SweetSpot: B.J. Upton
That might be enough to win the increasingly feeble NL East, but the question is where you might reasonably expect the Braves to improve, because it’s a club with a lot of areas for improvement -- especially in the lineup. Despite the presence of star slugger Justin Upton, the much-ballyhooed breakthrough of Evan Gattis, and the continuing development of young stars Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, the Braves rank 13th in the league in runs scored and -- adjusting for a pitcher-friendly home park -- 11th in OPS+. The only other contender trying to do as much with as little offense is Cincinnati, in fourth place in the NL Central but a direct threat to Atlanta’s chances should the Braves fail to win the NL East.
A big problem has been the team’s power outage: The Braves are tied for 10th in the National League in isolated power. The Cardinals’ slugging shortage has been a season-long talking point, but through Friday night’s action they had more extra-base hits than the Braves (293 to 290).
In part, the Braves reap what they sow because they decided to rely on some fairly extreme hitters, extreme in that they’re guys who contribute entirely in some departments but not others: Andrelton Simmons, Gattis and Chris Johnson don’t walk and never have, and La Stella has no power and shouldn’t be expected to provide much. Although you can accept excuses for Simmons and Gattis because they’re at up-the-middle positions and -- at least in Simmons’ case -- provide “best in baseball”-grade defense, if you rely on too many extremes like that, you wind up with reasons why a lineup doesn’t function as a whole. Among every-day players, Upton and Simmons are in the bottom 10 in OPS among batting-title qualifiers; Johnson is just 11 points from sharing this “distinction.” The Braves are last in the league in WAR at third base and center field.
With this year’s disaster piled on top of his first season in Atlanta, B.J. Upton might represent the biggest disappointment in the history of Braves outfielders since Claudell Washington or Brad Komminsk. There is no reason for optimism. Upton’s strikeout rate is still north of 30 percent, and his walk rate is down from his career norms. Add in his mediocrity afield and he’s one of the least valuable players in the game before you even get into what the Braves are paying for the privilege of employing him. The decision to bat him leadoff most of the time in the past 40 games has helped undermine much of the value they received from adding La Stella, while giving the most at-bats to a guy who would be the worst starting player in most big league lineups.
If their worst player isn’t Upton, it’s Johnson. That might surprise you because last year he threatened to win a batting title. And when he’s hitting .320 and slugging .450, he’s an asset. But Johnson has been especially impatient at the plate this year, seeing his strikeout and swinging strike rates rise to their highest level since his rookie season while his pitches per plate appearance clip has dropped to its lowest since then, and his power production is at an all-time low (.109 ISO). This year, an even more aggressive approach has reduced a hitter whose signal virtue was that aggressiveness and plate coverage into the epitome of an empty batting average.
To make matters worse, the Braves’ bench has contributed next to nothing at the plate, and that’s as much a matter of design as accident considering the players Atlanta has. Losing Gattis for the better part of a month exposed career bench jockey Gerald Laird and an unready Christian Bethancourt behind the plate; Uggla’s implosion put Pena and Pastornicky on the spot. Ryan Doumit has struggled badly as the primary pinch hitter. This shortage of alternatives inspired the acquisition of Emilio Bonifacio from the Cubs. He doesn’t walk or bop, but he might nevertheless be a sporadic upgrade on B.J. Upton or Johnson.
Beyond their problems with their worst players, the Braves’ additional problem on offense is that most of their good players are generally just that -- good, but not great enough to compensate for some of the worst regulars in the game. Freeman and Heyward have to be called out for what they’ve been: solid regulars with plenty of upside. But despite years of hype, they’re not yet dominant players at their positions. Freeman’s WAR (2.2) lodges him among guys such as Matt Adams and Adam LaRoche, and well behind Paul Goldschmidt or Anthony Rizzo in terms of value at first base in the NL. Heyward gets rated highly in overall WAR because of his value on defense, but rank him for his offensive production (oWAR) at an offense-first position like right and he’s just sixth among NL right fielders. He ranks that high only because Ryan Braun has spent time on the DL.
It’s reasonable to hope Freeman and Heyward will break out, in the same way you want to bank on them in the long term. But although Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projected an OPS of .839 for Freeman in the second half at the All-Star break, Freeman has been at .708. More happily, Heyward’s been cranking at a 1.024 clip since the break (projected for .757); now, just imagine if that were back at the top of the order instead of B.J. Upton. Coming back from injury, Gattis has struggled (.620 OPS, projected for .808).
Barring a waiver-trade pickup or two, the Braves have little choice but to let it ride. What hope they should really harbor for a big stretch-run improvement on offense rests with Gattis, Freeman and Heyward finally cementing themselves as top players at their positions. As Szymborski projects, you can hope that’s the case, but there’s no time like the present.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
In the spring of 2009, while researching a column on MLB’s worst-hitting pitchers, I sought out Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Dunn for his take on the subject. Say what you will about Dunn’s glove work or his penchant for striking out, but he’s a 400-homer man and one of the wryest baseball observers around.
The Big Donkey instantly warmed to the topic, dissecting the swings of Daniel Cabrera, Ben Sheets and others pitchers from the “bail and flail” school of hitting. He took particular relish in critiquing the handiwork of his former teammate, Aaron Harang, a workhorse starter who is also a walking endorsement for the designated hitter.
“He swings underwater,” Dunn said of Harang. “His bat speed is below Tim Wakefield’s knuckler speed.”
Harang wasn’t exactly a prime candidate to join Don Larsen, Don Drysdale and Dontrelle Willis on the list of offensive-minded pitchers to hit somewhere other than ninth on the lineup card. But desperate times call for offbeat batting orders.
In part, Gonzalez made the move because Justin Upton hit .301 with a .922 OPS in 48 starts as Atlanta’s second-place hitter last season, and appears to have a comfort level in the No. 2 hole. Gonzalez also told reporters that he wanted to give Jason Heyward, Upton and Freddie Freeman more run-producing opportunities on their second, third and fourth times through the order.
“The offense is sputtering around, so why not do it?” Gonzalez said. That’s manager-speak for, “What do you want me to do -- pick the names out of a hat?”
For the record, Harang went 0-for-1 with a sacrifice bunt and the Braves showed some late signs of life in a 4-3 loss to the Cardinals. When measured against their recent standard, that’s a virtual onslaught.
Atlanta fans have gone from upbeat to restless to cranky awfully fast. On April 27, the Braves beat Cincinnati 1-0 in 10 innings to raise their record to 17-7 and open up a 3 ½-game lead over the New York Mets in the National League East. Since then, they’ve dropped seven straight to Miami, San Francisco and St. Louis by scores of 9-0, 9-3, 5-4, 2-1, 3-1, 4-1 and 4-3.
With the exception of two blowout losses at Marlins Park -- when the Braves suggested something fishy was taking place and the Marlins might be stealing signs to get better hacks against the Atlanta pitching -- the focus has been almost exclusively on the offense, or lack thereof.
Should the Braves be taking more batting practice, or less? Can anybody lay off a high fastball? And they are simply too deficient at “manufacturing” runs and too reliant on the long ball to weather the inevitable down times? According to ESPN Stats & Information, 55 of Atlanta’s 102 runs this season (or 53.9 percent) have come via the home run. That’s the highest rate in the majors, ahead of San Francisco’s 48.1 percent.
The Braves have also scored one or fewer runs in a game a major league-high 12 times this season. That’s one more than St. Louis.
The Braves were OK when Freeman, Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons got off to torrid starts, but the team’s mainstays have leveled off recently. Freeman is 10-for-his-past-57, and Upton has struck out 11 times in his past 15 at-bats. He came up with the tying run on second base in the ninth inning Monday but took a Trevor Rosenthal fastball for a called third strike to end it. The Braves are hitting .118 (6-for-51) with runners in scoring position during their seven-game losing streak, and that’s only when you give them the courtesy of rounding up from .1176.
