Like last year, the Braves have surged at an unexpected time

It is far too early to compare this current four-game surge to the 14-game winning streak that essentially ended the National League East race last year.  But if this does prove to be the start of a special surge for the Braves, we will remember that like last year’s streak, it began when there did not seem to be much reason for optimism.

Last year was different simply because the Braves got off to a hot start and held a division lead of at least four games every day after May 20.  But some doubt crept in on July 25 when they dropped to 19-21 over their previous 40 games.  More importantly, they had lost Tim Hudson to a season-ending ankle injury less than 24 hours earlier and the NL Central-leading Cardinals were coming to Atlanta the next day.

Instead of being burdened by doom and gloom, the Braves showed their resiliency by producing an incredible streak that enabled them to celebrate a special season.  Though, this previous sentence was in reference to last year, there is a chance it could apply to what is transpiring this season.

Or as tonight’s starter Aaron Harang will attest, some of these same words could have been used to describe what he and his 2002 A’s teammates experienced when they produced a 20-game winning streak that took them from being 4 1/2 games back on Aug. 12 to 3 1/2 games up on Sept. 4. 

“We have the team that can do that,” Harang said. “When that happened (with the A’s), we got multiple guys all producing all at once and pitchers all were trying to feed off each other.  One of the guys would go out and throw seven or eight innings of one run ball or no runs and the next night the guy would come in and say I’m going to one up you. You just kind of feed off of each other when you get in that situation…Every night, it was somebody else who was getting that big hit.”

When Harang toes the rubber at PNC Park tonight, he’ll attempt to add to the recent success of Atlanta’s starters, who have allowed three earned runs or less in five of the past six games.  The only rotation member to be part of a loss during this span is Harang, who had another forgettable afternoon outing against the Dodgers last week. 

Harang will not have to deal with the afternoon elements that have existed during two of the three occasions he has allowed more than four earned runs this year.  But it looks like he will have to deal with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, who is expected to come off the disabled list tonight.  McCutchen went 3-for-3 with a double against Harang last year. 

Meanwhile, the Braves will have to adjust to the oddity that Francisco Liriano presents when he takes the mound for the Pirates tonight.  Liriano will become just the 25th different left-handed starting pitcher to face the Braves this year.  STATS, LLC. says this is the lowest total for any club in the Majors this year. 

This fact jives with what Jason Heyward said on Monday when he was asked about his struggles against left-handed pitchers this year.  He has batted .157 with a .228 on-base percentage against LHPs and .306 with a .391 OBP against RHPs.

“It’s just nice to face (left-handed starters) again,” Heyward said. “I feel there has been some inconsistency in regard to when we face them.  It’s tough to face shut-down lefties out of the pen regardless. But when you have to face them without getting any at-bats off of starters, it makes it that much tougher. 

Liriano, who has produced a 1.89 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break, is the second left-hander the Braves have faced within the past three days.  A two-run homer by Justin Upton helped them beat southpaw Jon Lester and the A’s on Sunday night. 

Speaking of the younger Upton, Elias says he is batting .388 (19-for-49) against pitchers who were selected for this year’s All-Star Game. Matt Adams (.476) and Jose Altuve (.441) are the only players who have compiled a better batting average with at least 40 plate appearances against this group.

 

 

Braves comment on Saturday’s late start

After suffering a 4-1, 11-inning loss that concluded at 2:29 a.m. ET on Sunday, many of the Braves players indicated they were shocked that their front office had decided to wait through a three-hour, 51-minute rain delay before throwing Saturday night’s first pitch.  One reason for the long wait might have been the fact that more rain is in the forecast for Sunday night’s series finale.

Adding to the misery of this marathon event was the fact that the Braves lost for the ninth time in their past 10 games and lost the momentum they had gained with a win in Friday’s series opener against the first-place Nationals, who sit 4 1/2 games in front of the Braves.

“We got some momentum going last night,” B.J. Upton said. “For us to sit around for virtually four hours when it’s been raining all day and kind of force the issue, it kind of blows my mind, especially when we could have gotten an extra day to build on things. I don’t think we saw that coming, for us to start a game at close to 11 o’clock and then get out of here at 3 o’clock. I’ve never seen it. I haven’t been around the longest, but that’s definitely a first for me.”

According to Stats Inc. the 10:51 p.m. ET start time for Saturday’s game was the latest for any Major League game since the Braves also opted to wait until 10:53 p.m. ET to begin a June 17, 2013 game against the Mets.

