The Atlanta Braves have been a team in 2011 with many high moments and a few low moments. They started out the season sluggish and it took them half the season to find an offense. In the second half, their strong pitching before the All-Star break has slowed down and had key injuries. While the Philadelphia Phillies are the consensus pick to win the National League, I believe the Braves are a better team than many people are giving them credit for and that they will end up representing the National League in the World Series. For the remaining skeptics, here are seven reasons why.
Ignoring an uncharacteristically bad start by the Braves, during which they lost 12 of the first 20 and played .500 ball through the first 30 games of the season, the Braves record would be much better. Erasing the first 20 percent of the season, the Braves would be 1.5 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies for the best record in baseball and would be a much hotter commodity when it comes to World Series contenders. While I know you cannot ignore almost a fifth of the season, everyone can agree that the Braves are not a .500 team this year and that start was an anomaly in an otherwise brilliant season thus far.
Peter Moylan has been a consistent performer out of the bullpen since coming to the Braves from Australia. The set up potential of Moylan in key sixth inning situations has been sorely missed considering the Braves have lost numerous games in the sixth this year. With him returning from the disabled list to bolster a bullpen with the number of great arms already in place, the Braves's bullpen will be the best in the postseason on any team. While Moylan will be improving the bullpen, Tommy Hanson will be returning as the ace of the Atlanta Braves rotation. Even before the season began, Hanson was pegged as the ace for the Braves this year and he hasn't disappointed. Barring his last game, in which he gave up seven runs through only the fourth inning, Hanson has been spectacular. While Hanson was on the DL, the Braves certainly missed him, but his return to action well rested should bode well for a team striving for a deep postseason run.
The Philadelphia Phillies have the best record in baseball and one of best starting rotation in many years. However daunting this may seem, they still have only managed a 6-6 record versus division rival Braves. With two more series to go, one in Atlanta and one in Philadelphia, we very well may be seeing a future playoff match up if the rest of the season goes the way these two teams want it to. Last time, these teams met there were several key differences. Depending on how these new additions pan out could decide how the last two series and the postseason goes for these two National League contenders. Considering the Braves held their own through the beginning of the season when they were playing well below their potential, I am giving the edge to Atlanta for the rest of the year.
The offseason acquisition of Dan Uggla was supposed to add the right handed power hitter to the middle of the Braves lineup for the next five years. The 2011 season didn't start out as planned with Dan Uggla struggling from the start and dipping down to a career low .173 batting average. Since that career low, he has hit 17 homers, had 36 RBIs and raised his average to .230. In addition to these stat increases, he made the record books with a 33 game hitting streak and propelled the Braves to wins while a normally good pitching staff was in a down period. The Braves will be a very dangerous team if Dan Uggla can continue to hit at the rate he has done lately.
The Braves farm system has had many good pitcher in it for a few years now. We have seen a few of them on display this season with Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino all getting chances to prove themselves in the majors. Teheran had a few rough starts but shows a ton of potential in the minors and could prove vital if need for a spot start before the postseason starts. Delgado has already shown he can pitch with the big boys having a great start against the Giants this past weekend giving up only one hit, which sadly was a home run and shutting down the Giants offense up till that point. Last is Vizcaino, who was recently called up in replacement of Scott Proctor, and after a rough start in his first game has been outstanding. He has a fastball that can reach high 90s and has been getting more confident with each game he plays. Teheran and Delgado could help out of bullpen if called up for postseason roster, but Vizcaino has showed he belongs and should be here to stay.
For most of the 2011 season, the Braves have struggled to manufacture runs, whether it be having trouble getting into scoring position or scoring once you get there. With the free agent pick up of Michael Bourn and calling up Jose Constanza from the minors this is a lineup that is much more deadly speed wise. These two players are stolen bases waiting to happen and can turn singles into doubles on consistent basis. When either of these speedsters gets on base that is one more thing the pitcher must contend with and usually Constanza and Bourn get the best of them. Bourn was batting over .300 when he joined the Braves and has maintained that while playing excellent defense in center field. Constanza was relatively unknown when he was called up to the majors but has since hit .375 through 22 games, stolen six bases and scored 17 times. Adding these two players has taken the Braves from possibly the slowest team in MLB to a team that would outrun most others.
The undeniable strength of the Braves this season has been their bullpen at the end of games. From the seventh inning on, if the Braves have a small lead, you can bet you will be seeing Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel in that order. With that being said, that end of the game rotation has been pretty deadly for the Braves this year. The ERA's of the three pitchers are 1.27, 1.13 and 1.75 in the order as seen above. In additions to those ERA's, Venters hasn't given up an earned run since June 29th and Kimbrel hasn't given up an earned run since June 11th. As long as the Braves can get to the seventh inning with a lead, there is a high probability they will be getting a W for the night.