One week into a Braves offseason that came all too quickly, I’m guessing it’s still a little difficult for some of you folks to wrap you minds around the fact that the Braves in September were one of the worst teams in baseball, after being one of the best three or four best teams for most of the year.
For me, it has been — and I had a really good seat for the whole thing.
We’re going to get to some more of the Frank Wren and Fredi Gonzalez post-mortem interviews from last week, some things that didn’t make it in the paper in our stories and Q&As. Because there were a lot of things to discuss, more than we had room to publish.
I think you’ll find interesting several more things that both had to say in the aftermath of a month that felt a little like the sad Green Day song, “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
We know the pitching staff was diminished by midseason injuries to Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, which forced an overworked bullpen to pile up even more innings down the stretch when some of the young starters were getting the hook after about five innings.
But the offense? It still seems hard to grasp how the Braves could be as bad offensively as they were down the stretch, even considering that Brian McCann was never the same after an oblique strain and Martin Prado never looked like himself for more than a game or two after missing more than five weeks for a staph infection.
Still, it was hard to believe that so many hitters who were counted upon could go bad at the same time? From young Jason Heyward to grizzled veteran Eric Hinske, neither of whom had a season anywhere near as productive as they had a year before.
Just to refresh, these Braves hit .185 while totaling seven runs in 49 innings during a season-ending five-game losing skid. That included, appropriately enough, no runs in their final 10 innings of a 13-inniing season-finale loss — also appropriate, given they played a majors-leading 26 extra-inning games this season.
They totaled seven runs in 49 innings over five losses, and all but two of those runs came via four homers. That’s right, the Braves produced just two runs in their final 49 innings without benefit of a home run.
So, no, there hasn’t been anyone stepping forward or complaining about hitting coach Larry Parrish being scapegoated or fired without cause. Good guy, but his charges’ stats were just horrid when it counted most, and the situational hitting was bad all season.
As you all know, the Braves blew a wild-card lead of 8-1/2 games in September, and did it in just 3-1/2 weeks after Sept. 5. They did it by going 7-16 in the last 23 games, posting a 4.27 ERA in that crucial stretch – well over a run higher than their ERA in the first half of the season – and by hitting .225 with 71 runs, or barely more than three runs per game.
They hit .195 with runners in scoring position for September, and that total was boosted seven points by a 4-for-13 in the season-ending loss. Only Toronto hit worse with runners in scoring position in September, and the Blue Jays had a little less riding on the outcome.
We won’t go through all the hitting stats again here. You’ve seen them enough and probably don’t need to be reminded of the agony again so soon. But let me just say, it really was like watching a death by a thousand cuts, seeing this Braves team squander its lead – 10-1/2 games on Aug. 25 – by failing night after night in situations with runners in scoring position, blowing leads early and late, watching starters give up runs in the first couple of innings too many nights, seeing talented kids run up 90-pitch counts in five innings, etc.
It barely resembled the team we saw for much of the first four-fifths or so of the season.
After building a 10-1/2-game lead over St. Louis on Aug. 25, the Braves went 10-20 with a 4.31 ERA, .228 average and only 92 runs scored the rest of the way, including two runs or fewer in 40 percent of those games, and one or no runs in eight of 30.
While the Braves were going 10-20, the Cardinals went 22-9, posting a 3.14 ERA while hitting .287 and scoring nearly five runs per game after Aug. 25.
And get this: The Braves went 25-9 with a 2.62 ERA in 34 home games from June 19 through Sept. 1, then 4-8 with a 4.19 ERA in their final 12 home games.
Here are some further details of the autopsy:
• Chipper Jones, after hitting .350 with eight homers, 19 RBIs and a 1.034 OPS in 33 games from Aug. 8 to Sept. 18, hit .147 with one homer, two RBIs and a .454 OPS in his last nine games.
• Martin Prado hit .228 with a .272 OBP in 51 August-September games, with three homers and 19 RBIs.
• Brian McCann hit .180 with a .292 OBP in 37 August-September games, with four doubles, six homers, 16 RBIs.
