So yesterday I was contacted to do a radio hit on Sports Talk with Richard Cross, a Mississippi-based, well, sports talk show. They asked some good questions about the Braves as we finish out the season. I wasn't the most coherent or composed speaker because, well, I'd never done it before and probably just am not very good at it. HOWEVA, I did enjoy thinking about the questions they posed, so I'm going to do my best to remember them here and give more complete answers here.
What effect will Martin Prado's injury have on the team?
If you hadn't heard, Prado tore his oblique and is suffering from a hip pointer. He will miss the rest of the season, and almost certainly be unavailable for the playoffs. Brooks Conrad*, aka 'Raw Dog' for whatever reason**, is his replacement. Now, I know that that doesn't sound like such a great prospect. Prado's been a good player this year, and Brooks Conrad*** is...well, Brooks Conrad.
*I typed his name as Brooks Conrado four consecutive times. I think I'd prefer it if that were his name.
**I think it's because he doesn't wear batting gloves. If so, that's pretty clever. If it's because he's scrappy, well, then, I hate it.
***Conrado again. This is getting weird.
Or at least that was my impression before I looked at his numbers this season. I thought he was basically a low-average, work an occasional walk and hustle kind of guy - that'd explain why he's 30 and a career bench player. I thought the grand slam to complete that magical comeback against the Reds was a fluke; I thought he was a no-power kind of fellow. Turns out, he's hitting .241/.318/.482, which is good for a pretty outstanding .355 wOBA. By comparison, Prado was putting up a .352 mark all season.
Now, is there much difference between those two wOBAs? No. But that's the nice thing - even assuming that Conrad will regress as he gets more plate appearances, he's still not a bad replacement. Now, Prado is a better fielder; his 4.4 UZR at third base compares very favorably to Conrado's -5 mark, which admittedly has come in a very small sample size. But it looks like the difference between Prado and Conrad isn't as vast as I'd feared; the only truly negative outcome is that Prado's injury hurts the bench depth.
The Braves have had a rough September. Can they get back to midseason form, when they were playing quality baseball?
Baseball - and, indeed, most of life - is predicated on randomness. In the long run, sure, we'll see more stability. But in the course of 162 games - to say nothing of four games between now and the playoffs - just about anything can happen. Teams are going to go on hot and cold streaks all the time; the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who hold (okay, are tied for) the record for most wins in a season didn't get there by winning every single series they played - they had a nice 15-game winning streak stuck in the middle there.
Now, I tend to believe that these stretches of good and bad baseball are essentially random. People are going to say that the Braves choked, that they wilted under the pressure of September baseball; I would point to the 9-game losing streak back in April and say that we always knew this team was capable of some bad baseball when the offense was failing to scrape together the couple of runs it needed to support the pitching staff. Then I would say 'but it's ok, fellow Braves fan, because they also had a 9-game winning streak at the end of May.' The September fade is a function of that randomness (also: injuries) and happening to run into a hot Philadelphia squad at the wrong time. Four games are all that separates the Braves from playoff baseball; they have a 1.5 game lead now, and so are in the driver's seat. Anything can happen, of course, but I tend to think that the Padres' fade is a function of a squad that wasn't as good as we thought all season, and that the Braves will indeed play solid ball the rest of the way.
Assuming that the playoff teams are Philadelphia, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta, how do the Braves stack up?
A dangerous question to ask and to answer, since I'm fairly sure I'll end up with egg on my face for saying the wrong thing (e.g. here or here). But jinxes don't strike thrice, right? Right! So let's push forward.
Philadelphia looks to be the obvious favorite here, since no one can really match that top three they have in the rotation. They've got a solid offense, though it's not as dominant as it has been in recent seasons past as they've dealt with injuries to Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. In any case, they can hit well enough to win games for Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt. The big drawback here is the bullpen; Brad Lidge has been promising of late, but who here doesn't get excited when he comes into the game? Beyond that, Phillie fans are talking themselves into Chad Durbin and Ryan Madson as lockdown guys, and they simply aren't. Bullpens can be big in playoff series; expect the Phils to ride their starters hard to avoid any meltdowns.
