So in my last preview, I was objective. I was complimentary of the Giants, and dismissing of the Braves' players. Well, that was just about enough of that, let me tell you. This is a Braves-centered blog, and this is going to be a Braves-centered post. Because all that any of us want is for this squad to Win One For Bobby, and I for one am not about to let some old-fashioned idea of "objectivity" stand in the way of my disparaging all that might stand in the Braves' way. Good? Good. Vamanos.
Why the Braves are good enough to win:
The pitching staff has, throughout this entire season, dominated opponents. Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson are, in practical terms, co-aces, and when the back of your rotation consists of pitchers like Jair Jurrjens and Derek Lowe, you're doing pretty damn well. And, yeah, Derek Lowe draws a lot of scorn, but this isn't the same guy who's been underachieving throughout the season. Lowe has started throwing his effective slider more often, taking the emphasis off of the sinker that has become less and less effective as the years have worn on. He's been striking out more batters, walking fewer, and allowing fewer runs. And I don't know about you, but to these eyes, that's a significant improvement in just about every area you could want improvement in.
As for Jurrjens, he almost certainly won't pitch in the ALDS, which means we'll be seeing more of rookie Brandon Beachy. Was Beachy overly impressive in his first-ever start, a crucial game against the Phillies? No. But he did hold his own, and he's striking out plenty of batters while displaying very solid control, particularly for a rookie. If he could do that against a Phillies lineup that is one of the best in MLB, then what's to stop him from throwing a Halladay (i.e. postseason no-no) against comparatively weak Giants hitters? NOTHING.
"But Paddy," the pessimist fan in you might protest, "but Paddy - the Braves don't have much of a lineup either!" To which I respond, "Not much, no, but enough? OH WE GOT ENOUGH. Y'see, Jason Heyward aka the Jay Hey Kid aka the likable 21-year old who's already establishing his Hall of Fame bona fides is ready to flat-out mash in his first postseason appearance. Didja see what Doc Halladay did in losing his playoff virginity? Yeah - that's basically the equivalent of Heyward crushing four dongers in tomorrow's (today's, depending on where you're reading this) game. And Brian McCann? Yeah, the Giants have a couple of great lefties in Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner, but they're gonna have to throw northpaws Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain before them. You don't think B-Mac* isn't ready to destroy some left coast pitching? Think again, brother. McCann is one backstop who never backs down and never stops. Hitting. And/or fielding.
*Don't know if this is a legit nickname. I kind of hope it's not. Can't we call him Squints, as in the kid from The Sandlot? He's had all those eye problems...The Sandlot is a baseball movie....no? No one else?
So now that we're moving past what is probably the single worst joke I've ever made in print, let's go ahead and run contrary to literally everything I said yesterday. What do I mean? Well, I mean that this Braves lineup isn't limited to our two studs. No, there is indeed quality to be had up and down the batting order. We don't have the best plate discipline in MLB for nothing, after all. Omar Infante may've been struggling of late, but that's a dude whom we were discussing as a batting title contender just a scant few weeks ago. Brooks Conrad has already delivered some goods with that walkoff grand salami against the Reds, and he's got plenty of pop left in his bat for some postseason heroics; just don't ask him to field a ball, ok? Good. Glad we understand each other. And Derrek Lee? Well, he's a quality fellow. Why does that matter? Well, because he stole MVP votes from Andruw Jones in 2005, and as many of you Braves faithful reading this know, Jones' June performance alone merited the MVP trophy. So, clearly, Derrek Lee knows that he owes, karmically and contractually, a great performance to this Atlanta squad.
So there's our quality one-through-five. Clearly those guys are going to bat a combined .437 in this series; it's practically a foregone conclusion at this point. What remains? Well, there's Tater-Tottin' Alex Gonzalez for one; he's just the chill bro who came south of the border in order to relieve Braves personnel of the burden of dealing with Yunel 'Medellin' Escobar on a day-to-day basis, which is pretty sweet. Is Mr. Gonzalez, whom I have to do everything in my power not to call 'Speedy' which oops I guess there it is anyway, going to draw many walks? No. Is he going to hit for a high average? A more emphatic No. But can he drop those titular Tater Tots? Oh, goodness me, yes. Are we going to root for them? And how.
Speaking of titular Tater Tots, let me tell y'all a story real quick here. Guy spends his life devoted to his craft, and gets phenomenally good at it. He goes so far as to get selected by one of the top practitioners of his particular trade. He works his way through the ranks and eventually makes the big time, performing so well as to get transferred to another, even better division. Only as it happens, his initial time spent there doesn't go so well; a few accounts get dropped, potential clients are missed, all that kind of business. Guy gets demoted, and has to work his way back up to the top.
