In his first start for the 2014 Atlanta Braves on Friday night, young lefty Mike Minor was confronted with the reality of the 2014 Atlanta Braves.
With Minor doing his part by turning in a solid performance, he provided further evidence that this Braves team has the whole pitching thing down solid.
The whole hitting thing, on the other hand, is a work in progress. And at this point, one is starting to get the sense that's just how it's going to be.
Though Minor surrendered only two earned runs—courtesy of solo home runs by Angel Pagan and Mike Morse—in six innings against the San Francisco Giants on Friday night, the Braves offense could muster only one run of support. The Braves had their chances, but ultimately left 12 men on base.
That deserves a finger-wagging. But before we get to that, let's speak positively for a few moments and give credit where it's due: Though less than perfect, Minor looked pretty good.
After being sidelined through all of April with shoulder inflammation, the 26-year-old gave up seven hits, struck out four and walked none in his six innings.
That'll do for a solid debut. And judging from Minor's fastball velocity, also good is that he wasn't pitching with diminished stuff.
Per Brooks Baseball, the MLB Advanced Media Gameday data has the average velocity of Minor's fastball against the Giants at 91.1 miles per hour. That's down a bit from the 91.23 miles per hour he averaged in 2013, but he began the year averaging just 90.77 in April and 90.79 in May.
In light of those figures, Minor's velocity is right about where it needs to be. Given how shoulder injuries that sideline guys for a month are no joke, that's a good sign.
As for Minor's control, it's a good look that he threw 55 of his 80 pitches for strikes (68.8 percent). Which, if nothing else, helps explain the zero walks.
Minor's control wasn't perfect, though. Take a look at his strike zone plot from Friday, and you'll see more than a few heaters up in the zone. Two of those hurt, as Minor gave up a leadoff home run to Pagan on a fastball here:
And another home run to Morse in the sixth inning on a fastball that missed here:
That's what happens when you throw major league hitters fastballs where they can hit 'em.
Still, we'll cut Minor some slack. It's not easy to come back after a month on the shelf and be perfect. And even despite those two homers, he did his job by giving the Braves a chance to win the game.
"I thought Mike was outstanding today, especially after the first (inning)," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, via David O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Then he added: "But we left a lot of people on, 12 runners on base. We’re getting on base, we’re stealing bases and trying to create some runs that way, but we’re just not getting them in when we have to."
Suffice it to say that it's been a struggle for Atlanta's offense recently. The Braves came into Friday's game having scored more than four runs just once in their last 10 games and, according to FanGraphs, just a .266 collective OBP over the last seven days.
As Gonzalez noted, the Braves at least managed to get some men on base against the Giants, collecting eight hits and drawing five walks. But even after doing that, their full-season numbers still make the retinas burn:
|The Struggling Atlanta Braves Offense|
Ugly stuff all the way around, and that it's happening isn't the biggest surprise.
The absence of Brian McCann notwithstanding, the Braves offense consists largely of the same players who fed into a team-wide .321 OBP and 22.6 percent strikeout rate (K%, or K/PA) last year. An offense that had holes in it last year has begotten an offense with holes in it this year.
Beyond that, there's the reality that it's hard to pick out hitters in the Braves lineup who are good bets to emerge as consistent producers.
There's no point in placing much faith in either Dan Uggla or B.J. Upton. Neither of them hit a lick in 2013, and both are struggling with OBPs under .300 and strikeout rates over 28 percent.
Evan Gattis has issues, too. He can hit the ball very hard, but his combination of a 3.7 walk rate (BB%, or BB/PA), 23.5 K% and tendency to hit the ball in the air is going to make him an easy out most days.
Andrelton Simmons ought to be less of an easy out by virtue of his ability to make contact, as he's striking out less than five percent of the time so far. But he also doesn't walk (2.9 BB%), and he's going to have a tough time picking up hits with a contact approach that contains relatively few line drives.
Chris Johnson is basically the anti-Simmons in that he hits a ton of line drives. However, he's yet another Braves hitter with a high K% (25.0) and low BB% (3.8).
Even Justin Upton is worthy of a few worries. He may be slashing an impressive .313/.395/.616, but he also has a whopping 30.7 K%. That's the highest among Braves regulars, which, considering the particulars, is saying a lot.
This leaves us looking at Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman.
The latter is absolutely the most trust-worthy hitter the Braves have, as Freeman is a line-drive machine who can also take a walk (9.7 BB%) and doesn't strike out much (17.7 K%). Don't worry about him. In layman's terms: He rules.
Heyward, meanwhile, might actually be the second-most trustworthy hitter on the Braves, as he also has a decent walk rate (9.6 BB%) and strikeout rate (21.6 K%) and is finally starting to get some hits to fall. After collecting three hits on Friday, Heyward now has 16 hits in his last 48 at-bats for a .333 average.
That's two reliable hitters. Three if Upton is able to either get his strikeout problem under control or, as he is now, simply find ways to keep living with it. That's better than nothing, but it's not the recipe for a consistent offense.
Point being: The pitching better keep it up.
That, fortunately, isn't asking too much. Braves starters aren't going to maintain a 2.42 ERA all season, but a rotation featuring Minor along with Ervin Santana, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood is pretty good. If Aaron Harang can sustain whatever wizardry has helped him become a strikeout machine with a 2.97 ERA, great. If not, David Hale can come back out of the bullpen and take his spot.
As long as the Braves can pitch, they can contend. That's the bright side.
The not-so-bright side is that the very real lack of stability in the Braves lineup means there are going to be plenty of days when the run support just isn't there. The margin for error could be about as razor-thin over the next five months as it's been in the first month.
Friday night was the first time Minor got to experience that slim margin for error. It probably won't be the last.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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