October baseball became an exercise in contrast. I’d watch the Braves lose in Round 1 by swinging and missing, and then I’d go cover the World Series and see the American League representative — the Yankees, the Red Sox, the 2002 Angels — swing less and hit more. And I’d think, “Why can’t the Braves do that?”
These Braves do.
Said Chipper Jones: “We were always a team that liked to hit early in counts, and if we didn’t we’d strike out.”
Being my cause-and-effect self, I figured the difference between those Braves and this selective bunch could be traced to the number of AL transplants in this clubhouse: Troy Glaus, Melky Cabrera, Eric Hinske. Chipper Jones, a lifetime NL’er, took issue with my little theory.
“I like to think I’m the ringleader,” he said.
But too often, I suggested, he’d been the Lone Ranger. He’d work counts, but nobody behind him — Andruw Jones or Jeff Francoeur — would. Now everybody on this roster does as C. Jones has always done.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re different,” Jones said. “I don’t know if Frank Wren intentionally put this team together that way or if it’s merely a coincidence of us getting together on the same team.”
Whatever the cause, the effect is stunning. The Braves rank 11th in home runs but lead the National League in on-base percentage and walks. Their intent isn’t to knock down fences but to wear down pitchers. On Sunday they mustered as many walks (three) as extra-base hits, but they scored 11 runs and induced Milwaukee starter Manny Parra to throw 104 pitches to record 16 outs.
Said Hinske, once with the Red Sox: “Our team’s approach is to try to get to the bullpen as quick as we can.”
Said Matt Diaz, formerly with Tampa Bay: “We’ve got professional hitters 1 through 13. And there’s also something here I haven’t seen before, and that’s communication throughout the order. I lined out on a fastball on the first pitch today, and Martin [Prado] came over and started telling me how [Parra] had pitched him.”
About Prado, Diaz cannot say too much. “I watch Martin, and he almost never swings at the first pitch of the game. He’s 0-1 a lot, and then he’s 2-1 and hitting the ball hard. And the more you watch good hitters, the better you get. I love watching Jason Heyward’s at-bats, and Chipper has had some of the most consistent at-bats in the history of the game the last 15 years, and I love Troy Glaus’ approach.”
Is there such a thing as an AL approach? Said Hinske: “Coming up in the American League, you see a lot more offspeed pitches early in the count. You don’t want to make an out swinging at a first-pitch offspeed pitch. You learn to take a strike.”
Back to Diaz and his lineout. He was greeted, he said, by hitting coach Terry Pendleton, who told him: “That’s all right — that’s the approach we want.” Meaning: It’s OK to swing on the first pitch if it’s a fastball down the middle. As Diaz noted: “You watch the [renowned-for-their-selectivity] Yankees and Red Sox, and you see they do a lot of damage on first pitches.”
And that’s the benefit of being known for your patience. A pitcher will himself get impatient. Even some of the best Braves lineups would make it harder on themselves by swinging at what are known as pitcher’s pitches. This crew waits for a hitter’s pitch: Like the hanging slider Jones hit on a 3-2 count for the game-winning homer off Dave Bush on Thursday.
Said Jones: “I’d fouled off a 3-1 pitch, a four-seam fastball that surprised me — it was a defensive swing to keep the at-bat going … But I knew he wouldn’t throw me a straight fastball on 3-2. I figured he’d throw a slider or a change.”
That’s professional hitting. Said Hinske: “We talk about it as a team. We’re not just going up there swinging, for want of a better word, selfishly.”
So has this developed, Hinske was asked, into an AL-like batting order? “I don’t think,” he said, “we’d have any problem having a DH.”
These Braves might get that chance — in Games 3, 4 and 5 of the World Series.