Last season was odd in many ways — the 25 final at-bat victories, the many trades, the ongoing saga of Troy Glaus — but maybe the oddest part was this: The Atlanta Braves led the National League in walks and on-base percentage.
It didn’t happen by design. Indeed, when I mentioned to Terry Pendleton, then the batting coach, that his club was No. 1 in the NL in walks, he said: “We are?” And it was surprising. As Pendleton noted, the Braves had historically been a team that swings hard and hopes for the best.
But the change, however inadvertent, was a welcome one — at least to me. I’m not a total stathead, but I’ve come to value OBP. (Thank Billy Beane and “Moneyball” for that.) And it is with some concern that I note the change in the Braves hasn’t held.
The 2011 club is 13th among 16 NL teams in OBP. Some of this can be traced to the fundamental truth that the Braves aren’t hitting, but last year’s team went through periods when it didn’t hit and it still managed to get on base. Last year’s Braves didn’t strike out much — they had the sixth-fewest K’s in the league — but these Braves do. They have the fifth-most strikeouts in the NL (against the sixth-highest walk total).
Which is kind of puzzling. I know the Braves have changed batting coaches, Larry Parrish having replaced Pendleton, but no batting coach preaches the virtues of impatience. We must also note that six of the Braves’ everyday eight were part of the team that worked the count expertly only a year ago.
The two exceptions: Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman. Uggla has struck out 40 times, Freeman 37. Uggla has always been a free swinger, averaging 152 strikeouts over his first five big-league seasons, and Freeman is a rookie.
It hasn’t helped that Jason Heyward, whose OBP was .391 in 2010, has seen that number fall to .317 in Year 2. (He has been hurting and is now on the DL.) That’s significant because Heyward was viewed as one of the keys to last season’s measured approach: He was the rare rookie who wasn’t afraid to take a pitch.
Where last year’s batting order had holes almost everywhere in April and again (via attrition) in September, these Braves were built to hit. What troubles me is that the 2010 Braves, limited though they were, proved resourceful in a way the 2011 club hasn’t yet. What troubles me is that the on-base percentage has sunk from .339 to .310.
By Mark Bradley