Braves pitching staff off to overwhelming start

ATLANTA — These were the facts according to Mike Minor Wednesday night in Miami: his pitch count was too high, his location was off, his curveball was not working, his slider was not working and Tim Hudson makes for a lousy reporter.

“It was just one of those nights I didn’t feel like my greatest,” he said.

The key, though, was what the 25-year-old lefty glossed over during postgame interviews: he had just spearheaded the Braves’ second shutout in three games by tossing 5 2/3 innings of scoreless ball. He’s now 2-0 and, after shutting down the Cubs just five days earlier, boasts a 0.69 ERA and the sixth-lowest walk rate in the majors. It’s the best start of his young career.

Minor is not alone, either.

The Braves’ entire pitching staff is off to the best start in all of baseball.

The lack of attention to this detail is understandable, too. Justin Upton’s detonative beginning to his Braves career has captivated baseball fans in Atlanta and around the country (perhaps even in Arizona), while Evan Gattis’ legend only grows with time and 400-foot homers.

Overall, while dealing with injuries to top hitters, slumping stars and the third-highest strikeout rate in baseball, the Braves are still averaging nearly five runs per game. As a friend advised me during the team’s 3-2 win over the lowly Marlins Monday night, “Chicks dig the long ball.”

If that is still the case, then those same people must despise the Braves’ opponents.

Through nine games, Atlanta’s collective earned run average is 1.89.

Given that the staff is not only hovering in Greg Maddux-esque territory with that number, but that it would be the lowest team ERA since 1910, do not expect that trend to continue. The Braves will, eventually, give up runs. Call it the Law of Averages or a regression to the mean, but history dictates that no staff – including Minor, Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm and Julio Teheran – can produce at that level in the Live Ball Era. Plus, facing the “Guess Who?” lineups of the Marlins and Cubs will bolster any staff’s statistics.

However, this is not exactly foreign territory for the franchise. Over the past decade, only the Dodgers have a lower team ERA than the Braves. If the staff remains among baseball’s ERA elite throughout 2013, it will make five consecutive seasons ranking in baseball’s top-five:

2009: 3.57 (3rd)
2010: 3.57 (3rd)
2011: 3.49 (4th)
2012: 3.42 (5th)
2013: 1.89 (1st)

The Braves have not won a playoff series during that stretch, though, not under Fredi Gonzalez nor Bobby Cox, so it is impossible to assume that’s a definitive recipe for success. Remember: Atlanta did not even make the playoffs in two of those seasons.

Should the expectations really be that much higher this time around?

Keep it low, strand them all

Glancing across the early top individual pitching performers around the league, Paul Maholm’s name ranks among the most conspicuous. After all, he was perhaps the rotation’s least intriguing storyline this season, if only because most assume Paul Maholm will simply be Paul Maholm – nothing more, nothing less.

Through two starts, he’s been more.

He’s jumped out to a 2-0 start, taking down the Phillies and Marlins with two scoreless outings. His strikeout rate is at a career high while his walk rate is better than his career average. Much like the league-leading staff he is a part of, Maholm, who came over last year in a midseason trade with the Cubs, is out-performing expectations. 

And keep in mind: This is a staff working without Brandon Beachy, who could still be the organization’s ace coming off of Tommy John surgery, and starting catcher Brian McCann, who is recovering from shoulder surgery but has primarily guided the staff behind the plate since 2005. Top setup man Jonny Venters has yet to play this season while dealing with elbow soreness, too.
This is not exactly a “healthy” team, yet the goose eggs keep coming.

In fact, among the Braves starters, only Teheran has been roughed up – giving up five earned runs in five innings during his lone start of the year against the Cubs. And guess what? That’s OK. He’s a rookie. That’s normal. The team still won the game.

But along with a strong bullpen, the Braves’ team pitching statistics are anything but normal.

Though the team’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.27) is sitting right around league average, Atlanta is keeping runners off the basepaths. Opposing offenses are hitting just .209 thus far. Even when batters are making contact against Braves pitchers, they are being held to baseball’s second-lowest batting average on balls in play (.248) thanks in large part to a plethora of groundballs and one of the best defensive units around.

During an 8-1 start to what looks to be a World Series-contending campaign, a couple obvious baseball tips have emerged for the Braves:

— When pitchers strand more than 85 percent of opposing runners (best in MLB), they are usually successful. The Braves are limiting opponents’ scoring opportunities not only by keeping them off the bases but by stranding them there if they do get a hit or draw a walk.

— Ground balls are good. With baseball’s fifth-highest rate at inducing grounders, Braves pitchers have avoided giving up home runs and have set up 21 double plays in nine games. Only the San Francisco Giants are giving up fewer long balls.

— A good defense is helpful, but it rarely makes up for bad pitching. Do not jump to the conclusion that the Braves’ staff is the beneficiary of a rangy outfield and a respectable infield led by defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons at shortstop. Atlanta ranks fifth in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) with a 3.30 score. For perspective, Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, posted a FIP of 2.89 last season. Not bad.

So here’s your warning: Do not expect this historic pace to continue. On paper, this does not shape up to be the best rotation (yet) in baseball, much less the best of the past century. 

But – and here is the most obvious part of all – if Atlanta’s staff can hover near the league’s best and the offense can continually light up scoreboards, the Braves will be playing in October.
Focus on the offensive firepower of the Uptons or the Paul Bunyan references to El Oso Blanco all you want, but the Braves pitching staff has been the golden ticket behind Atlanta’s three consecutive series wins. 

Whether Mike Minor openly confesses to it or not, the franchise should, at the very least, feel confident in its arms at the moment.

Who wouldn’t?