The Atlanta Braves lead the division at the conclusion of Week 3, but I think the feeling around Braves country isn’t as positive as a 12-6 record might indicate. Honestly, I feel like I’m going to have to talk some people on Twitter down from a clock tower when Avilan takes the mound. Still, I think if you’re watching this team night to night, you’re seeing a lot of close games or stressful situations. Winning is the goal, but the Braves aren’t always winning in runaway fashion, or dominating teams late with a lead. Sometimes there are nights where they can’t seem to score if their life depended on it. Sometimes the bullpen looks like a leaking oil can on the mound. Is there a numerical reason why we might feel uneasy about this success? I think so, and I plan to discuss it a little bit in this article.
If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written about the Braves, you know that hitting with runners in scoring position has become something of an obsession of mine. It’s an obsession because the Braves typically falter at it, finishing in the bottom half of the MLB for 3 straight seasons. Whenever a warm body touches second base, this Braves lineup turns into a little league team with a better stock portfolio. The statistical area that really highlights this is hits per run scored, or what I dub H/R for short.
After 18 games, Atlanta needs 2.19 hits per run they score. That’s 22nd in the majors, even though the Braves are tied for 2nd in the majors in wins. Basically, the pitching has been carrying the hitting in the interim. The concern is that the Braves aren’t taking advantage of opportunities, the Atlanta starters are pitching well under their career ERAs on the season, and the bullpen is showing some cracks in the armor.
But does H/R really indicate much for a team over the long haul? Last year, it was a decent indicator of success. In 2013, the top 4 teams in this category all made the playoffs. 8 of the 10 playoff teams were in the top half of the league. The only team in the bottom third of the category was the Dodgers at 27th, who also happened to have the second best ERA in the majors just behind the Braves. So, pitching can carry a team if it’s strong all through the season, but for most teams you need to be above average in this category to have a good shot at playoff entry. Think of H/R as a sliding scale that fluctuates with your team ERA. The better the pitching, the less likely you need a top H/R stat. It makes sense logically since better pitching would require fewer runs scored to win.
The great news is when you look at Atlanta’s starting rotation, you see several guys putting up absurd numbers. Aaron Harang has a 0.70 ERA, but that’s almost 3.5 runs under his career average of 4.23. Ervin Santana has a 0.86 ERA, but his career ERA is actually 4.13. Teheran is 1.93 with a career of 3.27. David Hale and Alex Wood are both newbies so I can’t really worry about their career numbers yet. In fact, the amazing thing is that Wood only pitched 24 minor league games before he graduated to the majors. That’s like a kid suddenly going from potty training to college level calculus. The good news is that Wood seems to be able to pitch and he hasn’t had any uh-ohs in the clubhouse. We’re all very proud of him.
The downside is that this kind of starting pitching success probably isn’t sustainable for an entire season. At some point the Braves have to score runs efficiently when the ERAs return to the mean. Even though the Braves were below average in RISP hitting in 2013, they were still 8th in H/R when they won the division. It came off a lot of long balls, but they were timely. With the team currently at 22nd in H/R and 27th in RISP hitting, pitching is the difference in notching 12 wins.
But there’s another factor to consider. If you’re a bomber team, you need to have people on base. A bunch of solo shots won’t win you many games over a season, and that’s why top end of the order guys matter. If you look at the on-base percentages by order position, some interesting numbers emerge. In the leadoff spot, the Braves are 28th in the league, just ahead of Houston and the Reds. In the #2 slot, the Braves are 23rd in the league. That shouldn’t come as a huge shock to Braves fans who watched Jason Heyward and BJ Upton fail to reach base in those slots.
Fredi Gonzalez needs to take a look at those positions in the order and consider making some changes if the trends continue over the next 3 weeks, especially since the 3-5 Braves hitters have already bashed 15 homers. How many more add-on runs would the Braves notch if the 1-2 hitters were functional? If the LA Angels are any indication, a lot. The Angels have 6 more homers than the Braves, but they’ve notched 27 more runs. Why? Their 1-2 hitters have an OBP over .350, even though they are actually behind the Braves in RISP average. They have people on base when they hit the bombs, and that’s making the difference.
Looking at Jason Heyward, in particular, fans that are expecting a quick turnaround from his paltry .171 average might be waiting a while. I checked his averages over the last 3 years in the months of April and May. As it turns out, this slump isn’t that abnormal. From 2011-2013, Heyward only has a .228 average in April. and a .171 average in May. That doesn’t exactly give me hope that he’s going on some kind of early tear, especially with that Bane mask still on his batting helmet. It may not matter though, because if the Braves can weather the storm for 2 months, Jason’s summer numbers get red hot. In June-August months, Jason has an OBP over .330, slugging numbers near .480, and an RBI every 7 at-bats. We all just need to hope Jason can break the early slump in the meantime, or at the very least suffer through it while the Braves hit around him.
Doom and gloom? Hardly. The Braves are 6 games over .500, and wins are the only stat that matters come October. What I’m pointing out is that while the pitching is great, the hitting needs to catch up in a lot of areas. It’s fine riding the home run roller coaster if you pack the sacks before the ball leaves the yard. In that regard, we’ll know more over the next 3 weeks about what the ideal lineup should look like. After about 6 weeks, you can make some generalizations for each lineup slot. In the meantime, as long as the Braves keep finding ways to win, I’m happy to keep watching them buck the trends.
Tags: Atlanta Braves