After the Braves lost Sunday night in New York, manager Fredi Gonzalez told reporters, “We’re better than that,” and Tim Hudson, the losing pitcher, said, “We’re much better than what we’re showing.” This prompts a fairly massive question: Are they really?
The Braves have played 60 games, or 37 percent of their season. They’re on pace to win 86 games, which would be five fewer than last season and wouldn’t book postseason passage. (Over a full season, no National League wild card has been taken with fewer than 88 victories.) They haven’t climbed above third place in the East since April 5.
They got going last month, winning 12 of 16, and even better days seemed at hand. The schedule, which had been difficult early, figured to ease. After taking two of three from the Phillies at Turner Field on May 13-15, the Braves opened six of the next seven series against opponents under .500. (And Cincinnati was 26-25.) They’ve lost four of those seven series.
Given the chance to make hay, they’ve made hash instead. They were 3 1/2 games behind Philadelphia on May 15, and they remained 3 1/2 games back Monday morning. The Phillies contrived to lose four consecutive games last week to Washington and Pittsburgh, but the Braves lost four of six to the Padres and the Mets.
Back to our question: Are they better than this? They should be, yes. The 2010 Braves, who didn’t look nearly as good on paper, were 34-26 after 60 games. This team is 32-28. That mightn’t sound like much of a difference, but it is. The 2010 club was so bad in April — 9-14, if you recall — that everyone was wondering if it could play a lick. This team reported to spring training believing it was cut from playoff cloth.
Seven of the eight everyday Braves lineup have been All-Stars. Yeah, it was a long time ago for Alex Gonzalez, and yeah, Nate McLouth only made it because he was a Pirate, but still. Brian McCann is at worst the second-best catcher in baseball. Chipper Jones is a Hall of Famer. Jason Heyward was just included on the Sporting News’ list of the game’s 50 best players. Dan Uggla is the highest-paid second baseman in the history of the sport. This is a good-looking team.
And yet: It’s 12th among 16 NL teams in batting, 13th in on-base percentage, 11th in runs. The 2010 Braves weren’t exactly the Buckhead Bombers, but they got guys on — they led the league in OBP — and drove enough of them home to rank fifth in runs.
The beauty of having guys on base is that it puts pressure on the opposing pitcher. These Braves make it too easy. Sometimes they’ll hit a homer, which is never a bad thing, but the home run has again become the only staple crop. Of the Braves’ 738 runs last season, 139 (or 18.8 percent) resulted from a batter hitting the ball over the fence and thereby driving himself in. This year 25.6 percent of the Braves’ runs have been home runs.
Having seen such a thing happen too often under Bobby Cox, many among us hoped we wouldn’t see it under Fredi Gonzalez. And it’s not Gonzalez’s fault that Uggla is hitting .172, or that McLouth and Heyward are on the disabled list. But the gold-plated lineup is, alas, lead-footed: The Braves rank last in the league in stolen bases, third-from-last in grounding into double plays. Forget Small Ball. We’re back again to waiting for the big blast.
As a consequence, some great pitching has gone to waste. The Braves lead the majors in ERA. Opponents have hit a big-league low of .230 against these pitchers. It’s possible to win a World Series with a great-pitch, seldom-hit club — heck, the Giants did it last fall — but it isn’t the way these Braves were designed. They were supposed to hit, too. They haven’t yet.
The silver lining: They still might. Surely Uggla — and Heyward and Chipper, too — will do more than they have. These guys have 102 more games to prove they are in fact better than they’ve shown. They’ve played 60 games at maybe 65 percent capacity, and they’re 3 1/2 games out of first. If they dial it up to 75 percent, they might win it all.
By Mark Bradley