We credited Fredi Gonzalez last week when the Braves manager stepped outside his comfort zone and made a few moves he’d previously indicated he might never make – using Craig Kimbrel in the ninth inning of a tied game on the road; benching Dan Uggla and his league-worst batting average for three games; and moving Martin Prado to shortstop for several games until Andrelton Simmons came off the DL.
But here’s the flipside to that: If the Braves were hitting and scoring runs instead of wasting countless opportunities, it’s safe to say those moves wouldn’t have been made. Because he wouldn’t have felt something bordering on desperation. The Braves wouldn’t have found their wild-card lead shrinking and the gap on division leader growing.
When it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position, if the Braves were even a middle-of-the-pack team they could be pushing Washington for the division lead and this weekend’s series against the Nationals could be hugely important for a different reason than it is now. If the Braves had been within three or four games of the Nationals, instead of the season-high 8-1/2-game gap that exists now between the teams, then Atlanta could be looking to take this series and still have a good shot at the NL East title and a spot in the best-of-five division series round.
This weekend series is important now because the Braves need to get things turned around and avoid limping into the final two weeks of the season and going to the wild-card “play-in” game – a crap shoot if there ever was one — with no momentum or positive vibe surrounding them.
And let’s put this out there: If the Braves like they did in Milwaukee this week, it’s even possible that the surging Phillies and/or Brewers could push for one or both of the wild-card spots now occupied by the treading water-or-worse Braves and Cardinals. Not probable, but a lot more possible than it seemed a week ago, that’s for sure.
Did we mention that the Braves, in the past month or so, have gone from lackluster to terrible with runners in scoring position? Well, they have.
They have hit a staggering .157 (31-for-198) with RISP in their past 25 games, including 14 losses. This includes 3-for-34 in the four-game series that concluded the last homestand (a series the Braves still managed to win because of superb pitching) and 2-for-20 during the last four games of the six-game trip to New York and Milwaukee that ended Wednesday.
That stretch included a 10-inning win against the Mets and three consecutive losses to the Brewers.
Their recent dearth of RISP hitting has dropped the Braves’ seasonal average in those situations to .231, which is 30th – dead last – in the major leagues. That’s right, it’s worse than the Cubs (.232), Indians (.232), Padres (.234), Marlins (.234), Astros (.237) – worse than everyone.
Contending teams don’t generally rank at the bottom of the majors in categories such as hitting with runners in scoring position, and the shame of this case is that the Braves’ poor performance in those situations has been a direct reason they’ve wasted so many strong pitching performances.
Also, when pitchers get to the point where they feel like they’ve got to be perfect, where giving up a couple of runs in the early innings creates a seemingly insurmountable deficit, usually we see some of those pitchers start to crack in a game here or there, or a couple of games in a row. I’m convinced, whether they admit to it or not, that pitching with that sense that one must be perfect can be, and is, a burden for some pitchers.
Anyway, getting back to the Braves’ recent results. Before the bottom fell out of their hitting with runners in scoring position, the Braves had a .248 average in those situations through Aug. 17.
In their last 38 games through Aug. 17, the Braves went 28-10 had a 2.78 ERA and totaled 189 runs (5.0 per game) and 42 home runs. They scored six or more runs in 19 of those 38 games.
In 25 games since Aug. 17, the Braves are 11-14 with a 3.48 ERA, and they’ve totaled 77 runs in 25 games, 39 of those runs coming in five games during that stretch. The Braves scored 38 runs in other 20, including two or fewer runs 14 times. Awful tough to win scoring two runs or fewer 14 times in a 25-game stretch.
And while the Braves have hit just .224 overall in that 25-game stretch, it’s the sub-.160 average with runners in scoring position that’s undermined that four-week period more than anything else. Just a big hit or two in the majority of those losses could have broken open the game for the Braves.
So what’s the problem? And don’t say hitting coach. The Braves changed hitting coaches after each of the past two seasons, and the combination of Greg Walker and assistant Scott Fletcher was lauded for much of the first half of the season, when the Braves’ OBP was back up and they were doing so much better in the “situational hitting” areas they struggled so mightily at a year ago.
Walker and Fletcher aren’t the reason the team suddenly stopped hitting with runners in scoring position and stopped getting on base as much, or moving runners over as well, or getting them in front third base with less than two outs the way they were doing earlier in the season.
That falls on the hitters themselves. Period.
I think it’s partly because the Braves are still such a relatively young lineup, with hitters who’ve had such little experience at playing full 162-game seasons before. And because they have some aging players, and again because they’re so susceptible to left-handed pitching, an area that simply has to be addressed this winter.
But specifically as it pertains to hitting with runners in scoring position, the two Braves who’ve spent most the time in No. 3 hole for Braves and have the most at-bats with RISP are Freddie Freeman, who turned 23 this week and is hitting just .230 (32-for-139) with RISP, and Jason Heyward, also 23, who has had an overall impressive, healthy bounce-back season, but is hitting just .238 (30-for-126) with RISP.
Uggla is third in number of at-bats with RISP, and he’s hitting just .226 (26-for-115) in those situations. Fourth-most ABs with RISP for the Braves? That’s Brian McCann, who has been one of the Braves’ best in those situations in the past, but this season among NL qualifiers has the league’s fifth-lowest RISP average at .167 (19-for-114). That’s difficult to fathom, isn’t it?
