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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

A Braves bright spot: Heyward going strong

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 MIAMI – Since we’ve bombarded you with a lot of negative Braves stats and stories this past week, which often happens when a team loses four in a row to a team that had lost its previous 10 games, we’ll start today with a positive note.

The Braves have been waiting for someone besides Freddie Freeman and the streaky Justin Upton to make a consistent impact in their lineup – it’s hard for Evan Gattis to do that when the slugger sits once every few games and isn’t a high average or OBP guy anyway – and now it looks as if Jason Heyward is ready to assume that role again.

You know, something closer to the player he was in the first half of his rookie year, when he honestly looked like baseball’s next young superstar.

His expected career arc has been affected significantly these past few years by injuries and whatnot (whatnot – that’s a Chipper word, and also one that I’ve also noticed Jason himself use) but now Heyward is starting to play like he did late last summer when the Braves moved him to the leadoff spot and he tore it up for several weeks before getting his face broken by a Jon Niese fastball.

Jason Heyward hit his second homer in three days Thursday to put the Braves ahead 1-0 early. They blew a 3-1 lead late in a 4-3 loss at Boston. (AP Photo)

Jason Heyward hit his second homer in three days Thursday to put the Braves ahead 1-0 early. They blew a 3-1 lead late in a 4-3 loss at Boston. (AP Photo)

So anyway, you don’t want to jump to conclusions too early, but Heyward has been far more consistent lately and has also finally started to show signs of hitting for more power. His third-inning homer Thursday night at Boston put the Braves ahead 1-0 on the way to building a 3-1 lead through seven innings.

That was before Atlanta’s second late-innings meltdown of the week results in three Boston runs in the last two innings (actually in their last three outs) and a 4-3 Red Sox win that gave them a four-game sweep of the Braves. But this was a positive note. So hold on a minute for that other stuff.

Heyward is finishing a month of May in which he’s produced a .280/.365/.390 slash line with three homers and four steals. And in his past 17 games he’s hit .318 (21-for-66) with a .400 OBP and three homers, five RBIs, eight walks, 12 strikeouts and nine runs.

OK, that’s the good news. J-Hey looks like J-Hey again, or something a lot closer to it than we had seen in April.

Now, the bad news.

No one else in the Braves lineup has done much of anything on a consistent basis with the exception of Justin Upton, and even he has toggled between spectacular stretches and a few periods where he was silent (not to mention the ragged defense – yikes).

Upton is going to end up with strong numbers for the month, as he’s currently at .290/.374/.548 with five homers and 15 RBIs in 26 games entering the weekend series against the tied-for-first-place Marlins.

And Freeman, despite being uncharacteristically unproductive in some glaring situations, is still hitting .289/.395/.485 with three homers and 12 RBIs for the month. Not bad, though not up to his run-production standards.

But after them, there is a major dropoff for the Braves. Chris Johnson (.282) and Heyward (.280) are the only other Braves hitting above .253 for the month, and Johnson’s is a fairly hollow .282 with one homer, two walks, 26 strikeouts and a .292 OBP and .352 slugging percentage.

Here’s what particularly alarming and also points to the obvious weakness of this Braves roster: J. Upton, Freeman and Heyward are the only Braves with an on-base percentage as high as .300 for the month of May. That’s terrible.

For the season, the Braves’ .299 OBP is fourth-lowest in the majors, ahead of only the Cubs, Mariners and Padres, three bad offensive teams.

Couple the fact that the Braves get on base at a clip that ranks near the bottom of the league with the fact that they are not good at situational hitting – getting a runner over, getting him in from third with less than two outs, etc. – and you can see where it’s a recipe that just won’t work unless the Braves are hitting a lot of home runs. And they’re not hitting a lot of home runs.

• Let’s do a comparison in May with the Braves and Marlins, since the teams are tied for first place in the NL East heading into their three-game series at Marlins Park beginning tonight.

For the month of May, the Brave have two players with more than three home runs (J. Upton 5, Gattis 4). The Marlins have four (Stanton 7, Ozuna 5, Yelich 4, Jones 4).

The Braves have two players with double-digit RBis in May (J. Upton 15, Freeeman 12). The Marlins have five (Stanton 18, McGehee 16, Ozuna 16, Jones 13, Yelich 10).

The the Braves have the aforementioned three players with OBPs above .300 in May. The Marlins have 10. Ten!

The Braves don’t have anyone hitting above .290 in May. The Marlins have six hitting at least .300.

It was a rough day in the field for Tommy La Stella in his second major league game Thursday. Each of the Upton brothers also had a costly error in the eighth inning when the Braves blew a 3-1 lead at Boston.

It was a rough day in the field for second baseman Tommy La Stella in his second major league game Thursday. Each of the Upton brothers had a costly error in the eighth inning when the Braves blew a 3-1 lead at Boston. (AP photo)

Now, weren’t the Braves supposed to be the team that was young but not green, the team that had a power up and down the lineup and experience beyond its years. And  the Marlins, weren’t they supposed to be Stanton surrounded by either unproven young talent or well-traveled guys with big question marks next to their names?

And before anyone starts to dismiss what the Marlins have done as somehow a product of a home-field advantage that has drawn suspicions of sign-stealing from some corners, particularly from the Braves when they were swept in Miami a month ago, consider this:

While the Marlins have hit a robust .288 with a .352 OBP and .452 slugging percentage at home, second-best in the NL behind he altitude-enhanced Rockies in each of those categories, it’s not as if the Marlins are utter slouches when it comes to hitting on the road.

Or, put it this way: The Marlins’ .237 average, .301 OBP and .377 slugging percentage on the road are better across the board than the Braves’ .228/.285/.367 road numbers.

• J-Up’s splits and defense: Rarely will you see numbers this rounded in a hitter’s splits (not to mention this lopsided) as with Justin Upton entering Friday’s series opener in Miami. He is hitting exactly .400 (40-for-100) at home and .200 (17-for-85) on the road.

He has a .400/.483/.790 slash line with 10 homers and 26 RBIs in 29 home games, and .200/.266/.365 with three homers and seven RBIs in 22 road games.

Of course, today it’s not his road numbers that are a concern as much as his defense. His error in the two-run eighth inning got the ugliness started for the Braves, and his brother B.J. would add another costly error and second baseman Tommy La Stella a coulda-been-ruled error on a grounder behind second base that he failed to field cleanly.

Now, I don’t believe that errors and fielding percentage are a great way to measure defensive performance, I also think defensive metric stats are still evolving and haven’t reached anything close to the level of reliability, accuracy and usefulness that so many metric stats that are now commonly used to measure offense and overall performance.

So I’ll just throw this out there because I do think it’s an indication of what you and I and everyone else who’s watched a lot of Braves games over the past two years have seen from the left fielder, who, keep in mind, won a Fielding Bible Award as the best defensive right fielder in baseball in 2011. Yes, ahead of Jason Heyward, as hard as that is to believe now.

Anyway, the perhaps rudimentary but still worth noting stat: J. Upton’s five errors this season are the most among major league left fielders, and his .948 fielding percentage is the lowest among major league outfielders regardless of position.

And as we know, there have been mental mistakes and some other plays that could have been ruled errors and weren’t.

Point is, I still haven’t heard a good theory on why J. Upton’s defensive declined to such a degree since 2011, and please don’t say because he’s not playing his “natural” position. That might have been relevant for his first spring training and first couple of regular-season months in left field, but he’s in his second season at the position.

And most good outfielders will tell you that if you can play one corner outfield you can play the other, once you get the nuances of each position worked out. Which doesn’t take two years.

I just don’t get how his outfield play could be diminished to such a degree, unless his body type has changed significantly since 2011. And I didn’t see him play enough back then to recall whether that’s the case. Maybe he’s become more of a power athlete now, thicker and more muscle-bound. I don’t know.

But the guy won a Fielding Bible Award in 2011. And now….

• One more quick stat: Braves pitching hasn’t been as dominant as it was in April, and who could have expected it to be? But Atlanta pitchers still are tied for second-best ERA in the NL in May at 3.34, yet the team is only 11-16 for the month.

The team they’re tied with for ERA this  month? The Cubs, who are 10-15. Basically, the Braves have mirrored the Cubs this month. And that’s never good.

Meanwhile, the team with the NL’s best ERA in May, the Giants (2.88), is 18-8 for the month. Which is kind of where you expect the team with the best ERA to be, right?

The Giants have hit enough — .251 average, .307 OBP, .408 slugging – for the month, pretty much middle of the pack, and taken advantage of scoring opportunities to a far greater degree than the Braves. San Franciso has scored 114 runs to Atlanta’s 86 for the month.

The Giants are hitting a league-best .288 (63-for-219) with runners in scoring position and two outs, while the Braves are hitting a league-worst .161 (29-for-180) in that category.

 * Here’s an unreleased early version of a great tune by Ryan Bingham.

“SOUTHSIDE OF HEAVEN” by Ryan Bingham

When I die Lord won’t you put my soul up on a train
Won’t you send it southbound
Give it a cool blues-man name
I’ve been lost on them back roads so many times, I’ve gone blind
Losing faith in my family had driven me out of my damn mindBut on the south side of heaven won’t you take me home
Cause I’ve been broke down for so long and Lord, it’s getting cold

I’ve been a desperado in West Texas for so long Lord, I need a change
For ten long years this old place ain’t seen a drop of rain
And that wind blows everyday Lord, all like a desert snow
Like a lost bound train running on cocaine and outta control

Ryan Bingham

Ryan Bingham

But on the south side of heaven won’t you take me home
Cause I’ve been broke down for so long and Lord, it’s getting cold

Long down the Louisiana byways
Lonesome highways roll on
Won’t you take me where the poor man lives
Its where I call my home
And can’t you see that a breeze, nothin’ but a change in pace
Money can’t buy my soul, cause it comes from a hard earned place

But on the south side of heaven won’t you take me home
Cause I’ve been broke down for so long and Lord, it’s getting cold

 

 

 

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