September 2013

Some interesting numbers heading into the final games

With two regular season games remaining the only number that truly matters for the Braves is two —  their magic number for clinching home-field advantage during the National League playoffs.  Any combination of Atlanta wins or St. Louis losses that equal two will do the trick.

Now that I have used the word two far too many times in one graph to explain what the Braves can gain during the final two games against the Phillies, here are some other interesting numbers.

.696   —   Atlanta’s Major League-best home winning percentage.   With wins in their final two games, the Braves will set a new franchise record with a .703 home winning percentage.    One win will match the record (.691) which is currently shared by the 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2010 clubs.

50  —   Last night, Craig Kimbrel joined John Smoltz as the only Braves pitchers to record at least 50 saves in a season.   This mark has been reached just 12 previous times, by 10 different closers.

1.23   —  Kimbrel’s ERA, which ranks as the second-lowest mark ever recorded by closer during a 50-save season.  Eric Gagne posted a 1.20 ERA when he notched 55 saves for the Dodgers in 2003.

.165  —  Kimbrel’s opponent’s batting average, currently matches Trevor Hoffman for the lowest best mark recorded during a 50-save season.  Gagne surrendered a .133 batting average in 2003.

.397 —  Chris Johnson’s Batting Average Balls in Play.   With a couple of productive days, Johnson could become the fifth player in Major Leaguer since 1955 to record a BABIP of .400 or better.  It is almost certain that he will better Kenny Lofton’s franchise-best .390 BABIP.

42  —  Andrelton Simmons’s Defensive Runs Saved, a relatively new defensive metric that dates back to 2003.  The previous best total assigned to a shortstop was 34 (Adam Everett in 2006)

2.44  —  The Braves bullpen ERA stands as the best mark recorded since the 1990 A’s posted a 2.35 in 1990.  Despite some late-season struggles, Atlanta’s relief corps is still positioned to top the franchise record 2.60 ERA compiled by the 2003 pen.

1,371   —  For the third consecutive season, the Braves offense has set a franchise record for strikeouts.  Their totals the previous two years were 1,289 and 1,260.

520 and 1,370 —  The Braves became just the fifth team in Major League history to draw at least 520 walks and strike out more than 1,370 times in a season.  Providing further proof that the game has changed, each of these five teams have done this since 2008 and three of the instances (Braves and Twins this year and the A’s last year) have occurred during the past two seasons.



Freeman and McCann did what they had to do in response to Gomez

By now, you have likely heard, seen or read about all that transpired after Carlos Gomez temporarily lost touch with sanity last night.  If you haven’t, here is a story that provides Gomez’s postgame apologetic response and a feel for what both the Braves and Brewers thought of the unnecessary incident that overshadowed the fact that Atlanta is now a half-game back of the Cardinals in the battle for the National League’s best record and home-field advantage.

This story provides the differing accounts that crew chief Dana Demuth and Freddie Freeman had regarding Freeman’s involvement in last night’s benches-clearing incident.  Video seems to support Freeman’s claim that he was simply pushing his way through the pile when he inadvertently struck at least one Brewer with an elbow.

Freeman took a sarcastic tone when he first greeted reporters after last night’s game.

“They said I came in there throwing punches, haymakers all over the place,” Freeman said. “It seemed like it, huh? I had to ice my hands afterwards because it hurt so bad. I didn’t throw one punch.”

Even after having a chance to look at video after the game, said he and his crew, which included Angel Hernandez, Doug Eddings and Paul Nauert, saw things different.  It would be remiss to point out that Hernandez, Eddings and Nauert were the veteran members of the crew (DeMuth was not present) that blatantly botched the review of the seemingly obvious ninth-inning, game-tying home run the A’s hit on May 8 in Cleveland.

“When the group got together, you can see on the video very well, Freeman was overaggressive,” DeMuth said. “Right when he came in, he went boom with an elbow which we saw and it caught the third baseman Ramirez. That right there is just like throwing a punch.  That is overaggressive. That number one calls for an ejection.  What we saw out there was the same as we saw (on video).  There was nobody else that was overly aggressive other than Gomez of course.”

While the Brewers are entering the final days of a miserable season, the Braves are fighting for home-field advantage and attempting to right the ship before the postseason begins.  Thus they certainly can’t afford to have Freeman’s bat out of their lineup because of a suspension.

