Atlanta Braves' Biggest Surprises so Far This Season

Grant McAuley@grantmcauleyContributor IIApril 25, 2013

Atlanta Braves' Biggest Surprises so Far This Season

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    The Atlanta Braves have opened the 2013 season with the best record in all of baseball, taking up residence at the top of the National League East standings as a result.

    After a winter spent making bold moves on both the free-agent and trade markets, this is exactly the kind of start that general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez had envisioned.

    The power displays have been frequent, while the pitching has been outstanding. Even injuries and slow starts from key performers have been unable to detract from the team's success.

    Though the work is far from done, the early returns signal that the 94-win Atlanta club which came up four games short of a division title a season ago may be even better this time around.

    This slideshow provides a look at the biggest surprises, both individual and collaborative, so far in 2013 season.

Chris Johnson Leading the Majors in Hitting

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    Chris Johnson may have been lost in the glitz and glamour of Atlanta's acquisition of Justin Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was, after all, the lesser part of that seven-player trade.

    That deal not only landed the Braves a budding superstar, but it united a set of brothers and completed perhaps the best outfield in the National League. It is hard to compete with that.

    It is even harder to separate oneself as part of a platoon, but opportunity opened up when Atlanta lost cleanup man Freddie Freeman to the disabled list with a strained right oblique on April 7.

    Johnson stepped up in a big way and is leading the majors with a .397 batting average through April 24. He is tied with Upton for the club lead with 25 hits, while Johnson's eight multi-hit games are the most by any Atlanta player this season.

    He provided just the kind of offense the Braves needed over a two-week period while filling in for Freeman. In 11 starts at first base, Johnson turned in a .435/.465/.585 slash line with three doubles a homer and six RBI.

    Trading away the versatile Martin Prado, a proven .300 hitter, was questioned by some baseball pundits and fans alike. Rather than signing Prado to an extension, he was included in the deal for Upton and then given a long-term deal by the Diamondbacks.

    However, Johnson's hot start may have quieted that talk for now, especially considering that Prado is batting just .239 with a .292 on-base percentage over his first 20 games in the desert.

Stellar Pitching by the Entire Staff

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    For all of the publicity that was generated by the Braves' high-powered lineup, there was also a fair amount of skepticism when it came to Atlanta's pitching staff.

    There are not too many people questioning the results supplied by Braves hurlers thus far in 2013, however. Atlanta leads all of baseball with a 2.52 ERA through 21 games.

    It was not necessarily that there were detractors of the individual talents and potential, but there were questions surrounding the age, injury history and track record of Atlanta's starting rotation in particular.

    Tim Hudson was entering the season at age 37. Kris Medlen and Mike Minor were stellar in the second half of 2012, but neither had demonstrated so much as a full season of sustained success at the big league level, and both closed spring training to mixed results.

    Brandon Beachy is on the shelf recovering from Tommy John surgery until late June. Paul Maholm is a solid but not spectacular lefty, turning in the first full winning season of his eight-year career in 2012.

    Finally, rookie Julio Teheran was coming off a disastrous season in Triple-A, but seemed to turn the corner with his outstanding performance throughout spring training.

    The starters have combined for a 2.97 ERA in their first 21 assignments. Maholm and Minor have been the most impressive, both with 3-1 records and ranking in the top 10 in the National League in ERA.

    Medlen not far behind. Despite his 1-2 record, he has allowed just six earned runs over 25 innings in his first four starts.

    Hudson has gritted his way through a couple of rough outings to go 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in five starts. He stands one win shy of 200 career victories.

    It took four turns through the rotation, but Teheran finally got things to click against the Rockies on April 23. His seven innings of one-run ball led to his first win of the season.

    Meanwhile, Beachy continues to progress in his rehab program. His return will bolster the rotation even further.

    The bullpen has turned in an 8-1 record to go along with a 1.60 ERA in 62 innings. Jordan Walden and Eric O'Flaherty have set up for closer Craig Kimbrel in the late frames, while Cory Gearrin, Anthony Varvaro and Luis Avilan have all done fine work in the middle innings.

    Questions? Concerns? Not so much.

The Emergence of Evan Gattis

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    The Evan Gattis story is well-documented at this point. Out of baseball and on a journey of self-discovery, the burly catcher was bit by the bug to return to the sport he loves.

    That decision has changed his life, and it is bearing fruit in the big leagues.

    While a torrid spring earned the 26-year-old rookie a spot on the roster, few could have predicted just how big of an impact Gattis would have over the first few weeks of the season.

    Not only has Gattis become the club's everyday catcher with Brian McCann on the disabled list, but he also became Atlanta's de facto cleanup hitter when Freddie Freeman was sidelined.

    Gattis homered in his big league debut, off Phillies ace Roy Halladay no less, and was off and running.

    While his batting average has tapered down to .246 through 17 games, Gattis is leading all major league rookies with six home runs, 13 RBI, nine runs scored and a .607 slugging percentage through April 24.

    His power became a thing of legend in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he pounded 16 home runs in 53 games and earned the nickname "El Oso Blanco" (The White Bear).

    More importantly for Atlanta, his homers have come in key situations this season. Gattis has belted four of his six home runs in tie games, providing valuable leads that were converted into victories.

    Like most rookies, there will be growing pains. After opening the season with a .324 AVG, four homers and 10 RBI over his first nine games, Gattis is just 4-for-27 in his last eight games.

    The return of McCann will no doubt impact Gattis' playing time, but there is no exact date set for that as of yet. Both men could pay big dividends before season's end.

Paul Maholm's Scoreless Streak

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    Lefty Paul Maholm followed up his impressive spring training with an even better run to begin the season.

    Slotted in the rotation as Atlanta's second starter, Maholm is pitching more to that top billing than a guy who was a combined 66-84 with a 4.26 ERA across parts of eight prior seasons.

    He began 2013 by putting together a scoreless streak that lasted 25.1 IP. After winning his first three starts, the Pirates snapped Maholm's streak last time out, handing him a 3-1 defeat in the process.

    Though he was bound to allow some runs and take a loss eventually, the fact remains that Maholm is enjoying perhaps the best stretch of his career. Since June 29, 2012, he has made 22 appearances (21 starts), turning in a 12-5 record with a 2.25 ERA and 36/116 BB/K rate in 140 IP.

    In 2012, Maholm set a career high with 13 wins and 140 strikeouts. It appears he has picked right up where he left off this year.

Justin Upton's Home Run Binge

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    The Braves acquired Justin Upton to make an impact, but what he has done in his first month on the job has far and away exceeded even the loftiest of expectations.

    Upton's home run rate quickly became a running statistical storyline. Time and time again, he provided the offense and served as a one-man wrecking crew.

    After going deep in both ends of a double-header sweep in Colorado on Tuesday, Upton had amassed a major league-leading 11 home runs on the young season. He also established a new Braves home run record for the month of April in the process.

    On three occasions, he has homered in the same game with older brother B.J., including back-to-back home runs in Game 2 of Tuesday's twin bill.

    The numbers are simply mind-boggling. So much so that even Upton had a hard time explaining how he is doing what he is doing to David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

    "You come into the season with a new team trying to fit in and just try to be a part of a team that was already good," Justin said. "I can't put a thumb on why I've hit the way I have. I just have to continue to work and try to keep it up."

    Those 11 home runs are the most ever in a single month for the 25-year-old outfielder. Upton still has five games left to tack on to his record monthly mark. Additionally, he is only six home runs shy of the 17 he produced in 150 games during the 2012 season.

    At his current pace, the slugging left fielder would hit a projected 85 home runs. While that number will come back to earth eventually, Upton could easily eclipse his career high of 31 homers set in 2011 while with Arizona.

The Big Lead over Washington

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    Despite Atlanta's winter acquisitions, the majority of preseason predictions had the Nationals repeating as division winners in 2013.

    In fact, one particular poll shows that 38-of-43 ESPN "experts" picked Washington to win the NL East again. Only five brave souls went out on the proverbial limb to select Atlanta to take the division title.

    To be fair, 27 of those experts tabbed the Braves as one of the two NL wild cards, and four panelists believed Atlanta would reach the World Series.

    However, six of those ESPN experts had the Braves missing the postseason altogether, while exactly zero believed Atlanta would win the World Series. That is not exactly a glowing endorsement from the "Worldwide Leader."

    On the contrary, a staggering 29 of those ESPN experts placed Washington in the World Series, and 16 had them winning it all.

    A similar poll done by CBS Sports had their six experts all picking the Nationals as NL Champion, with four selecting Washington as the eventual World Series winner.

    Yahoo! Sports? Same story. All four experts went with the Nationals to win the division and three had Washington winning the World Series.

    I could continue with exercise, but I believe the point has been sufficiently made and a common thread has been established.

    Everyone, including the Nationals, expects to win it all. Manager Davey Johnson, who is in his final season at the helm of the club, has declared this season's slogan as "World Series or bust!"

    Regardless of Johnson's motto or Washington's plans, Atlanta's 15-6 start has announced that last season's runner up is not interested in simply settling for a wild-card entry into the playoffs.

    The Braves swept the first three-game series between the two clubs while in the midst of a 10-game winning streak. Third place Washington stands five games out, with a 10-11 record as of April 24.

    Yes, it is still very early in the season. These two clubs have 15 more meetings, including a four-game series at Turner Field which closes out the month of April and opens up May.

    Battle lines are drawn and only time will tell who takes the coveted division crown.