Pitching, not hitting, has been Braves’ bigger issue

Julio Teheran has not been the ace the Braves expected to far in 2014, and the rotation as a whole has been disappointing other than Shelby Miller. (AJC photo)
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Julio Teheran has not been the ace the Braves expected to far in 2014, and the rotation as a whole has been disappointing other than Shelby Miller. (AJC photo)

 

Tonight marks the one-sixth point of the season, and if someone had told you in January that the Braves would be 12-14, I’m guessing most of you wouldn’t have been surprised.

But how many would’ve believed that pitching, and not offense, would be the bigger issue, at least to this point? Because so far, that’s certainly been the case. The Braves rank 22nd in the majors with a 4.24 ERA, after finishing fifth with a 3.38 ERA in 2014.

Julio Teheran has not been the ace the Braves expected to far in 2014, and the rotation as a whole has been disappointing other than Shelby Miller. (AJC photo)

Julio Teheran has not been the ace the Braves expected to far in 2014, and the rotation as a whole has been disappointing other than Shelby Miller. (AJC photo)

And it’s not just thin middle relief that’s hurt them, surprisingly it’s the starting rotation, which figured to be a strength. And Mike Minor’s shoulder injury – he’s still not throwing and isn’t scheduled to anytime soon – that has undermined the rotation, really it’s everyone not named Shelby Miller.

Braves starters rank 18th in the majors with a 4.18 ERA and were 23rd in innings pitched (142) through Monday. Last year, Braves starters finished fifth in the majors with a 3.42 ERA and logged the second-most innings (1,014 1/3) behind only the Reds.

They’re just not getting deep in most games this season, further taxing a bullpen that’s not as good or deep as last year’s pen.

The Braves are 7-14 with a 4.93 ERA since their 5-0 start, and haven’t won consecutive games in those past 21. They’ve had three- and four-game losing streaks in that span, and have scored two runs or fewer in seven of the 21 games, but they’ve still been shut out just once all season.

The Braves were shut out five times  in their first 25 games in 2014. In fact, by almost any measure other than home runs, this year’s Braves have been a better offensive team so far than last year’s. The Braves had 30 homers in their first 26 games in 2014, but scored only 92 runs in that span.

This year’s team has hit .249 with 21 homers through 26 games, but has scored 109 runs, or 17 more than last year’s team, which hit .238 in its first 26 games.

Atlanta was 17-9 through 26 games last season, but that was in spite of the offense, not because of it. That Braves pitching staff had a sparkling 2.59 ERA through 26 games, compared to this year’s 4.24.

After trading away hitters Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and Jason Heyward during the offseason, and adding only one lineup regular (Nick Markakis), the Braves lead the majors with a .321 average with runners in scoring position, ahead of San Diego’s .320. At the end of the 2014 season, the Braves were 28th in the majors with a .236 average with runners in scoring position.

• Harang again: One key component of last year’s Braves rotation, and their best pitcher in the first part of the season, was Aaron Harang. They didn’t pursue re-signing him as hard as Philly went after him, and now Harang is a Phillie and having another surprisingly strong season.

The Phillies are 7-9 in their past 16 games, and Harang has two of the wins including Monday night’s against the Braves, when he gave up five hits and one run in six innings — the only run he’s allowed in 14 innings against Atlanta this season. (By the way, the Phillies are going for a three-game winning streak tonight, something they haven’t done since August.)

In addition to his two wins in the Phillies’ 7-9 stretch, Harang had a no-decision April 24 against the Braves when he allowed two hits in eight innings of a 1-0 Phillies walkoff win. The stocky veteran pitched at least six innings in every start, allowed one or no runs in four of his six starts, and posted a 2.35 ERA and .209 opponents’ average with 29 strikeouts and eight walks in 38 1/3 innings.

• Tonight’s matchup: It’ll be Shelby Miller, coming off his first loss in 13 starts, facing Phillies right-hander Chad Billingsley, who will make his first major league start in more than two years since coming back from both Tommy John and flexor-tendon surgeries.

  Miller has allowed three homers in his past two starts, but only six other hits and a total of five runs (four earned) in 13 innings in those games, for a 2.77 ERA and .188 opponents’ average with five walks and 12 strikeouts.

The Braves won his first four starts before losing in his last one Thursday against the Reds when he was charged with six hits (two homers) and three runs (two earned) in seven innings, with three walks and a season-high nine strikeouts. He threw 112 pitches, 14 above his previous season high. That was Miller’s first loss in six decisions over a span of 13 starts going back to mid-August 2014.

He’s 5-1 with a 1.90 ERA and .192 opponents’ average in his past 11 starts, and his Cardinals and Braves teams scored no runs while he was in five of the six games in which he didn’t get a win. He has 52 strikeouts and 19 walks in 66 1/3 innings over those 11 games, and his teams went 8-3.

Miller is 2-1 with a 3.28 ERA in four starts against the Phillies, including an April 25 win at Philadelphia when he held them to two runs, three hits and two walks in six innings.

Against Miller, Ryan Howard is 4-for-7 with three homers, Chase Utley is 4-for-12, and Carlos Ruiz is 2-for-10.

Billingsley, a 2009 All-Star for the Dodgers, last pitched in the majors in April 2013, when went 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in a pair of starts against the Padres on April 10 and April 15 to begin the season, then went under the knife for the dual surgeries on his pitching arm.