No one has been more of a lightning rod of late than second baseman Dan Uggla, who’s being pilloried on social media. He ranks 84th among 88 qualifying National League hitters with a .528 OPS, and he’s not even drawing walks anymore. This comes on top of a dreadful 2013 season that ended with the ultimate indignity of his being dropped from the Braves’ Division Series roster. You have to wonder when the Atlanta brass will have a frank discussion that things aren’t likely to get better, and it’s best for all parties to bring this arrangement to an end and find Uggla a new home.
Now that the Braves have other options at second base, it’s getting progressively harder for them to justify keeping Uggla around for reasons other than the $23 million they still owe him. Pena slugged .443 in 97 at-bats last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury and has a nice swing from both sides of the plate. Tyler Pastornicky was a .280 hitter in the minors, and Tommy La Stella, Atlanta’s No. 9 prospect, is plugging away with a .313 batting average for Triple-A Gwinnett.
Atlanta’s front-office people, who have seen the Braves go through fallow stretches like this in the past, think this group is eminently capable of turning it around and going on a tear. They point out that Heyward has picked up the pace of late, and B.J. Upton is having much better at-bats since he donned his new glasses.
But some talent evaluators are dubious. “They only have only reliable hitter -- and that’s Freeman,” said a National League scout. “He’s going to hit good pitching. When they face No. 1s and 2s, they’re not going to score any runs unless he’s involved.”
So the manager ponders hitting the pitcher in the ninth spot and says, “Why not?” According to research by J.G. Preston of SABR, Tony La Russa employed the tactic 432 times during his managerial career. Lou Boudreau is a distant second at 74, and Casey Stengel, Joe Torre and Jack McKeon were among the other managers who gave it a shot here and there. Gonzalez has now done it nine times in his managerial career.
At the very least, Gonzalez’s offbeat strategy helped change the discussion from why the Braves aren’t hitting to what the manager is trying to do to prevent a bad week from turning into a free-fall. And the more people quizzed him about Harang batting eighth, the fewer people were asking him about Uggla getting the night off and what he plans to do moving forward at second base.
What will Gonzalez do when Gavin Floyd makes his 2014 debut Tuesday night against the Cardinals? Only he knows for sure. Unless he can figure out a way to squeeze a 1999-caliber Chipper Jones onto the lineup card, it might take the Braves a while to figure this thing out.
In the end, he missed just one start, which was still enough of a setback to put Rangers fans in a minor state of panic considering the opening week rotation was already without Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.
Darvish returned Sunday after not having pitched in three weeks and looked a lot like the guy many predicted will win the Cy Young Award, undoubtedly calming at least a few nerves in the Rangers fan base and front office. He pitched seven innings of no-run baseball in a 3-0 win over the Rays, an efficient 89-pitch effort that included just one walk. He threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes and held the Rays to an 0-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.
He wasn't necessarily overpowering, averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball while maxing out at 95.1 mph, but maybe this is the new, strike-throwing Darvish, one looking to be a little more economical in his pitch counts to avoid walks and pitch consistently deeper into games.
"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes. I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn't feel anything unusual."
While Darvish recorded just six strikeouts, he showed what makes him so tough to hit -- the six K's came on two fastballs, two curveballs, a slider and a changeup to Wil Myers. It's that changeup that could be a new weapon for him: He threw 90 changeups all of last year, recording just four strikeouts. Just what batters want to hear, knowing it's hard enough already with two strikes gearing up for a curveball or slider.
The Rangers' rotation remains a little unsettled -- Colby Lewis may be close to returning and they may use six starters this week. The good news is the Rangers are 3-3 despite the makeshift rotation and having hit just one home run. They play the Red Sox and Astros this week but will need the rotation to come together sooner rather than later as they play the Mariners seven times and the A's six before the end of the month.
Darvish joked that he'd pitch great every time if he had three weeks between starts. The Rangers are hoping he'll pitch great every fifth day.
2. The most impressive result of the weekend was the Brewers going into Boston and sweeping the Red Sox by scores of 6-2, 7-6 (in 11 innings) and 4-0 on Sunday. The Red Sox were swept just once all last season -- in a three-game series in Texas -- and shut out just three times at Fenway Park in the regular season.
Yovani Gallardo struck out only three in 6 2/3 innings but issued no walks and got 11 ground balls outs compared to four in the air. He hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts. Gallardo struggled last year and while his velocity isn't up from last year at least he's throwing strikes early on.
3. I watched a lot of Mariners this week and there were a lot of positives to draw upon as they went 4-2 on the road: Two dominant starts from Felix Hernandez, one from James Paxton, good hitting from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Robinson Cano hit a quiet .391/.500/.478 as he's still looking for his first home run. He has drawn three intentional walks already as the Angels and A's elected to go after Smoak.
All three walks came in conventional IBB situations: Two outs, runners on second or second and third. Smoak went 1-for-3 with a bases-clearing double. Still, for now, it appears opponents will avoid Cano whenever possible. The biggest positive with Cano may have been his hustle double on Sunday when he singled to center and took advantage of Coco Crisp jogging after the ball. That's a Cano that New York writers like to say doesn't exist. It's one play, but perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.
4. Mark Trumbo homered for the fourth straight game Sunday in the Diamondbacks' 5-3 win over the Rockies, just their second victory in nine games as they currently sit with the majors' worst record. Even though Trumbo has five home runs and 13 RBIs and Paul Goldschmidt is mashing, the Arizona offense has mostly struggled, averaging fewer than four runs per game.
The Rockies intentionally walked Trumbo with a runner on third base and one out on Sunday to pitch to Miguel Montero, who promptly grounded into a double play against Brett Anderson. Montero's OPS fell from .820 and .829 in 2011 and 2012 to .662 in 2013. He and Gerardo Parra are the only regular lefties in the D-backs' lineup, and they need the old Montero not the 2013 version.
5. I watched the last few innings of Chris Tillman's gem to beat the Tigers, and he looked really good, allowing one run again as he did in his Opening Day start. He couldn't quite finish it off, getting one out in the ninth before being pulled for Tommy Hunter, but he challenged the Tigers -- 74 of his 113 pitches were fastballs -- and did a good job of moving the fastball around against left-handed batters (he pitches mostly to the outside corner with the fastball against righties).
Without sounding overdramatic here, it was a big win for the Orioles as 2-4 just sounds a lot better than 1-5. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the majors as just six of their first 27 games are against teams that finished under .500 last year and those six are against Toronto, no pushover, so they need to make sure they don't get buried before May.
6. This wasn't from Sunday, but I hope you didn't miss Giancarlo Stanton's mammoth home run on Friday off Eric Stults. The ESPN Home Run Tracker estimated the moon shot at 484 feet, 31 feet longer than the second-longest home run so far. The longest home run last year was Evan Gattis' 486-foot blast for the Braves on Sept. 8 off Cole Hamels.
The Marlins lost on Sunday, but they're off to a 5-2 start. Stanton is hitting .345/.406/.655, and for all those fears that he wouldn't get pitched to, he hasn't drawn an intentional walk
Jeter has his most hits off Tim Wakefield (36) and among pitchers he faced at least 40 times, has the highest average against Bruce Chen (.429). (He also hit an impressive .413 against Johan Santana. Molitor got 33 hits off both Jack Morris and Roger Clemens (and hit above .300 against both) and killed Erik Hanson (.482) and Walt Terrell (.477).
8. The Yankees have one home run in six games, hit by Brett Gardner on Sunday's win over the Blue Jays. Could power actually be an issue for the Yankees? Mark Teixeira landed on the DL over the weekend, which means they're really going to have to rely on 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran for some pop. Leading the team in extra-base hits? Yangervis Solarte. Of course.
9. B.J. Upton: Hey, at least he didn't strike out in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Nationals. But he did go 0-for-4 and is off to a .120/.120/.140 start with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. So far, Fredi Gonzalez has hit him second in all six games. It's way too early to panic, but tell that to Braves fans.
