Posted: 6:06 pm Saturday, June 14th, 2014

Braves ‘pen not the late-innings lock of recent years 

By David O'Brien

  The Braves got another late-innings scare Friday against the Angels, though this time they survived the two-run Angels eighth inning and held on for a 4-3 win. But these late-innings cross-your-fingers-and-hope-they-hang-on incidents have become almost the norm lately for a Braves pitching staff that in recent years avoided them better than almost any major league team.

That situation, coupled with the other obvious issue with this team – its poor situational hitting and complete lack of offensive consistency – have been the chief contributors to the Braves’ 18-24 record since their 17-7 start, when the pitching staff was so good that a few runs from the hitters were enough to win most nights. That wasn’t realistically going to continue, and hasn’t.

The Braves' Evan Gattis (right) homered Friday for the sixth time during his 13-game hitting streak, while the Braves are still waiting for Freddie Freeman to snap out of an uncharacteristic slump. (AP photo)

The Braves’ Evan Gattis (right) homered Friday for the sixth time during his 13-game hitting streak, while the Braves are still waiting for Freddie Freeman to snap out of an uncharacteristic slump. (AP photo)

In those past 42 games the Braves have had losing streaks of three, four and seven games, but no winning streaks of more than three games.

They are 18-24 with a 4.01 ERA since April 29, including 7-10 with a 4.70 ERA  in their past 17 games. This from a team that started out 17-7 with a 2.04 ERA through April 28.

We wondered how long the pitching staff could keep up anything close to that heady pace they maintained through late April, and how long it would be before the pressure of pitching with so little margin for error began to wear on those pitchers.

We got our answer.

The Braves rotation has remained one of the better performing units in the majors, but Ervin Santana hasn’t been the ace that he appeared to be in his first month or so in the rotation, and Aaron Harang continues to surpass expectations but not at the ridiculously good rate he pitched at for most of the first six weeks of the season.

Still, it’s not the rotation that’s been problematic.

And remember, Alex Wood is getting stretched out to start again, and should be a fine addition once the Braves bring him back. Of course, to do that they’ll have to clear a spot, which I believe they’ll do in the coming weeks by trading a starter to fill one of their bigger needs, the bullpen.

(Yes, getting more offensive consistency is just as big or bigger need than the bullpen, but also a lot harder need to fill considering the Braves are locked into so much contracts including center field, where B.J. Upton continues to underperform.)

We also wondered this winter and spring if Braves relievers could again overcome the loss of key contributors and maintain its lofty position at or near the top of the major league bullpen rankings. We’re getting our answer.

We’re starting to see that you can’t just keep replacing the likes of Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters with reclamation projects and homegrown talent and not expect to have at least some slippage and some cracks in the armor in those high-leverage situations, notwithstanding the recent work of just such a drafted-and-developed stud, Shae Simmons.

The Braves bullpen has slipped to seventh in the NL with a 3.52 ERA and its opponents’ batting average has climbed to .247, which was tied with the Diamondbacks for third-highest allowed in the NL before Saturday. Only the Rockies and Marlins relievers had allowed a higher opponents’ batting average. And think about their situations, with high altitude contributing to the former and a shoestring budget to the latter.

Even more troubling, given how tough the Braves had been in these situations in recent years, is the fact that Atlanta pitchers have the third-highest opponents’ average (.262) in the late innings of close games, better than only the Rockies and Diamondbacks in those situations.

For some context, consider that four NL teams – the Giants, Nats, Reds and Padres – had allowed a .218 or lower opponents’ average in the late innings of close games, and the league average was .238 before Saturday.

 

Promising rookie Shae Simmons, being congratulated by catcher Evan Gattis after a game in Miami, has been thrust into immediate high-leverage situations in a bullpen that's not been up to its standards of recent seasons (AP photo)

Promising rookie Shae Simmons, being congratulated by catcher Evan Gattis after a game in Miami, has been thrust into immediate high-leverage situations in a bullpen that’s not been up to its standards of recent seasons (AP photo)

The fact that Simmons has been thrust into so many pressurized situations in the late innings of close games during his first two weeks in the majors – after being brought up from Double-A — says something about the current state of the ‘pen.

There is nothing resembling the “O’Ventbrel” trio, nor should anyone have reasonably expected there to be, given that that trio was one of the best late-innings units we’ve seen in the majors in the past decade.

But the Braves did expect a lot more from the likes of David Carpenter and Jordan Walden, and also from Luis Avilan, who is only now starting to pitch like he did most of the past two years when the lefty sinkerballer seemed a worthy successor to O’Flaherty after learning so much from the veteran lefty.

Walden can’t seem to stay healthy and/or consistent for more than a couple of months at a time, and that’s a problem when you expected him to be a primary setup guy.

Carpenter? He has a 9.64 ERA and .435 opponents’ average in his past 13 appearances, allowing 20 hits (two homers), 10 runs, three walks and two hit batters in 9 1/3 innings over that alarming stretch. He’s out of minor-league options, too, which means he can’t be sent down without first clearing waivers, and even though he’s struggled it’s likely a team would claim him because he throws hard and he’s durable. And for most of last season, he was outstanding for the Braves.

• Heyward OK, Braves thankful: The Braves breathed a sigh of relief when X-rays came back negative on Jason Heyward’s hand after he was struck by a pitch in the first inning Friday, and again when he was in the lineup Saturday after reporting no stiffness and very little swelling in the hand.

The last thing the Braves offense needs right now is to be without the resurgent Heyward for any significant period. He’s having one of his best offensive stretches in a few years, while several other key hitters in the top half of the lineup have been struggling.

In his past 30 games (since May 11), Heyward has hit .308 (37-for-120) with five homers, 15 RBIs, 18 runs, 12 walks, 18 strikeouts, a .381 OBP and .467 slugging percentage.

In his first 34 games through May 10, he hit .206 (28-for-136) with two homers, eight RBIs, 17 walks, 32 strikeouts, a .297 OBP and .301 slugging percentage.

He’s heated up at the plate while others in the top half of the order have recently gone cold, or in the case of Freddie Freeman been in one of the longest slumps of his career. In Freeman’s past 23 games before Saturday he hit .188 (16-for-85) with two homers, seven RBIs, 24 strikeouts and a .324 OBP.

In 48 games since April 21, the Braves first baseman and No. 3 hitter was batting just .227 (41-for-181) with six homers, 21 RBI, 25 walks, 44 strikeouts, a .324 OBP and .387 slugging percentage. This after Freeman hit .397 (27-for-68) in his first 18 games through April 20 with five homers, 14 RBIs, 10 walks, nine strikeouts, a .481 OBP and .721 slugging percentage.

Justin Upton was 9-for-44 (.205) in his past 12 games before Saturday, with one extra-base hit, three RBIs, four walks and 14 strikeouts. And after having another terrific April, Upton since then had a .263 average (35-for-133) in 37 games with six homers, 18 RBIs, 16 walks, 43 strikeouts, and a .344 OBP and .466 slugging percentage.

If we write anything negative about B.J. Upton, for some reason a segment of our audience seems to think it’s “driving a narrative” that misleading, whatever is that narrative they’ve referring to in what to me seems a complete straw-man argument.

Fact of the matter is, in his past 35 games B.J. has hit .197 (25-for-127) with 11 extra-base hits, four homers, 13 RBIs, 12 walks, 45 strikeouts, a .262 OBP and a .354 slugging percentage, with four stolen bases and three errors.

Besides Heyward, three Braves regulars have been hot lately — catcher Evan Gattis for quite some time, rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella since arriving in the big leagues 2 1/2 weeks ago, and Chris Johnson in the past five days after a long slump.

In Gattis’ past 14 games, including a current 13-game hitting streak before Saturday, he hit .392 (20-for-51) with six home runs, 16 RBIs, a .446 OBP, and .804 slugging percentage. In the catcher’s past 44 games he hit .295 (45-for-152) with 20 extra-base hits (13 homers), 32 RBIs, 11 BB, a  .353 OBP and .605 slugging percentage.

La  Stella has hit .367 (18-f0r-49) with four walks, four RBIs and five strikeouts in his first 14 games, including multi-hit games in half of those. He had only three strikeouts in his first 13 games before striking out twice Friday night.

In Johnson’s past five games he was 10-for-20 with a homer, three RBIs, one walk, three strikeouts. His previous 21 games: .193 (16-for-83) with two doubles, one homer, five RBIs, no walks, 24 strikeouts.

Here’s one by the the late, great Otis Redding, a Georgia native and one of the greatest singers who ever lived.

“FA-FA-FA-FA-FA (SAD SONG)” by Otis Redding

Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa
Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa

I keep singing them sad, sad songs, y’all
Sad songs is all I know
I keep singing them sad, sad songs, y’all
Sad songs is all I know

It has a sweet melody tonight
Anybody can sing it any old time
It touches your heart
Puts you in a groove
And when you sing this song
It’ll make your whole body move

It goes, Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa
Your turn
My turn
Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa
Your turn now

All my life I’ve been singin’ sad songs
Tryin’ to get my message to you, honey
But that’s the only song, y’all, I can sing
And when you get through singin’
My message will be to you

It goes, Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa
Your turn now

Otis Redding

Otis Redding

It’s a lovely song, y’all
Sweet music, honey
It’s just a line, oh but
It tells a story, baby
You got to get the message
A stone message, honey
A lovely line, baby
I’m worried in mind, watch me

Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa
Your turn
Everybody’s turn, everybody
Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa
One more time
Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa
Worried in mind, y’all
Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa…

 

 

2179 comments
ProfessorD
ProfessorD

Was at the game Saturday night.  Took my dad and mom for their first Braves games.  It was a blast, especially the 9th inning rally.  We left after the 10th inning, can't keep those 60 year olds up that late, lol.


Anyway, we were sitting in right field right behind Heyward.  As a former ball player, I observed some alarming issues with our defensive outfield that you can't see on tv.  First, Heyward should be the standard for all of our outfielders to emulate.  Before every pitch, he is in an athletic stance, ready to break on the ball, wherever it is hit.  I mean every pitch!  He didn't take one off the whole night and made some great plays. Trout played the same way.


Conversely, BJ and Justin sat there with their hands on their knees before and during each pitch.  They didn't move until after the ball was hit.  This is exactly why we see many of the gaffe's they make in the outfield.  They just aren't ready when the ball is hit!  As stated many times, you just can't put up with this type of play from one of the highest paid players on the team.  I know the Braves can't get rid of BJ, but they can sure bench him and make an example out of him.  When BJ let the ball go under his glove again, you could just see the disgust in Heyward and Freeman.   You can't tell me it doesn't have an effect on the whole team.  The fact that management continues to let this clown play is laughable.

DS1
DS1

When the banana gets too ripe, you make banana bread with it.

Fix the batting order by moving TLS up and Heyward down. Give BJ some love and pray he regressed to the mean.

Clint_Reno
Clint_Reno

RIP Tony Gwynn. Great childhood summer memories watching you play. God bless your family.

