This is the time of year where teams don’t care about wins and losses, while rosters change daily and little seen on the field tells baseball handicappers about what to expect on the field in April and beyond. But that doesn’t mean that those early spring games are worthless for MLB bettors. The truth is, smart handicappers can pick up a lot of valuable insight about the future of a team and its particular players.
With that we have assembled a few things for those trying to master the art of major league baseball betting picks and baseball handicapping this season. Here are things to pay attention to during spring training that may come in handy when wagering during the regular MLB season.
First, bettors need to keep a close eye on young pitchers who are getting a lot of attention. That's because when teams suddenly find themselves in a rotation pinch, they would much rather rely on young talent in their system, versus having to sign veteran talent from outside the organization. And a rookie pitcher that is tested early in spring training and can handle the responsibility, can often be a good indicator of how a team is feeling about its pitching situation.
The same goes for youngsters who get a lot of time in the spring lineup.
If a team thinks it has a hole in its lineup that they are hoping to fill with a young player, it is going to give that player as much playing time possible. And how that young hitter performs during the spring, can tell mlb picks and those handicapping a lot about how comfortable that player might be, when and if he is presented with an opportunity to step into the lineup in the midst of the regular season.
Next, handicappers need to pay to attention to veteran players who are taking longer to get into form than expected. This could be a clear warning sign of a player who is not healthy.
Or, if a supposed starter isn’t seeing a lot of field time, it could indicate a nagging or maybe even a new injury. Or, could just be a sign that he doesn’t fit into the team’s strategy. Any of which could pose a threat to a team's ability to win games during the regular season.
Finally, handicappers need to take notice of veteran players coming off a bad year who start strong.
Not all of a players previous season problems are going to follow him, and a player coming off a lousy year who begins the spring with a bang, could mean that his troubles are behind him. However, baseball bettors need to be careful here, as it also doesn’t mean that he is sure to have a great season. Still it does show if a player can bounce back, and if the public expectations are still low, it could lead to some real value.]]>
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Which brings me back to my belief-challenging Facebook session. Here are a sampling of the comments from that post:
Allow me to reconsider that whole 'no absolutes' thing when I say this: you people just do not get it.
Here's the thing about sports fans: we're passionate, which means that too often, we're unable to separate reason from emotion. We're prone to overraction, and never has there been a more promninent and accessible forum from which to share your reactionary (and, often, drunken) views with the world. I get that, and I also get that there is no environment better suited for loutish rants about the nature of a thing than sports.
But at some point, you have got to step back and look at the big picture. Let's use Heyward as a convenient example: this kid turned 23 last August. He had, at the time, been playing Major League Baseball for nearly two full seasons. I can't speak for you, but when I was his age, I was fighting a losing battle against my academic motivation, drinking too much and playing video games all the damn day long. Oh, and I only occasionally was able to find time to work out so that I could play well in my weekend baseball games.
So it's no knock against you when I say I doubt you were doing much different -- and you certainly hadn't spent a year performing admirably at the very highest level of your profession before spending a second year at your job being hurt and trying to live up to the expectations placed upon you by literally millions of people.
And you want to tell me it's okay to speak on Heyward like that? When you have literally no idea what his professional expectations entail? Sure thing, dude.
Because this is a Braves-focused site, I'm going to comment only on Heyward, but the following applies to struggling prospects of any team: too often, observers -- whether by dint of his physical stature, the fact that he's spent three years in the league, or their own ignorance -- expect him to be a star, and are completely willing to not only forget his age -- again, he's 23 -- but what that means from a personal development standpoint. It's one thing to look at a player who's made the big leagues from a young age and say that he's to be held to a certain level of expectations. It's another thing entirely to disregard the fact that he's not just a 23-year old physically, but also mentally -- and lord knows that can be a hard time.
Yeah, I know that the common response is that they don't need to be treated like babies. That maturity is expected of them and all that, and that if they're not helping the team win then they deserve the scorn (or benching, or platooning, as in Heyward's case).
But that argument is, succintly summarized, paternalistic bullshit.
