With five All-Stars and 50-plus wins before the break, the Atlanta Braves look very strong going into the second half of the 2010 season.
They’ve combined their stellar pitching staff with timely hitting (16 wins in their last at-bat before the All-Star Break) and have steered clear of the Phillies and Mets to jump out to a 4-game lead in the NL East.
The Braves have certainly given Bobby Cox a season to remember in his last campaign, but let’s take a quick look on where the team is headed to try to predict if its second half can match up to their first.
First we’ll start with a positional breakdown on this Braves’ squad.
The Braves pitching staff is just as good as it was last year and maybe better even after the Javier Vasquez trade.
The big question mark was Tim Hudson and whether he could return successfully from Tommy John surgery.
Hudson has been the team ace for the Braves in the first half posting an 8-4 record with a 2.44 ERA which earned him a spot on the National League All-Star team.
The only warning flags that have been thrown for Hudson is his relatively high 3.94 SIERA and .236 BABIP, which suggest he’s been reaping the fortunes of a great defense and just pure luck.
But all in all, he’s gone at least seven innings in his last seven starts and he should have a solid second half even if it isn’t as great as his first.
As for the rest of the staff, Derek Lowe has been decent, and Tommy Hanson has been fantastic other than a few very poor starts.
If his first couple starts back from injury are any indication, Jair Jurrjens looks like he could have a very strong second half.
Kris Medlen has also been a pleasant surprise, and he seems to have improved his already good changeup into a plus plus pitch.
The only real sour note here has been Kenshin Kawakami with a 1-9 record and a 4.48 ERA.
The Braves bullpen has been nothing short of spectacular.
They have everything, with a righty specialist in Peter Moylan, lefty specialists in Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, a setup man in Takashi Saito, and a Hall of Fame closer in the flame throwing Billy Wagner.
Their bullpen is probably better this seasonthan it ever was in the 14 division title years.
As of last Tuesday, the Braves bullpen was secondin the NL with a 3.25 ERA, tied for the lead in wins (18) and first in least losses (seven).
They were also second in strikeouts with 265. One of the keys to the bullpen’s success though is its versatility.
The mid-relievers are not just ROOGYs and LOOGYs. Although they thrive against same-side opponents, Bobby has let Moylan, O’Flaherty, and Venters face the opposite handed hitters and all three have done quite well, and will hopefully continue to do so.
With just a quick glance at Brian McCann’s batting average (.267), he doesn’t look as good as past seasons, but I will repeat what many statisticians have said over recent years, batting average is overrated.
With a catcher, defense can be more important than offense, proof residing in Yadier Molina’s All-Star selection with a .223/.301/.294 line, but the best defense at his position in baseball.
McCann’s defense has also improved by all accounts, but his offense has been good as well, as he’s posted a .380 OBP and a .447 SLG as well as a 19.4 VORP which is good enough for third in the Major Leagues.
David Ross may also be the best backup in the Majors, as he is solid defensively and has real power. Things are looking up at catcher as we head into the second half.
Troy Glaus was one of the biggest surprises of the Braves season, up until the end of June, when he went into a terrible slump, going 6-for-50 at one point.
Before that, he was leading the league in RBI and doing great as a middle-of-the-lineup RBI threat, which every contending team needs to succeed.
He is still putting up a respectable line at .254/.361/.441, which will fill a first base void that the Braves have needed filled for so very long.
Glaus is also considered a very good base runner, one of the best in the NL according to some.
He is signed through the end of this season, so it will be up to the Braves to decide whether to resign him or mark this offseason as the beginning of the Freddie Freeman era.
Troy’s second half may make that decision.
Martin Prado’s journey to stardom began last season when Bobby Cox would give him the start and give Kelly Johnson the day off.
He would get a hit virtually every single game. When Johnson’s struggles escalated, Prado was seeing more and more time at second.
He eventually began to start, posting an average above .300 at the end of the season.
He picked up right where he left off, as he currently leads the MLB in hits (121) and is tied for fourth in the NL in doubles (25).
He also has hit double digits in home runs at the break, which is already nearing his career-high of 11.
Hopefully he can bring this momentum into the second half.
After considering retirement on June 15 following a miserable start by his lofty standards, Jones has been hot, hitting .307/.384/.587.
His injury woes have continued, nothing new there.
His season has somewhat reflected the team's season, looking through the months.
Both Chipper and the Braves had terrible Aprils, began to get the wheels turning in May, and really started performing during the latter part of June and early July.
Chipper has also drawn a lot of walks, which sets an example for the rest of the team, as the Braves are first in the league in both walks and on-base percentage.
Chipper's season is looking up entering the second half, and so is the Braves'.
