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Sunday, April 27, 2014
The list: 10 things that caught my eye

By David Schoenfield

1. Former Orioles manager Earl Weaver -- who knew a thing or two about good pitching staffs -- is widely credited with saying, "Momentum? Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher."

If that's the case, the Atlanta Braves are riding a huge wave of it, because the performance of their starting rotation continues to amaze. We're now 24 games into the season, 15 percent of the schedule, and Braves starters have allowed more than two earned runs in a game just twice and more than two runs just four times.

The latest gem was Julio Teheran's eight shutout innings on Sunday. Teheran had no margin for error because Reds starter Johnny Cueto matched him pitch for pitch, zero for zero. The starters handed the game over to the bullpens, and the Braves finally broke through in the bottom of the 10th when Freddie Freeman singled to deep center to with two outs to score Jason Heyward with the walk-off run.

It was Atlanta's fourth straight win, as they improved to 17-7 with a National League-best plus-31 run differential. With a tip of the cap to the 18-7 Milwaukee Brewers, the Braves have been baseball's best team in April.

The Teheran-Cueto duel was maybe a signature game for Teheran, going up against one of the hottest pitchers in baseball. Cueto has now allowed one run in his past 30 innings while Teheran has allowed one in his past 24. One of those was a 1-0 complete game shutout over Cliff Lee. It's time to start acknowledging that Teheran has developed into a No. 1 starter. Over the past calendar year Teheran has made 32 starts and only Clayton Kershaw and Jose Fernandez have a lower ERA than Teheran's 2.58.

"He's proving to people that he deserves to be the ace,” Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons told MLB.com after the game. "He normally strikes out a lot of people. But I think he went about his job a little different today. He threw strikes, threw great and went against a guy that was throwing really good. They were head-to-head the whole time they were out there. That's pretty impressive. What more can you ask?"

A big reason for Teheran's success has been an improved slider -- batters are hitting .111 against it (4-for-36) with 14 strikeouts and no walks. While the slider was a good strikeout pitch for Teheran as a rookie in 2013 -- he recorded 51 knockouts in 152 plate appearances ending with the pitch -- he also had a tendency to leave some flat ones up in the zone, and nine of the 22 home runs he allowed came off that pitch.

Against the Reds, he fanned just five but also allowed just three hits -- a testament to the movement on his pitches, but also to a defense that entered Sunday with 27 Defensive Runs Saved, best in the majors. His toughest jam came in the fifth when Ryan Ludwick led off with a double, but Teheran fanned Zack Cozart and Cueto with Ludwick on third to escape. Just like an ace.

Can the rotation -- which might get Mike Minor back on Saturday--– keep this up? Well, of course not. It has a 1.57 ERA, with an opponents' batting line of .201/.261/.279. Basically, they've turned the entire National League into Mario Mendoza (career line: .215/.245/.262). Still, it's one of the great stretches of dominance I can remember a rotation being on, the ultimate example of one starter seemingly feeding off the next, not to dissimilar from the days of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

Going back 30 years to 1985, here are the starting rotations with a sub-2.00 ERA in a calendar month:

2011 Phillies: June -- 1.96 (27 games)
1985 Cubs: April -- 1.94 (18 games)
1992 Braves: July -- 1.92 (25 games)
2012 Nationals: April -- 1.78 (22 games)
1992 Cubs: July -- 1.72 (24 games)
1994 Braves: August: 1.61 (10 games)

That's a short list, and one of those entries came in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign.

The Braves have two games left in April -- Tuesday and Wednesday in Miami -- to finish off their historic month of pitching. Tuesday's matchup: Alex Wood versus Fernandez, a rematch of last week's 1-0 duel when the two pitchers combined for 25 strikeouts and no walks.

I'll take the under on the total runs.

2. The Braves aren't the only National League rotation tearing things up, however. The Cardinals (2.24), Brewers (2.67), Reds (2.84) and Dodgers (2.87) all have ERAs under 3.00. How much of the Braves' success has been luck? Their starters do lead the majors in home run-to-fly ball ratio, allowing home runs on just 5 percent of the fly balls they've served up (pitchers tend to gravitate around 10 percent). They're also second to the Reds in strand rate, at 84.7 percent. That's how you post a sub-2.00 ERA. That doesn't mean the Braves' rotation has been completely lucky -- it does lead the majors in swing-and-miss percentage at 26.1 -- but that home run rate and strand rate are what we'd call unsustainable.