McCann had two homers, nine RBIs and a .280 slugging percentage in 26 games after Aug. 29, leading many of us to believe the six-time All-Star catcher might have been hurting more from a strained oblique than he let on.
After the perennial All-Star catcher led the Braves before the All-Star break in average (.310), RBIs (50), walks (34), OBP (.381) and slugging (.514) and tied Dan Uggla for the homer lead (15), McCann then endured his worst second half, which included a DL stint for the oblique and these numbers: .203 average, four doubles, nine homers, 21 RBIs, 23 walks and 42 strikeouts in 172 at-bats, and a .301 OBP and .384 slugging.
McCann had an .895 OPS before the break and .685 OPS after.
• July 31 pickup Michael Bourn hit just .254 with a .295 OBP and seven RBIs in 30 games after Aug. 25, albeit with 14 steals in 16 attempts. The leadoff man had 31 strikeouts and seven walks in that 30-game span.
• Uggla, after hitting .339 with 18 homers, 38 RBIs and a 1.106 OPS in a torrid 45-game stretch from July 5 to Aug. 25, hit .243 with seven homers, 15 RBIs and a .790 OPS in 30 games the rest of the way.
Again, that Aug. 25 date was like an ending point for so many, and the Aug. 26 game – the first of the ill-fated New York trip in which the last two games were postponed by approaching Hurricane Irene, were like a starting point for a Braves demise.
More on that post-hurricane slide in a moment from Wren.
• The Braves got Matt Diaz in a waiver trade just before the Aug. 31 deadline to make him eligible for the postseason. Diaz hit .286 (10-for-35) in 16 games, but had just one extra-base hit, one RBI and one walk with eight strikeouts.
• Jose Constanza was the proverbial lightning in a bottle in the first few weeks after his major league debut, hitting .354 with two homers, nine RBIs, seven steals and a .398 OBP and .463 slugging percentage in 25 games through Aug. 25.
Then he hit .148 (4-for-27) with no extra-base hits, one RBI and no steals in 17 games the rest of the season, with a .148 OBP and .148 slugging percentage. He turned an ankle before that slump began, and never looked the same even after it healed. (Conztanza got only limited playing time in that span after Gonzalez decided to stick with Heyward.)
• While Heyward had a wholly disappointing second season, he was actually one of the Braves’ most productive hitters down the stretch. That’s not saying much, but he did have a .373 OBP in 27 game after Aug. 25, although he had only four extra-base hits (one homer), six RBIs and 20 strikeouts in 68 at-bats during that period.
• Meanwhile, this year model of Braves rookie hitting sensation, Freddie Freeman, hit .233 with three homers, 12 RBIs and a .304 OBP and .633 OPS in 29 games after Aug. 25.
This after hitting .333 with nine homers, 30 RBIs and a .386 OBP and .922 OPS in 48 games through Aug. 25.
Aug. 26. That’s the day Mets lefty Chris Capuano threw a two-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts against the Braves. A day when a hurricane was approaching New York, while an epic collapse was approaching the Braves.
♣ Without further ado, here are the unused portions – some quite good, I think – from the interview that four of us writers did last Friday (Sept. 30), two days after the season ended.
Wren began the session by announcing that, contrary to Gonzalez’s statement the day before about the entire coaching staff returning intact, Parrish had actually been fired and was told earlier that day.
FRANK WREN INTERVIEW
On firing hitting coach Parrish
“We have made a decision to not bring Larry Parrish back. Yesterday morning you guys met with Fredi, and it was fresh off a real tough end to the season, real tough loss. And I think one of the first questions was, what about your staff? Fredi and I talked at the end of the season and I’d asked him if he wanted to bring his staff back. His response to me was, yes, with some reservations. Some things that we needed to address. And quite frankly, that’s how I felt. I thought that we had some areas, in our hitting especially, that needed to be addressed. And when we invited the coaches back … it’s really a formality for the guys that have one-year contracts. There’s three guys that have one-year contracts and three that have multi-year contracts. Larry being one of those, because he came from another organization we gave him a two-year contract. So there really was not a need to invite Larry back, because he had a contract.