Like I said: I understand when fans get upset that their favorite players/teams underperform. But you've got to understand that not only is there no need to focus your anger on one player, it's counterproductrive to do so. You want to blame Heyward and say that he's costing the team wins while he's trying to live up to your expectations of what a player should be? You want to ignore the fact that he's developing not only as a player, but as a man?
Have fun, but you're wrong to do so.
And if you parrot that same line back at me after I say this next line, fine; you won't be the first. But ...
Winning doesn't matter.
Admittedly, that's some pageview-trawling lingo. But, hey, who wants context in a one-sentence paragraph?
When I say winning doesn't matter, I don't mean that I don't want the Braves to win games, or make the playoffs, or win the World Series. Obviously, I do -- I've just written a thousand words defending a single one of the players who've ever worn a Braves uniform. But I worry that we lose sight of what makes for a winning organization and what fosters a positive environment of growth for its young players: patience.
Yes, there are franchises like the Yankees for whom patience is less a virtue than a dirty word. Rebuilding is not in a Bronx-dweller's vocabulary. But for the sake of Heyward, and the sake of non-Yankee franchises everywhere, I implore you to have some. Can it cost some wins in the short term? Sure. Is that something that I shouldn't shrug off so easily given that the Braves were so close (so goddamn close aghhhh) to making the playoffs, which immediately gives them fair betting odds at winning a championship? Maybe.
But what counts in my book isn't results (i.e. winning) but rather process - i.e. winning the right way. And no, I don't mean that in mouthbreathing, probably racist way you're used to hearing; I mean that in the sense that I want my team's front office to be mindful not only of putting a competitive team on the field, but of the future. To put perhaps too fine a point on it, I don't want them toying with the psyche of the kid who was baseball's best prospect two years ago because they buy into the misguided notion of The Hot Hand.
Unfortunately, that's the management we're dealing with. And damned if they're not creating fans in their own image, which is just a shame.
The highest FIP of those ten players belongs to Clippard, at 3.17. Of the top ten relievers in baseball in FIP, five are on that list, including all of the top four.
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Now, let's look at the top ten DOM numbers for starters in baseball in 2011, qualified starters only.
Of that list, the highest FIP is Morrow at 3.64. Of the top ten starters in baseball in FIP, five are once again present, including the top three.
What does this little exercise prove? Relievers will generally have a higher DOM than starters. In fact, there are 16 relievers who have DOM values higher than the best starter.
The correlation between FIP and DOM isn't strong, but there is a slight one there. The average reliever DOM (among qualified candidates) was .778, and out of all 34 relievers with a FIP lower than 3.00, six had a DOM above league average, only one had a groundball rate that wasn't more than 12% above the league average of 44%: Darren Oliver.
When it comes to starters, the average DOM (among qualified candidates) was just 0.635. Of the 45 players with a DOM higher than that mark, there were seven with a FIP above 4.00. Of those seven, only Ricky Romero and Wandy Rodriguez (by 1%) had a groundball rate HIGHER than the league average of 44%.
Now, what does THIS show us? DOM is a better indicator of player success than it is for relievers than for pitchers...unless we're talking about groundball relievers, then there is more of a chance for variability. For starters, an above average DOM isn't a perfect indicator of success, but it's not completely meaningless either. Approximately 83-85% of pitchers with an above average DOM will have a solid FIP.
It's not an exact correlation, but it's pretty accurate. If you figure in all starters and relievers as opposed to qualified ones, the bar gets lowered dramatically. For example, looking at all relievers as opposed to qualified ones pushes the average down to 0.669, which would put 83 of the 134 qualified relievers above average. For starters, the bar falls to .570, which puts 55 of 90 qualified starters over the average guideline.
By now, all the dust has settled and all the smoke has cleared. The four year Braves career of David Ross has come to an end, as the veteran backup catcher has signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox for an average of $3.1 million per season. A lot of Braves fans are crushed over Ross leaving the team, and with good reason - he was an awesome and productive member of the team.
In his four seasons with the Braves (2009-2012), Ross was paid just $6.2 million (coincidentally, the exact amount he'll get over the next two years in Boston) and provided the Braves with 6.4 fWAR in 663 plate appearances. That is an absolutely insane level of production off the bench. To put that in perspective, Chipper Jones provided 5.0 fWAR of value over the last two seasons in 960 plate appearances while making $26 million. Defense has *a lot* to do with those fWAR numbers, but nevertheless, that puts into perspective just how valuable Ross has been.
