May 2013

Situational strikeouts every bit as alarming as the quantity for the Braves

While winning 13 of their first 15 games this season, the Braves batted .257 with a .332 on-base percentage and .473 slugging percentage.   They homered once every 17.4 at-bats and struck out once every 3.94 at-bats. 

As they have lost 14 of the 22 games that have followed, they have batted .228 with a .307 on-base percentage and .372 slugging percentage.  They have homered once every 36.2 at-bats and struck out once every 3.34 at-bats.

With nearly one-quarter of this season complete, the Braves are on pace to strike out 1,510 times this year.   This would shatter the franchise record set last yer (1,289 ) and leave them 19 away from the Major League record (1,529) set by the 2010 D-backs. 

The Braves players are getting fed up with the strikeout questions to the point that Brian McCann expressed his frustration on Thursday night with a response to a question that did not even include any mention of strikeouts. 

“I just know we’re in first place and everybody wants to talk about strikeouts,” McCann said. “The whole strikeout thing is overrated for me.” 

McCann and many of his teammates are not the only ones who have subscribed to the theory that a strikeout is just another out.  But it’s not just the quantity of strikeouts that have hurt this club.  Their inability to put the ball in play in key situations has denied them the opportunity to occasionally benefit from the “luck” the Giants found with a series of soft hits in Friday night’s fourth inning against Tim Hudson.

The Braves have struck out once every 3.96 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.  The only Major League teams with a worse percentage are the White Sox (3.84) and Astros (3.77), a pair of teams that rank in the bottom third of Major League teams in runs per game.

Without no runners on base, the Braves have struck out once every 3.79 plate appearance.  With a runner on any base, they have struck out once every 4.47 plate appearances.

While this shows they do at least put the ball in play slightly more consistently with runners on base, this 4.47 mark is also better than only the White Sox (4.20) and Angels (4.11).

Entering Monday’s series opener against the D-backs, the Braves have struck out at least 10 times in 16 of their first 37 games.  That equates to 43 percent.  On the way to setting the franchise record for strikeouts, last year’s club recorded double-digit strikeout totals in 22 percent (37 of 162) of their games.

LOOKING BACK ON THREE UGLY DAYS

Before the Braves entered Friday night’s game against the Giants, it appeared their offense was starting to click and their starting rotation was dependable enough to provide the option of going to a six-man bullpen when Jason Heyward is ready to return from the disabled list.

Oh how quickly mindsets can change within a three-day span , especially one that proved to be as ugly as the one experienced this past weekend in San Francisco.

During the final three games of the disastrous series in the Bay Area, each of the Braves starting pitchers allowed at least five earned runs and Kris Medlen was the only one who proved fortunate enough to complete at least five innings.  Meanwhile, none of the Giants starters surrendered more than four hits and each lasted at least seven innings.

Thoughts of going to a six-man pen were strengthened by the fact that the Braves entered Friday having seen their starting pitchers compile 63 innings and their relievers total 18 2/3 innings in their previous nine games.

Obviously, this is a small sample size that does not even account for two full turns through the rotation.  But the same could be said about these past three games, when proof of David Carpenter’s existence materialized and the bullpen accounted for 10 2/3 innings of the 24 innings pitched.

Even with the disappointing results compiled by Hudson, Medlen and Paul Maholm, these past three games, the Braves still have compiled the fifth-fewest relief innings (103 1/3) in the National League.

So based on this larger sample size, there is still a chance the Braves would opt to go to a six-man bullpen when Heyward returns.  Given the fact that Heyward has only served as a designated hitter through his first three Minor League rehab games with Triple-A Gwinnett, it would not be surprising if he does not return before the start of this upcoming weekend’s series against the Dodgers in Atlanta.

 

 

 

A quick look at some impressive numbers and potential roster moves

As Brian McCann was highlighting a three-hit performance with his first home run since coming off the disabled list and Craig Kimbrel was notching his 100th career save in Thursday night’s 6-3 win over the Giants, I stumbled across a few interesting trends, stats and tidbits.

McCann’s second-inning home run off Ryan Vogelsong came in his ninth at-bat this year.  Most players would certainly like to tally their first home run within their first 10 at-bats.  But for the Braves catcher, this was actually the third longest homerless span to begin a season in his career.  He went 38 at-bats without a home run in 2011 and 10 at-bats without one in 2012.

