Braves Baseball: 9 Things We've Learned About Atlanta in the First 20 Games
The starting pitching has been darn good. Some of the hitting has been good. Some of it, not so good.
The Braves haven’t missed any of their recently-relocated free agents, while the team has made the most out of their last-minute free agent.
It’s hard to judge a team after just 20 games, but it’s a whole lot easier when that team is in first place. The Braves have some holes, but not as many as other clubs. Continue with the slideshow to explore the nine things we’ve learned about the team from the early part of the season.
*All stats are through Monday, April 21.
The Starting Pitching Has Been Pretty Darn Good
There must be some magical transference of power that happens when a starting pitcher puts on a Braves jersey. It’s like the Braves have found a way to soak a jersey in a cocktail of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz DNA, and then make that DNA radiate from garment to pitcher.
Just do a Google News search on “Braves starting pitching” and you’ll get dozens of different results from all corners of the Internet wondering if the results of this rotation are to be believed. I wrote about this very topic on Bleacher Report just last week.
Since then, Braves starting pitchers have continued to put up nothing but quality starts, even while getting little support from their offense or the bullpen. We’re all kind of waiting for the first bad start from a pitcher. Hopefully they keep us waiting.
Dan Uggla Is Still Dan Uggla
In some dark corner of the world, there was a group of people who hoped that Dan Uggla would suddenly right all the things that had gone wrong…or at least some of the things that had gone wrong. But enough about the inner workings of the Braves front office, in the real world Dan Uggla has been pretty bad.
Uggla is second in the league in errors, and should have another six if failed double plays counted.
Yes, Dan had a big grand slam to cap a comeback last week in Philly; part of a two-homer game. Those would be the only two home runs he’s hit this season.
As far as his wins above replacement this season, he’s been worth just 0.1 fWAR, per FanGraphs.com, which is less than part-time bench guys like Jordan Schafer and Ramiro Pena.
Some national writers have are already calling on the Braves to cut Uggla loose. At this point, we have to ask "what more is gained by keeping Uggla?" If a player like Uggla is going to play at a level barely above replacement, isn’t it better to plug in a rookie like Tommy La Stella who at least has some upside?
Aaron Harang Has Sold His Soul to the Pitching Devil
One of those starting pitchers who’s making the Braves rotation so great is Aaron Harang. Not big-money free-agent Aaron Harang; or acquired-in-a-blockbuster-trade Aaron Harang. Nope, it’s just lowly little released-at-the-end-of-spring-training Aaron Harang.
That Aaron Harang, who happens to be the Aaron Harang, has the best ERA in baseball, has allowed the fewest hits per nine innings and all this despite leading the league in long faces.
Aaron Harang! Who knew? Does this make the Braves front office a bunch of geniuses, or just incredibly lucky?
Buy Stock in Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman
The two Braves batters that don’t seem to be fazed by the early-season struggles of the rest of the offense are Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman. While Upton has been extremely streaky, Freeman has been the most consistent batter in the Braves lineup.
As of Tuesday morning Freeman had not gone hitless in back-to-back games all season. Upton has had several series in which he has gone 0-fer, but then he’s had series in which he’s hit everything in sight. Two such series in the season’s second week earned him National League Player of the Week honors.
If the Braves are to repeat as National League East Division Champions, then they’re going to need their two big bats in the middle of the lineup to carry a lot of the weight. So far, Freeman and Upton have been up to the task. I’d place a bet that they will continue their All-Star performances.
Craig Kimbrel Is Human
There has been panic across the Braves Twitterverse that something is wrong with Braves closer Craig Kimbrel. Even talk radio in Atlanta has found time—between segments about college football—to mention the April struggles of the best closer in baseball.
A recent bout of shoulder soreness that kept Kimbrel out of games for a week, and resulted in setup men David Carpenter and Jordan Walden closing out games, has only added fuel to the panic that something might be wrong with him.
In a piece I wrote at ChopCounty.com last week I noted how Kimbrel’s velocity takes time to heat up. That early-April velocity drop, coupled with the shoulder soreness, and probably a bout of control problems have conspired to make Craig look average.
In a month or two we probably won’t even remember that we were worried about Kimbrel. He’ll straighten out his control, pump up his velocity and shake off the shoulder soreness. For now though, we are left with the reminder that he is human after all.
Is Jason Heyward Broken?
The worst batting average on the Braves does not belong to a player whose last name starts with U. Surprising many fans, Jason Heyward has started this season off with a whimper in the batter’s box, hitting just .176.
Heyward’s poor average could be a product of bad luck, as his .212 BABIP attests. He certainly doesn’t seem to be catching any breaks or finding any lucky gaps.
Heyward is not all broken though. He leads the team in bases on balls and stolen bases, so he is at least providing some value at getting on base.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about Heyward’s slow start has been his lack of power. Just four extra-base hits tie him for fewest among the Braves regulars with B.J. Upton.
Evan Gattis Is for Real
Entering play Tuesday, Evan Gattis led all catchers (with a minimum of 50 plate appearances) in OPS at .950. That’s 300 points higher than Brian McCann.
Gattis is tied with Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton for the team lead in home runs, proving that the power he displayed last season was not a fluke. Nor was the penchant for late-inning heroics, as Monday night’s walk-off dinger proved.
The Braves are taking it easier with Gattis than they did with McCann, giving Evan plenty of off days. Of course, with two other catchers on the roster, there’s a need to get all of them enough work.
While the Braves probably miss the leadership of McCann, so far they haven’t missed his bat thanks to El Oso Blanco.
Ervin Santana Was Worth the Money and the Draft Pick
I was skeptical when the Braves signed Ervin Santana early in spring training. After Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were lost for the season it was refreshing to see the Braves send a message that they would do what it takes to replace them, but I was concerned that Santana’s price in terms of dollars and the loss of draft pick was too much to pay for a pitcher with an erratic major league track record.
Boy has he proved me wrong. Santana has been worth every penny so far, ranking second in the league in ERA (to Aaron Harang). He is second on the team in fewest hits per nine innings and leads the team in fewest walks per nine innings and most strikeouts per nine innings.
The Braves will have to wait to see his real value, which should come in the form of a dominant strikeout pitcher who can match up with the elite starters in the postseason.
The Offense Is Pregnant and We Are Awaiting Delivery
There are wonderful things to come with the offense; we’re just waiting for it to become what it was always meant to be.
I’ve mentioned the good offense that Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis have provided this season. Andrelton Simmons is also providing above-average offense for a shortstop. The rest of the guys though, they’ve got some work to do.
Chris Johnson started the year off as the Braves cleanup hitter, but a rough start to the season has since bounced him all over the lower half of the batting order.
B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla have not emerged from their cocoons of awful, and the Braves have gotten very little from their bench.
There should be more offense in the players the Braves have assembled. The hope is that there is untapped offense just waiting for the rust of the season’s first month to wear off.