August 2013

Upton extends his latest hot streak and Simmons adds another defensive gem

The Braves have led the National League East since the start of the season and they have had sole possession of first place every day dating back to April 7.  Their slimmest lead was the half-game advantage they owned on May 16 and 17   — the latter being the day during which Justin Upton erased a two-run sixth-inning deficit with a grand slam against Paco Rodriguez.

All still seemed right in Upton’s world at that point.  Earlier in the week, he had marked his return to Arizona with a mammoth shot to center that served as his first home run in a span of 46 at-bats. At the time, we playfully considered this to be a drought.  When he totaled 12 home runs in April, he never went through more than 18 at-bats without hitting one.

But after blasting that slam against the Dodgers, Upton hit just two home runs in the 234 at-bats that followed.  As this true drought progressed, the Braves patiently waited for the streaky outfielder to get hot again.   There were signs of encouragement as Upton hit .292 in July.  But he totaled 10 extra-base hits during this span and just one of those was a home run.

Oh how quickly perceptions can change with just one flick of the calendar.

Upton’s decisive home run in the eighth inning of Monday night’s win over the Nationals was his fourth blast in the past five games.  It was also the culmination of a three-hit performance that began with a pair of singles  —  one that traveled through the middle of the infield and another that was laced to right field against Stephen Strasburg.

“He’s locked in,” Freddie Freeman said. “He’s driving the ball to right-center. If they leave one out over the plate like (Tyler Clippard did Monday), he was able to hit a home run to left.  When he’s doing that, it’s exactly what he was doing in April.  So it’s going to be very tough to beat us if he’s doing that.”

As the Braves won 13 of their first 15 games this season, Upton hit .328 with nine home runs and a 1.256 OPS.  During the club’s current 11-game winning streak, Upton has batted .405 with four home runs and a 1.241 OPS.

After Upton provided his decisive blow on Monday, Andrelton Simmons continued to show why he was so special with the hustle he displayed on a play in which he was not even involved.

With the potential tying run at third base and one out in the ninth inning, Jordan Walden got Scott Hairston to pop out behind the plate.  As Brian McCann went back to the screen to make the catch, Simmons sprinted from his shortstop position to guard the plate.

Sure, Walden was also there.  But as we have come to realize, Simmons is very much like Forest Gump in that he seemingly makes sure he is always around whenever something important is taking place.

Simmons’ strong throw to the plate to deny Wilson Ramos’ bid to score from first base on Adam LaRoche’s first-inning RBI double simply added to the long list of defensive gems he has produced just this week.

To simply say Simmons leads all Major League shortstops with a total of 31 in the Defensive Runs Saved category would be providing just a fraction of the story.  Minnesota’s Pedro Florimon ranks second with 11 and  Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy ranks third with 7.

According to FanGraphs, the top two DRS totals ever recorded by a shortstop in a season were registered by Adam Everett (34 with the 2006 Astros) and Jack Wilson (32 with the 2005 Pirates.  Simmons should easily eclipse both marks by the end of this season.

If they have not already done so, the folks at Rawlings should just go ahead and engrave that Gold Glove now.  And it would be wise for them to keep that template handy for many years to come.

A look at how the NL East race has unfolded

Just like nobody in their right mind could have ever expected, the Braves will enter this week’s three-game series against the Nationals with their largest lead in a division race since Sept. 2, 2003, a day during which Al Leiter beat Mike Hampton at Shea Stadium.

In case you forgot, the Nationals entered this season as the overwhelming favorites to win the National League East race and the Braves were targeted to make their second consecutive appearance in the do-or-die, roll-of-the dice one-game Wild Card playoff game.

Sure, there was reason to believe the Braves could prove the preseason prognosticators wrong by winning the division.  But nobody could have envisioned them owning a 12 1/2-game lead over the second-place Nationals entering tonight’s series opener at Nationals Park.

Let’s take a look at how this race has evolved:

April 1-18:  While the Braves won 13 of their first 15 games (including each of the three played against the Nationals), the Nationals went 9-6 and fell four games back.

April 19-28:  As the Braves were losing seven of the final nine games on their first 10-game road trip, the Nationals went 4-6 and gained just 1 1/2 games.

April 29-May 2:  The two teams split a four-game series at Turner Field, leaving Atlanta with a 2 1/2-game lead

May 3-May 15:   As the Braves won five times during a 12-game stretch that concluded with five losses in a span of six games, the Nationals went 6-5 and pulled within one-game of Atlanta.

May 17-22:  While the Braves were proving perfect during a six-game homestand against the Dodgers and Twins, the Nationals lost four of six and fell to 4 1/2 games back in the division standings.

May 24-30:  The Braves went 4-3 during a seven-game stretch against the Mets and Blue Jays.  Meanwhile, the Nationals went 3-4 and lost another game in the race.

May 31-June 9:  The Braves took two of three against the Nationals in Atlanta and then swept a three-game series against the Pirates.  They then split four games against the Dodgers to leave them 7-3 during this stretch.  Meanwhile, the Nationals went 4-4 during this span and fell 7 1/2 games back.

