Sunday, September 20, 2015

Shelby Miller and All Our Hopes

The two worst teams in major league baseball played a meaningless series in Atlanta this weekend.  By overall record, the Philadelphia Phillies (56-94) are the worst team over the course of this season.  But the 2015 Atlanta Braves (60-90) started the season in the thick of the NL East race, winning consistently in April and May. A 27-24 start was not spectacular but it showed promise for a team that was now a shocking shell of its former self.

Jason Heyward is gone. Justin Upton is gone. Evan Gattis is gone.  Craig Kimbrel, possibly the best closer in all of baseball, is gone.  Everything the Braves were working toward with trades and internal talent has been slashed and burned. Plus, we no longer have Chipper Jones in the lineup either.  Chipper retired three seasons ago and we still haven't found a way to make up for the loss of his bat. Chris Johnson had one great season with the bat but it was not indicative of his average talent so we traded him.  We traded our starters away for a lot of minor league talent. But we also got some proven talent. We got Shelby Miller for Jason Heyward. Heyward was sort of the foundation on which the Braves organization had been building.  So Miller for Heyward symbolizes the reboot of the Atlanta Braves.

The 2015 Braves lost more games than anyone since the All-Star break. Moreover, on a grander scale of baseball time, they are playing their worst season since 1990. I remember the 1990 season very well.  Back then, it was a "normal" Braves season.  Lots of losses, lousy pitching, spotty hitting, and fielding that could sometimes make you grimace. Ironically, that otherwise forgettable season was when Jennifer first became a Braves fan.  She found an interest in following the Braves "young guns" pitching staff which consisted of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, and Pete Smith among others.  

What hooked Jennifer more than anything were the statistics. Being a former Georgia Tech chemical engineering major, the wide world of baseball statistics fascinated her.  She discovered that a .320 batting average was outstanding while a 4.51 earned run average was rather pathetic.  This understanding inspired her and motivated her to learn more about baseball in general and the Braves in particular.  After all, she married a lifelong Braves fan.

So Jennifer has rarely known the Braves to have a losing season.  Perhaps it is fitting that in their 50th season in Atlanta the 2015 Braves are turning in their worst season since their 25th anniversary.  At one point this season the Braves lost 19 out of 21 road games played, something that occurred all too frequently throughout the 1970's and 1980's. 

Nevertheless, I remain a solid Braves fan tonight. The key to being a true fan of any team in any sport is not how you handle the winning.  Rather, you show your mettle in how you stay engaged when the team is losing. Winning is easy and passionate and makes a lot of fair weather fans.  Only losing separates the genuine supporters from the casual ones. I would rather watch the Braves lose games than not have any baseball at all.  In 2015, that fact has been tested many times. 

No one better represents where the Braves are right now than starting pitcher Shelby Miller. The young Braves pitcher really shined at the start of the season.  He came within one out of pitching a no-hitter during a stretch of solid starts that ultimately earned him a place on the National League All-Star roster.

So, how has the All-Star pitcher fared since then? Well, he has not won a single game.  In fact, the last time Miller won was back in May.  Since then he has gone 22 consecutive starts without a win. Shelby Miller is 5-15 tonight.

Nevertheless, Miller is a talented pitcher and has a bright future.  The bottom line is the Braves suck at scoring runs for him.  Sure, Miller has had a couple of bad starts but his overall ERA is a solidly respectable 3.00. He has a good strikeout-to-walk ratio.  His "quality starts" outnumber is "rough starts" which means, most of the time when he is on the mound, he gives the Braves a chance to win. Somewhat appropriately perhaps, Shelby Miller was born in 1990, so the Braves have never been this bad since his birth and now he is major contributor to the team.

As I mentioned, the anemic Braves lineup rarely give Miller any run support. The team has one of the worse ratios of runs scored to runs allowed in baseball. As a team, they are batting dead last in the National League.  Their bullpen was severely weakened after they lost Kimbrell, O'Flaherty, and Venters, arguably, at the time, the best relief staff in baseball.  Jason Grilli tried to fill in and did a decent job but was lost in July due to injury. After that, everything fell apart.  Since July 7 the Braves have the absolute worst record in baseball.

