May 2010

Braves set to conclude a memorable May

Before looking at how the Braves have positioned themselves to move into first place within any of the next three days, I want to thank my father, uncle and each of you who have given us this opportunity to take time today to remember why we have been afforded the chance to enjoy the freedoms provided us here in the United States. 

Based on the way the Braves have played over the course of the past three weeks, there was growing reason to believe there could come a point where they would start seriously challenging Philadelphia’s National League East supremacy.  But two weeks ago, when they sat a season-high 6 1/2 games back, there certainly wasn’t much reason to think they could enter June as the division leaders. 

With the Phillies having scored a total of seven runs while losing six of their past eight games, their manager Charlie Manuel brings a staggered bunch into Turner Field this week.  Winners of 15 of their past 19 games, the Braves enter this afternoon’s series opener just a half-game back in the NL East race. 

Over the course of the previous four seasons, the Braves never even held a share of first place after May 15.   In fact during the 2006, 2008 and 2009 seasons, they never sat above second place this late in the season after April 12.

Now if Phil Niekro can get his arm loose and find some of his get his knuckleball to start dancing again this week, the Braves might really be able to prolong Philadelphia’s offensive woes this week.  

The Phillies have been shutout five times over the course of their past eight games and the only time they scored during any of the six losses that encompassed this span was when they tallied three ninth-inning runs after knuckleballer Tim Wakefield blanked them for eight innings on May 23.

Forty-eight hours after being handcuffed by Wakefield’s knuckler, the defending National League champs were blanked by the one delivered by R.A. Dickey.   This prompted Bobby Cox to playfully tell one of the members of his club’s media relations staff, “why don’t you throw Niekro in there as one of our probables for the Phillies series.”

“With that lineup, it’s just a matter of time before they bust loose,” Chipper Jones said. “Fortunately I like our pitching staff and I think our pitching staff can continue to hold them down.”    

With Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe set to take the mound this week, the Braves seemingly match up much better than the Phillies, who will not be sending Roy Halladay or Jamie Moyer to the mound during this week’s series. 

Like knuckleballers have been Philadelphia’s kryptonite, Moyer arguably had the same effect on the Braves when they endured their nine-game losing streak at the end of April.   The 47-year-old left-hander has allowed at least four earned runs in six of his first 10 starts this year.  But in two outings against Atlanta he has completed 15 innings without surrendering an earned run. 

Halladay marked the beginning of that nine-game losing streak and the next night Moyer prolonged it by throwing six scoreless innings at Turner Field.  Seven days later, the Braves had endured a nine-day stretch during which they had hit .223 and totaled 17 runs.

As miserable as that span seemed to be, the potent Phillies offense has actually been even worse recently.  During their past eight games, they have batted just .186 and tallied seven runs.

Within these eight games, the Phillies have missed Jimmy Rollins’ presence at the top of their lineup and seen Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth combine to hit .130 (11-for-84) with two extra-base hits  (a double and a triple). 

In the 16 games played since Martin Prado began handling the leadoff role on virtually an everyday basis, the Braves have hit .289 and scored 5.6 runs per game.  Whey exited Philadelphia on May 9, they had gone through the season’s first 31 games hitting .232 and scoring 3.9 runs per game. 

It appears this is a much different Braves club than the one that lost four of its first six games to the Phillies this year.   But if they are going to maximize the dividends created by the turnaround they have enjoyed this month, they need to make a statement this week at Turner Field. 

Exiting this series in first place would simply be a by-product of the more important opportunity to gain further confidence by claiming a series victory against these Phillies, who are currently vulnerable and always dangerous. 

NOTES:  If the Braves are able to claim a victory with Hanson on the mound this afternoon, they will have gone 20-8 in May.  In other words no matter what happens in this series opener, they will not lose more games during this 31-day stretch than they did during that forgettable nine-game stretch in April…Jason Heyward enters this series opener with an NL-best 1.017 OPS.  He’s legitimized his candidacy for an All-Star bid and also given reason to be an early MVP favorite…Prado leads the NL with a .325 batting average. Back when they were playing in the Minors, Brian McCann predicted Prado would win a batting title.  We’ll see if his words prove prophetic this year.