Here is a breakdown of the homerless at-bats McCann tallied before hitting his first in each of his nine big league seasons:  5(2005); 4 (2006); 1 (2007); 5 (2008); 0 (2009); 1 (2010); 38 (2011); 10 (2012); 8 (2013).

Yesterday’s blog entry focused on why there was not any reason to panic about Kimbrel’s recent results.  This next graph will provide the reminder of just how dominant the 24-year-old Braves closer has been through the early portion of his career.  He became the second-youngest closer to reach 100 saves last night.

Among all Major League relievers who have ever totaled at least 175 career appearances, Kimbrel ranks first in ERA (1.60);  hits per nine innings (4.95), strikeouts per nine innings (15.66), strikeouts per batter faced (.446), opponent’s on-base percentage (.241) and opponent’s batting average (.157).

“What he has done in his [three years], that’s hard to do,” McCann said last night.  “Nobody really does that.”

While we’re on the subject of impressive pitching numbers, let’s take another look at just how good Mike Minor has been since exiting last June with a 6.20 ERA.  In the 22 starts that have followed, he has posted a 2.45 ERA and limited opponents to a .196 batting average.

The only Major League pitcher who have compiled a lower ERA while making at least 22 starts in this stretch are Clayton Kershaw (2.11), Justin Verlander (2.29), and Hisashi Iwakuma (2.32).  The only pitcher who has allowed a lower batting average is Kershaw (.193).

Like the Braves were patient with Minor last year, they entered this season determined to take the same approach with Julio Teheran.  But while allowing two runs or fewer in each of his past three starts and lasting seven innings in two of those outings, the 22-year-old right-hander has provided every indication he is already capable to be a reliable piece in a big league rotation.

The most encouraging development regarding Teheran in Thursday’s win over the Giants was his willingness to throw his changeup much more frequently.  He threw 10 changeups, which is six fewer than the combined total from his previous five starts.

Teheran lost command of his changeup when he altered his grip last year.  But during Thursday’s outing, he went back to the grip he used back in his early Minor League days, when the changeup was considered one of best weapons.

If Brandon Beachy continues to make progress and avoids any setbacks during his final stages of returning from Tommy John surgery, he could rejoin Atlanta’s rotation in the middle of June.  This obviously creates reason to wonder how the Braves will make room for Beachy.  But with his return still a month away, it is far too early to know what the state of Atlanta’s rotation will be at that point.

While the rotation decision can wait, the Braves will have to make a decision when Jason Heyward makes his return from the disabled list, possibly as early as Monday.  Jordan Schafer has established a firm spot on the roster while hitting .263 with a .417 on-base percentage in his past 13 games.

The Braves also are not likely to part ways with Reed Johnson, who provides a solid contact right-handed bat off the bench and strong veteran leadership in the clubhouse.

There is a chance the Braves could attempt to trade Gerald Laird, who would certainly be coveted by a number of teams looking to improve their catching depth.  But Laird has proven to be a good mentor to Evan Gattis and the team might want to keep him through the entirety of his two-year deal to serve as Gattis’ backup next year.

If the Braves do not move Laird, they will likely create a roster spot for Heyward by going to a six-man bullpen.  David Carpenter has not been used since he was recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett on April 30 and Cristhian Martinez made just one multi-inning appearance before being placed on the disabled list in early April.

The Braves have compiled the third fewest bullpen innings (92) in the National League this year and really have not had a need for the “seventh pitcher” in their pen.  So it certainly would not be surprising to see them go to a six-man pen to make room for Heyward.

Far too early to panic about Kimbrel’s future

While many have become concerned about Craig Kimbrel’s recent results, veteran umpire Angel Hernandez has not seen conclusive evidence that the Braves closer has been struggling.

Based on what we saw in Cleveland last night, maybe Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez should have asked Hernandez to review the David Wright home run that landed 11 rows deep in the right-center field seats with two outs in the ninth inning of Friday’s loss to the Mets.

Enough of the Hernandez talk.  The more time I spend around the AJC’s (or is it myAJC’s) Jeff Schultz, the more I become more like him.  Given I’d like to keep my hair, we will now turn our attention back to Kimbrel.

