Braves offense off to better start than ’14

Nick Markakis is 5-for-10 with runners on base this season for the Braves. In nine seasons with the Orioles, Markakis hit .292 with a .386 OBP and 30 extra-base hits in 295 at-bats at Toronto's Roger Centre, where the Braves have a three-game weekend interleague series. (AP photo)
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Nick Markakis is 5-for-10 with runners on base this season for the Braves. In nine seasons with the Orioles, Markakis hit .292 with a .386 OBP and 30 extra-base hits in 295 at-bats at Toronto's Roger Centre, where the Braves have a three-game weekend interleague series. (AP photo)

 

  TORONTO – We can recite batting averages and strikeout totals with runners in scoring position until we’re as blue in the face as your fingers and toes during a Canadian winter, but sometimes the point still isn’t quite clear. So today, we offer perhaps a more tangible cause-and-effect to illustrate the difference between this year’s Braves offensive approach and last year’s:

Through nine games this season entering Friday’s series opener against the Blue Jays, the Braves have not scored fewer than two runs. Through their first seven games in 2014, they scored fewer than two runs four times and were shut out twice.

Nick Markakis is 5-for-10 with runners on base this season for the Braves. In nine seasons with the Orioles, Markakis hit .292 with a .386 OBP and 30 extra-base hits in 295 at-bats at Toronto's Roger Centre, where the Braves have a three-game weekend interleague series. (AP photo)

Nick Markakis is 5-for-10 with runners on base this season for the Braves. In nine seasons with the Orioles, Markakis hit .292 with a .386 OBP and 30 extra-base hits in 295 at-bats at Toronto’s Roger Centre, where the Braves have a three-game weekend interleague series. (AP photo)

Remember that start last season? Aaron Harang and the Braves pitching staff surpassed all expectations early, compiling a 1.92 ERA in those first seven games, but they got only four wins out of it because of pitiful run support.

Then the hitters caught fire for a week, scoring 40 runs in a six-game stretch against the Mets, Nats and Phillies, before cooling off again with a total of one run – on ahomer – during the next two games at cozy Citizens Bank Park in Philly.

And so it went for the 2014 Braves, a team with hitters who often slumped, occasionally pounded opposing pitchers with a long-ball barrage, and through it all piled up excessive strikeouts and poor situational hitting in just about every manner imaginable.

Now we have a Braves team with, I think we can all agree, much less offensive talent but a far better offensive approach under new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, which has translated to more consistent results despite the back-to-back losses Tuesday and Wednesday against the Marlins that dropped Atlanta’s record to 6-3.

The Braves had only 11 hits and four runs in those two games, with all the scoring coming on solo homers. Every run, a solo homer.

For a couple of days, the offense resembled last year’s in that regard, just with fewer strikeouts (13 in two games? Pfft, last year’s team could rack up 13 K’s in one afternoon without blinking an eye.)

Meanwhile, for a couple of days, Braves pitching stumbled, giving up 14 runs in two games. But it wasn’t too surprising, considering eight of the runs came in just 7 1/3 innings pitched by starters Trevor Cahill and Eric Stults. If this team has a glaring weakness right now, I would argue it’s the back end of the rotation, more than bullpen depth or a lack of power in the lineup.

Unless and until the Braves get better work from those last two spots in the rotation, either from Cahill, Stults or replacements for one or both – so far, prospects Wisler, Foltynewicz and Banuelos have all pitched well in the Gwinnett rotation – it’ll be tough to win those games unless they’re pulled at the first sign of trouble. But such a quick hook puts undue stress  on a bullpen that’s getting terrific work from its top five – Jason Grill, Jim Johnson, Luis Avilan, rookies Cody Martin and Brandon Cunniff – but can’t be expected to eat 4-6 innings without craking each time Cahill or Stults pitches.

