Monday, September 2, 2013

Into September: The Unlikely Story of the 2013 Atlanta Braves (so far)

If you had told me in March that going in to September the Atlanta Braves would have the best record in all of baseball with Dan Uggla (.184) and BJ Upton (.194) both playing regularly and batting under .200, I would have thought you were an idiot. Image how you can play 136 baseball games saddled with two major free agent signings that cannot hit the ball.

Yet that is the unlikely story of the 2013 Atlanta Braves. They are 83-53 going into to play today.  How did they get here? Well mostly with pitching. Good starting pitching from young arms. Great relief pitching, maybe the best in baseball. The Braves bullpen has the best ERA of any team.  The Braves offense has been mediocre overall this season but some players are shining.  Feddie Freeman (batting over .440 with runners in scoring position) and, surprisingly, Chris Johnson (leading the league in hitting with a .333 average as of this post) are hitting opposing pitchers without mercy. Brian McCann is back with his feared power after missing the first part of the season. Andrelton Simmons is an awesome defensive shortstop, it seems he robs somebody of a hit at least once a game. After a slow start, and now unfortunately lost due to injury, Jason Heyward (who carried us through a mid-season 14-game winning streak) was killing the ball in the lead-off position and showing spectacular range in the outfield.

Put all that together with a solid year by Justin Upton (who carried us through a 10-game winning streak at the start of the season) and fine fill-in performances by Evan Gattis (NL Rookie of the Month for both April and May), rookie Joey Tradoslovich, and decent play from Jordan Schafer and you can see how Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has cobbled together enough hitting and fielding around the pitching to win a lot of games.

Statistically, as of September 1, the Braves are a mediocre 12th in the National League in runs scored, 9th in slugging percentage, and 10th in on-base percentage. They are 16th in batting average hitting .251 as a team. Blah. But on the pitching side of the equation the Braves are 2nd in earned runs allowed with an impressive 3.18 team ERA. They are 2nd in quality starts, a distinction for their strong and very young pitching staff, who are also 2nd in WHIP, 3rd in opponents batting average, allowing .240 per game on average. Very unblah.

The Braves have the best home record in baseball, making home field advantage exactly what they have left to fight for this season. As of this post, they are two games in front of the Dodgers and four games ahead of the Pirates and the Cardinals for the NL best record. Even including the AL best teams, the Red Sox are a game behind Atlanta. The Braves want their postseason experience to be played mostly at home - where they dominate with a 49-19 record as of yesterday.

This is a homegrown pitching staff. Mike Minor, rookie Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, rookie Alex Wood, rookie Luis Avilan, the already great Craig Kimbrel and the disabled Brandon Beachy are all products of the superior Braves minor league system. That system produced Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine. The Atlanta farm system has given them Freeman, Simmons, McCann, Gattis, Schafer, the injured Jonny Venters, the injured Heyward, who was just starting the lead this team. The system also birthed other promising players on the 40-man roster: Terdoslavich, the injured Tyler Pastornicky, Cory Gearrin, Todd Cunningham, and Philip Gosselin are filling in the gaps thanks to the many injuries this team has been forced to deal with in 2013.

The heart and soul of this team is in its minor league players. Two grand and glorious free agents don't change that. Other players like Justin Upton and Johnson were traded for former Brave minor leaguers Martin Prado and Randall Delgado. They were not paid for by cash alone but by great talent scouted and developed by the Braves organization. So, Upton and Johnson seem more a part of the family, bought with the blood of the team by giving up its youth so to speak. Uggla and Justin's older brother, and the combined $13 million they are paid this season, are so far the only blotch on this fine organization. Despite the trades, youth triumphs on this team. The Braves are one of the youngest teams in baseball.

What makes the Braves record even more remarkable is they have weathered a long list of injuries, many of them significant. Probably the biggest of them all was the aforesaid injury to Jason Heyward. Heyward, out earlier in the season too, was just beginning to come into his own. He had raised his batting average from the lowly depths of Uggla/BJ territory to a respectable .253 before he went down. Then there's the only veteran leader on the pitching staff, Tim Hudson. A proven pitcher who gets a lot of ground balls and can pitch you consistently deep into ball games. Out for the season. That same status goes for the entire left-handed side of the Braves bull pen at the start of the season. Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, both of whom have been dominating in past seasons. The Braves managed to fill their slots with the rookie Avilan and the recently signed Scott Downs.

BJ Upton has sucked all season long at the plate. He has never gotten going any better than the pathetic Uggla. He went 4 for 6 in a recent walk-off win. If the Braves have a shot at winning some playoff games they are going to need BJ or Uggla to get hot with a bat. Their low averages are costing this team runs.  That will kill them in the postseason, regardless of how great your pitching might be.  Every team's  pitching is pretty damn good in the playoffs. For the Braves to make playoff headway they need some hitter to replace Jason Heyward. Either BJ or Uggla have to step up. Otherwise I fear a rather mediocre postseason experience, especially if we lose home-field advantage. The Braves are 34-34 on the road. What's more, they've only scored 34 runs as a team since August 18.  Last in baseball.  Blah.

Whether we can keep the best record in baseball or not, we definitely want to play at home. So let's win home field advantage outright in spite of all the youth and injuries. The usual story on the Braves is that they can win seasons but they wimp-out in the postseason. An amazing five trips to the World Series during the 1990's produced only one world championship in 1995. Those years were a wonderful but frustrating time in my lifetime of being a Braves fan. Last season they made the new wild-card playoff (which I detest) and lost. In 2010 they made the playoffs as the wild-card team for Bobby Cox's final season...and lost in the first round. So, it goes.

It is fun to win with a young team. There's nothing I enjoy better about baseball than watching a young pitching staff take responsibility for winning. The Atlanta Braves organization is a strong one throughout the minor leagues. There is plentiful talent and great coaching to develop talent. Whether the Braves are truly play-off material is yet to be seen. But the fact is, we aren't chasing anybody for anything. As of now, everybody has to catch us. We have the best record in baseball and are in first place by 14 games in the loss column. My god what a lead!  Let's get tuned up of October.

Note:  The Braves beat the Mets today 13-5.  So that helps with the number of runs scored since mid-August.  We are 50-19 at home.  Booya!  Schaffer went 4 for 5 but had to leave the game late due to a lower back strain.  Hopefully, it is nothing more serious.  Freeman had a career day with 5 RBIs.  Killing the ball.  Johnson had two hits to up his league leading average to .334.  Johnson's polar opposite at the plate, Uggla (.185) even managed a single and a walk.  Perhaps the big story, however, was BJ Upton with a walk and two doubles.  If I were a praying man I'd ask for divine intervention on BJ's hitting.  We need him to end the season hot at the plate.  Barring further injury and assuming everyone else keeps playing ball, BJ's bat could take us deep into October.

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