This probably isn’t the best way to get folks flocking to the old ballpark during a recession: The Braves have hit .220 with one homer while going 1-5 in their past six home games, including five homerless games in a row entering tonight’s series opener against the Astros.
The good thing is, there will be fireworks tonight, guaranteed.
Well, almost guaranteed. There’s always the chance that the weekly Friday night postgame fireworks could get squelched by rain or a rain delay that pushes the game to midnight and brings a city ordinance banning post-midnight fireworks.
But what about in-game explosions of the hitting kind? The Braves (and their pitching staff) could use some run support including perhaps a few long balls.
Three homers in 291 at-bats at home this season. That’s it. That’s the Braves’ total output, and it’s the fewest home-park homers in the majors in 2009.
The first two pitchers going for the Astros aren’t the ones you’d pick first if you wanted an opponent who serves up homers aplenty. Mike Hampton tonight and Roy Oswalt on Saturday.
Oh, had we failed to mention that ol’ “Hampy” is starting tonight for the Astros? Oh, yes, the lefty returns to Atlanta, where I’m quite sure the reception is going to be … well, interesting.
As most of you are fully aware, Hampton spent the past six seasons with the Braves, about half of that time on the disabled list for a litany of injuries and two elbow surgeries.
But he finally got healthy last summer and posted a 3.72 ERA with eight quality starts in his last nine games. He was 3-4 with a 4.85 ERA in 13 starts for the Braves last season.
The Braves hoped to re-sign him to an incentive-laden one-year deal.
He said late in the season that he was appreciative of the Braves’ patience in him through his injuries, and that he would consider that when weighing free-agent offers after the season. Gave some indication he’d like to stay.
In the end, however, he agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract with Houston, taking less money than the Braves offered. Wanted to be closer to his children in Arizona, according to several people familiar with his family situation. (He was working through a divorce during his entire last season with the Braves.)
I was told that Hampton also wanted to be around former Astros teammates, guys closer to his age like Jeff Bagwell, who’s still living in Houston and has a front-office role with the team.
Hampton pitched for the Astros for six seasons (1995-99), including his 22-4 season in 1999 when he was the Cy Young Award runner-up to Randy Johnson.
The Braves paid the left-hander $48.5 million over six seasons, during which he made 85 starts and went 35-24 with a 4.10 ERA in 509-2/3 innings.
That worked out to … working on my adding machine here … about $570,000 per start, $1.39 million per win, or $95,160 per inning, although insurance paid portions of his salary while on the DL.
Hampton made a total of $78.5 million during that six-year stretch, the rest of it paid by the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins as part of the three-team trade that brought him to Atlanta in November 2002.
He signed a then-record eight-year, $121 million contract with Colorado before the 2001 season, and was traded after two disappointing seasons in Denver.
After going 63-31 with a 3.30 ERA in 133 starts over the four seasons before he signed that huge contract, Hampton was 56-52 with a 4.81 ERA in 147 starts during the eight-year megadeal.
He’s 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA in four starts this season for the Astros, and he allowed 16 hits and seven runs in 12-1/3 innings of his past two starts, getting no decisions in home losses to Milwaukee and Cincinnati.
The reason I said he’s not the one you’d pick to hit homers against: The sinkerballer has only given up 22 homers in 294 innings at Turner Field, where he’s 19-16 with a 3.70 ERA in 47 starts.
Possible good sign for the Braves: Lefties are hitting .304 against him this season, albeit in only 23 at-bats.
Chipper Jones is 19-for-50 (.380) with one homer, five walks and two strikeouts against Hampton. But only three other active Braves have faced the lefty, none with more than six at-bats against him.
♣ Power drought: The Braves have hit eight homers during their current 5-10 slide, after hitting 10 in their first six games (5-1).
You might be surprised at one of the four NL teams that’s hit fewer homers than the Braves — the Mets, with 13. Only the Giants have hit fewer (12) than the Metropolitans.
But the Mets have also hit .285 (third in the league) with a majors-leading 11 triples, 13 stolen bases, and a .362 OBP, compared to the Braves’ .257 average with four triples, league-low four stolen bases and respectable .343 OBP.
Not that triples are overly important, but I found it interesting that 10 of the Mets’ triples have been hit at new Citi Field, where the Mets have only seven homers. We’ve heard the place plays huge, and that stat – 10 triples, seven homers — is a clear indication to me that the power alleys are, indeed, huge.
I mean, the Mets have twice as many triples at home as the next-highest NL total (San Diego’s five, also in a big park).
Hit one to the wall in the gaps or into the corners of the new Mets ballpark, and your speedier hitters can have some fun. Which might not apply so much to the Braves.
♣ Speed talk: Speaking of speed, I know it’s a subject of much debate whenever it’s mentioned on this blog. With that in mind, and considering the Braves’ lack of stolen bases along with their lack of homers, I asked a few uniformed Braves about the importance of steals.
And before some start to recite the fact that the Braves’ division-title teams also generally were at the bottom of the league in steals, take a look at the home-run totals of some of those teams, the three or four big-time hitters that most of those teams had in the lineup, and leadoff hitters many of them had.
Anyway, the current Braves have four stolen bases, which is half as many as the next-lowest NL total by the Brewers (eight). But the Brewers also have 29 homers, which is tied for the NL high and 11 more homers than the Braves have.
So, is it important to steal bases?
• Hitting coach Terry Pendleton: “Depends on the ballclub. It’s important in advancing the runner, getting him in position to score. I like to have base stealers because it puts more pressure on [opposing] pitchers, infielders, and even the outfielders. Everybody has to be on their toes, aware of the runner.
“You’ve got to be able to put pressure on the other team. If you don’t [have base stealers] you better have some guys who can hit some doubles, or hit balls out of the park, or bunt and do the little things.”
Can a team offset a lack of speed and stolen bases?
• Chipper Jones: “You can if you execute the ABC’s of baseball — hit behind runners, get runners over, hit and run, execute bunts — you can make up for it. But if you don’t have a lot of speed and you don’t execute the ABC’s, it comes to light more often.”
Has this team executed those ABC’s?
”No,” Chipper said.
Rookie Jordan Schafer has some speed and stole some bases in the minors, but isn’t doing much of that in the Nos. 7-8 spots in the lineup, mainly for concern of making the third out and having the pitcher lead off the next inning.
I asked him about the Braves’ lack of base-stealers.
”That’s why we’ve got to do the little things right to win games,” Schafer said. “We don’t have guys who hit 40 home runs, and we don’t have guys who steal 60 bases, so we’ve got to move the runner over and do all the other little things right.
”Our starting pitching’s done awesome. We’ve just got to play good defense and play smart baseball, be unselfish, get the guy over, get every run we can.”
♣ Anyone wonder what’s become of Kerry Ligtenberg? No? Then don’t ready this story.
Alright, I’m out of time. Gotta fight Friday traffic and get to the ballpark. I wanted to share some other stats about how well the Braves have hit on first pitches and how Kelly Johnson might have some hope of ending his skid with Houston in town (he’s hit .382 with three homers in 11 games against the ‘Stros) and how Schafer’s had 10 walks in his past seven games and … well, like I’m out of time.
Digging the new Bob Dylan album, Together Through Life, particularly the cut “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” in which he says, “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver, and I’m reading James Joyce. Some people they tell me I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.”
Here’s a a Dylan classic to take us out, “Every Grain of Sand” from the Shot of Love album. Oh, and check out this great slide-show presentation to accompany it, or this live video of Bob doing it, or this one of Bon Iver covering the great song. Oh, and by the way, Billy Joe Shaver’s playing Eddie’s Attic on Wednesday.
“EVERY GRAIN OF SAND” by Bob Dylan
In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.
Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.
Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.
I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.
I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other time it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.