Posted: 2:11 pm Friday, April 25th, 2014
By David O'Brien
You might look at all the eye-popping stats that Braves starting pitchers are producing – particularly a 1.50 ERA through 21 games — and say to yourself or to the person seated next to you at the bar or on the couch, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this. And chances are, you’d be correct.
This is approaching historic-level excellence, folks. With five games left in April, Braves starters have a chance to join the 1968 Cleveland Indians as the only team since at least 1950 to post a starters ERA of 1.50 or better in any month with at least 20 games. Think about that.
All those terrific, all-time-great Braves starting rotations never did it. Nor did the great Dodgers and Orioles. Not a 1.50 ERA. Not for a full month.
Now it could be done by a Braves team that had to scramble just to fill out the rotation during spring training after losing planned No. 1 starter Kris Medlen and top-four starter Brandon Beachy to season-ending elbow injuries, and also losing Mike Minor for what’s turned out to be the first month due to early spring shoulder tendinitis. That’s three of the top four returning starters, not to mention veteran Tim Hudson, who left as a free agent.
And yet, Braves pitchers enter Friday with four of the top nine National League starters’ ERAs, including the league’s top two: Aaron Harang (0.85) and Ervin Santana (0.86), who were signed on March 24 and March 12, respectively. Alex Wood (1.54) is eight and Julio Teheran (1.80) is ninth.
If you didn’t see this coming, you’re not alone. Even some of the most astute pitching minds have been caught off-guard.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” said Hall of Famer pitcher and Braves broadcaster Don Sutton. “Just looking at experience and lack of track record, I thought that they had put together a staff that was going to tread water until everybody (got healthy). I can’t say I’m surprised, because I’ve seen good things out of everybody that’s gone out there. I’m just really pleased. I’m pleased for Aaron Harang. I like it for anybody that knows he’s on the back half of his career but has a chance to shine.”
To repeat, the Braves have a chance to do something – a 1.50 ERA or better for a full month — that’s only been done once since 1950, by the ’68 Indians, who had a 1.36 ERA (and 19-8 record) from starters in 30 May games.
Luis Tiant went 21-9 with a 1.60 ERA and 264 strikeouts in 258 1/3 innings for that Cleveland crew, and Sam McDowell had a 1.81 ERA and 283 strikeouts in 269 innings over 38 games (37 starts). But the Indians didn’t have much offensively and finished third in the AL at 89-75.
The only other team since 1950 to post a 1.50-or-better ERA in any month regardless of number of games was the 1976 Brewers, who had a 1.44 starters ERA in April. But they only played 12 games. So we’ll toss that aside.
I went to the Baseball Reference play index today, pumped in the numbers and qualifiers for a couple of different studies, then sifted through the reports that it produced to come up with that stat above about the ’68 Indians, and one other stat that might be equally impressive, given the various period that is encompasses.
And that is this: It’s been exactly 100 years since a Braves team had a starters ERA for an entire month (minimum 20 starts) as good as or better than 1.50. The 1914 Boston Braves starters had a 16-5 record and 1.46 ERA in 26 August starts.
The 1916 Braves also had a 1.60 ERA in 23 June starts. And that’s the only other Braves team in a century to have below a 1.75 ERA starters ERA in any month with at least 20 starts. There’s at least a real good chance these Braves will at least be the third in that group.
By the way, that 1914 Braves team went 94-59 and swept the Philadelphia Athletics in a four-game World Series. Thos Braves played their home games at South End Grounds III and a new stadium called Fenway Park.
Their best pitcher was Bill James – no, not that Bill James – who went 26-7 with a 1.90 ERA in 46 games (37 starts) and 332 1/3 innings. James had 156 strikeouts but walked 118. Also Dick Rudoph was 26-10 with a 2.35 ERA in 336 1/3 innings and 42 games (36 starts). Those two pitchers started 73 of the team’s 153 games.
And now the Braves are getting historic-level production from a patchwork rotation led by a 35-year-old (Harang) on his sixth team in five years, a former AL All-Star (Santana) who’s in his first NL season and missed much of spring training after multi-year contract offers he anticipated didn’t materialize, and a pair of talented 23-year-olds, Teheran and Wood, plus a rookie (David Hale) who pitched in two major league games before this season.
“There’s nothing I like more in baseball than young pitchers,” said Sutton, who had pitched more than 660 innings and collected 540 strikeouts and 34 wins in three seasons with the Dodgers before he turned 24. “So … am I a little surprised? Yes. But I couldn’t be happier. It’s one of those things, I wouldn’t have bet on it happening, but dang, I’m glad it is.”
Sutton heard skeptics all winter insist that the Braves lacked a true No. 1 starter. That irked him.
“Doesn’t (this) shoot in the foot everybody all winter saying, ‘We’ve got to go look for an ace, we’ve got to go look for an ace’? You may have him in your own camp. CC Sabathia didn’t wake up one morning and say, I’m an ace. You earn that right, and how do you get that? Through opportunity. You might have a ton of aces. That’s why I don’t like the profiling crap about he’s a No. 1, he’s a No. 2, he’s a No. 3.