Truthfully, I can’t see how anybody in their right mind could review what transpired and determine that Freeman deserves to be suspended.  But even if he and Gomez or Reed Johnson, who was the only player who clearly struck Gomez, receive more than a fine from MLB,  suspensions could be appealed, setting up the possibility they would not be served until next season, which coincidentally, begins with the Braves opening up in Milwaukee.

Unfortunately, there is a good chance Brian McCann won’t still be with the Braves next year.  But the veteran catcher certainly further endeared himself to Atlanta fans and his teammates when he stood up for his team by refusing to allow Gomez to reach the plate at the conclusion of his animated venom-filled home trot, that served as a response to being hit in the left leg by Paul Maholm’s 88-mph fastball on June 23.

As Maholm was leaving the stadium last night, he said, “if he had a problem with me hitting him three months ago, he should have done something about it then.”

For many years, the Braves were criticized for being a white-collar club that was seldom involved in incidents like the bizarre one that transpired last night.  But such can’t be said about this year’s club which has proven it does not have a tolerance for being disrespected.

After Bryce Harper pimped a home run on Aug. 6, Julio Teheran dotted Harper’s right hip with the next pitch he threw him, three innings later.  Now McCann for the second time in two weeks, McCann has found himself issuing harsh words to an opposing player at the end of a home run trot.

Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez’s reaction to hitting his first career home run on Sept. 11 should have been viewed as just the youthful, immature actions of a rookie, whose vibrant attitude will prove to be good for baseball for many years to come.  When McCann greeted him at the plate, he was simply sticking up for his pitcher Mike Minor and telling Fernandez that he is going to get somebody hurt if he continues to take his excitement to a level that would be deemed as taunting.

What Gomez did last night was simply inexcusable. I’m not going to say he didn’t have the right to be upset about the fact that June 23 marked the second time Maholm had hit him with a pitch.  That is his prerogative.  But there was no need for the insane approach he took when he strolled to the plate for last night’s first at-bat.

Gomez’s eyes indicated he had lost his mind when he swung and missed the first pitch he saw last night.  Everything that transpired after this confirmed it.

Some catchers might have allowed Gomez to touch the plate before getting nose-to-nose with Gomez.  But as my colleague Richard Justice writes in this column, there isn’t a veteran leader worth a grain of salt that would not have done what McCann did.









A look at the battle for home-field advantage

Over the past few weeks, you have repeatedly heard how important it would be to gain home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs.  Now with that prize within their grasp, the Braves simply need to surge through the regular season’s final five games and carry some momentum into the postseason.

The Braves enter today with a half-game lead over the Cardinals in the race for the NL’s best record.  And as you likely know, because of victories in the season series, Atlanta owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over both St. Louis and Los Angeles, the two other clubs that still have a legit shot to gain home-field advantage.

Atlanta’s magic number to clinch home-field advantage is four.  This number would reduce by one with any Braves win or Cardinals loss.   But while the focus has been on St. Louis, there is still certainly reason to keep an eye on the Dodgers, who stand two games out in the race to claim the NL’s best record.

Home-field advantage could truly be an even greater advantage than normal this year for the NL clubs.  If the Braves hold on to the NL’s best record, they will create the possibility of playing a majority of their games in the NLDS and NL Championship Series at Turner Field, where they have produced an NL-best .592 home winning percentage this year.  Ranking second and third in this category are the Cardinals (.589) and Dodgers (.580).

Maybe more importantly, grabbing the top seed would also allow the Braves to avoid playing either the NL West champion Dodgers or NL Central champ in the Division Series.  They would instead play the winner of the one-game Wild Card playoff that will be contested between the teams that finish second and third in the NL Central.

Here is a look at what Atlanta, St. Louis and Los Angeles have remaining:

BRAVES (5 games):  Wed. vs. Brewers; Thurs.-Sun. vs. Phillies

After watching potential NLDS Game 4 starter Paul Maholm oppose Kyle Lohse in tonight’s series finale against the Brewers, the Braves will send David Hale to the mound to oppose Tyler Cloyd in Thursday’s series opener against the Phillies.  They will then feature their top three starters  —  Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran during the remainder of this series against Philadelphia.

Cliff Lee will oppose Medlen in the only attractive pitching matchup during this four-game set.  The Phillies have not announced a starter for Saturday, but speculation is they’ll go with Ethan Martin.  Then to conclude the regular season, the Braves will face  Zach Miner, who many moons ago was a pitching prospect in Atlanta’s system.

In the baseball world, it has often been said that momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.  But as it pertains to the Braves offense, momentum could could come in the form of the starting pitchers they will face in three of the regular season’s final four regular season games.

