I'm not entirely sure how much I believe in bad omens, but in retrospect, it definitely seems like Tommy Hanson's preseason car accident ranks up there with black cats and broken mirrors.
A simple blown (front right) tire dealt Hanson a concussion and the Braves a year of bad luck.
A little less than a month later, the great Chipper Jones announced his impending retirement. A few days after that, young fireballer and probable late-inning stopper Arodys Vizcaino discovered he needed Tommy John surgery.
It gets better.
In late April, Jair Jurrjens (proud owner of a sparkling 1.87 2011 ERA before the All-Star Game) was demoted to Triple-A due to a product of injury and futility. In late June, Brandon Beachy (who carried a 2.00 ERA and led the majors in batting average against at .171) joined Vizcaino in undergoing successful Tommy John surgery.
Atlanta, for whom starting pitching had been such a strength in the preseason, should have had no problems simply promoting über-prospect Julio Teheran, thereby plugging the rotation hole, right?
Wrong. Teheran currently sports a 4.93 ERA at Triple-A.
The Braves were then going to become major players for Zack Greinke. That was until Milwaukee set the price on Greinke, offering him upwards of $100 million dollars over five years, essentially scaring off the tight-walleted Braves-owning Liberty Media.
Now, the Ryan Dempster saga is driving Braves fans insane. Is there an agreement? Will he accept the trade? Will he decline and ask to be sent to the Dodgers? When will he make his decision? Will he bring his Harry Caray impression to Atlanta? It's really quite maddening.
Compounding these unfortunate blows to the starting rotation has been Jonny Venters' injury and misfortune. The lights-out lefty has an xFIP of 2.96, indicating that his performance should be on par with his career averages (2.96 is, in fact, his career xFIP), but due to an absurd HR/FB ratio of 42.9 percent, Venters has been largely ineffective thus far (Fangraphs). Returning from injury, we shall see what the second half has in store for Venters, and if the laws of statistics will balance out his 2012 campaign.
However, it is not Jonny Venters the Braves need bouncing back from injury and returning to form the fastest. Nor is it Matt Diaz, though an OBP north of .280 would be nice.
That player, quite simply, is shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
Simmons entered the season as Atlanta's second best prospect, failing to beat Tyler Pastornicky out for the starting shortstop gig. But when Pastornicky posted a -1.1 WAR (Fangraphs) the first part of the season, and Andrelton Simmons was hitting well at Double-A, the Braves decided to see what their shortstop of the future could do in the present.
All Simmons did in 125 plate appearances was solidify the number eight spot in the lineup with his aggressive approach from the right side, hitting .296 with a .336 OBP, posting a very sustainable .310 BABIP while slugging over .450 (Fangraphs). Not only that, but he also cemented himself as perhaps the best defensive shortstop in all of baseball, giving Braves pitchers a reason to breathe a little easier from the rubber.
Oh, and in 36 fewer plate appearances, Simmons, at 1.8 WAR, was nearly three wins better than Pastornicky (Fangraphs).
But because this is the Atlanta Braves, and because this is 2012, the year of the Hanscident (as Hanson's car accident will forever be called), Simmons broke his pinky finger on July 8, and will not be back until mid-August. Until then, Paul Janish will provide good defense in Simmons' place, but with relatively no offense to offer, Atlanta fans will be crying out for Simmons to return as soon as possible.
That's right, after a mere 125 at bats, Simmons has become invaluable to the Atlanta Braves' playoff aspirations.
In the lineup, Simmons ensures that from the leadoff hitter through the eighth spot, opposing pitchers do not get an easy out, as Simmons (from the eighth spot, mind you) was OPSing (I will continue to use "OPS" as a verb until it catches on) nearly .800. From the shortstop position. Paul Janish has a career OPS of .588, which means that currently, the eighth spot in the order is a gigantic black hole.
At shortstop, Janish is a good, even great defender. But Simmons didn't compile his 1.8 WAR only (or even mostly) from his offensive production. Simmons is a spectacular fielder with soft hands, great range, and a cannon for an arm (according to this prospect review from Talking Chop, Simmons threw 95 miles an hour from the mound).
His amazing defensive prowess benefits not only the Atlanta defense, but the Atlanta pitching staff as well. When Simmons mans the hole between second base and third, Braves pitchers strut to the mound with tremendous confidence, knowing that anything hit on the ground to the left side will most likely result in an out. This allows Braves pitchers to rear back and throw with less worries, which leads to better performance and more Atlanta Braves wins.
So may Venters' luck even out, and may Diaz return from injury a refreshed and renewed hitter.
But the sooner Andrelton Simmons returns from injury and returns to his June form, the quicker the Braves can climb the ranks of the National League.