July 2013

Will Kimbrel be Atlanta’s only All-Star selection?

When this year’s All-Star rosters are announced on Saturday, Craig Kimbrel will almost assuredly gain his third consecutive selection.  But despite the success the Braves have had this year, one has to wonder if Kimbrel will be the club’s only selection.

Justin Upton will obviously be selected and be in the National League’s starting lineup  if he holds one of the top three outfield spots in the fan balloting process that concludes on Thursday.  First baseman Freddie Freeman certainly deserves consideration, but his candidacy is hindered by the fact he plays the same position as three other very deserving candidates — Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt and Allen Craig.

Despite missing the season’s first month recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Brian McCann has at least positioned himself for what would be his seventh and likely last All-Star selection while playing for the Braves.  McCann ranks fourth in OPS among all NL catchers who have compiled at least 150 plate appearances.  The top three players  in this statistical category are Buster Posey, Evan Gattis and Yadier Molina.

Given Gattis’ oblique strain might sideline him until after the All-Star break, there is virtually no reason to believe he will gain a selection.  But if he was healthy, it could be argued that he would be every bit as deserving as Dodgers rookie phenom Yasiel Puig.

Over the next few days we’ll hear plenty more debate about the the candidacy of Puig, who has hit .443 with eight home runs and a 1.218 OPS through the first 112 plate appearances of his career.  If you believe he has done enough to earn a selection, you can’t discount what would have been the candidacy of Gattis, who has hit .252 with 14 home runs (most among NL catchers) and a .894 OPS through his first 183 plate appearances at the big league level.

Just for fun, maybe I should pop in the Phillies clubhouse on Friday to ask Jonathan Papelbon if he feels Gattis is more deserving of a selection than Puig.

Three weeks ago, it seemed a given that Mike Minor would be part of the NL’s pitching staff. But the Braves southpaw might have to make one last solid impression during tonight’s scheduled start against the Marlins.

While allowing 11 earned runs in the 18 innings compiled in his last three starts, Minor has seen his ERA rise from 2.44 to 2.98  —  the 14th best mark among qualified NL pitchers.  Even with his recent struggles, Minor has posted the game’s sixth-best ERA (2.67) dating back to July 5 of last year, when he began transforming himself into a legitimate front line starter.

Unfortunately all that Minor did during last year’s second half will not factor into his All-Star candidacy.  At least I don’t think it does.  But I’ll check with Papelbon for clarification.

ODDS AND ENDS

Along with notching a new season high with 16 hits and matching season-high in runs during Tuesday’s win over the Marlins, the Braves also set new season highs in hits with runners in scoring position (8) and at-bats with runners in scoring position (22).

There is no doubt that I have been as guilty as anybody when it comes to pointing out the struggles the Braves have had with runners in scoring position.  They ranked last in the Majors three days ago and now rank 26th with a .232 mark.  But you have to question the true significance of this stat when four teams (Rangers, Pirates, Braves and Yankees) that rank in the bottom 10 all have winning records.

But while we’re on the subject, Justin Upton has recorded five hits in his last nine at-bats with runners in scoring position.  The only real significance to this comes from the fact that he had recorded just seven hits in the previous 46 at-bats he had recorded in these situations this year.

Yesterday we noted Upton has shown some recent signs of encouragement and then he provided some more as he notched his second three-hit game of this homestand last night.  The Braves can only hope this is just the start of streak that rivals the one he produced during the season’s first three weeks.

Upton hit .328 with nine home runs and a 1.256 OPS in the 15 games he played through April 18.  During the 51 games he played from April 19-June 19, he hit .213 with six home runs and a .675 OPS.  In the eight games that have followed, he has hit .355 with no home runs and a .925 OPS.

“As of late, I’m putting the barrel on the ball,” Upton said. “I haven’t been able to do that for a while.  That’s the goal every day. Whether you get four or five at-bats, you just want to be a tough out.  I’ve been able to do that for the last week or so.”  

Now that Upton, Heyward and Freddie Freeman are all hitting at the same time, the Braves could truly benefit from the presence of a legitimate catalyst at the top of their lineup.  Like there is little doubt that Andrelton Simmons is the game’s best defensive shortstop, there is also no doubt that he has provided plenty of reason for the Braves to end the experiment of using him in the leadoff role.

The .257 on-base percentage Simmons has recorded while manning the leadoff roleranks 45th among the 47 Major Leaguers who have recorded at least 100 plate appearances in the lineup’s top spot.

