It's no secret that the Atlanta Braves are struggling this year. But what's the cause of their troubles?
It's not the pitching. Despite the fact that ace starters John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, top setup man Peter Moylan, and trusted closer Rafael Soriano are on the DL (and closer Mike Gonzalez the spent the year on the DL until June 19), the Braves have found quality pitching elsewhere.
It's the hitting. How can that be? This is supposed to be a dynamic lineup, led by the double-headed switch-hitting monster that is Mark Teixeira and Chipper Jones. Only one significant contributor is on the DL - free agent acquisition Mark Kotsay.
The problem is that this team lacks consistent hitting. They'll score ten runs one night and get shut out the next.
They also don't know how to hit with runners in scoring position - or on base, for that matter. They have left dozens of runners stranded this year. Every time a runner gets to second - or first, for that matter - no one thereafter can even put wood on the ball, much less put the ball in play or get a hit.
Chances are good that even if a leadoff hitter takes an inside pitch to the right field corner and ends up with a triple, he will not score. The next two batters will strike out. The third will ground out weakly. Scoring chance gone. Another man left on base. Darn.
The one man on Atlanta's roster who hasn't been susceptible to this is Chipper Jones, who, even for him, is having a career year - hitting .393 with 16 homers and 46 RBI. These stats are largely a result of Chipper taking smart at-bats. He looks for a certain pitch in a specific location, and if he doesn't get it he lets the pitch go.
It also helps that Chipper is maybe the smartest hitter in baseball. It's rumored that he can remember how a pitcher got him out the last time he faced him - even if that was ten years prior.
The Atlanta lineup also isn't working the count. Hardly anyone except Chipper works the count. Yunel Escobar and Jeff Francoeur especially, as a reader pointed out in a comment, can't work the count. These guys often swing at the first pitch. The only reason Yunel appears to be a better hitter is because he doesn't try to pull everything. If the Braves want to be successful, many of their hitters must change their plate approach.
The solution? Every Braves hitter should be asking Chipper for advice on how to approach each at-bat.
These tips for two players in particular would enhance their everyday production.
Chipper could tell Jeff Francoeur not to swing at those fastballs up near his eyes or those pesky sliders that are low and outside by six inches. Here's a memo, Frenchy: we're tired of seeing you strike out with runners in scoring position on a pitch way above the zone or flail at and miss a slider that starts off the plate and only breaks further outside.
And he could tell Tex that he's killed enough rallies with his refusal to go the other way for a base hit on a pitch low and away. Instead he usually grounds weakly to third or short for an easy inning-ending double play.
The only reason Francoeur and Teixeira start is because they're both awesome fielders. Teixeira should make a case for a Gold Glove at year's end, and Francoeur has been a major league leader in outfield assists for several seasons.
But Jeff and Yunel are just two examples. You can find significant weaknesses in the way most of the Braves' everyday players approach their at-bats.
To find success, the Braves don't need any more pitching.
They need offense - consistent, get-on-any-way-you-can offense. And they need it now. Otherwise, they can kiss the playoffs for this year an early goodbye.
However, if they do, by some miracle, change their plate approaches, it would change their offense dramatically in a good way. Which would translate to wins and eventually a playoff berth.
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