Braves

Not saying it’s a big deal, I’m just saying if the Braves win the series somebody better make sure Chicken Little is ready for his close-up

The Phillies have played fewer games than the Braves this more and won more (55-33 for the Phils and 53-36 for the Braves). They are scoring more runs per game (4.16 to 4.02) and allowing fewer (3.27 to 3.30). So what could be the problem?

Maybe nothing. But there’s this — here are the standings in the NL East since the end of April:

Team W L PCT GB RS RA
ATL 40 21 .656 - 248 203
PHI 37 25 .597 3 1/2 246 200
NYM 34 27 .557 6 273 248
WSN 33 30 .524 8 249 241
FLA 24 39 .381 17 226 295

The Phils ended April at 18-8 while the Braves were 13-15. Atlanta has been 3 1/2 games better since. Since April they have outscored the Phils, plating about 4.07 runs per game while the Phils scored about 3.97. The Phillies have still been better at preventing runs, allowing around 3.23 runs per game while the Braves have allowed about 3.33 runs per game. While Atlanta has won 3 1/2 more games than the Phils, the Phils run differential has actually been a tiny bit better since the end of April. The Phillies are at +.742 per game while Atlanta is at +.738.

Finally, I don’t think there are a lot of people who think the Mets are going to win the NL East this season, but it’s worth nothing they’re seven games over .500 in this time period and have scored way more runs than either the Phils or Braves. So let’s hope they don’t get any pitching.

Lidge had his second straight good outing in relief at Single-A Lakewood last night. He’s now allowed two hits and struck out two in two scoreless innings.

Victorino was voted into the All-Star game, but may not play.


Run differential makes you wonder how long third place is going to be the home of the Braves

I’m starting to wonder if our time spent worrying about the Phillies third base situation could be better spent worrying about the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves went 86-76 in 2009, the seventh-best record in the NL and the third best in the NL East behind the Phils and the Fish.

Their run differential tells a different if less important story. In 2009 the Phillies scored 111 more runs than they allowed. The second-place Marlins scored six more runs than they allowed. The Braves scored 94 more than they allowed.

Do this. Don’t really, cause I already did it. I mean, read what I did and then do it if you think it’s important. Find the average runs scored per game and the average runs allowed per game for each team. For each team, divide each of those numbers by the average number of runs scored and allowed by the teams in their league and combine the two numbers.

For example, the Diamondbacks play in the NL. The average NL team scored 4.43 runs per game and allowed 4.49 runs per game in ’09. The Snakes scored 4.44 and allowed 4.83. 4.44/4.43 is 1.00226 (a tiny bit better than average) and 4.49/4.83 is 1.07572 (worse than the average for the league). Then you combine those numbers by adding .00226 and -.07572 and you get a total for the Diamondbacks that you can compare to all the other teams you’ve done it for. If you do it for all 30 teams and put them in a list it looks like this:

  1. LAD
  2. NYY
  3. PHI
  4. BOS
  5. ATL
  6. LAA
  7. STL
  8. COL
  9. SFG
  10. CHC
  11. MIN
  12. TBR
  13. TEX
  14. FLA
  15. TOR
  16. DET
  17. OAK
  18. CHW
  19. MIL
  20. CIN
  21. ARI
  22. SEA
  23. NYM
  24. CLE
  25. HOU
  26. SDP
  27. PIT
  28. BAL
  29. WSN
  30. KCR

I don’t think there’s much argument that the Dodgers were better than the Yankees in 2009, but they did out run differential them. 169 for LA and 162 for the Yankees. Dodgers put up a Pythagorean record of 99-63 compared to 95-67 for the Yankees.

Anyway, it’s the Braves that are the focus of this post and the point here is that show up in that list higher than I would have expected. A lot higher. They come in ahead of all the teams in the NL except the Phils and Dodgers, including the playoff teams Colorado and St Louis.

After the Dodgers, Phils, Braves, Cardinals and Rockies, there is a huge drop off to the team with the sixth-best run differential in the league. The Rockies had the fifth-best run differential and they scored 89 more runs than they allowed. The Giants were sixth-best and scored 46 more than they allowed.

