June 2013

As one Upton rises, the other continues to struggle

Chipper Jones homered twice on the final bobblehead night of his playing career and Freddie Freeman homered on the first bobblehead night of his career.  According to SB Nation’s Cee Angi’s entertaining article, Craig  Kimbrel became the first pitcher to ever record four strikeouts in an inning on his bobblehead night.

So if you are playing MLB.com’s Beat The Streak, today would seemingly be a good time to go with B.J. Upton.

The first 20,000 fans in attendance for tonight’s series finale against the Mets will receive a B.J. Upton.  This is a timely promotion given the fact that Upton has spent the past few weeks distancing himself from the horrific two-month stretch that began his career in Atlanta.

With his fourth two-hit game of this month on Wednesday night, Upton raised his batting average to a season-high .173  —  a mark that is only encouraging when you remember that he entered June hitting .145 with four home runs, a .230 on-base percentage and a .245 slugging percentage.  His .476 OPS through this season’s first two months ranked last among all qualifying Major Leaguers.

The Braves did not start Upton in five of May’s final seven games.  This certainly wasn’t envisioned when he signed a franchise record five-year, $75.25 million contract in November.  But the opportunity to clear his head and fix the mechanics of his swing appears to be just what this talented outfielder needed.

Three weeks after owning the worst OPS in the Majors, Upton finds himself with the best OPS (.897) compiled by a Braves player this month.   He has hit .255 with a .369 on-base percentage and .527 slugging percentage through the first 18 games he has played in June.  The four home runs he has hit in his past 51 at-bats matches the total he compiled in his first 163 at-bats of the season.

One of the keys to Upton’s recent success has been his ability to put the ball in play much more consistently.  He had struck out once every 2.86 plate appearances through the end of May.  The only Major Leaguers with a higher rate were Chris Carter (2.69) and Adam Dunn (2.83).

Upton has struck out once every 5.42 plate appearances in June.  The only qualifying Braves player who has struck out less frequently this month is Andrelton Simmons.

In yesterday’s entry I once again listed Upton’s tremendous struggles in run-producing situations.  A few hours later, I was writing about the RBI double he produced in Wednesday night’s 5-3 win over the Mets.  The hit was the first he has recorded in 29 at-bats with two outs and runners in scoring position this season.

Some of the factors that could have influenced Upton’s early-season struggles include switching from the American to the National League and dealing with the pressure of his lucrative contract. There was also the fact that as he struggled through the first few weeks with his new team his younger brother (Justin Upton) was on his way to being named the NL’s Player of the Month in April.

While B.J. was no doubt proud of Justin, this certainly had to add to the pressure of performing in his new environment.

But now that B.J. has started to turn things around, the Braves have to hope Justin will soon do the same.

Justin is now hitting .239 with 15 home runs and a .807 OPS.  This certainly was not envisioned when he exited April hitting .298 with 12 home runs and a 1.136 OPS.  But his slide actually began during the final two weeks of the opening month.

In the 55 games Justin has played from April 19-June 19, he has hit .213 with six home runs, a .335 on-base percentage and .340 slugging percentage.  His .675 OPS during this lengthy stretch has been just 29 points higher than Simmons’ (.646).

Since notching four hits, including a monstrous home run, during his first game back in Arizona on May 13, Justin has hit .183 with two home runs and a .543 OPS.  His most concerning stretch during this span came when he batted .189, recorded two extra-base hits and struck out once every 2.87 plate appearances from May 14-June 6.  Carter and Michael Saunders were the only Major Leaguers who struck out more frequently during this stretch.

But like his older brother, Justin has recently started to put the ball in play more frequently.  He has struck out once every 4.23 plate appearances in his past 13 games.

Sitting atop the National League East standings with a seven-game lead, the Braves have been able to overcome the extended slumps the Uptons have endured.  But they would certainly like to realize how much easier life could be if both brothers were hot at the same time.



Freeman’s opportunities will decrease if the other Braves continue to struggle with RISP

With runners at second and third in the eighth inning of the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, Mets manager Terry Collins attempted to preserve his team’s one-run advantage by intentionally walking Freddie Freeman.  It was a decision that would have been made by virtually any other manager with a pulse or at least some knowledge of what most any other Braves player has done with runners in scoring position this season. 

“He’s red hot,” Collins said between Tuesday’s games.  “As we saw (with his walk-off home run on Monday night), the last three games they’ve won, they’ve won them with him, so he wasn’t going to do it today.”

Given what we have seen, it should not be long before most managers and pitchers take this approach and take the bat out of Freeman’s hands whenever possible.  Yes, it has seemed impossible to walk Freeman with any kind of regularity.  But the Mets managed to do so as Freeman matched a career high by drawing three walks (including another of the intentional variety)  in Tuesday’s nightcap.

