A Huge 10-Game Stretch

I find that almost everyone who blogs about sports inevitably determines that some stretch of games is “pivotal” to the success of a team’s season.  Some plug it early to help define a season.  Others wait until the final stretch where absolute numbers seems to come down to a couple of late games.  Still others find the most pressing/difficult stretch of games to see how a team produces.  Not to be left in the dust, I propose that the next 10 games for the Braves will likely make or break their season.  First, let’s look at what games lie ahead:

Home: 3 games vs. the San Diego Padres

Away: 3 games vs. the Philadelphia Phillies, 4 games vs. the Florida Marlins

As of midnight on 8/24/2009. the Braves trail the Phillies by 6.5 games (8 back in the loss column) in the N.L. East.  With respect to the Wild Card, the Braves trail the Colorado Rockies by 4 and the San Francisco Giants by 3.  We currently have 38 games left in the regular season to make our mark.  By the end of the next 10 games, the Braves will have just 28 games to make any sort of a push and a much smaller margin of error from which to work. 

Here’s why I believe the next 10 games are so important to the season:

3 versus the worst team in the N.L.:

Atlanta starts this stretch versus the Padres who, in my opinion, are the worst team in the National League (if not baseball).  True, the Washington Nationals have a worse record, but let’s consider a few things: 1) The Padres have scored the fewest runs in the Major Leagues this year.  2) Only the Nationals have given up more runs than the Padres in the N.L, and only 4 teams in all of the Majors have given up more runs. 3) The Padres -155 run differential is the worst in the Majors and only Kansas City (-137) are even close. 4) Since the beginning of the season, the Padres have lost Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Brian Giles, and Scott Harriston among others….the team’s really only gotten worse. 

This is a tailor made opportunity for a team like Atlanta to make a mark.  The Padres aren’t  just bad, they’re the worst team in baseball.  If Atlanta can sweep anybody, it should be the San Diego Padres, at home, when they’re the only team playing for anything in the series.

3 versus the team they’re chasing in the N.L. East:

The Braves have played very well versus the Phillies overall this year.  They were helped out at home in the most recent series versus the Phillies when Brad Lidge grabbed a loss from the jaws of victory which would have lead to a Phillies sweep assuming all other things remained constant.  After this week, the Braves have just 3 more games versus the team they’re directly chasing in the N.L. East (Sept. 18-20), and now is the time to strike and provide a greater reason to believe that late September season will remain important. A sweep could potentially leave the Braves nearly 10 games back (and even more in the loss column) and all but end any thought of a divisional crown.

4 versus an inner-division foe and competitor in the Wild Card Race:

Atlanta just finished taking 2-3 from the Marlins, and now we have to turn around and face them 4 more times down in Florida.  The series this weekend was incredibly tight providing every reason to believe these two teams are very evenly matched.  From an emotional standpoint, a sweep or taking 3/4 against the Marlins again this week could effectively 1) bury the Marlins from true consideration in the N.L. East and 2) give the Braves a serious leg up in the Wild Card at least when it comes to outpacing the Marlins while also demoralizing a rather young and inexperienced group that currently calls Landshark Stadium their home field.

The fact is, Atlanta has no games left versus the Giants or Rockies meaning the best we can do is beat up on the other teams closest in the Wild Card standings to ourselves and hope for good results with respect to those opponents.  It’s not ideal, but as the situation stands, the 4 game series versus the Marlins looms large.

Now, some readers who read my “Taking Adages to Task: Parts I and II” might believe that I’m contradicting myself from my previous posts as my message in those posts was essentially that games versus the bad teams and games versus your division don’t matter anymore than the rest of the games.  This is true, but misses the more important point I was making by doing that research, which is (again): Good teams win, bad teams lose regardless of the opponent.  What those posts revealed is that rarely does a team outshine its own ability in such situations but instead tends to mirror the ability of the team overall.  Well, Atlanta’s got a 10-game stretch right now solely against sub-.500 opponents and inner division opponents which a good team will take advantage of and simultaneously up its performance versus those sub-categories of opponents. 

The truth of the matter is now is moving time. While a medicore stretch won’t kill the team, it does make the path infinitely harder. With a 6.5 game lead to overcome inner-division and a 4-game lead and 2 teams to overcome in the Wild Card a 5-5 10 game stretch would likely leave the Braves in no better (if not worse) position with 10 fewer games remaining to make up the difference.  By contrast, a say 8-2 stretch might cut the Phillies lead in half and bring the Braves within just a game or two of the Wild Card which makes the road going forward more interesting.

Since everybody gets to claim a 10-game stretch as the stretch, be on notice:  I contend that by the end of the 4 game series with the Marlins, we’ll know whether Atlanta’s got a shot this year or not.  

Taking Adages to Task: Part II

The Braves and Phillies begin what is being hyped up as a pivotal series this weekend.  No doubt it is.  The Braves need to do well in the series in order to stay viable for an N.L. East Division title.  Head-to-head match-ups are all the more compelling because the swing is more direct.  If you win, the team you need to lose does in fact lose.  This is not necessarily true at any other point in the season.  Of course, a team should always want to win….and this raises the question:  Is this series in the grand scheme of the season anymore important because it’s inner-division versus the team you’re chasing?  From a psychological standpoint, I can appreciate the argument that a later season match-up such as this one is more important.  Since we can’t actually measure “psychological” effect, I now present to you Part II of my “Taking Adages to Task” series. 

 

Today I focus on the second adage: You’ve gotta win games versus the teams in your division.  Again, the goal is not prove/disprove whether this is facially true because it is.  The question I’m addressing is whether these games mean more or seem to make or break a team.  For a run down of what is and is not included in my study, please see my post from 8/8/2009 titled: “Taking Adages to Task: Part I.”  Note:  I did update the 2009 percentages to be current going into action on 8/14/2009.   I wanted to in particular see whether there was an appreciable difference in the data between the 1991-2005 Braves (What I call the “Dynasty” Braves) and the 2006-2009 Braves (The “Modern” Braves).  Without further adieu, here is what I found:

 

The first thing I was interested in doing was basically replicating what I did in Part I by comparing the Braves teams’ winning percentage in a given season versus their winning percentage inner-division in the same season.  Table 1 shows the results for the “Dynasty” Braves, while Table 2 shows the results for the “Modern” Braves.  The numbers indicate a very similar pattern to those discovered for the Braves’ performance versus sub-.500 teams.  Regardless of whether the team is winning pennants or hovering in mediocrity, they generally do very similar inner-division to how they do overall.  Of the 18 seasons I looked at, in eleven seasons the team won at the same rate inner-division as overall within 3 percentage points. Regardless of the differential, the team “outperformed” in 50% of the seasons and “underperformed” in 50% of the seasons. The same holds true for the Braves’ run of 14 division titles.  In 50% they “outperformed,” and in 50% they “underperformed.” 

 

I’ll now show the tables and then discuss the data a bit more.

 

Table 1:  1991-2005 Braves Record/Win Percentage Overall Compared to Versus Division. 