 

“From a player’s aspect, it was kind of shocking a little bit,” Freddie Freeman said of the late start. “It’s definitely tough to get hot and then sit down for four hours and try to get re-hot again, but it’s our job and we still went out there and gave it our all.”

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez did not think the late start had an impact.

“I didn’t think anything about the particular starting time,” Gonzalez said. “You’ve got to be ready in the Major Leagues to play. And sure, we wanted to start at 7 or 7:05, but it’s Mother Nature and you can’t judge what’s going on.”

 

 

Nine things to ponder entering the Nationals series

Now that the Braves have experienced a week that managed to be even worse than the one that bridged April and May, they will spend the next 10 games hosting three first-place clubs  —  the Nationals, Dodgers and A’s.

There are two ways to look at this.  If the Braves extend the struggles encountered during their eight-game losing streak, by this time next week you can essentially bid adieu to legit postseason hopes and that lingering frustration you have felt while following this year’s maddening team.  Or if they turn things around, you will feel much better about having spent the past 4 1/2 months watching this club’s interesting journey.

Here are nine things to ponder entering this weekend’s series against the Nationals:

1.  The Braves will get a better understanding about Andrelton Simmons’ left ankle later today.  If it’s determined he will be sidelined for more than a few days and possibly placed on the disabled list, there’s a strong possibility Jose Peraza will get a chance to make the jump from Double-A Mississippi to the Majors.  Peraza has played just 41 games above the Class A level, but the 20-year-old infielder has batted .335 with a .361 on-base percentage and 25 stolen bases (32 attempts) since getting promoted to Double-A Mississippi.

2.  Braves starting pitchers have completed at least six innings and allowed two earned runs or less five times during the current eight-game skid.  In other words, most of the blame still points in the direction of an offense that now counts the Padres and Cardinals as the only two Major League clubs that have scored fewer runs.  If Peraza gets the call, he obviously fits the leadoff spot perfectly.  If not, this lineup could benefit from a decision to platoon Jason Heyward and Emilio Bonifacio in the leadoff spot.   Heyward’s .225 on-base percentage vs lefties is a concern.  But when clubs go with a southpaw starter, Fredi Gonzalez can go with Bonifacio, who has compiled a .442 OBP vs. lefties.

3. As the Braves have won 20 of 29 against the Nationals dating back to last year, there has been reason to wonder if some of their success has led to a mental edge.  But some of that edge might have evaporated when the Nats claimed victories in the final two games of a four-game set in Washington D.C. in June.

4.   The Braves will not have to deal with Nats ace Doug Fister this weekend.  It also appears they will miss Clayton Kershaw during the four-game series against the Dodgers.  But during the three-game set against the A’s, they are lined up to face Jason Hammel, Sonny Gray and Jon Lester.

5.  Ervin Santana looked like a $14.1 million bust as he produced a 6.44 ERA in the six starts he made from May 16-June 12.  But as he has posted a 2.95 ERA in the nine starts that have followed, he has proven capable of his assignment to solidify a fractured rotation that has lost three members to season-ending elbow surgeries dating back to March.

6.  Stephen Strasburg enters tonight’s start having gone 0-2 with a 3.90 ERA in the seven starts he has made against the Braves dating back to last year.  Strasburg has lasted fewer than five innings in three of his past five starts against Atlanta.

7.  If another reason is needed to put Heyward back in the leadoff spot, he has batted .423 (11-for-26) with a 1.098 OPS in his career against Strasburg.  Freddie Freeman has hit .450 (9-for-20) with a 1.319 OPS against the former top overall selection.

8.  One year after not losing more than four straight, the Braves have now lost at least seven straight games twice this season.  After their seven-game losing streak (April 28-May 5), they won 11 of their next 18 games.

9. There has been something missing from this club as this season has progressed.  It can be said the lack of spirit felt inside the clubhouse is simply a product of the fact that this has been a sub .500 club for the past 90 games (41-48).  Or some might say we were just spoiled to have the vibrant and humorous likes of David Ross, Tim Hudson, Peter Moylan and Brian McCann for so long.  But you have to wonder if the spirit of these aforementioned players might have at least been preserved better had Kris Medlen not been forced to assume a bystander role this year.