10. Speaking of worrying, should the Angels be worried about Jered Weaver? In two starts, batters are slugging .600 against him and the Astros pounded four home runs off him on Sunday. The four home runs came on four different pitches: Jason Castro off a 3-1 changeup, Matt Dominguez off a 3-2 slider, Jesus Guzman on an 0-1 fastball and Alex Presley on an 0-1 curveball. His fastball velocity, such as it is, has averaged 86.0 mph, about the same as last year's 86.5.
As with all these first-week results, don't overreact, but if Weaver isn't a strong rotation anchor, the Angels are in trouble. They're 2-4, hoping to avoid the terrible April starts of the past two seasons.
Overreact after one series? Of course we're going to overreact! We're baseball fans. It's no fun if we just spout things like "small sample size" and "check back in two months." So, what have we learned after one series? Here are a few trends and things to watch, starting with Evan Longoria.
The Rays third baseman went 2-for-4 in Tampa's 7-2 win over Toronto, slugging a three-run homer for his first home run of 2014. So here's the deal with Longoria: If anyone is going to crack the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout stranglehold on the AL MVP Award, Longoria is the most likely candidate. Consider his merits:
2. He's good. Not including 2012, when he played just 74 games, he's finished fifth, sixth, third and fourth in WAR among AL position players and has three top-10 MVP finishes.
3. The Rays are a good bet to make the postseason. MVP voters love that.
4. Longoria is an RBI guy, averaging 110 RBIs per 162 games over his career. MVP voters love themselves some RBIs.
5. He should knock in more than the 88 runs he did last year, when he hit .265 with just four home runs with runners in scoring position (22 of his 32 home runs came with the bases empty).
In truth, as good as Longoria has been, we've kind of been waiting for that monster season, haven't we? Maybe that's unfair to say about one of the best all-around players in the league (did you see the play he made the other night?), but Longoria hit .294 in 2010 and just .269 last season, when his strikeout rate increased to 23.4 percent, easily his highest rate since his rookie season. If he cuts down on the strikeouts, I can see that average climbing over .300 for the first time in his career and the RBIs climbing well over 100.
Other thoughts from many hours of baseball viewing over the past few days:
- If they stay healthy, the Giants are going to have the best offense in the National League. On Thursday, they scored five runs in the eighth inning to beat the Diamondbacks 8-5. Angel Pagan is a solid leadoff hitter, and Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence provide a juicy meat of the order. I've mentioned Belt as a guy I like to have a big breakout season, and he hit his third home run. Pence seems to get better the higher he wears his pants legs. Posey won't slump like he did in the second half last year. Sandoval hits and eats and hits some more.
- The Angels’ and Phillies’ bullpens look like disasters. The Mariners pounded every reliever the Angels tried in their series and the Angels are suddenly staring at another bad April start: 9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon looked like a shell of his former shelf in getting roughed up the other day.
- How long do the A’s stick with closer Jim Johnson? OK, he led the AL in saves the past two seasons. He also led the AL last season in blown saves and was second in relief losses. He has two losses already, he’s not a strikeout pitcher and the A’s have other good relievers. It’s never too early to panic about your closer!
- How many closers do you have complete confidence in right now anyway? With low-scoring games and tight pennant races, late-inning relief work is going to decide a division title or two. We had six blown saves on Wednesday. The D-Backs coughed up that game on Thursday. The Rockies blew an eighth-inning lead to the Marlins. And so on. Rough few days for the bullpens (in contrast to starters, who generally dominated).
- A young pitcher who hasn’t yet made his mark to watch: Seattle’s James Paxton showcased electrifying stuff in his first start, striking out nine in seven and throwing 97 mph in his final inning.
- With Clayton Kershaw missing a few starts, the new Cy Young favorite in the National League: Jose Fernandez. He’s must-watch TV, Pedro-in-his-prime eye candy. His run support will be an issue, but the stuff, poise and confidence are that of a wise veteran, not a 21-year-old kid.
- In case you had doubts, Michael Wacha is most assuredly the real deal. His changeup is Pedro-in-his-prime nasty. The Reds went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts against it.
- Veteran Alex Gonzalez is not going to last as the Tigers' shortstop. He simply doesn’t have the range to play there. Stephen Drew, come on down?
- Manager on the hot seat: Kirk Gibson. The Diamondbacks are off to 1-5 start, and nine of their next 15 games are against the Dodgers (six) and Giants (three). If the D-backs can avoid digging a big hole over that stretch, the schedule does get a little easier starting April 21, when they play 19 consecutive games against teams that finished under .500 in 2013.
- Tyro Zack Wheeler is not Matt Harvey. Hold down your expectations, Mets fans.
- We’re going to see a lot more shifts this year. I haven’t checked the numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests infield shifts are way up. Expect batting averages to continue to plummet as a result.
- Free-agent-to-be Max Scherzer is going to make a lot of money this offseason.
- I hope B.J. Upton gets fixed, but I have my doubts. Six strikeouts in his first 12 plate appearances.
- Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is going to have a high BABIP again. Great stroke to all fields, great balance between attacking fastballs early in the count and waiting for his pitch later in the count. He'll be an MVP candidate again.
- Clearly, Emilio Bonifacio (11 hits in three games!) is the best player in the NL. OK, seriously: The Royals couldn’t find a spot for this guy on their roster? Ned Yost, everyone!
- Rookie Xander Bogaerts is ready NOW. He’s hitting .556 with three walks and one strikeout in three games. Maybe the power takes a year or two to fully develop, but his mature, disciplined approach at the plate is going make a star right away.
- Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggested this and it’s not outrageous: With Jose Reyes injured, Brad Miller might be the best shortstop in the AL. Or maybe Bogaerts. Could have been Bonifacio, if only the Royals had kept him!
- Best team in baseball: The Mariners ... too early?
- Here's something you probably didn't know: Marlins right-hander Nathan Eovaldi had the highest fastball velocity last season of any pitcher who threw 100 innings. His 96.2 mph average fastball topped the 96.0 mph of the Pirates' Gerrit Cole. Now, we all know velocity isn't everything if you don't have movement and location, but it does speak to Eovaldi's good arm and his potential. What he needs is to refine his command and develop an offspeed speed as a better strikeout weapon (his slider is OK, the curveball needs work). He had a strong 2014 debut, allowing two runs in six innings against the Rockies with one walk and six strikeouts. He still relied a lot on his fastball -- 65 of his 95 pitches were heaters (average: 95.8 mph) -- but he's a guy to keep an eye on.
- For some reason, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez decided to bat B.J. Upton second after he hit .184 last year. Two games in and Upton is 0-for-8 with four strikeouts. How long will Gonzalez's show of confidence in Upton last? Will moving him back down after three or four games create even more damage? Are Braves fans already in an uproar?
- Yasiel Puig did this, taking a 93-mph fastball from Ian Kennedy that was high and inside and out of the strike zone and crushing it to left. Bat speed, my friends, bat speed. The Dodgers won but it wasn't all good news as the team announced Clayton Kershaw will be out two to three more weeks.
- Erasmo Ramirez looked very good for the Mariners, throwing 93 pitches in an efficient seven innings as the Mariners beat the Angels. His one mistake was a first-pitch two-seamer that Raul Ibanez smacked for a two-run homer. The location actually wasn't bad -- low and outside corner -- but the pitch didn't run away as much as Ramirez would have liked. He's not overpowering so relies on location and movement and an excellent changeup. Ramirez was the guy who pitched well in eight starts at the end of 2012 but battled a strained triceps last season and struggled in 13 major league starts (4.98). He's a much different pitcher than Eovaldi but he's another guy with a little experience who could break out. Here's a heat map of Ramirez's night and you can see he tries to run that two-seamer away from lefties and into righties:
- The Phillies lost 3-2 to the Rangers as Ryne Sandberg brought in reliever Mario Hollands for his major league debut with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth. It didn't go well. Bill Baer writes that the new boss looks a lot like the old boss.
