Said they’d be more enjoyable to watch; I’ll stand by that

Braves slugger Freddie Freeman isn't expected back from the DL until just before or after the All-Star break.  (AP photo)
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Braves slugger Freddie Freeman isn't expected back from the DL until just before or after the All-Star break. (AP photo)

When the Braves go through a bad stretch, which they most certainly are now, it always brings out the most negative, bitter and pessimistic folks with the told-you-so’s and the “fire (fill in blank)” comments. That’s part of the sports business and part of sportswriting, but more than ever in the social-media era, where anonymity only serves to multiply the volume of said comments and the level of vitriol they contain.

Most of them are so obvious, one-sided or repetitive that they really aren’t worth reading, but I noticed one in particular this morning that I thought was worth mentioning. It was in regards to comparing this year’s Braves team to last year’s team, and how wrong I was to have said this year’s team was as good or better than last year’s and blah blah blah.

Braves slugger Freddie Freeman isn't expected back from the DL until just before or after the All-Star break.  (AP photo)

Braves slugger Freddie Freeman isn’t expected back from the DL until just before or after the All-Star break. (AP photo)

Well, two things: I never said this year’s team would be as good or better than last year. I specifically resisted making predictions this year as far as won-lost record, etc., because I didn’t have a good feel for what this team would do after the radical makeover of the offseason, and considering that the team was approaching this season with a stated goal of remaining competitive but also while obviously making moves designed more with the future in mind — restocking the farm system with pitching and making current-day sacrifices, such as trading Craig Kimbrel on the eve of Opening Day – in order to put themselves in better position long-term by dumping the onerous contract of Melvin Upton Jr., aka B.J., and picking up another prospect (Matt Wisler) at the same time.

So when asked if this was a playoff team, I never said it was. Why would I have? The Nationals had a far, far larger payroll and were in win-now mode, their window to win a championship beginning to close in the view of many. All they had to do was stay healthy and finally play up to something close to their potential, and it really shouldn’t be a close race in the NL East. Now, could the Braves win the second wild-card berth in that scenario? Well, I said, anything was possible with the two wild-card berths in each league. But again, I never predicted the Braves would win one of those spots, nor did I predict a winning season.

I say this because some who don’t bother to read my blogs or stories, who only digest Braves news 140 characters at a time, always find a way to take what I and so many others put out in the truncated texts that are the unique domain of Twitter, and twist and turn them into whatever they want to claim was said or (slippery slope here) insinuated. It’s their agenda to come up with some phony “narrative” that they can assign to me or others.

So here’s the second part – I started this with “first” a few paragraphs back – of my point: I did, indeed, predict this offense would be better than last year’s dysfunctional, unwatchable, boring, strikeout-plagued, homer-based offense that lacked in homers (in addition to lacking fundamentals of situational hitting). And you know what? It has been. Better. More watchable (at least with Freeman in the lineup). And far more fundamentally sound and production in various areas of situational hitting.

And anyone who argues otherwise, please point to a statistic – conventional, advanced, anything – that suggests this year’s Braves offense is inferior to last year’s horrendous offense that ranked 29th out of 30 teams in scoring and was infinitely more adept at striking out and complaining about balls and strikes than it was at hitting home runs or hitting with runners in scoring position.

Which brings me to some of the Tweets that sprang from the wrongheaded initial one the guy gave me about “pushing a Braves narrative” and how I had suggested this team would be better than last year’s, which, as I’ve said, I did not. One of the Tweet mentions that branched out from that actually suggested that I should admit I was wrong because last year’s lineup won more games at this  point of the season than this year’s lineup.

No, seriously. This guy said that last year’s “lineup” won more games than this year’s lineup, and gave me the records through June as evidence.

OK, we’ll keep this part brief, because I think most others realize the most obvious, glaring flaw in that reasoning: Last year’s team had a better record at this point of the season in spite of the offense, not because of it. The offense was dreadful all season, but particularly early in the year when the Braves had the best pitching in the league but were barely .500 because the lineup the guy referenced couldn’t score unless it hit home runs, and it didn’t hit many of those.

Anyone who would argue that last year’s lineup was better or more watchable than this year’s lineup (with Freeman in it), I can only deduce that you didn’t actually watch last year’s team on a regular basis. That,  or you get some pleasure out of watching guys swing from their heels in hopes of running into a pitch on occasion and hitting one out, but usually failing to do so. Or perhaps you enjoyed the human interaction of batter making painful or angry face at umpire while voicing displeasure over a called third strike on the way back to the dugout.

Last year’s team had very little fight, showing little desire or ability to come back after falling behind by multiple runs early. It was qick whiff-a-thon and out in those cases, almost every time. With this year’s team, at least until Freeman left the lineup with a wrist injury 11 games ago, it almost never felt like they were out of games, because they repeatedly put  together late-innings rallies to at least get close, if not tie or take a lead. This team hits more with runners in scoring position instead of striking out.

