Braves win! Hallelujah! Some words sound much sweeter when you haven't heard them for a while. As a Braves fan I heard the magical words "Braves win" for the first time in nearly two weeks last Saturday as the 2006 Atlanta Braves eeked out an 11 inning victory against the mighty Devil Rays, snapping a 10 game losing streak. Before that victory the Braves had a dire 30-43 record, were 15 games back from the Mets, and almost certainly calling time on the most successful run of Championships by a sporting franchise anywhere anytime; witness the deluge of obituaries written by all respected, and non-respected for that matter, baseball publications!
When game reports start listing win-loss streaks you know that either your team is doing something special (as the Athletics did in 2004), or is on the ropes waiting for the knock-out punch. And let there be no doubt, the Braves are tucked firmly in the latter camp. At the absolute nadir, on 22nd June, the losing streaks read as: 10 on the bounce, 13 of 14, 18 of 20. Simply disgraceful. Take a look at the 20 games in question:
Ouch! Although things have improved ever so slightly (on 25th June the Braves won their first series since sweeping the Cubs on 28th May), they have since dropped game one of a three game set against the Yankees, and out of their last three series two are against contending teams (Cardinals and Reds). How have the Braves got this bad? Or have they just been unlucky?
Let's take the second question first. How unlucky have the Braves been? Running a quick Pythagorean calculation tells us that the Braves' projected record should be 35-41 against a 32-44 actual record. Is three wins significant? It depends - when you are this bad three wins doesn't matter. What about that other measure of fortune: the one run game? Here the story is slightly different. So far this year the Braves have been involved in 31 one run ballgames - the most of any team in the bigs - and they have an emaciated 11-20 record. If you believe that 1-run games come down to luck (and that is another discussion entirely) then negating this factor leaves the Braves with a 36-40 record - very close to their Pythagorean projection.
Each which way you look at it the Braves are a bad team. Let's compare the 2006 Braves against the 2005 team which romped (!?!) home with yet another NL East title.
At the same point last year the Braves were proud owners of a 40-34 record. Interestingly in 2006, baring a fallow patch in early May, the Braves followed a similar trajectory up until the Cubs series sweep on 28th May. Since then they have been terrible. What has happened?
Looking at the graph we can see that both pitching and hitting have severely degraded. Following the final game with the Cubs the Braves scored at a rate of 5.3 rpg and conceded 4.9 rpg. From that point on the score rate fell to 3.7 rpg at a cost of 5.7 rpg. The precipitous change is clear from the graph and this, in a nutshell, is what accounted for the losing streak. It is almost impossible for a team to maintain a 2 rpg delta and expect to win (many) games.
The failings of the Braves pitching and especially its bullpen have been well documented. Chris Reitsma, preseason closer elect, had an ERA of over 9 with a fist full of blown saves to boot before going onto the DL two weeks ago. Joey Devine, closer of the future, pitched a couple of games before being sent down to AAA with a mildly embarrassing ERA of 63! The rest of staff haven't done much better. Take a look at how they performed last year (along with 2006 trajectory):
John Smoltz, starting pitcher: same
When Smoltz returned to the starting rotation in 2005 he, for the first time in a Braves uniform, became the jewel of the rotation. He didn't disappoint posting an ERA of 3.09, WHIP of 1.15 and K/9 of 6.65 over a robust 230 innings. Although 2006 has seen a slight regression in ERA to 3.89, peripherals are similar with a WHIP of 1.2 and a K/9 rate that has creeped up marginally at the expense of a little control. All in all he'd be a top 2 hurler on any Major League team
Tim Hudson, starting pitcher: minor downgrade
Many thought that when Tim Hudson was acquired from Oakland it would represent the second coming of the Braves as a dominant pitching force in the majors (phase 1 was Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz). Although Hudson posted respectable numbers in his first season at Turner Field he wasn't overly ace-like with an ERA of 3.5 and a measly 1.76 K/BB, which was largely down to a BB/9 of 3.0 (far too high for a so-called control pitcher). Sadly 2006 has been a repeat with K/BB staying constant but ERA jettisoning to over 4. One piece of good news is that Hudson has curbed his home run rate from 1 HR/9 in 2005 to about 0.6.
