Three Cuts: Braves catching platoon providing likely 2018 blueprint
The Atlanta Braves continue to struggle in their search for consistency, especially in the pitching department, following a roller-coaster seven days against the Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds.
The bad news: Pitching woes from rotation staples. The good news: The projected future up the middle, from behind the plate to center field, looks bright. Here are three observations from the week:
Catcher platoon success will likely set stage for 2018 model
Ask Reds pitchers for their opinion on the Atlanta Braves’ out-of-nowhere catching platoon and expletives may follow.
For Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki, the team’s most recent series provided an absurd snapshot in an altogether absurd — and completely unexpected — campaign at the plate.
In the series opener on Friday night, Flowers, the de facto starter in baseball’s best true catching platoon, delivered a quietly effective performance: an RBI double in a losing effort. The volume grew louder from there.
Suzuki received the nod on Saturday night with Julio Teheran taking the mound, and while the pitching performance faltered Suzuki did his part to keep the Braves around. The veteran turned in three hits, including a double and his 13th home run of the campaign, in the loss. Since the beginning of July, only Cubs star Willson Contreras has hit more home runs as a catcher than Suzuki (nine) — a surprise power surge for a player who had not belted double-digit homers since 2011. Over that same stretch, Suzuki leads all catchers receiving at least 50 plate appearances with 187 weighted runs created plus.
It was Flowers’ turn again in the finale … and he buried a grand slam in SunTrust Park’s left-field seats to push his season’s slash line to a career-best .292/.384/.468 in 309 plate appearances.
Given the results and subsequent comments from management, the Braves appear poised to follow a similar blueprint heading into the 2018 season.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Snitker said of carrying a catching platoon into next season. “If you don’t have a guy that’s a (Marlins catcher J.T.) Realmuto or somebody like that — especially here (in Atlanta). It hasn’t been bad this summer, but overall just the wear and tear on catchers I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a couple of catchers you can split it up with and maybe get a lot out of both of them. We’ve done that here.”
Baseball seems to be trending in this general direction.
Teams are well aware of the physical demands of the position and seek to minimize the effects either through finding solid backups or through positional flexibility at first base or, in the American League, designated hitter. In fact, entering Sunday’s action only four catchers would qualify for a batting title: Realmuto, Buster Posey, Salvador Perez and Yadier Molina.
Taking a look at the five team leaders, including Atlanta, in wins above replacement at catcher in the National League provides a clear outlook of how teams are protecting even standout players. The Giants boast the baseball’s best catcher this decade with Posey and still signed veteran Nick Hundley and handed him roughly one-third of the plate appearances when their superstar shifts to first base. Following a successful 2016 campaign from Flowers, the Braves followed suit with Suzuki. The Marlins did the same in inking A.J. Ellis. The Cubs and Dodgers were blessed to complement their respective standouts in Contreras and Yasmani Grandal with homegrown talent Austin Barnes (Los Angeles) and former Braves prospect Victor Caratini (Cubs) or the since-dismissed Miguel Montero — and even then Chicago felt the need to land breakout performer Alex Avila at the trade deadline.
Flowers’ $4 million team option might be baseball’s easiest decision this offseason, but with the organization’s top catching prospects still learning the ropes at the Double-A level or lower it looks poised to dip back into the free-agent pool to find another platoon possibility. Suzuki should be in consideration along with the likes of Avila, Hundley or Chris Iannetta. (Plus, there's always the trade market to scour for under-the-radar pieces.)
It will be difficult to top the current production of this pairing, but as the Braves learned down the stretch in 2016 with the Flowers-Recker combination and with Flowers-Suzuki this season, until the team finds another Brian McCann-esque young backstop it’s likely best to continue bargain-hunting and keeping the options fresh.
Promising early returns from Dansby Swanson-Ozzie Albies tandem
Atlanta’s first glimpse at how Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies functioned together in the middle of the diamond arrived by accident.
Barring Johan Camargo’s strange pregame knee injury, Swanson’s demotion to Triple-A came with an indefinite expiration date. It could have lasted until September call-ups or even the end of the minor-league season — and even then there were no guarantees for playing time with Snitker favoring the likes of Camargo and Brandon Phillips for much of the second half.
But it appears Swanson made the most of his brief minor-league stint, and now the Braves front office has gotten a taste of long-term promise this middle-infield pairing of consensus top-50 MLB prospects still provides.
In 11 games since Swanson, the 2015 No. 1 overall pick, returned to the majors, the duo has combined for 21 hits, six walks, six doubles, four triples, one home run, one stolen base, nine runs and nine RBI. Much of that production stems from Swanson’s improved approach and discipline at the plate and his newfound aversion to soft contact. His coaches have taken notice, too.
“He’s got a lot more confident going now,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said. “The first half, the way he was fighting and grinding, you know, the poor kid every time he’d barrel a ball it seemed like it was right at somebody. A hitter can only take so much of that before the frustration starts to set in and you start pressing and trying too hard. And then that’s when you start swinging and missing at fastballs that you should be hitting (or) fouling them off.
“It took him a long time before I felt like he got to that point of frustration where he was starting to lose some confidence. And when he went down that was basically the main message that I said to him was just, ‘Go down. Get your confidence back. Get your swagger going again.’”
Granted, this is the smallest of sample sizes, but it’s also the first taste of the once-presumed Middle Infield of the Future at the major-league level. It’s helped reestablish the optimism surrounding the pair, but it also presents an interesting September case study for Snitker when Camargo — the team’s most productive rookie to date — returns to the fold.
When healthy, the Braves could juggle playing time between their three young middle infielders in a variety of combinations. Snitker seems to be (smartly) shying away from returning to a Camargo-Swanson platoon at shortstop, so the question could come down to just how much playing time will the manager take away from veteran third baseman Brandon Phillips down the stretch. (This also assumes Phillips is not moved before the end of the month.)
“There’s enough to go around," Snitker said. "(Camargo) can still play a little third, second, short and keep him active and hopefully keep them all going.”
At some point, if Camargo's knee is back to 100 percent, the franchise should get an extended look at the Camargo-Swanson-Albies trio before heading into the offseason.
Julio Teheran remains trapped in one of the worst home-field pitching stretches this decade
On Saturday night, Braves preseason No. 1 starter Julio Teheran lost his ninth consecutive home decision after the Cincinnati Reds touched him up for four earned runs and eight hits through six innings. The defeat set Atlanta’s franchise record for home-field winning droughts previously held by Craig McMurty (1984) and Shelby Miller (2015). Judging a pitcher by wins and losses is an archaic form of analysis — as Miller’s 3.83 ERA and 3.55 fielding-independent pitching proved during his 24-game winless streak two years ago — but in Teheran’s case, the record is indicative of the struggles.
Teheran’s season-long introduction to SunTrust Park has been a thorn in the rotation’s side.
His home splits tell an ugly story: 6.98 ERA through 68 1/3 innings pitched, .369 wOBA allowed to 314 opposing batters faced, giving up one home run every 21 plate appearances and 58 strikeouts to 43 walks. While Teheran’s road splits were significantly better in the team’s final season at Turner Field, this current stretch has been much more difficult to overcome. He’s not only in the middle of the worst season of his career; he’s compiling one of baseball’s worst campaigns at a home ballpark over the past decade.
Since the start of the 2010 season, only eight other pitchers have posted a worse ERA through 50-plus innings in a single home ballpark. (Kevin Correira’s 2014 campaign was split between Los Angeles and Minnesota.) There are some intriguing names dotting the list ahead of the Braves right-hander, notably two pitchers entering new digs last year — Shelby Miller’s first season with the Diamondbacks and Jordan Zimmermann’s opening campaign in Detroit — and eventual Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta’s pseudo-false start in Baltimore. In terms of FIP, Teheran ranks 11th over that same span and he’s on the short list of players to average two or more homers allowed per nine innings.
Add in that abysmal strikeout-to-walk ratio and it’s been one hiccup after another.
Compounding the frustration is that Teheran entered Saturday’s game coming off his best start of the year, a seven-inning shutout effort in Coors Field — of all places — against a dangerous Rockies lineup. Teheran, however, remains encouraged by how his pitches, particularly his slider, are progressing.
“I felt that my pitches were good other than a couple mistakes,” Teheran said after the loss to the Reds. “ … I don’t remember the last time that I got back-to-back really good outings. That’s how I want to finish is to have a month and a half to go and that’s how I want to finish the season.”
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