Don’t look now, but the team giving the Phillies a run for their money when it comes to pitching is the Atlanta Braves. Going into yesterday’s games, the two teams were tied in ERA and had nearly identical marks in xFIP. While the Phillies’ starters have received fanfare, the Braves’ starters have quietly been getting the job done. Of their five starters, Derek Lowe has the highest ERA at 3.72. Jair Jurrjens is shocking the world, currently sitting at 1.52. Is that for real? I asked that and a few other questions to Capitol Avenue Club‘s Peter Hjort, ESPN’s resident Braves expert as part of the SweetSpot blog network. We swapped questions and answers, so make it a point to click through to CAC to see my responses to his questions as well.
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1. The offense has been stagnant for the Braves so far, ranking 11th or worse in the NL in AVG, OBP, SLG, and of course, OPS. Do you see it turning around?
Yeah, I do. For the first couple of weeks they were walking like, once every other game. As of late they’ve gotten back to taking their free passes with regularity, something they need to do to succeed. I also think they’ll hit better as the year goes on. Some of their sub-par batting average/slugging average can be attributed to a bit of poor luck, some of it to simply not squaring the ball, but I think in the end they’ll put it together and finish near the top of the league in all three categories.
2. One surprising bright spot with the offense has been Chipper Jones. Many of us assumed he was on the last legs of his career. If he has a good 2011 season, do you think he will come back in 2012?
Who knows. I don’t think Chipper Jones is in any hurry to retire and he’s said he’ll keep playing as long as he’s enjoying the game and can be as productive as he wants to, but I could see him hanging up the spikes after this year even if he keeps what he’s doing now up. I don’t have a good answer for you. I’ll say yes but it’s nothing more than a guess.
I do. Jason Heyward needs to be hitting second or fourth, period. That hitting him sixth thing was completely senseless and the justification for doing so was maddening and stupid. Since Heyward was moved to the top of the order the Braves have scored 5.11 runs/game and gone 10-7, before the move they were 7-8 and had scored 3.40 runs/game. Batting order obviously doesn’t explain that big of a jump in run production, but it’s completely unsurprising to me that the team’s offense got better once their best hitter started hitting towards the top of the line-up.
4. The Braves are neck-and-neck with the Phillies in aggregate xFIP for the pitching staff. In fact, prior to Thursday’s games, the two teams were tied exactly in ERA at 3.03. Do the Braves have the most underrated pitching?
Hmm, possibly. The Phillies have four K/BB machines on their staff, the Braves rely a bit more on ground balls than the Phillies do (the Braves currently lead the game in GB%, the Phillies in K/BB, though neither team is far off from the other). It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that the Braves are generally associated with starting pitching and the notion that they have an underrated staff, but considering the pre-season storyline was this team’s calling card would be its’ offense I don’t think it’s that crazy to say they’re underrated. Brandon Beachy has been a really nice surprise, Derek Lowe has continued his late-2010 pattern of throwing more sliders and it has worked for him, and Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, and Tommy Hanson have all been great. All five of the starters have met or exceeded expectations so far. I expect the Phillies to finish the year with the better ERA/xFIP, and probably by a pretty substantial margin, but you could make a good argument that the Braves have the most underrated pitching staff in the league.
5. Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels will be toeing the slab in the series. The Braves miss Roy Halladay, but also miss the #5 starter, which was Vance Worley and will soon be Joe Blanton. If you could pick, which three pitchers would you prefer to match-up against the Braves?
True story: this showed up in my brain when I first saw the question.
The Braves have been destroyed by left-handed pitching for a few years now. Acquiring Dan Uggla was supposed to fix that, but so far he’s been their worst hitter: .218/.276/.395. If you replace Lee with Halladay and Hamels with Worley/Blanton, I guess the three right-handers are the group I’d take. Hamels is on a roll right now and he’s probably the one I’m dreading the Braves facing the most. There is no right answer, though, facing Roy Halladay always sucks.
6. Jair Jurrjens, who pitches Saturday, looks remarkable so far — his control is much, much better. His 3.47 xFIP puts him among some of the best in baseball. His 52 percent ground ball rate is significantly higher than his rate the past two years. Do you buy the new and improved Jurrjens?
He was injured to start the year and he’s only made four starts so far, but they’ve all been really, really good. He’s only walked 5 of the 115 batters he’s faced, that’s Cliff Lee-like. The rest of his game has been OK–his strikeout rate is down and his fastball isn’t moving like it has been in years past–but the improved control is what’s made him successful so far. If he can keep this up I expect him to have a very good year. Whether or not he can is closer to your question, and I really don’t know the answer to that.
7. There is nothing I fear more than watching the Phillies going up against Craig Kimbrel or Jonny Venters, trailing in the late innings of a close game. Give me some dirt on those guys — how can they be conquered in the batter’s box?
You can’t beat Jonny Venters. Not really, but he’s a tough one to face, especially with Alex Gonzalez backing him with great defense. The likelihood of a batter putting the ball in play against Venters small to begin with, and once it’s put in play it’s usually on the ground. I guess just hope you hit it to Dan Uggla and he boots it or the ball finds a hole somewhere, because solid contact off Venters isn’t something you see very often. He’s historically had a high walk rate, so the option of hoping his control is off is also there.
Craig Kimbrel is an easier one to face if you can catch up to mid-90’s heat. What you have to do to defeat him is this: let him beat himself before you try to beat him. This is a guy whose historically had beyond awful command, so early in the count I’d be extremely selective against him. There’s a chance you’re quickly down 0-2 on account of that, there’s also a decent chance you’ve put yourself in a position for the PA to end in a hitter’s count, received a free pass, or gotten the pitch you were looking for before he has a chance to put you away. Guys with command issues like Kimbrel has had in the past are always in trouble until the moment the batter lets them off the hook, even if they have plus-plus stuff, so remembering whose in trouble can do the batter a world of good.
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Thanks as usual to Peter for taking some time to share his insight on the Braves. Follow him on Twitter (@CapitolAvenue) and bookmark Capitol Avenue Club for some of the best team-specific statistical analysis (and podcasts!) around. Before you finish your coffee, head over to CAC to read my take on the series from the Phillies’ point of view.