April 2014

Braves starting staff will attempt to extend success and harness the always-dangrous Hamilton

Welcome back to the conclusion of Freak Week at Turner Field.  Three days after dealing with Jose Fernandez’s nastiness, the Braves will spend the next three days dealing with Reds rookie outfielder Billy Hamilton’s tremendous speed.

Upon popular demand, Major League Baseball has clarified the way the transfer rule should be interpreted with expanded instant replay and announced that starting tonight such plays will be ruled as they had been over the past century, minus the past four weeks.   Fortunately for the Braves, MLB has done nothing with the rule that states a player can’t steal first base.

As other opponents have seen over the past few weeks, Hamilton wreaks havoc once he steps on the basepaths.  He has tagged and advanced on fly balls hit to the shallow portion of the outfield and taken advantage of most every opportunity to steal a base.  But he has also produced a meager .266 on-base percentage through his first 21 games of the season.

Evan Gattis, who will be behind the plate tonight, gained a first-hand look at Hamilton’s speed when the two played against each other in the Southern League two years ago.  Gattis vividly remembers the stolen base Hamilton recorded against him.

“I got a good pitch and had a good chance to get him,” Gattis said. “But in that situation, I probably still don’t get him. It’s silly. He’s different. He’s a game-changer. You’ve just got to try to keep him off base. If he puts the ball in play and gets on enough, it’s silly.”

Gattis is fortunate to be part of a club that has seen its starting rotation limit opponents to a Major League-low .266 on-base percentage  (Side note:  The Reds starters rank second, having limited opponents to a .278 on-base percentage.

Yesterday’s offday story focused on how good Atlanta’s once-suspect starting rotation has been and pointed out that it has started this season more impressively than any of the great Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz rotations of yesteryear.  Here is a closer look at how this current rotation’s start ranks with those of the quintets Atlanta has used dating back to the magical 1990s.

Best ERA for Braves rotations through the first 21 games dating back to 1991:

2014  —  1.50

1997  —  2.52

1994  — 2.62

1998 —  2.63

1993 — 2.70

 

 

 

Looking back at Kimbrel’s blown save, Heyward’s bunt and Teheran’s slider

If the opener was a sign of things to come, this current homestand might prove to be every bit as eventful as the action-packed road trip the Braves ended with Sunday afternoon’s 14-inning loss to the Mets.

Coming off the marathon finale in New York, the Braves proved fortunate to claim a 4-2, 10-inning victory in Monday’s series opener against the Marlins.  Craig Kimbrel’s second consecutive shaky appearance netted him his first blown save of the year and it might have resulted in a loss had former Brave Reed Johnson not misread Derek Dietrich’s game-tying double off the left-center field wall.  Here is Johnson’s take.

Had Johnson not hesitated believing Justin Upton was going to get to Dietrich’s long fly, the Marlins might have scored two on Dietrich’s double and set  the stage for their dominant closer Steve Cishek, who has posted a 1.05 ERA and limited opponents to a .190 batting average while successfully converting each of his past 32 save opportunities dating back to June 8.

Those are Kimbrel-like numbers or at least the kind of dependability we had seen Kimbrel provide before he has produced two consecutive Kolb-like appearances since getting a chance to rest a sore right shoulder last week.

The fact that Kimbrel recorded three consecutive strikeouts following Dietrich’s game-tying nine-pitch at-bat at least minimized the concerns that began developing when Kimbrel surrendered two runs before being pulled from Saturday night’s game against the Mets with two outs in the ninth.  But until he produces a couple of clean outings in a row, there will naturally be some lingering concern.

“I can go out throw 95-96 and then go out and be 98-99,” Kimbrel said Monday night.  “I really can’t control that. I’m just trying to throw strikes.”

Kimbrel’s velocity has been a tick slower than normal in his past three appearances.  Per Fangraphs.com,  Kimbrel’s average fastball velocity during his first five appearances of this season was 96.2 mph.  His average velo in the 68 appearances he made last year was 96.9 mph.

