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Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Pitching, patience give Braves hope

ESPN.com

Editor's note: Throughout August, ESPN.com will take a close look at various teams in the hunt for a playoff spot to assess whether they have what it takes to survive the dog days of August and remain in contention come October.

At the bottom of the page, each team will receive a dog bone rating based on our overall analysis: five bones = serious postseason contender; four bones = good contender; three bones = average contender; two bones = poor contender; one bone = no contender.

Tim Hudson
Hudson

Tim Hudson

Hudson's sinking fastball has been the most effective fastball in the majors this season, primarily because hitters haven't been able to hit it off the ground. He leads all qualified major leaguers in inducing ground balls, having done so 66.1 percent of the time they've put the ball in play. As a result, he's enjoying a career year, sporting a 2.13 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP. He's given the Braves an excellent chance to win virtually every time out, and they'll need to capitalize on his good work down the stretch. Squandering it could end up being disastrous.

-- Peter Hjort (Capitol Avenue Club, SweetSpot Blog Network)

Omar Infante
Infante

Omar Infante

With Chipper Jones out for the remainder of the season, Infante finds himself playing every day. A somewhat questionable All-Star selection, Infante has hit .339/.368/.416 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 304 plate appearances this season. It's a lot to ask for a 28-year-old career part-time player to step into a starting role in the middle of a pennant race, but as well as Infante has played lately, the organization rightfully has some confidence he'll do a passable job. It would be quite a boost to the team if Infante thrived in his newfound starting role down the stretch.

-- Peter Hjort (Capitol Avenue Club, SweetSpot Blog Network)

The Braves have relied on solid pitching (second-best ERA in baseball), patience at the plate and some serious "home cooking" to get them to this point. Hudson's excellent comeback year, the emergence of rookies Jason Heyward and Jonny Venters, and the continued development of Martin Prado, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens have the Braves situated at the top of the National League East.

Solid pitching

Although Hudson's strikeout totals have dwindled since joining the Braves in 2005, he is still having one of the best seasons of his career in 2010. Hudson's 5.8 wins above replacement is tied for tops in baseball with Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright.

Tommy Hanson
Hanson

Meanwhile, young guns Hanson and Jurrjens have helped solidify the Braves' rotation. Hanson's 134 strikeouts lead the team, and Jurrjens has gone 5-1 with a 2.91 ERA in 58.2 innings since coming off the disabled list in late June.

The Braves' bullpen, which appeared to be a potential weakness coming into 2010 after an offseason in which they lost Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, has actually been a strong point. Closer Billy Wagner made the 2010 NL All-Star team and is having his best season since 2005.

Wagner sports a 6-2 record with a 1.74 ERA and an impressive 72-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio while locking down the ninth inning for a Braves bullpen that has a 3.21 ERA. Also in the bullpen, Venters is having a tremendous rookie campaign, having gone 4-0 with a 1.19 ERA in 55 appearances.

It hasn't been all good news for the staff, though, as "utility reliever" Kris Medlen appears to be lost for the season. Medlen had tallied a 6-2 record (5-0 in 14 starts) with a 3.68 ERA and 83 strikeouts.

Small ball

Prado, who is expected back soon, and Heyward have provided solid production at the top of the Braves' lineup. Prado has hit .322 with a .362 OBP, 11 homers and 31 RBIs out of the leadoff spot. Heyward, who has hit in every spot in the lineup except for cleanup and leadoff, has chipped in with a .351 OBP and 19 RBIs out of the 2-hole.

Jason Heyward
Heyward

What has been most impressive about Heyward is his .349 average and .500 OBP with two outs and runners in scoring position. Troy Glaus, Jones, and 2010 All-Star Game MVP Brian McCann have provided the middle-of-the-lineup muscle. The main story for the Braves' offense, though, outside of Jones' season-ending injury, has been their small-ball approach. The Braves rank fifth in the majors in OBP, second in walks drawn and fifth in sacrifice hits.

Did you know?

At 42-16, the Braves have the best home record in baseball. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last team to have the best home record in the majors on Aug. 17 and fail to make the playoffs was the 1999 Oakland A's. The A's were 41-19 at home through Aug. 17, 1999.

The 1999 season also marked the last time the Braves had the best home record in the majors at the end of the regular season and their last World Series appearance. The last year the Braves had the best home record in baseball as of Aug. 17 was 2005, which was the Braves' most recent playoff appearance.

If the Braves can finish the season with baseball's best home record, they should be in good shape. Not since the 1993 Montreal Expos has the team that finished with the best home record failed to make the postseason.

-- Derek Czenczelewski, ESPN Stats & Info blog

From FanGraphs

At the end of April, the situation for the Atlanta Braves looked bleak. After defeating the Philadelphia Phillies on April 20, the Braves were tied atop the NL East, but they promptly lost nine games in a row to fall five back in a division occupied by the two-time defending NL champs. By the end of May, though, the Braves came back to lead the division, and they still do. They have a roughly 88 percent chance of making the playoffs. Even if the Phillies overtake them, they would lead the wild-card race, and at this point, with injured third baseman Chipper Jones out for the season, they'd take a bid any way they can get it.

For more of FanGraphs' analysis, click here Insider.