 

Year

Overall Record

vs. Division

Win Pct. Overall

Win Pct. vs. Division

1991

94 – 68

51-39

58.0%

56.67%

1992

98 – 64

58-32

60.5%

64.44%

1993

104 – 58

55-23

64.2%

70.51%

1994

NA

NA

NA

NA

1995

90 – 54

31-21

62.5%

59.62%

1996

96 – 66

32-20

59.3%

61.54%

1997

101 – 61

29-19

62.3%

60.42%

1998

106 – 56

30-18

65.4%

62.5%

1999

103 – 59

35-16

63.6%

68.63%

2000

95 – 67

27-24

58.6%

52.94%

2001

88 – 74

42-34

54.3%

55.26%

2002

101 – 59

47-28

63.1%

62.67%

2003

101 – 61

41-35

62.3%

53.95%

2004

96 – 66

51-25

59.3%

67.11%

2005

90 – 72

42-33

55.6%

56%

 

Table 2:  2006-2009 Braves Record/Win Percentage Overall Compared to Versus Division

 

Year

Overall Record

vs. Division

Win Pct. Overall

Win Pct. vs. Division

2006

79 – 83

35-38

48.8%

47.95%

2007

84 – 78

39-33

51.9%

54.17%

2008

72 – 90

31-41

44.4%

43.06%

2009

60-54

22-15

52.6%

59.46%

 

Seasons WPctDiv = WPctOver (within 3 points):                                                   11

Seasons WPctDiv  >  WPctOver:                                                                              9

Seasons WPctOver > WPct Div:                                                                               9

 

Comparing the “Dynasty” to the “Modern”: 

What the data demonstrates is that success or failure was not determined by the play inner-division.  Sure, the team faired worse inner-division, but the same rings true overall.  While the use of unbalanced schedules in the “Modern” era means that inner-division results matter more, they don’t demonstrate the Braves were otherwise doing any better versus the Central, West, or in Interleague during the time period.  Additionally, the 1991-1993 Braves who played in a two-division National League actually had an even greater impact occur inner-division, and yet, there’s not a drastic change in the results.  The adage simply doesn’t hold up because inner-division games only tend to reflect a team’s overall success rather than define it.

 

The next thing I wanted to know was whether the Braves’ performance inner-division could ever be said to be a determinative factor in one of their division titles.  “Determinative” is a bit of a misnomer as so many things go into a season that trying to claim that a particular sub-set of stats or results is the determinative factor is nearly impossible.  Nonetheless, I looked at the “Dynasty” Braves to see where we might be able to claim that inner-division performance really made the difference.  What I did was look at the 1991-2005 timeframe and then reduced the seasons considered to those 7 seasons where the Braves “outperformed” their overall win percentage inner-division.  I did this because those are the only 7 seasons that we can possibly attribute their eventual title to the performance inner-division.  In the other 7 seasons performance within the division actually reduced the number of wins they had.

 

In order to evaluate the seasons, I kept the number of games played inner-division constant and then reduced the win total inner-division so that the Braves’ winning percentage in that subset was equal to or lower than their overall winning percentage.  Table 3 presents this data.  You’ll see in the Table the number of games the Braves won the division by in the 3rd column.  The last column indicates the number of extra wins they received by outperforming within their division:

 

Table 3:  “Dynasty Braves” Division Pennants in Seasons With Increased Inner-Division Win Percentage

 

Year

Overall Record

Games Div. Won By:

Win Pct. Overall

Win Pct. vs. Division

Games Extra Div.

1992

98 – 64

8

60.5%

64.44%

4

1993

104 – 58

1

64.2%

70.51%

5

1996

96 – 66

8

59.3%

61.54%

1

1999

103 – 59

6.5

63.6%

68.63%

2-3

2001

88 – 74

2

54.3%

55.26%

< 1

2004

96 – 66

10

59.3%

67.11%

6

2005

90 – 72

2

55.6%

56%

< 1

 

So what does this table mean, and more importantly, what does the one bolded row mean?  The one bolded row, the 1993 season, represents the only season in the Braves 14 year run that we can possibly attribute directly the Braves’ inner-division success to the eventual division title.  That 1993 year was the only time in the Braves’ 14 consecutive division titles that the team picked up enough additional wins inner-division to make the difference for a division title.  Of course, since the 1993 season was decided by just 1 game, there are a myriad of subcategories that we might look at to represent the difference between winning and losing the division.  2001 and 2005 were both very close pennant races, and yet the Braves’ performance inner-division in those seasons are two of the closest comparisons that are found in the entire set.

 

From a sentimental/nostalgic standpoint, that 1993 season was incredibly memorable as the pennant was decided on the 162nd game of the season.  The Braves defeated the (then inner-division) Colorado Rockies while the (then inner-division) San Francisco Giants lost to the (then inner-division) Los Angeles Dodgers to give the Braves their third-straight division title.  Such dramatic and memorable moments are probably a major reason why sportswriters and fans focus so much on inner-division opponents.  What I believe my data reveals though is that situation had more to do with luck and circumstance (though MLB generally does try to have inner-division games late in the season), then with the increased importance of such games.

 

The final thing I wanted to know was whether the “Dynasty” Braves did something unique inner-division that the “Modern” Braves have not done.  The results here are somewhat mixed.  Table 4 shows the winning percentages versus the teams in the division based off of where the opponent finished in the division.  I’ll again note that I did not include the 1994 season in this data as it just seemed like an outlier for the 1991-2005 set on the whole:

 

Table 4:  Braves Win Percentages versus Inner-Division Opponents:

 

v. Final Standing

“Dynasty” 1991-2005

“Modern” 2006-2009***

1st Place

NA

42.86%

2nd Place

53.88%

50.79%

3rd Place

58.06%

55.56%

4th Place

61.36%

53.33%

5th Place

65.91%

52.31%

6th Place*

77.55%

NA

7th Place**

69.23%

NA

                        * – Accounts for the years of 1991-1993 when there were two divisions

                        ** – Accounts for 1993 versus the then expansion Rockies

                        *** – 2009 based on: Phillies (1), Marlins (2), Braves (3), Mets (4), Nationals (5)

 

I think what Table 4 demonstrates is that the Braves’ performance overall cannot be pegged down based on their performance versus inner-division opponents.  The “Modern” Braves have a cumulative winning percentage of 49.17%, and that’s basically what they’ve done inner-division.  The major difference being that they don’t beat up on the lesser-teams at the same rate as they did when they were winning division titles.  To me, the most notable thing is that inner-division the Braves no longer demonstrate the same upward success as the opponent gets worse inner-division as they did when they were in the “Dynasty” period.  During the “Dynasty” period, the Braves showed an ability to really dominate the bad teams in the division essentially averaging a 2-1 three game series versus the 4th-7th place teams.  The “Modern” Braves have not had that same average.  What we might be able to say is that the “Modern” Braves fail at beating up on the inner-division sub-.500 opponents the way we did when a division pennant was the norm. 

 

Conclusion:  I’ll keep this short.  What Part I and II demonstrate on total is, once again, that good teams win, bad teams lose….regardless of opponent.  While performance versus sub-.500 teams and versus inner-division opponents might be nice talking points for talking heads, the reality is that (at least for the Braves) performance versus the two most prominent “adages” does NOT define how the team performed overall.

 

As always, for my 5 readers, comments, criticism, and debate are always welcome.

Taking Adages to Task: Part I

There are many theories about what makes a team good.  Most of the meaningful analysis looks at the performance of the individual players and then attempts to see whether a team is playing up to snuff.  However, there are many individuals: sportswriters, fans, analysts, whomever, who focus on the results a team achieves in particular situations.  There are two adages that you hear about all the time that have particularly intrigued me:

 

  1. You’ve gotta win the games versus the bad teams, and
  2. You’ve gotta win games versus the teams in your division.

 

I don’t per se disagree with either of these two things.  Namely, you are always better off winning a game than losing it. Results though are merely the culmination of all the little things that happen within a game and just dumb luck.  However, I still wanted to know: Is there real truth that winning games in these two categories is somehow more important than the rest of the games? Can a mediocre team overcome their mediocrity simply by looking like the 1927 Yankees versus the bad teams?

