Atlanta Braves: 5 Things We Learned Through the First Quarter of the Season

Grant McAuleyContributor IIMay 17, 2013

Atlanta Braves: 5 Things We Learned Through the First Quarter of the Season

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    A red-hot start propelled the Atlanta Braves to the best record in baseball. Holding that distinction over the course of an entire season proved to be an unrealistic expectation.

    Sitting in first place since Opening Day, Atlanta has staked a claim for its first division title since 2005. And they have done so in large part without all of the pieces at their disposal.

    Several key players have missed significant time due to injury. Others have underperformed, while one in particular is enjoying a career-best season.

    The club boasts an offense with plenty of fire power, but that comes with an Achilles' heel in the form of strikeouts. On the other side, the pitching staff has seen a few peaks and valleys already.

    What have we learned about the 2013 Braves to this point? Find out now.

5. Evan Gattis Is Major-League Ready

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    Rookie catcher Evan Gattis has a story that has routinely garnered national press. It comes up each time the 26-year-old rookie belts another titanic home run.

    His unassuming nature and quiet demeanor seem to be the opposite of what one would expect from a player getting so much publicity.

    With a minor league career already filled with heavy-hitting exploits, Gattis entered spring as something of a circus sideshow thanks to a wildly successful stint in the Venezuelan Winter League.

    He quickly proved the legend of "El Oso Blanco" (The White Bear) was built on power, power and more power.

    Gattis broke camp with the big club and became Atlanta's primary catcher while Brian McCann was on the disabled list. His producing ability also made him a middle of the order candidate.

    After homering off two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay in his major league debut, Gattis blazed his way through April to earn NL Rookie of the month honors.

    He is currently leading all major league rookies with seven home runs and 20 RBI. His .513 slugging percentage is the highest among all rookies with at least 100 plate appearances as well.

    While McCann's return will curtail Gattis' opportunities behind the plate, the Braves have seen enough to believe that the young catcher could definitely figure into the club's long-term plans.

4. Craig Kimbrel Is Human After All

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    Craig Kimbrel has been one of the most dominant closers in baseball since taking over the late inning duties for Atlanta in 2011.

    After earning National League Rookie of the Year honors in his first season as Braves stopper, Kimbrel followed that up with an even more impressive sophomore season.

    Recent results seem more surprising given that Kimbrel has endured very few struggles in his young career to this point.

    Though he did blow eight saves as a rookie, Kimbrel failed to convert just three of his 45 opportunities in 2012. He has already seen three of his 14 slip away this year.

    Kimbrel did not allow multiple hits in an inning during any of his 63 appearances in 2012, making his May 7 blown save against the Cincinnati Reds all the more shocking.

    After Devin Mesoraco belted a pinch-hit homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to tie things up, Shin-Soo Choo connected for a walk-off blast in a 5-4 Reds victory.

    It was a stunning turn of events that marked Kimbrel's third blown save in a five-appearance stretch. Dexter Fowler and the Rockies got to him for two runs in a 6-5 Atlanta loss on April 24, while the David Wright launched a solo homer in a 7-5 Mets win on May 3.

    A quick study of FanGraphs.com shows that any theory about an overall dip in fastball velocity does not seem to be the case for Kimbrel. He averaged 96.8 mph on his fastball in 2012 and is averaging 96 this season. A slight dip, but still almost identical to to his average velocity of 96.2 mph in his rookie season.

    Fowler's game-tying double, while somewhat misplayed, came on a 95 mph fastball. Wright's homer came on a 97 mph fastball. Mesoraco's home run came on a 96 mph fastball. Choo's home run came on a 96 mph fastball.

    There is an obvious theme, albeit in a small sample size, of hitters seeking fastballs to drive against Kimbrel.

    Fowler jumped on a first pitch, while Choo's blast came on a 2-1 offering. However, Kimbrel had two strikes on both Wright and Mesoraco.

    Opting to go with the fastball over a breaking ball in a two-strike count may be a decision that Kimbrel will approach differently going forward.

    This rough patch could be the impetus for an adjustment that will get Kimbrel back to his reliable dominance.

3. Justin Upton's Power Is Back in a Big Way

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    For those wondering if Justin Upton's down year in 2012 was an indication that his ceiling had somehow lowered, the first six weeks of this season have gone a long way to quiet doubters.

    Upton is leading the majors with 13 home runs so far this season. This comes after connecting for just 17 in 150 games for Arizona last year.

    His turnaround has been the biggest highlight in an offense that is still struggling to find its identity. Upton is the one Braves hitter who not seen his name bounced up and down the lineup card, either due to injury or struggles.

    The Braves' usual left-fielder has seen his name in the starting nine in 39 of Atlanta's 40 games, with all but one of his starts coming in the No. 3 spot of the batting order.

    Atlanta has played 29 of its first 40 games against teams with a winning percentage above .500 this season, with Upton providing a .273/.415/.545 slash line and seven home runs in those contests.

    He has also done a nice job when Atlanta has squared off against divisional opponents. The club has gone 11-4 against the NL East so far. Upton is hitting .277/.388/.556 with four homers, 10 RBI and 11 runs scored in those games.

    Five of Upton's 13 home runs this season have given the Braves a lead, but a lack of RBI opportunities has kept him from being able to inflict more damage on opposing pitchers.

    That brings us to the next lesson learned so far.

2. The Top of the Order Must Step Up

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    Lack of production from the top two spots in the Atlanta lineup has been the main reason that Justin Upton has not had the chance to rack up more RBI.

    Regardless of who has occupied those spots in the lineup, the overall inability to get on base with any regularity has caused the explosive Braves offense to fizzle.

    Manager Fredi Gonzalez has tried four different leadoff hitters thus far. Those men have turned in a combined slash line of .226/.301/.360 in 183 plate appearances with 21 runs scored.

    Andrelton Simmons has gotten a team-high 15 starts there, but hit just .215 with a .246 on-base percentage and 11 runs scored in those games.

    The second spot of the order has been an even bigger disaster. The Braves have employed eight different men there and gotten just a .159/.256/.255 line with only 17 run scored through 40 games.

    Consider the fact that the ninth spot, which is of course comprised largely of pitchers, is hitting a combined .160 this season.

    Jason Heyward figures to see most of the time there once activated from the 15-day disabled list, but his early season slump was the main culprit behind the low productivity from two-spot.

    Heyward played just 17 games before an emergency appendectomy sidelined him on April 23. His .121/.261/.259 line with only eight runs scored in 16 starts was hardly the opening act he envisioned for 2013.

    The top two spots of the lineup are hitting a combined .193/.278/.308 and have scored just 38 of Atlanta's 170 runs this season.

    Beyond the obvious poor production, how much have those struggles affected Justin Upton?

    Baseball-Reference.com indicates that Upton has gotten 171 plate appearances this season. The average major leaguer with that number has come to bat with 101 runners on base and driven in 18 runs.

    Upton has come to bat with just 88 actual runners on base this year. Of his 23 RBI thus far, 13 have been himself thanks to that league-leading home run total.

    Even more mind-boggling, Upton has driven in Simmons just three times and Heyward just once through 40 games. Those are the two hitters who are likely to see the most time in front of Upton for the remainder of the season.

    Atlanta can only hope that rate spikes exponentially over the next 122 games.

1. Strikeouts Are a Way of Life

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    Even the most cursory evaluation of the Braves roster prior to the season would quickly uncover the fact that there are quite a few free swingers on the club.

    Through 40 games this season, that has certainly proven to be the case. Atlanta has struck out a National League-leading 372 times while tying the Colorado Rockies for the league lead with 52 home runs.

    Call those totals "feast or famine" if you like, but the strikeouts have become a cause for concern for the Braves.

    It has less to do with the overall quantity, and more to do with the situations in which these punch-outs are occurring with such great frequency.

    Averaging 9.3 strikeouts per game, Atlanta has fanned 10 or more times in 17 contests this season. That has not necessarily doomed the club to a loss, however. Atlanta is 7-10 in those 10-K games.

    Fredi Gonzalez has gone on record as saying he is much more concerned with the club's situational hitting than worrying about the overall strikeout total.

    On the heels of a late April three-game series in Detroit in which the Braves struck out 39 times, Gonzalez opened up to members of the media, myself included, prior to the April 29 showdown against the Washington Nationals.

    There are certain times during the course of the game that [strikeouts] are not OK. Those are the ones that put a dagger in your gut. For instance, man on third with no outs or man on third and one out and they're giving you a run by playing the infield back. Those are the strikeouts that when you keep doing that, you keep missing scoring opportunities, and they're going to come back and haunt you.

    With that said, taking a look at Atlanta's situational statistics confirms the kind of unproductive outs Gonzalez was concerned with.

    How many of these strikeouts are taking place when the Braves have run scoring opportunities?

    Through 40 games this season, the Braves have struck out 79 times in 255 at-bats with runners in scoring position. That is the highest strikeout total by any NL club with RISP.

    As a result, Atlanta's 107 runs produced is the fourth fewest amount of runs scored by any NL team with RISP. In case you are wondering, league average is 120.

    It gets worse with two outs and RISP. The Braves rank 14th in the NL with a .174 average and are tied for 12th with 37 runs scored, while lead the league with 47 strikeouts.

    Suffice it to say, that is not the kind of situational hitting that will lend itself to winning over the course of a 162-game season.

    A recent piece by MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince expounds on why the strikeout has become an increasingly accepted part of this era in baseball. It is an amazing piece that includes numerous facts and figures on the ever-inflating strikeout totals in the game.