Three Cuts: Nightmare week in new ballpark testing veteran-laden rotation
The Atlanta Braves allowed 51 runs in a forgettable six-game stretch against the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals during their second homestand at SunTrust Park — and now pitching problems are a top-of-mind issue for Brian Snitker & Co.
Atlanta sits in last place in the National League East (11-18) with the worst collective ERA in the majors. Here are three observations from the week:
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Braves still learning to pitch in unfriendly confines
Thirteen games into SunTrust Park's history and the idea of a hitter's haven sitting northwest of Atlanta is starting to take shape. Even Braves ace Julio Teheran, whose current home-road splits resemble the difference in a frontline ace and Double-A player in way over his head, was quizzed on how the park plays after giving up 19 runs in his first 21 innings in the new digs.
"I don’t really think (about) whether it’s a hitter’s park or a pitcher’s park. Just whenever you don’t make your pitches, you’re going to pay for it — here or wherever you pitch."
Sunday's starter R.A. Dickey, however, did not mince words.
"The story of this park for a starting pitcher is you can bend, but you just can't break," Dickey told Mark Bowman of MLB.com. "The ball carries a lot here, a lot more than any of us had ever anticipated. So, you're going to give up some home runs that might seem like cheapos."
Park factors take years to reveal reliable data, but Braves pitchers have given up 81 runs in 122 innings pitched. They own the worst home fielding-independent pitching (FIP) in baseball. Atlanta pitchers rank second-worst in home runs per nine innings and BABIP at home, despite two of their four series to date coming against sub-average offenses to this point.
In an era that saw the second-most home runs ever in a single season in 2016, keeping the ball in the park is becoming more and more difficult. Barring sweeping judgments on how SunTrust plays — to be fair, ask Chipper Jones about the dimensions and see the envy in his eyes — the ugly start falls, first and foremost, on this Braves pitching staff.
The only member of the rotation performing near his 2016 markers is No. 5 starter Mike Foltynewicz, who faltered for the first time in a month over the weekend. (That fact made Snitker's decision to save his most biting postgame criticism of the season for his young right-hander's outing a curious one.) Veterans Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia have been spotty, but it's Teheran — the only non-rental of the group aside from Foltynewicz — who is raising the most pressing concern. This is his home for the foreseeable future.
Starting pitching topped the agenda for John Coppolella and John Hart this offseason — for good reason — and the front office made efficient use of its time and resources. It could be a matter of time before the plan pans out, but Atlanta's rotation is giving up far too many walks, fly balls and home runs to be the lowest strikeout team around.
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In limited opportunities, Jim Johnson remains quiet force
A foundational narrative of the 2016 postseason was the usage of lights-out relievers like Cleveland’s Andrew Miller and Chicago’s Aroldis Chapman (or lack thereof with Zach Britton in Baltimore). For the World Series competitors, simply delivering a lead into the eighth inning was a significant in-game victory, the hinges for a door poised to be slammed shut. Miller and Chapman combined for 35 innings and 51 strikeouts while allowing only nine earned runs. Tally national votes for the top relievers in baseball and Miller and Chapman are safely making the cut.
Where would Jim Johnson, the 33-year-old right-hander who has played for five organizations since 2013, rank on that list? Would he even crack the top-10?
In extending Johnson through the 2018 season, the Atlanta Braves secured a veteran cornerstone for their bullpen — a pitcher capable of holding down the closer role even as projected replacements (Arodys Vizcaino, Mauricio Cabrera) loom. Johnson’s shutout ninth inning on Sunday against the Cardinals lowered his ERA to 3.75 with 15 strikeouts in 12 innings. His FIP sits at an elite 1.25 mark thanks to that double-digit strikeout rate and his refusal to allow a ball to leave the yard. In fact, here’s the list of MLB pitchers to throw at least 20 frames with a 1.45 FIP or better since the 2016 trade deadline:
Kenley Jansen: 0.25
Wade Davis: 1.06
Jim Johnson: 1.09
Aroldis Chapman: 1.12
Andrew Miller: 1.39
For a player who was twice traded and twice released in a 22-month stretch, Johnson has rediscovered his rhythm in Atlanta.
“The first half of the year last year, the first month or so of the season last year, I was dealing with that stuff from the (double-hernia) surgery in the offseason where I just didn’t have my legs under me,” Johnson said. “After being able to kind of settle down and work on strengthening the right parts and getting things working back in order, I think it was just basically having a consistent delivery, being able to locate pitches consistently.
At this level, there’s guys that have tremendous amount go stuff, but to be a pitcher you’ve gotta be able to locate as well. I’m always trying to fine-tune that. You’re not going to execute every pitch all the time, but you try to.”
Performing like an elite closer for a sub-.500 team makes for tricky business. Prior to his back-to-back shutout outings against St. Louis, Johnson had pitched just four times in 13 days. The former fifth-round draft pick has picked up a few pointers over his 12 MLB seasons.
During long spells of inactivity, Johnson pitches off the mound every three days after pregame warmups, typically humming 10 fastballs for location purposes. (Johnson is not a believer in pitching off flat ground.) The veteran also picked up a tip from former Orioles teammate Kevin Gregg: Lift weights before the game. Johnson says the (seemingly counterintuitive) routine takes the emotion out of the equation.
“If you have a good game, you might not lift right,” said Johnson, who lifts three days per week, “or if you have a bad game you might lift like an idiot.”
With rollercoaster production defining both the rotation and bullpen, Johnson's presence has provided some semblence of stability ... when the opportunities arise.
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Dansby Swanson is a 162-game major-league player
Dansby Swanson might have already hit himself out of the Rookie of the Year race before mid-May. This should not be a secret by now, not with the nonstop coverage of his de facto sophomore slump.
The former No. 1 overall pick is now hitting .151/.222/.217 while grading out as average-at-best defensively in the early going. The superstar prospect is legitimately struggling. Breaking: These things happen.
When asked earlier in the week about his rookie teammate's hiccups, Nick Markakis offered an important reminder: Swanson played 127 games in the minors. He never played at the Triple-A level. He rocketed up through ranks of pro baseball after dominating the collegiate circuit because that's what his production and overall makeup allowed.
Early arrival times do not eliminate the likelihood of growing pains.
“You’d like to get at least 1,500 to 2,000 at-bats in the minor leagues, ideally,” Snitker said. "But he’s an advanced guy. He came in and did really good last year. Now it’s a new season, and he’s not surprising anybody. They have video on him and their pitching coaches are putting together attacks for him. And there’s a lot of expectations — along with the league — that he’s trying to balance, the outside things also.
"There’s a lot on that kid’s plate, and if anybody can handle it, he can.”
Added Markakis, a former star prospect in the Orioles system: "He kind of got thrown in the fire last year, had some success, and he’s scuffling this year. It’s tough. My first month and a half in the big leagues I think I hit, like, .180."
The idea that Swanson should return to the farm system ranks for further development is misguided, though. The Braves are far from World Series contenders at the moment. Swanson's slow start is not singlehandedly holding Atlanta back, and at a certain point the low points are part of the process. Time is essential — in this case, 162 games-worth of opportunity.