With simply a quick glance, one could surmise Freeman miraculously drew four walks in his final six plate appearances of the doubleheader.  He had drawn a total of three walks in the 99 plate appearances that preceded this span. 

But this was not a miracle, a coincidence or simply a product of the effectively wild performance Mets phenom Zack Wheeler produced while making his Major League debut in the second game.  It is simply something the Braves and Freeman might have to get used to whenever teams are tempted to simply give Freeman first base. 

The Braves went 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranded 12 runners during Tuesday’s nightcap.  B.J. Upton was responsible for stranding six of those runners as he went hitless in three at-bats he recorded immediately following the three two-out walks issued to Freeman. 

Upton has shown some signs of encouragement as he has batted .232 (12-for-52) with four homers  a .344 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage in the 17 games he has played in June.  But he has also continued to struggle in key situations, as he has recorded just three hits in 17 at-bats with runners in scoring position this month. 

Given he had just two hits in the 32 at-bats he compiled during April and May with runners in scoring position, this a slight improvement.  But this was certainly not what the Braves envisioned when they gave Upton a five-year, $75.25 million contract in November. 

Nor did the Braves envision going through their first 72 games with both Upton brothers, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla all hitting below .200 with runners in scoring position. 

Despite the fact Freeman ranks third in the Majors with a .448 batting average with RISP, the Braves rank third-to-last in the Majors with their .226 batting average with RISP.

If you take away what Freeman (26-for-58) and Jordan Schafer (.292, 7-for-24) have done in these situations, the Braves have hit .192 (83-for-492) with RISP. 

Here is what the Braves’ four highest-paid players are hitting with RISP:  McCann (.179, 5-for-28); Justin Upton (.156, 7-for-45); Uggla (.133, 6-for-45) and B.J. Upton (.102, 5-for-49). 

Alex Avila (.091, 4-for-44) and Mike Moustakas (.061, 3-for-49) are the only Major Leaguers who have tallied at least 30 at-bats with RISP and recorded a lower batting average than B.J. Upton.

This is a subject we touched on less than two weeks ago while the Braves were in Los Angeles playing the Dodgers.  But as long as some of these numbers remain the same, you have to wonder how many more managers and pitchers are simply not going to give Freeman a chance to beat them.




Gattis placed on the disabled list with an oblique strain

The Braves placed Evan Gattis on the 15-day disabled list on Tuesday morning with a right oblique strain.  Infielder Tyler Pastornicky has been recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett to fill Gattis’ roster spot.

Gattis played the catcher’s position entirety of Monday night’s win over the Mets.  When the rain delayed game concluded around 1:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the Braves did not reveal Gattis had suffered an injury.  This transaction was announced approximately eight hours later.

With Gattis sidelined, the Braves lose a significant presence on their bench.  The 26-year-old catcher has gone 6-for-8 with four home runs, a double and two walks in 10 pinch hit plate appearances this season.  He has recorded just one hit in the 25 at-bats he has had while in the starting lineup dating back to May 31.

Gerald Laird will once again become Brian McCann’s primary backup while Gattis is sidelined.  Laird has seen very limited playing time while serving as Atlanta’s third catcher for most of the past month.

Pastornicky has hit .309 with four home runs and a .780 OPS in 57 games with Gwinnett .    This is his second promotion to the Major League level this season.

A breakdown of Gattis’ incredible success as a pinch hitter

Evan Gattis has homered in four of the first nine pinch-hit plate appearances of his career.  If he maintains this pace and records a pinch-hit appearance in each of Atlanta’s remaining 97 games, he will end this year with 57 home runs, a total that would include the 10 homers he has already hit in non pinch-hit appearances.

While this projection is ridiculous, so too has been everything Gattis has already done as a pinch hitter this season.

With his three-run home run in the four-run ninth inning that capped Monday night’s 7-6 loss to the Padres, Gattis tied the Atlanta record Tommy Gregg set when he recorded four pinch-hit home runs in 1990.  Gregg needed 51 pinch-hit at-bats to record this total.  Gattis has needed just eight.

The Major League record for pinch-hit home runs in a season is seven.  The Dodgers’ Dave Hansen set the record in the 54 pinch-hit at-bats he compiled in 2000.  Former Brave Craig Wilson matched the mark during the 34 pinch-hit at-bats he recorded for the Pirates one year later.

Through the first nine pinch-hit plate appearances of his career, Gattis has gone 6-for-8 with four home runs, a double and a walk.  In other words, he has not recorded a hit or drawn a walk in just two of these plate appearances.   In one of those instances, he still reached first base courtesy of an error charged to Arizona shortstop Didi Gregorious.

So Gattis has actually reached base on a hit, walk or error in eight of his first nine pinch-hit appearances.

