Three Cuts: Braves topple Phillies in extra-inning fashion

BY foxsports • August 3, 2013

As Craig Kimbrel shut the door for his NL-leading 33rd save, the Braves completed their 35th come-from behind win in 2013 on, of all things, a fielder's choice. Here are three observations from the 5-4 extra-inning win:

Five days ago, while making his first start since returning from Tommy John, Beachy needed his offense to push the Colorado Rockies to 10 innings and score nine runs in order to avoid walking away with a loss. All the same, he entered his second start with a 17-plus ERA and control issues to work on.

All in all, as the organization expected, the Braves' 26-year-old starter looked better in Citizen's Bank Park.

In 6 1/3 innings of work, he allowed three earned runs on five hits and two walks. He also struck out four batters and ran up 98 pitches. Back to 2012 form? Not quite, but it was the type of incremental improvement the team expects to see as long as his health remains constant.

That's the key: coming off elbow surgery and a year of rehab, the most important aspect of Beachy's upcoming month is that he "feels" better … the construct of this team does not demand immediate dominance but rather a steady progression as October gets closer and closer.

Who cares if he's allowing the Phiilies to hang around in August (with an 11 1/2-game NL East lead) if he's holding the Dodgers/Pirates/Cardinals/Reds to two runs in seven innings come NLDS/NLCS time?

Beachy faced his share of issues. His velocity remained right where it was during his first start (91.2) -- just below his career average entering the 2013 season -- but he once again ran into trouble locating his breaking pitches, leaving a home run ball out over the plate for John Mayberry Jr. in the second inning and falling short of punching out a few batters after building up pitcher-friendly counts. According to his post-game comments, Beachy all but avoided throwing his slider altogether: "I think I threw two of them," he said, "the first one went about 800 feet."

Still, similar to Julio Teheran's early-season undefeated record, the Braves are 2-0 when Beachy takes the mound in spite of his understandable struggles. The latter of the two wins was made possible by a Paul Janish takeout slide and Uggla's hustle down the first base line on the go-ahead fielder's choice. Not a classic finish, but good enough to push the team's winning streak to nine games as Beachy's confidence continues to build.

Prior to the All-Star break (and even during spring training), one of the most-discussed negatives of the Braves' lineup were the strikeouts. The many, many strikeouts. The record-pacing strikeouts. The Dan Uggla- and B.J. Upton-related strikeouts. If strikeouts rank as the "ugliest" out in baseball, then the Braves trailed only the lowly Houston Astros as MLB's least-desired prom date.

(Of course, all of this talk failed to mention Atlanta ranked fifth in walk rate and isolated power, ninth in OBP and eighth in runs created (WRC+) over that stretch. Yes, there were shutouts and untimely whiffs and many unproductive plate appearances, but the offense never dipped below league average.)

Since the break, though, the team is striking out just 19.2 percent of the time -- 13th-best in baseball, otherwise known as "above average".

After averaging 8.7 Ks in their first 95 games, the Braves have been fanned 119 times in their past 16 outings (7.4 per game). That includes just two double-digit strikeout games -- one coming in extra innings against the Colorado Rockies -- after 37 such occasions before Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann flew to Citi Field for All-Star festivities.

The team is still on track to break the franchise record for strikeouts (1,289, set last season) by nearly 100 Ks -- although the 2010 Diamondbacks' all-time mark looks safe.

The key for the Braves' recent offensive surge is that while the Ks have declined, their other hitting numbers have almost unanimously improved. Notwithstanding a decreased walk rate, the second-half production from Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson, Brian McCann et al. has the team producing at a season-best rate:

1st half (95 games): 9.1 walk rate, 22.8 K-rate, .250/.324/.412, 104 WRC+
2nd half (16 games): 8.4 walk rate, 18.9 K-rate, .272/.343/.432, 115 WRC+

In fact, only the Dodgers (124 WRC+) boasted better second-half offensive numbers than the Braves entering Saturday's game.

Phillies pitchers logged eight strikeouts in 12 innings.

So, is the "strikeout crisis" gone for good? With Dan Uggla's continued presence and B.J. Upton's return, probably not entirely. But, as Jason Heyward recently said, the team never even looks at the statistic. Why would they if they are going to average 5.6 runs per game?

(And thus, the record for typing the word "strikeout" in a Three Cuts section was obliterated.)

Five years from now, if Andrelton Simmons or Jason Heyward or, let's say, Joey Terdoslavich matches Johnson's recent stretch of eight-consecutive games with two or more hits -- a lofty and purely hypothetical scenario -- it's not out of the realm of possibility that the media guide will again need to be consulted to find "the last guy who did something like this."

That's pretty much what happened with Matt Diaz this time around, as his seven-game multi-hit streak four years ago had to be researched anew, at least for this correspondent.

The likelihood of that scenario playing out, though, is beyond unlikely.

Call Johnson's franchise record-tying run a product of eye-popping BABIP fortune, but remember: no other Braves player had accomplished the feat since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966. Only the greatest hitter in franchise history had matched it. In fact, perhaps the most telling detail concerning the record is the number of MVP-caliber players who never matched it -- Eddie Matthews, Chipper Jones, Terry Pendleton, Dale Murphy, Andruw Jones, Lonnie Smith. It's an obscure measure of historic short-burst consistency.

Johnson batted .545/.571/.727 during the stretch, which was worth approximately six runs more than an average player to the Braves' offense during the team's not-so-coincidental eight-game win streak, which is now at nine as Atlanta eyes a sweep on Sunday.

The 28-year-old third baseman finished Saturday's game 0-for-4 with two walks. So, essentially, another multi-something game in terms of offensive value.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez sent in Jose Constanza to pinch-run for Johnson in the ninth inning.

Johnson still has not failed to reach base since July 22.

There's an excellent breakdown of Johnson's season and career by FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan where it's pointed out that his absurd career BABIP -- .427 this season; .365 career -- ranks fourth all-time (min. 1,500 plate appearances). Yes, ever. The names above him, according to Sullivan: Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Rogers Hornsby.


As the article points out (as have many others, including a recent Chopcast episode), this number would suggest an upcoming regression to the mean and that the NL batting title is still very much up for grabs. However, Johnson's line drive percentage ranks second behind Tampa Bay's James Loney among all MLB hitters.

If his BABIP is due to plummet -- and, as a result, his batting average to fall -- opposing pitchers are going to have to limit him from making excellent contact. And no, simply walking him does not necessarily reach that desired outcome.

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