Midseason review: Braves in good shape for NL East title
With the arrival of the All-Star break, it’s the perfect time to simultaneously look back and spin forward regarding the first-place Braves (54-41, six-game lead) … and their pursuit of a 15th National League East title in 22 years.
From a National League standpoint, the Braves have been on the mark with five prominent categories, ranking 1st in homers (114), 3rd in runs (415), 3rd in OPS (.736), 4th in on-base percentage (.324) and 4th in RBI (395).
The only lagging tallies derive from batting average (9th — .250) and steals (12th — 31), although it’s worth noting that Atlanta (62-percent efficiency with thefts) has attempted only 50 steals all season — the second-lowest figure among National League teams.
From an individual scope … here are five positives to embrace with Braves hitters:
1. Brian McCann, who’s batting .419 in July and didn’t make his 2013 debut until May 6 (offseason shoulder surgery), has collected multiple hits in 17 of 53 games. For all of last year, McCann netted only 27 multiple-hit outings.
2. From a splits perspective, Freddie Freeman (30-day track record: three homers, 17 RBI, .408 OBP) boasts an on-base percentage of .366 or higher for April, May, June and July — including .400 tallies for April and July.
3. Of Heyward’s four-year MLB career, this June marked his greatest single month of multiple-hit games (14) — a figure that was enhanced by a six-hit flurry during Atlanta’s home sweep of Arizona (June 28-30).
4. Justin Upton has a reasonable chance at matching or eclipsing career highs in homers (31) and RBI (88), along with breaking the 100-run mark for a third straight year. One reason for optimism: Despite an incongruous run of 12 homers in April and only four total for May, June and July … Upton has notched an OBP of .327 or higher for all four months.
5. In the 8-hole for the season, Braves third baseman Chris Johnson leads all MLB comers in batting average (.366), on-base percentage (.422) and OPS (.981 — minimum: 80 at-bats).
Johnson has been stellar over the last 30 days, accounting for three homers, 15 RBI, 10 runs and a .347 batting average.
From a splits perspective, he has batted .300 or above for April, June and July. From an OBP standpoint, he’s been a lock for .333 or higher all four months.
As of Sunday morning, the Braves were the only National League team to boast five pitchers (Mike Minor, Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran) with 100 or more innings — a glowing testament to the rotation’s durability and dedication for taking the mound every fifth day.
“That means our guys took every turn. Every fifth day, our guys have gone out there, and it’s a great tribute to them, our training staff, to (pitching coach) Roger McDowell, to a lot of people,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, while noting Atlanta, to date, is the only MLB rotation to make every pre-planned start.
“That’s a great thing for them … and you have to give those (five) guys a lot of credit.”
The numbers bear out the quintet’s talent, as well, with Minor (9-4, 3.02 ERA), Maholm (9-8, 3.98 ERA), Medlen (6-9, 3.64 ERA) and Teheran (7-5, 3.35 ERA) each sporting sub-4.00 ERAs and at least 82 strikeouts (Hudson, too).
It’s also a prime explanation for the Braves posting win streaks of 10 games (April 5-16) and eight games (May 17-25) — with no losing skids beyond four games.
Consistency aside, there’s still room for improvement for the above starters, along with Brandon Beachy — last year’s National League ERA leader before going down with an elbow injury — who’s patiently biding his time with Triple-A Gwinnett (4.20 ERA in four outings).
Among National League clubs, the Braves starters rank 2nd in wins (37), 3rd in walks allowed (147), 5th in ERA (3.55), 6th in strikeouts (461) and 7th in WHIP (1.24).
Craig Kimbrel (1.53 ERA, 26 saves, 54/12 K-BB rate) deservedly gets a large share of credit when chronicling the Atlanta bullpen; but he’s not the only dynamo holding up the back end.
Of the Braves’ eight relievers with 15 or more appearances (including Eric O’Flaherty, who’s out for the season), seven have notched ERAs below 3.00 and opponents’ batting averages of .220 or less — Luis Avilan, Anthony Varvaro, Jordan Walden, David Carpenter, Alex Wood, O’Flaherty and, of course, Kimbrel.
Among National League clubs, the Braves relief corps ranks 1st in ERA (2.55), 2nd in WHIP (1.14), 3rd in saves (27), 3rd in walks allowed (96) and 1st in home runs allowed (16).
Back to Kimbrel …
Since May 9, covering 22 appearances, Kimbrel has allowed just one earned run, giving him an otherworldly 0.41 ERA in that 22-inning span.
Of equal absurdity, the Braves closer has recorded multiple strikeouts in 12 of the 22 outings.
FOR HISTORY SAKE
The Braves’ 54-41 record marks the eighth time since 1991 the club had 54 or more victories at the break. But it markedly trails Atlanta’s best first-half tallies of that era — 61-32 in 2003 (101-61 overall record) and 59-29 in 1998 (106-56 overall record).
And in case you were wondering, the Braves had a 44-25 break record during the strike-shortened season of 1995 — the same year the club captured Atlanta’s first and only major sports championship.
FUN WITH NUMBERS
Here’s an enlightening exercise to revisit every two or three weeks:
At their current pace, the Braves are earmarked for 92 wins by season’s end.
With that realistic estimate, the Nationals (48-47) and Phillies (48-48) would have to go 44-23 and 44-22 from this point forward … just for the right to tie the Braves for the NL East crown.
Regarding Washington, yes, the club may have struck gold in moving rookie Anthony Rendon (22 runs, .301 batting, .352 OBP) from third to second base (replacing the injured/underwhelming Danny Espinosa), and yes, catcher Wilson Ramos (.407 batting) suddenly resembles Joe Mauer at the plate.
However, it’ll be tough to unconsciously mow through July, August and September with only three top-notch starting pitchers (Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez) … and two eminently replaceable assets on the back end (Dan Haren, Ross Detwiler).
And lest we forget that Strasburg has allowed 11 runs in his last two starts, including a seven-run implosion against the Marlins on July 12, enduring only two innings before getting the ziggy from manager Davey Johnson.
Plus, the Nationals still have dueling 10-game roadies on the docket — one in August, one in September — which puts even more emphasis on Washington’s 11-game homestand immediately after the All-Star break (July 19-28).
Bottom line: If the Nats fall short of 8-3 for that stretch, their slim odds of collecting 92 victories by Sept. 29 will be more remote.
As for Philly, it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that GM Ruben Amaro Jr. will flirt with the notion of blowing up the roster before the MLB trade deadline (July 31), shipping a number of high-priced veterans to contending clubs (Michael Young, Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, etc.), as a means of expediting a rebuilding process that goes deeper than a few minor tweaks.
It also doesn’t help that Philly has a nine-game road trip right after the break — visiting New York (Mets), St. Louis and Detroit.
If the Phillies attack the rest of the season with full gusto, though, they’re still looking at a daunting slate, starting with 12 games against division leaders (Braves, Tigers, Cardinals) in the next 30 days — and then 16 more battles with playoff-contending clubs (Nationals, Giants, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Rockies) before the end of August.
That doesn’t bode well for a team that’s just 9-17 in one-run games.