- CC Sabathia is skinnier but struggled (average fastball velocity: 89.0 mph) and the Astros beat the Yankees 6-2. Stacey Gotsulias wraps up the good and bad for the Bronx Bombers and says the defense already looks bad.
- The Giants jumped on D-backs starter Wade Miley with a four-run first inning, including a three-run homer from 2014 NL batting champ Brandon Belt, but Miley settled down and ended up going seven innings and getting the win when the Diamondbacks scored twice in the sixth off Giants reliever Juan Gutierrez (also known as J.C. Gutierrez). I'm a little concerned about the Giants bullpen behind closer Sergio Romo. They've milked a lot of years and innings out of the likes of Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt (currently on the DL). Gutierrez is a 30-year-old journeyman with a 4.65 ERA, pitched for the Royals and Angels last season. Matt Cain scuffled through five innings (99 pitches) so Bruce Bochy had to go early to his pen. (As Buster Olney writes, that game also had a replay controversy when Bochy used up his challenge and then the umps missed a call on a play at the plate that couldn't be challenged because it happened before the seventh inning.
- Finally, bad news for Wilson Ramos and the Nationals as he'll miss one to two months. The good news is that Jose Lobaton, who was with the Rays last year, is one of the better backup catchers in the majors.
Sure, one game is not supposed to mean more than one win or win loss, but does anyone else think that Freddie Freeman isn’t ready to explode? After he ripped a pair of home runs against the Brewers on Tuesday night, it’s worth remembering that he is only 24 and nearing the cusp of what are supposed to be his prime seasons in the 25-to-29 range.
That might seem easy to say after a big night, but Freeman provides a great reminder that some basic sabermetric concepts like regression don’t apply to everyone equally. If you think that batting average on balls in play exerts a force like gravity, you’d expect that Freeman was going to regress toward a more normal .300 after hitting for a .371 BABIP last year. But that’s the thing, Freeman’s so young despite three full seasons in the majors that his potential to develop into something more can’t be discounted, especially after the .339 BABIP he put up in his rookie season or the .359 he put up as a 20-year-old in Triple-A.
When you look at what leading projection models like Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS say about his likely 2014 production (.286/.365/.477), or Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA (.279/.350/.458), those seem fairly conservative for a guy who put up an .897 OPS last year. Indeed, PECOTA is so pessimistic about Freeman that it basically says there’s just a 10 percent chance he hits as well this year.
I guess I’m a little skeptical about the models in this instance. Freeman didn’t deliver unusual numbers in terms of homers per fly ball, although he did generate a tremendous number of line drives last season -- 30 percent, which is evidence of him executing his plan at the plate consistently, no easy thing to repeat against the best pitching on the planet, but a reflection of skill. I guess I look at the BABIP numbers and the confident assertions that there’s no way that Freeman can keep getting hits on 37 percent of his balls in play at 23 and figure people would have said much the same about Don Mattingly after he posted a .331 BABIP at 23 in 1984. And those predictions, based on the observable fact that most people regress to the mean, would have been completely wrong. Donnie Baseball didn’t regress; he was just getting started.
That’s because not every player is cut from the same mold, and not every hitter is going to wind up regressing to the same level when he doesn’t execute as well at the plate. Instead, hitters are going to perform within their ranges of possibility. And looking at Freeman, it’s easy to dream on why the orbit he travels in happens to be a bit higher than most, maybe a bit higher than the projections suggest, if maybe not quite as high as where he was hammering balls in Miller Park on Tuesday.
The question for the Braves will be how much they’ll need him to be that guy, because other than Jason Heyward, is there anyone in that lineup you expect to bust out and become something as good or better as he was last year? Maybe if Justin Upton has three hot months instead of two, or B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla return to the land of the living, sure, there’s help to be had. But as much as I’m willing to believe in Freeman (and Heyward), if he isn’t that guy right now, it’s going to be hard for the Braves to get to October and win a postseason series.
- One of the things I’ve always loved about the Braves when you watch them talk about their own talent is who they soft-pedal versus who they play up -- and then seem willing to trade to get something they can contend with. Now sure, Alex Wood was by no means a sleeper -- going from their second-round pick out of the University of Georgia in 2012 to top 10 prospect status in the organization last year to Tuesday night’s winning pitcher -- but going into that same 2012 season the Braves pitching prospects you heard the most about were guys like Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado. Delgado was dealt to the D-backs and may not hold his job as the last man in their rotation, while Vizcaino was dealt and was last seen headed for High-A for the Cubs. Lefties with low-90s heat and an effective circle change and knuckle curve don’t grow on trees, and this ready already after less than two seasons in the minors? After Teheran’s effective Opening Day start, Wood provided an easy additional reminder about why it pays to scout their own neighborhood as well as the Braves do.
Not that one game means much, but with Mike Minor on the mend coming off a breakthrough year in 2012, if veterans Ervin Santana and later Gavin Floyd simply provide innings, regular turns and quality starts more than half the time, maybe the Braves’ starting pitching won’t turn out to be so bad after all.
- To give the Brewers some love, watching center fielder Carlos Gomez crush his first homer of the season provided another reminder about something cyberpunk writer William Gibson wrote in Wired back in the ’90s about how the mainstream is usually five years late to a subject. That’s hopefully less true today with the accelerated news cycle, but if you didn’t already notice that Gomez was one of the best players in baseball last year, you don’t want to be any later to this particular party. I know WAR is more suggestion and sorting tool than fact, but Gomez’s 8.9 WAR last season easily outpaced Andrew McCutchen’s 7.9 and Paul Goldschmidt’s 7.3 to lead the NL. While a huge part of that was the educated guesstimates of his value on defense, I don’t think it’ll be too much of a reach to suggest that for the next couple of years he and McCutchen might become the National League’s trophy frenemies equivalent to Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout in the AL.
The first rule of Opening Day: Don't overreact to Opening Day. So these are merely observations from flipping around watching a bunch of different games.
1. At one point during the Cardinals-Reds opener, Adam Wainwright looked a little perturbed, presumably at the strike zone of plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. After all, Wainwright walked three guys unintentionally in his seven innings (plus another intentional walk). This was a guy who walked just 35 batters in 34 starts last year, just once walking three guys in a game. So he may have been unhappy with the balls and strikes … and yet still threw seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just three hits allowed in the Cards’ 1-0 victory. Whenever the Reds threatened, Wainwright got the big outs -- a Joey Votto double play on a 2-2 fastball in the third and Zack Cozart on a tapper in front of the plate with two runners on to end the sixth. He threw 105 pitches, including 22 of his famous curveball -- the Reds went 0-for-6 with a walk against the curve, including Cozart’s out. Here’s the thing about the Cardinals: While I (and others) have spent a lot of time discussing their depth and versatility, they also have two of the best players in the game: Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Their lone run off Johnny Cueto: Molina’s home run in the seventh off a 0-0 cutter that didn’t cut.
2. I don’t know if Billy Hamilton will hit, but I know he can’t hit Wainwright. The Reds’ rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Wainwright to register the dreaded golden sombrero -- the 17th player since 1914 to go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Opening Day. The potential bigger picture: If Hamilton and Brandon Phillips don’t get on base enough -- a distinct possibility -- Votto is going to draw 100-plus walks no matter if he has Jay Bruce, Johnny Bench or Frank Robinson hitting behind him. Which will lead to the haters complaining about Votto’s RBI total.
3. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-3 thanks to a big day from emergency shortstop acquisition Alex Gonzalez, who tripled in the tying run in the seventh and singled in the winning run in the ninth. Justin Verlander scuffled through his six innings, giving up six hits and three walks with just two strikeouts, but that’s not my initial concern. The concern is that Opening Day roster, which includes Gonzalez, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holaday, Tyler Collins, Don Kelly, Ian Krol and Evan Reed. Besides Krol and Reed, the bullpen includes Phil Coke (1.6 WHIP over the past two seasons), Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. In other words: The final 10 spots on the roster could be a disaster. It could work out -- Chamberlain and Alburquerque will probably be OK if they stay healthy, for example -- but the lack of depth on this team could be an issue. Detroit's star players -- Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer -- have been very durable, but a lengthy injury to any of those three or Anibal Sanchez, Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler could be crushing.