June 10-26:  As the Braves lost10 of 16, the Nationals won eight of 15 and pulled back within five games of the division lead

June 28-July 14:  While the Braves won nine of their final 16 games before the All-Star break, the Nationals produced a 9-8 stretch that still left them six games back.

July 19-25:  As the Braves lost three of their first seven coming out of the break, they gained two more games against the Nationals,  who went 1-6 during this same stretch

July 26-Aug.4:  While the Braves have been constructing their current 10-game winning streak, the Nationals have gone 5-4 and lost four games in the division standings.

Given that they are just two years removed from their epic September collapse in the NL Wild Card race, the Braves are certainly not going to take anything for granted with 50 games left this season.  But if they can take two of three during this week’s series, they will further deflate the hopes of a Nationals club that simply has not taken advantage of the opportunities they have had to catch Atlanta this year.

While the Braves went 43-42 during an 85-game stretch that spanned from April 19-July25, they actually increased their lead in the NL East race by four games.

 

May

Odds and ends: Beachy proves he can be successful without his slider

Brandon Beachy displayed a sense of satisfaction as he stood in front of his locker following Saturday’s 12-inning win over the Phillies.   While pitching into the seventh inning of the long contest, the Braves right-hander had proven that he can be successful despite the fact that he does not currently have the luxury to rely on his slider.

Beachy’s slider was the prime secondary pitch that he displayed before undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.  According to FanGraphs, 18.3 percent of the pitches he threw before injuring his elbow last year were sliders.  This essentially matched the combined percentages of his two other secondary pitches   —  curveball (9.3 percent) and changeup (9.5 percent).

Through the two starts he has made over the past week, it has been evident that he does not yet have enough confidence in his surgically-repaired elbow to consistently command his slider.   According to BrooksBaseball, Beachy threw  19 sliders as he labored through 3 2/3 innings against the Rockies on Monday and then just two sliders during Saturday’s outing in Philadelphia.

After hanging a slider that Phillies outfielder John Mayberry hit into the left field seats for a two-run homer in the second inning, Beachy essentially ditched the pitch.  The only other time he threw came via a 1-2 waste pitch to reliever Zach Miner, whose only previous big league plate appearances came in 2006 (6) and 2009 (1).

But while complimenting his fastball with the curveball and changeup, Beachy had little trouble during his four full innings of work.  After allowing hits to three of the first four batters he faced in the second inning, he retired 14 of the next 16 batters he faced and did not allow a hit during this span.

<p> “I’m a better pitcher with (the slider),” Beachy said after the game. “I’m going to keep working on it in the bullpens and eventually I’ll get the feel for that back and have that as a weapon.”  </P>

While there is a chance Beachy will begin commanding the slider again before the end of this season, none of us should be surprised if we do not see this pitch become a primary weapon again until he has a chance to strengthen his arm and gain more confidence in his elbow this winter.   But for now it appears he can continue to at least be effective while placing a much greater emphasis on his changeup and curveball.

As the Braves attempt to complete a three-game series sweep of the Phillies tonight, they will intently watch Alex Wood with the hope that he extends the success he produced during his strong seven-inning effort against the Rockies on Tuesday.  Two of the three runs Wood surrendered in this outing came courtesy of the misplaced 1-1 fastball that Nolan Arenado hit into the left field seats with two outs in the second inning,  which is when Wood was bothered by a cracked cuticle on his right index finger.

When Wood has been occasionally bothered by this cuticle over the past couple months, he has been forced to ditch his curveball  —  a pitch that might have been effective against Arenado in that situation.   Thanks to some quick assistance from the Braves’ medical staff between the second and third innings, Wood was able to complete the rest of the outing without any further problems or restrictions.   He threw a total of 18 curves during the game and retired 14 of the last 17 batters he faced.

Wood will likely need to be similarly efficient in tonight’s matchup against Cliff Lee, who has posted a 1.38 ERA in his past seven starts against Atlanta.  The only runs the Braves have tallied against Lee this year came during the four-run seventh they produced during a July 5 loss in Philadelphia.

Of course Lee also faces a great challenge as he attempts to cool a Braves offense that has averaged 6.9 runs during the team’s current nine-game winning streak.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I might be among those who have placed too great of an emphasis on runners in scoring position stats.  At the time, I was pointing out that the Pirates and Braves ranked as the NL’s two worst teams in this category and still possessed two of the NL’s top records.

Well the Pirates still own the NL’s worst batting average with RISP and entered Sunday with the Senior Circuit’s best winning percentage.  As for the Braves, they ranked last in this category when July began and now own the NL’s third-best mark.

While going 21-11 dating back to June 28, the Braves have hit .319 (88-for-276) with RISP.   They had batted just .225 with RISP during the 77 games that preceded this stretch.

NOTES:  If the Braves beat the Phillies tonight, they will have swept nine of the NL’s 16 teams in a series consisting of at least three games…Atlanta’s 11 1/2-game division lead is the largest they have had through 111 games since the 2002 team had a 17 1/2-game advantage…According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the five hits the Braves recorded on Saturday was the fewest they have had in a game that lasted 12 innings or longer since the famous game they won against Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix on May 26, 1959.  Haddix proved perfect through 12 innings that day and ended up allowing just one hit  —  Joe Adcock’s game-winning double with two outs in the 13th inning.  Lew Burdette scattered 12 hits over 13 scoreless innings to get the win for Milwaukee.

Braves are hoping a refreshed B.J. Upton strengthens their red-hot offense

After totaling 40 runs and producing a .999 OPS in this week’s four-game series against the Rockies at Turner Field, the Braves will spend the next three days at Citizens Bank Park facing three Phillies starting pitchers, none of whom are named Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels.   This  is kind of like asking the third round Masters’ leader if he would like to finish the weekend by making the move from Augusta National to Augusta Municipal.

We have not gained a sample size large enough to know whether it is just a coincidence that the Braves have enjoyed their recent offensive surge right after manager Fredi Gonzalez finally moved Andrelton Simmons out of the leadoff spot and replaced him with Jason Heyward.  But it’s pretty safe to assume we’re going to see Heyward at the top of the order for a while and quite possibly for the remainder of the season.

Dating back to Spring Training, Heyward has been the most popular candidate in the “Anyone But Simmons Should Bat Leadoff Campaign.”   Gonzalez waited until last Friday to move him into this role.  When asked why, he told reporters “I succumbed.”   I guess he was just sick of replying, “Because we don’t have Rickey Henderson” every time he was asked ‘why are you still batting Simmons in the leadoff spot?’

While handling the leadoff role throughout  the perfect seven-game homestand completed on Thursday night, Heyward batted .321 with a .424 on-base percentage.  The five walks he drew in the 33 plate appearances compiled during this span were nine fewer than the total Simmons has drawn while compiling a .290 on-base percentage in 288 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter this year.

With more than three months worth of data, we were able to confidently deduce that Simmons was one of the game’s worst leadoff hitters.  Seven games has not provided us enough to confidently know how Heyward will fare in this role moving forward.  But he’s seemingly been the best candidate for a long time and the early results have certainly not altered this belief.

Now that the old and tired leadoff debate has been put on the back burner, it is time to discuss the new hot topic, which is what will the Braves do when B.J. Upton ends his Minor League rehab assignment tonight and returns to Atlanta’s lineup on Saturday.

While some in the Twitter world have said they hope the Braves don’t mess with what they’ve got going by putting Upton back in the lineup immediately, this obviously isn’t going to happen.  Nor should it.  This is the first year of a five-year, $75.25 million agreement with an extremely talented player who has simply played well below expectations since the start of the season.

If the club was confident enough to make this kind of financial obligation to him, there is no reason for them to not be confident in his ability to perform much greater than he has while hitting .177 with eight home runs and a .565 OPS through his first 84 games in Atlanta.  The pressure of the contract, the challenge of changing from the American League to the National League have been cited as explanations to explain these struggles that have weighed on B.J. enough to the point that he has reached out to veteran friends from around the league and told them that he is committed to making the changes necessary to turn things around.

The Braves are hoping the injury (strained right adductor muscle) Upton suffered just before the All-Star break proves to be a blessing in disguise.  If nothing else, it has given the veteran outfielder a chance to have a brand new start and aim to end this season like he did last year, when he hit .252 with 19 home runs, 12 stolen bases and a .876 OPS in his final 57 games with Tampa.

While spending the past few days completing his rehab assignment with Triple-A Gwinnett, Upton has been reunited with Braves’ hitting guru Lee Elia, a Tampa-area resident who has worked with Upton in the offseason during recent years.

Braves hitting coach Greg Walker was pleased with what he saw from Upton during batting practice earlier this week and the club was further encouraged on Thursday night when Upton went 3-for-4 for Gwinnett.

Upton’s return will end Evan Gattis’ recent stint as one of Atlanta’s regular outfielders.  This will upgrade the club’s outfield  defense and bench.

Gattis has hit just .246 with one home run and a .570 OPS in the 15 games he has played since returning from the disabled list on July 14.   In the 26 games he has played dating back to May 31, he has hit .195 (17-for-87) with three homers and a .563 OPS.

Despite Gattis’ struggles over the past two months, opposing managers are not going to be comfortable going into the late innings with the reality that his powerful bat is on the Braves’ bench.  They will be well aware of the fact that he has gone 6-for-8 with four home runs and two walks in 10 pinch-hit plate appearances.  That success rate is utterly ridiculous.

Now, if Upton returns and resumes his struggles over the next couple of weeks, the Braves will not allow his contract prevent them from making the decision to give Jordan Schafer a chance to play center field on a frequent basis.

But for now, the Braves are simply looking toward the next couple weeks and months with the hope that this is a new beginning for Upton, one that will allow him to prove he is capable of strengthening a lineup that has finally started to live up to expectations.

NOTES:  The Braves enter this weekend’s series with an 11 1/2-game lead in the National League East standings.  This is their largest division lead since Sept. 21, 2003…Thursday night’s win allowed the Braves to complete their first perfect homestand of at least seven games since they swept a nine-game homestand against the Phillies, Pirates and Dodgers in April 2000.

 

 

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