As this week has progressed, I’ve found myself realizing that I have overlooked Medlen’s absence far too often while attempting to dissect this club’s problems this year.  But instead of dwelling on what they do not have, the Braves simply have to hope that what they already have is enough to bounce back and prove they are a legit playoff contender.

Memories of Pete: A beloved legend of the Braves’ family

After handling our respective duties during an Aug. 4, 2008 game in San Francisco,  a group of us went to Lefty O’Doul’s to have a drink and tell just a few more stories about the friend we had lost 24 hours earlier.  As we prepared to exit the establishment, Pete Van Wieren left a shot of Dewar’s sitting on the bar.  He tapped his finger near the shot glass, stood and walked away with the wish that he might have had the chance to share just one more drink with Skip Caray.

Almost exactly six years after sadly saying goodbye to Skip, the baseball community finds itself mourning the passing of Van Wieren. The fact that he had missed last week’s Hall of Fame celebration in Cooperstown provided a clue.  But it was not until Saturday morning that most of us realized how dire his battle with cancer had become.

When Van Wieren came to Turner Field to emcee the Hank Aaron 715th home run anniversary celebration, staged before this year’s home opener, he was thrilled his doctors had informed him that he was as healthy as he had been since he was diagnosed with with cutaneous B-cell lymphoma on Nov. 4, 2009  — 13 months after he had retired from his 33-year stint as a Braves broadcaster.

Knowing he had experienced other encouraging updates over the previous couple years, I asked Pete how optimistic I should be with the tone of what I would write.  He said, “I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m feeling great.”

The cancer returned a short time later and progressively worsened.  Van Wieren began receiving hospice care a couple days ago and then according to family members died peacefully this morning.

While thrilled that he will no longer suffer, I count myself among the many of you who are saddened by the reality that we will never again have the chance to see Van Wieren take great joy in the chance to be around the game of baseball.  But we will always have memories of that distinct voice that was enriched with the wealth of knowledge he gained through countless hours of preparation on a daily basis.

Though we possessed different roles within the same industry, I would say Pete has had a significant influence on my career.  While none of us could ever match the dedication and attention to detail that Van Wieren brought on a daily basis, we can always better ourselves just by trying.

Like many of you, I grew up away from Atlanta as the fan of a team that was not the Braves. Still throughout my youth, I recognized Skip, Pete and Ernie Johnson Sr. as three of the most recognizable figures of the Braves organization.  They were revolutionary figures courtesy of TBS’ nationwide reach.  But somehow Cooperstown’s doors have never been opened for any of these three legends.

From 1976-2008, Van Wieren served as a Braves broadcaster and one of the organization’s greatest ambassadors.  Whether in a hotel lobby or at a team-related function, he always graciously interacted with fans.  Then of course whether calling a game or emceeing  an event, he blessed us with gifts that came via the sound and contents of his voice.

During his final two years as a broadcaster, he called every Spring Training and regular season game, except for one  — an absence caused by laryngitis.  What a treat it was to have Pete at Spring Training on a daily basis those two seasons (2007-08).

As Pete spent the past few years watching his grandchildren grow and fulfilling his passion for poker, I urged him to return to Spring Training for a week or two.  He always said, “We’ll see” and never really indicated whether he was being limited by the cancer.

When I wrote  this Thanksgiving story two years ago, Van Wieren provided us hope that he might have beaten the cancer that had rudely interrupted his plans to spend much of his retirement traveling and spending time with his family.  He did some of this, but not nearly enough.

Still during his 69 years on this earth, Pete enriched countless lives and left his mark on a Braves organization that will forever be grateful for the opportunity to call him on of their own.

So, if you’re wanting to show your appreciation tonight, I suggest you grab a cold Heineken and raise it high.  Or you might just leave one sitting alone on the bar before walking away with the wish that you might have had just one more to share with Pete.

 

 

Thoughts heading into the Marlins’ series

Now that the Braves finally parted ways with Dan Uggla and opened the season’s second half with a win over a Phillies club that seems destined to look much different soon, it’s time to begin looking toward what should be an exciting end to this month.  While it will be a lot of fun watching Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux savor their time in Cooperstown this upcoming weekend, there will also be reason to keep a close watch on what the team is doing on an off the field.

With the July 31 Trade Deadline quickly approaching, it still seems the Braves’ primary targets will be relievers, specifically the left-handed variety, and role players to strengthen what has been a rather anemic bench.