Does Chipper still have something left in the tank?

Based on what we’ve seen over what has amounted to nearly a full calendar year, it’s hard to imagine that Chipper Jones is just two years removed from his first career batting title. 

Dating back to June 9 of last year, Jones has hit .229 with 12 homers, a .363 on-base percentage and a .357 slugging percentage.

Among every other Major League player who has compiled at least 450 plate appearances during this span, Lyle Overbay (.228), Clint Barmes (.221), Carlos Pena (.216) and Brandon Inge (.208) are the only who have posted a lower batting average.  Barmes, Inge and Pena have done so while totaling at least 20 home runs. 

Jones’ .357 slugging percentage ranks as the 13th-worst mark posted during this span.  To provide some clarity, he has produced less power than Michael Bourn (.365) and just slightly more than David Eckstein and Ronny Cedeno, who have both posted .354 marks. 

But as Marlins right-handed reliever Brian Sanches showed while issuing Jones the go-ahead, four-pitch, bases-loaded walk in last night’s victory, the Braves 38-year-old third baseman is still being pitched to in a cautious manner. 

The 100 walks that Jones has drawn dating back to June 9 have been trumped only by the totals that have been issued to Albert Pujols (104), Adrian Gonzalez (103) and Chone Figgins (102).  His 33 walks this season rank fourth in the Majors and equal the total drawn by the great Pujols.

It’s almost as if pitchers feel like they’re still facing the same guy that hit .352 with a .448 on-base percentage and .618 slugging percentage during a 358-game stretch that extended from June 26, 2006 through June 8 of last year.

Within this stretch that extended through four seasons, nobody compiled a better batting average or on-base percentage than Jones. His .618 slugging percentage was bettered only by the .620 mark posted by Pujols.

Then seemingly overnight everything changed for Jones. Through the first 47 games he played last year, he hit .331 with a .451 on-base percentage and .567 slugging percentage.  While the power was off slightly, the numbers were at least somewhat comparable to the ones he’d produced over the course of the previous few years. 

At 38 years-old, it’s understandable that Jones is no longer producing the same kind of numbers that punched his ticket to Cooperstown. But along with age, maybe his struggles are a product of the fact that he no longer is protected by the same kind of threat that Mark Teixeira provided while he was hitting cleanup in Atlanta. 

There seems to be a popular opinion that it is time for Jones to move out of the third spot in the lineup to make room for Jason Heyward.  While I see this as a logical option, maybe there’s reason to keep Jones where he is and give him the protection Heyward would provide while manning the  cleanup spot, a position that would give the 20-year-old phenom more RBI opportunities than he has had since moving into the two hole.

Like I said last week, attempting to find the best makeup of this Braves lineup is like attempting to piece together a large jigsaw puzzle that has no corners or ends.   But Martin Prado has proven to be the best option in the leadoff role and with the belief that he will start to hit consistently, I think Yunel Escobar might be best served to bat second. 

There might be some late-inning matchup problems if Heyward and Brian McCann (who would bat fifth vs. RHP) were positioned together in the lineup.  But to give Jones one last attempt to prove he still can be a productive threat in the middle of the lineup, I think it’s at least worth seeing what he could do with Heyward sitting behind him for at least a week or two. 

If this wouldn’t work, then Jones certainly needs to move down to the sixth or seventh spot of the lineup.  But before completely giving up on him with the assumption that age has been the primary factor in his decline, it’s seemingly worth giving him a shot to see more hittable pitches.