John Thomson, starting pitcher: downgrade
Thomson has been terrible this year and it doesn't take a stathead to reach that conclusion. An ERA of 4.68 and a WHIP of 1.53 tell its own story, but he wasn't actually that much better in 2005 when he clocked a 4.47 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. Control has been as issue this year and his BB/9 has ballooned from 2.6 to 3.5. Thomson is erratic and a strong outing is usually followed by a blow-out farce, such as the time the Cubs pummelled him for 6 runs in 2 innings in May. At one point Thomson was seen as an effective number 3 starter, but his performance over the last two seasons is, if anything, likely to result in an extended visit to the bullpen.
Jorge Sosa, starting pitcher (and new closer): significant downgrade
Every year the Braves manage to unearth at least one pitching gem and last year it was Sosa. His peripherals have never been good (K/9 5.7, BB/9 4.3, HR/9 0.8 in 2005) but somehow, under the tutelage of legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone, he managed to post a roster leading ERA of 2.55 (among starters). Not surprisingly some serious regression occurred in 2006 and Sosa's ERA currently stands at 5.18, with a shocking HR/9 rate of over 2! He has recently moved to pen and has taken on the mantle of closer, which tells you more about the Braves' troubles in the pen than anything about Sosa's ability to shut down the opposition in the 9th.
Other starting pitchers: jury still out
The Braves have had more men in their rotation over the last two years than Russia conscripted for WWII, and largely all have become the victim of either injury or incompetence. Let's take a quick look at two: Hampton and Ramirez. Mike Hampton was pitching well enough in 2005 (ERA 3.5) until he had to undergo Tommy John surgery and he won't be back until 2007, when he'll cost the Braves the best part of $15m. Horacio Ramirez has been on and off the DL for a couple of years and many fans would like to see him remain there, even given the lack of alternatives.
The future may be a little brighter with both Kyle Davies and Chuck James likely to feature strongly in a revamped 2007 rotation. Davies has been erratic since being called up in 2005 but is currently on the DL and is unlikely to return this year. However, he has showed enough to suggest that he is capable of being an effective number 3 starter in the near future. Chuck James made his first big league start against Tampa a couple of days ago and almost threw a no-hitter. James was a veritable strike out machine in the minors but with a tendency to give up the long ball, which he'll need to curb for sustained major league success.
Other alternatives are few. In fact it has got to a point where Lance Cormier (who?) is now starting and is generally considered to have had a strong outing if he gives up less than one run per inning. Enough said.
Bullpen and closer: awful
It's actually possible to tackle the Braves' bullpen and closer simultaneously because most of the pen have closed at some point. Actually we needn't spend too much time on this. Let me list out the Braves' pen of 2006: Ken Ray, Chad Paronto, Mike Remlinger, Oscar Villerreal, Tyler Yates, Peter Moylan, Macay McBride, Lance Cormier, Joey Devine, Blaine Boyer, Jorge Sosa and ace-in-the-hole Chris Reitsma. How many have you heard of? Four? Five? And how many do you actually think are any good? One? Two? Out of the entire Braves pen only three hurlers have any prospect of having a reasonable career: McBride, Devine and Boyer (2006 ERAs: 4.6, 63, 41 respectively). Everyone else is either at best a journeyman who for a few seasons may play above replacement level, or at worst Mike Remlinger. The 2005 bullpen was barely passable (Tom Martin, Adam Bernero, John Foster, Dan Kolb anyone?) but somehow the 2006 version has turned out worse. The clamour to bring back Danny Kolb is getting larger by the day!! Note: the Braves bullpen is actually scooting along quite nicely at the moment with 1 ER over the last 15 innings. Expect normal business to resume shortly.
Although the Braves of the 90s were largely construed as a team of deep pitching, the turning on the millennium brought a sharper focus on to offense. Indeed the 2003 line-up of Marcus Giles, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez was probably the most potent in the National League at the time. How are their 2006 counterparts doing?
First base: same
Adam LaRoche has been the regular first baseman in both 2005 & 2006, albeit platooning with the creaky Brian Jordan for the majority of this year. In 2005 LaRoche's line was .259/.320/.455 vs .250/.336/.482 this year. He has shown a better command of the strike zone and walks a tad more frequently but has seen a corresponding drop in average. Although SLG has fallen his HR rate has actually increased to a homer every 20 AB (from 22 in 2005).
Second base: severe downgrade
Marcus Giles has been the regular second baseman for a few years and before the season started he was widely regarded as the ideal candidate to lead-off following Furcal's departure to the free -spending Dodgers. Unfortunately the experiment has been an abject failure. Giles' line has dropped from a healthy .291/.365/.461 to an abysmal .239/.324/.349. Not only has his AVG dropped precipitously but a healthy second baseman power stroke has all but disappeared. There appear few excuses as despite consistently performing like a AA player injury isn't to blame.
