Braves lineup still struggling to score, make contact

Third baseman Chris Johnson and the Atlanta Braves rank 29th in runs scored this season.

Brett Davis/Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — On Sunday evening, following a successful series finale against the Chicago Cubs, Jason Heyward and Chris Johnson were in agreement: their lineup had just pieced together one of its most consistent efforts in recent memory. The two Braves standouts employed the familiar post-game terminology for offensive production — plate discipline, quality at-bats, good approach — and, considering the two weeks prior, the praise seemed warranted.

The Braves had just scored five runs, after all.

Against the backdrop of 17 games being held under three runs during this still-young campaign, five runs might as well have been an all-out onslaught on Cubs starter Edwin Jackson and his bullpen. Johnson and Heyward were correct. It was one of the best efforts the lineup had submitted during the first quarter of the 2014 season, one which has seen the unit perform far below league average and even farther below expectations.

The Atlanta Braves claim 117 runs scored through their first 37 games of the season, ranking just ahead of the Padres for the lowest total in all of baseball. The Braves also rank behind the rest of MLB’s current also-rans (Diamondbacks, Cubs, Astros, etc.) and are already more than 100 runs behind the pace-setting Rockies lineup. Of course, the Braves are not a member of any bottom-feeder club. They are the NL East division leaders looking to return to the postseason for the third straight year, so their offense has not exactly been an insurmountable roadblock to success.

Instead, Atlanta is the most lopsided team in baseball.

The pitching staff has been phenomenal to date, allowing the fewest runs in all of baseball thanks to surprising contributions from starters Aaron Harang and Gavin Floyd, along with excellent production from free agent pickup Ervin Santana and young arms Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Craig Kimbrel and David Carpenter. That’s just to name a few. But a team with the best staff ERA and fielding-independent pitching numbers has no business flirting with the .500 mark (21-16 following Monday night’s 4-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants) — not if the offense hovers even around league average.

That just hasn’t happened yet.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez has tinkered with his lineup throughout the season, even employing the Tony La Russa Special since May 5, hitting his pitcher in the No. 8 hole for the "extra" leadoff hitter the second time through the lineup, but it’s strange situation to be in for at least one reason: a few of his players are having improved-to-excellent individual seasons. There’s only so much tinkering a manager can do without robbing his best hitters of additional plate appearances.

And judging by weighted runs created, Gonzalez has some pieces to work with. Atlanta boasts two of the 20 most productive hitters in baseball this season in Justin Upton (11th) and Freddie Freeman (15th), two middle-of-the-order bats that have punished opposing pitchers with regularity. Evan Gattis’ first full season as a starter behind the plate is going well — he leads all MLB catchers with eight home runs — while Johnson, Heyward and Andrelton Simmons have produced in spurts. B.J. Upton has improved following a forgettable ’13 season, and even though the long wait for Dan Uggla’s bat to come around continues, there are positive signs all over the roster. In fact, a primary reason for the offense’s lack of production has been unfortunate timing, meaning that it hasn’t put everything together as a group for an extended stretch (i.e. when Freeman and Upton are raking, people are not getting on-base, or vice versa).

Still, there are built-in issues that the team could stand to improve upon moving forward.

It’s no coincidence that Johnson, in particular, jumped on a question concerning the team’s plate discipline on Sunday. The team’s strikeout rate has been getting progressively worse for five consecutive seasons — it’s at an all-time franchise high of 24.1 percent this season, which coincides with the league’s climbing K rate overall — and it attracts ample attention when discussing its run-producing deficiencies, so it makes sense that descriptors like "more patience" get tossed around when things are going well.

"(Plate discipline is) big for us. It’s huge for us," Johnson said after the Braves walked twice and logged a season-low four strikeouts against the Cubs. "We don’t like to get into too much of the unlucky stuff, but if we swing at strikes we’re a good team."

The thing is: the Braves do swing at a lot of strikes.

They just so happen to swing at a lot of balls outside the zone as well.

This season, more so than any other under Gonzalez, Atlanta has cemented its place among baseball’s free-swinging elite. Relative to the rest of the league, the Braves swing at just about anything. They swing at 68.6 percent of pitches inside the zone (second-most in MLB) and 30.8 percent outside of it (sixth-most in MLB) … all totaling up to a swing rate that is tied for second among all clubs at 49.5 percent. So for every two pitches offered, a Braves batter is, on average, taking a cut. Led by a few of the freest swingers around like the Uptons, Freeman, Simmons and, especially, Johnson, the Braves are on pace to set a new franchise standard in this department (Braves swing rates under Gonzalez, via FanGraphs):

Of course, swinging away doesn’t necessarily lead to bad outcomes.

