Three Cuts: Braves losing streak hits six games as offense stumbles
The Atlanta Braves suffered their second consecutive sweep at the hands of a National League East rival, losing six straight games to Washington and Philadelphia this week to drop their overall record to 6-12. Four of the six games were decided by two runs or fewer, but Brian Snitker's club heads to New York searching for answers — particularly on offense. Here are three observations from the week:
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1. Featuring Adonis Garcia against right-handed pitching only exacerbates offense's issues
On two separate occasions against the Philadelphia Phillies, Adonis Garcia played the would-be hero.
In the series opener, hitting in front of Freddie Freeman, he capped his night with a ninth-inning solo home run in the pouring rain to bring Atlanta one run shy of a late comeback against its NL East rivals. The next night, Garcia stepped into the box with Dansby Swanson on third in the 10th inning and was able to push the go-ahead run home on an infield dribbler — a moment erased by Maikel Franco’s walk-off. In total, manager Brian Snitker’s experiment with Adonis Garcia hitting No. 2 against three right-handed starters yielded four hits in 13 plate appearances and multiple key moments. One could almost say the tinkering worked.
None of this anecdotal evidence hinting at success overrides the fact that hitting Garcia anywhere near a prominent spot in the batting order against right-handed pitching is a telltale sign of an offense in trouble.
Set aside the solo shot in rainy conditions — a split-finger from a dominant reliever thrown just as the Philadelphia sky opened up — and Garcia left the infield once in three games. On Saturday night, he struck out twice and weakly rolled over three pitches to short. Favorable 3-0 counts quickly disintegrated into easy plays for Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis. (To be fair, one of Garcia’s at-bats resulted in a rocket down the third-base line only to be snagged by Washington counterpart Anthony Rendon, who was hugging foul territory to guard against any doubles. Balance out one of his infield dribblers with that showdown with Stephen Strasburg and call it even in the Nationals series.) On Sunday, he struck out again as a pinch-hitter with two on, no outs to help dismantle a ninth-inning rally, coming off the bench ahead of Tyler Flowers, who owns a .277/.365/.414 slash line against righties since the start of last season.
These anecdotal counterarguments do not matter, either.
History dictates that Adonis Garcia will struggle against right-handers.
Since he broke into Atlanta’s starting lineup in July 2015 only 11 players have posted worse offensive numbers against righties, but only two have received more plate appearances: defensive-minded shortstops Alcides Escobar (Royals) and Jordy Mercer (Pirates). Essentially, no MLB player has posted worse numbers in more opportunities without manning a premium defensive position.
The “Ride The Hot Bat” approach does not hold water here: Garcia is hitting .150/.190/.217 against right-handers in 2017. Throwing a player with that track record into one of the two most important positions in the lineup is guaranteed to undercut offensive production in the long run. (Garcia hitting second against southpaws is another conversation entirely.) Platooning him with the likes of Jace Peterson or, perhaps later this summer, third-base prospect Rio Ruiz would be a much sounder strategy moving forward.
Six hundred and eight career plate appearances says there is no saving Adonis Garcia against same-sided pitching.
However, Snitker’s early lineup tinkering is understandable.
His team ranks 23rd in runs scored per game with similar peripherals. Aside from Freddie Freeman’s April MVP resume padding, position players accounted for 0.2 wins above replacement entering the Phillies finale. Production at the top of his lineup has been both unfortunate and dreadful. Ender Inciarte is reaching base just one out of every four attempts. Production in the No. 2 hole — manned by Garcia, rookie Dansby Swanson and Brandon Phillips to date – has been the worst in the majors. Freeman, the game’s top hitter for nearly a calendar year now, has entered the box with runners in scoring position just nine times in 18 games.
The decision to move Phillips, the team’s second-hottest hitter, to the second spot in the Phillies finale was the smartest play outside of allowing Swanson’s series of unfortunate BABIP events returns to normalcy.
No National League team has hit worse in the 2-hole since the start of the 2014 season. Perhaps no franchise has devalued the role more, either, by handing the pivotal role to the likes of Erick Aybar, Daniel Castro, Gordon Beckham, Phil Gosselin and Tommy La Stella far too often. Swanson is expected to reverse this trend. Eventually.
Garcia could possibly be that short-term answer against left-handers, but featuring him in any way against righties is not the run-scoring solution the Braves are looking for.
Interesting talking points emerged from the decision to give Swanson a rest and then hit him at the bottom of the lineup while simultaneously moving Garcia into his vacated spot behind Inciarte. Moving Swanson down in the order “took pressure off” while moving Garcia up in the order gave him “more protection” by hitting in front of Freeman. Perhaps there’s some truth behind both statements. But if the best place to hit in Atlanta’s lineup is in front of Freddie Freeman, then the Braves should focus on their top rookie’s development rather than trying to jumpstart a 32-year-old third baseman with a long track record of ineptitude against right-handed pitching.
If the No. 2 hole is going to be utilized as a de facto launching pad, at least allow the correct player the opportunity to lift off.
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2. Veteran Braves starters living up to expectations
In his third career start in a Braves uniform, Jaime Garcia stalled out of the gate.
The lowly Padres were off to a fast start in SunTrust Park against the left-hander, rattling off three straight singles from Manny Margot, Wil Myers and Yangervis Solarte to dig a first-inning hole. It appeared to be the dawn of another choppy outing. Then he settled in. He escaped the first frame with just one run on the board. Garcia went on to set down 14 of the next 16 batters he faced.
His recovery saved the bullpen a heavy workload as he left with his best game of the young season. He followed that outing with an even better performance in the City of Brotherly Love and now looks like he’s back on track.
Similar reports could be attributed to Garcia’s fellow veterans in the Braves rotation, Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey.
At various times this month, Jaime & The 40-Somethings (working title) have worked themselves into and out of trouble. Dickey’s quote in spring training on how there are times when he will give up three or four quick runs only to settle in and not allow any damage for five or six innings is looking fairly prophetic. Despite the Cy Young histories of Colon and Dickey and Garcia’s past success when healthy, the Braves did not acquire the trio to be world-beaters. Granted it’s extremely early — 42 innings provides limited context — but, so far, the three have performed up to their $32 million plus three mid-level prospects asking price.
Led by Colon’s very Colon-like start, the three have combined for a 4.17 fielding-independent pitching as they hold opponents to a .242 average all while going six innings per start. If that sounds mundane, consider where Atlanta found itself this time a season ago.
The Braves vets have been worth roughly a half-win over the course of 40 innings. Setting a 150-inning benchmark for each starter at that pace and that’s 5.5 wins above replacement per FanGraphs. The entire Braves rotation last season: 4.7 WAR with a 4.71 FIP. Incremental improvement is still improvement, especially if Julio Teheran and/or Mike Foltynewicz hit their stride.
If approximately $5.8 million per win sounds expensive, it’s much cheaper than the going rate, especially in a pitching-deficient free-agent market. Colon, Dickey and Garcia are far from disappointments. In fact, the starting rotation's proficiency might be the most promising development during the first few weeks.
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3. The Reds did not trade this Brandon Phillips
The Braves are paying $1 million for the right to feature a .343/.378/.500 hitter at second base.
Those numbers are bound to decline, but the total cost of making this situation possible: low-ceiling reliever Andrew McKirahan, who has not pitched in the majors since 2015, and since-released Carlos Portuondo.
Phillips' change-of-scenery explosion has been a revelation for Atlanta's any-offense-we-can-find beginnings to the 2017 campaign. As Ozzie Albies awaits his turn in Triple-A, Phillips' apparent contract-year bump could not have arrived at a better time. After his two-hit game in the No. 2 spot ahead of Freeman, he's now riding a 10-game hitting streak. (His defensive metrics continue to lag behind his career rates, but at this point that's the least of Atlanta's concerns.)
If Phillips is going to hit anywhere near an above-average pace throughout his time in Atlanta, it gives the Braves front office bargaining power. Depending on how the season unfolds and how John Hart and John Coppolella choose to proceed this summer, the franchise gets far more than it paid for in the Reds trade (that already appears to be a certainty) with the possibility of flipping Phillips for far more value.
For the time being, he's picking up a unit that can not seem to sequence enough timely hits together to cause any damage. He's an absolute steal.
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