After two months of being left short-handed, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez can now at least approach the remainder of the season with the confidence that he will at least have a fully-stocked bench.  From the time Dan Uggla was benched until the time he was mercifully released on Friday, Gonzalez was forced to to through 65 games (40 percent of the season) with a short bench.

As early as the first week of May we heard about the financial consequences (penalties on loans and future investments) that would prevent the Braves from releasing Uggla this season.  Then of course, Uggla forced the team’s hand when he showed up 30 minutes before the first pitch of the July 12 game at Wrigley Field. While some might have speculated that he had just “overslept” most members of the organization seemed to realize this was a calculated move by a frustrated man.

It’s hard to have pity on Uggla considering he has always been guaranteed the remainder (now approximately $18.5 million) of the five-year, $62 million contract extension the Braves provided after acquiring Uggla after the 2010 season.  But if his presence was going to continue to weaken the roster and potentially poison the clubhouse, then the Braves had no choice to do what they finally did on Friday.

Unfortunately, the parting of these two parties should have occurred this past winter,  soon after the Braves left Uggla off their postseason roster.  At the time, it was assumed the Braves should simply be happy if a club was willing to assume approximately $8 million of the $26 million Uggla was owed during the 2014-15 seasons combined.

In the end, the Braves ended up eating a similar amount. But considering Uggla spent the past two months essentially serving as a statue while filling a valuable roster spot, the amount of time it took to cut ties stands as just one of the many mistakes made during Uggla’s tenure in Atlanta.  Instead of being the power-hitting second baseman initially envisioned, Uggla will now simply be part of the debate centering around whether his contract was actually worse than the ones signed by Kenshin Kawakami, B.J. Upton and Derek Lowe.

With Uggla gone, the Braves now can used Tyler Pastornicky or Phil Gosselin to share the backup infielder role with Ramiro Pena.  Jordan Schafer’s legs and defense have at least provided some hint of value as he has served as the backup infielder.  But if possible, the Braves have to find somebody who can prove to  be more of a threat than Schafer (4-for-22 as a pinch hitter) and Ryan Doumit (9-for-42 as a pinch hitter) off the bench.

Gattis set to return:  With Evan Gattis back in the Braves’ lineup for tonight’s series opener against the Marlins, Christian Bethancourt has been sent back toTriple-A Gwinnett, where he can continue playing on an everyday basis.  While handling the starting catching duties for the past few weeks, Bethancourt at least gave the club a chance to evaluate whether he could be ready to handle this role on a full-time basis as early as next season.

There has long been reason to debate whether Gattis is a better fit in the American League, where he could serve as a designated hitter when he’s not catching. But now that he is dealing with a back injury, there is even more reason to wonder how long he might be capable of handling the grind of being an everyday catcher at the Major League level.

 

Thoughts from Monday night’s loss

While many of you might still be stewing about the reversal of the challenge that seemingly should not have been permitted, the most influential development from Monday night’s 11-inning loss was the reminder that the Braves simply can’t rely on Luis Avilan like they did last year.   So with the Trade Deadline just a few weeks away, we are left to believe acquiring a left-handed reliever remains high on general manager Frank Wren’s wish list.

When Avilan was not given a chance to complete the decisive seventh inning of an April 10 loss against the Mets, I questioned why manager Fredi Gonzalez did not allow the left-hander to prove he could still get right-handed hitters out like he had in the past.  As the next couple of weeks passed and Avilan’s struggles grew, there was reason for me to tell Gonzalez, “I guess you were right on that one.”

I doubt there will come a point where I’ll be saying the same about last night’s decision to allow Avilan to protect the one-run lead the Braves gained in the top half of the eighth inning.  The Mets sent a right-hander (Ruben Tejada), a switch hitter (Eric Young Jr.) and two left-handed hitters to the plate to face Avilan.  After retiring the first two batters he faced, the Braves’ southpaw allowed Curtis Granderson to send a game-tying homer over the right field wall.

Walden, who has limited left-handed hitters to one hit in 21 at-bats dating back to June 15, ended the inning and kept the game tied by striking out David Wright.

While Walden will surely be used in these situations in the future, there is also reason to wonder how much faith the Braves can still have in Avilan, who has not looked anything like the guy he was when he produced a 1.52 ERA in a career-high 75 appearances last year.   On the way to producing this impressive mark, he limited right-handed hitters to a .202 batting average and .292 on-base percentage.  Left-handers hit .144 with a .219 on-base percentage against him.