“If you’re going to win you better have a No. 1 out there every night, and that’s what’s happening.”
Braves starters have allowed two or fewer earned runs in 20 of 21 games this season, and only three in the other game. That’s a staggering statistic.
Atlanta starters have a majors-best .204 opponents’ average and have allowed a majors-low seven home runs.
“They’ve stayed out of the middle of the strike zone,” Sutton said. “They’ve changed speeds. Pitched ahead in the count. And thrown strikes with something on the ball. That’s a formula for beating anybody. I think what you’re seeing here from the guys who came up through the organization is the great teaching in the system.”
Including what they get after they arrive in the big leagues, from pitching coach Roger McDowell. Sutton thinks he’s still underrated.
“People have been writing about what a great job Roger has done,” Sutton said. “But I don’t think enough has been written about what a great job he’s done, blending personalities and talent. And I don’t think he’s one of those guys – you see it a lot – who starts putting limitations on guys. I’ve never heard him or Fredi (Gonzalez) put limitations on guys. ‘Go get ‘em.’ For most guys who can pitch, that’s all you want to hear.
“You create an environment where you support them, help them remember what they did when they did it well, and say, ‘Go get ‘em, guys.’”
• More on the pitching: The Braves are 9-3 with a 1.90 ERA in their past 12 games before Friday’s series opener against the Reds, including 11 games with three or fewer runs allowed in that span of a dozen games. They have a 1.17 ERA in their past eight games, allowing one or no earned runs in six of them.
This weekend series pits the two teams with the majors’ lowest opponents’ batting averages, the Braves (.204) and Reds (.205), and the lowest opponents’ OPS, the Braves (.525) well ahead of the second-ranked Reds (.620).
Sunday’s series finale features Teheran against Johnny Cueto, who is fourth in the league in ERA (1.38) and first in the majors in opponents’ average (.140), one spot ahead of Harang (.143). Santana is sixth in the NL in opponents’ average at .178, a couple of spots ahead of Miami’s Jose Fernandez (.195).
• Friday’s matchup: It’s Santana against Homer Bailey, each of whom has a no-hitter on his resume.
Santana has allowed one or no runs in each of his first three starts for the Braves, and has 24 strikeouts with four walks in 21 innings. This will be his first-ever start against Cincinnati, and the only Reds with more than four at-bats against him are Jack Hannahan (3-for-19) and Ramon Santiago (1-for-7).
Bailey pitched six shutout innings at Wrigley Field in his last start, after giving up at least four earned runs in each of his first three starts, including six homers in 14-1/3 innings over that span. He’s 2-1 with a 3.94 ERA in five career starts against the Braves, including 0-1 with a 6.55 ERA in two last season.
Ryan Doumit is 8-for-16 with a homer against Bailey, but other Braves haven’t fared nearly as well. Those with more than five at-bats against him include Chris Johnson (1-for-12), Dan Uggla (3-for-18), Jason Heyward (2-for-9) and Freddie Freeman (2-for-11).
Evan Gattis and Justin Upton share the team leads with two homers and five RBIs in close-and-late situations. Worst on the team in those situations might come as a surprise: Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward, each at 2-for-20. Heyward has 11 strikeouts, two walks, no extra-base hits and no RBIs in those situations, while Freeman has a homer and two RBIs.
Despite his recent dry eyes-related slump, Freeman is still fourth in the NL with a 1.038 OPS, behind the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki and Charlie Blackmon and Philly’s Chase Utley. Freeman leads the Braves with a .412 average (7-for-17) with runners in scoring position, and next are Dan Uggla is next at .333 (5-for-15) and Gattis at .333 (3-for-9).
The only other Brave with more than three RISP hits is Justin Upton, who is 4-for-21 (.190) with five walks and 12 strikeouts in those situations.
Justin Upton leads the Braves with three homers with runners on base, although he is just 9-for-40 with six walks and 20 strikeouts in those situaitons. Gattis has a team-best .333 average (8-for-24) with runners on, with two doubles and two homers.
B.J. Upton is 4-for-29 (.138) with runners on base and 1-for-14 (.071) with runners in scoring position.
Eels have a new album out. This is from an older one by him/them. Listen to it by clicking here.
“I LIKE THE WAY THIS IS GOING” by Eels
I like your toothy smile,
it never fails to beguile.
Whichever way the wind is blowing
I like the way this is going.I like the color of your hair,
I think we make a handsome pair.
I can only see my love growing
I like the way this is going
I like to watch TV with you,
there’s really nothing i would rather do.
Then maybe we can go to bed,
get up and do it all again.
I like the way your pants fit,
how you stand and how you sit,
whatever seeds that you’re sowing,
I like the way this is going.
I don’t care about the past,
none of it was made to last,
it’s not what who you’ve known,
but who you’re knowing,
I like the way this is going
I like the way this is going.
About the Author
David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002, and previously covered the Marlins for the (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel for seven years. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism.