Now working at Turner Field: The best pitching staff in the biz

Tommy Hanson: He has been great. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

Tommy Hanson has been great. But almost every Braves' pitcher has been great this season. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

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

154 comments Add your comment

rawdawg

June 15th, 2011
6:54 pm

Sonny Clusters

June 15th, 2011
7:04 pm

Clusters are here.

sidewalk74

June 15th, 2011
7:04 pm

Now if Uggla can start hitting his own weight we should be in good shape for the rest of the season.

Sonny Clusters

June 15th, 2011
7:05 pm

Mark, can you get us a Bobblehead?

Delbert D.

June 15th, 2011
7:06 pm

It has been quite amazing so far.

Sonny Clusters

June 15th, 2011
7:07 pm

We heard they changed bobblehead companies and these bobbleheads have obliques.

Lowcountry Bulldawg

June 15th, 2011
7:10 pm

Flipping it over to Andy Griffith for my Superstation 17 flashback. Now channeling my inner Skip Carey for the announcement…

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
7:10 pm

Kudos, rawdawg. Welcome, Sonny.

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
7:10 pm

We’re in a rain delay, FYI.

Sonny Clusters

June 15th, 2011
7:15 pm

From that photo, Hanson is starting to look a little like a wolfman.

jerry

June 15th, 2011
7:26 pm

Come on Mark, give us that WS title prediction and let’s bury their chances.

Dan

June 15th, 2011
7:27 pm

Stats are relative – in the post-steroids era all pitching appears better

Maddux, Glavine & Smoltz got it done when steroid abuse was rampat and hitting was at its highest peak since the 1930s – under the current standards those guys would have an ERA comparable to those pitchers were putting up in the late 1960s

Comparing the current Braves staff to tat of the 90s is laughable

Thomas the Tank Engine

June 15th, 2011
7:41 pm

I really do think we can. Are you with me?

Darryl Blackberry

June 15th, 2011
7:42 pm

Good point, Dan. I’ll also say that Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz went deeper into games, threw more strikes, got more sac bunts down, and fielded their positions better than our current rotation. However, considering 3/5 of our current starting staff is comprised of youngsters (none of whom has had the tutelage of a Leo Mazzone or a Dave Duncan), I’d say we’re doing pretty darn well.

Max Sizemore

June 15th, 2011
7:43 pm

Dan is correct. Stats ARE relative. Best is to compare the Braves’ ERA with the league ERA each season. In 2004, for example, the Braves’ ERA was 3.75, compared to a league average of 4.31. This season the league average is about 3.85, so the 3.05 number isn’t nearly as impressive. But, then again, Mark, you DO need something to write about.

Max Sizemore

June 15th, 2011
7:46 pm

In 1999, the Braves ERA was 3.65 compared to a league average of 4.57. In 2000, it was 4.06 compared to 4.64. And so on.

YellowJacket

June 15th, 2011
7:48 pm

4.31-3.75=.56

3.85-3.05=.80

Yes, I know you govern this state, wouldn’t want it any other way.

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:00 pm

Taking tarp off now. Terrible hailstorm out here.

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:01 pm

First pitch set for 8:30.

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:06 pm

Excellent piece Mark. I never would have bet that Knucksie, Capra, Morton and Reed had the lowest team ERA in Braves history. ‘74 was magical. In those days, 88 wins for the Braves was unheard of and we thought better days were ahead. But, Capra lost his buzz and Knucksie couldnt do it by himself. Braves reverted to form.

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:09 pm

Isnt the Heyward bobblehead the one that the shoulder falls off?

NorCalBrave

June 15th, 2011
8:14 pm

I give the nod to this year’s staff simply on the basis of run support, as in there’s none in 2011. When you go out there every night figuring that your offense will probably get you 2 or 3 runs, that’s a lot of pressure. After listening to 2 and a half months of “our bats will come around,” would love to see it happen. Here’s hoping Heyward and Uggla have a monster second half.

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:14 pm

Larry

June 15th, 2011
8:19 pm

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:09 pm
Isnt the Heyward bobblehead the one that the shoulder falls off?

No, they change their minds at the last minute and select the ones that come with a complimentary tube of “Ben Gay” for back pain.

LOL!!!

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:20 pm

Bobby Cox bobblehead gets thrown off the shelf
Brooks Conrad bobblehead falls off the shelf
Dan Uggla bobblehead cant find the shelf
Jim Bouton bobblehead writes about the Mickey Mantle bobblehead falling off the wagon
Greg Maddox bobblehead says “mother” repeatedly
Kawakami bobblehead keeps getting hit by the others
Dan Kolb bobblehead, well let’s leave that one alone

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:34 pm

Delay of 82 minutes due to weather. Jose Reyes starts it off by doubling over Jason Heyward’s head.

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:34 pm

not a shining start for Jason

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:35 pm

Just that quick, it’s 1-0 Mets. See what happens when I say something nice about the Braves’ pitchers?

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:36 pm

with the e 9 isn’t it unearned?

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:37 pm

So far it’s unearned.

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:38 pm

Hudson looks good. low pitches with a lot of movement.

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:38 pm

is the rule on that explainable?

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:38 pm

Run is unearned.

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:40 pm

You reconstruct the inning without the error. If Tejada had singled, as opposed to grounding out, the run would have been earned because Reyes would have been in scoring position.

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:41 pm

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:42 pm

Looks like it’s just you and me, tg.

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:42 pm

Pagan is the least religious of all the bobbleheads, heh

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:43 pm

Me suspects you might have enjoyed the hailstorm more.

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:43 pm

Not at all. I enjoy your company.

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:44 pm

B Mac looks like he’s putting on a little weight.

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:46 pm

B Mac’s a good man. Pretty good player as well

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:46 pm

If the Braves can just get to the Mets bullpen without a big deficit i like our chances.

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:47 pm

absolutely. He and Prado lay it all on the line every day. Some others do too, but those 2 stand out to me.

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:49 pm

Bruins 1, Canucks nil.

Michael

June 15th, 2011
8:54 pm

Is it wrong that I don’t want to flip to the hockey game at all to make sure I don’t help the NHL’s ratings after what they did withthe Thrashers?

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:55 pm

You’re entitled to your feelings, Michael

Larry

June 15th, 2011
8:57 pm

Michael,

What the Thrasher’s owners did to themselves, the Bruins and Canucks had no hand in.

Enjoy the game!

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:58 pm

i was reading about Walter Johnson last night. He pitched 260 innings at 39 years old. 200 innings seems to be about the norm now.

Mark Bradley

June 15th, 2011
8:59 pm

I covered Walter Johnson as a rookie reporter

todd grantham

June 15th, 2011
8:59 pm

the anemic hitting is rearing its ugly head.