Defensively, the value Ross brought to the Braves cannot be understated. In his four year Braves career, Ross threw out just under 40% of all attempted base stealers (39.8% to be exact). Contrast that to Brian McCann, who has thrown out 30% of base stealers just once in his entire career: 2010, when he caught exactly 30% of base thieves. That is an astounding statistic, and speaks to just how great Ross is as a receiver behind the plate.
With McCann's offseason shoulder surgery, the Braves are in a difficult spot. They can't exactly just throw their hands in the air and give someone like JC Boscan (a minor league free agent in his own right) the backup job behind McCann. The backup catcher for 2013 will probably end up logging substantial playing time this season, perhaps even more innings behind the plate than Ross did in 2012 (421 2/3 innings, for those curious). If the Braves backup catcher has the same characteristic that many backup catchers have (that is, they cannot hit worth a damn), the team is going to be losing valuable offensive production.
That blend of both offense and defense is what made Ross so valuable to the Braves, and what will make him missed so much. How many backup catchers can provide you with above average offense as well as elite defense? It's a very unique and interesting blend, and it's going to be tough to find a player like that on the free agent or trade market this winter. Look at some of the free agents: Henry Blanco, Rod Barajas, Gerald Laird, Miguel Olivo, Humberto Quintero, Kelly Shoppach...with the possible exception of Shoppach, they're all either inept offensively, defensively, or both. It's extremely tough to find the unique blend that Ross provided for the Braves this season.
But then again, finding a backup catcher that can fuel your team offensively doesn't exactly have to be a science. The Phillies came into the year with Brian Schneider backing up Carlos Ruiz, but eventually had to turn to career minor leaguer Erik Kratz once Schneider went down and the starter Ruiz had injury issues of his own. Of course, the 32-year old Kratz had an .810 OPS for the Phillies in 157 plate appearances and threw out 45% of attempted base stealers. You just don't know sometimes.
Overpaying a veteran just because that's your only option isn't something I'd recommend for the Braves, especially with how tight payroll is with this franchise. Simply giving a career minor leaguer like Kratz who never got much of a chance might work out for the best at the end of the day. Instead of browsing the veteran free agency list, why not look at the minor league free agents? There might just be a diamond in the rough that could save the season for the Braves, but honestly, there's a lot riding on this decision...more than that should be riding on it, considering it's for a bench position.]]>
Hanson will start on Friday against the Dodgers, who have a .680 OPS (third worst in the NL). His second start looks to be on August 23rd against the Giants, who have a .710 OPS (sixth worst in the NL). His third start before a decision will be made for September on the rotation will be on August 29th against the Padres, who have a .680 OPS (a fraction of a point behind the Dodgers, and the second worst mark in the NL). So essentially, Hanson will be given every opportunity to succeed. Keep in mind, this is a particularly cushy part of the Braves schedule, with seven against the Padres, four against the Giants, three against the Dodgers, and three against the HATED NATIONALS coming over the next three turns in the order.
The crucial series this month are obviously the back to back road trips against the Nationals and Giants next week. You could actually argue that Fredi's handling of the rotation makes sense here, as the only pitcher to start in both series is Tim Hudson, the team's best starter all year. He'll start the opener in Washington next Monday, and the closer in San Francisco in two Sundays. Hudson, Paul Maholm (fresh off of a complete game shuout in New York), and Kris Medlen (who has been dominant in three starts this year, albeit against bad teams) will start in Washington, and I really can't complain about any of the three.
My main issue with giving Hanson every opportunity to succeed is well...he doesn't deserve it. Since the All-Star Break, he has a 7.45 ERA (third worst on the team behind the demoted Anthony Varvaro and the "injured" Jair Jurrjens). The next worst mark on the entire pitching staff belongs to Hudson, who has a 4.29 ERA while somehow managing to walk fewer hitters than Hanson in 16 1/3 more innings. Hanson has walked nearly a batter per inning since the break, and even discounting the disaster in Miami a couple of weeks ago, he hasn't been good. Hell, he's not even going deep into games. He's gone into the sixth inning just once since the break. What the hell?
