August 2012

Med Dog provides the reminder he was once an athlete

Other than the fact both are vertically-challenged right-handed pitchers with a sound understanding of how to baffle lineups without an overpowering fastball, I don’t see the need to draw comparisons between Kris Medlen and Greg Maddux. I was thinking about waiting at least until Medlen compiles 20 career wins, or within about 330 of Maddux’s total.

But what Medlen has been impressive enough for Chipper Jones to mention Medlen in the same breath as Maddux.   This was his (@RealCJ10) poetic recap of Tuesday night’s 2-0 win over the Padres:

Medlen is Maddux-esque rite now, only Med has a better pick-off move! DU went #mammo off the paint can! Bmac is now singing soprano,Lol!!

Before we go any further, let’s stay in the Twitter world and suggest that Medlen’s nickname be Med Dog, which is obviously a play off of Maddux’s nickname, Mad Dog.  The first person I saw suggest this was @fauxfrankwren

Now back to our original thought….

In the process of tossing eight scoreless innings against the Padres on Tuesday, Medlen made the Navy Seals on Coronado Island proud with the sniper-like reflexes he showed while picking two runners off first base.  This is certainly not something you would expect to see from a right-handed pitcher.

But as Medlen would like to remind you, he was a right-handed athlete before he became a pitcher.

“I’m a former shortstop.  I used to be good at stuff, like playing baseball and hitting and stuff,”  Medlen said. “That’s one thing that stuck with me was my quick feet.  You guys have been around me enough to know that I can’t really stand still.  It’s just one of those quick things that I’ve developed and it’s helped me control the run game early in my career.”

Since making his Major League debut in 2009, Medlen has recorded six pickoffs, three this year.  Johnny Cueto (8) and R.A. Dickey (4) are the only right-handed pitchers with more pickoffs this year.

Dating back to 1987,  Medlen is one of 13 Braves’ pitchers to total at least six pickoff moves.  John Smoltz (18), Maddux (15) and Tim Hudson (9) are the only right-handed members of this group with more than six pickoffs.  Each of these pitchers obviously compiled many more innings than Medlen.

As for the fact that today’s starting pitcher Tommy Hanson is another right-hander who has also compiled six pickoffs, well it’s safe to say he’s had plenty of reason to attempt to stop baserunners from taking advantage of his delivery.

 

 

Heyward’s impressive summer pushes him closer to expectations

When the Braves last lost a game started by Kris Medlen, Jason Heyward was just 40 games into his career.  Barring an unforeseen turn of events, Heyward will play the 400th game of his career this weekend.  As he approaches this milestone, it is interesting to see where he stands now in comparison to where some other Braves’ greats stood at this same point of their careers.

Through the 396 games and 1,378 at-bats he had compiled entering Tuesday, Heyward’s numbers included a .263 batting average, 56 home runs, a .359 on-base percentage, .454 slugging percentage, 39 stolen bases  and a .813 OPS.

Here is a look at where Hank Aaron and Chipper Jones were at similar points:

Aaron (through 401 games and 1,564 at-bats because he played in a doubleheader on Aug. 31, 1956):  .306 BA, 60 HR, 7 SB, .353 OBP, .516 SLG, .869 OPS

Chipper  (through 400 games and 1,486 at-bats): .295 BA, 68 HR, 38 SB, .378 OBP, .498 SLG, .876 OPS

Obviously Aaron and Jones were slightly ahead of Heyward in terms of production at this point.  But despite all of the frustrations Heyward endured during the 2011 season, it is interesting to see that some of his numbers are still at least in the same neighborhood of the aforementioned Braves legends.

Entering this season, Braves hitting coach Greg Walker preached the need to be patient with Heyward as he gained comfort with the adjustments that were made during the winter.  Well after experiencing some ups and downs in April and May, the 23-year-old outfielder found his groove in June and has spent nearly three full months proving he is quite capable of living up to the tremendous expectations that were present when he reached the Majors in 2010.

Heyward has batted .307 with 18 home runs and a .933 OPS in the 76 games he has played dating back to June 2.    Among National League players during this span, he ranks fifth in homers and ninth in OPS.  To take that next step, he will have to start proving that he can hit left-handed pitchers with more consistency.

