Braves Journal, The House That Mac Built

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25 Jul

Marlins 3, Braves 2 (By Kyle B.)

On Thursday evening, the Braves turned the ball over to Aaron Harang in an effort to even the series against the Marlins ahead of next week’s significant West Coast road trip. Despite their inconsistent play since the All-Star Break, the Braves entered the contest only one game back of Washington (two in the loss column) for the lead in the NL East.

Winless against the Marlins since 2011, Harang was sharp early. For the Fish, Henderson Alvarez entered play with a sparkling 2.63 ERA, but was tagged for two runs in the second off Chris Johnson’s eighth home run of the year. (Spoiler: Hibernation Mode).
Harang escaped trouble in the fourth, but the tightrope act fell apart in the fifth as the Marlins tied the game at 2-2 on a RBI single by Adeiny Hechavarria and a RBI fielder’s choice by Christian Yelich.

Aaron Harang would go seven innings and give up two earned runs, with five strikeouts against two walks to cap a terrific July. Jordan Walden chipped in a scoreless eighth inning. The contest remained 2-2 until the ninth, when Craig Kimbrel took the mound.

Things got weird. After striking out Garrett Jones for the first out of the inning, Kimbrel notched another strike out against Marcell Ozuna. The strikeout resulted in a wild pitch, and Ozuna took first. With Jarrod Saltalamacchia batting, Kimbrel threw another wild pitch to allow Ozuna to take second. Salty followed up with a single that scored Ozuna, and the ballgame ended 3-2 Marlins. That’s a terrible way to lose a baseball game.

Following Johnson’s homer in the second, the offense went full Hibernation Mode and never again reached home plate. The Braves ended the game with six hits, including three by Justin Upton.

With the Nationals idle, the Braves sit 1.5 games back in the East. Next, it’s a four game wrap-around series with the Padres (the Island of Misfit Braves) before the trip out West. Let’s win a few.

23 Jul

Marlins 1 Braves 6

ESPN Box Score

The All-Star break meant no Wednesday game to recap last week, which consequently left me with a lingering feeling all week that I had forgotten to do something. For the past few days I kept having to reassure myself that it was not Wednesday yet and that I did not have a recap to write. It’s nice to have a recap to do again; it’s even nicer to have a victory to report.

The Braves jumped out to five runs in the first two innings off of Nathan Eovaldi, and then Eovaldi sat down 10 Braves in a row. I don’t know if Eovaldi suddenly got a lot more effective or if the Braves just wanted to turn this game into a nutshell of their season, but both the Good Offense and the Bad Offense made an appearance tonight. They recorded six hits over the first 1 2/3 innings, capped by Freddie Freeman’s three-run home run, and then managed only two additional hits for the rest of the game, both of which came in the bottom of the 8th.

Fortunately, the Good Offense scored enough runs before disappearing and Ervin Santana pitched a great game, a combination that was enough to get the Braves back in the win column. Santana went 7.1 innings and gave up 1 run on six hits while recording 10 strikeouts. He left with two men on in the 8th inning, but Jordan Walden came on and struck out Giancarlo Stanton and Casey McGehee to end the threat.

In the bottom of the 8th, Jason Heyward singled, stole second and made it to third when the throw sailed into centerfield. He broke immediately for home when Regression hit a grounder to short, but Adeiny Hechavarria threw home and Jason looked like toast. However, he amazingly managed to avoid the tag and made it safely back to third. Mike Redmond got ejected after arguing Jason was out of the baseline, but replays showed he wasn’t. His athleticism led to the final Braves run when Gerald Laird singled him home.

Chasen Shreve pitched the 9th. He looked a little shaky and allowed a couple of base runners but managed to end the game unscathed with a strikeout of Reed Johnson.

The Defense and The Other Defense combined for a nifty play in the third inning to get Hechavarria out at second after his base hit took a funny hop in right field (Jason was charged with an error, but that will surely get reversed since the ball took a bad bounce before it got to him).

