The Atlanta Braves were one of baseball's best stories in the month of April. Despite losing multiple impact starting pitchers in spring training, a makeshift pitching staff led Fredi Gonzalez's club to a 17-8 record and first place in the competitive National League East.
Thanks to contributions from unheralded arms like Aaron Harang (54.1 IP, 2.98 ERA) and David Hale (34.1 IP, 1.57 ERA), the Braves have survived and thrived despite an offense that has been languishing near the bottom of the league all season long. Now, as Atlanta's record has slipped to 24-19—including a 7-11 mark from May 1-May 19—questions about long-term contention are emanating from Atlanta.
Led by young, homegrown everyday players like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis and Andrelton Simmons, a nucleus for offense exists in Atlanta.
Yet, as those players—even the established and productive Freeman—navigate through natural and expected growing pains, past acquisitions of veterans like Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton, Justin Upton and Chris Johnson have been tasked with easing the burden of scoring runs on a consistent basis.
Thus far in 2014, the combination of young players and veteran bats hasn't produced nearly enough to keep the Braves afloat. Heading into play on May 20, Atlanta ranked near the bottom in key statistical categories such as runs, OPS, OBP, wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) and O-Swing percentage.
The last category, measuring the percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone that are swung at, illustrates the free-swinging, undisciplined nature of many of Atlanta's top hitters. While the Upton brothers, Uggla and Gattis all can provide game-changing power, their collective ability is negated by offering at pitches that are nearly impossible to drive.
When asked about the struggles of his hitters, Braves hitting coach Greg Walker referenced how many bad pitches the Braves have swung at, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
"I don't care how good a swing you have and I don't care how much talent you have, it's impossible to hit a non-competitive pitch," Walker said. "We've swung at more balls up and out of the zone than any team I've ever seen at any level, coaching or watching the other team."
Last year—en route to a 96-win season and NL East championship—the Braves scored 4.24 runs per game. While that number was far from dominant, it sufficed and complemented a deep, dynamic pitching staff. If the Braves could match or exceed that run-scoring output for the remainder of the 2014 season, another trip to October would likely commence.
Right now, that seems like too much to ask from a team that's averaging a paltry 3.34 runs per game—setting a pace for just 541 runs this season. Beyond the raw, unfiltered numbers lies a bigger problem for Atlanta's decision-makers: How to fix the issue.
#Braves Fredi G, asked if he's concerned about offense and what he might do about it: "What do you want me to do, bat the pitcher fourth?— David O'Brien (@ajcbraves) May 17, 2014
While the idea of calling up second-base prospect Tommy La Stella to replace Uggla in the everyday lineup could certainly give Atlanta's order an injection of on-base skills and plate discipline, expecting greatness from a 25-year-old fringe prospect with a .733 OPS in Triple-A is a fool's errand.
La Stella may be an upgrade from Uggla, but the Braves won't be summoning the next Mike Trout or Bryce Harper to rescue a fledgling unit.
Furthermore, with every member of Atlanta's everyday lineup signed through at least the 2015 season, the idea of drastically altering the makeup of the club is almost impossible to imagine. For better or for worse, the core in Atlanta won't change in the near future.
In theory, the Braves must be called a contender in a five-team NL East race. Prior to the start of play on May 20, first place (Atlanta) and last place (Philadelphia) were separated by just three games in the loss column. According to Baseball Prospectus' playoff probability data, the Braves owned a 35.7 percent chance of capturing the NL East for the second straight year.
Of course, division titles and trips to the postseason are commonplace for fans at Turner Field. In order to truly call the Braves a championship contender, more is needed. But with an offense that looks so futile, expecting more seems fruitless.
The following chart shows where the last 10 World Series champions ranked in team OPS+ during the season in which the championship was captured.
|Boston Red Sox||2013||117|
|San Francisco Giants||2012||112|
|St. Louis Cardinals||2011||118|
|San Francisco Giants||2010||105|
|New York Yankees||2009||115|
|Boston Red Sox||2007||107|
|St. Louis Cardinals||2006||101|
|Chicago White Sox||2005||95|
|Boston Red Sox||2004||111|
Those numbers—using only statistics from non-pitchers—are a fair and accurate representation of run-scoring ability on a year-to-year basis. Despite the league shifting from the steroid era to a time of pitching dominance, adjusted OPS takes into account park factors and the temperature of the league.
Outside of the 2005 White Sox, no recent champion had an offense below league average. In fact, half of the last 10 World Series winners—2013 Red Sox, 2012 Giants, 2011 Cardinals, 2009 Yankees and 2004 Red Sox—sported offenses that were at least 10 percent above average. Through 43 games in 2014, the Braves OPS+ from non-pitchers sat at 92. Compared to the teams listed above, it ranks dead last.
Can the Braves compete for a championship with their current offense?
When expounding on Atlanta's issues, Walker may have cryptically hit on a point that should resonate with Braves fans, per Bowman's column.
"I've coached teams that were bad and teams that have gone through bad streaks," Walker said. "Most of the time, it was because we were hurt or we just weren't that good. But our guys are healthy. There's no excuse for being as bad as we've been."
Despite sauntering around the NL as a contender, perhaps the Braves aren't that good. Unless an offensive transformation occurs at Turner Field, a successful April won't be enough to boost the team into long-term contention.