Cincinnati has the opposite problem: not only do they not have a trio of excellent starters, they hardly have one. Bronson Arroyo is likely to take the ball for Game 1, which, what? Johnny Cueto has been good, and Edinson Volquez has looked sharp in three starts after a disastrous summer that saw him sent down to AAA for more seasoning, so if they both maintain their success, they've got two solid guys there. Beyond that, they're looking at Travis Wood, who's been fairly promising but is still a rookie, and Aaron Harang who has fallen a long way from the guy who used to be a legit ace. Not exactly inspiring. What is inspiring is that offense; Joey Votto is probably in the lead for the NL MVP, and he's got talented guys like Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce surrounding him in the middle of the lineup. The Reds can hit with - and probably better than - anyone in the playoffs this year.
San Francisco is a good foil for Cincinnati. With Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito, they've got four good, albeit lefty-leaning, starters. Their problem is, of course, hitting. Aubrey Huff has been outstanding with the bat this season, and Buster Posey would be the Rookie of the Year if not for Jason Heyward, but there's little in the way of batters around them. Andres Torres has, surprisingly, been very good this season, but was fading before an emergency appendectomy cost him the last couple weeks of the season; how effective can he be in his return? Pablo Sandoval has been a complete disappointment; the only other guys who might contribute are Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, which is hardly a good bet. They're going to rely on good pitching to get the ball into Brian Wilson's hands, who has gotten good results despite a sometimes-shaky process.
So where does that leave Atlanta? The Braves, of course, are most similar to San Francisco; Braves' starters have the league's best FIP and are decidedly average when it comes to hitting. Jason Heyward is the team's best hitter at this point, and while he has been everything Braves fans have wanted (.377 wOBA? Yes please.), but he and Brian McCann* (having another excellent season, barely trailing Heyward in wOBA) are too often the only offensive contributors. Omar Infante is deserving of praise, and Nate McLouth is showing signs of crawling out of that black hole he apparently fell into earlier this season, but overall, this is not a lineup that's going to strike fear into any opposing pitcher's hearts - or inspire hope in their fans.
Now, you can win with a team constructed like the Braves are (i.e. strong starting pitching, a dominant bullpen, and a mediocre offense), but I see too many shades of the Braves of the '90s who would make the playoffs with Maddux and Smoltz and Glavine and then fade out. Yeah, anything can happen in a short playoff series, but perhaps control pitching just doesn't work as well in October - and Tommy Hanson (Smoltz in this analogy) is the only strikeout guy that the Braves are going to toss out there. It's worrisome, but first round matchups with either San Francisco (pitching duels galore) or Cincinnati (good pitching > good hitting, hopefully) would be winnable. At that point it's a matter of hoping that the Phillies have run out of whatever mojo they've got going right now...and then telling yourself over and over again that crazier things have happened than a team winning an improbable championship for their beloved manager who's going to retire at the end of the year.
*You may know of the Fan's Scouting Report. I didn't fill one out, but from the games I've seen, it seems like McCann is a decidedly below-average defensive catcher. Does anyone else agree with this? I hope not. I hope I'm just a bad judge of talent.
Finally, what's up with the Atlanta attendance? More 'staying home in droves' this year?
It's a relevant question because of that whole issue down in Tampa - which I don't want to comment on other than to say that I understand that the Rays deserve a larger home crowd, but are dealing with a hometown crowd hit hard by the economy that doesn't like the terrible stadium -; what will become of those famously sparse Braves crowds in playoff baseball?
First of all, David Price, Atlanta's support of the Braves was embarrassing before it was cool to embarrass your team. Second of all, I do think things will be different this time around. Yes, this is still the same city that was apparently too busy to support their playoff baseball team, but - and I can't believe I'm actually saying this - how much of it was just because they were spoiled by 14 consecutive division titles*? They could just assume the team was going to be that good again the next year, and kids could grow up thinking that October baseball was just something that happened every year. Well, it's different now; the team has had its struggles in the last few years, and even with just four games left to go, the playoffs are no sure thing. I don't think this squad will be taken for granted.
*I mean, 4 in a row is pretty cool, too, Philly fans.
Plus, just like the impending retirement of Bobby Cox might could be inspiring for this team, I think the sentimentality of Cox's last playoff run will be a boon for attendance. If the team's Facebook feed is to be believed, they're down to standing room only tickets for the last homestand of the year, which can only bode well for playoff attendance. Is it still fair to take Atlanta fans to task for not showing up to games? Sure. But hopefully this year, they're able to move past that label.
So, yeah. Just some food for thought as you hunker down for the last weekend of the regular season.