“And so I think when you guys talked to Fredi yesterday, the reality is it was a tough loss and a tough season, and he didn’t want anybody to be thrown under the bus at that point…. And so he told you they’re all coming back. Our view was, we were going to meet and be thoughtful about this process. And we had a meeting yesterday afternoon in Fredi’s office with Larry. Not to talk about his future, but to talk about our future, and talk about plans for 2012 with specific players. My concerns going in, based on what I saw all season long, were amplified in that meeting. And I came away from that meeting pretty sure we needed to make a change.”
More on what concerned him about Parrish
“The overall philosophy and the message, I’m not sure that it got through to the players. And the players have to take some of the responsibility, as well. Because we’ve got guys who’ve played for a number of years, and they know what they’re doing. And so it’s not just the hitting coach, by any means. But we did feel like that we weren’t on the same page philosophically, from a hitting perspective.”
“It was fairly obvious throughout the season that it wasn’t a good fit.”
On hiring a new hitting coach
“We’re going to make an exhaustive search. We’re going to go out, and there’s no timetable, there’s no rush. We want to make sure we get the right person that fits for our organization and what our expectations are. Larry’s a fine man, and he’s a good baseball man. I don’t think there’s anybody that would say otherwise.”
“We haven’t put any limitations on it.”
On whether the September swoon created a need to do something, to make a statement to fans and the media (hence the firing two days after the season ended)
“That was not the reason that we did it. There were enough questions in our mind that we couldn’t go forward to 2012 with the feeling that changes would be made, and changes needed to be made. They need to be made with a number of our hitters, and with our whole offensive production. Bottom line, you’ve got to have confidence that that can be done.”
On what he wants from hitters
“I like to see hitters battle at the plate. Take your shot if you feel like you’ve got a pitch that you can drive out of the park, but after that I want to see you battling. I want to see guys be tough outs. We didn’t have enough tough outs. The bottom line is, we didn’t battle at the plate. And that’s got to change. And philosophically, that was probably the most frustrating part. And I’m not saying that Larry doesn’t believe in that.”
“It’s situational hitting, it’s not just settling for a good swing and a strikeout. That’s a bad at-bat in my mind. Philadelphia just left here. They battled every day, up and down that lineup. They’re going to make a pitcher work to get them out. Too many times if you made three or four good pitches against us it was pretty easy to get through our lineup. That needs to change.”
“Good teams figure out a way to get those runs in, because one here and one there add up over the course of a game. The good teams, they do that very well. And we had a very good team, but that was probably our Achilles heel. We had a team that very easily could have won 95 games, with just playing any decent pace in September. That’s a lot of wins in the major leagues. And our biggest deficiency was our situational hitting.”
On the collapse and reviewing the season
“Fredi and I just spent 3-1/2 hours talking about, really, the whole gamut. Everything since he’s been hired. A review of the season and the offseason and spring training, what went well and what didn’t go so well, things we want to fix and things we want to change and make better. It was really a positive meeting.”
On Gonzalez and the team in September
“I think Fredi brings a lot of positive characteristics to this job. September was tough on everybody. We’ve seen that good teams are not immune to this. Watching the Red Sox get beat on TV after our game, two teams that either had the fourth or fifth best record in baseball — our two teams, back on Sept. 1. And you just saw how it could change so quickly. And you had a young manager in Fredi and one of the most respected managers in the game in Terry Francona. It can happen. And having witnessed up close and very personal, try as you might, it’s very hard to stop. You can try everything possible, and I think we did – whether it was meetings and private meetings and meeting with the veterans and meeting with the leaders, trying to get guys to feel more comfortable and to feel less pressure and as many things as you could possibly do. There was no stopping it. I think that’s the hard part for everyone.”
On Chipper mentioning that it was a mostly young team, and that things can snowball with a young team
“I think we saw that the veteran players on the team weren’t immune to it either. It was a cross section of the whole team. It wasn’t just the young players. Some of the biggest strugglers were our veteran players.