Heyward’s splits dating back to June 2

vs. RHP 165 ABs, .358 BA, 14 HRs, .422 OBP, .703 SLG

vs. LHP 125 ABs  .240 BA, 4 HR, .294 OBP, .384 SLG

Unfortunately for Heyward, the Braves will face a pair of left-handed starters during the final two games of their current series against the Padres.  But this should not be too surprising.  The Braves entered Tuesday having gone up against a left-handed starter a Major League-high 49 times.

In preparation for Medlen’s start against the Padres tonight, check out this video created by the hilarious and talented Ricky Mast, who created the Chipper Jones Go Yickitty video.

 

 

Braves exit the last daunting portion of their schedule with momentum

Now that the Braves have completed a 10-game stretch that pitted them against the Dodgers, Nationals and Giants (all postseason candidates), they will play 28 of their final 34 games against teams with a losing record.  Their games against teams with a winning record include a three-game set against the Nationals (Sept. 14-16) and another against the slumping Pirates (Oct. 1-3).

Meanwhile, the Nationals will play 13 of their final 35 games against teams with a winning record –  the Cardinals (Aug. 30-Sept. 2 and Sept. 28-30), the Dodgers (Sept. 18-20) and  the Braves’ series.  And they have six more games against the Phillies squad that swept them this past weekend.  In fact, Philadelphia has won five of the past six games played in this season series.

This is not to say the Braves have a great chance to overcome the 4 1/2-game lead the Nationals have in the National League East standings.  But remember last Tuesday when some of you declared the division race to be over? Well it might have been a little premature to make assumptions.

At the same time, the winning record/losing record only means so much.  Heading into tonight’s opener of a three-game series in San Diego, do you regard the Padres as a team that is 11 games under .500 (59-70) or do you view them as dangerous because they have won have won seven straight games  –currently  the game’s longest winning streak.

The Braves will send Paul Maholm to the mound to oppose Casey Kelly in tonight’s series opener.  Kris Medlen will oppose Andrew Werner in Tuesday night’s game.

Though the Padres were just in Atlanta two weeks ago, many of you are likely unfamiliar with these two pitchers.   Werner made his Major League debut last week and Kelly, the club’s top prospect, will making his in tonight’s matchup.

These two games will lead some to once again say, “The Braves never do well against pitchers they have not seen before.” I’ve heard this since I began  covering the team in 2001. I’ve certainly never seen any stats that support this theory.  Nor do I plan to do the research at this point.  Instead, I’ll simply opine that this theory is a product of the frustration on those occasions when they do indeed struggle against an unfamiliar pitcher.

Kelly is a highly-regarded prospect.  But he is not regarded quite as high as Arizona’s Trevor Bauer, who allowed two runs and five hits while walking three in just four innings during his big league debut against the Braves on June 28.  OK, I lied.  But that will be the extent of my research on the “first time seeing  a pitcher” matter.

Uggla going forward:  It will be interesting to see how Dan Uggla is used over the next couple of weeks.   There is certainly not any reason to use a strict platoon.  During Sunday night’s game against Tim Lincecum, the Braves opted to put Martin Prado at second base and use Reed Johnson in left field. They might do this on some other occasions if they do not like matching Uggla up against a particular right-handed pitcher.

But Johnson is best utilized against left-handed pitchers.  At the same time, the Braves want to be careful about how much they play the valuable backup outfielder, who has experienced some back problems during his career.

If Uggla continues to struggle, the Braves also have the option of spelling him at second base with Tyler Pastornicky or Paul Janish, once Andrelton Simmons returns in mid-September.  But it’s not like either of these two guys are going to provide the offensive upgrade the Braves were seeking.

Really, the best development in this matter would be for Uggla to suddenly get hot and gain some confidence over the next couple of weeks.  The Braves could certainly gain immediate benefits from this.  But at the same time, this would allow them to enter the offseason feeling at least a little better about the three years remaining on the veteran second baseman’s five-year, $62 million contract.

 

Braves get a chance to add to Lincecum’s struggles

There was a time when the Braves had reason to approach a matchup against Tim Lincecum with some apprehension.  Now is not that time.