Third base: downgrade
Although Chipper Jones seems to spend at least some time every year on the DL he is still a very effective third baseman (he has already had a stint on the DL in April this year). Chipper has been remarkable consistent for a number of years but his 2005 line of .296/.412/.556 does not compare too well to 2006 which is meandering along at a less than pacy .275/.372/.428. A drop in AVG, walk rate and power are likely age related as, arguably, the greatest switching hitting 3B of all time reaches the twilight of his career.
Shortstop: marginal upgrade
Many bemoaned the Braves' options at shortstop when Furcal left for the Dodgers in the summer. They assumed that Betemit would move from the bench to fill the position but Bobby Cox didn't have any faith in his fielding, which is obviously critical for a shortstop. Surprisingly the Braves traded their uber-prospect, Andy Marte, to the Red Sox for the misfiring Edgar Renteria. It was a trade that has so far worked out well for both teams, although the jury is still out on the wisdom of giving up a potential All-Star 3B for a creaky old shortstop. Renteria has been a revelation to the Braves hitting .302/.385/.455 and more than covering for the loss of Furcal who hit .284/.348/.429 in 2005. Many say that this is countered by Furcal's glove which may be correct but neither has been without fielding trouble this year - FRAA has them roughly equivalent in 2006.
One of the few bright spots for the Braves has been the emergence of Brian McCann. Although McCann emerged strongly from the minors last year following Estrada's run-in (literally) with Erstad, this year he has been a revelation. In 2005 McCann batted .278/.345/.400 in 180 AB while Estrada posted .261/.303/.367 in 357 AB, which pails into insignificance against McCann's 2006 line which so far is .352/.412/.519. Unfortunately the Braves shipped Estrada off to the Diamondbacks so if McCann gets injured the Braves have to rely on the limp wristed Brayan Pena or Todd Pratt. Having recently has a stint DL, it is clear that a healthy McCann is a huge asset to this team.
Centre field: marginal downgrade
In 2005 Andruw Jones seemingly single-handedly lifted the Braves to their 14th consecutive championship. 51 dingers comfortably led the majors and it seemed that Jones was finally fulfilling the precocious talent he showed when bursting on to the scene during the 1996 World Series. His 2005 line of .263/.347/.575 reveals the extent of his power. Not surprisingly he has regressed slightly in 2006 and has so far posted .285/.351/.523. While good enough to be one of the Braves' better players, it is far from the Bondsian performance required to lift the team in to the post season.
Corner fielders: downgrade
The Braves started 2005 with 2 corner outfielders who should have been in the local hospice rather than patrolling Turner Field's foul lines. Mondesi and Jordan may have been the answer in 1997 but a combined line of .233/.285/.345 ended any debate about their efficacy in 2005. That led to the emergence of the Baby Braves spearheaded by the free-swinging Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur was called up after the All-Star break in 2005 and set a blistering pace for the first month of his Major League career hitting .400, homering for fun, and getting his face plastered on the front cover of Sports Illustrated. However, the laws of gravity soon took hold and he finished with a relatively disappointing .300/.336/.549. Despite promising to improve his shoddy plate discipline, Francoeur's woes continued in to 2006 and he currently stands at a disappointing .250/.271/.442, which is about half a win below replacement level. Much has been written about whether he should be sent down to the minors with a straitjacket on until he learns how to walk. The debate has concluded - Jeff, hitch a lift to Richmond.
The opposite corner has been more of a thorough fare with Orr, Langerhans, Johnson, and Diaz spending some time in deep left. The lack of continuity has not belied poor production, but with Diaz currently hitting .345/.375/.496 (albeit on relatively few AB) there is some hope that a solution may have been found, although both walk rate and power need to improve. Alternatives are not promising with Kelly Johnson on the DL and Ryan Langerhans hitting a sallow .250/.288/.389.
Across the board both hitting and pitching have worsened. Some components, such as the bullpen, have severely degraded to the point of embarrassment. Three weeks ago you could count on Reitsma coming in and having to be hooked by Bobby Cox after giving up an uncanny number of consecutive hits. The 2006 campaign is over. It is time to build for the future. The only question is with the impending change of ownership in that future 2007, 2008 or even beyond? Answers on a postcard please.