As we arrive at the three-quarter mark in the 2014 baseball season, let’s take a look at how the different parts of the Atlanta Braves measure up.
The team’s recent collapse in the standings has been well-publicized, and perhaps assigning some letter grades to each part of the team can help us find out which parts are pulling their weight and which parts are not.
The Atlanta offense has been offensive this season. Despite being ranked 22nd in baseball with a .244 team batting average, as well as 22nd in on-base percentage and 26th in slugging percentage, the Braves rank just 28th in runs scored.
They’re not hitting or getting on base or hitting for power, and all of that is conspiring to keep their runners from crossing home plate.
While all of the Braves offensive numbers are way down from last season, perhaps one of the most glaring drops comes in the power department. Last year, Atlanta led the National League in home runs with 181 and ranked second in the NL in slugging percentage (.402).
This season, through 118 games, they’ve hit just 94 home runs with a .369 slugging percentage—both numbers are in the bottom third of the league.
When a team goes from the top of the league in home run and extra-base hit production to the bottom third, the result is never going to be good.
Just about everything continues to go wrong for Atlanta’s offense, and that earns it a grade of C- at the three-quarter mark. The Braves are still a team above .500, but they're sinking fast.
If we go by the standard metrics of fielding and look at fielding percentage, then Atlanta’s .985 number this year is right in line with the .986 number it put up last year. Both years, the Braves ranked in the top third in the National League.
If we take a look at an advanced stat, like Defensive Runs Saved, then we see a couple of bright spots and a bunch of not-so-bright spots.
Jason Heyward is leading baseball with 31 DRS. Andrelton Simmons, last year’s DRS leader, is ninth with 14 Defensive Runs Saved. Every other lineup regular has a negative DRS number, with Chris Johnson and his negative 15 DRS bringing up the rear.
So there’s been good defense and bad defense, but overall, it’s been only slightly above average. The Braves aren’t committing an inordinate amount of errors, but they’re also not completing all the plays they could turn into outs.
I’ll assign a grade of B- to a solid, but inconsistent, Braves defense.
If you had assigned the Atlanta rotation a grade in spring training, it would have been a “P,” for panic, with the expectation that a solid F would not be unexpected for the first month of the season. The Braves had just lost Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, and the team was readying itself to fill in with the inexperienced arms of Alex Wood and David Hale, plus the veteran carcass of Aaron Harang.
If you gave the Atlanta rotation a grade after the season’s first month, it would have been an A+, something completely unexpected. The Braves' spectacular rotation carried them to one of the best records in baseball through the end of April.
So how is that starting pitching holding up now? It’s still looking pretty good. Despite losing another starter for the season to injury (Gavin Floyd), and the head-scratching struggles of Mike Minor, the remainder of the Atlanta rotation has collectively performed better (3.45 ERA) than they did last season (3.51 ERA). Both of those ERA numbers rank in the top third in the National League.
Considering that three-fifths of the expected rotation is out for the year, the remaining bunch has held it together very well and continued Atlanta’s tradition of strong starting pitching. They get a grade of A at the three-quarter mark.
Last season, Atlanta had the best bullpen ERA in baseball—a spectacular 2.46 mark. This year, that number is almost a run higher at 3.32.
That’s still good enough for the top third in the National League, and it’s better than the average Major League bullpen, but it’s not that dominant, shutdown force it was last year.
Strangely, the problem with the bullpen has been in tie games. When the Braves are leading in a game, they have a 2.08 bullpen ERA. When they’re behind, they have a 2.88 ERA. But when the game is tied, the Atlanta pen ERA balloons to 5.04.
At least they’re protecting the lead, but their failure when the game is tied is troubling. That leads to a grade of C+ for the bullpen.
Manager and General Manager
Surprisingly, when Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Jeff Schultz did an informal poll in his column last week of who is to blame for the Braves' struggles, manager Fredi Gonzalez was ranked third (out of three), behind general manager Frank Wren and the Braves players.
As one high-priced player after another fails to live up to their contracts with the Braves, Wren is being held more and more accountable.
The Braves' lack of a leadoff hitter, or effective left-handed setup man, or effective bench, have fans pointing the finger at Wren and his poor roster construction. Having to release Dan Uggla, who is still owed over $15 million, did not sit well with the Atlanta faithful. And the prospect of someday soon having to do the same with B.J. Upton is leading to an extreme pessimism about the Braves front office and their decisions of which players to hand big contracts to.
On the other hand, Wren has done a good job of finding replacements for the injured rotation arms—signing Ervin Santana in spring training and finding Aaron Harang in a shoebox in his garage. Wren also made a decent morale trade at the deadline by acquiring a lefty reliever and a bench upgrade.
It’s really hard to lay the blame for players not performing up to expectations at the feet of a manager or a general manager. But every team that struggles will ultimately blame the folks who built the team and run the team.
There’s some good and some bad from both Gonzalez and Wren, so I’ll give them each a grade of C at the three-quarter mark.