Braves not concerned with strikeout potential
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Fredi Gonzalez paused for a moment.
After a season in which the Braves struck out 1,289 times — the most in franchise history — they added B.J. and Justin Upton, who whiffed 121 and 169 times, respectively, in 2012. They’ll be part of an expected Opening Day roster that, outside of Andrelton Simmons, has a player at every position who has had at least 100 Ks in a season.
So isn’t Atlanta’s manager the least bit worried about how many strikeouts his team could rack up in 2013?
“I’m going to use this: I know they’re not going to hit into double plays,” he said, before breaking into a smile.
All kidding aside, Gonzalez is only concerned with getting guys on base, something they had little trouble with last year despite all of those strikeouts.
“What I look forward to is seeing these guys running the bases,” he said. “We were second in base running in the major leagues; we were top-five in ERA and No. 1 in defense in the National League and bottom third in offense and we won 94 games.”
The Braves did have 159 bases taken last season on walks, fly balls, wild pitches, passed balls and other defensive events, which trailed only the World Series champion Giants, who had 181. But Atlanta was also 17th in runs (4.32 per), largely because it left an average of 14.53 runners on base a game (sixth-most in MLB) and 3.58 in scoring position (seventh in the NL).
The hope is that if they continue to get on base at a comparable rate they should have a more prolific offense given that the Braves have four players who have hit at least 27 home runs in the past two seasons (the Uptons, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla).
But in the wild-card era, strikeouts of the amount the Braves had last year, and could potentially have again in 2013, haven’t been a recipe for a title, let alone a pennant.
Last year’s K total by Atlanta is 65 more than any team that has advanced to the World Series — the ’08 Rays hold that record at 1,224 and are the only team to go over the 1,200-strikeout plateau – and is 100 higher than the 1,189 of the ’04 Red Sox for any World Series-winning team.
So given that history isn’t anyone in the Braves’ clubhouse at all concerned?
“You’re not concerned about strikeouts or this and that,” said right fielder Jason Heyward, who himself struck out a career-high 152 times last season. “You just want to go out and play baseball and give ourselves a great chance to win.”
The belief is that the Braves did exactly that in bringing in the Uptons but they’re also a duo that only adds to Atlanta’s strikeout problem.
Heyward sees those 169 Ks B.J. Upton had last season with the Rays, the most of his eight-year career, coming in part because of who wasn’t in Tampa Bay’s lineup.
“You look at B.J. last year in Tampa, where the team wasn’t exactly throwing out a regular lineup every day,” he said. “You had (Evan) Longoria out and that put a lot of pressure on him to do a lot of things.”
Longoria did miss 85 games last season and without him Upton struck out 98 times in 367 plate appearances, a rate of 26.7 percent, while hitting just .229. But even in those games they both played Upton still fanned an average of 26.6 percent of the time in 266 at-bats.
Last season was also the third in a row in which Upton struck out at least 161 times and his 494 Ks over the last three seasons are fifth-most of any player.
He’s also joined in the top 20 on that list by his brother Justin, who is 19th with 399 strikeouts, including 121 last season. But to Justin Upton’s credit, he has improved in that area, going from a 26.7 rate in ’10 to 18.7 in ’11 and 19.3 in ’12 and as FanGraphs notes, Upton’s rate last season puts him right around the major-league average of 19 percent the last two seasons.
Strikeouts are a given when it comes to power hitters and the Braves have plenty of those, boasting six regular players who have hit at least 23 in a season.
“People in SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) and FanGraphs and all those people say it’s not that big a deal,” Gonzalez said.
But with this team, coming off that dubious record and with the two players on the roster that appeared in at least 112 games and fanned the least (Chipper Jones with 51 and Martin Prado at 69) gone, people are going to fixate on them.
Weighing in the Braves favor is the fact that strikeouts have become more and more commonplace. There were a record 36,426 in MLB last season and in the last 10 years the average Ks of World Series teams have been above 1,013 all but one year, 2011 when the Cardinals (978) and Rangers (930) faced off.
These Braves could conceivably challenge the 2010 Diamondbacks, who hold the MLB record of 1,529, and whom Justin Upton was a part of in fanning 152 times. But it’s only going to be an issue if they can’t make up for them with the long ball.
The potential is there, one way or the other.