“Our biggest area of struggle was runners in scoring position. We were 29th out of 30 clubs in September, with runners in scoring position. We had lots of opportunities. I think the Washington series, the game against Detwiler was a classic example. Bases loaded nobody out in the second, couldn’t score. Two innings later second and third, one out, perfect bunt by Minor got us in position, couldn’t score. That was a perfect example of what went wrong in September.”
On McCann and team struggling after Hurricane Irene postponed two games in New York Aug. 27-29 (McCann had four days off, the team had three including scheduled off day in schedule Aug. 30)
“After the hurricane Fredi and I talked about that, how after the team was kind of ordered out of town after the first night, we really, from a consistently standpoint, we had played pretty good baseball every single month since the first month. Very consistent, 16-17 wins a month since the first month. And we were to the point where we were in mid-20s games over .500. And I never felt the same about this team after that three-day break. I think we were the only team to get a three-day break; I think everybody else played on Monday. We had a built-in off day, and I think it impacted us to a great degree.
“I just didn’t feel like we had that sharp edge before that, where you felt like we were going to win. I know, sitting where I sat, I didn’t feel like we were going to win every night, where I did before that. I felt like every night we went into a game with a good chance to win. When we came back from that [break], I didn’t feel like we had that edge.”
Did starters not going deep in games late in season take a toll on the ‘pen?
“We had to use the bullpen. We blew some key games late. [But] I think that, to me, is more a residual of not being sharp, of not having that edge. We lost that with that extra time off, and I never felt like we regained it, right down to that last game. I never felt we regained that sharp edge, where the bullpen guys came in and were able to go right at hitters and just set ‘em down 1-2-3. It just never felt that way again.”
On a sort of perfect storm of Braves woes in September, when so much went wrong
“We stopped hitting. We were depending on young pitchers and they didn’t go as deep into games, for sure. But when you look at 17 games where you gave up four runs or less, somebody was doing a good job.”
“We were having a very difficult time scoring runs. That’s the biggest reason we used our bullpen so heavily the first two months, was lack of runs. We were playing extra-inning games, we were playing all these close games, and so we never gave our bullpen a breather by busting out and scoring seven or eight runs.”
Near end, was it a matter of guys gripping the bat too hard, so to speak, trying too hard?
“I think by that time it had become gripping the bat too hard. It wasn’t lack of trying, it wasn’t lack of effort. The pressure built, and every game and every run was so important, it became very difficult. Like I said, its’ living and dying with every pitch.
“There’s lot of people I feel very badly for. I feel badly for our organization. I feel badly for our fans. Our fans that follow us, pitch after pitch and game after game – I hear from them. I hear from them, and they’re struggling with this, just like we are. This is a tough time. All the people that work in this organization, all the people that work in this stadium. There’s lot of people that depend on this team for their enjoyment and their entertainment. It was a tough September.”
On Alex Gonzalez finally getting hot at end, then getting hurt
“Gonzo was one of our best hitters there for a week or two, right before he got hurt. And that came at a horrible time for us, with a week left. He’d really starting driving in big runs and being more productive. Big hits were hard to find throughout the month.”
So did you think Fredi Gonzalez did a good job?
“I do think he did a good job. We had 81 wins Sept.1. I think Fredi did a good job. This is one of those clearly impossible situations. You take a look at two managers – Terry Francona is considered one of the very best managers in the game, and Fredi is considered an young up-and-coming manager. And they had very similar records coming into Sept. 1. And so with all of Terry’s experience and two World Championships, he couldn’t lighten the load on his team, either. It’s very difficult, I think it’s more difficult than people give it credit for. I think Fredi has a lot of great qualities.”
On what he views as Fredi’s strengths, including being a communicator
“Fredi is one of those guys that, he reaches out to them. He reaches out to them and is aware of what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling and what’s going on with them. And I think that’s important in today’s game.”
“I thought Fredi ran the game very well. From a team standpoint, it made it very tough on him because of our offensively struggles. So many of his decisions that he’s being judged on are based on the offensive struggles that created situations where he had to use the bullpen more than he would have liked, because of extra-inning games, close games and you’re trying to get off to a good start, especially early in the season. You’re trying to stay with your league leaders, with your division leaders.