We learned Kimbrel’s shoulder was bothering him after his fasball averaged a season-low 95.5 mph during his April 12 scoreless appearance against the Nationals.  Since getting a chance to rest for an entire week, his average velo in his past two appearances has been 96.4 (Saturday) and 95.6 (Monday).

All told, Kimbrel’s fastball has averaged 96 mph thus far this season, which is similar to the 96.3 average he produced during his first eight appearances last year.   Given this and the fact that he says is now pain-free, his recent struggles seem to be more a product of command than his shoulder.

“I felt great, better than I had before my rest,” Kimbrel said.  That’s a good sign. So we’ll go from here.”

Kimbrel said the success he had at the end of Monday night’s appearance was a product of his decision to be more aggressive with his curveball, which he used to conclude each of his three strikeouts.   He missed the strike zone with three of his first four curveballs and then hit it with five of his final six.

“I was trying to throw it more for strikes more than just throw it and see what it does,” Kimbrel said. “That is what I started doing (during the latter part of the inning).”

 

Evan Gattis’ walk-off home run saved Kimbrel some heartache and also deflected some attention away from the fact the Braves had left the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning, which began with Jordan Schafer’s opposite-field double against Carlos Marmol.  The Twitterverse erupted when Jason Heyward attempted to advance Schafer to third base with a sacrifice bunt.

After the game, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he had given Heyward the option to bunt in that situation.

“I left it up to him,” Gonzalez said.  “Whatever he wanted to do, whatever he felt comfortable doing there. You don’t want to play extra-inning games and the chances of scoring a run from third base is greater than scoring a run from second base, especially with a guy like Marmol. With a guy on third base, maybe you take one of his breaking pitches away or his split because he doesn’t want to bounce it and let the runner score there. That was fine. I had no problems whatsoever.”

 

All of the late-inning action overshadowed Julio Teheran’s latest gem.  Coming off his three-hit shutout of the Phillies during which he threw 115 pitches  (second-highest total of his young career),  Teheran needed 39 pitches to complete the first two innings.  But once he regained a feel for his slider, he needed just 53 more pitches to complete his final five innings.

Teheran’s inability to consistently gain a good feel for his slider might be a product of the weather  His slider accounted for 35.7 percent of the pitches he threw inside Miller Park’s dome on Opening Day.  In two of the next three starts he made (including last week’s gem in Philadelphia), he used his slider less than 14 percent of the time.  The game time temperature for those two starts were 51 degrees and 48 degrees.

Teheran’s slider accounted for 24.2 percent of the pitches he threw during Monday night’s game, which began with a temperature of 78 degrees.   This array was similar to what he displayed when he threw his slider 21.4 percent of the time on April 11, a home game that started amid a very comfortable 71 degrees.

There really hasn’t been any reason to complain about what Teheran has done while posting a 1.80 ERA through his first five starts.  But as the summer months quickly approach, you have to wonder if he will have even more opportunity to benefit from the slider, which has the potential to be his greatest weapon.

 

 

Another road game against the Mets, what could go wrong?

As the Braves come off a three-game sweep of the Nationals and an entertaining series victory in Philadelphia, what could go wrong as they spend this weekend playing the Mets at Citi Field?

This question is obviously filled with sarcasm. The more appropriate question might be, will the Braves actually escape a road trip against the Mets without incurring  a serious injury?

Maybe it was coincidental that Tim Hudson (season-ending ankle injury) and Jason Heyward (fractured jaw) suffered traumatic injuries during the final two trips Atlanta made to Citi Field last year.  But when Kris Medlen blew out his right elbow during the first trip the Braves made to Port St. Lucie during this year’s Grapefruit League season, there was no longer a comedic element to this coincidence.

So of course the baseball gods have aligned things so that Jason Heyward will oppose Jonathan Niese to begin the first road game the Braves play against the Mets this year.  This will be the first time Niese has faced the Braves since he dented the right side of Heyward’s face with a fastball on Aug. 21.

In other words, this is not necessarily the optimal setting to break out of the 2-for-27 skid Heyward will carry into this series opener.  Heyward has hit just .136 (8-for-59) and five of his eight hits have been compiled within two of this season’s first 15 games.  He’s gone hitless in 10 of the past 13 games.

Obviously, this has caused some of you to call for the need to move him out of the leadoff spot.  But, considering what Heyward did in this role when he was initially introduced to it last year, it still seems to be a little too early to pull the plug.

Yeah, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was willing to sit Chris Johnson for two straight games at the start of this week.  But that decision was influenced more by Johnson’s temper than the 3-for-18 skid he had carried into Sunday’s series finale against the Nationals.   While going hitless in five at-bats during Saturday’s win over the Nationals, Johnson had thrown his batting helmet and turned over a number of items in and around the dugout.  In other words, he created one of those scenes that led first base coach Terry Pendleton to grab him in the dugout at the conclusion of the second-to-last game of last year’s regular season.

After hitting five home runs in the process of totaling nine runs in Monday’s series opener against the Phillies, the Braves tallied just one run over the course of the final two games played in Philadelphia.  Fortunately that one run supplied by Evan Gattis’ solo shot on Wednesday was enough to doom Cliff Lee, who has suffered two of his five career complete game losses during his past two outings against Atlanta.

On Thursday afternoon, it was Alex Wood’s turn to suffer a tough-luck loss, one that was blemished by his inability to get a sacrifice bunt down in the top of the decisive eighth inning.  But Wood’s impressive eight-inning effort extended the remarkable success generated thus far by Atlanta’s starting rotation, which has stood as baseball’s most surprising group during this season’s first three weeks.

On the eve of the season opener, I opined that a modernized version of former Boston Post sports editor Gerald V. Hern’s classic “Spahn and Sain” poem might be recognized by these words:  Teheran and Wood, then skip the next three days  if we could. 

Well this injury-depleted rotation has since welcomed Ervin Santana to the fold and watched Aaron Harang conjure memories of what he did for the Reds before being burdened with injuries.  As for Julio Teheran and Wood, they have simply given the Braves even more reason to be encouraged to believe they could both establish themselves as legitimate frontline starters for many years to come.

The Braves lead the Majors with a 1.58 starting pitcher’s ERA.  Oakland ranks second with a 2.48 mark.

It might be too early to get overly excited about statistics.  But given what it has included, it is remarkable this year’s Braves rotation has started this season more impressively than any of those that included Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.

Here’s a look at the top starting pitcher ERAs the Braves have produced through the first 15 games of a season dating back to 1990:

2014:  1.58

1998: 1.85

1994: 2.21

2013: 2.24

1993: 2.33

1997: 2.36

 

 

 

Kimbrel further eases concerns after playing catch

Before getting overly concerned about the fact that a sore right shoulder prevented Craig Kimbrel from closing Monday night’s thrilling win in Philadelphia, remember some of you were also worried about him around this same time last year.

Or maybe more importantly,  Kimbrel has already played catch today and given himself more reason to believe he will be available to pitch if rain does not prevent the Braves and Phillies from playing tonight’s scheduled game at Citizens Bank Park.

As Kimbrel worked a perfect inning against the Nationals during his sixth appearance of the 2013 season, his average fastball velocity  (per BrooksBaseball.net)  was 94.5 mph.  This eyebrow-rising drop in velo was influenced by the fact that he had worked a perfect inning approximately 17 hours earlier.

After he rested two days following those back-to-back appearances, his average fastball velocity in his seventh appearance of the season was 99 mph.

All of this was provided to simply provide some context in the event that Kimbrel is indeed simply dealing the kind of normal shoulder soreness that can be healed with a couple days of rest. But until the Braves closer has a chance to prove he is not dealing with something that could possibly sideline him, there will be at least some level of concern, regardless of what Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said as he spoke to reporters after Monday’s game.

“Not worried at all,” Gonzalez said. “I’m talking to Craig and our trainers. I think it’s one of those things that every reliever goes through. [If we hadn't gone ahead in the ninth], you guys wouldn’t have even known it. So throughout the course of the season, there are guys that are banged up and they’re not the closer. If it’s not a save situation, nobody would even know, so I’m not concerned at all.”

While a reliever is seemingly destined to deal with some kind of soreness at some point during a season, some of you might have been more comforted had Kimbrel not revealed that his shoulder has occasionally bothered him dating back to Spring Training.

But with this being said, there have not necessarily been any glaring signs that Kimbrel has been dealing with any burdensome discomfort.

Yeah, he issued a walk and allowed a pair of two-out, run-producing singles after being assigned to clean Jordan Walden’s ninth-inning clutter during Wednesday’s win over the Mets.  Dating back to the start of the 2012 season, he had entered just four other games in the middle of an inning with at least one runner on base.

But Kimbrel has been perfect in four of the five innings he has started this year.  The only thing separating him from being 5-for-5 in this category was the one-out single he surrendered in the process of notching his fifth save on Saturday.

If you’re wondering about his arm strength, here is a look at his average fastball velocity through the first six games of the past three seasons (once again courtesy to the fine folks at brooksbaseball.net).  Notice that Kimbrel’s velo thus far has been a tick better than it was at the same point of his historic 2012 season.

2012: 96.7 mph

2013:  97.05 mph

2014: 96.98 mph

 

 

Looking back at Thursday’s lost opportunity

Given that they have been shutout twice and that they have totaled two runs or fewer in three of their first four losses, it can be said that the Braves have squandered a few opportunities to take advantage of the fact that their injury-depleted starting rotation has produced a Major League-best 1.74 ERA through this season’s first nine games.

But it wasn’t until Thursday’s 6-4 loss to the Mets that it truly felt like the Braves lost a game that they could have easily won.

Yeah, the slumbering offense tallied four runs for a second straight night. But at the end of the day, the Braves ended up scoring in just four of the 27 innings played this week against the Mets, who at last check are not currently able to rely on  the likes of Seaver, Gooden or even Harvey.

In other words, let’s not yet say the Braves have completely halted the early-season offensive woes that have led them to produce 2.56 runs per game  —  the second-worst mark in the Majors.

Justin Upton provided some signs of encouragement on Thursday when he homered twice and sent two of his three hits to right field.  As B.J. Upton made solid contact during three of his four plate appearances he might have been benefiting from the tutorial Chipper Jones had offered a few hours earlier.

When Chris Johnson saw that Jones was at Turner Field, he comically tweeted a question asking if he was still in the lineup.  But he wasn’t laughing a few hours later when he became the first Braves player to strike out four times in a game this year.   His only previous four-strikeout game had come during the 2012 season.

Still the Braves managed to keep the game tied until manager Fredi Gonzalez made the baffling decision to replace a dependable veteran (Luis Avilan) with a green rookie (Gus Schlosser) who has not exactly impressed during his first five career appearances.

When asked why he replaced Avilan with Schlosser, who surrendered Juan Lagares’ decisive single, Gonzalez indicated that Avilan had been put in that spot because three of the first four hitters he was scheduled to face were left-handed hitters.   Two of those lefties reached safely between a David Wright strikeout and the other (Ike Davis) hit a weak popup to leave runners at second and third with two outs.

Instead of allowing Avilan, who has limited right-handed hitters to a .205 batting average since the start of last year, Gonzalez turned to Schlosser, who has now surrenderd hits to six of the first 21 hitters he has faced.

There was nothing wrong with using Avilan in the seventh inning given who the Mets were set to send to the plate.  But given the success he has had against right-handed hitters, there aren’t too many fathomable scenarios where he should be used like a specialist.

Gonzalez also made the baffling decision to sacrifice defense for what he hoped would be offensive potential by using Ryan Doumit instead of Gerald Laird as his starting catcher on Thursday night.  Doumit’s reputation was upheld as Eric Young successfully swiped three bases.   Opponents have been successful in each of the seven stolen base attempts that have been made with Doumit behind the plate this year.

While this doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, it has been surprising to see the Braves give Doumit two starts behind the plate when Laird was perfectly capable to play those games in place of Evan Gattis, who is targeted to catch approximately 100-110 games for Atlanta this year.

When the Braves acquired Doumit, it seemed the plan was to have him serve as a pinch hitter, who might occasionally get a start in the outfield or at first base.  But I don’t think anybody, especially Laird expected to see Doumit behind the plate to start two of this season’s first nine games.

 

 

 

A look at Atlanta’s recent futility in Milwaukee

Because of an affinity that dates back to those youthful days when he would go to County Stadium to see Hank Aaron and his beloved Milwaukee Braves, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has declared that the Braves and Brewers will play the final two games of this week’s series at Fox Cities Stadium, the home of the Wisconsin Timbler Rattlers.

And to further level the playing field, any current Brewer who has pitched against the Braves at any point during the past few seasons has been given a two-day suspension that must be served immediately.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has since announced Sidd Finch will serve as his starting pitcher tonight and in Wednesday afternoon’s series finale.

I’m not much for the April Fools’ thing  But given what the Braves have experienced over the past few years while playing in Milwaukee, I figured this was an appropriate time to provide some levity to those of you who have chosen to forecast impending doom based on what transpired during the first of the 162 games Atlanta is scheduled to play this year.

While these next couple nuggets might provide the appearance that I am extending this April Fools theme, they are legitimate facts that prove how dominant the Brewers have recently been against the Braves.

The Braves have been shutout in five of the seven games played against the Brewers dating back to last year.

If possible, this factoid becomes even more unbelievable when you account for the fact that Brewers ace Yovani Gallardo has started just one of these five games —  Monday’s 2-0 Opening Day contest at Miller Park.   Milwaukee’s starting pitchers in the other four games were Wily Peralta, Donovan Hand, Marco Estrada and Kyle Lohse.

Since the start of the 2013 season, the Braves have played 4.3 percent of their games against the Brewers.  Yet, 27.8 percent (5 of 18) of the shutout losses they have incurred during this span have come courtesy of Milwaukee’s pitching staff.

The Braves have lost nine of the past 10 games played at Miller Park

Since the start of the 2011 season, the Braves have produced a National League-best .525 road winning percentage.  But they have lost nine of the 11 games played in Milwaukee during this span.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this futile stretch can be blamed on Ben Sheets and shadows.

To make this span even more baffling, the Brewers have gone 2-8 at Turner Field since the start of the 2011 season.

LOOKING AHEAD:  This might be a good time to mention that the Braves have not been shutout in consecutive games to begin a season since opening the 1980 season in Cincinnati.

But things won’t get any easier for the Braves when the Brewers send Lohse to the mound tonight.  Given what has occurred the past two times the veteran right-hander has faced Atlanta, there is a chance that something odd or riotous could occur.

Lohse served as the Cardinals starting pitcher the night that umpire Sam Holbrook became a villain in Atlanta with his infamous infield fly ruling  during the 2012 National League Wild Card playoff game.  Lohse was also on the mound last September when Brian McCann halted Carlos Gomez’s insane home run trot approximately 10 feet in front of home plate.

And as fate would have it, Lohse will be opposed by Braves southpaw Alex Wood, who will be making his first start since he vociferously critiqued umpire CB Bucknor’s performance as he walked off the mound at Nationals Park on Sept. 18.

Less than two years removed from his days at the University of Georgia, Wood possesses a genuine sense of confidence that should prove beneficial as he encounters the inevitable frustrations that even the best young players are bound to encounter during the early portion of their careers.

We’ll wrap this up with some telling thoughts from Wood as he prepares to build off the success he had after being called to the Majors last year.

“I feel more weight on my shoulders now than I ever did last year, because last year if I did well, I exceeded expectations,” Wood said. “If I didn’t, it was, ‘Oh he’s 22 years old,’ or, ‘He went through the Minor Leagues fast, he’s going to have some growing pains.’

“Well, I really didn’t experience many growing pains last year, so now what I did last year is what everyone expects. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. My biggest thing is getting an opportunity. If I get an opportunity, I don’t typically let it get away.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43,855 other followers