Hanson probably isn't going to turn into the ace we all thought he would be when he was kicking the bejeezus out of the minors in 2008 and 2009. After a fantastic 2010, he's taken turns south in both 2011 and 2012, and he just isn't a viable option right now. His fastball isn't even averaging 90 mph this year. In his last start on July 30th, Hanson's fastball *averaged* 88mph, and topped out at a hair above 90. Looking at the PitchFX graph, it looked like he only topped 90 twice...on 45 fastballs. That's not good at all.
This has kind of developed into me rambling about Hanson, and I apologize for that. But the guy just isn't one of the Braves top five starters right now. Hell, when you figure Randall Delgado into the mix, is he even one of the top six starters right now? The six-man rotation worries the hell out of me, but if Hanson can't succeed in his three turns through the rotation this month...he shouldn't be making any more starts for the rest of the year. Period.
Even before Buster Olney's confirmation that the Phillies coveted Bourn, any sane baseball fan knew that the Phillies would have interest after dealing impending free agent Shane Victorino to the Dodgers last week. When Philly gets involved in negotiations, a player's price goes through the roof. Before the season, everyone assumed that Bourn would get a contract in the range of five years and $60 million. That's out the window now after Bourn's fantastic year, and of course, the interest of a large market club. The new salary estimate for Bourn starts at $16 million per season, and while you can argue the merits of giving that kind of money to a soon-to-be 30-year old center fielder who's best asset is his speed, the Braves simply cannot afford to pay that kind of money to one player with their current payroll situation unless the deal was heavily backloaded.
First off, the Braves payroll is rather static. It's going to sit between $90 and $95 million, and there isn't a damn thing that anyone can do about it. Blame that on whoever the hell you want to (Liberty Media, Frank Wren, SportSouth, Atlanta fans, whatever), but nothing is changing in regards to the payroll unless something unforeseen happens. By "something unforeseen", I mean that a multi-billionaire offers Liberty 20% over market value for the team and pumps money into them like the team is a deflated cream puff, or that something happens with SportSouth that makes the network renegotiate the extremely favorable (for them at least) TV deal they have with the Braves. Quite frankly, I don't think either will be happening any time soon.
Looking at the Braves payroll for next year, despite Derek Lowe's behemoth contract coming off the books and Chipper Jones's retirement, there isn't a lot of wiggle room. Dan Uggla is owed $13.2 million, and that's not going to be going anywhere. Brian McCann has an option for 2013 that will surely be picked up for $12 million (at least, due to the presence of awards escalators that can bump it up by $3 million). Tim Hudson has a $9 million option that's going to be picked up (and bumped to $9.5 million in oh, six starts or so). Barring an awful two months with the team, new acquisition Paul Maholm has a $6.5 million option that will be picked up. With just those four players, the Braves payroll is over $41 million...or nearly halfway to the budgeted goal.
Then, you have to figure in the arbitration raises. Martin Prado is making $4.75 million, and let's guesstimate that he gets a raise to $6 million or so after his bounceback year. Eric O'Flaherty is making $2.49 million in his second to last arb year, and a raise to $3 million seems feasible. Bam, you're already over $50 million in payroll. Jair Jurrjens has a year left of arbitration, but there is no chance in hell that the Braves are going to pay him the $6 million he'd likely be awarded.
There are also the younger players who will be entering arbitration for the first time, and they're all guys that are pretty crucial parts to the team on varying degrees: Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Jonny Venters, Kris Medlen, and Cristhian Martinez. It's a pain in the ass to determine value for first time arb players, but let's compare Heyward to Hunter Pence (who settled for $3.5 million as a Super Two in his first year of arb) and Hanson to Chad Billingsley (settled for $3.85 million in his first year of arb). Give the three relievers (or quasi-starter in Medlen's case) $1.2 million each, and you're at about $11 million for just those five players and something like $62 million overall.