Baseball’s element of uncertainty tells us that Lincecum could prove to be a problem when he matches up against Tim Hudson at AT&T Park tonight.  But a quick glance at the statistics clearly reveals this season has been much more trying than any other ever experienced by San Francisco’s two-time Cy Young Award winner.

When Lincecum exited April with a 5.74 ERA, the overwhelming assumption was that things would get much better for him. Well by the end of June that ERA stood at 5.60 and by the end of July it rested at 5.62.  In other words, things have essentially stayed the same much of this season for The Freak.

While compiling a 3.03 ERA over his past five starts, Lincecum has created some reason for optimism among Giants fans.  But his other recent statistics have still been un-Lincecum-like.

In four starts this month, Lincecum has allowed opponents to hit .293 and compile a .362 on-base percentage.  Those stand as the highest marks he has produced in any month this season.

But history tells us Lincecum is capable of turning things around late in a season.

In five starts in August of 2010, Lincecum was 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA.  Opponents hit .311 and compiled a .383 on-base percentage against him.

Most Braves fans likely remember the rest of the story.  In the next 11 starts he made through the end of the 2010 World Series, Lincecum went 9-2 with a 2.18 ERA.   Included in that stretch was the two-hit shutout he tossed against Atlanta in Game 1 of the Division Series.

Interestingly, that dominant Division Series effort stands as the only win Lincecum has recorded in his past four starts against the Braves.  Meanwhile, Hudson enters tonight’s game having led the Braves to wins in seven of his past eight regular season starts against the Giants.  The lone loss came on April 9, 2010 when closer Billy Wagner surrendered a game-tying two-out, two-run homer to Edgar Renteria in the ninth inning.

Hudson’s key to success can be simplified to:  He needs to stay away from the big inning.  Hudson has allowed four runs or more in an inning during seven of his 21 starts.   His 3.69 ERA provides some indication about how good he has been in the other 127 innings he has completed this season.

Gonzalez faces interesting decision with his rotation

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is looking forward to seeing the potential benefits his starting pitchers will gain from the decision to go with a six-man rotation over the course of a 13-game stretch.  But when it comes time to go back to a five-man rotation next Friday, he might not be excited about telling one of his starting pitchers that he is the odd man out.

When discussing potential decisions, many in the baseball world like to say, “these kinds of things often work themselves out.”

And they often do.  But if each of the Atlanta’s current six starters remain healthy and effective over the course of the next week, there is certainly a chance that Tommy Hanson will be the odd man out.

Gonzalez said he would go with his five best options.  Right now, Hanson does not fit in that category.

Projecting what Atlanta’s rotation will look like heading into September, Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm will definitely be in the mix.  Barring any physical concerns, Ben Sheets and Tim Hudson will also be part of this group.

So with all things remaining equal, the Braves will essentially be deciding whether to keep Hanson or Mike Minor in their rotation.  And if you have watched this club over the past six weeks, this is really not a tough decision.

Hanson incurred some misfortune during Thursday night’s four-run fifth inning and his command has been a tad better (it really could not have gotten worse) than it was before he went on the disabled list with a lower back strain on July 31.  But he has posted a 6.82 ERA and allowed opponents to produce a .425 on-base percentage against him in his past six starts.

While Hanson’s season has gone in the wrong direction, Minor has completely turned his around since bidding adieu to June.  In his past eight starts, Minor has posted a 2.29 ERA and held opponents to a .253 on-base percentage.

Given that Hanson has never pitched in relief and is one of the game’s easiest pitchers to run on, he is not exactly a great fit for the bullpen. But with the rosters expanded in September, the Braves would have the flexibility to put him there.

Sheets attempts to rebound:  Now that Sheets has encountered some trouble in consecutive starts, it seems many are wondering if this is the downward turn of his improbable comeback.  But while the results have not been what they were when he allowed one run or fewer in four of his first five starts, his velocity has not dipped and his arm appears to be sound.

Sure Sheets will benefit as much as anybody from getting an extra day of rest as often as possible.  But to assume last weekend’s outing against the Dodgers was the beginning of the end would be a mistake.

Sheets allowed six runs, four hits (all home runs) in his six inning effort against the Dodgers. It was certainly a unique outing.  He was perfect before allowing three consecutive home runs within a span of four pitches in the second inning.  Then he was perfect up until the point he issued consecutive two-out walks and another home run in the sixth inning.

Coming off this four-homer outing, Sheets can be encouraged by the opportunity to pitch in the pitcher-friendly AT&T Park tonight.

Talking about the 73 home runs Barry Bonds hit while playing for the Giants in 2001, Chipper Jones said, “I could take batting practice here for three straight weeks and not hit 73.”

Sheets has gone 0-2 with a 4.24 ERA in three career starts at AT&T Park.  He has allowed two home runs in 17 career innings at this beautiful ballpark.  Bonds accounted for one of those in 2002 and Pablo Sandoval hit the other about a month before Sheets elbow exploded in 2010.

Braves hoping to see McCann and Uggla turn things around

After watching them extend their mounting struggles through Tuesday night’s loss to the Nationals, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez opted to keep both Dan Uggla and Brian McCann out of the lineup for Wednesday night’s series finale.  To the outside observer, it might have seemed like a bold move. For many of you who have closely followed this team, the decision made perfect sense.

McCann produced reason for encouragement he hit nine homers and produced  .704 slugging percentage in July. But his right shoulder discomfort and determination to play through the pain is concerning.

Uggla seemed to be heading in the right direction when he tallied a pair of multi-hit games in Philadelphia earlier this month.  But since then, he has performed much like he has over the past two months.

Uggla has batted .144 with a .255 slugging percentage over his past 65 games.   Both of those percentages rank as the lowest compiled by a qualified Major Leaguer dating back to June 6.

As for McCann, he is hitting more like Belliard than Piazza right now.  His production this month consists of seven singles in 48 at-bats.

With Uggla, the Braves can at least hope that his streaky ways lead him to a hot stretch at the right time. Might seem like an unrealistic wish right now.  But this is the same guy who hit .276 with 10 home runs and a .876 OPS during the first 55 games he played this season.

Unfortunately, physical limitations, or specifically shoulder discomfort, have prevented McCann from being the same guy most of you have known over the past few years. Everything has been different since he pushed to come off the disabled list far too early after straining an oblique muscle on July 26, 2011.

Trying to protect himself from aggravating the oblique injury, he developed bad habits that plagued him until he seemingly righted himself with the power barrage in July.  It was during this stretch that he revealed his right shoulder was bothering him.  But he made it seem like it was not a big deal.

When asked about his shoulder last weekend, McCann displayed an agitated side not often seen since he arrived in the Majors in 2005.  He was upset Gonzalez kept him out of the lineup for a second straight day on Saturday.  So he opted to say that he didn’t know why the team was labeling his injury as a subluxation of his right shoulder.  His take is that he is dealing with a cyst and a frayed labrum, which would be expected from a 28-year-old catcher.

Both parties are right. So to simplify things, McCann is dealing with a bum shoulder that might need to be surgically repaired if he is still bothered by the ailment this winter.  This would certainly delay the start of his preparations for his final season before heading into the free agent market.

Had McCann gone on the disabled list when the Braves gave him a cortisone injection on Aug. 7, he would have been eligible to come off the disabled list today.   There is no guarantee those two weeks would have provided relief.  But given that he has recorded four hits in 33 at-bats during this span, he has not exactly been an asset during this stretch.

McCann is eligible for free agency at the end of the 2013 season.  The struggles he has endured dating back to last August could obviously affect the significance of his payday. Those American League teams that might want him to be a designated hitter/catcher will watch closely before determining whether it is worth showering him with the big contract that has been envisioned.

Many players in McCann’s position might have taken the selfish route by choosing to rest at a point in their career when they could be hurting themselves financially.  His determination to continue playing might be admirable from that standpoint. But if he continues to produce like he has over the past few weeks, he could be hurting both himself and the team by continuing to play through the pain.

 

 

Tosca voices displeasure over the timing of Mills’ firing

Carlos Tosca has been rather reserved and a man of few words since becoming the Braves’ bench coach at the start of the 2011 season.  But before Sunday afternoon’s game against the Dodgers, he made it known that he did not agree with the timing of the Astros’ decision to fire manager Brad Mills, hitting coach Mike Barnett and first base coach Bobby Meacham.