-Jerry-
-Jerry-

Well, at least we aren't the only team that makes terrible free agent signings. With all the talk about catchers I decided to look up and see how McCann is doing. Yankees are definitely not getting much outta that signing. Thank God the Braves didn't resign him out of loyalty. We would be in worse shape than we are now.

noleee
noleee

"On Top Of Old Smokey"


On top of old smokey


All covered with snow


I lost my true lover


By courtin' so slow


For courting's a pleasure

But parting is grief

And a false-hearted lover

Is worse than a thief

A thief will just rob you

And take what you save

But a false hearted lover

Will lead you to the grave

And the grave will decay you

and Turn you to dust

Not one girl in a hundred

A poor boy can trust

They'll hug you and kiss you

Tell you more lies

Than cross ties on the railroad

Or stars in the sky

So come all you young fellows


And listen to me

Never place your affections

On a green willow tree

For the leaves they will whither

and The roots will die

You'll all be forsaken

And never know why

MFin04
MFin04

Just minimize BJs damage by hitting him lower...not that hard...its an offensive upgrade by making less outs in the heart of the order.

kenhotlanta
kenhotlanta

How many of our ex-catchers are starting for other teams? Salty, Ross (PT), Flowers, Pena is a backup......lets give them another one and don't eff with El Oso Blanco, he's doing just fine where he is at. 

BFChris29
BFChris29

I think  the talk of bringing Bethancourt up is a smoke screen and he will be headed somewhere in a deal for a front line starter and Harang or Floyd will go for bullpen help.

chipl1960
chipl1960

Birdbrain, as usual, doesn't understand the difference between a columnist and a beat writer. Schultz vs. DOB. David has explained it at least 5 or 6 times. Birdbrain has one thick skull, among his other flaws.

Efrim
Efrim

People should read what they said about Yadier Molina coming out of St.Louis farm system. Not saying Bethancourt will get to be Molina, but the tools are there for him to be a star level catcher down the road. That's sort of why the Braves are reluctant to trade him as a "throw in" to another deal. They really like the kid and it's not hard to see why every single prospect evaluator ranks him in their Top 100 despite poor offensive statistics. He's a catcher, has been young for every level, and shows flashes of being a great defensive catcher in both receiving and controlling the running game. And he looks the part at the plate.....in BP, that is.

Efrim
Efrim

Just really bizarre to bring up Bethancourt, imo. Hope it doesn't happen. Gattis is horrible in LF. Barely playable. They would take a huge hit defensively and Bethancourt has never performed well when being introduced to a higher level of competition. Check his career. They can't honestly be that down on B.J. Upton. If they are, then that's two AWFUL signings by Frank Wren - like literally two sunk costs that usually would get a GM fired. He's done great work aside from it, but man, that's two grand canyon like 0fers on a mid-market payroll team.

Fleming01
Fleming01

Is Beth on 40 manor when is his 6 years up?

MFin04
MFin04

But the Yankees will sign Trout and Heyward or Stanton and make up for it...

noleee
noleee

@MFin04

he is of more value hitting like he has been the last 20+ games at the beginning than he is regressing to last season lower down imo

noleee
noleee

@kenhotlanta

none of those guys are anything special for the most part, Ross in particular is really sukking this year

neither Tyler nor Salty have ever neared their early projections

ShaunATL
ShaunATL

@Efrim Yep.  No reason to rush to trade such a player, in order to merely "get something."  We aren't talking a 26-year-old languishing in Triple-A.  


I get that calling him up and moving Gattis to left is a bad idea.  I completely agree with that sentiment.  But that doesn't mean there is a pressing choice to be made right now.  You keep Bethancourt to see what he can do, unless some team offers up an impressive deal.  

noleee
noleee

@Efrim

i will grant that he is still young, though witha  lot of pro experience for his age, so that time is not yet, but at some point potential,both defensive and offensive, has got to be replaced by production

I am in no way saying he will never make it, but I am disappointed in his play, especially his actual defensive production in regard to hiw tools

like with BJ, I have less patience with gifted athlrtes who do not ive up to their potential than I do with average players

ShaunATL
ShaunATL

@Efrim I don't think it will happen.  I'm wondering if maybe this was leaked to try to light a fire under the offense and B.J. in particular.  

noleee
noleee

@Efrim

DOB's earlier quotes seem to put the kibosh on the idea

noleee
noleee

@Fleming01

I'm pretty sure he is on the 40 man already

he was up a bit last season

-Jerry-
-Jerry-

@MFin04 They definitely have no fear of signing anyone.

monty1
monty1

@HugoZHackenbush  So.... that's what goes on in Twitter World.  Don't guess I'm missing too much then.