4. The Pirates picked up with the kind of game they won last year, beating the Cubs 1-0 on Neil Walker’s walk-off home run in the 10th inning. The Pirates won five 1-0 games last year (there were only 48 such games in the majors last season, so the Pirates had over 10 percent of all 1-0 victories). The major league average when scoring one run, two runs or three runs was a .270 winning percentage; the Pirates were 25-39 (.390) when scoring one to three runs, so they won a lot of low-scoring games. The big positive besides the bullpen throwing four scoreless innings was the six dominant innings from Francisco Liriano, who tied a Pirates club record with 10 strikeouts on Opening Day. With the loss of A.J. Burnett, the pressure is on Liriano to repeat his 2013 performance.
5. Showing early confidence in B.J. Upton, who hit .184 last year while striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hit his center fielder second while moving Justin Upton down to fifth (Chris Johnson hit cleanup). I can’t say that’s the lineup I’d go with -- Justin Upton seems the logical choice to bat second behind leadoff hitter Jason Heyward -- but no matter what order Gonzalez chooses there are going to be some OBP issues if B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis don’t get on base more often. Yovani Gallardo kept the Braves in check with six shutout innings -- a good sign for the Brewers considering Gallardo’s inconsistency and drop in velocity last year -- while Francisco Rodriguez was called on for the save in the Brewers’ 2-0 victory.
6. One reason I’m a little wary about the Orioles is new closer Tommy Hunter’s struggles against left-handed batters -- he gave up 12 home runs last year, which is way too many for a reliever to begin with, and all 12 were against lefties. He scraped through the save in the O’s 2-1 win over the Red Sox, hitting Will Middlebrooks with a pitch and giving up a one-out single to Dustin Pedroia, but he got ahead of David Ortiz 0-2 before getting him to fly out to medium-deep left center, and then struck out Jackie Bradley looking on a fastball at the belt. (Bradley was hitting after pinch running for Mike Napoli in the eighth).
7. I was dubious about Tanner Scheppers as a starter and his performance in the Rangers’ 14-10 loss to the Phillies didn’t alleviate any of those concerns. His fastball averaged 96.3 mph last year as a reliever but 93.3 on Monday as a starter. His strikeout rate as a reliever didn’t scream “try this guy as a starter” and he fanned just two in his four innings, which required 93 pitches to get through. It's just one start and considering it was his first in the major leagues and on Opening Day -- a strange choice by Ron Washington -- let’s give him a pass and keep an eye on his next outing.
8. Tough loss for the Mets, blowing leads in the seventh and ninth innings and then losing in 10 to the Nationals. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen said after Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer off John Lannan in the 10th, “What an atrocious day by the Mets' bullpen.” Something Mets fans have witnessed all too often in recent seasons.
9. While flipping through the various games, it’s pretty clear we're going to see even more defensive shifting. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the number of shifts has increased from 2,358 in 2011 to 4,577 in 2012 to 8,134 in 2013.
10. Jose Fernandez. He looked brilliant in his six innings, throwing 73 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and smiling when Carlos Gonzalez homered in the sixth off his one mistake. I think I may watch 33 Marlins games this year.
Coming into the season, the Atlanta Braves' outfield was supposed to be the team's strength. Not only did it appear Jason Heyward was coming into his own, but the club acquired both Justin Upton and B.J. Upton over the winter, giving them three high-upside outfielders with All-Star potential in their early-to-mid 20s.
As you're probably aware, things haven't worked out as planned. Although Justin Upton had a fantastic April, the entire trio has struggled for the past two-plus months, hitting a combined .211 with 14 home runs since May 1.
And insult turned to injury this week: Heyward had to leave Thursday’s game early with a hamstring strain (he’s day-to-day), and then in Friday’s 4-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, both Uptons had to leave due to injury -- B.J. with an adductor strain and Justin with a strained left calf.
It would be easy to panic and think, "Oh no, the Braves are in trouble." But here’s the thing: The outfield has been awful for most of the season, and yet the club still sits in first place in the National League East, 13 games above .500 (53-40) and six games ahead of the Washington Nationals.
Thanks to Justin Upton's hot start, Evan Gattis' heroics, the steady performance of Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson -- not to mention the resurgent Brian McCann -- the Braves' offense has been surprisingly potent (third in the NL in runs). Meanwhile, the deepest pitching staff in the league has posted a 3.25 ERA, good for second-best in the league, all of which has provided the club with that six-game cushion.
With that in mind, allow me to offer the Braves a piece of unsolicited advice: Take it slow with your outfielders. If all three need to go on the DL, so be it. This would be the time to do it. You have four days off next week, which would mean they would each only miss about 10 games, which is practically nothing. Besides, it’s not as if these guys have been helping the team much anyway.
If the Braves are going to win the World Series, they are going to need production from Heyward and the Uptons, and maybe a little bit of a physical (and mental) break will help get all three of them back on track for the stretch run. It certainly can’t hurt.
Atlanta should be thrilled it has the luxury of such a large cushion, and that affords the club a lot of leeway here. Besides, it’s not like the replacements can play much worse.
The Atlanta Braves are a team built around its star outfield trio, and a big reason the Braves are a mediocre 33-32 since soaring to a 12-1 start is that Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward haven't been producing.
The Braves hold the largest lead of any NL division leader at 6 games, but that two-month stretch of .500 baseball has Braves fans wondering what big move the club will make before the trade deadline.
I'm not sure they make a move; this is pretty much the team you're going to see the rest of the season, and the best way for the Braves to improve -- and to hold off that potential NL East run from the Nationals -- is for those outfielders to start hitting.
Justin Upton hit 12 home runs in his first 23 games, riding that hot start to a potential starting berth in the All-Star Game, but he's hit .211 with three home runs in 50 games since then. B.J. Upton continues to struggle below the Mendoza Line and Heyward is hitting .216 after missing time earlier following an appendectomy.
There was some positive news on Tuesday, as Heyward hit the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning off Royals reliever Tim Collins in a 4-3 victory, his first homer all season off a lefty. While Heyward has played much better in June -- .297/.354/.484 with four home runs -- the overall season lines for the three are obviously a big disappointment compared to preseason projections (via Dan Szymborski):
Preseason ZiPS: .263/.348/.442, 3.0 WAR
Current stats: .241/.351/.455, 1.2 WAR
Preseason ZiPS: .251/.322/.455, 3.5 WAR
Current stats: .177/.273/.315, -0.9 WAR
Preseason ZiPS: .265/.341/.472, 4.0 WAR
Current stats: .216/.318/.356, 0.3 WAR
You probably noticed one thing, however: Justin Upton is actually hitting right near his projected numbers; maybe he's gotten there in a peculiar fashion, but his overall line isn't a surprise. Instead of hitting like an MVP candidate, he's hitting like a guy who misses hitting in Arizona. Upton is actually hitting .275 with a .941 OPS on the road, but just .203 with a .656 at home.
Through April 27 he was hitting .305 with 12 home runs. What's been the difference for him since his hot start?
Before April 27 he wasn't missing anything in the horizontal middle of the plate. Of those 12 home runs, three had come on pitches in the middle-outside part of the plate, four on middle, two on middle-in and two actually came on inside pitches out of the zone. At that point in the season, here were his various swing data:
Swing percentage: 44 percent
Miss percentage: 29 percent
Chase percentage: 22 percent
Percentage of pitches in zone: 51 percent
Swing data since April 28:
Swing percentage: 43 percent
Miss percentage: 35 percent
Chase percentage: 21 percent
Percentage of pitches in zone: 47 percent
Here's what his batting average zones look like since April 28:
So there isn't a big difference in his approach; he's just swinging and missing more often. One note there: He's seeing more pitches up in the zone -- about 5 percent more often since that hot start -- and that's the pitch he's been struggling with. Since April 28, he's hitting .160 on pitches up. On the season, he's 0-for-22 on fastballs up in the zone (with eight walks and 17 strikeouts). He's going to keep seeing hard stuff until he shows he can turn on it.
B.J. Upton's struggles have been well documented. He's worked on his mechanics, but he's struggling to connect with the fastball: He's hit .194 against them, good for 158th out 161 regulars (only Josh Hamilton, Yuniesky Betancourt and Adeiny Hechavarria have a lower average).
Heyward's struggles against left-handers have become a legitimate problem on his path to stardom. After holding his own against them as a 20-year-old rookie in 2010, he's done little damage since:
His home run off Collins was a long blast to right-center off an 0-2 curveball. Collins wanted to go low and away but left it over the middle of the plate. "I was just looking for a pitch in the zone to hit," Heyward said. "Looking for a pitch in the zone to hit right there and try not to miss it. Put a good swing on it." It was just his fourth hit in 33 at-bats with two strikes against a lefty pitcher.
Braves fans seem to have their venom directed at Dan Uggla, but this team wasn't built to win based on Uggla hitting 36 home runs like he did in 2011. This team was counting on Upton, Upton and Heyward to be the best all-around outfield in the league. That is far from the case. It could be that the big decision the Braves face isn't a deadline trade, but manager Fredi Gonzalez determining if Jordan Schafer (.317/.406/.475 in 141 plate appearances) deserves more playing time.
Until or unless that becomes closer to a reality, don't count out the Nationals eventually making a run for the division title.
So, the way I see it, there are two answers here for the Atlanta Braves, both equally defensible:
1. You signed B.J. Upton to be your center fielder for the next five years. You're paying him a lot of money to do that. You can't give up on him so easily, so quickly, even if his batting line is a horrifying .148/.236/.252 after 176 plate appearances.
2. The object is to field your best team possible. Right now, that doesn't include B.J. Upton playing center field, at least on a regular basis.
What do you do if you're Fredi Gonzalez?
@dschoenfield I ask myself that question every morning, Dave. Schafer is simply better than Bj right now, HR today was best AB of his career— Zeth Olive (@ZethOlive) May 29, 2013
@dschoenfield Upton.Gotta stick with him.You don't give up on $75M after 8 weeks.— Allan Turner (@ThisRedRocks) May 29, 2013
@dschoenfield reluctantly BJ because $75m. Would love Heyward in CF with J Upton in RF and Gattis in left.— Josh Sorah (@JoshSorah) May 29, 2013
Of course, it's not even as easy as either/or. The Braves could keep playing Upton out there. They could play Jordan Schafer, who is hitting .299/.419/.455 in 95 PAs after hitting his second home run in Tuesday's 7-6 win over the Blue Jays.
The most interesting scenario is finding a way to keep Evan Gattis' bat in the lineup with Brian McCann back catching. The only way to do is that is to play Gattis in left, Justin Upton in right and move Jason Heyward to center. Gonzalez tried out that trio for the first time on Saturday.
What makes this so fun to debate is that all of these scenarios have issues. Is Gattis' bat for real -- he hit his 12th home run on Tuesday -- or will the league catch up to him? And how brutal would he be defensively? Heyward is a Gold Glove right fielder but has only played three games in center in his major league career, so how well could he handle the position? Schafer's track record suggests he's playing way over his head, but what if his improved walk rate is for real? There's also the worry -- it can't be ignored -- that benching B.J. Upton could upset his brother.
But the biggest question: What's going on with B.J.?
As Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information reports, Upton has been working with coaches to eliminate the excessive load in his swing, which Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said has caused Upton to be late on fastballs all season. Indeed, Upton is hitting .159 against fastballs after hitting .254 against them from 2009-12. Just 16 percent of his balls in play against fastballs have been "well hit," compared to 33 percent over those previous four seasons.
"There's still time left. I'll get it turned around."
But will he? I went to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index and looked at the past 25 years and found 18 players who hit below .175 in the first half of the season while getting at least 175 plate appearances. (Obviously, Upton has time in the first half to get over that .175 mark.) Of those 18, only four ended the season above .200, the highest being .219.
Now, most of those guys weren't 28-year-olds in their supposed primes who had just signed $75 million contracts. The most interesting comparison is one Braves fans might be familiar with. In 2006, Andruw Jones hit 41 home runs and drove in 129 runs. He hit .222 the next year, and in 2008, after signing a two-year, $36.5 million deal with the Dodgers, plummeted to .158 in 238 PAs. He hurt his knee in late May but was already well under .200. He was also out of shape and three years older than B.J., but was also better than B.J. at his best.
If anything, this speaks to the Braves' depth, a key reason why they are 4.5 games up on the Nationals in the NL East. That lead means Gonzalez doesn't have to panic. But I would suggest that Upton has been so bad that I don't believe he'll find an easy fix to his problems. And money certainly shouldn't be the deciding factor. I'd keep platooning Schafer and Upton and find a way to play Gattis a few times a week in left field. The big picture says you let Upton work his out of his slump, but baseball is also a game of streaks, and right now you ride Schafer and Gattis while they're hot.
- The fact that the Waners went back-to-back is pretty remarkable since Lloyd only hit five homers that year and Paul six (he actually hit two in the game). It was also that last home run of Lloyd's career (he hit 27 in his career). Lloyd is one of the weakest members of the Hall of Fame, with the old story being he only got in because the Veterans Committee must have been looking at Paul's stats. The only other family to produce two Hall of Famers are brothers Harry and George Wright, early pioneers of the professional game.
- Gaylord Perry and Jim Perry had identical career records of 215-174 for a few days in 1976.
- Pitcher Joe Niekro hit one home run in his long career -- it came off brother Phil.
- In the late '50s and early '60s, the Giants came with Felipe, Matty and Jesus Alou. Felipe was easily the best, as Matty and Jesus didn't have much power. Jesus was the last to reach the majors, late in 1963, and Felipe was traded to the Braves after the season, so the brothers only played together a few weeks. With Willie Mays in center and Willie McCovey playing left that year, the three never started a game together. They did, however, play a few innings together in three separate games. In 1966, Matty and Felipe -- both no longer with the Giants -- finished 1-2 in the NL batting race, Matty at .342 and Felipe at .327.
- Five Delahanty brothers reached the majors -- Ed was the eldest and the best, a Hall of Famer and one of the biggest stars of the 1890s. You may be familiar with his unfortunate death, when he drunkenly fell (or jumped) off a bridge over Niagara Falls after being kicked off a train.
- Ken and Bob Forsch are the only brothers to each pitch a no-hitter (Bob threw two), but there's an asterisk of sorts here. Melido and Pascual Perez each threw a shortened no-hitter (six and five innings, respectively) and then there's Ramon and Pedro Martinez. Ramon threw one for the Dodgers and while Pedro never threw an offical no-hitter, he did throw nine perfect innings against the Padres in 1995, only to give up a hit in the 10th.
- The only two brothers to win batting titles were Dixie (.357 with Brooklyn in 1944) and Harry Walker (.363 with the Cardinals and Phillies in 1947). Harry was only a regular for three seasons (1943, 1947 and 1949), but he didn't stick in the majors until he was 24, had his career interrupted by World War II, played poorly in 1947, got traded early in '47 and had a big year, didn't play as well in '48 and by 1950 was 33 years old and hit .207.
The Atlanta Braves sent a message this weekend: Don't forget about us.
We all know the Washington Nationals were prohibitive favorites to win the NL East -- 38 of 43 ESPN.com experts picked them -- and only five picked the Braves. I think the Braves' impressive sweep over the Nationals this weekend, culminating in Sunday's 9-0 shutout, did more to showcase the talents of the Braves than to expose any particular weaknesses in the Nationals.
"We know the Nationals are supposed to be pretty good, so it was good to make a statement early," Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons said after the club won its ninth game in a row. "Let them know we're going to be tough to beat."
Nationals manager Davey Johnson took the more experienced response of a manager who knows pennants aren't won in April: "We should have won the first one. We were right there on the second. We just got waffled today. I don't put too much stock in it."
The most impressive thing about the Braves is -- like the Nationals -- they're a team constructed not just for 2013 but for the long haul. What's really impressive is how the Braves have built this team. Astute draft picks, player development, great trades, obscure pickups and, rarely, an impact free-agent signing.
Unlike the Nationals, who benefited from years of losing records that resulted in high draft picks (especially lucky enough to own the No. 1 overall pick the years Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were in the draft), the Braves developed young talent without the benefit of all those high picks. In fact, in the past 20 years, they've had just two picks in the top 15 -- Mike Minor, No. 7 overall in 2009, and Jason Heyward, No. 14 overall in 2007. Minor was a polished college left-hander who some felt the Braves overdrafted; Heyward was a local high school kid who fell to 14th in part because he was pitched around so much as a senior that he had just 52 at-bats.
Credit the Braves scouting staff for not missing those guys. Roy Clark, the scouting director for the Braves when they drafted Heyward and Minor, is now the assistant general manager to Mike Rizzo in Washington. But beyond those first-rounders, the Braves have found talent later in the draft:
- Simmons was a second-round pick out of Western Oklahoma State Junior College in 2010 and his meteoric rise to reach the majors was remarkable, considering few teams believed in his bat and some even projected him as a pitcher.
- Closer Craig Kimbrel was a third-rounder in 2008, another junior college pick.
- Starter Kris Medlen was a 10th-rounder, yet another junior college pick, and like Kimbrel is a short right-hander (both are under 6 feet tall).
- First baseman Freddie Freeman, currently on the disabled list, was a second-round pick in 2007, and like Heyward reached the majors at age 20.
- Brandon Beachy, also on the DL after last year's Tommy John surgery, was primarly a third baseman at Indiana Wesleyan and went undrafted. Braves scout Gene Kerns saw him pitching in relief in a college summer league and recommended the team sign him.
- And then there's the quickly growing legend of Evan Gattis, who less than three years ago was a 23-year-old playing for the University of Texas-Permian Basin after having quit baseball for five years. The Braves drafted him in the 23rd round, and now he's a 26-year-old rookie catcher filling in for the injured Brian McCann, batting cleanup and hitting .324/.385/.724. Gattis, who knocked in two runs in Sunday's win, has 10 RBIs and four home runs in nine games this season.
All that young talent means the Braves had an Opening Day payroll just under $90 million -- 16th-highest in the majors and less than half of the Yankees and Dodgers.
Then, of course, there are the Upton brothers. Instead of re-signing speedster Michael Bourn, the Braves signed the younger B.J. Upton to add more power to the offense. Then came the blockbuster deal to acquire Justin Upton. All he's done is club seven homers -- his seventh came on Sunday off a Gio Gonzalez 2-2 curveball that Upton hit out to right-center.
Sunday's pitching star was veteran lefty Paul Maholm, another astute Braves pickup, acquired last summer from the Cubs for Arodys Vizcaino, a youngster who missed all of 2012 because of Tommy John surgery. Maholm is a cost-effective mid-rotation starter making $6.5 million this year, the kind of pitcher who is underrated because his stuff isn't overpowering. He'd had a good year with the Pirates in 2011 and was pitching well for the Cubs. He's added a slow curve to his repertoire this year and hasn't allowed a run in three starts.
Maholm will give up a run eventually and the Braves' winning streak will end soon. Right now they're playing the best of any team in baseball, a fun team to watch that does everything -- play defense, pitch, hit for power and then hand the ball to Kimbrel. And the scary thing: B.J. Upton is just finally starting to hit -- he had three on Sunday to raise his average to .163 -- and Heyward is hitting .103 with just two extra-base hits.
Consider the message received.
REST OF THE WEEKEND
1. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox. Took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Sunday against the Rays, finishing with 11 K's over eight scoreless frames in Boston's 5-0 win. Buchholz had a dominant spring training and it's carried over into April as he's 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA.
2. Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners. Outpitched Yu Darvish in a 3-1 Seattle victory on Friday in a matchup that was certainly huge in Japan. Through three starts Iwakuma is 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA, .129 average allowed and 16/1 SO/BB ratio.
3. Matt Harvey, Mets. Can't avoid another pitcher, but Harvey was dominant once again on Saturday against the Twins, pitching through a start-time temperature of 35 degrees. In three starts he's 3-0 with two runs allowed and six hits in 22 innings.
Clutch performance of the weekend
Albert Pujols, Angels. Trailing the Astros 4-1 in the eighth inning on Saturday, and staring at an embarrassing 2-9 start, the Angels rallied for two in the eighth and then Pujols doubled home Luis Jimenez and Mike Trout with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. A win on Sunday pushed the Angels to 4-8; not good, but not yet a complete disaster.
Braves 6, Nationals 4, 10 innings (Friday). The Nationals led 4-0 after two innings and starter Ross Detwiler departed after seven innings with a 4-1 lead. But the Nationals bullpen struggled yet again, the Braves tied it in the ninth off Drew Storen, and then backup infielder Ramiro Pena hit a two-run homer off Craig Stammen in the 10th.
Hitter on the rise: Evan Gattis, Braves.
What does it say about the confidence Fredi Gonzalez has in Gattis to hit him cleanup after just a few games in the majors? If Gattis is this good, it's going to create a good kind of problem when McCann and Freeman return from the DL. What do you do with him? He's catching now and started one game at first, but you can't really hide him anywhere else.
Pitcher on the rise: Jose Fernandez, Marlins
The 20-year-old rookie had his second straight solid outing, with six scoreless innings against the Phillies on Saturday. That's two starts and one run allowed, although he hasn't earned the W yet.
Move I can't understand
Oh, Dusty Baker, how we love to analyze your moves. On Sunday, the Reds led the Pirates 6-4 entering the bottom of the eighth (and had led 5-0 entering the bottom of the seventh). Aroldis Chapman hadn't pitched in ... well, a week. Neither had setup man Jonathan Broxton, who came in and promptly gave up a walk and home run to Michael McKenry. And then after a groundout, another walk. But it wasn't a save situation so Chapman remained in the bullpen. Starling Marte then homered. Broxton then gave up a walk (to pitcher Jonathan Sanchez) and a single. And was still in there to give up a sac fly. (Baker blamed rust for Broxton's stuggles. OK.) Chapman was finally summoned from the pen. So Baker managed to go an entire week without getting Chapman into a meaningful situation. Meanwhile, Johnny Cueto left Saturday's game with right triceps pain and Shin-Soo Choo continues to hit but struggled defensively in center field.
Team on the rise: Pirates
The Pirates entered the weekend hitting .153 and had scored 21 runs in nine game. They swept the Reds to improve to 6-6, one game behind St. Louis in the NL Central.
Team on the fall: Twins
The Twins have lost five in a row and got snowed out on Sunday, which maybe was a good thing. Rookie center field Aaron Hicks may find a trip to Triple-A in his future, as after a big spring training he looks completely overmatched, hitting 3-for-43 (.047) with 20 strikeouts. And yet Ron Gardenhire continues to hit him leadoff.
A year ago, the Cleveland Indians allowed the most runs in the American League, a pretty remarkable achievement considering the Minnesota Twins had a historically awful rotation. The Indians, however, combined bad pitchers and bad defense -- their -51 Defensive Runs Saved ranked 28th in the majors.
Like the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, the Indians decided to make their pitching better by improving their defense. First they traded impending free agent Shin-Soo Choo, who graded out as -12 DRS in right field, and landed Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs in the deal, pushing Michael Brantley to left. Then they signed free agent Nick Swisher to replace Choo; Swisher is a better right fielder than Choo. But when Michael Bourn remained unsigned into February, the Indians swooped in and signed the two-time Gold Glove center fielder. That pushed Swisher primarily to first base and gave the Indians an outfield of three guys who played center field last year.