Over the course of his past five appearances, Kimbrel has blown as many save opportunities (3) as he did while converting 42 of his 45 opportunities last year.  During his past three appearances, within a span of 10 plate appearances, he has allowed as many home runs (3) as he did all of last year.

This has led many around the baseball world to discuss whether Kimbrel will ever regain the dominant form he possessed last year when he compiled a 1.01 ERA. limited opponents to a .126 batting average and struck out more than half of the batters he faced (116 of 231).  This year, he has allowed opponents to hit .226 and has struck out 21 of the 52 batters he faced.

Before getting too worked up about the strikeout percentage, realize he struck out 10 of the 26 (41 percent) batters he faced while allowing three hits and no runs in this season’s first nine appearances (8 2/3 innings).  In the process of allowing  five runs and eight hits in his past five appearances (4 2/3 innings), he has struck out nine of the 23 batters he has faced (39 percent).

While those strikeout percentages are similar, he has actually gotten closer to last year’s form while striking out six of the 13 batters he has faced this month.  Unfortunately, he has also allowed three two-out home runs in the process.

Kimbrel made a mistake when he elevated the 97-mph fastball that Wright hit deep into the right-center field seats with two outs in the ninth inning of last Friday’s loss.  But we might not be having this discussion if Justin Upton had not got turned around while chasing Dexter Fowler’s two-out fly ball in the ninth inning of the April 24 loss at Coors Field.

Again we saw this is a game of inches or feet on Tuesday, when B.J. Upton simply ran out of room while chasing Devin Mesoraco’s game-tying home run that fell in the first row of Cincinnati’s offensively-friendly ballpark with two outs in Tuesday’s ninth inning.

Each of the three home runs Kimbrel has surrendered this year (all within his past three appearances) have come against his fastball.  Mesoraco and Wright hit their shots on two-strike fastballs.

Combining Justin Upton’s misplay with these two home runs, it can be said three pitches is all that separate Kimbrel from being perfect to this point.

Still with all of this being said, Kimbrel has not been the same overpowering, dominant pitcher that he was the past two seasons.  But instead of worrying, fans should remember the longevity of a closer’s dominance is often on par with the longevity of a marriage to Elizabeth Taylor.

This is not to say Kimbrel does not have the ability to serve as one of the game’s top closers for many years to come.  But there is certainly no guarantee he’ll ever be as dominant as he was during last year’s incredible season.

According to FanGraphs.com, Kimbrel’s average velocity for his fastball has dropped from 96.8 to 96.0 this year.  The average velocity of his slider has decreased from 85.7 to 85.0.  The slight drop in velocity is not that big of a deal.  But it is somewhat telling that he threw his curveball (often interpreted as a slider) 32.6 percent of the time last year and is throwing it just 22.8 percent of the time this year.

After Kimbrel had a couple of rough outings in Spring Training, I asked him about the fact that he was seemingly shying away from his breaking ball.  He told me there were many regular season games where he solely used his fastball.

At the time, it seemed to be one of those “I’m just working on things” responses you often get in Spring Training.  But so far, the response seems to have been a sign of things to come.

But before getting too caught up on pitch selection, it should be realized that seven of the 20 (35 percent) pitches Kimbrel threw during Tuesday’s loss to the Reds were sliders.  Each of the first four sliders he threw were strikes and he struck out the first two batters he faced.  He missed with a first-pitch slider to Mesoraco and then threw five straight fastballs, the last of which landed in the first row of the right-center field seats.

Kimbrel then got ahead of Shin-Soo Choo with a first-pitch fastball before missing the strike zone with consecutive sliders.  The next pitch, a 96-mph fastball resulted in a walk-off home run and the need to address the “What is Wrong with Kimbrel” questions.

In response to last night’s botched replay review in Cleveland, Major League Baseball’s vice president of baseball operations Joe Torre issued a release that included these words, “

Perfection is an impossible standard in any endeavor.” 

Unfortunately for a closer who has been as dominant as Kimbrel as been in the past, anything short of perfection creates cause for concern.  But the three costly two-out pitches he has made over the course of the past week certainly should not create cause for panic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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