In spite of all this, however, the 2015 Atlanta Braves make me feel nostalgic.  This is the losing Braves I grew up loving in my youth.  They won their division in 1969 and in 1982 but were swept in the playoffs both times.  They had a few other competitive seasons (in 1971, 1974, and 1983).  But otherwise they were abysmal.  In my lifetime they have lost 90 games or more in a season 11 times, finishing 72 - 90 as recently as 2008.  But you have to go back 25 years, before they won all those championships in the 1990's and early 2000's, to find a season comparable to this mess.

So I do not despair.  I have been here before.  I know how ugly baseball can get.  It is the only professional sport where, through a 162-game schedule, you can lose 7 times in one week.  8 if you play a doubleheader, which rarely anyone does anymore.  I remain toughened by the Braves' losing past.  I have not softened with the many wonderful years of winning and winning and winning.  The 2015 season is more representative of the Atlanta Braves than anyone cares to remember or to admit.

But I take solace in the fact that the Braves do have some great talent.  Freddie Freeman (first base) and Andrelton Simmons (shortstop) are among the best players in the their respective positions in all of baseball. Veteran off-season acquisitions Nick Markakis (right field) and A.J. Pierzynski (catcher) have turned in solid seasons.  On the rebuilding side of things, rookies Christian Bethancourt (catcher) and Hector Olivera (third base) show promising talent but neither of them has started hitting decently at the major league level.  Their defensive talents are more prominent than their bats, which is fine for now. They are getting a lot of "practice" playing basically as "September call-ups."  They will have to hit better next season if the Braves are going to keep them on the roster, their promising talent won't mean much if the continue to bat so poorly.  As of this post, Bethancourt is batting a wimpy .203 while the highly-regarded Olivera is at just .236.

I spent a lot of time in my youth hoping for the future of the Braves and now we have come to a time when all I have is hope.  If you are going to win you need great pitching.  Julio Teheran, who has managed to win 10 games for this bad ball club, is a starting pitcher of great potential, the ace of the 2015 Braves staff.  Matt Wisler has been beaten up pretty well late in the season but possesses some promising stuff. The Braves don't have tremendous talent anywhere in their bullpen so they need all the good starters they can get. After Tehran, there is no one the staff with the command of Shelby Miller. 

The right-handed Miller's record winless streak reminds me of a young left-hander in 1988 named Tom Glavine, who went 7-17 for the Braves that year, a season that saw the Braves lost 106 ball games. As you may know, Glavine is now in the Hall-of-Fame.  Shelby Miller demonstrates the same demeanor on the mound as Glavine.  He has similar talent, though he is a different type of pitcher, of course.  That gives me hope.  In 2015, Shelby Miller was an All-Star pitcher who has so far only won 5 games against 15 losses with several starts still left to make. September isn't over yet. Things could get even worse.  But, as with Glavine and the Braves in the 1988, there is potential and hope springs eternal in baseball.

The Braves swept the Phillies in Atlanta this weekend in three wins with identical 2-1 scores. So, maybe the Braves are only the second-worst team in baseball.  Time will tell.  Tehran pitched 8 and 1/3 innings of commanding baseball but (due to lack of runs scored) the Braves' ace ended up with a no-decision. Now the team heads the New York to take on the surprising Mets who have a comfortable lead in the NL East and are thinking about the playoffs. Shelby Miller is scheduled to start for Atlanta tomorrow night. Here's hoping for you kid. Come on. Win for the first time in forever.

Late Note: Miller and the Braves lost to the New York Mets 4-0 on Monday night.  Miller is now 5-16.  He did not have his best stuff but he held the Mets to 2 runs over 6 innings. Atlanta managed only five hits in support of his efforts. The Braves bullpen allowed two more runs after Miller left the game. So the winless streak continues.

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