This is the issue the Braves are faced with now. They'd have around $30 million or so left to spend on their team, and be short one outfielder (two if you move Prado to third), and three slots on the bench (assuming either of Janish/Pastornicky and Francisco are penciled in for the 2013 team). The rotation would look something like Hudson/Maholm/Hanson/Minor and one of Delgado, Teheran, Gilmartin, Medlen, etc. So if the Braves wanted to sign Bourn and throw say $18 million per year at him, they'd only have $12 million to fill the other holes on the team...which would likely be doled out to mediocrity, or hell, be eaten and have slots given to young players.
Keep in mind, that this entire piece says nothing about how silly it would be to give a player like Bourn a possible nine figure deal. I don't think Bourn will get Carl Crawford money by any means, but I think he'll get more than Torii Hunter. If this was the 90s, and the Braves' $90 million payroll was one of the top five in the league, I could rationalize a long-term deal for Bourn at a comparable rate. But in the year 2012, where $90 million doesn't even put you in the league's top ten...it just doesn't make sense for this team at this point in time.
Photo courtesy of Daylife.com]]>
Before everyone immediately starts pinning the struggles of this year's bullpen on Chad Durbin, remember that the 2011 pen had Jairo Asencio destroy his chances at ever making it in Atlanta in April, and Scott Proctor sabotage the world in May. And actually, Durbin has calmed down quite a bit in May. His 2.38 ERA is second lowest in the pen for the month (*what?!*), but his 4.95 FIP is second-worst. Regardless, both are improvements over April, when his ERA was 9.00 and his FIP was a starting 7.38.
The pen was largely fine in April, aside from Durbin. The only FIPs higher than 3.20 belonged to Durbin and (perhaps shockingly) Eric O'Flaherty, sitting at 4.37 and adding a 4.91 ERA to the crew as well. May on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster. Only two pitchers had a FIP under that 3.20 mark, and one of them is currently in Gwinnett stretching to be a starter (obviously, Kris Medlen). The other one, and the best pitcher on the staff, is once again Craig Kimbrel.
But what is the absolute root of the bullpen's struggles? A lot of it just has to do with luck coming back and slapping the Braves in the face. The league averaage HR/FB rate for relievers is 10.0%. Four of the Braves seven relievers have posted marks higher than that, including Jonny Venters at an eye-popping 27.3%. Venters had allowed a total of three homers over 171 innings over 2010 and 2011, and has allowed three in 20 1/3 innings this year. Dumb luck, or a sign of something worse? I'm not going to say that Venters' career is over, but his groundball rate is down to 55.9%, after being above 68% in his first two years in the majors. Furthermore, he has a 25% line drive rate, which is just terrible. The .466 BABIP possessed by Venters also suggests that he's just terribly unlucky, but with that line drive rate, it makes a little more sense. On the other side of the coin, he has career bests in both strikeout and walk rates, signifying that there's still something there. His fastball velocity though, has dropped one mile per hour from 2011 to 2012. That's a little concerning.
The other negative option from the bullpen is Eric O'Flaherty, initially brought to the team in 2009 as a LOOGY, but then was transitioned into the seventh inning role. Last season, when O'Flaherty had a 0.98 ERA, he was aided by a 92.3% strand rate and 3.9% FB/HR. This year, those marks have regressed to 75.3% and 16.7%, which seem a little more realistic. As a result, his ERA is 3.66 and his FIP is 4.18. Oh, and there's the righty thing. O'Flaherty is allowing a 1.018 OPS to righties, and he's faced 54 of them compared to just 34 lefties. Last year, O'Flaherty faced four times as many righties as lefties, and held them to just a .599 OPS. That's a little low for a guy who's allowed righties to a .739 OPS over his career, in comparison to the .560 OPS he's held lefties to.
You can point your finger at Durbin or old man Livan (who has actually been perfectly adequate in his role) all you want, but quite frankly, the Braves bullpen is struggling because two of the big three (on an aside, how silly was it for people to get obsessed over a nickname for a reliever trio when only one of those relievers possesses long-term sustainable dominance?) are struggling terribly this year. The only player to amass less fWAR than either O'Flaherty or Venters this year is Durbin, and everyone pretty much expected that.