CARDINALS (4 games)   —  Wed. vs. Nationals;  Fri.-Sun vs. Cubs.

After attempting to sweep the Nationals this afternoon, the Cardinals rest Thursday and then face Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson and Jeff Samardzija during this weekend’s three-game set against the Cubs.  St. Louis will send Lance Lynn to the mound on Friday.  Their starters for the final two regular season games will be determined by whether they have clinched the NL Central before Saturday.  Joe Kelly will likely make one of those starts.   Adam Wainwright could start on Saturday if there is not reason for him to be held back in the event he would have to available to  start the Wild Card playoff game.

DODGERS (5 games)   —  Wed. and Thurs. vs. Giants;  Fri.-Sun.  vs. Rockies

The pitching matchups for the final two games of the Giants series are Barry Zito vs. Ricky Nolasco and Tim Lincecum vs. Edinson Volquez.  Other than knowing the Rockies will send Juan Nicasio to the mound on Sunday, we don’t yet know who will serve as the other starting pitchers during this weekend’s series between the Dodgers and Rockies.

Having already secured a spot in a Division Series, the Dodgers will likely mirror the Braves by sending their top three starters Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu to the mound during this weekend’s series.

WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO CLINCH:  Obviously, the Braves would clinch home-field advantage by winning four of their final five games.  If you are willing to assume the Cardinals will lose at least once more,  the Braves would simply need to win three of their final five games to clinch.

But two years removed from a point where Atlanta, simply needed to win two of its final five games to keep the eventual world champion Cards out of the playoffs, it might not be wise to make any assumptions.

Braves activate Heyward from the disabled list

The Braves activated Jason Heyward from the disabled list and placed him in the starting lineup for Friday afternoon’s game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Heyward will return to the leadoff spot and play center field against the Cubs.  This will be his first game since his jaw was fractured by Mets left-handed pitcher Jon Niese’s fastball on Aug. 21 at Citi Field.

Heyward impressed the Braves while facing live pitching for the first time in three weeks during a batting practice session thrown by Minor Leaguer Mark Lamm on Wednesday at Nationals Park.

The Braves offense surged while Heyward hit .345 with a .418 on-base percentage in the 23 games he played after being moved to the leadoff spot on July 27.

Heyward’s activation could prove to be timely.  He has batted .333 with four homers and a 1.183 OPS in 10 career games at Wrigley Field.

Heyward will be re-introduced to a sense of normalcy today

Jason Heyward will make a significant step in his recovery process when he takes batting practice with his Braves teammates before tonight’s game series opener against the Padres.  Heyward will swing the bat, run, shag fly balls and essentially re-introduce himself to most of the normal pregame activities he experienced before his jaw was fractured on Aug. 21.

Heyward is expected to repeat these activities over the next few days and will likely accompany the Braves when they travel to Washington D.C. on Sunday night to prepare for a three-game series against the Nationals.  This creates the possibility that he will be with his teammates when they celebrate clinching the National League East.  But more importantly, these next few days will give him and the club a better understanding about when he could return to Atlanta’s lineup.

The timeline for return will be based on  how Heyward feels after completing these activities.  But barring any setbacks, there is certainly reason to believe he could begin playing in Instructional League games at the Braves’ Spring Training complex before the end of next week.

Going to the Instructional League for a few days will allow Heyward to re-acquaint himself with the speed of the game and compile as many at-bats as he desires.  Along with helping him regain a feel for his swing and approach, the chance to see live pitching will also serve as the only way Heyward will begin to distance himself from any lingering fear that has developed since his jaw was shattered by Jon Niese’s fastball a little more than three weeks ago.

If he continues to make progress, there is certainly a chance Heyward will be back in Atlanta’s lineup at some point during the regular season’s final week.

As things currently stand, Heyward could find himself as the club’s starting center fielder when he returns.  If this proves to be true, Justin Upton would be in right field and Evan Gattis would handle the left field duties.

While hitting .314 with a .771 slugging percentage in the nine games he has played since returning from his short stint with Triple-A Gwinnett, Gattis has forced the Braves to find an everyday spot in their lineup.   There will be some days when he spells McCann at the catcher’s position. But as long as he does not slump down the stretch, Gattis will likely continue to play left field on a regular basis.

Gattis’ recent surge has further clouded what the next few weeks have in store for B.J. Upton, who was not in the lineup for three of the four games played against the Marlins earlier this week.  Jordan Schafer will likely continue to get the start in center field whenever the Braves are facing a right-handed starter and B.J. could get some starts in games the opponent starts a left-hander.

Unlike Dan Uggla, B.J. has at least shown some signs of encouragement over the past few weeks.  There is a chance he could produce the latest of his hot streaks again over the next few weeks.  But as was mentioned earlier this week, his opportunities will likely be limited.  And they will be reduced even more if Heyward does indeed return to the starting lineup in the near future.


The need to play Schafer and Gattis puts B.J. Upton in limbo

Now that the Braves have snapped their four-game losing streak, some of you should exhale and recognize the fact that they are still in a pretty good position with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season.

With their magic number at eight, the earliest the Braves could clinch the National League East would be on Friday when they open a three-game homestand against the Padres.  Yeah, it would be nice to celebrate in front of the home fans.  But I’m thinking some of you would enjoy seeing them soil the visitor’s clubhouse at Nationals Park with beer and champagne next week.

While there still remains little intrigue surrounding their division race, the Braves will spend the next few weeks fighting to earn what could be a very important home-field advantage throughout the NL-portion of the playoffs.  The top five home winning percentages in the NL are owned by the five clubs   — Braves (51-20, .718), Reds (47-25, .653) , Pirates  (45-25, .643), Cardinals  (44-25, .638) and Dodgers (44-28, .611)  —  most likely to represent the Senior Circuit in the postseason.

In the race for the NL’s best record, the Braves entered Tuesday leading the Dodgers by two games, the Cardinals by three games, the Pirates by four games and the Reds by five games.   But because Atlanta won the season series against each of these clubs, you can essentially add one to each of the aforementioned advantages to account for the head-to-head tiebreaker.

To maintain this lead, the Braves are going to need more from an offense that has scored at least one run in just 10 of the past 53 innings in which they have batted.  They have hit .168 and compiled a .222 on-base percentage while winning just two of the six games played during this span.

Yeah, it was encouraging to see the Braves record five hits during last night’s decisive five-run fourth inning against Miami’s Henderson Alvarez.  But given the fact that they went hitless and scoreless in the other eight innings, it is hard to say they have completely separated themselves from their most recent offensive struggles.

Over the past few weeks, I have felt the Braves needed to play B.J. Upton for an extended stretch to see if he could produce another of his impressive late-season hot streaks. But we’ve reached a point where there is simply not a spot for him to be in a lineup that currently has to include both Jordan Schafer and Evan Gattis on a daily basis.

With Jason Heyward sidelined, Schafer’s presence at the top of the lineup is essential.  There is also the fact that he has proven to be more reliable defensively than Upton.  As for Gattis, he has once again become a threat that all opposing pitchers should fear.  He has gone 7-for-21 with two doubles and three home runs since returning from his three-day stint with Triple-A Gwinnett.

Gattis is obviously gifted with tremendous power.  What is often overlooked his baseball IQ and advanced feel for the game.  The 480-foot home run he hit off Cole Hamels on Sunday was a  thing of beauty.  But more impressive was the fact that five innings later, he went to the plate ready to react to the first-pitch curveball he crushed into the left-field seats as Hamels reacted in disbelief.

There might be reason to put Upton in the lineup when Schafer needs a breather or when Gattis is playing catcher.  But for now, it just doesn’t make sense for him to play on a everyday basis.

My objection to the lack of playing time Upton was receiving began when he hit .357 with a .829 OPS in the first seven games he played after coming off the disabled list and then was out of the starting lineup in five of the next 10 games.

Upton certainly didn’t help his cause by going hitless in the 24 at-bats he compiled during this span.  Still I maintained the belief that he might have been more productive had he been playing on a daily basis.

While this might have been unrealistic optimism regarding a player whose batting average has rested as high as .200 after just one game this season, Upton at least supported my argument by hitting .407 with 1.077 OPS while starting eight of the nine games played on this most recent homestand.  Then he went 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts this past weekend in Philadelphia and found himself out of the lineup again for Monday night’s series opener against the Marlins.

If trying to make a case for Upton, one might point out a lot of players struggle during a three-game series in which they face Cliff Lee and Hamels.  But the veteran center fielder went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in the game started by Kyle Kendrick.

Without the need to play Schafer and Gattis on a daily basis, the Braves might be in a position where they could continue to give Upton a chance to continue building on the success he had before going to Philadelphia.

But such is not the case as they spend the next couple weeks battling for the home-field advantage that might significantly influence which club represents the NL during this year’s World Series.

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