Saturday, July 23, 2011
Braves take Uggla turn for the better
By Brien Jackson
It's been a rough year for Dan Uggla. After being traded from the Marlins to the Braves and signing a shiny new extension, he has struggled to live up to expectations so far, hitting just .193/.265/.380 (BA/OBP/SLG) entering play Friday night. Add in his customarily questionable defense around the keystone, and Uggla has been below replacement level thus far in 2011.
But it was all smiles in Cincinnati after Friday’s game, as Uggla came up as a pinch-hitter with two outs in the eighth inning and delivered a two-run homer off the Reds’ Nick Masset to give the Braves the lead for good in a back-and-forth game that included seven total home runs, three by each team before Uggla’s decisive blow.
For the Reds, this was a must-win game to sustain any chance of eventually winning the wild card. Entering the game, the Braves had a 9 1/2-game lead on the Reds in the standings, so Cincinnati needed a sweep to have any realistic chance of catching up any time soon. At this point, catching up is all but impossible, meaning the Reds will need to overcome the Brewers, Pirates and Cardinals to win the National League Central if they want to participate in the postseason again.
For the Braves, it was another win on another day for arguably the least talked-about good team in baseball. Entering play the Braves boasted the NL's second-best record and second-best run differential. Unfortunately, they trail division rival Philadelphia in both of those counts and remain four games out of first place in the NL East. Being overshadowed by the Phillies is probably part of the reason few people seem to have noticed the Braves are nevertheless having an excellent season, but that's no reason to overlook this Braves team.
The Braves’ unquestioned strength is their pitching staff, which on the whole is the best in the NL. The Braves' starters rank third in the league in FIP behind the Phillies and Giants, but their bullpen ranks first, while the Phillies’ bullpen ranks 13th (and 14th in xFIP). And they're not lacking for high-end talent, either. Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe all have fWARs of at least 2.0 so far. With an ERA of 2.26, Jurrjens likely would win some Cy Young votes if the season ended today. In the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are two of the four most valuable relievers in the NL.
On the other hand, the Braves certainly could stand to improve themselves offensively. They were 11th in the NL in wOBA entering Friday, and their positional players as a whole also were just 11th in the league in fWAR. To that end, the Braves have been heavily linked to Carlos Beltran in recent trade rumors, as well as lesser outfielders such as Coco Crisp, Jeff Francoeur and Jonny Gomes. Some of those names make more sense than others, but taken together, they paint a clear picture of a team aggressively seeking to improve its offense before the deadline.
If there's a reason for the Braves to worry about a potential bump in the road to October, it might actually be Jurrjens. Beyond the nifty ERA and 12-3 record, make no mistake, Jurrjens is a pitcher dramatically outperforming his peripherals. Although he doesn't walk many batters, he also doesn't strike out many (5.5 K/9), and although his home run rate is certainly fantastic at 0.39 HR/9 (not too far below his career 0.65 rate), it's built on a HR/FB rate of 4.1 percent, which is probably unsustainable. If that weren't enough, Jurrjens is somehow doing all this while allowing a career-high number of line drives against him (although the fact that most of those line drives appear to be coming at the expense of the number of fly balls he's allowing could mean there is a healthy dose of classification error in those numbers).
But for now, Jurrjens is getting the job done, and the Braves currently look like a strong bet to make the playoffs, with a five-game lead in the loss column over their nearest wild-card rival. And if they do manage to add a bat as significant as Beltran’s or otherwise find some offense to go with their deep pitching staff, the Braves are a team you might not want to overlook down the stretch and into the postseason.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Pen in hand, Mike Trout offers a fan more than a tip of a cap in Baltimore.