What's Ailing The Braves?

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What's Ailing The Braves?

If anyone remembers they were supposed to be a team contending for the NL East crown. Some foolish writers even picked them to win the World Series.

1) No Leo Mazzone

He actually left the team after the 2005 season to be the Baltimore Orioles pitching coach. Brilliant career move guy. Not so coincidentally this was the last year Atlanta won the division title.

Obviously it seems stupid to cite something that didn't even happen this year, but honestly it is still affecting the Atlanta Braves. Going to Baltimore really made a lot of people forget that this was the man whose pitching staffs finished 1st or 2nd in the NL in ERA every year for a decade.

That is ridiculous.

Part of the reason was the sick talent he had on the starting staff (Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz). But what about all those pitchers who massively overperformed for the Braves while the Cy Young trio anchored the front of the rotation?

This is the guy that made the likes of Steve Avery, Denny Neagle, John Burkett, along with a slew of other mediocre pitchers into All-Stars. He even got Mike Hampton back on track.

Another overlooked factor is the bullpens he put together. They weren't amazing, but they got the job done. Before John Smoltz moved to the 'pen, Leo had to deal with a different closer just about every year. That worked fine for the Braves until he left.

Now the Braves' staff (both starters and relievers) is plagued with injuries. A lot of the guys who are in there can't seem to find a groove. Mazzone knew how to help pitchers find and maximize their stuff. He also knew how much to work them over the course of a year. He kept guys healthy.

Personally I think that pitching coach is the most important coach on the team (besides the manager obviously). If you don't believe me, look at the 2008 St. Louis Cardinals. Look at that pitching staff. Where would they be without Dave Duncan?

Now that Mazzone's out of the biz everyone is hopping on the Dave Duncan bandwagon as "best pitching coach in baseball".

They're right, he is. But Mazzone was even better. You can't replace a coach like that, and when someone of that caliber leaves the team feels it for a while.

2) Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson are underperforming

At the beginning of the year the Braves offense was loaded, supposedly. At the top of the order Yunel Escobar was coming off a rookie campaign that had him hitting well above .300.

The middle was stacked as well with switch hitters Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira hitting 3 and 4 respectively. Brian McCann was in the 5 spot. Rounding out the order was Mark Kotsay, a left field platoon, and the pitcher.

Kelly Johnson was penciled in the 2 hole and Frenchy was batting 6th. On paper 1-6 looks pretty darn scary. Lets run through the lineup highlighting an interesting tidbit about each player.

  1. Yunel Escobar- played 94 games in 2007, .326 AVG, .385 OBP
  2. Kelly Johnson- .375 OBP in 2007, .457 SLG
  3. Chipper Jones- future Hall of Famer, finished second in BA in the NL for 2007
  4. Mark Teixeira- in 54 games with Atlanta in 2007 hit 17 HRs, and had 56 RBI, .404 OBP, .615 SLG, a .317 AVG
  5. Brian McCann- had an off year in 2007, 18 HRs, 92 RBI, .320 OBP, .452 SLG, .270 AVG
  6. Jeff Francoeur- somehow had a .338 OBP despite free swinging and a .293 AVG to go along with a .444 SLG
  7. Mark Kotsay- coming off an injury year not a bad guy for the seven spot
  8. Left Field- The Braves were again going to depend on a platoon for LF, obviously didn't expect big numbers from the 8 spot


We'll start with Kelly Johnson. Kelly's OBP dropped almost 40 points (.375 in 2007 to .339 in 2008). He is batting second in the order for a team that was going to be depending on offense and he stopped getting on base! Look who is hitting behind you man!

If you want to help the team, then get on base. This year, he's been much more of a free swinger. He only has 51 walks so far this year, he definitely won't be reaching his total of 79 that he had last year.

Also troubling is his 107 strikeouts. He has twice as many strikeouts as walks, not good. His batting average has gone up recently due to the fact that he is hitting something like .450 in September, but too little too late though.

Speaking of crappy plate discipline.....Oh hey Jeff Francoeur! How've you been? Frenchy has literally lost his mind. The man is obsessed with being a 30-40 HR guy. He hit 29 in 2006. He could taste the glory that is power hitting. After posting a very good 2007 Francoeur decided he needed to improve. I thought to myself "Wow what a great ballplayer, always trying to get better. Good for him!"

Then I found out he put on 17 lbs of muscle in the offseason training with the Clemson football team. Then I thought to myself "But Jeff, you don't play football, you play baseball....but I guess you know what you're doing because the Braves wouldn't let one of their stars screw up his game."

Then I found out there is little the Braves can do to control the 8 year old boy that is Jeff Francoeur.

You see last year Frenchy learned from hitting coach Terry Pendleton that hitting the ball the other way makes you a better and more dangerous hitter. Oddly enough Francoeur listened. He raised his batting average 33 points from .260 to .293. Hell he even took a few extra walks. His OBP was an astounding (for him) .338.

Sure he hit ten less HRs, but who cares because he hit 16 more doubles than the season before. He was becoming a great hitter. Forgotten in all of this is that Frenchy is also one of the most clutch hitters in baseball. I couldn't find the stat but his batting average with 2 outs and and runners in scoring position has always been phenomenal.

However Jeff Francoeur needed more. Labels like good baseball player just weren't enough for him. He wanted those home runs back. So he headed to Clemson. When he got back to the bigs this year he was ready to swing for the fences. And swing he did....and miss he did.