We have the chance to split the series tomorrow night before the San Diego Former Braves come into town.

Natspo(s) delenda est.

23 Jul

Marlins 6, Braves 5

Mike Minor is not right. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but last night was his second straight start of giving up six runs and the fourth time he’s given up at least that many in 15 starts. His ERA is zooming past 5.00. We thought he would be our ace, and he’s been our biggest liability. As someone pointed out, it’s spookily similar to his first half in 2012:

Date G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA OPS BAbip Str StL StS LD
Apr 8 to Jun 30, 2012 15 85.7 7.6 4.0 1.9 6.20 0.843 0.290 61% 19% 8% 18%
May 2 to Jul 22, 2014 15 86.3 8.3 2.7 1.5 5.32 0.862 0.364 65% 18% 8% 33%

A couple of things stand out. He’s giving up a ridiculous number of line drives, and as a result his BABIP is ridiculously high. (Astonishingly, his homer rate was even higher in 2012 — that’s why his ERA was a run higher — but it’s still plenty high in 2014.) Now… BABIPs tend to come to earth. But even though we like to think of BABIP as being luck-driven, there’s more to it than that. Of all of the batted ball types, line drives are the ones that are likeliest to turn into hits. It isn’t bad luck that is allowing all of his opponents to square up the ball. He’s grooving a lot of pitches.

And it’s a shame, because the team showed a bit of life last night. After he gave up a first-inning run, the offense came back and made it 1-1. After he gave up three in the third, they got one to make it 4-2. After he gave up two in the fourth, the offense went into Hibernation Mode for four innings, but they finally struck back for three in the 8th, making it 6-5. It was inspiring to watch the offense show a little fight, a game after the bats all laid down meekly like lambs.

But it wasn’t enough, and it’s awfully hard to rely on your offense to bail out a starter who coughs up six runs in four innings.

22 Jul

Walkers, Miami Rangers 3, Braves 1

If a walking Native American is paddling his canoe across the Sahara Desert and has a flat tire, then how many pancakes does it take to cover a red dog house?

Those who can solve that riddle may be able to figure out what goes on with this team.

One important take from our ditty of the day is the word “walking.” Getting walks is good. Giving walks is bad.

Julio Teheran experienced a Phil Neikro deja vu. As in “I pitched this good and we still got beat?” 7 innings, 11 K’s and 1 BB. Gave up 1 run and left with a tie.

El Oso Blanco returned to the lineup. A one day triple slash of .333 / .500 / .667. Yes, we missed you Ursa Major, Evan Gattis.

Craig Kimbrel seems to be showing the younger guys in the pen how to pitch. Kimbrel can’t throw a fastball for a strike in the 9th (but keeps runs off the board) and then Shae Simmons tries to do the same thing in the 10th.

This offense is offensive. 6 hits and 3 walks turned into 1 run. Just one more itsy bitsy run in regulation and that gets it.

20 Jul

Braves 8 Phillies 2

ESPN BOX

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. – Crash Davis

Boy, the Phillies are terrible. I am sure their fans are ready to start football season so they can get arrested at Eagles games and boo Santa Claus. 

The Phillies actually jumped out to an early lead when John Mayberry took Alex Wood deep in the second. However, that is the only negative take away from Wood’s start today. Wood went six gave up three hits and struck out eight. He may have had another inning in him, but Mother Nature wanted to watch a couple of episodes of Driven: The Overly Sappy Story of (Fill in a Brave/Former Brave Here.) 

The Braves brought out the walking sticks today. Twice in the game the Phillies walked a batter with the bases loaded. They probably wish they had walked Tommy La Stella in the third with the bases loaded, because he ripped a two out bases clearing double. Chris “Progression” Johnson continued his hot hitting with a 2-4 day, including a two run homer.

The Braves take the series and will host the Fish starting tomorrow. It looks like El Oso Blanco will be back too. He was 2-6 over at Coolray today.