It hasn’t been so long since the Braves were dominating the NL East. Over the past ten years the Phillies have won it three times, the Mets once and the Braves six times. Four times in those ten seasons a team won the division with a run differential that was worse than or about the same as the 94 for the ’09 Braves — in 2006 the Phillies won it with a run differential of 71, in ’05 the Braves won the NL East with a run differential of 95 and in ’00 and ’01 they the scored 86 and 96 more runs than they allowed while winning the division.

I think the biggest thing to worry about when it comes to the Braves is if they start to get consistent pitching.

Offensively the Braves have been in the top six in the NL in runs scored in each of the past seven seasons. Their pitching, on the other hand, has been all over the place but was very strong in 2009. Here’s a look at their rank among NL teams in runs scored and runs allowed for each of the past six seasons:

Year NL Rank R NL Rank RA
2009 6 4
2008 6 12
2007 3 6
2006 2 11
2005 4 5
2004 T-5 3

Atlanta’s pitching was dramatically better in 2009 than it had been in 2008. After allowing 778 in ’08 they allowed just 641, 137 fewer, in 2009. Only the Giants improved more at preventing runs between ’08 and ’09 in the NL.

So what else do the Braves need to do? Not a lot. It’s a big if, but If they can keep pitching like they did in 2009 they’re just going to need a little more offense. And that’s scary news given that Chipper hit .264 last year and the team got miserable production from both corner outfield positions.

This suggests that the Phillies may consider trading Joe Blanton. That sure seems like a bad idea. It also mentions pitchers John Smoltz and Brandon Lyon and outfielder Brian Giles as players the Phillies might be interested in. I would be thrilled if the Phillies added Brandon Lyon and a lot less thrilled if they added either of the other two.

Lyon declined arbitration from the Tigers and this suggests he may have made around $6 million if he had not. I am going to be very surprised if the Phillies pay Lyon more than $6 million this year.

This says that Lidge and Romero may not be ready for opening day and suggests that bringing back Park is a high priority for the Phils.


Ready, set, Brave

The Atlanta Braves start May at 12-15. Colin from Braves Blast took the time to answer some questions about what’s going on with the Braves these days.

What do you see as the most significant developments for the Braves since the start of the season?

There are several significant developments since the start of the season. First, Bobby Cox and Frank Wren look like magicians trading Edgar Renteria away. Both Jair Jurrjens, whom the Braves got in return for Renteria, and Yunel Escobar, who replaced Renteria at short, are playing like regulars. Jurrjens may be the most stable arm on the pitching staff right now, and Escobar is batting .297 with 11 RBIs and is showing great plate discipline for a youngster with 14 walks. Second, we’ve seen our starting rotation show its age a LOT faster than we thought it would. Smoltz is on the DL for the second time, Glavine just got activated from the DL, and Hampton is being… well… Hampton. This has proven Jair Jurrjens to be even more valuable. If you haven’t seen him pitch yet, you don’t want to face him – his two or four seam fastball gets up to 96, his slider is good, and his changeup as absolutely devastating.

Even with all the injuries, the Braves are among the top teams in the NL in runs scored. They have also been among the best teams in the NL overall at preventing runs. Still, their record is probably not the start the many fans were expecting or hoping for. Any thoughts on why a team that seems to be able to both score and prevent runs so effectively is having trouble getting wins?

Our offense is very, very potent. There’s no doubt about that. And we can prevent runs too (sometimes, if the bullpen is on) – but the killer is our offense is either very hot or very cold. As a result, we’ve lost a LOT of one-run games. We’re 0-9 this season in one-run games. It’s quite frustrating that we haven’t been able to pull one of those out yet. Even if just under half of those go our way, we’d be tied for first in the division. The top of the order really is a catalyst for the offense, and Kelly Johnson at leadoff is a very streaky hitter. Mark Teixeira is just warming up for the season with his right-handed swing still not being as hot as his left-handed swing. Once he gets going, the offense will be even better.

Are the Braves going to be able to overcome the loss of Peter Moylan in the bullpen? How will they adjust to his absence?