Gattis has also driven in seven of the 11 runners that have been on base during his eight pinch-hit at-bats.  One of those 11 runners (Dan Uggla), advanced to second base on the go-ahead two-run double Gattis hit against the Mets on May 24.  Another (Ramiro Pena) advanced to second base on Gregorious’ error in the eighth inning of a May 15 loss to the D-backs.

So Gattis has stranded just two of the 11 runners that have been on base during his first eight pinch-hit at-bats.  The one walk he drew as a pinch hitter was the intentional pass the Pirates issued to load the bases with two outs in the eighth inning of Atlanta’s 10-inning victory on June 4.

While Gattis’ pinch-hit exploits already border on the insane, they serve as just a portion of the incredible production he has already provided during his rookie season.  Through the first 156 at-bats of his career, the 26-year-old catcher has batted .263 with 14 home runs, 37 RBIs and a .928 OPS.

Gattis’ days as an everyday member of Atlanta’s starting lineup essentially ended when Jason Heyward returned from the disabled list on May 17.  He has recorded just 41 at-bats in the 24 games the Braves have since played.

Still Gattis enters Tuesday night tied for the team lead in home runs with Justin Upton, who has gone deep twice since totaling 12 homers in April.  Gattis’ 37 RBIs  rank second on the team, just six behind Freddie Freeman’s leading total.

Gattis has homered once every 11.14 at-bats and he has driven in a run once every 4.22 at-bats.  If he had enough at-bats to qualify, this home run percentage would place him in front of Chris Davis’ Major League leading mark (11.40).   Gattis’ RBI percentage would rank fourth in the Majors, trailing the marks of Miguel Cabrera (3.61), Paul Goldschmidt (4.00) and Troy Tulowitzki (4.14).

In the process of producing these eye-opening numbers, Gattis has managed to make his improbable story that much more incredible.

Uggla and the Uptons coming up empty in the RISP department

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if umpire CB Bucknor had not botched this call in the top of the the 10th inning of Friday night’s 10-inning loss to the Dodgers.  Had Bucknor correctly called Justin Upton safe, the Braves would have had runners on the corners and Freddie Freeman coming to the plate looking for his fourth hit of the night.

“There is nobody else on this team we want to come up to the plate right there,” Upton said.

Upton’s expression extends beyond the fact that Freeman has hit .357 with a 1.006 OPS in his last 17 games.  Freeman also leads the Braves in batting average with runners in scoring position and it ain’t even close.

Freeman has batted .467 (21-for-45) with runners in scoring position. Chris Johnson ranks second on the team in this category with a .273 (9-for-33) mark.  The next runners-up include Brian McCann (.238, 5-for-21) Jordan Schafer (.238, 5-for-21), Andrelton Simmons (.234 11-for-47), Evan Gattis (.231 9-for-39) and Jason Heyward (.222 4-for-18).

And that concludes the list of Braves who have batted above .200 with runners in scoring position through the season’s first 61 games.   As you might have noticed this list did not include Dan Uggla or either of the Upton brothers  — the three right-handed sluggers who account for approximately one-third of the team’s payroll

If you got squeamish watching Joe Theismann break his leg or Marcus Lattimore blow out his knee, I suggest you turn your head and pass over this next part that shows exactly what Uggla and the Uptons have done with runners in scoring position this year.

Justin Upton (.171, 6-for-35)  — Remember when Justin hit 12 home runs and still totaled just 19 RBIs in April? The belief was his RBI total would soar once the guys in front of him started getting on base.  Well, he hit .176 (3-for-17) with runners in scoring position in April.  Since then, he has hit .167 (3-for-18) in these situations.  This is certainly not the kind of consistency he is seeking.

Justin’s recent struggles have extended beyond the run-producing situations.  Since hitting his game-winning grand slam against the Dodgers on May 17, he has hit .186 (13-for-70) with one double, no home runs and 29 strikeouts.

Dan Uggla (.128, 5-for-39) —  Uggla’s two-out single in Friday’s fourth inning was actually his third hit in his past 12 at-bats with runners in scoring position.  He had recorded just two hits in the 24 at-bats he recorded with runners in scoring position before May 24.

B.J. Upton (.073 3-for-41)  — Yes we have seen some recent signs of encouragement as B.J has recorded a hit in four of his past seven games and produced better-looking at-bats this month.  He produced a walk-off single in last Saturday’s win over the Nationals and hit a game-tying home run in Tuesday’s win over the Pirates.  But there have been a plethora of squandered opportunities as he has recorded the team’s third-highest total of at-bats with runners in scoring position. He has also struck out 18 times in the 41 at-bats he has recorded in these situations.

The Braves and Cardinals entered Thursday with the National League’s top two records.  But from an offensive perspective the two teams have accomplished this in contrasting fashion.

The Cardinals lead the Majors with a .342 (180-for-527)  batting average with runners in scoring position.  The Braves rank third-to-last with their .233 (101-for-433) mark.  Along with making the most of its opportunities, St. Louis has also compiled nearly 100 more at-bats with runners in scoring position than the Braves.