20 Jul

Phillies 2, Braves 1

Aaron Harang had another quality start, pitching 6 scoreless innings. He ’s won his last 4 and really pitched well enough to win again tonite. Dare i say this…i’ve come to enjoy watching him pitch. My 9 year old has better velocity, but the Harangatang has movement, he locates and changes speeds. He also leads the team with 17 quality starts.

However, Cole Hamels was on his game tonite. He allowed only 4 hits across 7 innings, 1 run, no passes and 9 KOs. In the post game interviews, he mentioned that he rarely used his best pitch, a change up, because his fastball was working so well tonite.

Alas, there was no score into the 7th when Shae Simmons came on in relief. After giving up a hit to Grady Sizemore, Shae served up nasty 2-2 slider that Rollins fouled off. I was sure, at that moment, that he was going to KO Rollins, but then he threw a sinker that didn’t sink and Rollins hammered it into the wind and over the fence. 2 – 0 Phillies. Grrrrr!

The Braves put a rally together in the bottom of the 7th. After Freeman was robbed of a hit on a terrific play by Chase Utley. Upton doubled, Heyward flied out. Chris Johnson doubled and plated Upton. Tommy LaStella left us hanging with a strikeout to end the flame.

B.J. Upton made it interesting in the 8th with an infield single, but then got caught stealing to end the inning.

David Carpenter pitched the top of the 9th and Jonathan Papelbon came in to finish it out for the Phillies.

Our 3 game win streak was stopped and we are now tied for first with the Nationals.

BTW: Evan Gattis is expected to return next week against Miami. Luis Avilan was optioned to Gwinnett.

19 Jul

Braves 6, Phillies 4

Box Score

The second half gets underway finally, with the Braves jumping back into first with a win over the Phils coupled with a Natspos loss to the Brewers. Ervin Santana wasn’t particularly sharp, but he was sharper than A.J. Burnett, and notched his 8th win of the year.

The Phils opened up the scoring in the second, with leadoff walks to Ryan Howard and Marlon Byrd. They came around to score on a sacrifice fly by Cody Asche and a single by Cameron Rupp. However, further trouble was averted when Burnett couldn’t get the bunt down and hit into a 3-6-4 double play with a nice stretch by Tommie LaStella on the back end.

The Braves responded quickly with four runs in the bottom of the inning. Jason Heyward homered, then with two outs, the Braves had four straight hits to score three more. Singles by Christian Bethancourt and Santana were followed by a double from B.J. Upton, who then scored on Andrelton Simmons single.

Our Heroes added two more in the 5th, with Heyward singling in Justin Upton and LaStella singling in Heyward. The Phillies got two more in the 6th, with Jimmy Rollins reaching on an error, Chase Utley doubling him to third, and Howard driving in both with a single, because it’s Turner Field and Ryan Howard will be driving in runs at Turner Field three years after he’s dead. But Santana buckled down and finished the inning and turned it over to the pen. Shae Simmons worked a 1-2-3 seventh. Jordan Waldren walked Rollins to start the eighth, but struck out the Dark Lord on a nasty 3-2 pitch in the dirt. Rollins tried to run on Bethancourt but the ball hit the umpire’s shin guard, and Bethancourt pounced on it and gunned down Rollins in a play that had no right to look as easy as it was. Craig Kimbrel did his Kraken thing in the ninth for his 30th save.

It’s time to drive a stake into the Phillies, which is easier said than done with Cole Hamels going tonight against Big Handsome Aaron Harang.

18 Jul

THANK GOD BASEBALL IS BACK

I swear, the All-Star Break gets longer every year. By 2030 it’ll probably last about three and a half weeks. But tonight, tonight! tonight baseball is back.