You’ve got to go all the way down to the Braves’ fifth-most ABs with RISP to find a productive hitter in those situations – Michael Bourn, who ranked among the NL leaders for much of the season at around .350 in that category, but is now at .324 (36-for-111) with RISP after his overall slump in recent weeks.
Now, I know that hindsight is 20-20, and I realize the Braves had Matt Diaz coming back as an extra outfielder and not much money to spend on bench players. But remember when we wrote her last winter that Cody Ross would be a great fit for the Braves, and how he expressed a desire to play here for his former Marlins manager Gonzalez?
Ross didn’t get much of an offer, if any, from the Braves – at least as far as I know — and signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Red Sox, for whom he’s hitting .277 with 31 doubles, 20 homers and an .845 OPS in 408 at-bats, including .328 with a .984 OPS in 119 at-bats with RISP.
• Widespread slumpage: Not every Braves regular is slumping. Martin Prado hit .308 (40-for-130) with 14 extra-base hits (four homers), 19 RBIs and an .826 OPS in his past 31 games, and Heyward has hit .282 (44-for-156) with 19 extra-base hits (nine homers), 19 RBIs and an .863 OPS in his past 40 games.
Also, Uggla is 13-for-46 (.283) with three homers and an .896 OPS in his past 14 games, after hitting just .145 with five homers and a .556 OPS in his previous 69 games.
But man, are there some weak recent numbers elsewhere in the lineup.
– Bourn has hit .177 (14-for-79) with one extra-base hit, five runs and a .495 OPS in his past 22 games, and all season there hasn’t been a player whose performance is more important to the Braves’ fortunes than the speedy leadoff man.
By the way, in the Braves’ 81 wins, Bourn has hit .320 (109-for-341) and scored 70 runs. In their 63 losses — Bourn has played in 62 — he has hit .217 (53-for-244) and scored 18 runs.
And just got the lineup — Bourn’s not in it. Probably just getting a needed rest, but I’ll let you know after I get back from clubhouse (or check our Twitter feed while I’m down there).
– Freeman has hit .196 (19-for-97) with four homers and a .687 OPS in his past 28 games.
– McCann is 20-for-103 (.194) with two homers, eight RBIs and a .538 OPS in his past 29 games.
– Chipper Jones is 15-for-65 (.231) with more errors (three) than extra-base hits (two) in his past 19 games.
– Paul Janish, after going 8-for-18 in a five-game stretch Aug. 14-18, is 5-for-54 (.093) with a .331 OPS in his past 21 games.
And so it goes.
And while he’s not a lineup regular, of course, how ‘bout the strange season that Eric Hinske has had?
The veteran pinch-hitter/corner outfielder went 10-for-15 with two doubles, homer and four RBIs during three starts in a five-game stretch April 30 to May 4, and since then he’s 11-for-91 (.121) with 31 strikeouts, six extra-base hits (one homer), six RBIs, a .221 OBP and .220 slugging.
• Kimbrel’s chances have slowed: They have the best closer in baseball, but the Braves have only been able to use Kimbrel 15 times in 48 team games going back to July 24. Kimbrel has a 0.59 ERA and .115 opp average in that stretch, converting seven of eight save opportunities while piling up 34 strikeouts with four walks in 15-1/3 innings.
The Braves are 14-1 in games he entering during that period, and 15-18 in games he did not.
BRAVES Saturday Lineup
After a brief lackluster period in late summer, the Nationals have been clicking again for more than a month to open an 8-1/2-game gap on the Braves. They are 26-11 with a .284 average, 3.28 ERA and 56 homers in their past 37 games.
The Nats’ Ryan Zimmerman has hit .339 with 36 extra-base hits (17 home runs), 53 RBIs and a 1.023 OPS in his past 65 games, and is 23-for-64 (.359) with four homers and 15 RBIs in 15 games vs. the Braves this season….
Ex-Bravo Adam LaRoche has hit .279 with 10 homers, 30 RBIs and an .862 OPS in his past 40 games, including .378 with six homers and 11 RBIs in 12 games this month.
Prado is 10th in NL batting at .297, while Uggla (.214) is lowest among qualifiers, and McCann (.230) is fifth-lowest. McCann’s .300 OBP is fourth-lowest in the league….
Against righties, Heyward’s .305 average is tied for ninth in NL and his .576 slugging percentage ranks third in the league, behind Giancarlo Stanton and Jay Bruce and ahead of Carlos Gonzalez. Heyward has a a .384 OBP and robust .960 OPS vs. righties, while against lefties he’s hit .227 with a .284 OBP and .334 slugging percentage (.658 OPS)….
Braves reliever Chad Durbin had a 1.13 ERA and .171 OA in 41 appearances (32 innings) from May 11 through Aug. 8, and since then has 4.26 ERA and .283 OA in 15 appearances (12-2/3 innings).
• We’ll close this with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.” And with the title cut from Lucero off their album, “That Much Further West,” which you can hear by clicking here.
“THAT MUCH FURTHER WEST” by Lucero
Well I tried but I can’t run no more
Tell Katie it’s her that I adore
And as long as I love her best
I’m that much further west
And since she’s been gone
I’ve done less right than I’ve done wrong
But I an’t that much worse than the rest
I’m just that much further west
And the boys they don’t need my help
They can play these songs by themselves
Well I ain’t that much worse than the rest
I’m that much further west
And the west is the only sky that’s blue
Tell Katie that I’ll see her soon
Until then the only thoughts that I have left
Are that much further west
— By David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog