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Braves promote La Stella to the Majors

The Braves have made the much-anticipated decision to promote Tommy La Stella to the Major League level. A corresponding move has not been revealed. But a source with knowledge of this development confirmed Dan Uggla will remain with the team.
La Stella is expected to be in Boston for Wednesday night’s game against the Red Sox. The 25-year-old second baseman has hit .293 with a .384 on-base percentage in 47 games with Triple-A Gwinnett this year. He is expected to provide the contact presence the Braves have lacked in their lineup.
With La Stella now available to handle the second base duties on an everyday basis, the Braves might decide to send Tyler Pastornicky to Gwinnett.

Thoughts as the Braves enter a tough two-week stretch with a slumbering offense

Before the Braves spend the next two weeks playing against the top two teams from the National League Central and West divisions,  they have to feel fortunate to know that the consistent misery they experienced most of the past two weeks had just a minimal effect on their place atop the NL East standings.

Here is a look at the lead Braves had on each division opponent on April 29, when they began a seven-game losing streak and a stretch of nine games that included just one victory:

Mets  -3.5, Nationals  -4 , Phillies -4.5,  Marlins -6.5

After righting themselves with a sweep of the Cubs this past weekend, the Braves find themselves with just a slightly less comfortable lead over these four division rivals:

Marlins -2   Nationals -2.5,  Phillies  -4, Mets -4

There really is not much reason to be concerned about standings during the first half of May.  But if the baseball season is indeed more a marathon than a sprint, then the Braves can be encouraged to know the pace they set during the first four miles of the race was strong enough to overcome the fact that they went through the next two miles looking like they were running on two broken ankles.

Yeah, it was good that the Braves spent these past three days healing themselves with just what the doctor ordered  —  a visit from the Cubs.   But if they are going to extend this success while spending these next two weeks playing the Giants, Cardinals, Brewers and Rockies, then I think it’s safe to say they’ll need much more production from an offense that has averaged 2.17 runs over the past 12 games.  The Nationals (2.91) are MLB’s only other club to average less than three runs dating back to April 29.

So while the Nationals continue to function with an injury-depleted lineup and the Marlins  spend the remainder of this week on the road, where they are 3-13, the Braves need to attempt to exact some revenge against the Giants and Cardinals, a pair of teams that combined to account for five of the eight losses Atlanta incurred during that recent nine-game stretch.

If you’re a Braves fan who was fortunate enough to be stuck under a rock for the past two weeks, you might look at look at tonight’s matchup against Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum and assume this might be a good night for Atlanta’s offense to awake with a fury.  That same assumption was made when Lincecum carried a 5.96 ERA into his May 2 start at Turner Field and ended up allowing one earned run over six innings.

Lincecum’s ERA jumped back up to 5.55 when he allowed the Pirates four earned runs in just 4 2/3 innings.  The former Cy Young Award winner has lasted fewer than five innings in three of his first seven starts, including two of his past three.

But Lincecum once again has a chance to right himself against the Braves, who have scored two runs or less against 11 of the past 13 starting pitchers they have faced.  This trend stood at 11 of 12 before Atlanta tallied three runs against Cubs right-hander Edwin Jackson on Sunday.

Instead of pointing out that the pedestrian .769 OPS Justin Upton has produced since April 29 leads all Braves players, it might be to simply look at who has trended in the right direction as the Braves have won four of their past five.  Yeah, it’s a small sample size.  But the horrific numbers produced during the more substantive two-week size are not suitable for the young impressionable eyes that visit this sight.

TRENDING UP:

Chris Johnson:  With 10 hits in 19 at-bats dating back to Tuesday, Johnson has raised his batting average from .236 to .279.  Since entering last Tuesday 2-for-19 with runners in scoring position, he has recorded a hit in each of his past four at-bats with a runner at second or third base.  In other words, as he has regained his tendency to hit the ball the other  way, he has started to look more like he did last year when he produced the NL’s second-best batting average (.321) and hit .336 with runners in scoring position.

Justin Upton:   We’ll have to see how his sore back reacted to Sunday’s cross-country flight.  But the Braves have been pleased with what they have seen from the outfielder since he struck out in 11 of his first 15 at-bats of the just-completed homestand.   He went 5-for-14 with two doubles, a home run and three strikeouts in the 14 at-bats that followed.  While these are not earth-shattering numbers, they are at least an early sign that he might avoid the long stretch of futility that plagued him last year after he produced an April that was only slightly more impressive than his first month of this season.

Freddie Freeman:  Despite going hitless in his past two games (probably had something to do with me picking him in MLB.com’s Beat The Streak), Freeman has recorded eight hits, including three doubles, in his past 24 at-bats.  Yeah, this has been a rather ho-hum short stretch for the first baseman.  But given he had batted .151 with two extra base hits and a .437 OPS during his previous 13 games, it is a sign of progress.

TRENDING DOWN:

Jason Heyward:  As Heyward hit .264 with a .340 on-base percentage in 21 games from April 9-May 3, it looked like he might provide sufficient production in the leadoff role.  But as he has hit .125 with a .267 on-base percentage in his past seven games, he has brought more attention to the glaring slash line (.209/.302/.324) he has produced with nearly a quarter of the season complete.  Ben Revere (.299), Billy Hamilton (.291), Evereth Cabrera (.289) and Denard Span (.286) are the four National League players who have compiled a lower on-base percentage while compiling at least 100 plate appearances at the leadoff spot.

B.J. Upton:  It appeared Upton was heading in the right direction as he hit .241 with a .355 on-base percentage and struck out once every 4.42 plate appearances in 21 games from April 10-May 4.  But he has recorded just two hits (both doubles) while striking out in half of his past 18 plate appearances.  Yeah, it’s just six games.  But given what happened last year, it’s safe to say the Braves didn’t want to see Upton hit .202 with a .595 OPS through his first 34 games this year.

Andrelton Simmons: Since hitting .289  with nine extra-base hits through the 24 games he played in April, Simmons has batted .200 (6-for-30) with one extra-base hit.  The six strikeouts he had in his past 28 plate appearances has tripled his season total to nine (127 plate appearances).

QUICK THOUGHTS:  Last year we saw Luis Avilan and David Carpenter step up and capably handle high-leverage relief appearances after Eric O’Flaherty underwent season-ending elbow injury.  With Jordan Walden dealing with a left hamstring strain that could affect his violent delivery for a while, Anthony Varvaro will have more chances to pitch in some crucial middle-inning situations.  Varvaro has allowed three hits while striking out seven of the 17 batters he’s faced in 4 2/3 scoreless innings this month.

When Aaron Harang allowed the Marlins nine earned runs in 4 2/3 innings on April 30, it seemed like the clock had struck midnight on his Cinderella season.  But he’s worked six innings and allowed just two earned runs in both of the two starts that have followed.  Instead of waiting for the veteran pitcher to implode, it might be time to fully concede that the Braves were wise to follow the advise of their two veteran scouts Brad Sloan and Rick Williams, who submitted positive reports regarding Harang.

If the Braves stick with their plan to bring Alex Wood back to a starting role for Saturdays’ game against the Cardinals, they would be setting up the possibility that each of their next four starting pitchers would be pitching with two extra days of rest.  As Wood and Harang proved with the consecutive clunkers they produced with two extra days of rest two weeks ago in Miami, it’s not always good to alter the schedule for these creatures of habit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Braves DL Walden and recall Thomas

The Braves have placed right-handed Jordan Walden on the disabled list and recalled left-handed reliever Ian Thomas from Triple-A Gwinnett.

Walden has been one of Atlanta’s most valuable bullpen pieces this year. The veteran setup man has not pitched since allowing a two-run home run to Brandon Crawford during Sunday’s loss to the Giants. Those two runs stand as the only he has allowed over his past 10 1/3 innings.

With this move made retroactive to Monday, Walden will be eligible to come off the disabled list on May 20. David Carpenter and Luis Avilan will primarily handle the setup duties in Walden’s absence.

Thomas posted a 4.26 ERA in the 10 appearances he made for Atlanta before being optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett on Sunday. The 26-year-old southpaw tossed three scoreless innings when he started Tuesday’s game for Gwinnett.

There is now a chance La Stella will get a call sooner, rather than later

The morning after the Braves lost an eighth consecutive game on May 28, 2012, this blog was filled with an entry that revealed Andrelton Simmons would likely soon be promoted to Atlanta and Kris Medlen would soon move from the bullpen to the rotation.   Simmons got his call one day later and Medlen ended up having to wait two more months before becoming a starting pitcher on a full-time basis.

Now that the Braves find themselves in the midst of of a six-game losing streak —  their longest since that 2012 skid, there is reason to wonder if Tommy La Stella might soon be promoted to Atlanta to aid an ailing offense.  As of Sunday, it appeared a potential La Stella promotion was likely at least a few weeks away.  But as we’ve often seen, these kinds of decisions can be expedited when a club is in the midst of a stretch as miserable as the one the Braves have recently encountered.

This is not to say La Stella will be added to Atlanta’s lineup this week.  But it now at least seems to be a possibility that he could replace Dan Uggla as Atlanta’s starting second baseman sooner, rather than later.

La Stella has batted .313 with a .372 on-base percentage through his first 27 games with Triple-A Gwinnett.  The 25-year-old second baseman lacks power and might actually be a little less effective with the glove than Uggla. But while producing a .408 on-base percentage during his professional career, he has provided indication that he has the potential to provide much-needed contact presence to a Braves lineup that has been lifeless over the past week.

The Braves certainly aren’t thrilled with the prospect of potentially eating the approximate  $24 million Uggla is  owed through the end of the 2015 season.  But they are less excited about the prospect of continuing to play him on an everyday basis with the hope that he will escape the woes that have plagued him over the past 23 months.