While the Cardinals frustrate opposing pitcher with a flurry of jabs,  the Braves have done much of their damage with knockout punches.  Atlanta (81) has hit 29 more home runs than St. Louis (52).

As this season has progressed, the Braves’ offense has continued to be hard to evaluate.  They lead the National League with 552 strikeouts and have also drawn the second-most walks (212).  They rank fifth in runs — the category that obviously has the most significant offensive influence on runs.

While the offense garnered all of the attention heading into the season, pitching has been the key to the success the Braves have produced so far this season.  Their 3.22 team ERA ranks just behind St. Louis’ league-leading 3.16 mark.

The Braves’ pitching staff should become even stronger when Brandon Beachy returns from Tommy John surgery on June 18.  But if the Braves are going to make a serious push into October, they will have to reach a point where they can consistently rely on someone other than Freeman to take advantage of run-producing opportunities.

Teheran’s slider was highlighted during Wednesday’s gem

When we got our first look at the updated version of Julio Teheran during his first few Spring Training starts, he was focusing on developing his two-seam fastball, curveball and slider  —  pitches  that he had started to become comfortable with during his successful stint in the Dominican Winter League.   For those who might have forgot, he had seemingly grown allergic to throw anything but his four-seam fastball as he posted a 5.08 ERA with Triple-A Gwinnett last year.  

After his making his first Grapefruit League start against the Pirates this year, Teheran spoke about his curveball and his slider.  Without the benefit of televisions in the press box or a stadium radar gun reading, I really couldn’t have told you which pitches were sliders and which were curves. 

Before we went to the clubhouse to speak to Teheran, a scout had told me the curveball was sitting around 71-73 and the slider was around 76-78. Truth be told, with the naked eye, they all looked the same.  This obviously led to reason to wonder how much he would be deceiving batters with a couple of breaking balls with similar velocity. 

A little more than three months later, that concern seems like ancient history. 

Since the end of April, Teheran has found more comfort with his slider, which has steadily gained more life and moved past that stage where it could be confused with the curveball.  

But we had not previously seen the slider anywhere near as frequently as we did as Teheran completed his gem against the Pirates on Wednesday afternoon at Turner Field.  On his way to recording 11 strikeouts and coming within four outs of a no-hitter, the Braves 22-year-old pitcher threw a season-high 41 sliders, which according to FanGraphs.com had an average velocity of 82 mph. 

To give you an idea of how far he has come over the past three months with that pitch alone, Teheran threw a total of 42 sliders in his first three starts of the season and the average velocity was 79.1 mph (data provided by BrooksBaseball.net).   The only start in which his slider velocity averaged less than 81 mph since April 29 came during his May 26 outing against the Mets.  This was likely a product of the fact he had thrown a career-high 123 pitches in his previous start. 

Veteran catcher Gerald Laird deserves credit for the way he has quickly come to understand how to best utilize  Teheran’s strengths on any given night.  This is certainly not an easy task when working with a young pitcher who has been trying to get a better feel for at least four pitches  (curve, slider, change and two-seamer) since the end of last season.

Laird has caught all but two of Teheran’s starts this season.   Teheran has allowed more than two runs in just two of his past eight starts.  Those just happened to be the two games in which Brian McCann has served as Teheran’s catcher. 

Teheran threw a then season-high 28 sliders against the Nationals on April 29 and 23 more against the D-backs on May 14.   The only start he made between these two outings occurred against the Giants on May 9, when he threw just  two sliders with McCann behind the plate.    The second-fewest sliders Teheran has thrown this year is 10, the total he compiled with McCann behind the plate against the Nationals on May 31. 

This is not a knock against McCann.   Teheran threw higher percentages of changeups in those two outings than he has in any other start this season.  But the fact remains Laird has been with Teheran throughout the season and there is certainly reason to expect that he would know him best.

Teheran has compiled a 2.13 ERA in the eight starts he has made dating back to April 23.  The only National League pitchers with a better mark during this span are Jeff Locke, Jordan Zimmerman, Clayton Kershaw, Shelby Miller and Mike Leake.

The athletic Teheran also notched his Major League-leading fourth pickoff during Wednesday’s win over the Pirates.    No other right-handed pitcher has more than two.

While the Braves have not determined how to fit Brandon Beachy back in their rotation, it became clear a few weeks ago that sending Teheran back to the Minors or to the bullpen is not an option. 

Teheran is on pace to complete 194 innings this year.   That figure would be just slightly more than what he combined to complete with Gwinnett and then in the Dominican Winter League last year. 

If the Braves feel Teheran needs a breather down the stretch, they could always take advantage of an offday by skipping him.  But for now, the Braves have no choice but to watch their prized pony continue to develop into a champion thoroughbred. 






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