Three Cuts: Braves’ week unravels behind ongoing pitching woes
Perhaps Jim Johnson’s third blown save of 2017 was an omen.
For Atlanta’s most productive pitcher and, at this pace, one of its best All-Star options to cough up a late lead against Pittsburgh at the mid-week mark, spoiling the franchise’s fifth win in seven games after losing Freddie Freeman, it meant the Braves’ roller-coaster pitching ride needed to avoid its frequent valleys. Other than Jaime Garcia’s lights-out start in San Francisco, that did not happen.
The Braves dropped four of their final five games of the week heading into Memorial Day. Their record now stands at 21-27 with a plummeting run differential that currently sits at negative-38. Here are three observations from the week (all stats leading into Sunday’s action):
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1. Elder statesmen continue to stumble
Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey have allowed 81 runs in 113 innings this season. Seventy-two of those runs were earned against the two 40-somethings, a two-month reminder that Father Time and professional athletes are not on speaking terms.
Through 20 starts, the only promises delivered from the veteran duo have revolved around the consumption of innings, protecting a farm system stocked with young arms until the right time. Fortunately for John Coppolella and John Hart, the same can not be said for Jaime Garcia, the left-hander who has hit his stride in a contract year and is proving himself to be a valuable commodity.
In Freeman’s absence — a subject which looms over the franchise’s current state of affairs as much as it appears in this space — it’s unclear how long the Braves can survive starts like they received from Colon and Dickey during this turn of the rotation, 14 runs allowed while digging the team into bunkers.
The two vets’ trade value can be found near the bottom of that bunker at the moment, but their short-term deals are far from detrimental to Atlanta’s future plans. The question heading into June will be how long they stick around, especially for a team currently sitting six games under .500. A midseason turnaround, which is not completely out of the question, could lead to recouping some value; ongoing struggles could simply lead to their ouster in favor of youth.
(This can also be a relative term given Colon and Dickey’s combined 86 years on this planet.)
So who would be next?
The most enticing pitching asset at Triple-A Gwinnett is former first-rounder Sean Newcomb.
Newcomb, one of the system’s top-rated prospects, finished off a gem on Sunday to lower his ERA to 2.96 with 67 strikeouts in 51 2/3 innings pitched. The 24-year-old prize left-hander still struggles with command at times, walking 15 batters in five May starts, but the high ceiling remains. If John Coppolella and John Hart want to aim for the fences with their rotation this summer, Newcomb would likely be the first swing.
Wisler already finds himself in Atlanta’s bullpen, Blair has been hot-and-cold and another former first-rounder, Lucas Sims, has watched his resurgent season hit a rough patch over the past two starts. They are also potential midseason rotation candidates. High-end prospect Patrick Weigel is still sorting the jump in competition at the Triple-A level, much like top lefty Max Fried is for Double-A Mississippi right now.
Newcomb has his flaws and it is likely still too early for the franchise to jump headfirst into the fountain of youth, but he is the one who knocks. It’s just a matter of when the Braves decide to answer the door.
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2. An offense molded in Kevin Seitzer’s image?
It will require far worse performances than a one-run effort against Johnny Cueto and the Giants to drag Atlanta’s offense down to 2014-2016 levels — a three-year run where the franchise finished dead last in scoring, a full 60 runs behind the 29th-place Phillies.
The collective drought hid gradual improvement under hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who was hired following the team’s disappointing 2014 season. Placing Atlanta’s struggles at the feet of the former All-Star third baseman makes little sense considering the organization’s gutted personnel during this rebuild, especially when factoring in the group’s rather dramatic improvement when working with ample talent.
From his first interviews and public appearances as a member of the Braves coaching staff, Seitzer preached simplistic hitting principles that build good habits and lead to better-than-expected results; most importantly, drive the ball up the middle and to opposite fields instead of aiming for pull power.
"The more guys try to stay in the middle of the field, it seems like the more home runs that they hit, the more they hit for extra-base hits and hit for power, better (slugging percentage) and better OPS," Seitzer said at the time. "That generates more runs. Frankly, this is all about scoring more runs.
"I'm a big fan of a home run too. I might be the biggest fan on the planet in that I love homers. But I know how you get homers and how you don't get them. Going up and trying to hit homers is exactly the recipe for not only not hitting for power, but for not hitting for average and striking out more and walking less, and being in terrible hitting counts."
Those specific results have not quite been there in 2017. After seeing an uptick in batted balls hit back up the middle or to opposite fields by 2.3 and 5.5 percentage points in 2015 and 2016, respectively, the Braves have taken a slight step back — thanks in part to high pull numbers from Dansby Swanson and Freddie Freeman — this season.
Still, Atlanta is tagging the baseball better than they have at any point over the past four years (medium-to-hard contact on 82.3 percent) and the productivity is there even in a post-Freeman world. Meanwhile, Seitzer has helped reestablish or altogether reinvent the careers of players like Matt Kemp and Tyler Flowers. Here’s how his group sizes up from the season before his arrival until now:
2014: .665 OPS, 97 wRC+
2015: .674 OPS, 86 wRC+
2016: .705 OPS, 84 wRC+
2017: .750 OPS, 86 wRC+
The Braves are still trying to break the combined “league average” plateau for the first time since 2013 and the Freeman questions will persist for weeks, but with Seitzer standing behind the batting cage the Braves’ numbers have trended in a positive direction.
That production will continue to be challenged in the coming weeks.
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3. Tyler Flowers, OBP machine
If any MLB has acquired 100 or more plate appearances in 2017, he is looking up at Braves catcher Tyler Flowers on the on-base percentage leaderboard.
Regardless of his platoon role, Flowers has far exceeded expectations with his bat since signing a bargain-basement deal with the Braves at the 2015 Winter Meetings, an acquisition that was announced mere hours before the Shelby Miller blockbuster. After a career-best season at the plate in 2016 while sharing time with AJ. Pierzynski and Anthony Recker, Flowers refuses to slow down.
Flowers leads all players that have reached the aforementioned qualifier directly ahead of future Hall of Famer Mike Trout, another catching surprise in Detroit’s Alex Avila, Freddie Freeman, Justin Turner, Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt. Neither Flowers nor Avila have ever found themselves in such rarified air.
Expecting a decline in Flowers’ .467 OBP is a given.
No catcher in the Live Ball Era has finished a season with an on-base percentage at .460 in even 200 or more plate appearances. The best mark in modern baseball history is Joe Mauer’s .444 on-base percentage in 2009. And since MLB lowered the mound, only two catchers have even reached base 43 percent of the time: Mauer and Mike Piazza. Rarified air again.
Safe to say, anything close to this production from Atlanta’s super-platoon catcher would be a revelation … and practically unheard of from a player behind the dish.