Last season’s Braves team hovered among the league’s top-10 in swing rate and finished 13th in runs scored. The Rockies swing more than all but four teams and they’re on a few record paces right now. The Giants rank just behind the Braves in swing rate, but they’ve been above average at getting runners across the plate. The Braves have even been more patient when it comes to balls outside the strike zone than those two NL West powers — in part because they’ve seen more strikes thrown than any other offense in baseball, giving them more opportunities to swing at pitches in the zone and less incentive to swing at "bad" pitches — but the results are not even in the same ballpark. So if the Braves are swinging less than a percentage point more than the best offense in baseball, then why aren’t they striking similar fear into opposing pitchers?

That question is pretty much rhetorical.

The Braves are simply not connecting when they swing.

If that seems too simplistic, that’s because it probably is. Hitting goes a bit deeper than telling a hitter he needs to get better at connecting bat to ball when the former comes off his shoulders. However, it’s still a pretty telling statistic on how things are going for Atlanta at the plate: while swinging more than every team outside of Baltimore, the Braves own the lowest contact rate in the majors (worst team contact rates on all pitches; MLB scoring rank):

When accounting only for pitches inside the strike zone, the Braves still rank dead last in making contact. They lead the league in swinging strikes. Obviously, these are all numbers that detract from an offense’s run production, and it’s difficult to determine if they are correctable: last year’s team also ranked among the league’s worst in contact rate. And considering how the Braves see more pitches inside the strike zone than any other club (49.4 percent) and that they get a first-pitch strike 61.5 percent of the time (third-most), it appears as if opposing pitchers are attacking their lineup, as opposed to nibbling around the edges of the zone, which typically aids a team’s on-base percentage.

The results: a combined .231/.291/.374 slash line with one of the league’s worst weighted runs created score.

The Braves haven’t been quite as bad as, say, the Padres this season, but for a team that views itself as a title contender, it’s a strange way to conduct business. It’s paid off with 21 wins thus far. But how long can the pitching-supported levee hold? How long can Harang and Santana keep up with the NL’s elite arms? Perfect balance is not a necessity, but the low-scoring, one- and two-run losses are beginning to pile up.

Strikeouts are not the lone culprit in this predicament, either.

This same lineup set franchise records in that department and consistently struggled to make contact a season ago, yet still managed to find success at the plate and rattle off 96 wins. (Additional context: Mike Trout, the best player in baseball by no small margin since entering league in 2012, leads all AL players with 47 strikeouts. He also happens to lead the AL in wins above replacement. It’s not a deal-breaker when you’re producing in other areas.)

It’s becoming more and more clear that this is not a lineup that is going hit a combined .275 and constantly put the ball in play. That’s not its strength. The difference, though, is that the 2013 squad offset that record-breaking K rate with better walk rates and power numbers. It’s also how the Marlins, who were listed above, are overcoming their poor contact rate this season, ranking eighth in homers and 10th in walk rate. The walks, in particular, are just not coming from certain key, even productive, parts of this Braves lineup right now:

This is the franchise’s lowest walk rate since 1988, a last-place team if there ever was one by finishing 39 1/2 games back in the NL West. This Braves team is nowhere near that bad and boasts plenty more offensive firepower from top to bottom (that team’s best hitter was rookie Ron Gant, whose OPS+ still wouldn’t rank in the top-three among this year’s starting lineup; again, the ’88 team was downright awful), but there are problem areas that need addressing. If those can be solved by cutting back on swings outside the zone and making better contact on hittable pitches — granted, all of this is easier said than done against major league pitching — then that’s where some potential improvement lies.

There’s a middle ground for the most lopsided team in baseball. It’s out there somewhere in between Aaron Harang no-hitters and five shutout losses, between MLB’s best ERA/FIP combination and some of the most problematic swing-related statistics going right now.

On Monday night against San Francisco, there were a few signs of the Braves compensating for their deficiencies in familiar ways. They fanned 10 times, but they drew four walks in 33 plate appearances and belted two solo home runs. The end result wasn’t much better, though. Only two runs crossed the plate and Atlanta only moved one runner into scoring position the entire night. There’s only so much manufacturing a lineup can do at the plate before, eventually, hitters are required to start connecting on their swings, especially when they swing at such a high frequency.

This Braves lineup still holds promise. Gonzalez is not dealing with a bare-bones roster — he just needs that talent, or one of his lineup tinkerings, to fit the pieces together. There’s no rhyme or reason behind why, when compared to rosters like those of the Cubs or Mets or Astros, the Braves should be keeping company with the Padres on the scoring list. Simply put, they are just too good.

Atlanta, the most lopsided team in baseball, just needs to find its middle ground.