Braves like what they’ve seen from Peterson; McCann back in ATL

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Jace Peterson said veterans, particularly Jonny Gomes, have helped him a great deal since he joined the Braves in spring training. He called Gomes the best teammate he's had. (Photo by David O'Brien)

 

With 127 games down and 35 to go in Jace Peterson’s first full season in the major leagues, the Braves’ top baseball official says the second baseman is still being evaluated and that his second-half offensive struggles have not gone unnoticed. But he adds that Peterson has shown plenty of promise and has characteristics the Braves are looking for as they go forward.

Does that mean the former McNeese State free safety will again be the Braves’ primary second baseman in 2016? While it seems likely, if there’s anything we should’ve learned watching the Braves operate the past 10 months, it’s that things can and often do change quickly.

Still, unless the Braves sign “a Robinson Cano,” as manager Fredi Gonzalez quipped, Peterson seems to be in line for a return engagement as the opening-day second baseman in 2016. And so, let’s take a quick look now at Peterson’s first season in Atlanta and the friendship with a veteran player that Peterson says has and will continue to help him become the player he wants to be.

When Peterson hit .309 with a .389 on-base percentage, 16 extra-base hits and 29 RBIs during a 50-game stretch through June 21, plenty of initially skeptical fans and others began to see what all the fuss had been about in spring training, and to understand why Peterson’s stock had ascended to such a degree that Braves officials looked for another position for elite prospect Jose Peraza to play, and would eventually agree to trade Peraza to the Dodgers.

Then Peterson hit .184 with a .249 OBP over his next 54 games, and a lot of people began to question whether Peterson was the answer for at least a few years at second base, or whether the Braves should have held onto Peraza, just in case.

Jace Peterson said veterans, particularly Jonny Gomes, have helped him a great deal since he joined the Braves in spring training. He called Gomes the best teammate he's had. (Photo by David O'Brien)

Jace Peterson said veterans, particularly Jonny Gomes, have helped him a great deal since he joined the Braves in spring training. He called Gomes the best teammate he’s had. (Photo by David O’Brien)

Peterson, 25, had five hits in two games Tuesday and Wednesday – the Braves were off Thursday — to get his average to .244 with a .316 OBP, 30 extra-base hits (five homers) and 50 RBIs in his first full season in the majors.

So, what does the Braves top brass think?

“He’s a young player. There’s so much to like about the guy,” said John Hart, Braves president of baseball operations. “He’s a winning guy, a winning makeup guy. Defensively he’s been really a plus-player. The offensive struggles of the second half are real. We see them. We notice them.  And he’s being evaluated as well. But we just trust that makeup component of this guy. We trust that he’s going be a better player next year. He’s going to have a better feel for it next year. That he can be a winning piece for us.

“But, I mean, it’s the big leagues. We’re watching the whole way, and it’s the first year this guy has been in this grind at this level.”

Translation: It’s not easy playing a full 162-game season the first time around, much less at a demanding position with a lot expected from you. And Peterson has gone through his share of struggles, like most every rookie not named Trout goes through.

“But overall I’ve been pleased with Jace,” said Hart, who got Peterson and three other prospects – pitcher Max Fried, center fielder Mallex Smith, infielder Dustin Peterson — in the December trade that sent slugger Justin Upton to  San Diego. “I think he’s a winning player. Is he going to be a star? Jury’s out. Right now, with the offensive struggles, we’re going to have to see. But there still is a lot to like, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in Jace.”

Jace Peterson also has plenty of confidence in himself. He’s quiet in the clubhouse, respectful of his elders and always deflects attention or credits teammates whenever he’s asked about one of his own particularly good performances or a hot streak. But make no mistake, the former two-sport standout from Lake Charles, La., who was a starting safety on the McNeese State University football team, believes in himself and his abilities.

For instance, here’s what Peterson said was asked about his recent extended sub-.200 stretch at the plate and whether that was the typcal sort of situation where pitchers have made adjustments and figured him out, now he must make adjustments.

“To be honest with you, I think I’ve hit some balls good,” he said.  “For whatever reason I haven’t got a lot (of hits) to fall, but I feel good. The main thing for me is cutting down on strikeouts, I definitely want to make an improvement on that. That shouldn’t happen. I shouldn’t strike out 100 times  in a year. (He has 101 strikeouts and 45 walks in 501 plate appearances). So that’s something that I will improve on and I will work on this offseason, and it won’t happen again.

“Other than that, I think that approach-wise, it’s where it needs to be. Pitch selection is getting a lot better and if it continues to just stay where I’m at, eventually it’s going to turn around. I really don’t think I’ve done an amazing job, but I think I’ve done a pretty solid, consistent job. I can definitely do better, and I’m not going to stop until I am.”

Asked if his stats during the 50-game hot streak were indicative of the hitter he believes he can be in the majors, Peterson said, “Yeah. The numbers that I put up in my minor league career is the type of player that I am.”

Peterson hit  .287 with a .381 OBP, 120 extra-base hits,  a .411 slugging percentage and 148 stolen bases in 389 games over four minor league seasons.

“I’m a guy who, I’m very confident saying, I know and truly believe I can hit .300 in this league, at some point I know I will,” Peterson said. “Until then I’m just going to continue to put in the work. The pitchers at this level are the best in the world. Defenders at this level are the best in the world. So when you’re hitting you’ve got to put in the work and continue to try to be the best hitter in the world. So that’s the approach that I take. I’m going to continue to work and do everything I can. I know at the end of the day when I look in the mirror I can say that I put in the work and just continue to play and continue to compete.”

Peterson’s best work at the plate this season has come in high-leverage situations, something else that Braves coaches and teammates have commented upon since early in the season. At one point, Nick Markakis said he wished Peterson could bat every time the Braves had the bases loaded, so impressive was his performance in those situations.

He has hit just .213 with a .273 OBP and .276 slugging percentage in 301 at-bats with nobody on base, but put one or more runners on base and those stats jump to .310 with a .399 OBP and .486 slugging percentage in 142 at-bats, including .292 (28-for-96) with 13 extra-base hits, a .393 OBP and robust .542 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position.

He ranks among major league leaders in bases-loaded situations, going 9-for-14 (.643) with four extra-base hits and 22 RBIs.

Peterson said he prefers to hit with runners on base, which might also explain his .231 average (60-for-260) with a .312 OBP from the leadoff spot, compared to .340 (18-for-53) with a .390 OBP from the seventh spot, albeit in an admittedly small sample size at the latter spot in the order.

Spend any time around the Braves and it’s easy to see why veteran players and coaches like him so much, why they began praising Peterson during the first few days of spring training – often unsolicited — and haven’t stopped since. They love his attitude and the way he carries himself, how he approaches every at-bat and play in the field.

“He just grinds it out,” Gonzalez said. “I never see him with his head down, I never seen frustration. I see him come in, he’s got the lunch pain in his hand. He comes to work every single day the same guy, plays the game the right way.”

Gonzalez said Padres manager Pat Murphy came over to the Braves dugout to talk to Gonzalez and a couple of coaches before a game when the Braves were in San Diego this month, and that Murphy brought up Peterson’s name without being asked about the player.

“He said, ‘Hey, this guy really hasn’t played that much baseball,’” Gonzalez said. “’Two-sport guy, went to college, kind of got rushed through the system a little bit.’ He said, ‘He’s learning his craft up here at the big league level.’

“And I think he’s doing well.”

Jace Peterson, here avoiding a slide by the Reds' Brandon Phillips, has played solid defense and raise his average above .290 with a 15-game surge. (AP photo)

Jace Peterson, here avoiding a slide by the Reds’ Brandon Phillips, has played generally solid defense during his first full season in the majors. (AP photo)

As a former two-sport athlete who played three years of football as well as baseball in college, Peterson has played relatively little baseball for a 25-year-old in the major leagues. That’s one reason both he and the Braves believe he’ll continue to improve and that he’s just begun to show what kind of player he can be.

“Yeah, I think if I had played baseball my whole life all the time, it’d definitely be a little easier,” he said. “But I like where I’m at. I like how playing two sports let me experience different kind of competition. So I definitely enjoyed that. I still have a long way to go in my career. I got drafted in 2011, it seems like it was yesterday. But here I am. I’ve got a long way to go and a lot of work to do, but I’m excited about it and look forward to it.”

Peterson credits all the Braves veterans for helping him this spring and throughout the season, particularly Jonny Gomes and Markakis.

“Every single one of them has helped in a lot of different ways, but Jonny Gomes has been very influential since Day 1 in spring training for me,” Peterson said. “He’s a guy that I kind of gravitate to and really pick his brain, along with Markakis. He’s been tremendously helpful to me. All of them. They’re just guys who’ve done it the right way for a long time, and they get rewarded for it in the end; that’s why they play 10 years. For me, that’s what I want to ultimately do, so I’m going to do everything I can to do what they did, to get where they’re at.”

Gomes, who from the first week of spring training stressed to Braves players that it was unacceptable not to hustle or continue to play hard at all times, immediately took on a mentor role with Peterson in the spring after seeing what the younger player was all about and how much he wanted to learn and improve. Gomes said this week the fact that Peterson still has that mindset this late in a season that’s been difficult at times for everyone.

“Still asking questions, still wanting to learn, still wanting to soak things up,” Gomes said. “I’ve seen at times, about right now is when (some young players believe) they’ve got it all figured out. Like, wow, it only took you five months and you’ve got the whole thing figured out? Some kids shy away from info, especially when they’re hot. Don’t get too high, you’re going to be coming back (to reality), trust me.”

Peterson said his friendship with Gomes is something he’ll always remember from his first full season in the big leagues.

“It’s been awesome, man,” he said. “When you’re a rookie, especially for me coming in, I didn’t know anybody in the organization besides the guys that got traded with me (from San Diego). So I came in and did what I do, I was going to go in and work and just play the game, go about my business. And that’s kind of what I did. I like to get to know everybody, and before you know it, everyone was meshing and jelling, and we (Gomes and Peterson) just kind of went out and ate dinner and watched some games in the spring, and from there it is what it is now.

“I don’t think there’s anything in particular (that Gomes has said). Really, it’s everything. He says everything about the way you go about it, and continue to go about it the way you do and good things are going to happen. I think more than anything, it’s the way he comes to the park every day and gets prepared to play, the way he competes, the way he pulls for his teammates. He’s probably one of the best – no, he is the best teammate I’ve ever played with in my career so far, and I would go on record saying there’s probably not a better teammate out there than Jonny Gomes.

“So, for me, seeing a guy  who’s played for 10 years and accomplish all he has, and still be able to do what he does for young guys coming in, guys like me and even the veterans guys, he’s the definition of teammate. The best teammate is Jonny Gomes, and I look forward to continuing to learn from him, continue to watch him, continue to learn as much as I can and continue to pick his brain, and hopefully we can have some more years together.”

• Welcome home, BMac: Brian McCann will make his first visit to Turner Field since the former seven-time All-Star Braves catcher went to the  Yankees on a five-year, $85 million free-agent contract after the 2013 season.

McCann, a Georgia native who still makes his home in Suwanee, told Yankees writers this week that he had this series circled on his calendar from the time the schedule was announced.

  “I was hoping to get back there,” he said. “I wanted to go back and play before they knocked down Turner (Field).”

McCann, 31, made his Braves debut at age 21 in 2005, and in 9 1/2 seasons with the Braves he batted .286 with 200 doubles, 136 home runs and 537 RBIs in 882 games, with a .358 OBP and .486 slugging percentage. He hit 20 or more homers in eight of his nine full seasons with the Braves and won five Silver Slugger Awards as the best-hitting catcher in the National League.

The man was drafted and developed by the Braves, and he was really, really good. Still is, in fact. Not the high-average, high-OBP guy he was in his first six seasons with the Braves, but still a big-time power threat.

After struggling in his first half-season with the Yankees, McCann since July 2, 2014, has hit .246 with 36 homers and 114 RBIs in his past 169 games. He has 22 homers and 75 RBIs in 104 games this season, his eight consecutive 20-homer season and the ninth time he’s reached that plateau in 10 full seasons.

Now he’s coming back where it started, and I’d be shocked if McCann doesn’t get a huge ovation from Braves fans at what should be a packed — or nearly packed — Turner Field with the Yankees in town.

“I was a big Braves fan,” McCann told New York reporters this week. “Chipper [Jones], [John Smoltz], [Tom] Glavine — I got to play with some people I looked up to and grew up watching. They all took me under their wing.”

McCann said Chipper taught him how to hit at the big-league level, and Smoltz taught him how to handle pitchers.

I know I’m looking forward to seeing that sweep swing of McCann’s back at Turner Field during this three-game series.

• Jace Peterson is from the great state of Louisiana. Click this link for Johnny Cash‘s cover of a Leadbelly classic with a nod to Louisiana, “In Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home.” And here’s the original by Leadbelly. And another great version by Buck Owens.

“IN THEM OLD COTTON FIELDS BACK HOME” by Leadbelly 

Leadybelly

Leadybelly

When I was a little bitty baby my mama would rock me in my cradle
In them old cotton fields back home
When I was a little bitty baby…
Now when them cotton bolls get rotten you can’t pick very much cotton
In them old cotton fields back home
It was down in Louisiana just about a mile from Texarkana
In them old cotton fields back homeWhen I was a little bitty baby…
When I was a little bitty baby…
In them old cotton fields back home
In them old cottonfields back home

 

 

 


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