Tonight’s matchup:  Looking to conclude this road trip with a 4-2 record, the Braves will conclude this three-game series against the Marlins by sending Tim Hudson to the mound to oppose Ricky Nolasco.  As many of you likely remember, Nolasco notched 16 strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings when he last faced the Braves on Sept. 30.  

Nolasco had totaled 16 strikeouts in his three previous starts against the Braves last year.  The right-hander posted a 1.82 ERA in the five appearances (four starts) he made against Atlanta during the 2006 season.

But in his past seven starts against the Braves Nolasco is just 2-3 with a 6.02 ERA.

Hudson is 8-2 with a 2.92 ERA in 15 career starts against the Marlins.  In the eight career road starts he has made against them while pitching for the Braves, he is 6-1 with a 2.44 mark. 

   

 

 

Clevlen gets his first start as a Brave

Welcome back to PNC Park where Bobby Cox is utilizing one of those “Sunday afternoon” lineups that were commonplace back when his clubs were notching five-game winning streaks with some regularity.

With the Braves preparing to play on 20 consecutive days after Monday’s offday, Cox has chosen to rest Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Eric Hinske for this series finale.

Jason Heyward was scratched about an hour before the first pitch was thrown.  The Braves initially said he was also just getting a chance to rest.  But they later revealed that he is dealing with a sore left thumb.

UPDATED:

Heyward says that he jammed the thumb while sliding into third base during a May 14 game against the D-backs.  He hadn’t previously complained of the ailment and while playing the entirety of each of the nine games that followed he hit .265, drilled a walk-off double and constructed a three-hit performance that was just a few feet shy of being his first career multi-homer game.

The Braves don’t seem too concerned with the ailment.  They are hopeful that he could return to the lineup as early as Tuesday.

(Now back to the original blog entry:)

Going for their sixth straight win today, the Braves will be utilizing Brent Clevlen as their left fielder.  Clevlen, who was called up last week when Matt Diaz was placed on the disabled list, will be making his first start since going 2-for-4 for the Tigers in a 5-4 win over the Dodgers on June 15, 2008.

With the Pirates sending left-hander Zach Duke to the mound, Cox has construcgted a right-handed-heavy lineup.  Duke had some success limiting the Phillies to one run over six innings on Tuesday night.  But in his four previous starts he had posted a 7.86 ERA.

Left-handed hitters are batting .341 (15-for-44) against Duke and right-handers are hitting .307 (51-for-166).

Here is the lineup that will be looking to support Kris Medlen this afternoon. 

Braves @ Pirates  5/23/2010
McLouth 8
Infante-5,

Prado-4
Glaus-3,
Escobar-6,
Cabrera-9,
Ross-2,
Clevlen-7,
Medlen-1

Rainy update from PNC

While we’re sitting through a rain delay here at PNC Park, here are some tidbits that were gathered this afternoon.

Braves manager Bobby Cox opted to rest Troy Glaus tonight and start Eric Hinske at first base tonight.  While Glaus could certainly benefit from a break, I think Cox also saw this as an opportunity to give Melky Cabrera a chance to get rolling.  With Hinske at first base, Cabrera will be be in left field. 

The switch-hitting Cabrera is hitting just .200 this season but has posted a .237 mark against right-handed pitchers.  Virtually everybody has hit Pirate starter Charlie Morton this year.  But he has had his greatest troubles against left-handed hitters, who have compiled a .350 batting average against him.

Heyward’s improved approach:  It does seem like Jason Heyward has been a little less selective since Cox suggested that he be more aggressive early in the count.  But Heyward thinks the success he has experienced over the past three weeks is just a product of the natural development process.  

During the first 20 games of his career, Heyward hit .224 (15-for-67) with four homers 25 strikeouts and a .358 on-base percentage.   In the 18 games he played since Cox expressed his desire, the Braves 20-year-old right fielder hit .367 (22-for-60) with five homers, five strikeouts and a .458 on-base percentage.   <p>

His ability to significantly improve his on-base percentage seems to be product of the fact that he struck out once every 2.68 at-bats during his first 20 games and just once every 12 at-bats during the 18 games he has played since Cox told media members that his young outfielder needed to start swinging the bat a little more often.  <p>

“You can’t hit with two strikes against you every at-bat,” Cox said. “Especially with runners on, if you get a pitch to hit, you better hit it.  He’s smart.  He’s got a great idea at the plate every at-bat.  He’s not going to swing at the first pitch, unless it’s a great pitch.”    <p> 

To his credit, Heyward didn’t then immediately evolve into a free-swinger.  He still has put the first pitch of an at-bat in play just six times in his career.   But it does feel like he is drawing hitter’s counts much more frequently than he did during the early weeks of the season.

Entering Saturday, he was hitting .192 (14-for-73) when ending an at-bat with a two-strike count.  But when he had put a ball in play when ahead in the count, he had hit .356 (16-for-45).

Kimbrel needs more time:   The decision to send Craig Kimbrel back to Triple-A Gwinnett further proved why the Braves felt the need to hire Dave Wallace as their new Minor League pitching instructor this offseason.  

With Kent Willis handling this role over the course of the past few years, the Braves too often found themselves stocking their Major League pitching staff with young pitchers who still hadn’t learned the finer points of their craft.  

There are still some concerns about Kimbrel’s control.  But the six walks he issued in 3 1/3 innings for Atlanta were likely a product of nerves.  The kid threw strikes while at Gwinnett earlier this year and he’ll likely show this same kind of control when he returns to Atlanta. 

More alarming to the Braves Major League coaching staff was the fact that Kimbrel proved to be very slow to the plate while throwing all of his pitches from the stretch.   In order to maximize the potential of his tremendous arm, the 21-year-old right-hander will spend the next few weeks and possibly months developing a delivery that will allow him to be less susceptible against opposing basestealers.

Kawakami Update: Kenshin Kawakami’s back discomfort has subsided over the past few days and he is expected to make his start against the Marlins on Tuesday.

Looks like we’ll get this game started at some point tonight.  But as of 7:50 p.m. ET, the tarp was still on the field.
 

Santana bidding for rare win vs. Braves

Looking simply at the fact that they are sending Johan Santana to the mound to face Kris Medlen tonight at Turner Field, the Mets should feel pretty good about the odds of sweeping this two-game set against the Braves.  

Of course the Braves also felt pretty good about sending Tommy Hanson to the mound
Saturday night to oppose Rodrigo Lopez.  Eleven runs later the D-backs snapped a seven-game losing streak and once again proved why Pete Rose has learned it’s now easier to supplement his bank account through appearance fees.   

Making his second start of the season and the sixth of his career, Medlen has fewer career wins (1) as a  starter than Santana’s total of Cy Young Awards (2).  But by the end of the night, the versatile young right-hander could have as many career wins (1) against the Mets as Santana does against the Braves.

In his eight career starts against the Braves, Santana has never allowed more than three runs and he has been charged with two earned runs or fewer in six of those outings.  But he’ll enter tonight 1-5 with a 2.21 ERA against Bobby Cox’s teams.  

Santana has recorded at least two victories against each of the other 28 Major League clubs that he has made at least three career starts against.   The only other clubs that he has posted a losing record against are the Angels (2-4) and Blue Jays (2-4).   

The .290 batting average that Santana has surrendered against the Braves stands as the highest mark he has allowed against any organization.   Taking this one step further, Medlen can feel good about the fact that he will be backed by some of the same guys who are responsible for this mark.  

Careers vs. Santana
Yunel  Escobar .333 (6-for-18) 1 double  1 K
Chipper Jones  .294 (5-for-17)  2 BB, 2 Ks
Brian McCann .273 (6-for-22) 1 double, 2 HRs

This will mark the first time Troy Glaus has faced Santana while wearing a Braves uniform.  In his 24 career at-bats against the left-hander, Glaus has hit .333 with three doubles and a homer.  