He’s 2-3 with a 3.38 ERA in eight career starts against the Braves, but last faced them in 2012 when it was an almost entirely different team.

In four Triple-A rehab starts, he was 1-1 with just a 4.74 ERA, but Billingsley pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings in his last start Thursday against Durham.

Against Billingsley, Jonny Gomes is 6-for-11 with a homer, Kelly Johnson is 8-for-33 (.214) with six walks and 14 strikeouts, and A.J. Pierzysnki is 2-for-6 with a homer. Also, Freddie Freeman is 2-for-4, Chris Johnson is 2-for-5, Alberto Callaspo is 2-for-6, Eric Young Jr. is 2-for-9 with a homer, and Cameron Maybin is 2-for-13.

• Leadoff woes: Nick Markakis has been better than the previous leadoff hitters, Cameron Maybin and Eric Young Jr., but not a lot better. But it should be noted, Markakis began his current slump right before his move to the leadoff spot, not after the move.

Nevertheless, here are the numbers: He was 0-for-12 with five strikeouts in three games before his two-hit game Monday against the Phillies. After hitting .373 (19-for-51) with a .467 OBP, five RBIs and a .412 slugging percentage in his first 14 games, Markakis is 9-for-43 (.209) in his past 11 games with a .306 OBP, one RBI and a .233 slugging percentage.

In the leadoff spot, he’s 9-for-40 (.225) with a .326 OBP and .250 slugging percentage. In the No. 3 spot in the lineup, he was 18-for-51 (.353) with a .441 OBP and .392 slugging percentage.

Speaking of Maybin and Young: In his past five games, Maybin is 5-for-11 in his past five games with a homer, four RBIs, one stolen base, five walks and a .625 OBP. In Young’s past 17 games, he’s  6-for-43 (.140) with three RBIs, two stolen bases, five walks and a .229 OBP.

• K.J. closing on a grand: Two of Kelly Johnson’s past three hits have been homers, and he’s now two away from 1,000 hits entering tonight’s game against the Phillies. The versatile veteran had a two-run homer Sunday against the Reds, his fifth. He also hit a game-winning, two-run homer Friday against the Reds.

Johnson has three homers, 11 RBIs and seven runs in his past 10 games, going 10-for-34 (.294) with a .618 slugging percentage in that stretch that also includes a pair of doubles.

Kelly Johnson had five homers in just 65 plate appearances before Tuesday, and was two hits shy of 1,000 for his career. (AJC photo)

Kelly Johnson had five homers in just 65 plate appearances before Tuesday, and was two hits shy of 1,000 for his career. (AJC photo)

His .297 career average in 50 games vs. Reds is his second-highest against any team. His highest? That’d be his .317 (20-for-63) in 15 games vs. Braves. Johnson has a .358 OBP and .540 slugging percentage vs. Braves

Speaking of the 2005 Baby Braves, one of Johnson’s fellow rookies from that team,  Jeff Francouer has just a .252 career average in 36 games against the Braves despite his four-hit game Sunday. He has a higher batting average against 16 other teams.

Francoeur has a .272 OBP and .389 slugging percentage with two homers in 131 at-bats against the Braves.

He does, however, have a solid .282 career average in 340 games at Turner Field, with 47 homers, 212 RBIs, a .332 OBP and .451 slugging percentage in 1,274 at-bats. Francoeur’s next-highest homer total is 18 at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium in 178 games (654 at-bats).

Francoeur has played as many as 65 games at only one other ballpark: Citi Field (.294 average with 10 homers in 354 at-bats over 102 games).

 • Etc.

  Cody Martin’s 21 strikeouts tied the Braves rookie with the Dodgers’ Yimi Garcia for the NL lead among relievers (two ahead of Aroldis Chapman, by the way, who has 19 in 10 2/3 innings). Garcia has 21 in 13 2/3 innings, while Martin’s 16.1 relief innings leads the NL.

  Braves relievers Luis Avilan and Jim Johnson are tied with 10 other pitchers for the major league lead in appearances with 14 apiece.

• Let’s close with this classic, one of the trove produced by New Orleans’ first family of funk, The Neville Brothers. We saw Aaron Neville sing this on Saturday, one of the highlights of this year’s JazzFest in New Orleans.

“YELLOW MOON” by The Neville Brothers

The Neville Brothers

The Neville Brothers

Yellow moon, yellow moon,
why you keep peeping in my window?
Do you know something
Do you know something that I don’t know?
Did you see my baby
walking down that railroad tracks?
You couldn’t tell me
if the girl’s ever coming back.

Is she hid out with another
or is she trying to get back home?
Is she wrapped up in some other man’s arms?
Or is the girl somewhere all alone?
Can you see if she is missing me,
or is she having a real good time?
Has she forgotten all about me,
or is the girl still mine all mine?

With your eye so big and shiny
You can see the whole damn land
Yellow moon, can you tell me
If the girl’s with another man?

Oh yellow moon, yellow moon, yellow moon,
have you seen that creole woman
You couldn’t tell me
Now ain’t you a friend of mine.

With your eye so big and shiny
You can see the whole damn land
Yellow moon, can you tell me
If the girl’s with another man?

Oh yellow moon, yellow moon, yellow moon,
have you seen that creole woman
You couldn’t tell me
Now ain’t you a friend of mine.

 


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