The Indians' outfield collectively rated as -17 a year ago, and it's conceivable this group could rate at +30 runs -- a 47-run difference worth nearly five wins. Not to mention maybe some added confidence to the pitching staff.
The Red Sox, likewise, signed Shane Victorino to play right field and promoted rookie Jackie Bradley to play left. They join Jacoby Ellsbury to give them an outfield of three center fielders; Bradley defers to the veteran Ellsbury for now, but scouting reports suggest he's an elite defender.
The Angels, who rated as the second-best defensive outfield a year ago at +46 runs (behind Atlanta's +55), could be even better this year, with Peter Bourjos getting more time in center, Mike Trout playing left, and Josh Hamilton, who played a lot of center field for Texas, in right. Essentially, the Angels decided to replace Kendrys Morales' bat with Bourjos' glove, with Mark Trumbo playing more DH and less outfield.
If Bill James and then "Moneyball" popularized the importance of on-base percentage, then that sort of makes outfield defense the new OBP. Of course, just because emphasizing outfield defense appears to be a new trend doesn't really make it new. Just like Branch Rickey was talking about the importance of OBP over batting average in the 1950s.
For example, look at Whitey Herzog's Royals of the late '70s and then his Cardinals in the 1980s. Playing on turf in both places, he always emphasized speed in the outfield. His 1985 Cardinals, for example, had an outfield of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Andy Van Slyke, three guys who could play center field (although Coleman had a poor arm). Van Slyke later paired with Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh to give the Pirates two Gold Glove outfielders as they won three NL East titles in a row. The A's of the early '80s had the great trio of Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas. The 2001 Mariners won 116 games in part by employing three great defenders in Mike Cameron, Ichiro Suzuki and part-timer Stan Javier.
But I would suggest that it seems we are deep in outstanding defensive outfields right now. Here's how I would rank the top five -- remember, we're talking only about defense here.
1. Angels: LF Mike Trout, CF Peter Bourjos, RF Josh Hamilton
Trout and Bourjos are arguably the two best outfielders in the American League, and Hamilton is at least adequate with a strong arm.
2. Athletics: LF Yoenis Cespedes, CF Coco Crisp, RF Josh Reddick
The A's were fifth in DRS last year at +17, but that includes Cespedes' time in center, where he rated poorly. He should be solid in left (he made a nice play on Hamilton the other night, running down a deep drive in left-center and doubling Albert Pujols off first) with a strong arm, Reddick is outstanding in right (+19 last year) and Crisp average in center. And backing up is Chris Young, who always had excellent defensive metrics with Arizona.
Bourn's +24 DRS last year tied him with Alex Gordon for the best total of any outfielder in the majors. He can run everything down in center, and now you flank him with two decent center fielders who should rate above-average in the corners. The only question here: Will Stubbs hit enough to remain in the lineup?
4. Brewers: LF Ryan Braun, CF Carlos Gomez, RF Norichika Aoki
The Brewers ranked third at +24 DRS a year ago and should be very good once again. All three are above-average defenders.
5. Red Sox: LF Jackie Bradley Jr., CF Jacoby Ellsbury, RF Shane Victorino
Victorino's metrics have dropped a bit in the past couple seasons as a center fielder, but he can still run and has a chance to be outstanding in right. Bradley won't get to show off his range at Fenway Park, but that doesn't mean he won't add defensive value. Ellsbury was +7 DRS back in 2011.
Worth considering: Nationals (Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Jayson Werth). Span is very good and Harper actually rated very good in center last year, despite some bad routes at times. Werth appears to have lost a step from his Phillies days.
Worth considering but overrated: Braves (Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward). It will be interesting to see what happens here. Since Baseball Info Solutions began their Defensive Runs Saved metric in 2003, the +55 the Braves were evaluated at last year was the third-highest by any outfield (behind two other Braves teams in 2005 and 2007 that featured Andruw Jones). But Bourn and Martin Prado are gone, replaced by the Upton brothers. Some consider B.J. an elite center fielder, but I've never thought that and his metrics aren't great (-30 runs over the past three years). Heyward is terrific in right (+20 last year and a deserving Gold Glove winner) while Justin has been solid (+14 total over the past three years) if prone to throwing errors.
Sleeper: Tigers (Andy Dirks, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter). Jackson is terrific in center, and Hunter continues to age gracefully.
The defensive metrics don't like them: Orioles (Nate McLouth, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis). Jones won the AL Gold Glove for center field, but DRS considers him below average. Just a few games into the season, the Orioles are at -5 runs ... although, to be fair, so are the Angels (Trout is -2 and Hamilton -4). Maybe Trout is fat.
On a night when folks might have been wondering if Chris Davis was going to hit his fifth home run in his fifth game, somebody did do it. It just wasn’t Chris Davis.
Justin Upton’s two-homer night was just his latest “happy to be here” feat now that he’s a brand-new Brave. It’s an introduction to Atlanta that can only involve less of the same, which takes away nothing from what he’s already done. Justin Upton had to settle for a double to lead off the eighth inning, after all. And I’m sure he’ll hit his second single of the season at some point.
After Justin’s game-winner, which was set up by B.J. Upton’s first homer in a Braves uni that tied the game, Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Info passed along the news from Elias that not only was this the first time that two brothers had ever before homered to tie and then win a game in the same inning, it was also the first time a player hit a walk-off home run in a game in which his brother homered earlier since Hank and Tommy Aaron did so for the Milwaukee Braves against the Cardinals in 1962. The Cubs’ flammable tandem of Kyuji Fujikawa and Carlos Marmol might have produced the fuel, but it took two Uptons to light them up.
Let’s set aside the early-season fun with statistrivia, though. Even after this seemingly remarkable set of unlikelihoods, this is nevertheless exactly the sort of thing that GM Frank Wren and the Braves envisioned when they brought in both Uptons, signing B.J. before dealing for Justin. Not in terms of the details, but in the broad strokes, the Braves expected they’d be winning games early and late, having powered up with Upton power.
Getting them both and banking on their upside was an optimist’s exercise. It’s an interesting problem in talking about the Uptons: How much should we expect of them? Great things, of course, but we’ve been guilty of doing that with both of them for a long time, at least since Justin was the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, and at least since B.J. ripped 24 home runs as a 22-year-old center fielder for the Rays in 2007. The anticipation of what they can do is the stuff premature frustration is made of, which might well be why they’re Braves now instead of still being with their original teams.
Remember, Justin is just 25 and should just be entering his prime as a player. How many people get to be considered vaguely disappointing before 25? How reasonable is that? Not very. But because Justin came up at 19, because he was supposed to be great, you could be forgiven for having a nagging sense that he’s supposed to have already done those things.
It’s something that has probably consistently handicapped our assessments of B.J.’s career as well, going back to the seven homers combined that he ripped in the 2008 ALDS and ALCS. You might have thought this was the start of something truly special, but it wasn’t -- B.J. followed it up with an 11-homer season. Even last season’s career-high 28 homers in his last season as a Ray came with a career-low .298 OBP.
It’s to the Braves’ credit that they looked past all of that, that they didn’t focus on what the Uptons haven’t done -- yet -- and instead stuck with the knowledge that there’s a reason why they’ve both been worth waiting for in the first place. Theirs is not to reason why the Uptons seemingly didn’t fulfill one set of expectations or another. Instead, the Braves saw a 28-year-old center fielder who could give them 30 homers and quality defense in center. Instead of giving much thought to what Justin Upton hadn’t done or done yet after a disappointing 2012 season on the heels of his MVP-worthy 2011, they didn’t overthink it; they traded for the three years that Justin is still under contract. How often do potential MVP-caliber players heading into their prime become available? Not so often that you punt on the opportunity to trade for him. You make that deal and gladly accept fortune’s favor.
You can expect that the Uptons will be delivering more magic like this in the months to come. Certainly, Braves fans should be on the edge of their seats with anticipation every time their spots in the batting order approach. There’s no shame in that: For two players so gifted, expecting things has long gone with the territory. Watching them deliver on them as Braves should make 2013 a very special year in Atlanta.
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