Thus they have reached that point where they are now at least discussing any all options regarding Uggla, who has batted .186 with 35 home runs and a .657 OPS in 265 games  dating back to June 1, 2012.  Just seven other Major Leaguers —  B.J. Upton included  —  have produced a lower OPS while playing at least 250 games during this span.

After watching them both endure the most frustrating season of their careers last year, the Braves entered this season hoping Uggla and Upton would turn things around.  Upton has at least shown some signs of improvement as he has compiled a .735 OPS in the 21 games he has played since enduring a rough first week to this season.

Uggla batted .237 with two home runs (both hit on the same night) and a .671 OPS through his first 16 games of the season.   But he has recorded five hits (all singles) and struck out 13 times in the 41 at-bats that have followed.

Uggla is certainly not the reason the Braves have totaled 23 runs in their past 11 games and tallied less than two runs against six of the past seven starting pitchers they have faced.  Given that Atlanta’s offense  has produced through his past struggles, it might be more appropriate to blame this abysmal output on the more dependable lineup members who have struggled through these past 11 games.  Freddie Freeman has batted .163 with one extra-base hit and Chris Johnson has hit .206 with no extra base hits.

Unfortunately for the Braves, this offensive swoon has come as Jason Heyward has escaped his early-season woes and provided consistent production in the leadoff spot.  Heyward has hit .315 with a .345 on-base percentage over his past 13 games.

If Heyward extends this trend and Freeman returns to form, Atlanta a lineup that is more than capable to consistently support their pitching staff.  But it remains to be seen how much longer the Braves will be willing to include Uggla in this lineup.

 

A couple shaky starts with extra rest did not solve the Floyd dilemma

When it became apparent Alex Wood and Aaron Harang would be both be starting with two extra days of rest this week in Miami, I asked Tom Glavine if he liked those instances when he was forced to alter his normal preparations to pitch under this arrangement.  The simplified version of his answer was that he hated the extra rest when he was young and savored it during the latter years of his career.

In contrasting fashion, as Derek Lowe neared the end of his career with the Braves, he never liked starting with even one extra day of rest.

Like the rest of us, pitchers are a creatures of habit.  But their preferences and susceptibility to be influenced by these habits differ.

After seeing his improbable run of dominance conclude in horrific fashion as he allowed a career-high nine earned runs in just 4 2/3 innings on Wednesday night, Aaron Harang said his shaky command might have been a product of the altered preparations he had to make before entering this start.

“I don’t know if I was just a little off because we had two extra days this week,” Harang said. “That will throw you off a little bit. You’ve got to throw a couple bullpens in the middle of the week as opposed to just the one.”

Less than two years removed from those days when he made one start a week for the University of Georgia, Wood might have been too young to notice the difference as he started with two extra days of rest on Tuesday and then proceeded to allow more runs (7) in five innings than he had in the 35 innings that had encompassed his only other five starts this season.

Wood never mentioned the extra rest as being a deterrent. And that is  a good thing, considering this altered schedule could prove to benefit him as he attempts to remain strong throughout what is just his second full professional season.  The Braves are aiming to limit the southpaw to somewhere between 170-180 innings this year and as things currently stand he is what would approximately account for a month ahead of that pace.

The Braves might eventually need to move Wood to the bullpen in an attempt to more easily monitor his workload.  But they are not currently ready to do so.  If you didn’t believe manager Fredi Gonzalez when he said this yesterday, then ask yourself why is Wood still scheduled to start on Sunday, despite the fact that Gavin Floyd is available to pitch on normal rest that same day?

Because his 30-day Minor League rehab assignment expires on Friday, Floyd must be activated from the disabled list on Sunday.  But it remains to be seen exactly how he fits into the club’s plans moving forward.

If the clock has indeed struck midnight and Harang’s Cinderella run is complete, Floyd could fill that spot in the starting rotation.  But I’m of the notion to believe Harang is somewhere in the middle of being the pitcher who posted a 0.85 ERA through his first five starts and then got lit up on Wednesday night.  If this proves to be true, he would seemingly be a better option than Floyd, who seems destined to become the latest of the pitchers who battle inconsistent stretches for a few months after returning from Tommy John surgery.

Gonzalez said there is a chance Floyd will be placed in the bullpen when he returns.  This is certainly not the role the Braves envisioned when they gave the righty a one-year contract that includes a $4 million deal.  But given what happened to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy in March, they also never envisioned reaching a point where they would have to wonder how somebody could fit into their rotation.

The Braves rotation surrendered 28 earned runs through this season’s first 24 games and 15 earned runs during the first two games of this week’s series in Miami. Still starting staff’s 2.32 ERA stands as the best mark for an Atlanta rotation (since 1966) has ever taken into May.  The previous best April ERA for an Atlanta starting staff was the 2.84 ERA produced by the 1968 club.

So for now, the Floyd dilemma stands as a good problem to have.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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