So we get the Phillies, and it’s A.J. Burnett versus Ervin Santana. I won’t go so far as to guarantee victory, but I was in Philadelphia last Sunday to see them lose 10-3 to the Washington Nationals, and it is frankly staggering how bad a team they are. They can’t hit or field, which is one of the things that happens when your entire roster is on the wrong side of 30 — except for Domonic Brown, who’s a DH playing in the wrong league, for a franchise that seems determined to crater his value. They are essentially a test tube for what the steroid era had been like if none of the 36-year olds who put up career years had actually been on steroids.

It’s sort of sad to watch Rollins, Utley, and Howard, three of the best players of their era — Utley is a dark-horse Hall of Fame candidate — flop around on the field, drop the ball, and try to poke the occasional single. On the other hand, they’re the Phillies, and so it’s also sort of funny.

Burnett is, from time to time, a really good pitcher, and Santana is occasionally a staggeringly bad one, so it’s not like this game is automatically in the bag. But if we lose, it will be unbelievably embarrassing.

UPDATE: The Braves are releasing Dan Uggla.

16 Jul

Off Day Open Thread: The Miracle (1914) Begins

Ed. note: this continues the chronicle of the 1914 season begun in this post.

Sunday morning, July 5 found the Braves having lost both ends of a double-header to Brooklyn, extending the losing streak to 5 games.

The National League Standings looked like this:

  W L Pct. GB
New York Giants 40 24 0.625 -
Chicago Cubs 39 32 0.549 4.5
St. Louis Cardinals 37 35 0.514 7
Cincinnati Reds 34 36 0.486 9
Brooklyn Dodgers 31 33 0.484 9
Pittsburgh Pirates 31 34 0.477 9.5
Philadelphia Phillies 30 34 0.469 10
Boston Braves 26 40 0.394 15

Starting June 28, through the first two weeks of July, the Braves made a series of roster moves that significantly improved the teams hitting.

First, an “over the hill” Hub Perdue was traded to St. Louis for two outfielders, Ted Cather and Josh Devore. On July 3, back-up third baseman Jack Martin went to the Phillies for George “Possum” Whitted, a versatile infielder. Finally, a light hitting outfielder — a Vandy alum — named Wilson Collins was sent to Binghamton of the New York State League. Another outfielder, Jim Murray, was sold to St. Paul of the American Association.

Starting July 6, the Braves would go 7-3 over the next 10 games. After winning both ends of a double-header from Brooklyn on July 6, Boston hit the road, starting with the Cubs on July 8. The Braves would take three of four from the Cubs and then headed to St. Louis. The Cards would split the four game series. As the Braves left St. Louis for Cincinnati on the overnight train, the National League standings looked like this on the morning of July 16.

  W L Pct GB Change
New York Giants 44 31 0.587 - 4-7
Chicago Cubs 43 37 0.538 3.5 4-5
St. Louis Cardinals 42 39 0.519 5 5-4
Cincinnati Reds 39 40 0.494 7 5-4
Philadelphia Phillies 36 38 0.486 7.5 6-4
Pittsburgh Pirates 34 38 0.472 8.5 3-4
Brooklyn Dodgers 33 38 0.465 9 2-5
Boston Braves 33 43 0.434 11 7-3

While both the Giants and Cubs had losing records over the previous 11 days, with the race tightening slightly, no one could have predicted how the remainder of the season turned out.

15 Jul

Thinking About This Slightly-Better-Than-Average Team

The 2014 Atlanta Braves are, as Sam pointed out here, very probably one of the five best teams in the league. Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs’ Cool Standings give us something like a 64% chance of making the playoffs, either by winning the division or taking one of the two Wild Card spots, and that seems about right.

This is a really weak division in a really weak league, and the Braves have a very good shot at limping into the playoffs. The Giants and Brewers are looking like paper tigers, the Pirates aren’t as lucky as they were last year, the Cardinals and Dodgers are good but not transcendent, and the Nationals are their own worst enemies. In that company, the Braves can’t exactly hold their heads high, but they can certainly hold their own.