“Firing Brad Mills, Mike Barnett and Bobby Meacham is like telling Betsy Ross that she picked the wrong colors for the flag,” Tosca said.

Mills, Barnett and Meacham were relieved of their duties after the Astros lost to the D-backs on Saturday night and fell to a Major League-worst 39-82.  The Astros were just one game under .500 as late as May 25.  But a disappointing June combined with a flurry of trades led first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow to make these changes aimed toward building for the future.

Mills went 171-274 in 445 games as manager.  He was in the final year of his contract.

Luhnow was part of the Cardinals’ front office before being hired by the Astros this past winter. Many within the baseball industry spent the past couple of months expecting him to hand pick his own manager before the start of the 2013 season.  Mills was hired by former Astros general manager Ed Wade before the start of the 2010 season.

Tosca understood this line of thinking.  But he felt this is a decision that should have been made before the start of this season or after its conclusion.

“I think it’s narrow minded to (fire them before the season),” Tosca said. “But I can certainly see from a philosophical standpoint, if he doesn’t agree with that, that’s fine.  Do it then or do it at the end of the year.  To do it in August, come on.  Those are hard-working people.  Those are good baseball people.  What message are you trying to send to the industry?”

During his days as Toronto’s manager, Tosca employed Barnett as his hitting coach.

 

 

 

 

 

McCann discusses his shoulder and missing a second straight start

Brian McCann does not agree with the Braves’ assessment that he is dealing with a subluxation of his right shoulder.  Nor was he happy with manager Fredi Gonzalez’s decision to keep him out of the lineup for a second consecutive game on Saturday.

“It’s not a good day for a rest,” McCann said before Saturday’s game against the Dodgers.  “I’d like to be playing.”

Gonzalez informed McCann on Friday that he would not be in the lineup for the first two games of this weekend’s series against the Dodgers.

When asked to explain this decision, Gonzalez made it clear that the shoulder was not an issue.  The decision seemed to have more to do with the recent struggles of McCann and the fact that Ross entered the game with four hits, including three home runs, in nine at-bats  against Dodgers scheduled starter Aaron Harang.

“(The shoulder is) not 100 percent, but who is 100 percent at this time of the year?” Gonzalez said. “He’ll be in there tomorrow.”

After McCann received a cortisone shot that forced him to miss two games last week, the Braves revealed that he was dealing with a right shoulder subluxation.  McCann made it known that he does not agree with this diagnosis.

Instead, McCann believes his shoulder discomfort is a product of a cyst and a frayed labrum.   An MRI exam performed a couple months ago led to this diagnosis.

“I’ve got a cyst that is sitting on a joint and a frayed labrum,” McCann said. “I’ve got things going on in there.  But it’s something I’m managing.  I’m going to play through it and at the end of the year, I’m going to see what I have to do.”

McCann has battled some shoulder discomfort most of this season.  It appeared he had turned a corner when he batted .308 with nine home runs and a 1.115 OPS in the last 18 games he played in July.  But he has been limited to four hits, all singles, during his first 36 at-bats in August.

“I can pinch hit,” McCann said. “I can play.  I can do all of the things that I need to do to play.”

 

Chipper showing his appreciation during a memorable final season

Remember the concern some of you expressed when you learned Chipper Jones would miss the start of the season recovering from yet another knee surgery.  Well other than the fact that the Braves lost each of the four games he ended up missing, that did not end up being that big of a deal.

Then when Jones consistently proved successful during the early weeks, I was among those who expressed concern about the fact that the Braves might be relying too heavily on their 40-year-old third baseman.  Well, four months later, he’s still producing and the Braves do not seem to be relying on him as much as they are simply happy to be the direct benefactors of his magical season.

At some point over the next six weeks, I’ll take time to rank some of the greatest memories Jones has created since joining the Braves organization in 1990.  Or if he maintains his current pace, we might only have time to reminisce about this year’s special moments.

It was cool to see Jones homer in his first game this year and again in his first home game of the season.  Watching him go deep at Dodger Stadium on his birthday was every bit as cool as seeing him end the incredible May 2 game against the Phillies with a walk-off home run.  Then there was the five-hit game against the Cubs on July 3 and the single he recorded in his only at-bat during his final All-Star Game.