“You’re trying to get that momentum going and you think any day our offense is going to kick in and we’re going to start scoring runs and be able to use our bullpem more than we would like. Unfortunately for us that day never came. It really never came. And he and Roger sat down just prior to the All-Star break and decided, OK, we’ve got to slow down the usage of these pitchers and we’re going to regular it more closely. And I think they did a really good job of regulating it more closely in the second half. But they were playing the hand they were dealt in the first half.”
On the “O’Ventbrel” bullpen trio returning
“They were as good as any three out there, and they can build off this year. Again, experience is a great teacher, and they have continued to get better. I think Craig [Kimbrel] probably said it best the other night, he didn’t know how tough September would be. Young guys going through the full season of the grind at the major league level, and so I think they will be better for it and better prepared for it next time.”
Looking ahead, how do you view your abundance of pitching?
“We have a lot of pitching but I think it’s not something that we’re looking to trade from. I think we want to go into spring training with lots of options. The part that a bit of an unknown is you never know how kids are going to mature from one year to the next. If these kids continue to mature at the pace they are, we could have a lot of really tough decisions in spring training. And that’s a real good thing. I think we’re on the verge of having a really dynamic young pitching staff that matches up with anyone. But we’re not quite there yet. We might be, in six months at spring training. You just don’t know how fast they’re going to mature. [Randall] Delgado grew up incredibly from this time last year till he got to spring training, and then even more so before he made that first start against Texas.”
So, could some of the young pitchers go back to Triple-A again for a while?
“I don’t think there’s any reason they have to make our major league club, if we feel like there’s additional things they could learn at Triple-A and there’s a full rotation here. I don’t think it hurts any of them to go back, but we’re going to be open-minded in the spring as to who may make that next jump and go from being a young pitcher that’s pitching pretty well, to being dominant. Because they all at different times in the minor leagues have been pretty dominant. And we think they can in the major leagues, as well.”
Bourn is a Scott Boras client, so do you even try to sign him long-term [before Bourn becomes a free agent after the 2012 season]?
“I don’t know the answer to that. He’s an arbitration-eligible player that will go through the process. If those discussions come up during that process…. We like Michael, we like what he brings to the team, the infusion of speed. So if that opportunity exists, we’ll explore it.”
Boras generally takes all his guys to free agency…
“Not all of them. It’s up to the player. My experience with Scott, and we saw that with the pitcher, Jared Weaver [who re-upped with Angels for less than he could have gotten on free-agent market]. He said ‘Scott, I want to stay here, I want to get a deal done.’ I think Scott looks out for his client, and in that regard if his client wants to stay here, then I think it can be done.”
Braves could look real similar in 2012?
“We could come back with a lot of the same team and have a very good team. But you’re always looking to get better, and that’s the approach we’re going to take. We’ve stated we want to get more athletic and faster and we’ve started that process. I think we can continue that process this winter, whether from inside or out.”
On waiting to decide about rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky’s readiness and other matters after meeting next week with scouts and team officials at organization meetings
“We don’t have that one big need [this winter], but we have thoughts about ways to improve our club. We’ll see how they play out at our meetings and then going forward.”
♣ OK, that’s it for the Wren interview. And here are a few leftovers from the interview Sept. 28 with Fredi Gonzalez, about 12 hours after the Braves’ season-finale loss to Philly.
FREDI GONZALEZ INTERVIEW
On it being called one of worst collapses ever, and you being in middle of it
“I mean, it happened. It’s not like we can close our eyes and it will go away. It happened, and it’s going to be there forever… It offends me, but I mean, what can you do about it? It happened.”
On the lineup struggling so mightily in September
“You know what, if you look at the offense the whole year, really, it never clicked. For whatever reason, it never clicked. Those months of July-August, Freeman and Danny were pretty much our offense, with Chipper and McCann out of our lineup, two different stints on the DL.
“But yeah, it was an offense that, for me, never hit on all cylinders for a whole year. Our pitching covered it up for five months, pretty much. September you look at some of the numbers, and I think 17 games we gave up four runs or less, and we only won, what, nine games? And some of those games we lost 1-nothing.”