Adam Wainwright
Somehow, Adam Wainwright seems to continue to improve.
3. Speaking of aces, Adam Wainwright tossed eight shutout innings in a 7-0 win over the Pirates. He's 5-1 with a 1.20 ERA, has allowed no runs in four of his six starts and has tossed 25 consecutive scoreless innings. Batters are hitting .157 off him with one home run and .080 against his curveball (4-for-50, four singles). He just seems to get better each season. This could finally be the year he brings home a Cy Young trophy.

4. Of course, Wainwright, Teheran and Cueto weren't the only ones with dominant outings on Sunday. Courtesy of Mark Simon, this was the first day in major league history when 10 starters pitched at least seven innings with three or fewer hits. Also joining in on the fun: Dillon Gee (8 IP, 3 H, 0 R); James Shields (7 IP, 3 H, 2 R); Ian Kennedy (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R); Jason Hammel (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R); Collin McHugh (8.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R); Ryan Vogelsong (7 IP, 2 H, 0 R); and Garrett Richards (7 IP, 3 H, 2 R). That list doesn't even include A.J. Burnett's eight shutout innings.

OK, I can understand Wainwright, Teheran and Cueto, but now we're getting guys such as McHugh and Vogelsong throwing up low-hit gems. Lower the mound! Give the hitters a chance! Ban the Bullfrog sunscreen!

5. The Pirates have dug themselves a huge April hole, now 10-16 and 8½ games behind the Brewers and four games behind the Cardinals. They haven't won two in a row since April 8, and now they enter a tough phase of their schedule: at Baltimore, Toronto, San Francisco, St. Louis, at Milwaukee, at the Yankees, Baltimore, Washington. You may point to the offense that's hitting .221, but it's not an empty .221, as they do have 28 home runs (fourth in the NL) and are tied for third in walks (five behind the league-leading Mets). They've scored more runs than the Braves or Cardinals. They're even 7-6 in one-run games.

I'm not ready to declare them out of it, but the predicted regression from some of the pitchers is exactly what's happening.

6. The Giants have quietly jumped to the top of the NL West, and I say quietly because Buster Posey (.223) and Pablo Sandoval (.180) haven't done much yet and Hunter Pence is only now getting going. But they're getting production from unexpected sources: Michael Morse, after bombing out in Seattle a year ago (what is it about Seattle that makes hitters crumble up and die like they're facing Pedro Martinez in his prime every night?), leads the team with 17 RBIs and has played in every game, basically pushing Gregor Blanco into a defensive replacement role.

San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval
Pablo Sandoval isn't hitting and the Giants are still winning.
Brandon Hicks hit a three-run walk-off homer in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Indians. Jean Machi has four wins in relief. Vogelsong, despite a strong outing on Sunday, hasn't been that good (5.40), and neither has Tim Lincecum (5.96 ERA). Matt Cain is 0-3 with a 4.35. As I said heading into the season, the Giants are now a team built around its offense, not its rotation. Even Madison Bumgarner has given up 38 hits in 28 2/3 innings. (And don't blame the defense for those hits totals, as the Giants ranked fifth in defensive runs saved entering Sunday.)

It's hard to get a read on this team, but if they're winning without Posey, Sandoval, Cain and Lincecum doing much, maybe that's a good sign.

7. Jose Abreu: Time to start watching some White Sox games.

8. David Lough of the Orioles with one of the better catches you'll see. Notice how shallow he was playing. The Orioles got him from the Royals in the offseason precisely for his defensive abilities. He hasn't hit yet but I think he'll end up as a positive addition by season's end.

9. Are you buying into the Mets yet? Gee's gem put them at 14-11 (and 14-8 since a season-opening sweep by the Nationals), and according to our RPI ratings, they've played the fifth-toughest schedule so far. I can't say I'm buying, as they're hitting .218 and slugging .318 -- even in this 1968 version of National League baseball, both figures are dead last.

They've made their most of their scoring opportunities -- they've scored just one fewer run than the Brewers even though the Brewers have a .308 wOBA versus the Mets' .273. They hit the road for a nine-game trip against the Phillies, Rockies and Marlins, which looks like one of those trips which a team might go 6-3 and start believing in itself.

10. Finally, I think Carlos Gomez has a fan for life. Well done, Carlos.