The first blow came in the offseason when, after nine years, Tim Hudson signed with the San Francisco Giants, leaving the Atlanta Braves without their presumptive ace and without a veteran starting pitcher—a commodity the team likes to have on their starting pitching staffs each year.
The second blow came below the belt at the beginning of spring training when it was announced that Mike Minor, the guy next in line to be the ace of the staff, would miss most of the spring and the first month of the season recovering from unannounced offseason surgery.
The third and fourth blows came in rapid-fire succession on back-to-back days in early March when the next two guys in line to be the aces of the Braves rotation, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, each left the mound in the middle of at-bats, grabbing at their elbows. They would soon be lost for the season.
Before anyone caught March Madness, the Braves pitching staff had been dealt four maddening blows. The baseball world wondered how the team would respond and assumed they could not recover from the blows they had received.
But the front office rallied. Atlanta swooped in at the last minute and signed Ervin Santana out from under the noses of the slow moving Blue Jays. Then they swapped the veteran carcass of Freddy Garcia for the veteran carcass of Aaron Harang, recently released from the Indians.
Were those moves of desperation and panic, or shrewd, calculated moves made by a front office that still had control of its team? If nothing else, those moves sent a message to the Braves clubhouse, and what was left of the starting pitching staff, that the team was serious about staying competitive and serious about repeating as the National League’s Eastern Division champs.
Regardless of how hard the front office tried, the Braves would still be starting the season with three young pitchers in the rotation (Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and David Hale), a veteran cast-off (Harang) and a free agent who couldn’t find a job until halfway through spring training (Santana). It was not an ideal situation.
Fast-forward to today, 15 games into the season, and that beleaguered starting pitching staff that no one gave much of a chance has the best starters’ ERA (1.58) in baseball by almost a full run (the next best ERA is 2.48). No one, even the most diehard of Braves fans, expected that.
So is this ragtag group of starting pitchers for real, or are they overachieving? Will this string of starting pitching brilliance continue, or will it fade faster than a Phillies fan mocking the chop with Dan Uggla at the plate?
The first thing to remember is that it’s early in the season, so while all the starters’ numbers look good, it’s still a small sample size. A couple of bad starts could make these numbers get ugly quickly.
The most likely of the Braves pitchers to remain reliable is Teheran. Atlanta signed him to a six-year contract extension this offseason. He’s a former MLB top-10 prospect, and after a rough introduction to the majors in 2011, he was part of the great rookie class of starting pitchers throughout baseball last year.
In four starts this year, Teheran has a sub-2.00 ERA, and his last start was a complete-game shutout. If there’s a warning sign with Teheran it’s in his lack of strikeouts. His strikeouts per nine innings (SO/9) last year was 8.2, which is right in line with his career minor league numbers. This season his SO/9 is almost half that at just 4.2. This could be a troubling sign that Teheran cannot keep getting batters out at this rate.
Santana has had two unbelievable starts, but his career numbers say that those are anomalies, and that he’ll return to more of a slightly better-than-league-average pitcher the rest of the way.
Wood and Hale have started 13 major league games between them coming into this season, and while Wood has shown an ace-like dominance, Hale has been just average.
The veteran Harang is the biggest mystery. He currently leads the National League in fewest hits per nine innings (H/9), allowing nearly half as many H/9 (4.3) as he has in his career (9.4).
Aside from the freakishness of the pitchers on the Braves staff all having career seasons at once, what other reasons might there be for this surprising starting pitching dominance?
The Braves have always gone after pitchers with good control, sometimes despite having good raw stuff. The Braves call this talent in a pitcher “pitchability.”
All of the starting pitchers currently in the Braves rotation have this coveted pitchability, but this skill requires something else behind it: a good game plan and good defense.
The Braves as an organization have always prided themselves on preparing their starting pitchers with a good game plan for each contest, laying out the ways in which they’re going to attack hitters and go after an opposing team’s batters.
This game plan relies heavily on defense, and the Braves make good defense a priority. If a pitcher has to rely on pitchability, then they’re really relying on batters getting themselves out by putting the ball in play and on defenders making the plays behind them. This is what the Braves have preached since the early 1990s.
This kind of game plan leads to ERAs that can look lower than they should be, and pitchers who suddenly seem to resurrect their careers when they put on a Braves uniform. So part of this good work early in the season from several second-tier starters on the team is likely their induction into "The Braves Way."
Once the league figures out that they’re doing something different, other teams will adjust and the marvelous results might fade away. The Braves Way will give way to a regression back toward these pitchers’ expected outcomes. But that’s where another element of this starting staff comes into play.
The Braves will soon get Mike Minor back from his slow recovery from offseason surgery, and shortly after he returns they will get Gavin Floyd back from his long recovery from Tommy John surgery. That means two of the guys in the current rotation will need to step aside in favor of Minor and Floyd.
This impending removal from the rotation could be creating a healthy competition among the starters, with each one competing to remain. Certainly Teheran and Santana will remain in the rotation, but Wood, Hale and Harang know that two of them will be replaced in the next couple of weeks.
This could be propelling the competitive juices of the veteran Harang in ways that he hasn’t experienced in years, pushing him with a rejuvenated spirit of having to pitch for his job every time he takes the mound.
The competition could be driving the second-youngest member of the staff, Alex Wood, to prove that he should remain in the majors in a starting role.
A 1.58 starters’ ERA would be unthinkable over 162 games. The great starting pitching staff that the Dodgers had last year put up an ERA over 3.00. Even the great Braves pitching staffs of the '90s didn’t have an ERA under 3.00 in any season.
So yes, with this historic pace that they are currently on in the first half-month of the season, the Braves' starting pitchers are overachieving. But that’s not to say that the confidence built up during these early days will not carry over into the coming weeks and months.
The Braves Way will still be there throughout the season. Once Minor and Floyd return, all the starting pitchers who remain in the rotation will know that there are other guys chomping at the bit to take their spots. That competition among Braves rotation mates will still be there, pushing them to be better.
So this Atlanta Braves starting pitching staff is both overachieving and for real. Despite all the blows they have taken, they have picked themselves up and said with their work on the mound that they will not be written off. While they will not remain on this historic pace, as a unit they could still be better than their peers.