over the past 30 days, the Braves have the been the fifth-toughest team to fan, they're tied for fifth with 17 stolen bases, and they've succeeded in 77% of their stolen base attempts, the second-best percentage in the league. The starters' 3.83 ERA is the fifth best in the league over the past 30 days.

What's Going Wrong? The bullpen's got a 5.45 ERA over the past 30 days, easily the worst in the league. The starters have gotten only the eighth-most strikeouts while allowing the fourth-most walks, suggesting that their recent success may not last. The problem on offense has been power: the Braves have 12 homers over the past 30 days, last in the National League, and they and the Padres (17) are the only teams with fewer than 22 homers. 

Who's Hot? Freddie Freeman's bat has carried the offense over the past 30 days: .297/.360/.515 slash line, leading the club in homers (5) and RBI (19). Nick Markakis leads the team in batting average (.320) and on base percentage (.398) and is second in slugging percentage (.430), a function of his team-leading 21 singles and 11 doubles. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons, as usual, provides highlights-reel defense. Starters Shelby Miller, Alex Wood, and Williams Perez have combined for a 5-1 record and 1.80 ERA with two home runs allowed over the past 30 days. The team's two primary setup relievers, Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan, have ERAs of 2.38 and 0.93, respectively, over the past 30 days.

Who's Not? Catchers A.J. Pierzynski and Christian Bethancourt have matching .182 batting averages over the past 30 days. Left fielder Jonny Gomes has a .208/.235/.271 slash line. Alberto Callaspo and his .150/.255/.150 slash line held down third for much of the past 30 days, but he's been traded, with Juan Uribe and Chris Johnson taking over. The starters not named Miller, Perez, or Wood have a 5.87 ERA over the past 30 days.

The facile explanation of the bullpen's struggles is the departure, via a season-opening trade, of closer Craig Kimbrel to San Diego. The Braves' new closer, former Pirate Jason Grilli, hasn't dominated over the past 30 days--4.32 ERA, 4.3 walks per nine innings, .417 batting average on balls in play--but he's 7-for-7 in saves. Kimbrel's been unremarkable over the same period: 3.86 ERA, 3.9 walks per nine, .409 batting average on balls in play, 4-for-5 in saves. So the problem's not Kimbrel's absence. Rather, it's been the bullpen other than Grilli, Johnson, and Avilan: the other Braves relievers have combined for a 7.85 ERA.

What's the Outlook? The Pirates draw two of the Braves' hot starters, Perez and Wood, followed by the inconsistent Julio Teheran (1.08 ERA in his four wins, 7.50 ERA in his two losses and five no-decisions). I wasn't expecting a sweep in San Francisco, and I'm not expecting one in Atlanta, either. The key, it seems to me, will be getting to the Braves' starters early in order to get to the weak middle of the Atlanta bullpen.

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