Apr 12, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves left fielder Justin Upton (8) and center fielder B.J. Upton (2) and right fielder Jason Heyward (22) celebrate beating the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. The Braves won 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Last week, Twitter was ablaze about the lackluster hitting of the Atlanta Braves.
Yes, I’m serious.
Considering that the Braves scored 31 runs this week, that seems pretty silly looking back. However, that’s the life we’re bound to live with this particular group of hitters. It can be transcendent one week, lacking the next, and back to booming on the third.
Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, and BJ Upton were all hitting under .200 at the conclusion of last week. This week, BJ and Dan Uggla are right on that line hitting near the .190s, but Jason Heyward is still struggling with a .149 average. The good news for Jason is that his walk totals are increasing, and his on-base has increased to .286. That’s going to be key for him in the leadoff slot.
Justin Upton could not be hotter, going from sub-Mendoza line in week one to now hitting .386 on the season. What a difference a week makes to Evan Gattis as well, who is now hitting .286 with 2 doubles. Freddie Freeman hasn’t stopped swinging a hot bat (seemingly for more than a year), and he is tied for the team lead in homers with Justin at 4 each. All in all, the concerns that the Braves were struggling to plate runs really evaporated when the Nationals came to town. When you throw Simmons into the mix, you have four hitters on the Braves that are hitting above .750 OPS, and are carrying the team offensively through the first two weeks.
Then, there are the other four guys in the lineup. Chris Johnson isn’t technically struggling right now, but he is striking out at a rather alarming rate. He already has 14 Ks, and he’s second on the team in that category behind perennial strikeout leader BJ Upton. While CJ is still hitting the ball for a .244 clip, he’s hurting the Braves with the K’s since he’s such a great hitter when the ball is in play, and the fact he only has one walk. Another player struggling with the strikeout is Jason Heyward with 13 Ks. Now, many people will tell you the strikeouts aren’t a big deal, and in many cases they aren’t. However, Jason and Chris are also leading the team with 9 combined K’s in RISP situations. When you combine CJ and Heyward with BJ Upton, they are a combined 2-for-22 with runners in scoring position, and that’s not going to cut it long term.
The pitching really carried the team in week one, but how did it fare this week? The starters were actually pretty varied, starting with Harang on Tuesday. He pitched well against the Mets, giving up only a run in 6 innings on 2 hits, but the Braves didn’t score a single run. They made up for it on Sunday when Harang started by scoring 10. Harang got the win, and he was still just as steady on the mound with only 1 earned run on 5 hits. The Harangutan (yes, I said it), as he’s been nicknamed by the fans, has a sub-1.00 ERA and 2 wins for the season so far. That’s completely absurd for a guy who had a 5.76 ERA in Seattle in 2013. I don’t know how it’s possible, but I hope he can keep it up. As a fan and stats geek, I know he’s due for some regression back to his career ERA of around 4.00, but we can ride the wave while it’s rolling.
As for the other starters, we got to see Ervin Santana pitch an 8 inning shutout in his first outing of the year, Alex Wood survive a barrage of leadoff runners, and Teheran and Hale get lit up for 9 combined runs. When you tie it all together it ran the gamut from fantastic to disastrous for our starting pitchers. However, the bullpen really struggled this week, allowing 12 runs in 6 games. That’s pretty awful for a bullpen that had a 2.46 ERA last year, one of the lowest in the majors. Right now, the Braves bullpen ERA is 3.90, and that’s dead average for the MLB. The Braves will need to be better than average given the bang or bust nature of the hitting lineup. We’re likely to see many close games there one run will be the difference.
One player to keep your eye on in this coming week is going to be BJ Upton. In his last 2 games, BJ has 4 hits and a homer with only one strikeout. I think he’s starting to see the ball better, and he’s making better contact. As the Atlanta Braves head on the road to a 4 game series with the Philadelphia Phillies, BJ is going to get a look at some Phillies starting pitchers that are supremely struggling. The Braves should see Hernandez, Lee, Burnett, and Pettibone for the Phillies, two of which has ERA’s over 4.00. Burnett isn’t far behind with a 3.94 ERA. BJ has had some good luck off of Lee (who is easily the best pitcher on the Philly staff) and Burnett in the past with 4 doubles and 2 homers. His average against those combined starters is only .220, but many of those ABs are from a time when Lee and Burnett were in their prime. Now, they are a touch older and potentially ripe for the picking.
The other player to watch happens to be related to BJ in his brother, Justin Upton. He’s already on a huge hot streak, but he’s also had tremendous success against the Philadelphia pitchers in his career. In fact, he’s hitting .327 off the entire Philly staff lifetime, with 5 homers, 7 doubles, and an OPS of .917. That’s about as good of matchup as you can hope for with a guy swinging the one of the best bats in the majors right now. Freddie and Justin are actually #2 and #4 in the entire major leagues in OPS going into this Philadelphia series, and I can’t wait to see what kind of havoc they can wreak on that aging staff. Then, they can cap it off with some revenge against those pesky Mets.
If next week goes anything like this last series with the Nats, it could be a great week for everyone across Braves country.