This year, right-handers have batted .314 with a .397 on-base percentage against Avilan.  Lefties have batted .266 with a .344 on-base percentage.  One scout suggested that Avilan looks like a guy who “doesn’t want to break” like some of the other members of the Braves bullpen have over the past couple of years.  But per FanGraphs, his fastball velocity is actually up a tick (from 93.5 to 93.6 mph)  and his curveball velo is down just one mile per hour, from 75.8 to .74.8.

Regardless of what the issue is, the Braves have seen enough to know there is a need to fortify their bullpen with another left-handed reliever.  Those of you wondering when Jonny Venters will return would be wise to simply root for the feel-good possibility of this story.  There was never any guarantee Venters would return from a second Tommy John surgery.  But there was always definite reason to doubt he would ever again resemble the dominant reliever he was before his elbow blew out during the 2012 season.

So while everyone will be pulling for Venters to beat the odds by pitching at the big league level again, the Braves will be searching to upgrade their bullpen with a left-hander.  At the same time, with memories of Scott Downs fresh in their memories, they will be cognizant of the fact that this is not the safest of markets to shop.

It will be interesting to see how influential the eighth inning RBI single Jason Heyward recorded on Monday night proves to be.  Three pitches before slapping a curveball to center field, he had ducked away from a Josh Edgin fastball that was approaching his head.  Adding to the resulting uncomfort was the fact that he was standing in the same batter’s box where his left jaw had been fractured a little more than 10 months earlier.

Heyward’s single off Edgin snapped an 0-for-37 skid against left-handed pitchers.  As this futile stretch extended, there was reason to wonder if he was dealing with the lingering effects of last year’s traumatic experience.  But now that he has ended the drought at the scene of the crime, maybe he has slayed that mental monster that has affected so many others who have been hit in the head with a pitch.

 

 

 

With online balloting set to end tonight, here is a look at my All-Star ballot

With just a few hours left in this year’s All-Star balloting process, here is cheat sheet for you to use to ensure you vote for the most deserving players.  While there was never much reason to believe a Braves player would be elected to start in the upcoming Midsummer Classic, I think there is a good chance Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel receive selections.  I’d love to see Jason Heyward get a deserving selection based simply on the fact that he has been the game’s best defensive player this season. Along those same lines, it will be a shame if Evan Gattis’ name is not announced during the selection show.  While Gattis is sidelined with a bulging disc in his back, he certainly deserves a chance to at least enjoy the festivities surrounding the event.

NL Catcher:  Jonathan Lucroy

AL Catcher: Salvador Perez

Over the past few years, I always had the mindset that if Yadier Molina was healthy, he would be my choice to serve as the NL’s starting catcher.  But Lucroy has been that good both behind and at the plate this season.

NL First Baseman: Paul Goldschmidt

AL First Baseman: Miguel Cabrera

Despite enduring two long slumps already, Freddie Freeman  made this a tougher decision than expected.  Couldn’t go wrong with Goldschmidt, Freeman or Anthony Rizzo.  Edward Encarnacion has been great. But unlike Lucroy in comparison to Molina, he has not been that much greater than Cabrera.  Plus, he’s on the ballot as a DH.

NL Second Baseman: Dee Gordon

AL Second Baseman: Jose Altuve

I’ve always been an Ian Kinsler fan.  But after getting a chance to watch Altuve for a few days last week, I’m sold that he’s the kind of guy the fans need to see in the ASG.

NL Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki

AL Shortstop: Erick Aybar

Watching Andrelton Simmons match defensive skills with Tulo and then Aybar during a seven-day stretch in June was a treat.

NL Third Baseman: Todd Frazier

AL Third Baseman:  Josh Donaldson

If these two  were to be selected, I wonder what the odds would have been back in March.

NL Outfielders: Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig

AL Outfielders: Mike Trout, Adam Jones, Jose Bautista

Carlos Gomez was the last omission in the NL.  The selection was a little more difficult in the AL.  Gave some thought to Brandon Moss and like with Heyward, there’s something special about watching Alex Gordon play defense.

 

 

 

 

Braves now have a chance to evaluate where Bethancourt stands

Though this arrangement does not jive with the plans they had kicked around over the past couple of weeks, the Braves are now going to get a chance to get a better feel about whether Christian Bethancourt might be ready to handle the everyday catching duties at the Major League level.   They just were hoping to be able to do so while still having Evan Gattis’ bat in their lineup.