It’s not the most exciting team to watch, I’ll give you that. Andrelton Simmons followed up arguably the greatest defensive season of all time by being merely the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and Jason Heyward came into his own as something like Mike Cameron: transcendent defense, tons of strikeouts, and the occasional walk and occasional homer. (This is high praise. Cameron was always one of Mac’s favorite players, and he’s from LaGrange.) And then… well, Chris Johnson sucks, B.J. Upton sucks, Justin Upton’s good but streaky, Evan Gattis is good but injured, our bench is a tire fire, and Dan Uggla got 145 unholy plate appearances before the Braves called up Tommy La Stella and got treated to the rare pleasure of seeing what a league-average second baseman looks like.

The pitching staff has done yeoman’s work. The Braves’ 3.36 team ERA is pretty impressive, especially considering that three separate Braves starters have gone down with Tommy John surgeries, and Mike Minor missed a month and really hasn’t been right all year. For that matter, neither have Luis Avilan nor David Carpenter, and those were three of our best pitchers last year.

Julio Teheran is an All-Star, though, and no damn wonder. He’s 23, and seven years after we signed him in high school, he’s put the team on his back and carried us. Freddie Freeman has been about the only person we can reliably count on to be the Offense, and Craig Kimbrel has been the same old Kraken. Thus far, those three have been $210 million well spent.

But no dollar was better spent than the million they paid to Aaron Harang, the miraculous 36-year-old Big Handsome, who has given the Braves 19 starts of above-average work after posting a cumulative 4.41 ERA and 90 ERA+ from 2008 to 2013.

Now, far be it from me to throw cold water on all of that or to say “Regression” or anything so churlish as that. But there is a reasonable chance that Harang will not be quite this good in the second half. To wit:

April-May: 11 starts, 3.29 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 71/19 K/BB
June-July: 8 starts, 3.83 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 24 K/25 BB

That is what you’d call a trendline in the wrong direction. But absolutely everything that Harang has given the Braves has been a gift. After losing three pitchers to TJ, Harang has been the innings-eater that they paid him to be, and the stopper they’d never dreamed he could be. Sure, he hits the wall in the 7th inning and Fredi really ought to have a quicker hook with him, but nitpicking his performance is a bit like nitpicking a $20 bill that you found on the street. This guy is found money.

And so is Shae Simmons, who has basically been 2013 David Carpenter, even while 2014 David Carpenter has basically been 2003 Roberto Hernandez. (AKA Boom-Boom Bobby.) In all, the bullpen was very shaky until Fredi realized that he couldn’t ever rely on Avilan or Carpenter, and started giving as many meaningful innings as he could to Simmons and Jordan Walden. Juan Jaime and Ryan Buchter have also had promising cups of coffee, and it’s a good bet that we’ll see more of them in the future, particularly if David Hale spends any more time in the rotation.

That said, Hale has had a wonderful year so far, though his 25/23 K/BB is really hard to swallow; his success is largely driven by an unsustainably low homer rate. Still, it’s been very nice to see his success. I just hope we don’t have to look this gift horse in the mouth.

Alex Wood, on the other hand, has answered the questions about whether he’s an above-average major league starter. He is. He strikes out nearly a man an inning, keeps his walks down — not as well as Teheran but decently well — and can crank up his fastball to 94 when needed, which combined with his deceptive motion can get on hitters in a hurry. Through 163 1/3 career innings, he actually has a slight reverse platoon split — .665 OPS against righties, .701 against lefties.

The big questions for the second half:

1) Is Chris Johnson capable of being at least a league-average hitter?
2) Can the Braves bring themselves to jettison Uggla and actually get a decent bench bat?
3) Can Aaron Harang and David Hale manage to hold down the fifth starter position for the rest of the regular season?
4) Will any or all of Simmons, B.J. Upton, and Heyward improve on their first-half performance? If not, can the Braves score enough runs to remain competitive?
5) What the hell is wrong with Mike Minor?

This is a pretty good team, and the odds are pretty good that they’ll play on past the 162nd game, at which point anything can happen, or so we’re told. Anyway, that’s why they play the games.

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