This team is 19th in the majors in runs scored, despite being last in homers. Last year’s team was 29th – 29th! – out of 30 teams, and was 23rd in homers, so please don’t even suggest to me that you didn’t mind the fact they scored so few runs or struck out so much because they hit so many exciting homers. They did not hit many homers.

Last year’s team ranked 28th in the majors with a .236 average with runners in scoring position. Stranding runners was what they did best.

This year’s team is sixth in the majors with a .288 average with runners in scoring position. They traded away their two best power hitters, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, plus Jason Heyward, yet this team scores more runs because they have a better, team-oriented approach, rather than just going up there and swinging for the fences.

The Braves have one eye (at least) on the future, yet they are scoring more runs with a lineup that has far fewer marquee offensive talents than a year ago. That’s just fact. Make of it what you may.

I keep thinking about what the guy said this morning to me, wondering if he actually thought I’d read that Twitter mention and say, yes, you have a point. I mean, seriously. Last year’s lineup won more games than this year’s is winning? It was the lineup, huh? Puh-leeze.

You want to know why this team is where it is, five games under .500?

Start with pitching. And stay there awhile before you try to blame anything else (although the defense lately has also been a bit shoddy).

Let’s make this real simple, so my “narrative” can’t be misconstrued or misrepresented: The Braves, again, are 19th in MLB in runs; the 2014 team finished 29th in runs. The Braves are 21st in the majors in ERA (4.04); the 2014 team finished fifth in ERA (3.38).

But don’t let facts stand in the way of your point, and certainly don’t let me stand in the way of the tired accusations of me or others driving a “narrative” about these Braves.

• Tonight’s matchup: Braves prospect Matt Wisler (1-1, 3.75 ERA) makes his third major league start and second in a row against the Nationals’ Doug Fister (3-3, 4.15). Last Thursday at Washington, Wisler gave up nine hits and six runs (four earned) in four innings of a 7-0 loss, while Fister allowed just four hits in seven innings.

In Wisler’s memorable debut June 19 against the Mets, the 22-year-old righty allowed just six hits and one run in eight innings, with no walks and two strikeouts. He had no walks or strikeouts against the Nationals, who feasted on a lot of pitches that missed their mark by a little or a lot.

“I struggled in the PCL quite a bit last year, so I learned  how to handle my failures,” said Wisler, who was 9-5 with a 5.01 ERA in 22 starts last season for the Padres’ Triple-A El Paso affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. “I had a stretch of four awful outings, how to get through that and have a good fifth one. And how to work through your failures, what you need to work on.”

On facing the Nats for the second time in a week, Wisler said Tuesday: “I know how to attack these guys, I just have to execute pitches a little better this time. Just get my mind focused tomorrow, go out there and execute.”

I asked him if that was the main issue last week in D.C., simple execution of pitches.

“I didn’t execute,” he said. “Couple times I may have thrown a pitch that, looking back, I might have thrown something different. The situation, I thought the pitches were right A.J. (Pierzynski) called, I just didn’t execute the pitches. Like the home run to (Ian) Desmond — I was trying to go down and away and just left it up and away, and he put a pretty good swing on it. Just stuff like that, getting the ball down.”

So, is he eager to face them again?

“Yeah, I’m ready to get going, prove that I can get these guys out, that I can attack these guys,” he said. “Just go right at ‘em.”

Fister is 1-2 with a 4.87 ERA and .345 opponents’ average in four road starts, compared to 2-1 with a 3.69 ERA and .248 OA in five home starts.

But against the Braves, venue hasn’t usually mattered; he pitches well against them. Fister is 4-1 with a 2.18 ERA in six career starts against the Braves, including three wins in the past two seasons in which he threw seven or more shutout innings while allowing five or fewer hits.

Three of Fister’s nine start this season have come against the Braves, and he’s 1-1 with a 3.26 ERA in those games. After tonight he will have made 10 starts this season, and four will have been against the Braves.

Against Fister, Kelly  Johnson is 4-for-12 with a homer, Juan Uribe is 1-for-3 with a homer, Pedro Ciriaco is 2-for-4, Nick Markakis is 9-for-29 (.310) with a homer, and A.J. Pierzynski is 5-for-27 (.185) with two homers.

• In sort of sticking with the theme of the day, here’s a beauty from Tom Waits.

“LIE TO ME” by Tom Waits

Tom Waits

Tom Waits

Lie to me baby
Uh huh, lie to me baby
Lie to me baby
Lie to me baby – move onI know you got another jockey at home
Let me be your rider till your real man comes
Whip me baby, lie like a dog
I really don’t care if you doLie to me baby
Uh huh, lie to me baby
Lie to me baby
Lie to me baby – move onI know you got yourself a skinny ol’ man
Let me be your baby, I know that I can
Slap me baby, give me all of your grief
I have no use for the truth
Lie to me baby – move on

I know you got another jockey at home
Let me be your rider till your real man comes
Whip me baby, lie like a dog
I really don’t care if you do
Never stop telling me lies

Lie to me baby
Lie to me baby
Lie to me baby
Move on

 


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