But for now, I’d have to say the most incredible memories Jones has created this season were produced during Thursday night’s two-homer performance against the Padres.  Notching his 40th career multi-homer game at the age 40 is special.  But the magnitude of Thursday’s game was a product of the fact that Jones stood at his locker and acknowledged the fact that he is already attempting to savor every remaining opportunity he has to acknowledge those fans who have supported him through the years.

Most of the fans that flocked to Turner Field on Thursday night did so with the incentive to secure the final Chipper Jones bobblehead doll. Through the power of Twitter, he had a sense of how much the night meant to some of those fans.  And in typical Chipper fashion, he did not disappoint.

Jones said he did not notice the rousing ovation he received before his first at-bat.  But after hitting his two-run home run in the first inning off Jason Marquis, he was so worked up that he spilled a cup of water down the front of his jersey before answering a curtain call.

Four innings later, he homered again and answered yet another curtain call.

Those kind words Jones expressed before and after Thursday’s game about the fans were genuine.  His thoughts, words and actions provide every indication that he is enjoying this final season as much as these fans are.

 

Medlen has proven he belongs in the rotation

As most of you likely know, my stance dating back to the winter was that  the Braves were best served to have Kris Medlen in their bullpen.  Some of this might have been influenced by the fact that we were just a few months removed from a season in which manager Fredi Gonzalez was left with little option other than to use Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel too frequently.

Then when Arodys Vizcaino was lost for the season, the decision seemed to be a no-brainer.  In its simplest form, Medlen’s presence in the bullpen would limit the amount of innings, Eric O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel would need to complete.

Medlen’s presence, far fewer one-run and extra-inning games and Venters’ struggles all aided in this battle.   This year, you will not find Venters, Kimbrel and O’Flaherty at the top of the leaderboard in games pitched.  In fact, you won’t even find them on the first page when using MLB.com’s stat database.

With seven weeks remaining in the season, it might be time to put to rest those thoughts that the Braves need Medlen to protect their top relievers. If the Braves want to add some depth to the bullpen, they can attempt to do so via trade before the end of this month.  Or when September arrives, they can hope that Peter Moylan proves healthy and productive enough to serve as an asset in the bullpen.

But for now, it probably suits everybody best to simply accept the fact that it will be in the Braves’ best interest to keep Medlen in the starting rotation for the remainder of the season.

The Braves find themselves with the National League’s third-best record despite the fact that neither of the  two most reliable pitchers in their rotation –  Medlen and Paul Maholm –  made a start for them before July 31.

Tim Hudson has been wonderful at times.  But until he irons out some of the problems he has had working out of the stretch, you have to fear for some of those big innings that have plagued him  (he has allowed four runs in an inning six times in his first 20 starts of the season.

Mike Minor has been as reliable as any pitcher since the beginning of July.  But questions surround him courtesy of the struggles he experienced during the season’s first three months combined and the fact he is approaching the end of his first full Major League season (50 innings shy of last year’s combined total).

As for Ben Sheets, he can still pitch like a front-line starter as long as his arm cooperates.

Then of course you have Tommy Hanson, whose decrease in velocity was a concern long before his back suddenly became an issue a couple of weeks ago.

So we’re left to argue that the guy who spent the season’s first four months as a reliever is now one of the Braves’ two most reliable starters.  Might be a problem if Medlen had not spent the past couple of years making us believe he was the inspiration for DJ Khaled’s hit song “All I Do Is Win.”

 

As the Braves attempt to win a four-game series against the Padres tonight, they will send Medlen to the mound to oppose Jason Marquis. There is a good chance they prove victorious. The last time they lost a game started by Medlen, their lineup included Nate McLouth, Troy Glaus, Yunel Escobar and a chubby outfielder named Melky Cabrera.   Click here for the box score of the May 23, 2010 loss to the Pirates.
The Braves have won each of the past 14 games that Medlen has started dating back to May 29, 2010.  In those 14 games, the versatile right-hander has posted a 3.63 ERA and limited opponents to a .257 batting average.

When Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez made the decision to move Medlen to the starting rotation a couple of weeks ago, some members of the organization told him he would have a tough time moving him back to the bullpen.

So far, those words appear to be prophetic.

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