Braves Baseball: Atlanta's Biggest Early Season Surprises and Disappointments

Todd Salem@@sportspinataContributor IIIApril 13, 2014

Braves Baseball: Atlanta's Biggest Early Season Surprises and Disappointments

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    Just a few weeks into the 2014 Major League Baseball regular season, it is hard to get a grasp on which outcomes are real and which are sure to change.

    Batters are still well under 100 at-bats for the season. All pitchers, even starters, are well under 50 innings pitched this early on as well. With that small of a sample size, it is easy for good players to look bad and lesser players to appear great. And of course, with numbers and statistics, even true facts can be skewed to mislead.

    The Atlanta Braves' roster is no different. On both the hitting side and pitching side, there exist players who are greatly overachieving and those who are not living up to expectations.

    Let's take a look at Atlanta's biggest surprise (positively) and disappointment from the hitters as well as the pitchers as we head into mid-April.

Biggest Hitting Surprise

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    Freddie Freeman

    Through Atlanta's 12 games, Freddie Freeman leads the team in nearly every offensive category. He's either first or tied for first in batting average, home runs, runs batted in, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and hits.

    The fact that Freeman looks like the Braves' best player is not surprising in and of itself. It's how dominant he's been that is the surprising part.

    Even through another blazing April for Justin Upton, no one is close to Freeman. Atlanta's first baseman currently sits second in all of baseball in OPS and has walked more times than he's struck out. Of course, third in baseball in OPS is currently the Rockies' Charlie Blackmon...which brings necessary pause to extrapolating April statistics too far.

    Freeman is a very good hitter, perhaps indeed the best on the club. He will not finish the year with .400/.500/.800 (BA/OBP/SLG) splits, though. I can safely guarantee that. For the Braves' sake, they just hope he continues mashing as long as possible in an otherwise wimpy lineup.

Biggest Hitting Disappointment

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    Jason Heyward

    Dan Uggla is currently batting .195. Yes, B.J. Upton is hitting .191. And the team's cleanup hitter, Chris Johnson, is slugging less than Ramiro Pena; all true.

    However, none of those things are all that unexpected. What has been a bigger disappointment is Jason Heyward at the plate.

    Heyward was a trendy NL MVP pick heading into the season. It is still too early to write that off completely, but J-Hey's start is anything but most valuable.

    Through 12 games and a team-leading 47 at-bats, Heyward is hitting a sparse .149 with 13 strikeouts already. Of his seven hits, three have gone for extra bases, so it's not all bad news. But the struggle has simply been putting the bat on the ball.

    It would be hugely shocking if Heyward didn't turn this around relatively soon. He is too talented a guy to hit under .200 much longer. The good thing for Atlanta is, even through this slump, he's been running (three of team's five total steals) and walking (first on the club with eight walks).

Biggest Pitching Surprise

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    Aaron Harang

    Alex Wood has a 1.89 ERA through three starts; Craig Kimbrel is striking out 19.06 batters per nine innings; Ervin Santana didn't allow a run or a walk in his only start so far this season.

    None of those guys are even close to topping Aaron Harang for this distinction.

    Harang, the 12-year journeyman, is pitching the best he ever has through the early stages of 2014. In three starts, including Sunday's win over the Washington Nationals, Harang has allowed a total of 15 baserunners and two runs.

    The fact that he managed to lose one of those three games is inconsequential to the incredible start he is putting together. Of all qualified pitchers, Harang is third in the NL in ERA.

    Of course, there is no way this will continue much longer. Not only is Harang way past his prime, but the peripheral numbers are not in his favor, even after just 18.2 innings.

    Opponents are batting just .188 on balls in play against Harang thus far. BABIP is a measure of luck since neither the hitter nor the pitcher has much control over whether a ball falls in for a hit after it is put in play. According to Fangraphs, the average amount of balls put in play to fall for a hit is 30 percent or .300.

    A good defense behind a pitcher certainly helps to limit an opponent's BABIP. However, Harang is also not getting the ball down very often in his starts. At .40, Harang's season ground ball-to-fly ball ratio is the worst in the league among qualified pitchers.

    These two factors alone spell trouble for Harang if he hopes to continue his hot start.

Biggest Pitching Disappointment

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    David Carpenter

    The Braves as a team have had great pitching to start the season. With a choppy offensive start, the arms are the main reason Atlanta currently sits at 8-4.

    However, the bullpen was supposed to be a strength for this club, and other than Craig Kimbrel, the go-to guy last season was David Carpenter.

    In 2013, Carpenter threw 65.2 innings for Atlanta. It looked like he had finally put everything together after a number of shaky seasons elsewhere. In those 65.2 innings, Carpenter was great, accumulating a 1.78 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 74 strikeouts.

    In contrast, 2014 has been a great disappointment early on. In five appearances, Carpenter has been peppered by eight hits and 10 total baserunners. Only once has he appeared in a game and not allowed at least two men to reach base. Three of those five outings, runs scored against him.

    His team-leading four holds go to show how silly of a stat that can be, as it is so often based on opportunity, rather than effectiveness.