-Jerry-
-Jerry-

@noleee @MFin04 He is hitting .233 over his last week. Probably the best stretch he has seen since he's been here. But, not good enough to be in the #2 slot in the lineup. We need better contact and less strike outs. Enter LaStella.

kenhotlanta
kenhotlanta

@noleee @kenhotlanta That's why I was including Bethancourt in with them, 2 of those guys were supposed to be big boppers and CB has his D going for him. We have more pressing needs than our Catcher so far this year. 

Efrim
Efrim

@noleee @Efrim Good. Makes zero sense. Gotta give B.J. more time. He's better than anything else we have right now.

-Jerry-
-Jerry-

@noleee He is on the 40 man roster. He came up in September of last year and struck out in his only plate appearance against the Phillies.

MFin04
MFin04

We apparently don't have enough fear...

-Jerry-
-Jerry-

@MFin04 I just don't understand the signing at all. In a way, I understand the signing of Uggla because of his past, even though I was against extending his contract. But Melvin? Everyone on this blog knew that his defense wasn't what they painted it to be. And his offensively numbers had been declining for awhile. But for some reason Wren had to pay him huge money to come here? For that alone, Wren should've been fired.

-Jerry-
-Jerry-

@ncscoots @-Jerry- @noleee @MFin04 I think you get my point scoots. Melvin is not the type of hitter that you need at the top of the lineup. He isn't going to hit high enough or make enough contact to hit #2.

ShaunATL
ShaunATL

@-Jerry- @MFin04 His numbers declining is a myth.  Here are his OPS+ in Tampa from 2007-2012: 136, 108, 82, 106, 114, 108.  Do you see a pattern of decline there?


As far as the contract, they paid him the going rate for a player of his age, skills, and skill set.  

DS1
DS1

Not sure I'd fire him for it, but I sure don't know what FW saw in BJ to go after him and not pursue other CF'ers.

Rick_C
Rick_C

@DS1 He didn't want to play the Boras waiting game with Bourn.  He probably didn't see Pagan as better, and he was pretty much destined to stay with the Giants.  Hamilton was too expensive, and not really good at CF.  Choo was also not really good at CF, and would have been a one year Boras rental.  They looked into Span and Fowler but apparently the demands were too high.

-Jerry-
-Jerry-

@DS1 Maybe we'll never know Wayne, but this much is sure. If they ever announced that Wren would be in a Q&A session about his dealings on tv, I bet that would be a ratings bonanza.

MFin04
MFin04

I did hear Justin had a no trade clause. So there is that...so if it was a package deal..I think you have to take it...as much as I don't like BJ and agree it was a bad isolated deal.

-Jerry-
-Jerry-

@Rick_C @DS1 But even if all that were true, it still didn't make sense to give him the kinda money he got to come here. I doubt any other team would have come close to what he got and the years involved.

Bat_Masterson
Bat_Masterson

@MFin04 Justin had teams on a no trade to list. Seattle was one of them and he quashed a trade to them, if memory serves. They painted themselves in a corner with Justin and the Braves were ready and waiting. 

Rick_C
Rick_C

@MFin04 Not exactly true, just a no trade list.  The Braves were not one of the teams on it.

-Jerry-
-Jerry-

@MFin04 He did have the right of refusal. He turned down an offer to go to Seattle just prior to accepting a trade to the Braves

-Jerry-
-Jerry-

@Rick_C @DS1 Upton, whose contract allows him to block deals to four teams -- Seattle, Toronto, Boston and the Chicago Cubs.