One HUGE positive note for the Braves bullpen, though. If Venters and O'Flaherty do manage to put it together over the season's final four months, they'll be fresh. They've combined to throw just 40 innings this year (with Kimbrel adding 20 of his own), while last year, O'Flaherty logged 26 1/3 innings over the season's first third, with Venters clocking in at a mind-blowing 33 2/3 innings. For comparison's sake, Kimbrel had 27 innings over that timespan, and actually pitched worse than he has so far this year. At least Fredi is attempting to make sure a late-season bullpen meltdown doesn't happen this September.
Photos courtesy of Daylife.com]]>
Cut to an hour later. I check in on Twitter, and I see that ... uh, the Braves rallied? They scored on Halladay? BRIAN MCCANN HIT A GEEDEE GRAND SLAM?!?
Let's pause here to skip over the Chooch-related unpleasantries and the subsequent comeback from that particular deficit (because I didn't watch it) and ...
TIE GAME IN THE BOTTOM OF THE NINTH INNING?! AFTER DOC HALLADAY, WHO MAY OR MAY NOT EVEN BE A MORTAL HUMAN BEING, WAS STAKED TO A SIX-RUN LEAD?!
Well, yeah, I started to watch again. I do have some self-respect, after all. And then Michael Bourn popped out with the bases loaded, and I kind of tuned out again.
So this part here is what I was actually driving at when I started in 200 words ago, but I'm drunk and excited, which the latter is rarely resultant from April baseball, so here we are. Chipper Jones stepped in to bat with a runner on first against Brian Sanches, which is somehow not a misspelling.
Now, if I were a narrative-inclined baseball columnist, I might twist a yarn of the 20-year veteran stepping in against a guy who, in six seasons, has thrown as many innings as Justin Verlander might in one season. But I'm not, and I did (/do) not really know anything about Sanches, so I assumed that he was just your standard two-pitch reliever taking the mound in place of one Jonathan Papelbon, who's being paid a ... well, 'princely' sum kind of understates his contract, but you get the idea, to record outs at the end of baseball games.
The ... I guess you could call it 'sabermetrician' in me (though I wouldn't claim to put myself on that level) instinctively rages against that decision because it's objectively dumb, but the Braves fan in me was thrilled. Because Charlie Manuel is the kind of red-ass, old-school manager who subscribes to the theory of using your closer only in save situations, the Braves were going to get to face a guy who hadn't found any kind of Major League effectiveness until his age-30 season, and who is not Jonathan Papelbon's equal ont he mound.
Now, I don't mean to pat myself on the back when I say that the at-bat played out about as predictably as could happen in that situation. As someone who's spent some years pitching and who's spent more years watching Chipper hit and two-pitch relievers pitch, the progression of pitches was more or less by the book. 0-2, we see a bounced curveball. 1-2, another bounced curveball. Chipper doesn't swing, because he's Chipper. Sanches throws them because he's, well, Sanches. 2-2, Sanches comes high and tight because as any Braves fan can tell you, Chipper thrives on pitches middle-out. He doesn't get it high enough, and we get a foul ball.
I often find myself wondering what, exactly, separates great professional athletes from mediocre ones. Like, sure, sometimes the greats are more athletic than their lesser counterparts. But then, sometimes there are utter freaks of nature who wouldn't be out of place at the Olympics who just cannot hack it at anything approaching a professional level of sport. The skills are so granular, and so finely tuned, that it can be hard for fans to discern who's doing what well, and who needs improvement at what. They see the numbers on the scoreboard and know that they should cheer or boo accordingly, but in terms of what actually shows up in someone's performance ... well, it can leave a lot of fans in the dark.
The Chipper - Sanches at-bat was not such an occasion. Sanches had Chipper 2-2, had barely beaten Jones on a high fastball ... and then shook off his catcher and decided to go back to the heater.
Now, Sanches isn't some rookie. He's entitled to make that kind of decision! But you have got to pick your spots -- and 2-2 when you barely beat a future Hall of Famer ain't the kind of spot you pick to shake off your catcher. Sanches discarded the curve for a fastball ... and saw it get deposited 380 feet down the right field line, and 10 feet on the first base side of the foul pole.
At that point, as a pitcher, you have got to adjust. And Sanches did -- but he went for another curve out of the zone (if memory serves -- I'm doing this off the top of my head, so). Chipper Jones is not the type of hitter to bite on a 2-2 curve out of the zone, especially -- especially -- when you've already thrown him two of those. So Sanches put himself in an uncomfortable place (like the back of a Volkswagen), and when he needed to get out of it, he ...
