We’ve been going about this the wrong way. We’ve been too busy gnashing our hands and wringing our teeth — or is it the other way around? — over the Braves’ lack of hitting that we’ve missed a fairly remarkable thing. We’ve missed what has the potential to be …
(Pause for effect.)
The best pitching staff in Atlanta Braves’ history.
These words aren’t rendered lightly. The Braves’ pitching the 1990s and into the new millennium was magnificent: The finest rotation ever ate inning upon inning year upon year, and soon three of those luminaries will be summoned to Cooperstown.The Braves led the National League in ERA 10 times from 1992 through 2004. Fabulous stuff. That said …
The 2011 Braves entered play Wednesday night with a lower ERA than any of the Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz staffs posted. Indeed, this ERA — 3.05 — would match the 1974 Braves for the lowest in Atlanta annals.
(And who, you ask, was on that 1974 staff? Phil Niekro, obviously, and also Carl Morton, Buzz Capra and Ron Reed, with Tom House in the ‘pen. The ‘74 Braves won 88 games and finished third in the National League West behind the Dodgers and the Reds.)
Back to the present: The Braves’ starters have compiled the second-best ERA in baseball (behind Philadelphia, naturally), and their relievers’ ERA is also second-best (behind San Diego’s). If you’re making the case for this as the deepest Braves’ staff ever, you begin there.
Said general manager Frank Wren: “It’s a really good staff … Where this one might have an edge over those teams of the ’90s is in the bullpen. I don’t think you can make the argument that our rotation is better than that one.”
And nobody’s doing that. But the Braves’ pitching of the ’90s was always considerably lighter — by comparison, it almost had to be — in relief. The finest bullpen the Braves had was in 2002, when Chris Hammond, Mike Remlinger and Darren Holmes served as set-up men for John Smoltz. And, as broadcaster Joe Simpson noted: “Those [set-up] guys got people out, but they didn’t throw like this.”
Individual numbers: The rookie Craig Kimbrel has 18 saves, putting him one off the league lead; the set-up man Jonny Venters has an ERA of 0.44 and hasn’t yielded an earned run in 37 days; the starters Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are 16-7 between them and rank first and third in the National League in ERA.
Said catcher Brian McCann, speaking of the rotation: “We’ve got two guys [Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe] who know how to win and two young guys [Jurrjens and Hanson] in their third or fourth year who are starting to figure things out.”
Said manager Fredi Gonzalez, speaking of the staff as a whole: “It’s got good balance. Sometimes the bullpen is your Achilles heel. Sometimes the bullpen is your strength and you can’t get to them. The strength of your bullpen goes back to the strength of your starters … If you start bringing guys in in the sixth, you burn ‘em out.”
More numbers: The Braves’ starters have worked 43 quality starts — at least six innings yielding no more than three earned runs — in 68 games. That’s roughly two times in three, and that’s also with fifth starter Brandon Beachy having been on the disabled list since May 13. And the bullpen has allowed only 20 percent of inherited runners to score. Not to sound like Digger Phelps, but that’s getting it done on both ends.
Also: The Braves lead the majors in ERA and opponents’ batting average against, are second in quality starts and are fourth in strikeouts. Yes, 3 1/2 months remain to be played, but as mid-June these pitchers — meaning starters and relievers — have been the best in the business. And, given the dearth of offensive support, they’ve had to be.
Said Simpson: “It’s the best bunch of arms we’ve had. These guys all throw hard.”
Said Mark Lemke, who played behind the great rotations of the ’90s and who serves as a Braves’ broadcaster today: “It’s the best staff in baseball — I’ll say that.”
By Mark Bradley