As Gattis spends at least the next couple weeks sidelined by a bulging thoracic disc in his back, the Braves will attempt to compensate for his significant absence from the middle of their lineup.  At the same time, they should be stronger from a defensive perspective behind the plate.  But as we saw again last night with Alex Wood on the mound, Bethancourt certainly is not immune to those same communication issues that Gattis has had with at least three members of Atlanta’s rotation.

The difference last night was Wood proved to be much more mature than Teheran was when he visibly showed his frustration for a few innings and then ultimately looked foolish as he balked during the sixth inning of his June 21 start against the Nationals.

With that being said, it will take some time for Bethancourt to get a feel for the preferences and tendencies possessed by some of Atlanta’s pitchers.  Like when this issue with Gattis popped up in D.C. last week, it seems important to point out that this past winter Brian McCann told me it took him nearly four seasons before he truly became comfortable and confident calling a Major League game.

So, yeah, there might still be some growing pains as Bethancourt introduces himself to the big league level while sharing the catching duties with Gerald Laird.  But at the same time, with these two handling the catching duties opponents are likely going to be much more hesitant to run.

Gattis threw out just nine of the 40 opponents who tried to steal against him this season.  Laird has retired eight of the 15 baserunners who have tried to steal with him behind the plate.  As for Bethancourt, his arm has obviousy always been that special gift that has set him apart.

Had the Braves ever opted to send Gattis to left field to create a spot for Bethancourt, they would have certainly weakened their outfield defense.  But let’s not forget those talks had as much to do about a couple lackadaisical plays  B.J. Upton made in the field as they did Gattis’ shortcomings behind the plate.

Since making a pair of blunders when the Angels were in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, B.J. has been much more valuable in the glove.  In fact, he’s actually looked much more like the guy the Braves described when they heralded his glove work upon giving him a five-year, $75.25 million contract before the 2013 season.

I’m certainly still not sold (and quite frankly Fredi G. probably isn’t either) on B.J. in the leadoff spot.  But given the fact that the Braves are 7-1 since Upton was moved to the top of their lineup, he’s certainly not going anywhere else within the next day or two.   As he has hit safely in each of these seven games, Upton has batted .267 with a .313 on-base percentage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Braves Quick Hits

Now that they have completed an 8-3 road trip, the Braves attempt to take advantage of a chance to extend their momentum over the next couple of weeks.   Each of their 13 games scheduled before the All-Star break will be played against teams (Mets, D-backs and Cubs) that are currently at least eight games below .500.

Those of you who have watched this club closely, can choose whether this is  good or bad thing.  The Braves are 24-21 (.533 win percentage) against teams currently below .500 and 20-17 against teams that currently have a winning record.

The Braves will play seven of these 13 games against the Mets, who have gone 9-10 since losing six straight earlier this month.   With the Braves starting a pair of left-handed pitchers this week, the Mets are hoping David Wright (shoulder) returns to the lineup as early as tonight.  Wright, who hasn’t played since Thursday, has batted .403 against left-handed pitchers this season.

On the opposite end of this spectrum is Jason Heyward, who has continued to create reason to wonder if he is still bothered by the effects of getting in the face with Mets left-hander Jon Niese’s fastball in August.  Heyward was hitting just .212 (11-for-52) against left-handed pitchers through May 27.  He has since gone hitless in 28 at-bats against southpaws.

Fortunately for Heyward, the Braves have not faced a left-handed starting pitcher in their past 13 games.  And the Mets are not scheduled to send a left-handed starter to the mound this week.

Alex Wood gets the start for the Braves in tonight’s series opener.  Wood has allowed two earned runs or less in seven of eight starts this year.  He’s allowed one earned run or less and lasted at least seven innings in four of those outings.

B.J. Upton hasn’t proven anybody wrong as he he has hit .231 and produced a .259 on-base percentage in the six games he has played since moving to the leadoff role.  But while recording at least one hit in each of those six games, he has at least given the superstitious Fredi Gonzalez reason to stick with the “If it’s not completely damaged, don’t fix it approach.”

 

 

 

 

 

Heyward remains the only logical option to consistently fill the leadoff spot

Fredi Gonzalez watches the same games and analyzes the same numbers that you do.  When he put B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot for Tuesday night’s game against the Astros, he fully anticipated the ridicule that followed.  But as long as he wants to keep Jason Heyward in the middle of his lineup, then he really does not have a logical option to place at the top.

Raise your hand if you just read that previous sentence and said something like, “Yeah, so, just go with the most illogical option?”  (Seriously, you just raised your hand with nobody around you understanding why.  And you think Fredi is a buffoon for putting B.J. in the leadoff spot.)

Gonzalez made it clear that he is not married to  having Upton fill the leadoff spot.  It sounds like he’s going to experiment with this arrangement much like he did the Tommy La Stella experiment that did not work last week.

Perhaps, three weeks into his career was too early to ask La Stella to fill the lineup’s top spot. Or maybe the time was right for him to finally get exposed.  Whatever the case, as he went 2-for-20 and drew two walks over the five games he served as the leadoff hitter, he did not show the patience and plate discipline that had set him apart during his Minor League days.

If La Stella continues to consistently put the ball in play, he could prove to be effective in the lineup’s second spot.  But the jury is still out on the second baseman.

When La Stella was hitting .387 entering last Tuesday’s game against the Philllies, a highly-regarded scout pointed to a stat sheet and told me, ‘that three will be a two within a week.”  Once again, he proved to be right.  La Stella will enter tonight’s game hitting .289.

Freddie Freeman is really the only logical number three hitter on the Braves roster.  So if Gonzalez wants to keep La Stella in the two hole, he would have left-handed hitters filling the second and third spots of his lineup. This brings us back to the argument against filling the top of the lineup with three consecutive left-handed hitters.  In other words, using this premise, Heyward is out of the mix for the leadoff spot.  (SPOILER ALERT:  Heyward is always the best leadoff option, unless the Braves facing a left-handed starter.  Just in the process of making an argument right now.)

So now we’re tasked with the assignment to find a right-handed hitter to put in that leadoff spot. Well, unless you want to argue that it would cut down on the double play opportunities Chris Johnson would encounter, Johnson, Justin Upton and  Evan Gattis are not exactly leadoff types.  When given a shot to fill this role last year, Andrelton Simmons proved to be the least productive of the many leadoff hitters the Braves have utilized since saying goodbye to Rafael Furcal.

So essentially by default, Gonzalez threw B.J. and his .272 on-base percentage into the leadoff spot yesterday. How long this arrangement lasts remains to be seen.  But it’s obviously not one that makes sense, especially this week with the Astros set to start three consecutive right-handed pitchers.

I understand that Astros veteran left-handed reliever Tony Sipp has been tremendous against left-handed hitters this season.  But he’s also been pedestrian again them throughout most of his career.  More importantly, does is really make sense to allow a lineup’s structure to be based on the concern that one specialist MIGHT be able to dominate three consecutive left-handed hitters in an inning?

So if La Stella has to be in the two-hole for now, I think the Braves would be best suited to begin their lineup against right-handed starters  with the left-handed trio of Heyward, La Stella and Freeman.

Concerns about putting Heyward in the leadoff spot on a daily basis are focused on the fact that he has hit .139 with a .198 on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers.  In fact, he his hitless in his past 27 at-bats against southpaws.

So, when the Braves face a left-handed starter, it might make sense to fill the leadoff spot with Simmons, who has hit .348 with a .362 on-base percentage against southpaws this year.  But, other than recognizing that his speed is an asset when he gets on base, I can’t even begin to make an argument for B.J. being in the leadoff spot.

Proposed lineup vs. RH starters:   Heyward, La Stella, Freeman, Gattis, J. Upton, Johnson, B.J., Simmons

vs. LH starters:  Simmons, J. Upton, Freeman, Gattis, Johnson, Heyward, B.J., La Stella

 

Here is a look at the top on-base percentages compiled by players while manning the leadoff spot (Min. 50 games) for the Braves dating back to Furcal’s departure after the 2005 season:

Yunel Escobar (80 games)  .370

Gregor Blanco (70 games)  .370

Omar Infante (97 games)  .363

Heyward (99 games)  .354

Michael Bourn (204 games )  .340

Martin Prado (139 games) .340

Kelly Johnson (141 games) .338

Nate McLouth (99 games) .336

Marcus Giles  (113 games) .334

Jordan Schafer (88 games) .316

Andrelton Simmons (65 games) .255

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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