With the club’s only legitimate leadoff hitter Jordan Schafer bound to a backup role, the most likely candidates to replace Simmons in the leadoff spot are B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward.

I’m not sure what Papelbon thinks, but my suggestion would be to simply flip-flop Heyward and Simmons in the top two spots of the order.  While Upton has more experience in the leadoff role, I would lean toward Heyward, who has compiled a .372 on-base percentage in his past 27 games.

While Simmons has struggled in the leadoff role, he has hit .313 (20-for-64) with a .328 on-base percentage in the 15 career games he has totaled while batting second.   The talented shortstop has shown the ability to move runners over while consistently putting the ball in play.

Simmons ranks seventh in the Majors this year in two statistical categories that support this belief.  They are fewest strikeouts per plate appearance (10.81) and percentage of swings put in play (55.3).

 

Braves hoping to build off of June’s encouraging signs

Beginning with tonight’s series opener at Turner Field, the Braves will play six of their next nine games against the Marlins.  Just seven of the 26 games scheduled for this month will come against teams that currently have a winning record.  And after quickly evaluating what this means, I have come up within nothing better to say than…So what?

Yeah, the Marlins are coming to town tonight with a National League-worst .370 winning percentage.  But is it more relevant to point out that they lost 47 of the first 67 games they played or that they have won 10 of the 14 games that have followed.  Not surprisingly, Miami’s surge has coincided with the recent returns of Giancarlo Stanton, who missed six weeks with a hamstring injury,  and Logan Morrison, who missed last year’s final two months and this year’s first two months while recovering from knee surgery.

While compiling a 2.30 ERA in their past 14 games, the Marlins have benefited from the greatness of rookie phenom Jose Fernandez and the emergence of Jacob Turner.  It appears the Braves will not have to face Fernandez this week or next week in Miami.  But they’ll get two looks at Turner, who has posted a 1.76 ERA in the six starts he has made this season.

But before seeing Turner on Thursday, the Braves will open this week’s series against Tom Koehler, who has failed to complete five innings in two of his past three outings.  Koehler surrendered nine eanred runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Cardinals on June 15 and then limited the Giants to one run in seven innings during his next outing.  The 27-year-old right-hander issued four walks and needed 85 pitches to complete four innings in his most recent start against the Twins.

Speaking of walks, the Braves lead the NL with a walk in every 10.45 plate appearances.  Since the beginning of June, the Braves lead the Majors with their 9.23 plate appearances per walk ratio.  The next-best NL club during this span has been the D-backs  (12.14).

The increased frequency of walks drawn by the Braves has been influenced by the fact teams have been unwilling to pitch to Freddie Freeman in certain situations.  But the most encouraging development comes from the frequency in which Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton have walked over the past month.

Uggla leads the Majors with the 5.20 plate appearances per walk ratio he has compiled since the beginning of June.  Upton ranks seventh with 6.06 ratio, a mark vastly different from the 11.25 ratio he had compiled through the end of May.

Jason Heyward made the most significant strides as he hit .312 with a team-leading .865 OPS and raised his batting average from .146 to .231 in June.  Uggla

hit .250 in this past month to raise his batting average from .182 to .205.  Now it is Upton’s turn to cross the Mendoza Line.

While hitting .238 with a respectable .359 on-base percentage and four home runs in June, Upton distanced himself from the frustration he felt as he hit .145 with a Major League-worst .476 OPS during the season’s first two months.

Upton struck out once every 4.12 plate appearance this past month.  While that number might not look encouraging, it is when you consider he entered June having struck out once every 2.86 plate appearances.

Now that Heyward has provided the reminder that he is a difference maker and both Upton and Uggla are showing signs of encouragement, the Braves simply have to hope this month is one in which Justin Upton starts showing some signs of life.   Since hitting .298 with 12 home runs in April, he has batted .218 with three home runs over his past 51 games.

But we have already seen some signs that this month could prove to be different for the younger of the two Upton brothers.  He hit .296, compiled a .424 on-base percentage and struck out five times in his final 33 plate appearances in June.

Yeah, three of those five strikeouts were registered during Sunday’s series finale against the D-backs.  But my hunch says that was simply a product of trying to do too much in what was the last scheduled game this year against his former club.

The trade market will obviously heat up over the next couple weeks as the Braves continue their search for at least one reliever and attempt to solidify their defense at third base.  Read more about this and keep up with all of this buzz from around the Majors on MLB.com’s Trade Deadline blog.

 

 

 

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