Did you guess that I was talking about Nate McLouth? Probably not, since that was, at best, a not-so-clear metaphor. But Mr. McLouth back there is back up to his executive-level ways; his season-long numbers won't show it, but he's been much more like himself in the late part of the second half of the season. Wanna know why? Well, it's this lovely thing called Regression to the Mean, which states that his terrible horrible no good very bad BABIP is going to stop being so terrible horrib you get the point. We can expect bigger things from him than one normally would a sub-.200 hitter, is what I'm saying. Yes, I am perfectly aware that that is more or less the definition of a backhanded compliment and/or faint praise, but, well, I'm kind of rolling here.
Speaking of rolling, and not speaking but perhaps unconsciously registering the existence of repeated paragraph openers, how about that Matt Diaz, eh? This guy is a true Atlantan hero, and, frankly, there's just not much debate to be had about that. Why do I say that, in the face of his bad numbers this year? Well, (a) because I've never let facts stand in the way of a good compliment, (b) his BABIP is down over 80 points this year and figures to regress, and (c) statement (a) was absolutely false, and, accordingly, everything you need to know is that that BABIP is going to regress, like, so hard during these playoffs. Plus, that dude took down Red Man - the modified Green Man, not the chewing tobacco giant, unless that stirs something in the heart of anyone who is anti-big tobacco - in the unfriendly confines of Citizens Bank Park. That, friends, is great hustle.
And do you even want to talk about the bullpen? I mean, is it even worth wasting our collective time reading and/or writing about it? Jonny Venters? Just keep running him out there every day and dare teams to hit a lefty who hits 96 on the gun. Ditto Mike Dunn. Ditto Billy Wagner, who happens to be posting one of the best seasons of his career in this, his final campaign. Do you think teams really want to face Peter Moylan, the sidearming non-southpaw who throws in the low-90s from an even lower arm slot? Ha! And let's not forget about Craig Kimbrel, who's striking out nearly two batters an inning, and Christhian Martinez who will be yet another very effective arm in an already loaded bullpen. If the Braves get themselves a lead, you can bet on this group maintaining it. And for anyone who watched the glory days of Chris Reitsma and Dan Kolb, you know how valuable that is.
Finally, consider that all our strong pitching is going up against a weak-at-best San Francisco lineup. They've two hitters that carry the load in Buster Posey and Aubrey Huff, but whom do you trust beyond them? Pat Burrell, who was last seen washing out of Tampa Bay? Andres Torres? The guy doesn't even have an appendix! No, I'm afraid that this is going to be a series of low-scoring games that the Braves have the pitching and bullpen to win. What's that, you say? Those are the exact same strengths as the Giants? Sure, yeah, they are.
But I believe in the power of winning it for Bobby.
As all of you ok some of you ok maybe a few ok there's probably one person who reads this blog that knows it, I also write over at Around the Majors. I just finished up a preview of the playoff series over there, and thought I'd repost the Braves one here, since most people coming by are probably pretty interested in the upcoming series. I will tell you up front that I don't see this series going well para los Bravos; if you're looking for unabashed homerism, this post isn't the place to get it.
Buuuuuuut if you ARE looking for unabashed homerism, I'll have a post up tomorrow that will contain all you can wrap your precious little eyeballs around. Because I got very annoyed while writing this preview and now have a bunch of anger toward the Giants. So it should be fun for everyone*!
*Inasmuch as reading my stuff is fun for anyone not named Mama McMahon.
Atlanta Braves (91-71) vs. San Francisco Giants (92-70)
Game 1: 10/7, 9:37 PM
You know how you love it when you're reading a playoff preview by a guy who's completely in the bag for one of the teams? Yeah, neither do I. So let's skip the pith, and get to talking about the Braves.
The Good: Traditionally, discussion of the Braves' playoff chances begins and ends with the pitching. 2010 is no different; in fact, it sort of sets the standard. The Braves boast the best pitching staff in the league by FIP; their 3.65 team FIP is a figure that would make for a quality second starter on just about any team. That's mainly attributable to the bullpen, as no fewer than five Braves relievers have a sub-3.00 FIP - and Craig Kimbrel clocks in at an eye-popping 1.53 mark. Now, FIP isn't necessarily a great measure of bullpen success, because just about all of what relievers do happens in small sample sizes, and FIP isn't meant to predict performance when the players experience such volatility as, say, the aforementioned Kimbrel coming in and giving up a bomb shot to surrender the lead. But consider also that six relievers on this team strike out over a batter per inning and that three of them - Jonny Venters, Mike Dunn, and Billy Wagner - are left-handed, and you start to get the picture: this team likely won't surrender a late lead.
