Back end of Braves' lineup cleaning up
ATLANTA — Since breaking into the majors as a 23-year-old catcher with the Texas Rangers' organization, Gerald Laird has made his living in the back half of lineups. In nearly 2,500 career plate appearances for four separate franchises, only 109 total have come in the Nos. 1-5 spots.
With a bat in his hands, that's his home, the back end.
Now 33, little has changed in terms of offensive expectations for the Braves' backup catcher: he's still being plugged in the 7- and 8-holes, he's still hitting at a .250 clip (his career average is .244) and he's still working the count on opposing pitchers.
The difference? He and his back-of-the-lineup teammates are out-performing many of their better-known (and higher-paid) counterparts hitting Nos. 1-5. That doesn't happen very often.
In fact, when it occasionally does, a given manager will predictably juggle his lineup accordingly. A team's best or hottest hitters typically earn themselves more at-bats by moving up the lineup. And due to strong performances or injury, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has altered his lineup 13 times in 18 games, elevating the likes of Chris Johnson, Dan Uggla and rookie Evan Gattis from their Opening Day roles.
Regardless of the moves Gonzalez has made, though, the final three spots in the lineup excluding the pitcher (no offense, Tim Hudson) continue to produce at a high level.
"It just makes it tough. Pitchers tend to sometimes relax toward the end of the lineup, and we knew coming into the season we had some thunder throughout the whole lineup," said Laird, who has accounted for four hits and three walks in 21 plate appearances. "Obviously, we have our big hitters in the middle, but we have guys that grind at-bats and worked the count and they can hit the baseball.
"It's nice when you're well-balanced because when you make the pitcher make a mistake or work extra hard in the bottom half of the lineup they tend to make more mistakes at the top half."
Entering Monday's games, the combined league average for the Nos. 6-8 spots is .236.
The Braves' Nos. 6-8 hitters are hitting .320 thus far.
Every single spot is hitting right at or above .300 — .297, .323 and .311, respectively, to be exact — a feat which only Atlanta's No. 3 hitter, otherwise known to the baseball masses as Justin Upton, has accomplished this season. So whether it's Laird, Gattis, Andrelton Simmons or Ramiro Pena, the hits keep coming.
Even when looking at relative OPS+ (on-base plus slugging percentages when compared to the rest of the league's Nos. 6-8 hitters, where league average is 100), the Braves' 6-, 7- and 8-hitters each come in over 150. They are the All-Stars of the back end thus far.
For comparison's sake, Upton's fast start has garnered him a 172 OPS+ in relation other No. 3 hitters — not too far off.
"I've never had a lineup that's as talented as we have here. … And we haven't gotten the guys at the top of the lineup going yet," Gonzalez said. "But I think when we get a little bit better balance we're gonna see an even better team."
When the dust settled on general manager Frank Wren's busy offseason, it was clear the Braves boasted one of the deepest lineups in the majors, capable of producing runs top to bottom. The emergence of Gattis and Johnson made it even deeper. But to expect this oft-overlooked portion of any lineup to hit well over .300 and compile 45 percent of a team's hits is a bit extreme.
Yet here the Braves stand.
"We have guys that know what they're doing up there. And good teams are obviously well-balanced like this one. This team can beat you in so many ways," Laird said. "We can hit five solo home runs. We can steal bases with the speed that we have. It's just one of those things where you keep having good at-bats and you're going to be successful."
Added Johnson, who sports an MLB-best .407 batting average: "Just keep it simple. Don't try to do too much. … Keep the line moving and make as much contact as you can."
Atlanta's offense has hit a lull of late, losing four of five games — scoring just seven runs and stranding 23 runners during that stretch — but the lineup's back half continued its offense-manufacturing ways. In Sunday's 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh, Laird, Simmons and Reed Johnson each tallied at least one hit and combined to finish 5-for-11 with two RBI and a walk. The Braves were unable to capitalize. Tough sledding.
But if the statistics continue to pile up even as Freeman and McCann return, presumably pushing the likes of Johnson and Uggla and even Gattis back into the Nos. 6-8 mix again, Atlanta becomes that much more dangerous as its stars (presumably) find their rhythm at the plate.
Gonzalez expects nothing less, especially in April, when statistics are volatile and key performers can come from the unlikeliest places.
"Next week, all the guys at the top will be hitting .300 and all the guys at the bottom won't," he said. "That's how it works sometimes."