The loss of Moylan is a blow – we labeled him as one of the main five keys to the Braves bullpen being strong this season. That said, it’s not something we can’t recover from. Jorge Campillo has been strong in middle relief for the Braves since we brought him up from AAA Richmond. Manny Acosta is also working out well and picking up some innings. The bigger key is getting back Rafael Soriano from the DL – he’s had elbow tendinitis issues, and we need a strong, healthy closer. If Smoltz can’t return to the starting rotation, he’s said he’d go close for us – and we all know he’s not someone anyone wants to face in the ninth.

Is Mark Kotsay going to play well enough to keep his job in center field for the whole season? Are there any position players in danger of losing regular playing time?

Kotsay is not in any danger of losing his starting job – though he did have some back issues (uh oh) that kept him out of the lineup last week a couple times. Not good to see. That said, Matt Diaz was benched a few games in a row last week and Gregor Blanco got the start in left field. He’s since rebounded and is batting .295. I don’t think anyone else is in danger of losing their starting spot.

With Glavine and Hampton returning from injuries it looks like the rotation for the time being is Smoltz/Hudson/Glavine/Jurrjens/Hampton with Chuck James as the sixth guy who will come up from the minors if one of them goes down. Is that how you see the rotation? Is there anyone else in the mix?

The lineup no longer has Smoltz at the front, at least not for 15 days. He has tendinitis in his biceps and an inflamed rotator cuff. So now it’s Hudson/Glavine/Jurrjens/James/Jeff Bennett. If (big if – nobody counts on him anymore) Hampton comes back from his rehab starts in one piece, he’ll bump Bennett back to the ‘pen. The other arms we have that can start include Buddy Carlyle and Jo-Jo Reyes. Jo-Jo has great stuff in the minors but he can’t make the transition from pitching down there to pitching in Atlanta. We’ve got to get Smoltzie healthy and keep Glavine healthy. Hudson hasn’t been lights out recently either, which isn’t good. I know I’ve said it before, but watch this Jurrjens kid. He’s only 22, but he pitches like he’s been in the big leagues for much longer. Nobody has anything but good stuff to stay about him.

Thanks a lot to Colin. If you don’t read it regularly, be sure to check out Braves Blast, where today they are discussing the possibility that Smoltz returns to the team as a reliever.

Colin also wrote this morning to point out that since he wrote his answers yesterday Hampton has re-strained his pectoral muscle in a rehab start. Always something.

I also answered some questions from Colin about the Phils here.


Braves retool, hoping to rule the NL East once again

Colin from Braves Blast took the time to answer some questions about the upcoming season.

Is Kelly Johnson’s defense at second base good enough to keep him at the position?
Kelly had a solid debut season at second. He transferred in from the outfield because he had to play there when we had Chipper, Giles, and Furcal up the middle. However, realize that we originally drafted him as a shortstop, not as a platoon outfielder. He had some missed plays here and there at the end of the season last year simply because of fatigue, but I think he’ll be a good solution at second for us this year. His defense is likely to improve as he gets more comfortable there, and word has it he’s been working to get better.

Will Mike Hampton really be the Braves’ fifth starter? How do you see Atlanta working in Jair Jurrjens? Is there anyone else in the mix at the back of the rotation?

I think Mike Hampton will be the fourth starter for the Braves. He’s healthy, he’s pitching well – and there’s no reason to not pencil him in there for now. I don’t think he’s going to pitch 200+ innings and have stuff worthy of being a #1 starter, but when his sinker is working he’s a very difficult pitcher to hit against. And early reports are that his pitches are still there.

Jurrjens is a very talented youngster (we got him as part of the package in exchange for Edgar Renteria, for those of you who don’t know) – he’ll be #2 starter material in a few years. He keeps his pitches low and despite some ugly stats at Detroit last year, he should be able to compete with Chuck James and the others for that fifth spot. If he doesn’t start the season up in the majors, I think we’ll see him before the end of the year filling in here and there as Hampton will need some rests here and there. The other pitchers in the mix include Chuck James, the young Jeff Bennett (I like him – he’s got good stuff), and Buddy Carlyle. I think James or Jurrjens are most likely to get spots in the rotation, but Bennett or Carlyle may find a spot in the crowded bullpen as a spot starter / long reliever.