... watched his catcher throw down three fingers, nodded, and came set.
Um ... okay. I stood up when I saw that, because I was aware of who was pitching: Brian Freaking Sanches, who had been added to the Major League roster literally the day before he was making this apperance. Brian Freaking Sanches, who, in his Major League career, has used his changeup exactly 2.3% of the time. Brian Freaking Sanches, who, to my mind, was about to make a huge mistake.
However long it took that ball to flirt with going outside, then decide to hang out over the plate, then fly 424 feet, later, my suspicions and the hopes of Braves fans everywhere had been realized. Braves 15, Phillies 13, F-11. Just the way we drew it up when we saw Halladay-Hanson listed as the starters.
Fredi Gonzalez is...disappointing to me as Braves manager, 164 games into his tenure. The way he goes about certain things absolutely boggles my mind. Fredi's managerial style thusfar during his Braves career almost reminds me of a kid who was given the keys to a sportscar for his 18th birthday, and is told to go to the store to pick up milk. During the ride, the kid has no idea what he's doing. He drives in the wrong gear and burns the clutch, he sideswipes a few parked cars, he runs red lights...but at the end of the day, he gets the milk, and that's all that matters, right? Just because the end result of a situation is what you intended it to be doesn't mean the process to get to said result was correct. In my above scenario, the process was an absolute disaster that should have resulted in something going horribly wrong. And just because nothing went wrong, we're all supposed to sing kumbaya and be happy? That's a big heaping load of garbage. Trust the process, not the results. And Fredi's process, during his tenure last season and already this season, is an absolute trainwreck.
Gonzalez is like the kid who has the keys to the sportscar, and has no idea what he's doing. Matt Diaz is pretty much useless as a major league hitter at this point, yet he started Thursday's game against the Mets, and pinch hit as the tying run yesterday. I can actually buy the argument to start Diaz against the left-handed Johan Santana on Thursday. I'm not going to cite splits against a pitcher (because I think they are roughly a giant load of garbage), but as everyone and their mother knows, MATT DIAZ IS A LEFT-HANDED PITCHING KILLER. He went 1/2 with a double off of Santana, but when Johan was pulled going into the sixth inning, it was Diaz who trotted up to the plate against a right-handed Ramon Ramirez with men on second and third. Of course, almost like it was God himself smacking Fredi on the knuckles with a ruler, Diaz grounded out on the second pitch against Ramirez to end the last situation with multiple men on the Braves would have all day.
Tommy Hanson got pulled after three batters in the sixth, when the Mets would score their only run, and was replaced with Kris Medlen. Cool. Good move. Now is when Fredi pulls the double switch to get Diaz out of the game. But instead of doing the largely logical thing and putting Juan Francisco (who my feelings on will require another thousand words) at third and moving Martin Prado into left...he brings in the slap hitting phenom himself, Jose Constanza, to play left field. When it was revealed that Constanza had made the Braves Opening Day roster, fans such as myself were terrified. We were all told to calm down, because it was just for a week until Chipper was back, and that Constanza was only put on the roster because he was already on the 40-man (ignoring the fact that the team had open spots on the 40-man, of course). In the back of our heads, we all know that Constanza would have an effect on this team because Fredi has a nasty fetish for him. Sure enough, Constanza was now in left field and due up third in the inning. Naturally, Tyler Pastornicky tripled with one out to bring Constanza up with a chance to tie the game. As much as I despite the Francisco transaction, I'll admit this: the dude's swing is so damn violent that if he makes contact, he's at least getting the ball in the air. This is when Mets manager Terry Collins brought in his lefty specialist Tim Byrdak (despite a reverse platoon split for Constanza), and Constanza's at bat was such a disaster that I don't even want to relive it. Essentially, he struck out and looked like a fool on the third strike pitch, swinging at a pitch so far out of the zone that it would have hit a right-handed batter. While Francisco is an unmitigated disaster against lefties, 60% of his contact against them is on a line or in the air. That's what the team needed at that point, not an at bat from a guy who hit groundballs over 60% fo the time last year.