It might seem ridiculous right now to play anybody in favor of Eric Hinske, who has hit .571 with five doubles and two homers while starting in left field during each of the past six games.    But he is 0-for-5 with two strikeouts in his career against Santana and he has had just four at-bats against left-handed pitchers this year.   

If Cox is willing to take a gamble tonight, he could be persuaded to put Brent Clevlen in left field for tonight’s game.  Santana is the only pitcher that Clevlen has compiled more than six career plate appearances against.  

In the process, Clevlen has hit .300 (3-for-10) with a double and a triple against Santana.  But with each of his seven outs coming via strikeouts, maybe it would be better to just go with either the red-hot Hinske or Melky Cabera, who is 2-for-10 with a double and just one strikeout in his career against the Mets ace.  

McCann’s struggles:  Regardless of what McCann says to avoid creating an excuse, his vision problems are the primary reason he’s not producing like he did in the past.  As anybody who has ever worn glasses will attest, it takes time to get used to the feel on the face and the vision that they create.

Before going hitless in four at-bats last night, McCann was showing some signs of improvement.  In his previous four games he had gone 6-for-16 with a double and a homer.  

Those two extra-base hits matched the total he had compiled in his previous 19 games.  
Within last night’s game story, I focused on the fact that McCann is hitting just .192 with runners in scoring position this year and .222 since the beginning of the 2009 season against left-handed pitchers.  

In hindsight, I should have also mentioned that this hitless evening was completed against a couple of guys who have had little trouble with left-handed hitters this year.   Feliciano has limited left-handers to a .172 (5-for-29) batting average this year and the right-handed Pelfrey has limited them to a .208 (16-for-77) mark.  

As McCann continues to get used to his glasses, he’ll show some of the same promise that he was building entering Monday night’s game.  As a four-time All-Star, he’s likely going to once again find himself heading into the offseason with a batting average around .300 and an RBI total that is around the century mark.   

But if the Braves are going to be playing meaningful games down the stretch this year, there’s no doubt that McCann is going to have to start taking advantage of those numerous run-producing opportunities that he gets in the cleanup spot.

With Martin Prado and Jason Heyward now occupying the lineup’s top two spots, McCann should start getting more opportunities to drive in runs.  It’s almost ridiculous that he has sat in the cleanup spot in 27 games this season and has just 27 at-bats with runners in scoring position.   

Further showing how bad the Braves leadoff hitters were during the season’s first six weeks, Chipper Jones has sat in his customary third spot of the lineup throughout the year and totaled just 21 at-bats with runners in scoring position.  

But following in the footsteps of Jeff Francoeur, Melky Cabrera has shown that run-producing situations too often occur at the wrong time.    In just 26 games, Cabrera has totaled 35 at-bats with runners in scoring position and hit just .171 in those situations.  

Fortunately for the Braves, Nate McLouth has hit .318 in his past six games and allowed Cabrera to fill the backup role that was envisioned when he was acquired from the Yankees.  If McLouth goes 1-for-4 tonight, he’ll improve his batting average to .200  —  marking the first time since April 9 that he would at least be at the Mendoza Line.  

Slumping Mets limp into Atlanta

With their pitching staff providing indication that April was a fluke and Jeff Francoeur duplicating the nosedive he experienced in Atlanta last year, the Mets will limp into Turner Field tonight looking much more vulnerable than that club that swept the Braves at Citi Field less than a month ago.

That three-game series in New York proved to be one of the ugliest the Braves have played in recent memory.   Brian McCann was confused about the infield fly rule.  Yunel Escobar decided he wanted to deny Troy Glaus an RBI on a routine sacrifice fly.  Then to end the forgettable weekend, the Braves were handed a 1-0 loss when rain prevented the resumption of play after the fifth inning of the series finale.