 

With these questions in mind, I set out to look at the Braves performance versus these categories of teams during their epic 14 year division run and then compare it to the “modern” Braves of 2006-present day.  At the end of everything, I don’t think there’s much to the mantras.  I present to you the data from this period as an empirical look at the Braves performance from 1991-2009 though so that you can make your own conclusions.

 

A couple of things to point out up front.  First, when examining #1 (“You’ve gotta win the games versus the bad teams), I chose to define this category as teams that finished with a record at the end of the year below .500.  It seemed to me, the teams you should handle the best are the teams that were in fact beat more often than they won over the course of an entire year.  If a team finished with exactly a .500 record, I excluded them from the data which I present.  Additionally, I did not include the Braves performances in interleague play.  Many times, the Braves might only have played 3 games versus such a team.  Additionally, if that interleague opponent had a below .500 record, it resulted primarily from games versus dissimilar opponents. I acknowledge that there probably were a few N.L. teams that finished with below .500 records which might be traced to their record in interleague play, but the majority of their games were played versus N.L. opponents, so I didn’t mind including them.

 

With respect to #2 (“You’ve gotta win games versus the teams in your division”), the analysis was somewhat complicated by the Braves switching from the West to the East and Major League Baseball’s switch to 3-division leagues and unbalanced schedules.  With those considerations in mind, I did not sort the data by team.  In other words, you won’t see the Braves record versus the Mets or versus the Marlins listed explicitly.  Instead, I simply list their performance versus inner-division opponents based on the where their opponent finished in the standings.  Thus, you’ll see the Braves record versus the “2nd place team” or the “5th place team” without reference to who exactly that team was.

 

Some like to point out particular troubles certain teams gave the Braves through the years. Most prominently, the Marlins come to mind. However, looking at the actual stats, I’m not convinced there was any real pattern there to begin with (more likely just selective memory winning out), but also, teams are not static. Regardless of how the Braves faired versus the Marlins, since there is little value in trying to make comparisons between the1997 World Series Champion version and the 1998 fire sale version, any struggles the Braves may have had versus a particular team will only be reflected by a diminished win percentage versus a particular “place.”

 

Finally, I should admit that I did not include data from the 1994 strike cut off season. For the Braves “dynasty” run, it provided just a strange outlier situation since that would be the sole season from 1991-2005 that the Braves would have any sort of record versus a team that finished “first” in the division. It all seemed fair that since the season was cut off arbitrarily it would be difficult to know exactly which teams were sub-.500 teams versus those that may have just hit a bad stretch right before the strike.  1995, despite the strike shortened season, is included since there was a pennant race and playoffs.  The only place that the 1994 data is included is as part of the benchmark for the Braves overall record and win percentage from 1991-2005.

 

My charts are split into two time periods: 1991-2005 and 2006-present.  The “present” data includes results through Wednesday August 5, 2009.  I acknowledge that the same “incomplete set” problem occurs with 2009 that I used to omit the 1994 results, but since 2006-present is a much shorter period of time with fewer results to work from, I wanted to expand the results I could use as much as possible. 

 

Phew, with all of that said, I’ll now present the various charts, and then discuss what I could and could not glean from all of this:

 

Table 1:  1991-2005 Braves results versus sub-.500 teams:  The label is fairly descriptive.  What you’ll see is the year, the Braves’ overall record by year, the Braves’ win percentage for the full year, the Braves’ record versus sub-.500 opponents, and the Braves’ win percentage versus those opponents.

 

Year

Overall Record

vs. sub-.500

Win Pct. Overall

Win Pct. sub .500

1991

94 – 68

58 – 44

58.0%

56.86%

1992

98 – 64

46 – 26

60.5%

63.89%

1993

104 – 58

55 – 20

64.2%

73.33%

1994

NA

NA

NA

NA

1995

90 – 54

54 – 31

62.5%

63.53%

1996

96 – 66

45 – 30

59.3%

60%

1997

101 – 61

64 – 16

62.3%

80%

1998

106 – 56

55 – 25

65.4%

68.75%

1999

103 – 59

62 – 36

63.6%

63.27%

2000

95 – 67

48 – 33

58.6%

59.26%

2001

88 – 74

41 – 27

54.3%

60.29%

2002

101 – 59

57 – 36

63.1%

61.29%

2003

101 – 61

37 – 16

62.3%

69.81%

2004

96 – 66

45 – 23

59.3%

66.18%

2005

90 – 72

29 -19

55.6%

60.42%

TOT

1363 – 885

696 – 382

60.63%

64.56%

 

I’ve bolded the highest totals for each category for ease of use.  Also, the reason the win percentages are a bit further developed for the sub-.500 teams is that I calculated all of those percentages myself while the overall percentage was just the win percentage as listed on baseball-reference.  Thanks to baseball-reference generally for providing all of the numbers which I used.

 

Table 2: 2006-2009 Braves results versus sub-.500 teams:  This sets forth the same data as Table 1, but for the “Modern” Braves as opposed to the “Dynasty” Braves.

 

Year

Overall Record

vs. sub-.500

Win Pct. Overall

Win Pct. sub .500

2006

79 – 83

43 – 40

48.8%

51.8%

2007

84 – 78

37 – 32

51.9%

53.6%

2008

72 – 90

22 – 29

44.4%

43.1%

2009

55 – 53

21 – 21

50.5%

50%

TOT

289 – 304

123 – 122

48.74%

50.20%

 

Table 3: 1991-2005 Braves Win Percentages vs. sub.-500:  Table 3 is going to present the same data as Table 1, but in a slightly different format.  I’m doing it to give everyone a different way of thinking about the numbers as well as to help me demonstrate a point.

 

Year

Total Games Played

Games v. sub.500

Pct. of total games v. sub. 500

Pct. of total wins v. sub. 500

1991

162

102

62.96%

61.70%

1992

162

72

44.44%

46.94%

1993

162

75

46.30%

52.88%

1994

NA

NA

NA

NA

1995

144

85

59.03%

60%

1996

162

75

46.30%

46.88%

1997

162

80

49.38%

63.37%

1998

162

80

49.38%

51.89%

1999

162

98

60.49%

60.19%

2000

162

81

50%

50.53%

2001

162

68

41.98%

46.59%

2002

160

93

58.13%

56.44%

2003

162

53

32.72%

36.63%

2004

162

68

41.98%

46.88%

2005

162

48

29.63%

32.22%

TOT

2248

1078

47.95%

51.06%

 

Table 4: 2006-2009 Braves Win Percentage vs. sub.-500:  And finally, here is the same numbers as Table 3 for the “Modern” Braves:

 

Year

Total Games Played

Games v. sub.500

Pct. of total games v. sub. 500

Pct. of total wins v. sub. 500

2006

162

83

51.23%

54.43%

2007

162

69

42.59%

44.05%

2008

162

51

31.48%

30.56%

2009

108

42

38.89%

38.89%

TOT

594

245

41.25%

42.56%

 

Observations:  I had no idea what I was going to find when I did this, but I think the results really speak to the fact that teams do not make up for deficiencies merely by playing “better” versus sub-.500 teams.  There were very few seasons in the entire data set that demonstrated the Braves upping their performance by “beating up” on the bad teams.  Instead, in most seasons, regardless of whether you’re looking at the “Dynasty” Braves or the “Modern Braves,” the performance versus the sub.-500 teams tended to mirror the team’s overall performance. 