While Fredi Gonzalez and Roger McDowell want to be careful not to overwork the ‘pen, the Catch-22 here is that these Braves aren’t built for comebacks. They have a steadier and far more fundamentally sound and takes advantage of scoring opportunities, but that’s not a formula for overcoming three- and four-run deficits when they don’t have big-time power hitters.

So they have to stay close.

Which means they need consistency from the rotation. The back end of the rotation.

Stults has been unimpressive — not terrible but not good — in both his starts. Cahill was awful in his first start. The Braves will not pull the plug  on Cahill without him getting at least several more chances, since he didn’t pitch in a game for nearly two weeks before his Braves debut and since they’re paying him $5.5 million this season. (The D’backs are paying the other $6.5 million of his – gulp — $12 million salary.)

But Cahill will have to show improvement before much longer. As will Stults, who, with a $2 million salary, can easily be dropped from the rotation and moved to a long-relief role if the Braves wanted to replace him with Martin or one of the young kids from Triple-A.

By the way, nine games in, entering Friday the Braves still had a better starters ERA (3.72) than the Nationals (3.88) despite the back-end rotation woes. And Braves relievers had the majors’ sixth-lowest ERA (2.06)  and fourth-best opponents’ average (.159), also ahead of Nationals relievers (2.08 ERA, .206 OA) in both categories.

Atlanta’s bullpen had 38 strikeouts and 13 walks in 35 innings, compared to the Washington bullpen’s  26 strikeouts and 10 walks in 30 1/3 innings. Four of the Braves’ walks came from Juan Jaime in 1 1/3 innings (two appearances) before he was demoted to Triple-A. Other than Jaime, the rest of the bullpen is 2-0 with a 1.87 ERA, 37 strikeouts and nine walks in 33 2/3 innings.

Cody Martin’s 11 strikeouts (in 6 2/3 innings) are second-most among MLB relievers, and the rookie’s rate of 14.85 K’s per nine innings is sixth-highest among NL relievers, a couple of spots behind Braves closer Jason Grilli (15.75). Martin still hasn’t walked a batter.

Meanwhile, hitters are 0-for-15 against Braves rookie Brandon Cunniff, the most opponents’ at-bats without a hit against any MLB reliever so far this season.

• More on that offense: With runners on base, Braves hitters rank third in the NL with a .296 average (behind the Dodgers and Padres) and second in OBP (.367) behind only the Dodgers (.376). It’s worth noting the Braves have struck out only 16 times in 108 at-bats with runners on base, seven fewer strikeouts with runners on than the next-lowest NL total. The Braves have 12 walks in those situations.

The NL East rival Nationals have a league-high 37 strikeouts in 121 at-bats with runners on base, with 15 walks, and they’ve hit .231 with a .324 OBP in those situations. Why do we cite the Nationals’ totals? Because they’re the Nationals, and we find them relevant, because sooner or later they’ll get out of their own way and start playing closer to the level that most everyone predicted (although those who went overboard with the 105-110 win predictions for the Nats, you might want to take a step back and reassess now).

The Braves and Phillies have a league-low one homer apiece with runners on, but the Nats, Marlins and Padres only have two apiece. Seven of the Braves’ eight homers have come with nobody on base, as have nine of the Nationals’ 11 homers. Nevertheless, the Braves’ .802 OPS with runners on base ranks ninth in the majors, ahead of the Dodgers (.801).

In the NL, only the Dodgers (10) have more homers with no one on base than the Nats (9) and Braves (7). Only six MLB teams have hit more homers with bases empty than the Braves, while the Indians (0) are the only team fewer homers with runners on base than the Braves and Phillies.

• KJ and AL East: With the Braves in Toronto for an interleague series against the Blue Jays, now’s a good time to point out an interesting bit of trivia: Kelly Johnson played for every game in the AL East in a span of 24 months.

Not only is he the only player who can make that claim, but KJ says he’s the only player who has played for all of the current AL East teams since the Rays began play in 1998. (I’m sure there’s a way I could research this, but since I can’t think of how off the top of my head, I’m going to go with KJ’s claim unless one of you good readers can refute it.)