What are we to make of Yunel Escobar, who hit 264/361/346 in Double-A in 2006 before tearing up Triple-A in ’07 and then posting a 326/385/451 line in over 300 at-bats with the Braves?

This is a very good question – I’m going to move away from the stats for a minute and focus on talent. The Braves have always been very good about recruiting and developing young talent within the organization. Some of the same questions came up in regards to Furcal and Giles previously, as well as Francoeur more recently. Yunel has “the stuff” to make it at the big league level, according to Frank Wren, our GM, Bobby Cox, and batting coach Terry Pendleton. Now, in my opinion, if you get the rubber stamp from those three guys, you’ll be fine at the big league level. I can’t even begin to predict stats – we all know that it’s easy to hit well when you first come up – but I think Escobar will fare just fine at shortstop this year.

Keeping with the are-they-the-real-deal theme, can Peter Moylan keep up with standard he set for himself with his 2007 season? The Braves pen was fantastic in ’07 and looks like it may be one area where Atlanta has gotten worse heading into ’08. Even if Moylan is solid again, do the Braves have enough arms out there behind Rafael Soriano?

I think the Braves have plenty of arms in the ‘pen. Moylan certainly set a high bar in 07 and it’ll be hard for him to follow up, but that said, I think he’ll be able to have a decent followup – even if he doesn’t match 80 appearances and 90 innings pitched. As for the ’07 bullpen, I have to respectfully disagree. We had instances of brilliance but it wasn’t a solid bullpen outside of Moylan. Had the bullpen been better, I think Hudson (with more run support) could have cracked 20 wins. I think that we’ve gotten better heading into ’08, despite the loss of Ron Mahay. Mike Gonzalez comes back mid-season and assuming Will Ohman can hold down the left-handed setup role until his return, I think we’ll be solid. I also think that Soriano will also be a solid closer once he gets into the role.

What do you see as the biggest decisions the Braves will make between now and the start of the season?

The fourth and fifth rotation spots are crucial. Having a solid back end of the rotation to compliment the Smoltz/Hudson/Glavine trio is something we need to know can hold their own. Be honest, a Smoltz/Hudson/Glavine/Heatlhy Hampton/Jurrjens or James rotation is about as mean as any out there. If everyone is healthy, it’s not a one-two punch. It’s a one-two-three-four punch. Now, it’ll only work for a year or so, but it could be nasty.

I think the other crucial decision is who will fill out the bullpen. We have more pitchers overall than we did last year and I think the bullpen will be stronger than it was, but we need to get our guys picked out and they need to embrace the roles they’re given. The only other key question to be answered is who will fill out the left field platoon with Matt Diaz. I think we’ll likely see Brandon Jones out there, but Josh Anderson also wants a piece of the platoon. That’ll be interesting to watch.

How do you see the NL East shaping up in 2008?

I honestly think this is a three team race. You can make the argument that the Mets are the team to beat (Santana, Santana, blah blah blah). The Phillies are the incumbent from the point of view that they won last year, and have an excellent chance to pull it off again. I think that anyone who counts the Braves out is foolish. If our rotation is healthy, we have four very good starting pitchers and we’ve never had a shabby offense. I think it’ll be interesting to see it play out, but I like the Braves being the underdog for a change. The Nationals and the Marlins are not going to even factor in, we all know that. I don’t know how it’ll shake out, you’ll laugh but in my minds eye I see the Braves coming to the top. That said, the Mets and Phillies are not going to make it easy. I think going into the last month of the season we’ll see a three-team race. Wild card comes from the East this year, too. Just don’t count the Braves out.

Thanks again to Colin and remember to check out Braves Blast. I also answered some of his questions about the Phillies, which you can read here.

I thought the answer he gave to the question about the Braves’ bullpen from last year was very interesting. Atlanta relievers posted a 3.54 ERA last season, which was the second-base mark in the NL behind the Padres. They did, however, allow 38 unearned runs. Only the Brewers allowed more unearned runs in relief among NL teams, they surrendered 40. I see the bullpen as a weakness for the Braves for a team that has largely gotten better this season — if it proves to be true that the bullpen has actually improved that would be bad news for everyone else in the NL East.

Pat Gillick likes wine.

This says that Ryan Howard won his arbitration hearing and will make $10 million this season. More on the hearing here.

Scott Mathieson does not need more surgery and may be pitching to hitters again by mid-March.


Who’s on first? Oh yeah

Here’s a look at how the Braves and the Phils ranked in offensive production by position in the infield and at catcher in the NL in ’07, using OPS as the measure:


POS

ATL

PHI
C 2 5
1B 14 3
2B 2 1
3B 3 16
SS 3 2

Both teams had a huge hole, the Phils at third and the Braves at first. The Braves look to have solved their problem at first base with the addition of Mark Teixeira. Scott Thorman got the most time at first for Atlanta in ’07 and hit 216/258/394 on the season. In Teixeira’s 208 at-bats with the Braves he hit 317/404/615. Between his time with the Rangers and the Braves, Teixeira’s line on the season was 306/400/563. A .963 OPS from their first baseman would have been second-best in the NL last season, behind only the Brewers.

Unless Eric Bruntlett slips into a Abraham Nunez-like role, the Phillies seem sure to get more offense out of third this season than they did last. The Nunez departure helps a lot, Helms was as bad as he could be in ’07 and Dobbs had curiously very weak offensive numbers while playing third base compared to the rest of his offensive output. Still, the Atlanta solution is a little meatier.

Atlanta does seem sure to drop off at short in ’08, where they have lost Renteria and his 332/390/470 line. Yunel Escobar probably isn’t going to repeat his 326/385/451 line in ’08. Let’s hope not at least.

Where the Braves can’t hang with the Phillies is in the outfield.


POS

ATL

PHI
LF 11 3
CF 12 1
RF 11 8

Andruw Jones had a miserable year in ’07, but the production the Braves get out of center field seems sure to go down if they go ahead with Josh Anderson as the every day guy. I really have a lot of trouble believing that will happen, but it’s good news for the Phils if it does.

Despite hitting 338/368/497 in ’07, Matt Diaz only got about as much time in left as Willie Harris (270/349/392) this season. Harris is gone and more time for Diaz in left and less for Harris and Ryan Langerhans may mean more offense out of left for the Braves in ’08.


Braves by a Jair

This post tries to project the starting rotations for all MLB teams. If you’ve been unfazed by earlier warnings about the Braves, please reconsider your level of fazedness. Using both wins and run differential, Atlanta was the team in the division that improved the most between 2006 and 2007. Their projected rotation is clearly the best in the division. Smoltz, Hudson, Glavine, James and Hampton looks pretty bad even as it is, but I’d be surprised if new acquisition Jair Jurrjens doesn’t wind up getting more starts than Hampton.

In seven starts with the Tigers last season, Jurrjens, a righty who turns 22 next month, went 3-1 with a 1.14 ratio while throwing to a 4.70 ERA. Opponents hit .220 against him. Righties hit .167 with an 0.61 ratio.

The Braves still have some problems in the outfield and hopefully in their pen as well. But their offense is just good and their starting pitching is looking strong as well. Barring an injury to an Atlanta starter, it’s hard to imagine the Phillies adding another starter between now and April that would take them into the season with a stronger rotation than the Braves.

Other people could just let who the fifth outfielder and backup center fielder is just die. But this is a full-service operation. In that spirit, I’ve added So Taguchi’s career numbers as a center fielder to the chart that includes the career numbers in center for Werth, Victorino and Rowand:


Player

G

GS

Inn

FPCT

R
F

ZR
Werth 40 29 259.2 .967 3.10 .907
Victorino 90 72 691.2 1.000 2.51 .850
Rowand 724 657 5878.1 .989 2.67 .913
Taguchi 225 129 1268.0 .983 2.43 .877

Again, I’m sure Werth’s numbers would look a lot worse given more innings. But I still wouldn’t carry a fifth outfielder based primarily on his ability to play center field as Victorino insurance.


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