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.