Johnson played for Toronto during part of the 2011 season and all of 2012. He played for Tampa Bay in 2013. Then he knocked out the entire rest of the division in one season in 2014, when he played parts of the season with the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles.

“On Sept. 1, 2012, I was playing with the Blue Jays,” Johnson told me. “By Sept. 1, 2014, I played for the Orioles, and that was everybody (in the AL East that he’d played for in that span). It’s only been since (1998). But I’m the only guy that ever did it. Much less in a two-year period.”

By the way, Johnson has played 107 games at Toronto’s Rogers Centre and hit .242 with a .320 OBP and 13 homers in 380 at-bats. He’s not the only Brave with extensive experience in the somewhat outdated retractable-roof stadium, where longtime former Oriole Nick Markakis has a .292 average in 295 at-bats, with 30 extra-base hits (six homers), a .386 OBP and .444 slugging percentage in 77 games.

• Lineup weakness: Their leadoff hitters haven’t reached base enough, but a bigger issue for the Braves has been the No. 2 spot in the lineup, where their hitters are a collective 4-for-35 (.114) with no extra-base hits, two walks and five strikeouts, and have the majors worst average, OBP (.162) and slugging percentage (.114).

Cameron Maybin had two homers in hsi first eight at-bats in the leadoff spot for the Braves. (Hyosub  Shin/AJC photo)

Cameron Maybin had two homers in hsi first eight at-bats in the leadoff spot for the Braves. (Hyosub Shin/AJC photo)

The Braves have used four hitters in the second spot: Jace Peterson (2-for-14, two walks), Alberto Callaspo (1-for-8, no walks), Phil Gosselin (1-for-9, no walks), Andrelton Simmons (0-for-4, no walks, grounded into two double plays).

Braves leadoff hitters are also struggling to get on base, going 8-for-37 (.216) with a .275 OBP. The odd thing is that six of the eight hits have been for extra bases. That includes two homers from Cameron Maybin in just eight leadoff at-bats, and three doubles and a triple from Eric Young Jr. in 25 at-bats.

Young is 5-for-25 (.200) with two walks, six strikeouts and a .259 OBP from the leadoff spot. Maybin is 2-for-8 with one walk and one strikeout in the leadoff spot, and Peterson is 1-for-4 with one strikeouts.

Seven MLB teams (three NL) have a lower batting average from the leadoff spot than the Braves, and eight teams have lower OBPs from their leadoff hitters than do the Braves (.275). Meanwhile, only three MLB teams have a higher slugging percentage from leadoff hitters than the Braves’ .514.

But obviously it’s OBP that’s key from atop the order, and the Braves need more from the first two spots, and particularly the second spot, so that Markakis (5-for-10 with runners on base) and Freddie Freeman can get more at-bats with runners on and see more fastballs with stolen-base threats Young, Maybin and Peterson on the bases.

Lew Hartman was a loyal Braves fan, a helluva artist, and a good dude. He died last week from a heart attack. Lew attended college in Georgia and was a longtime Vermont resident. And a rock ‘n’ roll fan. He really liked fellow Vermonter Grace Potter and her band the Nocturnals, so here’s one for Lew. R.I.P., big man.

“STOP THE BUS” by Grace Potter & the Nocturnals

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals

We’ve been driving since the winter
The destination doesn’t change
You know i can still remember
The day you asked me for my name

You are thee rock on the riverbed
Growing smoother every year
You are the voice inside my head
I can’t believe you got me here

Stop the bus and turn the radio up high
And grab the first guitar you see
And get out the old flare gun and throw it to the sky
Tonight you’re sleeping next to me

You give me something to remember
Each time you look into my eyes
You see through my trouble and my temper
And you call me out on every lie

Stop the bus and turn the radio up high
And grab the first guitar you see
And get out the old flare gun and throw it to the sky
Tonight you’re sleeping next to me

 

 

 


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