The rest of the game went swimmingly, and the Braves went down without a fight. Of course they did, it's only natural. I especially loved the use of Jonny Venters, who looked like a complete mess in his inning of work, allowing three baserunners and only getting two swings and misses while throwing more pitches than Medlen did in his two innings. The extreme overuse of Venters over the past two seasons is something to keep an eye on this year.
Let me get back to Fredi, and yesterday's game. Jair Jurrjens looked like absolute garbage out there yesterday (102 pitches, 4 1/3 innings pitched, two swinging strikes, two homers, and a partridge in a pear tree), and the bullpen usage following his departure was also bizarre. After six, it was a 3-2 Mets lead. Livan Hernandez (who threw a sinker that, I swear to god, didn't crack 84 all day) held the Mets scoreless in relief of Jurrjens despite allowing three hits. One run game, seventh inning, who do you go to? It's gotta be the washed up and decaying corpse of Chad Durbin (who's probably worth another 500 words on his own), right? Of course, Durbin got beaten like a rented mule, allowing three hits and a run on a Lucas Duda homer to make it a 4-2 game and essentially extinguish Atlanta's hopes of winning since the offense is so damn bad. What puzzled me is that after Durbin's inning, he was pulled and replaced with Cristhian Martinez, a much more effective reliever. Hell, Livan was signed in the first place so Martinez could throw more meaningful innings. How in the name of all that is holy is being down two runs in the eighth more meaningful than being down one run in the seventh? It legitimately makes no sense to me, and I can't rationalize it at all. Of course, Martinez retired the heart of the Mets order on seven pitches. The damage was done by then, and that was that.
My final qualm with Fredi over the first two games in the season comes of his usage of pinch hitters in the ninth inning yesterday. With two outs and Freddie Freeman on second, Fredi pinch hits Eric Hinske for Tyler Pastornicky. I understand the logic...kind of. It's a two run game, you need a homer to tie, you want your big bopper up there....right? But here's the major issue with it all: what happens if Hinske reaches base without homering? Well...you have an interesting situation there. With the pitcher's spot following Pastornicky's in the order, you're going to need a pinch hitter there regardless. While he's a rookie, Pastornicky has much better speed than Hinske, and while he has a much lower chance of homering and tying the game up, he probably has about an equal chance of reaching base. Fredi essentially sold out in this situation and banked that it would be an all or nothing type situation from Hinske. Instead, what happened was a median of the two outcomes: Hinske singled. Now, another interesting choice. The tying run is on first base, but it comes in the form of a guy who runs like an iceberg. Fredi (smartly, but the situation could have been avoided overall by not using Hinske there) pinch runs for Hinske with Jack Wilson, who would take over at short if the Braves tied it or took the lead. Now, another issue rises up. Fredi has no pinch hitters left on his bench after burning Hinske for Pastornicky, burning Wilson for Hinske, and using the pathetic Constanza earlier in the game (as the first bat off the bench, no less). Well, he had two guys left. There was David Ross, a pretty damn good hitter, but one that cannot be used as a pinch hitter in any circumstances in case something happens to Brian McCann, and Diaz, who has such an aversion to hitting righties that you might as well not even bother. Predictably, Diaz got the call to pinch hit for Martinez, and struck out on four pitches. That's that, folks.
Last season, the Braves won 89 games and led the wild card until the final week of the season. They collapsed in epic fashion, and as much as everyone wants to point at the players not performing, the main finger should be pointed at the manager who put them in situations were the odds were against them succeeding. During the 2011 season, Fredi was driving the sportscar down the road with reckless abandon, cutting red lights, zooming past stop signs, and nicking cars all along his road to the playoffs. It looked like he'd get there fine, until he t-boned a car just a block from his overall destination. Instead of giving Fredi a new sportscar, or hell, repairing the old one and giving it to someone who can handle it properly, the Braves repaired their old car, and handed Fredi the keys again. Two games into the season, he's gone through a red light and nearly killed a pedestrian. If he doesn't learn how to drive properly, this trip is going to end like last year's: short of the ultimate goal, not because of the brilliant machine he's driving, but becuase of his horrendous skills behind the wheel.