Attempting to rebuild the Braves’ offense one at-bat at a time

The Braves' bats are in the process of being uncaged. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

The Atlanta Braves' bats are in the process of being uncaged. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

Three and half hours before their second home game of 2012, half the Braves’ regulars were taking swings at pitches lobbed underhanded from a distance of six feet by bullpen catcher Alan Butts. As you’d guess, these soft serves were being driven prodigious distances. And the purpose of this exercise was … what?

Said Greg Walker, the Braves’ hitting coach: “There’s another group doing this in the [indoor] cage, but we’re doing it out here to see the flight of the ball.”

And this matters … why?

Walker: “If you’re getting topspin or a hook, that means you’re missing.”

Every team does the lob drill, but most of them do it indoors, where the flight of the ball is architecturally limited. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Walker had seen the Yankees doing it on the field, and he liked the idea. Which is yet another reason to like Greg Walker: He’s smart enough to borrow from the best.

The Braves scored only 10 runs in their first four games, prompting moans of “Here we go again” from the electorate. They’d scored 22 in the next three, including 10 in Friday’s home opener. Saturday’s game was more understated: They managed only two runs and three hits, but they forced Milwaukee starter Shaun Marcum and reliever Jose Veras to throw 127 pitches over eight innings — and the Braves won 2-1.

The Friday flurry wasn’t so much a triumph of bashing as of hitters generating clinical at-bats. Michael Bourn opened the decisive eighth inning with a single off Francisco Rodriguez, who’s known as K-Rod. Next up was Freddie Freeman, who fell behind in the count, fouled off a wicked pitch that could have induced a double play and held off swinging at 2-2 and 3-2 changeups.

Said Chipper Jones, who monitored developments with a practiced eye: “Freddie had a great at-bat against a tough pitcher, and it dominoed from there.”

Walker: “Freddie’s two walks [he had another in the sixth-run fifth] might have been the biggest at-bats of the game.”

Students of history know that the Braves haven’t always been painstaking. In 2010 that changed. They led the National League in walks and on-base percentage, and they made the playoffs with an unassuming lineup. If you’ve ever wondered if OBP is as all-fired important as stat geeks maintain, that season offered an answer: Indeed it is.

That October the Braves changed hitting coaches, redeploying Terry Pendleton at first base and importing Larry Parrish, who’d never been a big-league hitting coach. Soon the hitters were back to flailing. In 2011 the Braves dropped to 14th among 16 NL teams in OBP. Parrish was canned two days after the Epic Collapse was complete.

Walker’s approach: “We want to put together quality at-bats, to fight through at-bats and not to give in.” Every hitting coach, Larry Parrish presumably included, would say the same. But what happened to the Braves under Parrish was that good hitters fell into bad habits and stayed there. The deliberation that had been contagious in 2010 mutated into an epidemic of impatience.

Walker doesn’t want his men to be afraid to swing. “I’d prefer us to be smart, not just ‘Moneyball’ guys. [The book 'Moneyball' depicted Oakland's belief that a walk is tantamount to a hit.] Sooner or later you’re going to have to get a hit to score.”

What Walker wants is for the Braves “to develop a mindset” that doesn’t vary from at-bat to at-bat. He wants hitters who won’t enable pitchers by swinging too early in the count. “We want to be smart, but we also want to be aggressive,” he said, and that’s a fine line to walk. What happened Friday night seemed an early indication that the new coach’s teaching is beginning to take hold.

Said Jones: ““There’s a ton of potential in here. The only reason we’re talking about a lack of offense is because of last year. Three or four guys in the lineup had off-years. If they just have typical years, we’ll score enough runs to back up this pitching staff.”

Walker liked what he saw Friday — “Almost all our at-bats were good ones” — and he likes what he sees and hears around the cage. “Guys are coaching themselves,” he said, and that’s essential: It’s tough to develop a mindset among the mindless.

The key to sustained offense isn’t the three-run homer. (Those don’t come every inning, or even every week.) It’s the commitment to valuing every plate appearance, and yes, it’s easier said than done. And yes, this way works.

“Enough quality at-bats,” Walker said, “and we’re good team.”

And if baseball ever changes its rules and mandates that pitching must be done underhanded from a distance of six feet … well, here’s your new Murderers Row. “We’d wear people out,” Gonzalez said. “We might score 100.”

By Mark Bradley

77 comments Add your comment

coach

April 14th, 2012
10:04 pm

first

and

it’s not a complicated game. make the other guy work hard.

coach

April 14th, 2012
10:06 pm

apply pressure contantly. either youre applying pressure or reacting to it, if youre reacting to it, even at the highest levels, eventually you will break.

and, peachtree tv and dish network better get their stuff worked out……

JSS

April 14th, 2012
10:11 pm

That is all anyone asks of the Braves, play smart and don’t beat yourself…

GT Falcon

April 14th, 2012
10:12 pm

Go Braves! Are the Mets really that good, or are the Phillies and the Braves making them look good? What about the Nats this year, eh?

Herschel Talker

April 14th, 2012
10:18 pm

MB:

FIRE FREDI GONZALEZ!!!

HT

quack quack

April 14th, 2012
10:21 pm

Maybe First? Great game, great last 4 games. Sounds like Walker has a plan.

Mark Bradley

April 14th, 2012
10:21 pm

Kudos, coach.

LETS BELIEVE

April 14th, 2012
10:21 pm

I want to coin this as our motto this year We have to believe in all we have especially Greg Walker give him a chance be PATIENT

Hillbilly D

April 14th, 2012
10:26 pm

If you’ve ever wondered if OBP is as all-fired important as stat geeks maintain, that season offered an answer: Indeed it is.

I’m not a stat geek but that’s just basic baseball. You can’t score if you don’t get on base. (You can’t live on solo HRs)

Terry Pendleton stressed patience and being selective. The masses called for his head and he got moved to another position. Then Parrish comes along and stesses being agressive. The masses called for his head and he got fired. Now they’re back to stressing patience.

Me, I believe in being selective and working counts; make the pitchers work. Ulitmately though, it’s up to the players to hit. No matter who the hitting coach is, he never has an AB.

Hillbilly D

April 14th, 2012
10:28 pm

What about the Nats this year, eh?

My guess is they’re still a year away but they’ve definitely got some starting pitching.

Cap: A Bit Tip-sy

April 14th, 2012
10:31 pm

from having the worst record in baseball (along with the Twins) to now having a better record than 15 teams

Kris

April 14th, 2012
10:50 pm

The Nats and the Braves pitching are comparable. Their hitting lacks a punch here and there. I’d say those two teams end up playing one game playoff as two wild cards. It’s gonna be interesting.

WD

April 14th, 2012
11:01 pm

Been knowing Greg for 27 years..the man knows his business. If they will do what he says you will see a difference..already do. Walker works 24-7 he loves it.Go Braves!

snoopy

April 14th, 2012
11:05 pm

it wont last, they will show there true colors like last year in September. Get FG outta here

thebiz

April 14th, 2012
11:19 pm

Interesting that Pendleton almost got some praise. Almost.

Kevin Chop

April 14th, 2012
11:32 pm

Bottom Line: We still suck! Who have we played!?? Some of you are so gullible… Let me know when it’s October

gotigers72

April 14th, 2012
11:54 pm

I implemented the underhand toss drill when coaching a Little League 12 and under team. One particular parent questioned why I did this and I tried to explain to him that it was a good way for a coach AND a player to understand the swing. He didn’t get it, but I never stopped doing that drill. He stayed on me all year about it and even went so far as to go to the director of the Recreation Department to ask him to fire me. How you can fire a volunteer I don’t know. The director basically asked him, if you know so much, why aren’t you coaching a team yourself? After that, the guy backed off.

Some people just don’t know enough to study and learn what to do in order to coach kids. By the way, my team finished second in a six team league that year and made the playoffs. When you coach LL, you have to pick players based on parents almost as much as kids. Some of them can really be nasty.

Peter Y

April 15th, 2012
12:00 am

MB, one of my favorite articles of all time on AJC. Well done. It’s always so interesting to learn about the inside of a major league baseball team and the methods that produce results (hopefully).

As a fan, we don’t get to see this side of the game very often.

YoungerThan ThatNow

April 15th, 2012
12:26 am

Great column MB!! Greg Walker is top shelf and Braves fans are gonna love him before all’s said and done! He and I go back to our high school days as opponents, and he’s a quality guy and truly loves the game. Our teams saw each other a lot… regular season and post season… and he was truly something to behold! And a pretty good quarterback too!

I was at Turner Field tonight and it was an exciting place to be! Keep up the good work, and… GO BRAVES!!

falconsrus

April 15th, 2012
12:39 am

Good one M.R.Bradley

Fredi Fan

April 15th, 2012
12:43 am

If/When fellow Bobby Cox protege Ozzie Guillen becomes available in a few weeks, would you folks rather have him instead?

Fredi Fan

April 15th, 2012
12:45 am

If Stan Kasten has so many billionaire friends, why the heck didn’t he try to buy the BRAVES and give back to the community that gave him so much success?

Fredi Fan

April 15th, 2012
12:54 am

Maybe the Braves should offer a hitting instructor position to Bobby Petrino to help our hitters offensively, as he has demonstrated he is a coach who truly knows how to HIT FOR CYCLES.

Blh

April 15th, 2012
12:57 am

Hilbilly d, 2010 was an anomaly. I personally had cooled on my wanting to get rid of Pendleton as hitting coach after the 2010, but for a while it seemed as though our batters were underperforming compared to their potential. I don’t think they had such a high obp in previous years, but I would like to see that data somewhere. We’re there any articles about Pendleton intentionally switching up batting techniques that year?

BulldogBen

April 15th, 2012
1:45 am

We got a gift from Braun with the wild throw to 3rd but Minor was money tonight.

Still, it was WAY more interesting than it should’ve been. Kimbrel will be better served to get the strikeouts BEFORE the bases are loaded.

4-4. Feeling better than I did 5 days ago.

Baseball is a sport of patience. I always view it in 10 game chunks. If you go 6-4 every 10 games, you’ll make the playoffs every year, maybe even win your division every year. Heck, some divisions, going 5-5 every 10 games will get you in.

reckingball

April 15th, 2012
2:49 am

@12:42……”would you folks rather have him(Guillen), instead?”
No. Not me.
Go Braves! Roll on Juggernaut!

reckingball

April 15th, 2012
2:51 am

That was some good writin’ there, MB.

Jackie Chiles

April 15th, 2012
7:26 am

We should convince Chipper to re-up with the team for another decade. Probably be worth 15mil/year and get 10 games a season from him. Any thoughts?

74BravesJersey

April 15th, 2012
7:33 am

Hey Mark, very nice piece, I truely would print this off to use as reference because I’m big about having a good hitting approach especially talking about hitting stragedies w/ my kids, my son (15 yrs. old), playing baseball, & 19 yr. old & 7 yr. old playing fastpitch which even these techniques, & approach would be very viable things to use. Awesome Mark!

Nativebird

April 15th, 2012
7:48 am

Yet teams with at least 1 or 2 big bat ” 3-run homer” type power consistently strive on September (typically the tired pitcher month) and go deep into the playoffs. Because having the consistent “chance” to hit a game-changer….a score flipper….IS how major league teams make a WS run, not just a wild card run. Once agAin….if our number 22 doesnt turn into a big-time Allstar, power hitting…HR run hitting…….120 RBI producing superstar type player, (yes I’ll say it…like he was expected to be)….this small ball stuff will only get this team so far….uh…like the wild card….but that’s it. Once again….payroll, line up….Schuerholz and Wren and yes Liberty, choose to not build runs at championships….they hope to be “relevant”….that the goal. Because we fans allow it to be.

BobDawg

April 15th, 2012
8:13 am

I always admired the Yankees under Torre. By the time the 7th came, the opposing pitcher was gassed and ready to come out having been worn down by their lineup. You have to be selectively aggressive out there. Nats have had a good start … and that’s all it is… I think it is still April??
What is the over/under on Chippers games played now??? I say 62 games….

Furman Bitcher

April 15th, 2012
8:14 am

We still have a gaping hole in left. Come on folks Prado is our 3rd baseman

ToeMeetsLeather

April 15th, 2012
8:16 am

This is a throw-away year with Chipper milking the club for 17% of this year’s payroll. We just need to have all of the young guys work on improving their game. If Heyward and Freeman can progress into the stars we think they can be, combined with spending Chip’s 14 million wisely, this team can be a force NEXT Year. Then I’ll be back as a paying customer.

DHD

April 15th, 2012
8:21 am

The “fire Bobby” people are now “fire Fredi” people. They will never be satisfied even if the Braves go 162-0. Get over it, people!

The first games of the season are always magnified. More was made of the first 4 losses than were made of the next 4 wins.

steve whitmire

April 15th, 2012
8:28 am

WE’RE in a dog eat dog division, every at bat counts, every pitch counts, every run counts, gonna be a long season but after these last few games I’m breathing easier about our chances, go Braves, good job as usual Bradley, very informative story

Brownie

April 15th, 2012
8:35 am

Great point DHD. The negative fans will always couch their positive support of a winning streak…”it’s only the Astros, etc”, but any losing streak calls for a bevy of firings.

This article was mainly about hitting philosophy, and it’s good to see a strong approach to it with Walker. However, the best thing I see from Saturday’s win was a starter going into the 8th inning. With this staff’s talent, if that can continue, we’ll be a great shape.

Billy

April 15th, 2012
9:13 am

Yeah, but I still think we should fire Mark Richt

reckingball

April 15th, 2012
9:14 am

DHD……I agree, there will always be the negative “fans”, even with a four game winning streak, there are people logged in on this page, complaining.
I might be wrong(it happens all the time) but, I think that I read that Chipper was #3 or 4 in the most game appearance by a Braves player in 2011.
And the Braves hit the 3rd or 4th most HRs of all the teams in the MLB, or maybe it was just the NL.
Like Brownie said, IF the starting pitching can go deep into games, with the offense hitting close to their individual career numbers, this team is going to have a great year.
MY opinion.
go braves!

VinceVanGo

April 15th, 2012
9:37 am

I think the Braves hitters will be fine over the course of the season. G. Walker seems to know what he is doing. I don’t know about Chipper. His hearts there, but his body is 40 going on 60 with all of the years of wear. And I don’t like how the 7th, 8th, 9th inning guys are pitching early in the season. Plus it appears that Fredi G. still intends to overuse them. Let Medlen be the 6th and 7th inning guy and split the Big Three between the 8th & 9th. And get the Braves back on Peachtree TV.

JT

April 15th, 2012
9:37 am

Mark, I find it interesting that you post that column after the Braves manage only 3 hits, with 7 Ks and were 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position. You obviously wrote your column early on Saturday and waited to post it. Minor’s performance was his career best. We desperately needed it. I particularly did not like what I saw with a runner on third and only one out; a stikeout and an infield pop up. That is not going to get us very far.

ole dawg

April 15th, 2012
10:04 am

@ ToeMeetsLeather… glad we won’t be seeing you at the Ted this year.

George Stein

April 15th, 2012
10:05 am

The weakest part of a pitching staff is usually middle relief. The way to get there is to force the starter to work. Even if you don’t get on against the starter, a big league lineup will usually rough up the middle relievers, and that leads to wins.

Bill

April 15th, 2012
10:07 am

Great job Mark..this is kind of info I like (insider)info.keep it up.
Greg Walker is A-ok.

danny

April 15th, 2012
10:23 am

Just like I said with chipper…………………2 games on, 2 weeks off

Mark Bradley

April 15th, 2012
10:25 am

Thanks for the kind words, folks. Just between us, I like writing these kind of columns on occasion.

Brownie

April 15th, 2012
10:35 am

Vince VG – you say FG intends to overuse his bullpen again this year. But no manager intentionally overuses a bullpen, unless unemployment is the objective. In 2011, FG had no options: his starters (other than Huddy, who was coming off injury) couldn’t go more than 5, maybe 6, every outing. D Lowe was especially bad (no longer an innings eater); had to bring up Teheran and Delgado for spot starts, Moylan was out, Medlin wasn’t back until the end. The Braves played a ton of 1 run games, and lots of extra inning affairs. I think O’Ventribrill was spectacular, but yeah ran out of gas at the end. If he HADN’T used them down the stretch, and the relatively other weak BP arms had been brought in, they would have missed the playoffs by more….and then you all would have been calling for FG’s head for not using his best BP arms. No win situation.

2 things need to happen: starters go deeper, and the bats have to be more consistent.

Brownie

April 15th, 2012
10:39 am

Herschel Talker – someone needs to say it…… you need a new script writer. Some new material would be refreshing.

George Stein

April 15th, 2012
10:47 am

The rigidity with which he continues to use the ‘pen is the bigger issue, Brownie.

reality

April 15th, 2012
10:54 am

How could anyone claim OBP does not matter? If you’re not on base you’re an out. Two walks and a hit equals a run. How is that not a good thing? I have always wondered how a batter can come up, especially after a pitcher has been wild, and start hacking away.

reckingball

April 15th, 2012
11:27 am

does anyone know if Glavine is doing any of the Braves broadcasts this season?