 

For the entire period of 1991-2005, the team played basically 48% of its games versus sub-.500 teams and got basically 51% of its wins.  In other words, while the team did slightly better versus those teams, they by no means “beat up” on the bad ones in order to improve their record. 

 

The only thing that really is certain, is there’s no way before a season is over to even have an idea about how many games a team will have versus the “bad.”  This is reflected in Table 3.  The Braves played anywhere from 62.96% (1991) of its games versus the “bad” to just 29.63% (2005). It’s a bit ironic that the bookend years also bookend the difference in chances.  The chances are just unpredictable meaning the best strategy would, as one might expect, play every game to win it. 

 

So what about comparing the “Dynasty” Braves to the “Modern” Braves?  Is there any real difference?  “No” is the answer I come to.  Though the Braves as a whole were more mediocre or plain bad, their performance versus the “bad” teams still reflected their overall performance.  The major difference between the two is the number of chances the Braves seem to be getting versus the “bad” teams.  From 2006-2009, the Braves have played roughly 8% fewer games on average versus the “bad” teams.  This got me to thinking about why this is.  As best I can tell, there are three possible explanations for this phenomenon: 1) The National League being more even with fewer dominant teams meaning fewer teams finishing below .500.  However, looking at my hard data set, this does not seem to be the case.  The Braves have played roughly the same number of teams per season with a losing record, they’re just getting fewer chances. 

 

So, maybe it’s explained by 2) The N.L. East in particular has been better, and with unbalanced schedules the Braves are playing more games inner-division versus better opponents.  This might explain some of it, as the N.L. East does seem to be a little bit better in recent years.  To be fair, that’s merely an impression rather than a fact.  However, it then struck me that the simplest answer might be the right answer:

 

The Braves as a worse team in the time period both lose games versus an opponent of their own caliber in the analysis, AND they don’t beat the teams in the East as consistently to provide more games versus sub-.500 opponents.  While it’d take a lot more work to really know whether that’s true, it’s undeniable that the Braves beating everyone less over the “Modern” period plays a role in the number of chances they get versus sub-.500 teams.

 

To conclude this segment, let’s take a brief look at the one team from the “Dynasty” that did appreciably beat up on the lesser teams to beef up its own record:  The 1997 Braves.  Here for your consideration is the team’s record versus the individual bad teams they played that year:

 

Year

Team

W

L

WPct.

1997

MON

10

2

 

 

PHI

10

2

 

 

PIT

10

2

 

 

CIN

9

2

 

 

STL

8

3

 

 

CHC

9

2

 

 

SDP

8

3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOT

64

16

0.8

 

That, to me, is amazing that they just whooped all of the bad teams winning at least 8 games versus every one of them and losing no more than 3 games to any of them.  The problem is…..teams just don’t do that on a regular basis (or at least the Braves) to make the mantra true that “you gotta win the games versus the bad teams.”  Instead good teams win, bad teams lose….no matter who the opponent.

 

I’ll explore the 2nd adage in a segment to come in the next few days.  Be patient though as I’m both in the process of moving and starting a new job which may delay my opportunity to write.  For now, as always, comments, feedback, and criticism are all welcome!

Ticked!

So, not only did my computer decide to arbitrarily die in the middle of typing a very long post, but Soriano blew a save again……I’ll be able to fix the computer turning off thing tomorrow, but that loss hurts.  Good night for now.

A Tribute to Skip Caray

Watching the Braves broadcast tonight, Joe Simpson reminded me that tonight is the one year anniversary of Skip Caray’s death. It seemed to be a fitting time to briefly talk about one of the announcers whose voices I associate so strongly with the Atlanta Braves.

Skip Caray was not always the most likeable personality to listen to on a broadcast. He was somewhat short-tempered, seemed to lose focus, and utilized an ascerbic wit that did not always translate to a television broadcast. That’s probably why I liked him so much.

Though I attempt to be neutral when posting/blogging online, in person, I’m a very sarcastic person. This can cause me a decent amount of discomfort around others as sarcasm is an acquired taste. There are many who find such “wit” to be mean-spirited or who simply do not get it at all. For those of us who utilize sarcasm, there’s nothing more frustrating than making such a comment and looking across to find a blank stare on the face of the person to whom the comment was addressed. It’s tough, and over time I find myself more selectively utilizing sarcasm depending on the audience I’m talking to.

Enter Skip Caray. There was something about Skip that made him fun to listen to. He had an opinion on just about everything, and if his co-announcer didn’t share the same opinion, he had no qualm telling them about it. In addition to that, he never backed off the sarcasm, and it did go over the average Braves listener on many an occasion. I was definitely a victim of his sense of humor. I can’t tell you how long it actually took me to realize that when he said: “And a nice catch was made by a fan from Macon” that he had no idea who that person was. Instead, I tended to wonder “how does he always know the person who caught the ball???” In his later years, Skip did seem to lose interest in the games at various points. He wasn’t a stats guy, and he wasn’t student of the history of the game. Instead, he was always Skip Caray, for better or worse.

Rather than rely upon the history or stats, Skip relied upon his own anecdotes from his time covering baseball. That is a quality which is much rarer than I ever appreciated when he passed away. However, he seemed to have an amazing memory for the stories which he experienced first hand, and he had a great ability to remember a story to go with a particular moment. It’s a skill that many of the older generation of broadcasters such as Skip and Vin Scully and Harry Kalas seemed to possess that has not translated as well to the current generation. The color analysts like Joe Morgan (sigh) attempt to recount anecdotes, but they lack the timing, delivery, and recognition of the relevance to make it worthwhile. Play-by-play broadcasters more and more seem to come from a “mold.” They’re smooth, they’re polished, and tend to know what the “right” (read: politically correct) thing to say is in a particular situation. Skip possessed none of those qualities.

Often rough around the edges and not afraid to speak to his mind, Caray was a joy to listen to that I miss dearly. I listen to the radio very little, and I listen to it even less now that the “Skip Caray Show” isn’t on. I can remember tuning into his show on the way home from work (generally while trapped on I-75) just to listen to him field questions from his audience. When Skip got a dumb question, or a question he’d answered a million times, or a question that just didn’t make sense, he didn’t refrain from venting his frustration. Be it a long sigh before answering or a short, curt response, Skip did not stray away from even letting his listeners know when they had crossed the line into idiocy. My Dad hated this quality about him….I loved it.

Not everyone can pull off what Skip Caray did. Many would just come off as jerks and be dismissed in a second. However, underlying his personality was a man who clearly loved baseball and invested himself in the team that he followed. He got criticized by those in his profession for being too biased towards “his” team, but that, to me, is the essence of what a hometown announcer should be. He rarely yelled or got excited, but at all times, he was Skip Caray.

On this one year anniversary of his death, I salute him for the unique and memorable individual that he was.

A Modest Proposal

According to recent reports, Tim Hudson is scheduled to begin a minor league rehab assignment beginning July 19.  Assuming all goes well, he’d be expected to be out roughly a month and return sometime in late august.  The question then becomes “what to do with the Braves rotation?”  Right now, this is so far off that deciding “what to do” seems a bit premature.  Hudson could be set back and miss the entire season.  Another Braves starter could go down with injury or be traded.  However, for the purpose of this article, let’s assume that things go according to plan.  Now, some might question why to assume the best.  Very rarely is this a good thing to do, but you never can tell when contingencies will become reality.  I would like to propose, based off the status quo, that the Braves go with a 6-man rotation from that point forward.

A 6-man rotation?  You MUST be out of your mind.  Well, thank you subconscience, I did need a good reality check.  However, I believe there are legitimate reasons to do this.  Let me list them out, and I will then explore each one in more detail:

1. Tim Hudson will be coming off a big-time surgery.  To expect him to go out there once every 5 games and be effective is a bit optimistic.

2. If we’ve got the ability to add another quality starter to the rotation, there’s no reason to overtax Tommy Hanson’s young and promising arm.

3. With August 25th the “earliest” possible comeback and with rosters expanding on September 1st, the Braves should not feel the need to move any of their starters from the rotation just to preserve the bullpen.

4. Kenshin Kawakami comes from the Japanese league where he’s used to extra rest.  In his first season in the majors, why not protect him at the end this season?

5. Jair Jurrjens pitched 188.1 IP as a 22 year old.  Let’s back off the throttle just a bit.

You may notice a common theme among my reasons: To protect our starters’ arms down the stretch.  If Hudson can comeback on time, the Braves are in a unique position to protect 2 young and promising starters and protect their recent Japanese investment without having to compromise the competitiveness of this year’s team. This is a unique opportunity which the Braves should take advantage of if presented with the situation. 

I call this the “Modest Proposal” because it speaks to modesty in use of our starters from late August going forward.  Baseball has become an ever-increasingly specialized sport, and pitchers just don’t seem to have the ability to eat innings the way they used to.  I have NO clue what the reason for this phenomena is.  FYI:  In 1974, Nolan Ryan pitched 332.2 innings.  He made 41 starts.  Ryan and Frank Tanana made 81 starts that year which was 10 more starts than the next 3 highest starters of the 1974 Angels. Ryan was 27 years old at the time. (I use this example because I don’t consider 1974 so incredibly far off that it’s a completely irrelevant comparison).

Modern conventional wisdom says that the 5-man rotation is now the “norm” because it balances the concerns of 1) Not overusing your best pitchers, but 2) still getting them into enough games to make an impact, and 3) maximizing effectiveness. For Atlanta, they are scheduled to have 38 regular season games from August 25th to the end of the regular season.  With a 5 man rotation, you’d expect each starter to make 7 starts and 3 to make 8.  With a 6-man rotation, you’d have each starter make 6 starts and 2 make 7.  There’s not a drastic enough difference to be concerned with not “getting your best” out there, but you can eliminate anywhere from 10-20 innings for your chosen pitchers.  It’s a modest change, but makes a lot of sense. With that said, let’s look at the reasons I previously mentioned.

1. Tim Hudson will be coming off a big-time surgery.  To expect him to go out there once every 5 games and be effective is a bit optimistic:

Hudson underwent Tommy John surgery on August 8th, 2008.  He’d be close to 13 months out from the time of the operation if things go according to plan for his first start in the majors this year.  While pitchers are now able to come back from this type of surgery faster than in the past, there’s no real good predictor of just how effective they can be right away.  Recent examples just from the Braves are Mike Gonzalez and Peter Moylan who have taken longer than a year to truly recover from the procedure.  Assuming Hudson feels okay, it’s still likely to take a bit of time to be a great starter again.  You simply cannot be out of a field as competitive as Major League Baseball for a year and expect to comeback without a hitch even assuming full health.  As Braves fans, we should hope for the best.  However, Hudson is a human and should be expected to experience some bumps in the road.  There’s no real upside to giving him one or two more starts at the end of this season.  The Braves starting pitching has been very good for the most part, and taking a start away from any of them to give “Hudson off of injury” one more 6 inning appearance is a mistake.  Even if Hudson is at his best, he’s only going to be influencing likely one more game in a 5-man rotation than he would in a 6-man.  Why not take the cautious approach in such a situation?

2. If we’ve got the ability to add another quality starter to the rotation, there’s no reason to overtax Tommy Hanson’s young and promising arm:

Let’s quickly take a look at professional innings Hanson has thrown (excluding Fall League) since joining the Braves:

2006: 51.2 

2007: 133.0

2008: 138.0

2009: 107.1 (to this point)

Again, at the earliest, Hudson is basically going to be due back in a little over a month from the time of Hanson’s next scheduled start.  From June 7th (Hanson’s debut) to July 9th (Hanson’s last start before the All-Star Break), he threw 41.0 innings.  Let’s assume he gives the Braves the exact same number of innings from his next start ’til August 25th.  He would already be at a professional high of 148.1 IP.  The catch being that there would still be another month left in the season.  Assuming he did another 41 IP from there on out, he would be at nearly 190 professional innings this year, which is a somewhat alarming jump.  Last year, the Braves permitted 22 year old Jair Jurrjens to pitch 188.1 innings, but that had a lot to do with circumstance as much as anything.  With Smoltz, Glavine, and Hudson all going down with season ending injuries, Jurrjens was forced to pitch more innings than even Atlanta likely would have liked.

Tommy Hanson won’t be 23 until August 28th of this year.  If the Braves have an opportunity of hacking off 20 or 30 innings from my projections, they should welcome that opportunity.  A change from 138 IP to 160 or 170 IP looks a lot better for Hanson’s future health.  Some might suggest: “Well, if that’s the concern, the Braves should just move him to the bullpen,” but that leads me to my third point…. 

3.  With August 25th the “earliest” possible comeback and with rosters expanding on September 1st, the Braves should not feel the need to move any of their starters from the rotation just to preserve the bullpen:

Hudson’s comeback in late August would be at an opportune time as Major League rosters exapnd to the 40-man roster on September 1st.  With Bobby Cox’s much written about overuse of relievers, I’d generally be against using an extra starter at the expense of having one less reliever.  However, with the normal September expansion, the Braves would have the ability to use a 6-man rotation without compromising bullpen depth.  Moreover, I do not like the notion of moving Hanson to the bullpen.  Promising young pitchers like Joba Chamberlain, Brandon Morrow, and (to an extent) David Price have suffered from having their roles moved around.  Hanson’s switch to the bullpen would not be like those aforementioned players, but why get him out of the custom of being a starter if there’s a legitimate alternative?  I personally have also advocated for possibly moving Kenshin Kawakami to the bullpen in the past, but he’s been pretty darn good of late.  Speaking of Kawakami, let’s discuss him…

4. Kenshin Kawakami comes from the Japanese league where he’s used to extra rest.  In his first season in the majors, why not protect him at the end this season?

 Japanese leagues typically use a 6-man rotation rather than a 5-man rotation from the outset.  Kawakami turned pro in 1998.  Since then, he has pitched more than 170 IP in just 4 of 11 professional seasons.  He’s thrown more than 190 IP in just 2 of 11 seasons.  His career high came in 2006 when he threw 215.0.  However, he appeared in just 29 games that year.  This year, he’s appeared in 16 games for a total of 88.2 IP.  While he has not shown a noticeable bias between 5 or 6 days of rest, he’s just 13 games away from matching his career high in terms of appearances.  He’s gone more than 6 innings just twice this year, which is part of the reason that his innings are under control.  KK is 33 years old though, and he has experienced some minor injuries this year.  If the Braves had to go with a 5-man rotation, he should be fine in terms of endurance, but again, the Braves could be presented with a special opportunity.  The Braves have roughly $13.5 million invested for the next two years in Kawakami, and he only gets older from here on out (Wow!  I’m a mathematical genius.)  For a player of Kawakami’s age and previous experience with professional pitching, a chance to limit his innings should only be seen as a plus whenever practicable. So we finally move onto my final point….

5. Jair Jurrjens pitched 188.1 IP as a 22 year old.  Let’s back off the throttle just a bit:

Along with Hanson, Jair is clearly the guy that can benefit from a 6-man rotation the most.  At just 23 years of age, he has not reached his physical maturity, and overtaxing pitchers early in a career is just not a good idea (See: Mark Prior).  As I stated earlier, Jurrjens pitched 188.1 innings as a 22 year old, but that was due to circumstance as much as anything.  As of July 18, 2009, Jurrjens has now pitched 120.1 innings this year.  He’s still only 23 years old and is clearly a big part of the team’s long term success.  Even limiting his innings from here on out, he’s likely to be very close to his 188 innings of a year ago, and this is a bit troubling.  Jurrjens is not a terribly big guy, and he’s still very young.  While he’s got all the potential you could hope for, a reasonably healthy Tim Hudson can approximate his performance and spare the guy from going over 200 innings at such a young age.  Pulling off the throttle can only help to preserve Jurrjens for years down the road.

I’m not saying this what must happen, but I think it’s a darn good proposal.  Lowe and Vazquez are established pitchers with good track records of endurance.  That’s the exact reason that Wren went out and got these guys.  However, with 3 pitchers in the rotation with limited innings exposure and one guy potentially coming off of major surgery, why not let those 4 all pitch to help protect each other? 

Let me know what you think!  Comments, agreement, and criticism are all welcome. 

Remembering a Great to Discuss a (Hopefully) Future Great

On the eve of the night when the Atlanta Braves will retire the jersey #31 of Greg Maddux, it seems like a great opportunity to discuss some of what made Greg Maddux successful.  For a nice write up on his career and numbers, I’ll direct viewers to a post recently put up by blogger “Moneyball,” which can be found here.  I’d like to discuss a very particular part of his game rather than his career, which goes without saying was spectacular.

When you read or hear people talk about Greg Maddux the description tends to go something like this: “Maddux didn’t have overwhelming stuff, he beat you with smarts, guile, and an amazing understanding of how to pitch batters.”  While I don’t disagree with any of these statements per se, I do believe the assumption that Maddux “didn’t have great stuff” is a bit misleading.  True, he did not have a 96 mph fastball (Please see my previous post entitled This One Counts…Or at least shows up on a radar for a bit more on my disdain for falling in love radar readings), but Maddux did possess an excellent and in my opinion one of the best ever fastballs.

For everything people make of Greg Maddux, he was primarily a fastball/change-up pitcher.  He had variations of sliders or curves that he’d throw, but his bread-and-butter was the two-seam running fastball.  While Maddux did not invent the running 2-seam fastball, you’d be hard pressed to find a pitcher who had a better one.  The amount of movement and control he had over that pitch is why he was a better strikeout pitcher than most give him credit for.  His career 6.1 K/9 IP is, I’d bet, better than most think it is.  Maddux even K’d 200 in a season once (true, it was in 252 IP, but he did have a 7.3 K/9 IP average that season).  

To compare, Maddux’s longtime teammate Tom Glavine who is generally described similarly to Maddux with respect to “stuff” had a 5.3 K/9 IP ratio.  Maybe you don’t believe there’s a big difference between 6.1 and 5.3, but it is significant.  An extra strikeout every 9 innings over the course of a long career adds up.  Over the course of Maddux and Glavine’s careers, 392 additional strikeouts for Maddux can be attributed to the difference in K/9 rate.  For the record, Maddux finished with 764 more K’s than Glavine but also pitched more innings.

Maddux’s style of pitching tends to go a bit unappreciated.  Not in the sense that baseball fans don’t recognize the greatness of Maddux’s accomplishments, but most tend to downplay his “stuff.”  He did not have an uppper 90′s fastball like Randy Johnson.  He did not have a slider like his teammate John Smoltz.  He didn’t have the curve of Darryl Kile.  He didn’t have the devastating splitter of Curt Schilling, nor the sinker of Kevin Brown.  Although he had a very good change-up, it was not the change of Pedro Martinez or Trevor Hoffman.  His 2-seamer did not light up the radar, and unlike the other pitches just mentioned did not disappear outside of the strikezone in a flash.  In fact, it did the opposite…Maddux’s 2-seamer often started outside the zone and then darted back over the corner of the plate meaning players did not look bad swinging at his pitches because they simply did not swing at all.  

What was the secret to Maddux’s success?  First of all, Maddux had phenomenal mechanics.  His delivery was smooth and he repeated the same wind-up on every pitch.  Secondly, he did not overthrow the ball.  These two factors let him repeatedly control the pitch to maximize the effectiveness of the movement he put on the ball.  Those same factors also permitted him to end up in a good fielding position, which is why he won so many gold gloves.  Finally, those two factors, combined with a mentality that “batters should be forced to hit me” led to Maddux’s nearly mythical command.  In his best season for control (1997) Maddux unintentionally walked 20 batters in 232.2 innings pitched.  His K:BB ratio that year was an absurd 8.85:1.  

As great as Gred Maddux was, he will never be remembered as a great strikeout pitcher.  That’s probably fair.  It certainly wasn’t his goal to get 15 K’s a game.  However, one area where Maddux probably should get more respect is as one of the better fastball pitchers of all time.  What made the man great was his amazing movement and command of the fastball regardless of whether it directly resulted in one of his over 3,000 K’s or a weakly hit groundball.  All of this leads me to the Braves young “ace in the making,” Tommy Hanson.

Hanson has seen some solid results early in his career despite less than “dominant” pitching.  He is a guy that the Braves (and baseball) expect to turn into a great strikeout pitcher.  To this point that has not emerged.  He’s been somewhat “lucky” with what his numbers currently say.  I will direct you to the excellent work of Braves blogger “PWHjort” at his site Capitol Avenue Club for a great numerical breakdown (see his post from 7/6/2009).

Hanson’s major problem has been a lack of fastball command.  He’s not locating what should be a plus pitch for him.  That has resulted in a lack of swing and misses on fastballs and an inability to get batters to “chase” what should be “out” pitches.  His minor league record suggests this is likely just an adjustment period, but talent has yet to catch up.  While Hanson won’t possess some of Maddux’s qualities (he throws harder, doesn’t come to a great fielding position, mechaincs are jerkier), if Hanson can reflect on what made Greg Maddux’s fastball so great, he could have the chance to be an amazing strikeout pitcher at the Major League Level because he has the “stuff” Maddux was never blessed with.  

This One Counts!…Or at least shows up on a radar

There are many areas of baseball that I consider myself well-informed about: The current players, the history, the stats, the business, and the strategy I can all carry on a meaningful conversation about.  Admittedly though I am not as strong talking about minor league players and their qualities.  I’m not illeterate on the subject.  I generally know the top 10-20 prospects for most organizations. I can read a stat sheet,  and I can understand the level of competition and particular league biases to make some meaningful assessments about a particular player’s performance.  However, by no stretch would I consider myself an authority on the minors.

Enter the 2009 Future’s Game presented by ESPN 2!  My initial reaction:  Awesome, I’m going to get to see some of these guys live that I normally have only read about and occasionally see highlight film of.  Well, the first downer of the day was the 4 hour rain delay, but I still had hope….Look!  ESPN’s doing a live blog during the game.  This is going to be great.  I can watch the game and get some immediate feedback about what I’m viewing.  Much to my disappointment, that “live blog” turned out to be worse than the rain shortened game.

Now, I understand this is ESPN; that’s as mainstream as it gets.  It was also a very bad sign that the “live blog” was being featured on the front page.  ESPN caters to “Joe Sports Fan” (I can only assume the cousin of Joe the Plumber), and putting the blog on the frontpage meant that the analysis was almost assuredly going to be a bit superficial, but I still had hope.  Hey, I’m sure they’ll at least discuss particular AB’s that impressed them or something of interest that these “keen scout-developed analysts” can see in young players.  And here’s where reality set in.  Let’s look at a few of the “posts” (and mind you there weren’t many anyways…you can find the full thing by going here):

7:14 p.m. ET
Just saw this: Francisco Samuel, a pitcher for the World Team and a prospect in the St. Louis organization, has hit 95 mph a few times, with a slider at 85.

–Keith Law

7:27 p.m. ET
Leyson Septimo, a lefty on the World team, is up to 93 — loose arm, slider breaks pretty early. Major league hitters would likely see that out of his hand.

–Keith Law

8:01 p.m. ET
Jarrod Parker, a right-hander for the U.S. team and a prospect with the Diamondbacks, was warming up at 93.

–Keith Law

8:05 p.m. ET
If you’re going to be a lefty-on-lefty guy in the big leagues, you can’t leave fastballs belt-high against them. Luis Perez found that out the hard way against Jason Castro.

–Jason Grey

Oh what analysis guys!  Now, I know that Joe Sports Fan loves him some radar gun readings.  They’re flashy and it’s something pretty easy to understand.  However, that’s not even analysis!  I can read the ESPN radar gun and at least get a sense of how hard they’re throwing. Furthermore, there are plenty of guys that can throw 93-95 that don’t do anything in the majors so I need to know why or why not this guy will succeed. So, of the comments I’ve just posted about the only thing that halfway counts as analysis was Keith Law’s comment at 7:27 that “[omitting gratuitous radar reading] slider breaks pretty early. Major league hitters would likely see that out of his hand.” Thanks Keith, at least you tried to tell me something that wasn’t viewable on the mini-score box that’s always in the top right corner. 

Jason Grey’s big contribution was telling me that a lefty can’t leave fastballs belt high to a hitter.  I was unaware.  However, he also provided this big nugget of knowledge to “Joe” who was wondering why no one was gassing it at 110 mph:

7:40 p.m. ET
For whatever reason (weather, the rain delay) velocity is down for pretty much all the pitchers. Francisco Samuel, Mat Latos and Jhoulys Chacin all down a few ticks from where they were at the Texas League All-Star Game a couple of weeks ago.

–Jason Grey

Thank GOODNESS!  We have an answer. I expected to see baseballs hurling towards the plate on fire (ala Fox’s old hockey graphics, perhaps?).  It’s good to know it’s just the weather.  I know I’m being a bit harsh, but really, that whole attempt at a “live blog” was just sad.  I’m sure Keith Law will come out later in the weekend with a much more in-depth analysis of what he saw, but was it so much to ask for at least a couple of live reactions to have some meaning?  I really just blame myself for being lazy and not finding a better source that might have done some live commentary.  ESPN was not the way to go.

However, Keith Law did provide one shining moment:

7:22 p.m. ET
World manager Jose Oquendo calls for the lefty to face Pedro Alvarez. This time it counts!!!!

–Keith Law

You’re darn right Keith!  I just wish the analysis could have counted as well.

A Few DYK’s Heading into the All-Star Break

Hopefully sometime soon I’ll post a full breakdown of the Braves first half in 2009 compared to 2008, but in getting ready to write that article here are a few “Did you know’s” that I ran across. These facts are current as of 7/11/2009:

Did you know….

1. That Mark Teixeira hit 9 homeruns and had 23 rbi’s in June of last year?  His homerun total for June would tie him for the season lead this year with Chipper Jones.  his 23 rbi’s would be the 7th highest season total this year.

2.  That Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, and Jair Jurrjens have all already made at least as many starts (18) as Tom Glavine and John Smoltz made combined in all of 2008.  Kenshin Kawakami needs just 2 more starts to join this club.

3.  That Javier Vazquez’s 136 strikeouts this year would be just 3 short of the team high for all of 2008 (Jair Jurrjens with 139).

4. That Gregor Blanco lead the team with just 13 steals last year, and that nobody on the team this year is on pace to beat that total while in a Braves uniform (Nate McLouth had 7 steals for the Pirates before coming over).

5. That Greg Norton hit 7 homeruns in 171 at bats last season.  His AB’s per homerun (24.43) is lower than any Braves regular this year, and David Ross is the only player on the roster with a better rate.

6. The Braves already have 6 more one-run wins this year (17) than they had in all of 2008 (11). 

7. That Rafael Soriano (12 SV’s) is just 2 saves short of last year’s season leader (Mike Gonzalez, 14).

8. That the Braves have allowed 0 or 1 runs 16 times this season.  They did that a total of 20 times last year.  They’re just one shutout shy (with 6) of last year’s total (7).

9. That the Braves are giving up more runs per game in the first-half this year (4.26) than they did in the first half of last year (4.03).

10. In losses this year, the Braves batters have hit .225/.292/.322 (BA/OBP/SLG) which is remarkably similar to last year’s .223/.298/.324.  However, in wins this year, the Braves have hit .296/.370/.468 which is noticeably lower than last year’s .326/.400/.507.

Braves Mid-Season Report Card

I always love these types of reviews, so I’ve decided to do one myself.  Depending on how you look at it my timing might either be late (as we’re already passed the 81-game mark) or early (as the weekend marks the traditional All-Star Game stoppage).  All I can assure you is that the couple of games one way or the other won’t drastically change my opinions.

A few disclaimers up front.  First, my observations will be based primarily on subjective observation rather than hard statistics.  Please feel free to disagree with any or all of my opinions.  Secondly, I am not attempting to compare the Braves to other teams in the league.  If they happen to be at the top or bottom of a statistical category right now that will only play a minimal contribution to my grades.  My grades are unscientifically based on both historical considerations and their performance in the grand scheme of the current season.  Finally, I do not waive my right to utilize subjective expectations and biases in reaching conclusions. 

Since I’ve now waived most credibility on the subject, why read it?  Well, that’s your decision.  If it stirs up debate, agreement, or disagreement then I’ll consider my mission accomplished.  With that out of the way, here are my grades for the team on offense, starting pitching, relief pitching, fielding, bench, and coaching.  Enjoy!

OFFENSE: D

I’m not going to spend much time on the offense because it’s really just sad.  Nobody on the team has hit 10 homeruns in a Braves uniform this year.  Compare that to the Phillies who have 4 guys with 20 homeruns already (Howard, Utley, Werth, Ibanez).  The team lacks speed, and Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson have both been abysmal.  This is the one area that I’m just going to let the stats speak for themselves.  Here are the Braves current team ranks in the National League in several offensive categories:

HR: 12/16

SB: 15/16

R: 11/16

SLG: 11/16 

The only reason they don’t get an “F” is that that seems unfair considering they’re not dead last in all of these categories, and the team does rank in the upper half (7/16) in OBP.   Not much else to say except that this team needs help.

STARTING PITCHING: A-

Frank Wren made it clear after last year that his number one goal was to get reliable innings eaters into the rotation, and he did a great job on this front.  Javier Vazquez has been an absolute ace.  I generally do not get too upset about All-Star selections, but Vazquez not making the team is about as close to ridiculous as I think it gets.  Derek Lowe started the year strong, but he’s struggled of late.  That’s pretty much Derek Lowe for you.  He relies heavily on his sinker, and when that pitch is going good, he’s a top-end starter, but if that pitch isn’t working Lowe lacks a “Plan B.”  Regardless, he usually gives you good innings and a good mid-3′s ERA by years end, so I’m not giving up on him yet.

Kenshin Kawakami had a very rough April, but he’s shown improvement and has come up big in several memorable games (KK v. Roy Halladay and KK v. Dice-K).  His K/BB ratio still is not great, but he has demonstrated a knack for getting out of jams making him a more than serviceable 4/5 starter. 

Jair Jurrjens continues to make Frank Wren look very smart for the Renteria deal. He’s been the second best starter on the staff behind Javier Vazquez, and his splits by month are a tribute to his general consistency.  He’s still walking a few too many batters for my liking, but he’s also striking out batters at a good enough clip and keeping the ball in the park to make him effective.

The most controversial move of the Braves season was the release of Tom Glavine just as he finished his rehab.  The scouting reports that came back indicated he just was not going to be successful at the major league level, and those reports seem to be accurate as no other pitching starved team has shown any interest in Glavine.  Many were upset just because of the way it was handled, and I agree with that.  Schuerholz apparently agreed as well coming out with a public apology to Glavine, and I sincerely hope that ill feelings don’t harbor between Glavine and the organization.  That unfortunate situation though lead to the call-up of Tommy Hanson who has seen good results despite still learning to pitch at the major league level.  Hanson’s won his first 4 decisions and in his two most recent starts left with a lead but got a no decision.  He’s walked too many batters and the strikeouts are not what they were in the minors, but once he figures out how to pitch he’s already shown the characteristics that are going to make him a very good major league pitcher. 

RELIEF PITCHING: B-

These guys were working from a depleted curve nearly from the beginning.  That blow-up in game 3 of the season meant that the highest grade I would probably give these guys is an A- had they been close to flawless from there out.  If I was just rating the performance of Rafael Soriano, the grade would be an A.  If I was only considering the performances of Soriano and Mike Gonzalez I’d still probably give a grade of A- (Gonzalez’s recent struggles included).  If I tacked on performances of Moylan and Eric O’Flaherty we might be to about a B+. When I then include others like Jeff Bennett, Manny Acosta, Blane Boyer, Boone Logan, Kris Medlen, and Buddy Carlyle I settled on a B-.  The bullpen’s certainly had its struggles.  Bennett was not particularly good before his injury, but he was also overused. 

Soriano and Gonzalez have for the most part given the Braves good stability in the 8th and 9th, but Bobby Cox’s relucatance to use any other guys in high-leverage situations is partially to blame for the blow-ups that have occurred.  For this grade to remain where it is for the season, the Braves are going to have to find ways of working in more relievers in the late innings otherwise the bullpen’s going to be toast in another month. 

FIELDING: C

It’s no secret that our outfield defense is suspect.  Jordan Schafer started the year in centerfield, and although he’s got the skill set to be an excellent defender, he was learning to play center at the major league level and at times it showed.  Schafer on more than one occasion over-pursued the ball to the point of smacking a wall and turning a double for the opposition into a triple.  Garrett Anderson is a statue in leftfield without any sort of throwing arm.  When Diaz plays he’s got more speed and has improved, but he still takes ugly routes to the baseball and wouldn’t be a late inning defensive replacement except for the even worse defense provided by Anderson.  McClouth appears to have a decent knack for getting to the baseball, but he shows some lapses in urgency and confidence when it comes to throwing the baseball.  Francoeur is an average outfielder with a good throwing arm. 

The infield was more error prone than one would hope for as well.  Chipper’s among the league leaders for errors by a thirdbaseman, which is uncharacteristic compared to recent years.  Escobar’s got the arm and the flair for the dramatic but suffers from considerable mental lapses.  Johnson/Prado are not plus level defensive fielders at the secondbase position.  Kotchman is an excellent fielder at first and displays solid range (especially considering how slow the guy otherwise looks), but his play certainly isn’t a reason to give too much credit to the defense.  Finally, while Brian McCann shed weight to get faster behind the plate and worked hard on his throwing, he’s still not an elite defensive catcher.  He’s not a liability but isn’t a force either. 

BENCH: A

Believe it or not, this was the easiest grade for me to assign.  It’s not that any player on the bench has just made me say “wow,” but it’s difficult to imagine where we might be without the steady and helpful production from our bench.  Javier Vazquez excluded, there’s no doubt in my mind that David Ross was the Braves best offseason move.  He’s a great catch-and-throw guy and has provided more than adequate offense from the back-up catcher position.  Compared to past back-ups like Corky Miller, Eddie Perez, and Clint Sammons, the guy looks like Babe Ruth coming off the bench for us.  Martin Prado’s verstatility and peformance also cannot be ignored.  He’s played more than 10 games at 3B, 2B, and 1B all while hitting better than .300.  Prado’s best defensive position is likely 3B, but he’s not been a liability anywhere on the field, and most fans are happy he’s now getting the chance to play everyday.  Before Omar Infante went down, he was producing similarly to what Prado’s doing for us now.  Matt Diaz just continues to be an excellent platoon/bench guy for the Braves as well.  Again, none of these guys makes you say “Wow!” but I am scared to think where we’d be without the good play of these bench guys.

COACHING: C+

This was probably the most difficult grade to assign.  Bobby Cox is under a lot more fire from the fans than I can ever remember, and some of this is certainly deserved.  Cox utilizes the sacrifice bunt too much, overworks members of his bullpen, and sometimes is too “by the book” for his own good.  At the same time, by the make-up of this roster, you’d expect the team to be a mediocre, hover-around-.500 club….and that’s exactly what they are.  I can understand if others would rate him lower, but when the results match-up with realistic expecations, I couldn’t bring myself to dock the guy too much.

More blame has been cast upon Terry Pendleton for the failures of the batters.  Having never been a major leaguer, I’m not sure how much value to assign to the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the major league level hitting coach.  Many tools for hitting are supposed to be learned at the minor league level with the hitting coach at the major league level only there to point out glaring problems or provide drills to get a batter out of the proverbial “funk.”  I don’t know who to blame for the failures of batters like Francouer and Kelly Johnson.  The lack of power from guys like Garrett Anderson and Casey Kotchman should have been expected regardless of who the hitting coach was as neither was a realistic power threat.  Chipper Jones’ power has been on the decline for several years.  He had only 4 homeruns in the second half of last year, and what, if any, advice TP gives to Chipper is likely very, very minimal.  While I can’t reasonably suggest TP’s presence is a plus-factor for Braves coaching, I am reluctant to assign too much blame to the guy. 

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