Frenchy had completely forgotten all that hit the ball the other way nonsense. His stats plummeted. His OBP, SLG, and AVG fell to the lowest they have ever been. All because he wanted to hit more home runs.

Personally I think the Brian McCann contract got to him. McCann was given a large contract last year that locked him up for something like 6 years. Also, McCann had more HRs than Francoeur last year. The two are best friends and have been for some time.

However Francoeur is very competitive and I think he felt a little inadequate. Frenchy had always been the star, McCann was the one in the shadow. But last season they had a role reversal of sorts. It wasn't just McCann getting the money.

They kind of switched roles as hitters too. McCann had always been the doubles/gapper kind of guy. Francoeur was the power hitter. Now McCann was hitting more homers and Francoeur was the doubles guy hitting the ball the other way. He wanted to be the star again.

So now lets compare what was expected of the line up to what actually happened:

Pre-Season

  1. Yunel Escobar- played 94 games in 2007, .326 AVG, .385 OBP
  2. Kelly Johnson- .375 OBP in 2007, .457 SLG
  3. Chipper Jones- future Hall of Famer, finished second in BA in the NL for 2007
  4. Mark Teixeira- in 54 games with Atlanta in 2007 hit 17 HRs, and had 56 RBI, .404 OBP, .615 SLG, a .317 AVG
  5. Brian McCann- had an off year in 2007, 18 HRs, 92 RBI, .320 OBP, .452 SLG, .270 AVG
  6. Jeff Francoeur- somehow had a .338 OBP despite free swinging and a .293 AVG to go along with a .444 SLG
  7. Mark Kotsay- coming off an injury year not a bad guy for the seven spot
  8. Left Field- The Braves were again going to depend on a platoon for LF, obviously didn't expect big numbers from the 8 spot

Current

  1. Yunel Escobar- BA (.288) SLG (.401), and OBP (.366) all dropped, but the OBP is still good and has a better ratio between strike outs and walks
  2. Kelly Johnson- OBP (.348) and SLG (.450) have dropped, and he is striking out a lot more, he was removed from the two spot
  3. Chipper Jones- hit .400 for a good part of the year, is currently hitting a paltry .364, has been hurt though
  4. Mark Teixeira- before he was traded he hit 20 HRs and had 78 RBI
  5. Brian McCann- having a great year .370 OBP, .519 SLG, and a .298 AVG
  6. Jeff Francoeur- .297 OBP, .360 SLG, .239 AVG, he also will be hitting fewer doubles than last year and has only 11 HRs
  7. Mark Kotsay- got hurt for part of the year, has batted all over the order including second, .340 OBP, .418 SLG, .289 AVG, was traded to the Red Sox
  8. Left Field- bleh


As you can see Johnson and Francoeur weren't the only people hurting the order. Chipper never hurt the order but they could have used him in more games for sure.

Kotsay was a huge risk for the Braves and probably panned out a little better than they expected him to. At the beginning of the year, the Braves expected to bring up hot center field prospect Jordan Schaeffer some time during the season but he was then suspended 50 games for using HGH.

Tex had a good year with Atlanta, as did McCann. Escobar's numbers were down from the year before but the Braves didn't expect him to hit as well as he did last year. Regardless Escobar still put up good numbers.

The two big holes are Johnson and Francoeur. Two guys the Braves really needed to step up, especially since they physically can play everyday unlike Chipper or McCann (since he is a catcher).

These stats are a little bit misleading because Frency and Johnson have been having some late season success. 

3) Injuries to the Pitching Staff

This kind of goes back to the Mazzone point but I want to get a little more in depth. Four of the five projected starters for the Atlanta Braves at the beginning of the season have missed significant time this season. Here is the Braves original starting five:

  1. John Smoltz
  2. Tim Hudson
  3. Tom Glavine
  4. Mike Hampton
  5. Jair Jurrjens

Smoltz is out for the year, maybe forever. Hudson is out for the year as of a few weeks ago. Glavine is finally back in the rotation after missing most of the year with his first trip ever to the DL. Mike Hampton is Mike Hampton. He finally returned to the Braves staff halfway through the season. He hasn't been great.

Jurrjens has been the Braves' most consistent starter. He's a freakin rookie! He's 11-7 with a 3.18 ERA. Jorge Campillo has been an ample replacement, and Jo Jo Reyes is alright. But when a team loses four of its five starters for significant amounts of time there is no way they are going to win. Unless Dave Duncan is their pitching coach.

Along with this their projected closer Rafael Soriano has been on and off the DL all season. Two years ago he and Mike Gonzalez were supposed to have given the Braves the best bullpen in the NL.

Atlanta's offseason priority should have been trying to keep Octavio Dotel. Yet again the Braves bullpen has been full of scrubs who can't hold leads. Nothing is more frustrating to watch than an awful bullpen. Oh and of course Peter Moylan got hurt as well.

In case anyone wants to nit pick what I wrote about the Braves let me say two things:

1) I did not put these reasons for the Braves poor season in any kind of order of importance.

2) The pitching staff situation hurt the Braves more than Francoeur and Johnson sucking, obviously, but there was just more to write about with Francoeur and Johnson. What more do I need to say about the staff than "Four of their five starters have been most of the year"?

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