The real question is if they can get to the late innings with a lead, and for this squad, almost all of that responsibility is going to fall on the starters. The Braves seem likely to roll with a rotation of Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson, with some Brandon Beachy thrown in if Jair Jurrjens' knee doesn't allow him to make an appearance. Hudson hasn't pitched as well as his sub-3.00 ERA would suggest -- his FIP is actually the worst among the potential Atlanta starters in this series -- but it's hard to imagine regression hitting him hard in the one or two starts he might make in this series. Derek Lowe has started relying less on his sinker and has improved because of it; he's still much-maligned among Braves fans, but has the potential - and the experience, if you buy into such things - to be capable of keeping his team in the game. Hanson is my personal favorite among the starters here; the youngster's fastball and slider combo are lethal, and while his control could use a little work, he's one of a huge crop of promising young pitchers that we're seeing in today's game. Speaking of youngsters, Jason Heyward, who spent most of the season being unable to legally drink, is the team's best hitter, with a phenomenal eye at the plate and more power than anyone who'll grab a bat for the Bravos except for maybe Brian McCann, the other legitimate threat on the squad. The nice thing about the lineup is that they have the highest walk rate in MLB; if they can continue to get walks in 10% of their PAs, they might be able to - I can't believe I'm about to say this like it's a good thing - grind out runs here and there.
The Bad: If I, a Braves fan, can go two paragraphs about what's "good" about this team and only mention two hitters, then you know the lineup is pretty bad. And it is; Omar Infante has benefited from good BABIP luck, Derrek Lee is likely too old to contribute meaningfully, Brooks Conrad is a bench guy who's pressed into duty by injuries to Martin Prado and Chipper Jones, Alex Gonzalez is primarily a glove man who's had a productive year based solely on a fluky home run spike in the first half, Matt Diaz is a platoon guy when he's at his best - and he's not been, this season, though that's partially attributable to a low BABIP -, Nate McLouth was so bad that even the offense-starved Braves demoted him at one point, Rick Ankiel is hitting in the .230s without much in the way of secondary skills to show off, and Melky Cabrera looks to have gotten really old, really fast. Eric Hinske might be useful in a Matt Stairs-esque role, where he provides some big-bodied thump off the bench, but the ineffectiveness of McLouth, Diaz and Cabrera have led to him seeing more ABs than he probably should.
The above paragraph, in brief: their lineup for Game 1 is going to look something like this: Infante - Heyward - McCann - Lee - Conrad - Gonzalez - McLouth - Ankiel - Pitcher. After the top three, that is simply not a playoff-caliber lineup.
To make matters worse, the Braves are also pretty bad afield; their team UZR puts them at a tidy 27th, and that's not really accounting for the defensive value lost when Prado and Jones got hurt. Brooks Conrad, as we've seen from his play of late, is not a reliable defender, and with the exception of Heyward, Lee and Gonzalez, the Braves simply do not have reliable glove men. Plus, neither Jair Jurrjens nor Brandon Beachy are likely to inspire a lot of hope in the fanbase if they have to go as the number four starter in either this series or the NLCS; it really is kind of odd that the team with the best FIP in baseball would have two or three question marks in their playoff rotation.
So, yeah, apparently I am to the Braves as a Pitchfork reviewer is to the newest Nickelback album. Hey, speaking of Pitchfork....I learned in Deadspin's Hater's Guide to the MLB Postseason that the Giants have a mascot named Crazy Crab whom they spawned* in 1984 as a satire of other teams using mascots. Yes, that means that, somehow, out of all the cities in America, it's San Francisco who has a hipster mascot. Wild, right?
*If anyone has suggestions about what verb to use for a team starting to use a mascot, I'm all ears. They all sound really creepy. 'Created?' 'Gave birth to?' 'Spawned?' 'Gave rise to out of the fiery hellfire below through ritualistic sacrifice of those deemed unholy by the all-seeing eye?' I don't know if there's really a good option.
The Good: Can I copy-paste the Braves' good here and change the names? Because these teams are very similar in that they will go only as far as their pitching will take them*. The Giants rank 3rd in team FIP, and boast MLB's highest strikeout rate per 9, coming in at nearly a K per inning. The conversation, of course, begins with Tim Lincecum, who, despite a significant drop in his velocity, has remained one of the best pitchers in the league by virtue of very good command of his excellent secondary stuff; he'll stack up favorably with anyone not named Roy Halladay. Matt Cain is also an ace-level pitcher, though he still loves pumping fastballs; unafraid to challenge hitters and very talented, he's been performing very well for years now. After those two it gets interesting; the Giants have three lefties that could fill out the last spot or two in Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito. Sanchez is a strikeout machine who has struggled with his control this season and in years past; just as Milton Bradley is basically The Mercurial Milton Bradley by virtue of common parlance, Sanchez is The Enigmatic Jonathan Sanchez. Bumgarner, like Heyward, is in his age-20 season; despite that, he's posting a very solid 3.66 FIP and walking just two batters per 9. Further, the bullpen has been nothing short of outstanding; closer Brian Wilson is in the midst of the best season of his career, Sergio Romo is K'ing more than a batter per inning and hardly walking anyone, and Santiago Casilla is basically the poor man's Romo, what with his comparatively poor walk rate. And ohbytheway, this is one of the best defensive teams in MLB; TotalZone has them at #1 and UZR likes them at #2. Which is surprising, not the least reason for which being that the collective left side of their infield weighs enough to guest on Oprah before grabbing a slot on The Biggest Loser.
*Insight! You're welcome.
And also, just as with the Braves, it's not ONLY pitching that merits mention in the Good section; they have two capable hitters! The first is Aubrey Huff, who has found rejuvenation in the form of National League pitching, and has, through some sort of obscene magic, been one of the best hitters in the National League this year. The second is Buster Posey, the highly-touted catcher from Florida State who, in his own rookie year, has kept pace with Jason Heyward. The two figure to make this the most hotly-contested RoY race in quite some time, as both have been utterly outstanding this season. And, yeah, since this is the Good section, I'll mention that Andres Torres has had a really good year, and Pat Burrell has returned from the brink of irrelevance to be more productive than probably any of us - and particularly those of us who saw him with the Rays the past two years - would have expected.
The Bad: Despite the excellence of Huff and Posey this season, the offense remains pretty anemic. Their .318 team wOBA is the worst among playoff teams, and that's including Andres Torres' performance. I single him out because (a) he was probably putting up an unsustainable performance early this year and (b) had to miss two weeks in late September after receiving an emergency appendectomy; it remains to be seen how much he can be counted on in the postseason. The additions of Burrell and, to a lesser extent, Cody Ross have helped, but you're still looking at a team that's trying to surround three good hitters with a cast of guys who haven't been all that much better than replacement-level hitters this season. Beyond Huff, Burrell and Posey*, the next-best hitter in the lineup (non-Torres division) has been Freddy Sanchez, with a .327 wOBA. Scoring runs could be a struggle for this team, is the point; they can take solace in the fact that if they do score runs, their pitching will likely make it stand up. That is, unless the team makes the colossal mistake of putting Barry Zito in the playoff rotation in lieu of Sanchez or Bumgarner. Giants fans will have to hope that Zito's disastrous Game 161 start will discourage management from doing exactly that.
*Yes, part of the reason I'm discounting Torres so much is because I'm a Braves fan. But the guy is a 32-year old career minor leaguer, and, as I mentioned before, is coming off a fairly serious operation that robbed him of a significant amount of late-season playing time. Plus, he was already struggling in September, having undergone a 5-for-43 slump. I won't apologize for only talking about Huff, Burrell, and Posey as quality hitters - and Burrell only barely qualifies.
So what's the verdict here? We've got two teams built around run prevention, who hope they can scrape together enough runs to support a strong pitching staff and come away with a low-scoring win. And yet...everything about the Giants suggests that they're better at doing exactly that. Lincecum-Cain-Sanchez/Bumgarner is better than Hudson-Lowe-Hanson; Huff/Posey/Burrell is better than Heyward/McCann/Infante (inasmuch as Infante even counts as part of a troika of good hitters), and the Braves' defense doesn't have a prayer of matching up with the Giants' prowess in the field. Really, the one thing that the Braves have going for them is Bobby Cox's impending retirement; his players, of course, love him, and maybe-just-maybe that's the kind of intangible edge (a) that the Braves need and (b) that...well, that I don't really, as a matter of practice, believe in. If the Braves don't capitalize on the Bobby magic in the anything-goes 5 game format, this series looks like a mismatch.
My pick: Giants in 4.
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.
That's about the only positive from last night.
As of this writing, the Braves sit 3 games behind the Phillies in the NL East standings and 2.5 games ahead of the Padres in the Wild Card race. You probably knew that. You probably also knew that this evening commences a fairly momentous occasion, i.e. a 3-game set with said Phillies which HAPPENS to be exactly how many games the Braves trail by. I think I might've mentioned that before.
As such, sweeperation is in order. Break out the brooms (and perhaps the dustpans if you don't want to leave a mess, but that's really up to you) and the bubbly if you're disposed to such actions, 'cause I'mma take a look at why these next three games are all sure wins.
Game 1: Tonight, 7:05 PM
Brandon Beachy vs. Cole Hamels
Cole Hamels seems like a really super fella, doesn't he? I mean, just look at him:
What a handsome devil! Married a former Survivor and Playmate, has a charitable foundation for kids, is trying to adopt an AIDS orphan from Ethiopia, and has MARVELOUS hair. I mean, that's the kind of hair that a guy who threw 25 consecutive scoreless innings rocks! Hamels is rolling hot, having allowed 1 earned run in his last four starts combined, and struck out a career-high 13 Marlins in just 6.2 innings last time out.
But it was just last year that Phillies fans were SO SICK of this guy. So sick, you guys. I mean, read the comments in this article, where Hamels talked about how he just wanted his season to end. Based on some bad luck - his FIP was precisely the same in 2008, when he was a big star, and 2009, when he was reviled - many Phillies fans assumed that the World Series had gone to his head and that he was becoming Hollywood Hamels in all the wrong ways. If there is a right way; the only other guy I know of named Hollywood in pro sports was insane.
But, like I said, Hamels seems a decent fella. So surely he wouldn't want all those fans to be wrong for having booed him the way they did, right? For having made up their mind that he was no longer their guy? What better way to give them what they want than by turning in a nice 3 IP, 6 ER, 3 BB, 2 K line? I bet they'd love that, Cole. They'd eat it right up. They'd be right.
Besides, he's not good enough to keep rolling like he has. You'll give up so many runs one of these days, Hamels. So many runs.
As for Beachy, here's a brief scouting report that's helpful if you're into actual scouting reports. If you want my take, I'll tell you that the dude joined the Braves' system as a 21-year old in rookie ball. Two years later, and he's pitched at each and every level in the minors, and dominated everywhere. For his minor league career, he's thrown 208 innings of 2.55 ERA ball, striking out an outstanding 9.9 per 9 while walking just 2.1. That's a 4.65 K:BB ratio, and that's some kind of excellence. His college coach had this to say about him:
"“He is a hard thrower. He has a plus-fastball and he has learned how to throw a nice cutter. He also has a reliever’s mentality — he doesn’t want to finesse people, he is going to challenge people."
You may recall that Cole Hamels' success has come this year as he's added a cutter to his repertoire. Brandon Beachy, then, is at least as good as Cole Hamels. QED.
What gives Beachy the edge, though? Two things: (1) he went to Indiana Wesleyan University. Pretty sweet state, Indiana. (2) He'll never be in a neatly Photoshopped ad for condos where he and his wife dress up in all white and he lovingly caresses her stomach. The internet never forgets, Cole.
Game 2: 7:05 PM
Mike Minor vs. Roy Halladay
You know how in Chile a bunch of miners got stuck in a mine after it collapsed on them? And how the government isn't going to be able to get them out of there until, like, December? That's extremely awful, right? Right. Hey, you know whose name is a homonym with 'miner?' I'll give you a hint: it's not 'Halladay.' Miners and their ilk - e.g. homonyms, moles, gophers - are due some good karma from that. Trust me.
But what about Halladay, you might say? What about the man they call Doc? Isn't he, like, really good? Well, yes. Yes, he is. But his nickname comes from Old Westerner Doc Holliday, who was called Doc because he was a dentist. It's true! He graduated from the Pennsylvania School of Dentistry in 1872. Now, I ask you: do you like dentists? Would those of you who are neither kin nor spouse to a dentist say that you've ever enjoyed their company? DOUBTFUL. So what makes you think the Phillies D is gonna play hard for the guy?
Well, perhaps fiery quotes like this gem about the upcoming series are rally cries for his team:
"I think from my standpoint, I expect to do well every time I go out. My expectations are the same, my approach is the same. The emphasis on the game, when you get to this point in the season, is obviously more important."
Whoa, slow down now, Roy. You might start to sound interesting. Hey, you know what Roy Halladay's really good at? Striking out. He does it in 45.9% of his PAs, which is only slightly less often than Ryan Howard. And I thought Doc was supposed to be a gamer.
Game 3: 7:05 PM
Tommy Hanson vs. Roy Oswalt
Tommy Hanson is 23 and has, in his career, struck out more batters per 9 than the 33-year old Oswalt while walking slightly more (2.8; 2.09). Hanson's 3.43 FIP is comparable to Oswalt's 3.35. Hanson is young and cool; Oswalt is old, does not look like a chill bro, and used to pitch for the Astros*. Who here likes any of those things? Anyone?
Also, Dom Brown is a low-rent Jason Heyward. We all know it.
*Incidentally, ESPN's Steve Berthiaume wrote a column about how the Astros yes the Astros are going to win the division in 2011. It's probably funnier if I just don't try to make a joke about that.
So to recap: everyone's writing about how the Braves are going up against the Phillies' Big 3 while keeping their rotation intact. No one is pitching on short rest, and Jurrjens is getting the opportunity to rest a tweaked knee during what is probably the most important series of the rest of the season. Does that seem ill-advised as we near the end of Bobby Cox's final regular season? Maybe. But the Braves have the best FIP in baseball and trail only the Padres in xFIP - and that by one point. The Braves predicated 14 consecutive division titles on the principle that great pitching beats great hitting, so it would be only appropriate if the Braves lay the foundation for another title on the same ideal - except instead of beating 'great' hitting, it's beating '13th-best wOBA in MLB' hitting. And so ye faithful, ye champions of decency: regard well as the Braves go forth and lay claim to their hereby preordained sweep. It'll be a pretty good time.
As you've probably noticed, the Braves have been busy the past few days doing something that vaguely resembles playing baseball. In that time, I've been doing my best to search for a hint of good times that you just don't get from momentous occasions like losing a game 3-1 to the freaking Pirates. During this quest, I thought back to something I remembered from the very beginning of the season: Eric Hinske's back tattoo. Have you not had the privilege of witnessing it? Have you already, and do you want to see it again? Of course you do. So, regard:
Chill boxers, bro.
That bit of art ran Mr. Hinske a cool five grand, which if you can think of a better way to spend that kind of change than by covering your back with...dragons and a deformed Jackie Chan fighting said dragons in the jungle*, well, I don't believe you. So ANYWAY, I was thinking about that tattoo, and then I thought to myself I thought hey self, let's you and me figure out what tattoos other Braves players should get!
*Dunno if that's correct. If you think you've a better explanation, you probably do.
Those are the kind of thoughts that keep you going in really boring classes.
So I started making a list, and here's what I came up with.
Jason Heyward: A Nike swoosh with a halo around it.
Heyward affirmed his love for Nike on Twitter last night, saying that he's 'Nike head to toe.' Well, what better way to prove it than by inking it in there? And I think we can all agree that the halo is appropriate for a defensively gifted 21 year old outfielder with a 138 wRC+ that's going up after tonight's performance. Plus, you could call it Holy Nike. Like 'Holy Schnike!'. Eh? Eh? Ah, forget it.
Derek Lowe: The I Am Rich app button.
I don't know if you've heard of the I Am Rich app, but it got released two years ago. It cost $999.99, and all it did was display a glowing red button accompanied by the text "I am rich. I deserv [sic] it. I am good, healthy & successful." Eight people bought it before Apple removed it from the App Store. Anyway, the correlation here is that the Braves spent $48MM on Lowe and received roughly the same amount of productivity. Harsh but fair, y'all.
Kenshin Kawakami: Japanese character for 'misunderstood.'
Mostly because it's a classic convention of the obnoxious tattoo crowd to go with Japanese characters, but partly because Kenshin could make sure that it actually comes out right. Which is important. But anyway, I went with 'misunderstood' because his ERA (5.11) this year has belied some pretty decent performance (4.24 FIP; 4.21 last year). The only difference between this year and last has been a BABIP that jumped thirty points from last season and a strand rate that dropped by 10%.
Omar Infante: The sheet music to 'Farmer in the Dell.'
Billy Wagner: A pickup truck driving into a sunset.
Because if there's one thing I am sure of with this Braves team, it's that Billy Wagner drives a pickup truck. I would wager a guaranteed World Series appearance on it. And Wags is dead set on retiring after this season, despite being as dominant as ever. Plus, I'd like the license plate to say '400SVS' because even if saves are essentially meaningless and Wagner doesn't care about the mark - and I suspect that he doesn't -, well, it's still kinda cool.
Chipper Jones: 'CJ10' on his left knee.
You know how you read about people who go and get surgery, and the surgeon does something hilarious like amputating the wrong leg? And so now they protect against that by having the doctor initial the proper leg, before all the fun, Nip/Tuck-esque stuff happens? Yeah, well, Chipper's had his left ACL operated on twice, now. So just to be sure, he should put the initials that adorn his batting gloves on that knee.
Matt Diaz: A map of Turner Field with an 'X' in left field.
I heard some broadcaster somewhere mention that Diaz's nickname is Magellan, because he needs a map to get to balls hit out to left. So he should get that map tattooed on the inside of his left wrist, like a quarterback's wristband.
Tommy Hanson: Eric Cartman from South Park with a bullseye on his forehead.
Hanson is, uh...well...he's kind of a ginger. And he doesn't appreciate Cartman's crusade against his kind. Ideally, it would also say something threatening, but I'm not as they say intimidating so threats aren't really my game.
Jair Jurrjens: A Dutch Oven with steam coming out.
This one was stolen entirely from Carson Cistulli. I'll just paste his explanation here.
"If I Had My Druthers
• Jair Jurrjens, a native of Curacao (in the Netherlands Antilles), would begin referring to his fastball as “The Dutch Oven” — owing, you know, to the heat that it provided.
• It would become such a fabulous pitch that announcers are absolutely forced to reference it, by name, on the air.
• I, along with droves of American teenagers, would L my A off."
Martin Prado: A vuvuzela.
A nod to R.J. Anderson's nickname for him, 'The Human Vuvuzela.' It's especially apropos because I actually enjoyed the vuvuzelas, much as I do Prado's play.
Peter Moylan: 'Thunder From Down Under,' on his right pec, with an arrow pointing down his arm.
Because how much classier could you get? And I'm sure Australian people never, ever, EVER tire of that reference.
Tim Hudson: Male pattern baldness.
Getting hair tattooed is actually a thing. Which I guess shouldn't surprise anyone, but...still. Anyway, I'm pushing for this because I'm sure some of you will recall the last great Braves starter who wasn't exactly follicularly gifted. Now, Hudson and Smoltz aren't similar, like, at all in how they pitch, but...would anyone here really object to Smoltz's presence, in some way, shape, or form? If pattern baldness is what I have to settle for, then so be it.
But that, of course, is all just a starting point. I mean, this is baseball; if teams are willing to get team mustaches (example), then we should be thinking big here because nothing is out of the realm of possibility. Let your minds wander and let us know what you can come up with back in those dark, twisted recesses.
Kenshin Kawakami didn't go 1-9 earlier in the season for no reason.
Kawakami once again showed us that he can get destroyed at any moment in any inning and Derek Lowe has proven to be nothing better than a veteran presence.
With that said, who should be the Braves 5th starter?
Derek Lowe: Lowe used to be one of the most talented and accomplished pitchers in baseball. When the Braves signed him for $60 million dollars, they were expecting to get exactly that.
Kenshin Kawakami didn't go 1-9 earlier in the season for no reason.
Kawakami once again showed us that he can get destroyed at any moment in any inning and Derek Lowe has proven to be nothing better than a veteran presence.
With that said, who should be the Braves 5th starter?
Derek Lowe: Lowe used to be one of the most talented and accomplished pitchers in baseball. When the Braves signed him for $60 million dollars, they were expecting to get exactly that.
When news broke that Stephen Strasburg had a torn UCL and would require Tommy John surgery, Drew Magary tweeted "The fun part about Strasburg's injury is all good young pitchers will now be preemptively converted to first base coaches. Can't wait!" And the way things are going around the league, he may not be all that far off; just look at San Diego, where Mat Latos was supposed to make the big step from 142 innings last year to 150 this year, but is now causing much handwringing at the fact that he's already thrown 150 innings. Or look at New York, where the issue of limiting Phil Hughes' innings - Jerry Crasnick from ESPN suspects it may be a cap around 170-175 frames - is heating up shortly after the moronic Joba Rules may have ruined Joba Chamberlain's career. Or look at St. Louis, where Jaime Garcia has already been skipped in the rotation, and likely will be again down the stretch - particularly if the Cardinals fall out of contention. Or look at Toronto, where the Blue Jays have decided that Brandon Morrow has done enough for them this season, and have shut him down for the rest of the year.
I understand where these teams are coming from. Pitchers are notorious for their high attrition rates, and injuries can affect them in more devastating ways than they do other athletes. Off the top of my head, you've got Chipper Jones, who blew out his knee 15 years ago and came back to have a Hall of Fame career. There's Xavier Nady has survived two Tommy John surgeries and mans first base for the Cubs. And how about Jason Kendall, who detonated his ankle on first base and has gone on to play - at catcher, no less - for eleven more seasons? Now think about how many pitchers who sustain a torn labrum, and fail to make it back to the big leagues - or at least in a reduced capacity. Or the guys who don't make it back from rotator cuff trouble, or the guys who don't come back from Tommy John surgery. Indeed, a report from Science Daily tells us that pitchers get hurt 34% more often than position players, and when they do get put on the DL, they spend an average - an average! - of 62.4% of the season there. So they get hurt far more often, and when they get hurt, it's worse. And that's not considering the time it takes to regain the feel for pitching that these guys have. Take Edinson Volquez for example: he came back from Tommy John surgery this July, and has been pretty terrible because he can't throw strikes. That's because when the UCL gets replaced, the pitcher's body lacks the proprioception that it had established with the old ligament; it takes more time pitching with the replacement piece to get fully accustomed to it.
So! Clearly, the answer is for teams to limit their young pitchers' innings, put less stress on their arms, and everyone will grow up to pitch until they're 45, making millions along the way and we all go home happy. Right?
Well, that same Science Daily article presents some evidence that runs counter to the conventional wisdom that we hear in the form of the Verducci Effect and Pitcher Abuse Points and everyone who's ever made fun of Dusty Baker (especially the people who make fun of Dusty Baker). Y'see, 67% of pitcher injuries happen in the upper extremities - i.e. the arms and shoulders. Which makes sense. But of those upper extremity injuries, 79% of them happen before the All-Star Break. As in almost eighty percent. And before the nominal halfway point of the season, no less. What does that mean? Well, that perhaps innings counts aren't what's striking our young pitchers down like so many particularly annoying flies in the kitchen. Perhaps it's simply because throwing a baseball isn't a particularly natural motion. Throwing a baseball 95 mph is also not particularly natural. By extension, throwing a slider is a downright affront to the god of tendons and ligaments, and one that can only be remedied by ritual sacrifice to Dr. James Andrews (or Dr. Lewis Yocum, for the indie crowd).
As I'm sure you've realized by now, this comes back to the Braves in the form of Mike Minor. Minor started against the Mets either this or yesterday evening depending on when you read this piece, and lasted 5 innings, surrendering 2 runs on seven hits and 3 walks while K'ing 4. Not a particularly inspiring outing, I know. But what's significant is that he already has had his turn skipped in the rotation once, and even if he isn't scratched again down the stretch, the Braves are likely to shuffle the rotation to maximize his days off.
As you now know, I do not support this plan - and neither, for that matter, do I support all the other teams capping their young pitchers IP and willfully hamstringing their playoff chances. And even if this is the right way to handle pitchers, why don't teams handle it consistently among the whole staff? Older pitchers are still susceptible to injury; Tim Hudson is barely removed from Tommy John and he's been counted on all year long. Tommy Hanson is still a young'n; no one's talking about capping his innings. Derek Lowe just got a cortisone shot in his elbow; where's the concern for his time off*?
*Yes, I know, there's no concern because he's not all that good anymore. But it's the principle of the thing.
My point is, teams seem to be climbing all over themselves to have their pitchers do less pitching. They do this in spite of the fact that this plan does not seem to be working all that well; I've not seen any significant evidence that says 'If your pitchers throw 150 innings they will be safe from all woes that might otherwise befall them.' If there is evidence out there - and Tom Verducci, in proposing his Verducci effect, says that there is "staggering" data to suggest that he's right - then please do send it along so I can render myself foolish. Until then? I will continue to be bemused by teams that put faith in bogus data in lieu of trying to win. I hope the Braves keep getting great pitching, and render this whole thing moot, but it's a baseball-wide problem that shows no sign of abating.
P.S.: Here are Verducci's 10 pitchers at risk by innings jumps: Cesar Carillo, Bud Norris, Mat Latos, Joba Chamberlain, Homer Bailey, Josh Johnson, Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez and Wade Davis. If you're keeping track at home, that's 3 guys with Cy Young-type numbers (Latos, Johnson, Hernandez), one guy posting the best FIP of his career as a reliever (Chamberlain), and 4 other guys who've improved (and, in some cases, are posting their best career marks) their FIP this season while putting together pretty excellent campaigns (Norris, Bailey, Porcello, Scherzer). Meanwhile, Cesar Carillo didn't even pitch in the majors this season. But, hey, 1 out of 10 (Davis) ain't bad, right? That's the kind of evidence I like when I'm arbitrarily messing with my pitcher's schedules.