Since the Braves just traded for Alex Gonzalez in a deal involving Yunel Escobar, I’ll write about him.
Gonzalez has had a power surge this season, blasting more home runs in the first half of this season than he has in any other full season since 2004.
A career .248/.295/.403 hitter, Gonzalez doesn’t seem like much, and, honestly, he isn’t much.
The Braves’ trade an up-and-coming All-Star SS who gets off to a bad start for a 33-year-old SS that, given his career numbers, shouldn’t be starting on a first place team.
This deal was obviously to give the Braves’ a push for this season and maybe next season, but I don’t see how a .295 career OBP guy provides that push.
Maybe he’ll be better in the clubhouse than Escobar, but there’s no denying Escobar’s talent, both at the dish and in the field.
Talent that Gonzalez can’t even come close to touching.
I had to lump this section together, since the outfield has had so many different looks throughout the season.
First, we’ll start with Jason Heyward.
The rookie phenom showed what he could do on his first Major League swing, belting an absolute bullet into the Braves’ bullpen off of Carlos Zambrano.
The rest of April was up and down for him, as he’d go 4-for-5 and then 0-for-5 with four strikeouts, although he did have his six home runs.
He started to show sings of the player that he will become in May however, as he posted a 1.081 OPS and had 16 BBs vs. 10 Ks in that month.
He had an abysmal June, but that was due to him playing with a deep bone bruise that would put him on the 15-day disabled list.
A fan favorite, he was voted to start in the All-Star Game.
If he comes back injury-free, we could be looking at a great second half.
Now we have the stories of the three other main outfielders: Melky Cabrera, Matt Diaz, and Nate McLouth (I’ll cover Infante next).
Cabrera started off poorly in April just as most of the Braves did, but he has since picked it up, providing some solid offensive performance with the bat.
He’ll hope to add some more pop in the second half, albeit with probable less playing time with Heyward and Diaz’s return.
Diaz, like Jurrjens, was doing badly until he got injured. Sometimes a slumping player needs an injury to just slow him down and it seems to have worked for Diaz, as he has hit .391/.391/.696 in 24 at-bats since back from injury.
The Braves’ lefty specialist platoon player in 2008 showed he could hit righties as well in 2009 and hopes to continue the trend in the second half of this season.
Nate McLouth has been the biggest disappointment of the Braves’ season so far.
After the former All-Star center fielder was acquired early in 2009, The Braves looked like they had a long-term outfield plan which included McLouth, Jordan Schafer, and Heyward.
That dream has not become a reality yet however, Schafer is back in the Minors and McLouth is struggling mightily.
McLouth is one of the best base stealers in the game percentage-wise, but he cannot put those talents to work if he can’t get on base.
Hoping for another All-Star performance this season, McLouth got just the opposite. He’s hit well below the Mendoza line this season, at .176.
Being a left-handed hitter, he shouldn’t be expected to eat lefties alive, but a sub .400 OPS against them is not what a man of his talent should be expected to do either.
On what has turned out to be the Braves’ worst play of the year, Gerardo Parra hits an inside-the-park home run when Nate McLouth and Jason Heyward collided, injuring them both.
The play gave McLouth a concussion and shook Heyward up, but it also cost the Braves’ the game.
McLouth has been on the DL ever since and hopefully an injury can get him out of his slump, as it did with Jurrjens and Diaz.
This season’s version of the “undeserving All-Star", Omar Infante is much more valuable than people give him credit for.
Although if I were Charlie Manuel, I wouldn’t have picked him, I see why Charlie did. He was not necessarily picking the best players for the All-Star team, but the players that would make the NL squad have the best chance of winning, with home-field advantage on the line.
To Manuel, Infante was on that list because he can play all three outfield positions, plus third and shortstop, making him a very valuable player on any All-Star team.
To add to that he’s batting .332. If people want to complain about his or any All-Star selection, complain about what’s on the line at the All-Star game.
Manuel would not have picked Infante and would have gone with another player like Votto, if home-field advantage wasn’t at stake.
Of all of Selig’s major gaffes, some of the worst include calling the 2002 All-Star game a tie and trying to clean that mistake up by tying home-field advantage to the All-Star game.
Anyway, All-Star Infante should continue to do what he does best: give the Braves tons of defensive flexibility without sacrificing offense.
My prediction is that all the Braves need to do during this 162-game grind is stay away from major injuries.
Hudson, Lowe, Hanson, Jurrjens, and Medlen may be the best starting five in baseball, and the Braves have a bullpen that can shut the game down.
With a much better offense than last season, I see no reason why the Braves’ can’t use Brian McCann’s All-Star MVP double to help them out in the Fall Classic.