There was a sense that things could get wore for the Braves.   But even the harshest cynic would have had a tough time believing that just four days later, manager Bobby Cox would be staring at a nine-game losing streak and the reality that he would have to spend at least the next two weeks without both Yunel Escobar and Jair Jurrjens.  

When Jurrjens and Escobar were both injured on April 29, there was reason to believe if this would be a season that would lead Cox to wish he had retired one year earlier.  But 18 days later, there is reason to wonder if this is a season that is fittingly shaping up to once again show the kind of steadying influence Cox provides through disastrous stretches.  

The Braves certainly haven’t escaped their early-season mess while winning five of their past six games.  But they have at least put themselves in a good position as they enter a 13-game stretch that will carry them into a three-game series (May 31-June 2) against the Phillies.   

But before looking ahead to this week’s two-game set against the surging Reds or the opportunity to play the Pirates both of the next two  weekends, the Braves must first look to take advantage of the slumping Mets, who have lost five straight and seven of their last eight games.  

When the Braves were in New York, the Mets were in the midst of a 10-1 stretch during which their pitchers posted a 1.99 ERA.    This same pitching staff has posted a 5.38 ERA while going 4-11 in May.   <p>

When he got re-acquainted with some of his former Braves teammates last month, Francoeur was in the early stages of the slump that has led to the .214 batting average that he will carry into tonight’s series opener against Derek Lowe.  

After Francoeur batted .457 with three homers in his first 10 games this year, some Braves fans were wondering why he couldn’t have produced these kinds of numbers under the tutelage of Terry Pendleton.    But in some ways his struggles this season mirror those that he experienced last year in Atlanta.  

Since hittting .302 with a .947 OPS through  his first 14 games this year, Francoeur has batted .154 with a .421 OPS in the 24 games that have followed.  

Last year, he hit .304 with a .780 OPS in his first 14 games and then batted .204 with a .528 OPS over the course of his next 24 games.  

Like Francoeur, Mike Pelfrey enters tonight’s matchup against Lowe without the same kind of confidence that he possessed when he tossed five scoreless innings against the Braves on April 25.   At the time, he hadn’t allowed a run in 24 consecutive innings.   

Through his first three starts in May, the 26-year-old right-hander has completed 17 innings and allowed 13 earned runs.   When he last opposed the Braves at Turner Field on July 17 of last year, he was tagged for nine earned runs and nine hits in just 4 1/3 innings.  

Smoltz vs. Glavine:   If you’re not watching “24” or the game tonight, I really don’t know what else you could be viewing.  But if you want to watch Tom Glavine and John Smoltz play a competitive round of golf tune to the Golf Channel at 9 p.m. ET tonight to see them featured on Donald J. Trump’s Fabulous World of Golf.  If you don’t have a DVR, the match will be shown multiple times throughout this week.
 
 

Infection will sideline Diaz for an extended period

Yunel Escobar was back in the Braves lineup on Saturday night.  But it could be at least another three weeks before manager Bobby Cox is able to utilize Matt Diaz again. 

Diaz has spent the past three weeks bothered by the same right thumb infection that sidelined him during the final weeks of last season.  When he began bleeding and showing signs of an infection after a pinch-hit at-bat on Friday night,  the Braves determined it was time for him to be further evaluated. 

Noted hand specialist Dr. Gary Lourie will remove a foreign substance from Diaz’s right thumb during a surgical procedure on Wednesday.  While the recovery time is undetermined, Cox knows it will be June before the veteran outfielder is playing again. 

“It will be weeks,” Cox said. “They have to go in there pretty deep.” 

With Diaz unavailable, Eric Hinske will likely see a lot more playing time in left field.  Brent Clevelan has been promoted from Triple-A Gwinnett to at least temporarily serve as an extra outfielder. 

Clevlen, who hit .259 with a homer and 14 RBIs in 26 games with Triple-A Gwinnett this year, was a high school teammate of former Braves second baseman Kelly Johnson, who is in town this weekend with his D-backs teammates. 

The Braves told Clevlen that he was going to the Majors at about 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and approximately one hour later he was getting ready for his new assignment at Turner Field.   He made the 30-minute drive to downtown Atlanta in a car he borrowed from right-handed reliever Stephen Marek, a childhood friend who was recently promoted to the Gwinnett roster.

To make room for Escobar, the Braves sent shortstop Brandon Hicks back to Gwinnett.  Hicks will now spend the next few weeks and months proving that he can develop a swing that would enable him to prove how valuable he can be from a defensive standpoint at the Major League level. 

BRAVES LINEUP vs. D-backs  5/15/2010

Prado 4
Heyward 9
Chipper 5
McCann 2
Glaus 3
Hinske 7
Escobar 6
McLouth 8
Hanson 1    

Suddenly rejuvenated offense returns home

While mixing Mucinex, Zyrtec  and a couple of cough drops this week, I could have sworn that I saw the Braves go into Milwaukee and score 28 runs over the course of just three games. 

Had I also seen Jo-Jo Reyes come off the disabled list to earn one of those three wins over the Brewers,  I would have certainly been moved to immediately check myself into the nearest hospital.  

With their first road sweep of the season, the Braves may have saved hitting coach Terry Pendleton’s job and given us reason to believe they are capable of scoring at least one earned run against Jamie Moyer at some point this season.  

Had Pendleton been chosen to be the fall guy, there likely wouldn’t have been a significant public backlash.   When a preseason contender hits .232 and compiles a .337 slugging percentage through the season’s first 31 games, you find yourself nearing a point where change seems imminent.  

Fortunately for Pendleton, the Braves did what they were supposed to do against Doug Davis on Monday night and then gladly put Jason Heyward back in their lineup for the final two games in Milwaukee.  

Instead of saying Heyward is a difference maker for the umpteenth time this year, I’ll point out that despite totaling just three at-bats while battling a sore right groin over a six-game stretch last week, he still enters tonight’s series opener against the D-backs with more RBIs (28) than the combined totals of Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Yunel Escobar.  

Looking at one of the new-age stats, Heyward’s 2.70 WPA (win probability added) ranks second in the Majors only to the 2.88 mark posted by Miguel Cabrera, the early favorite to win the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.  

FanGraphs.com defines WPA as the difference in win expectancy (WE) between the start of the play and the end of the play. That difference is then credited/debited to the batter and the pitcher. Over the course of the season, each players’ WPA for individual plays is added up to get his season total WPA.

If this stat still seems confusing, just ignore it and accept the fact that your eyes haven’t deceived you.  It certainly doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that the Braves lineup is severely weakened whenever it doesn’t possess Heyward’s presence.  

Now with Chipper Jones expected to return tonight and  Yunel Esobar likely coming off the disabled list in time to start Saturday’s game, where should Heyward sit in the lineup over the course of the next couple weeks or months?

Given that Chipper Jones has hit .231 with 12 homers and a .736 OPS over the course of his past 123 games, there is certainly reason to wonder if the Braves would benefit from replacing him in the third spot of the lineup with Heyward.  

But this isn’t something that is going to happen immediately and when you look at the recent results maybe it is time to believe Jones’ contention that he feels good at the plate and is seeing the ball much better than he did during the second half of the 2009 season.  

Jones has hit .350 (7-for-20) with three doubles in his past seven games.   When he first felt some discomfort in his hip on April 23, he was hitting .295 with a .959 OPS.  Over the years, the veteran third baseman has drawn criticism because of the amount of time that he has spent out of the lineup.  

But the numbers certainly provide reason to believe that his current statistics are a product of the fact that he chose to play through some pain because the team was enduring a rough stretch (the nine-game losing streak).  

From April 24-May 2, Jones recorded just one hit in 24 at-bats.  Take away that eight-game stretch and he would currently be hitting .313, which is right in line with the .307 career batting average that he carried into this season.   

If Jones continues to hit third, the Braves could put Heyward in the second spot and move Martin Prado into the leadoff spot.   Bobby Cox loves all the skills that Prado provides in the second spot.  But there isn’t much need to have the  ability to hit the ball to the right side of the infield or consistently advance runners when the guys (leadoff hitters)hitting in front of you have compiled an NL-worst .253 on-base percentage.  

Nor should it matter that Prado isn’t much of a threat to steal a base.  The Jimmy Rollins-less Phillies and Cubs are the only National League clubs with fewer stolen base attempts than the Braves this year.

The Braves simply need to supply a table setter for Heyward, Jones, McCann, and the suddenly red-hot Troy Glaus.  To give Escobar a chance to continue being the solid run producer that he was last year, I think the best choice is to at least try Prado in that leadoff role for a week or two.  

If it doesn’t work, they could flip-flop him with Escobar, who has .307 with a .370 on-base percentage in his career as a leadoff hitter.  During his first plate appearance in  the 78 games he has started a game as the leadoff hitter, he has hit .395 with a .410 on-base percentage.  

Escobar will make a rehab appearance for Triple-A Gwinnett tonight.   Reyes is scheduled to start for Gwinnett, which will also likely welcome Jordan Schafer to its roster at some point this weekend.  Schafer has hit .294 with three doubles in the nine rehab games he has played for Class A Rome and Double-A Mississippi this year.

Conrad gets his first start of the season

With Chipper Jones getting a chance to rest the left groin muscle that he tweaked Saturday, Brooks Conrad will make his first start of the season during this afternoon’s series finale against Cole Hamels and the Phillies. 

It would have been interesting to see Hamels’ reaction when he looked at the injury-depleted Braves lineup that will serve as his opposition this afternoon.

With Jones and Heyward unavailable, the Braves have Melky Cabrera sitting in the third spot of the order.   Cabrera went hitless in his first 14 at-bats during this road trip before delivering an opposite-field single during Saturday’s three-run sixth inning.

Cabrera does have three hits, including a double, in six at-bats against Hamels.  Brian McCann might be able to halt his struggles against southpaws.  He has hit .367 (11-for-30) with five doubles and a homer in his career against the Phillies left-hander.   

UPDATE:   Heyward is now saying that he thinks he could return to the lineup on Tuesday night in Milwaukee.  He has been limited to pinch-hit duties since his right groin forced him to exit Wednesday’s game against the Nationals in the first inning.

Jones felt some lingering discomfort while taking some swings in the batting cage this morning.  But he said he’s hoping to be back in the lineup for Monday night’s series opener in Milwaukee.

Many of the Braves will be wearing pink wrist bands and using pink bats this afternoon to recognize Major League Baseball’s “Going to Bat Against Breast Cancer” initiative.  

BRAVES LINEUP 5/9 vs. Phils:

Infante, 6;
Prado, 4
Cabrera, 9
Glaus, 3
McCann, 2
Diaz, 7
Conrad, 5
McLouth 8
Kawakami, 1

Hinske gets his first outfield start of the year

Putting Eric Hinske isn’t going to solve the enormous problems the Braves have experienced at the plate this year.  But with the Phillies starting right-hander Joe Blanton this afternoon, Bobby Cox is throwing Hinske out there for the first time this year.

Instead of giving Matt Diaz a chance to break out of his funk, Cox is going to play the matchup provided by the left-handed Hinske, who has hit .280 with a .773 OPS against right-handers this season.

Diaz has hit .182 against righties and just .179 against those lefties that he has feasted on throughout his career. 

Heading to the clubhouse to gather some news.

Braves lineup vs. Phils 5/8

McLouth, 8
Prado 4
Chipper, 5
McCann, 2
Glaus,
3
Hinske, 7
Cabrera, 9
Infante, 6
Medlen, 1

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