On evaluating team and needs
“It’s too hard to evaluate right now. I think the best thing is, three or four days we’ll get together. Because right now nobody can play, everybody sucks – including myself. [laughs]. You know what I mean? And it’s not fair. So I think in three or four days you sit back, after everyone has kind of detoxed a little bit, and say, OK, let’s get a good evaluation of the club and what we need. And I’m sure that, it’s just the nature of the game, we’ll restructure, you know, pieces here, what’s available, and always try to improve the club.”
“The hardest thing is trying to keep the line[up] moving. You get base hit, steal, out, base hit, bam bam – we just never got that [kind of] consistency, keeping the line moving. But I’m sure we’ll go out and see what’s out there. I don’t even know what’s out there.”
On overusing relievers
“There’s a lot of stuff that you sit back and evaluate and say, you know what, maybe I could have done this a little bit different. That particular situation — you know what? If we don’t use those guys I don’t know if we have 89 wins. I will tell you honestly, there were some games, probably couple of games in April or May where you say, you know what, maybe we shouldn’t have used them. Coming off the All-Star break I thought we did a helluva job not using those guys, and keeping them fresh.”
“When you start playing 26 extra-inning games, you’ve got to go with your guys. We played, what was it, almost six extra games. And that’s with your bullpen.”
On Prado batting second even as he slumped
“You know, that’s one of those things that at the end of the day you’re thinking, what if I would have done this different? What if I would have hit the pitcher eighth for two more weeks instead of four days? Maybe we should have played Constanza more? Maybe we hung with Heyward too long? All kinds of scenarios.
“Chipper hit over .300 and drove in runs when he was hitting second. Maybe we should have left him there. Dave, believe me, in these next three or four days there’s going to be a lot of could’ve, should’ve, would’ve.”
On Constanza/Heyward controversy in blogs and Twitter, etc.
“I don’t even read that stuff. Internally, I think of that stuff. Constanza rolls his ankle and then you pop Jason back in there and you see some [encouraging] at-bats, you seem some games… There’s so many things you can look back [and question].”
“What is he, 39? And did he hit, .270, .280? With 17 homers, 70 RBIs. “That’s pretty good, and he’s taking shots and all kinds of stuff.”
On McCann struggling so long in second half
“I never seen him like that, because this guy can hit. You know what? It happens. Look at the two months Danny Uggla had in April and May.”
“I really enjoyed watching him compete and fight through some of the stuff that he had to fight through. I’m sure if you ask him he doesn’t think he had a good year either. For his standards.”
On Prado not being same after staph infection
“And he played the last month with, I don’t know if you guys noticed but he couldn’t run like he normally can. He had leg [issues]. Nagging stuff.”
“Next year he could be a bullpen guy, or maybe you can work him up in the starting rotation if you want to. Adds pretty good depth to your pitching.”
♣ OK, if you’re eyes aren’t glazed over yet (or even if they are), let’s close this with a tune that should jolt you. “Left of the Dial” by the mighty, mighty Replacements, which you can hear by clicking here. By the way, for the past week we’ve had a lot of sweet Georgia breezes that Paul Westerberg references in the tune. Too bad we had no baseball here in this perfect weather.
“LEFT OF THE DIAL” by The Replacements
Read about your band in some local page
Didn’t mention your name, didn’t mention your name
Sweet Georgia breezes, safe, cool and warm
I headed up north, you headed north
On and on and on and on
What side are you on?
On and on and on and on
What side are you on?
Weary voice that’s laughin’, on the radio once
We sounded drunk, never made it on
Passin’ through and it’s late, the station started to fade
Picked another one up in the very next state
On and on and on and on
What side are you on?
On and on and on and on and…
Pretty girl keep growin’ up, playin’ make-up, wearin’ guitar
Growin’ old in a bar, ya grow old in a bar
Headed out to San Francisco, definitely not L.A.
Didn’t mention your name, didn’t mention your name
And if I don’t see ya, in a long, long while
I’ll try to find you
Left of the dial
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog