Brave-O-Matic

"Mmmmm...that's good Brave!"

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Another 1-Run Win. And a trade deadline acquisition.

The Braves remained perfect for the homestand, beating the Pirates again by a run, 5-4. Last game of the 7-game homestand Monday afternoon.

Much was the same: A close game. 8 innings for Smoltz. A shaky bullpen performance. Francour hitting well (2 for 4 with a double). Another pinch hit for the ageless wonder. And a few things were unexpected: 2 homeruns from Furcal (and a double too). 4 hits for Giles. A 16-hit performance for the team. And Smoltz briefly surrendering a lead, when he gave up 3 runs in the 4th.

Twice Smoltz was presented a chance to play the batsman, an opportunity he has sorely and vocally missed during his stint in the bullpen, but he failed to help himself. In both the 4th and 6th innings McCann was intentionally walked with a runner on 2nd and 2 outs. Smoltz struck out and grounded out. But Smoltz did what he is paid to do- pitch very well. Another win. A perfect July for Smoltz.

TRADE DEADLINE NEWS: The Braves picked up former Cubbie Kyle Farnsworth from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Ramon Colon and the aptly-named minor-league pitcher, Zach Miner. Miner, at 2-7 with an era over 4, seems unlikely to become Zach Major. Now we all want to know- Who will be our closer when the Braves return home for a 12-game homestand on the 9th of August? And will we have a 10-game lead in the division by then?

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Saturday Pre-Game Notes

My impression of Andy Rooney, if he were a Braves fan:

90 minutes before game time, and the Braves have stretched their division lead to 4 1/2 games. A win tonight means we pick up 5 games in 5 days. That'll put us on a pace to win the division by 65 games.

The winner of the Marlins-Nats game tomorrow will be in second in the division. It may be time to start rooting for Washington to win a few.

Julio Franco needs just one hit to become the 80th major leaguer with 2,500. I can't decide whether to wear my Frano-philes outfit or the new Francouer-philes togs while watching the game tonight.

Did ya' ever notice that the Saw always seems to finish weakly in the afternoon game tool races?

Every team in the NL East is STILL over .500. But only 2 teams are over .500 in games within the division. The first place Braves and the last place Mets. Curious.

The Braves have not played a game on astroturf this season.

Braves 2 Pirates 1

This one was for....Jay Powell?

With Horacio rolling merrily along (having thrown just 96 pitches through 8 innings), and Reitsma being given a day off, Brave-O-Matic assumed that HoRam would be given a chance to go all the way. But he was due up third in the bottom of the eighth in a one-run game, so Cox pinch hit for him, and things began quickly to unravel.

Powell was Cox's choice to finish the game -- something he's done sporadically, having notched 22 career saves. This was his fifth appearance for the Braves since coming back from Tommy John surgery, and it would turn out to be very likely his last. His second pitch sailed wildly outside as he screamed and crumpled to the ground, and you knew it was bad.

No doubt he's headed for a second ligament replacement -- a few other pitchers have undergone the procedure twice, and the typical recovery time after the second time is 2 full years. Whether you knew that or not, though, it's not difficult to see that Powell might have thrown his last pitch. Skip said it best -- imagine that, in a flash, you were no longer able to do your job, and you might have a clue what was going through Powell's head. Kudos to Skip and Chip for their respectful treatment of the situation, and to Chipper for knowing where the camera was, and crouching to block it as the trainers worked on Powell. Very classy.

There was still a game to finish, and the remainder of the ninth inning was a microcosm of the Braves season. Cox gave the first shot at closing the game out to retreads Foster and Brower, who proceeded to load the bases, getting just one out in the process, so it was time once again to entrust the game to a rookie, this time Macay McBride. McBride came in throwing gas, and blew away Ryan Doumit before inducing a game ending groundout by Tike Redman. What looked after 8 innings like a low-key victory over a bad team had suddenly become an occasion for much exultation, because this one almost slipped away.

Davies vs. Redman (unless he's traded today) at 7:35 tonight -- on TBS.

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Sweeping of Nats

The hands of fate clap loudly for the Braves, culminating in a three-game sweep of the previous occupants of first place in the NL East. I bandy fate around because, really, we had no business winning these games. The Nationals, well, they are just not ready for prime time.

In the first game, the winning run came via a bases-loaded walk on a pitch that was a strike. In the second game we made two bone-headed errors (with both Laroche and McCann dropping easy outs) and endured a Dan Kolb outing. In the third game, too, we endured a Dan Kolb outing and still ended up winning even though our pitchers did the unthinkable - walked both Cristian Cuzman and Jamey Carroll in the same game. What is the worst that can happen if you groove one in to these guys? They have three HRs between them, and both sport slugging percentages below .280.

Still, the results are exactly what we expected. Anything less would have been a disappointment. And, look at us... three games up in the East and the second best record in the NL. I'm telling you, it is fated to be so.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Braves 4 Nats 3

The Nats have spent the last two months urging other teams not to pay any attention to the man behind the curtain, but at long last we've taken a peek, and here's what we see: good starting pitching, a shaky bullpen, very little offensive punch, terrible team defense, and a heaping helping of Cristian Guzman. My God, he is bad.

Last night he capped another 0-fer by single-handedly giving the Braves the winning run in the eighth, just after his mates had tied the game. After two outs, Chipper singled up the middle. Then, because his manhood was challenged by the decision not to hold him on first, Chipper decided to steal second against the best active defensive catcher in the league, Brian Schneider, who proceeded to throw him out easily to end the inning. Or, rather, he would have, had Guzman been able to hold on to a perfect throw. Instead, he dropped it, then insured lasting ignominity by turning a Francoeur popup into a run-scoring double by running away from it. I don't know how Robinson can keep writing his name on the lineup card, but let's not discourage him.

It was Francoeur's third hit of the evening, and he's now hitting a cool .433. Cox gave him the start over Langerhans, but it's KJ who really needs a day off (or more). Hudson pitched well after a shaky first inning, and it won't surprise you to learn that Kolb was prominently involved in the Nats' comeback.

Today's game is at 1:05 -- Sosa vs. Drese. Still waiting to hear more about a possible trade for Brian Giles (oh please oh please oh please).

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Braves 3 Nationals 2

Alone in first!

According to Pete, before the game Andruw said that the Braves were not going to lose at home against Washington. Whether you call such statements attitude, leadership, or meaningless comments in a random universe, one thing is for sure -- he's unafraid to put some extra weight on his shoulders. 32 HRs in 99 games will do that to a person. Andruw certainly did his part tonight, with a double, triple, and a bases-loaded walk to win the game in the 10th -- on a pitch that he almost certainly would have hacked at when he's not going well.

If you attribute A. Jones's success to his public disparagement of the Nats' chances, then Adam LaRoche must have insulted their mamas, because he was the only other consistent offensive threat in the game. His solo HR versus an otherwise untouchable Livan Hernandez, followed by his 9th inning sac fly accounted for the Braves two runs during regulation. Pick to click, indeed!

Prior to the late-inning offense, the game was a fine pitchers' duel between Smoltz and the aforementioned Hernandez. Smoltz allowed 10 baserunners and two runs in eight innings -- very few of the hits (all singles) were solidly struck. Livan did his throwback thing, mixing in a startling array of junk with the occasional fastball. You've got to hand it to him -- he's found a way to stay effective despite throwing far more pitches than anyone else in the league. His 2565 pitches are more than 10% higher than the next highest total -- Doug Davis with 2313.

Loaiza vs. Hudson tomorrow at 7:05.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Pennant Race Begins

Brave-O-Matic has returned from the coast, just as the biggest series of the season (thus far) is set to begin. With an off-day today, the Braves prepare for Washington to visit for a head-to-head match-up between the co-leaders of the NL East. Who will crack under pressure? Probably no one yet. The Braves would feel good about winning 2 of 3, having lost 6 of nine to the Nats this season. But the pressure is building as the Braves make their traditional summer surge, while the opponent de jour begins to falter.

The first game of the series promises to be a doozy. Smoltz vs. Livan Hernandez. Smoltz has been lights-out for the past month. He's won 7 straight, with 3 complete games in that stretch, and 2 8-inning outings. He's surrendered just 13 runs over the 63 innings, and has not been pulled by Cox mid-inning during this run. Hernandez, the ace of the Nats staff, has a gaudy 12-4 record, but he's lost his last 2 decisions, and hasn't held an opponent to fewer than 7 hits since May. So we may be treated to our ace peaking while theirs is ebbing.

Hudson faces Loaiza on Wednesday. This looks to be a battle between the bullpens, as neither pitcher tends to get more than 6 innings per appearance, and Hudson has just one game under the belt since his DL stint.

The finale is an afternoon affair, between Hampton and Ryan Dreese. Dreese is just 3-3 since coming to the NL from Texas, and 7-9 for the season with an ERA of 5 1/2. If Hampton repeats his last performance, this one may take 12 runs to win. But if its our hitters against Washington's, I think we win handily, with the Jones boys and maybe K.J. or Francour getting big hits.

So it looks, on paper, like a win in games 1 and 3. The Hudson game may be the toss-up. If the Braves win all 3, the Nats have to start answering "collapse" questions. A split means the race heats up till our next meeting in late August. If we drop 3.... No way. Not now.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

West Coast Swing

Brave-O-Matic will be publishing sporadically if at all through this weekend, as 1) the games are on too late, and 2) I'm heading to the beach. Go Julio!

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Mets 8 Braves 1

Don't know if Hampton is still hurt or just rusty, but that was pretty ugly. Could be nothing more than the law of averages catching up to him -- Hampton was having a fine year prior to his injury, but he's not a sub-2.00 ERA pitcher. Anyway, crappy game, not much to say.

Tomorrow the Braves begin a series in San Francisco against Los Gigantes Viejos. Here was today's starting lineup for the Giants, with their ages:

Michael Tucker (34)
Omar Vizquel (38)
J.T. Snow (37)
Moises Alou (39)
Ray Durham (33)
Mike Matheny (34)
Pedro Feliz (30)
Jason Ellison (27)

Of course, Ellison is only starting because Marquis Grissom (38) is hurt, likewise Feliz for Bonds (40). Brave-O-Matic will go on record to predict that Bonds will not surpass Aaron's 755 -- Hammerin' Hank's record will therefore stand until 2014, when ARod passes him on the way to 800+.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Braves 3 Mets 0

Hudson's return highlighted a second consecutive well-pitched victory for the good guys. He was extremely efficient, throwing just 62 pitches in 6 innings of shutout ball. Must be said that he was helped enormously by the liberal high strike zone of umpire Bill Miller, but you have to give Hudson credit for identifying the strike zone early on and pitching to it.

Brower, Kolb and Reitsma each pitched a inning of scoreless relief to complete the shutout. Kolb's recent performance has been very timely for him and the club -- he's stepped it up just as bullpen roles are being defined, and doubtless Cox is more willing to trust tested veterans in the late innings, as opposed to a rookie like Boyer. It remains to be seen what role newcomer Jay Powell can carve for himself, but overall it seems that patience is being rewarded in the pen.

KJ broke out of a slump with two RBI hits, and Furcal once again reached base three times. Andruw is trying to pull outside breaking balls again, so it's a good thing that we've got some balance in the lineup. Nice day for Langerhans as well -- two hits and a good running catch to end the eighth.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Braves 2 Mets 1

A tight, tense game throughout, as old buddies Smoltz and Glavine each spun some of their own particular magic. Smoltz used exceptional control of his fastball, slider, and curve (with the exception of a hanging slider to Wright), while Glavine did his usual outside/in routine, and each found willing foils among the opposing batsmen. You've all seen it hundreds of times, but never before had Smoltz and Glavine opposed each other.

By now, we've grown used to the sight of Glavine in a Mets uniform, so it's no longer a shock to see him pitch against the Braves. But the sight of these two longtime teammates bat against each other is most incongruous. I looked for some mutual acknowledgement between them during these at bats, but none was forthcoming.

Furcal continued his recent great work, reaching base 4 times and playing surpassing defense. Brave-O-Matic seems to recall coming out in favor of a Furcal trade -- that fire is just about out. KJ was utterly mystified against Tommy G, but Francoeur and McCann both showed a willingness to go with the pitch, and each had two hits.

Kolb and Reitsma finished off the win with a scoreless inning apiece -- Reitsma was helped by a DP grounder from Piazza, who failed to duplicate his heroics from the night before. Five years ago, you hated seeing him up in that situation. Not so much anymore.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Subtraction By Addition

ESPN reports that the Nationals have traded for Preston Wilson, giving up Zach Day, J.J. Davis, AND a player to be named later or cash.

Is Jim Bowden even aware of the Coors Field effect? Did he, or anyone in the organization, even bother to check Wilson's home/road splits? Just in case Mr. Bowden is an avid reader of Brave-O-Matic (hey, it's possible -- we're getting upwards of 30 hits a day!), here they are (also available at about 18,000 other places on the web):

2005
Home -- .281/.350/.544
Road -- .224/.280/.411

2004
Home -- .255/.321/.402
Road -- .240/.309/.380

2003
Home -- .302/.370/.591
Road -- .260/.316/.479

This trade seems roughly equivalent to our trading Ryan Langerhans, Horacio Ramirez, and a player to be named, and receiving Ryan Langerhans in return.

To be fair, injuries have played a big part in Wilson's effectiveness, and the players the Nats gave up aren't exactly top prospects, though Day has had his moments. Still, if this is their idea of girding for battle, then gird away, sirs!

Great Article

All-Star breaks suck. What in the hell am I supposed to do for these three days? You can't tell me I'm supposed to take part in the All-Star festivities and listen to that sub-human McCarver wax and wane about mindless drivel.

So, during my nasty withdrawal period, I stumbled upon this excellent article (thanks to Jimmy the Skin) from Baseball Prospectus that takes an analytical look at the Braves sustained success over the last 14 years. Read it now. Here is the link since the Blogger software isn't letting me create a link.

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=4216

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

All-Star Game Music Review

Much ink has been spilled about MLB's ongoing effort to appeal to a younger demographic -- what better partner in the endeavor than upstart FOX? And what are the kids listening to these days? Why, the rock and roll, of course! Here are a few of the songs that Bud and Rupert found in their kids' album collections (culled from the 4th through 7th innings, or all the All-Star fun I can take):

"Night Moves" by Bob Seger
"Levon" by Elton John
"Be Good Johnny" by Men At Work (guess which one of them dug up THAT old nugget)

Bud and Rupert must have grown restless at this point with all the pelvis-shaking debbil music, so McCarver soothed them with a couple of lines from "They Can't Take That Away From Me" by George and Ira Gershwin, as Phil Rizzuto stepped in to face Warren Spahn...

I did hear one current song -- unfortunately, it was the turgid "American Baby" by the Dave Matthews Band. Ugh. I know the point of being a rock star is to get laid, but does he have to be so obvious and creepy about it?

Anyway, the game. I'm sorry, I just have never been able to get excited about an exhibition. What, you're telling me it means something now? You're kidding me, right?

Monday, July 11, 2005

Home Run Derby Report

Didn't watch it. I'm sure the pitching was bad.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Brewers 8 Braves 4

A sloppy end to a successful and surprising first "half" of the season. The Braves got plenty of baserunners, highlighted by Furcal's career-high 5 hits, but were generally unable to mount sustained rallies due to three holes in the lineup: KJ had a rough time of it, unable to follow any of Furcal's hits with anything productive; Marte also was 0-5, and compounded his difficulty with 2 errors; and Andruw was not generally allowed to do much damage, 0-2 with 3 walks.

The pitching was pretty bad all around. Colon was Davies-like, unable to exhibit consistent control, and getting hit hard when he grooved a couple of pitches. The bullpen was terribly unimpressive, with the exception of Brower's 1-2-3 eighth -- the damage punctuated by Reitsma taking a ball off the ribcage and having to leave the game. X-rays were negative, so the All-Star break will hopefully obviate the need to plug Kolb back in at closer.

Young Master Francoeur impressed once again, hitting another homer and nailing Brady Clark at the plate. My earlier contention that his promotion was temporary....well, maybe not. I will say this, though -- the number of rookies we now have on the roster may make it difficult for them to get the individual instruction they would likely receive in the minors. I'm thinking specifically of Marte's fielding, but I'm also concerned about the development of Francoeur and McCann. Of these three, only Marte has had any time at AAA, they're very young, and they won't be playing every day.

That said, a 50-39 record is quite an accomplishment given all the injuries, and we have to consider ourselves well-positioned for the second half. The Nats are beginning to falter, as you would expect of the lowest-scoring team in the majors. The Marlins can't seem to translate a big-name roster into wins. The Mets, despite some good additions, still have too many fading veterans. And the Phillies, as we all know, are the Phillies, and are very likely to remain so. We must be considered the favorites.

Brewers 9 Braves 6

The game played out largely as you would have expected, given a Sheets/Davies matchup. Sheets wasn't dominant, but was effective enough working off a sloppy mound, and Davies continues to struggle to keep us in games. The Brew Crew assumed an early lead, then the team of Gryboski and Bernero conspired to remove all doubt of the eventual outcome, rendering moot the Braves 4-run rally in the bottom of the ninth.

Young Mr. Francoeur replaced an increasingly moribund Ryan Langerhans in right field and went 2-2, scoring a run. KJ kept on keeping on, with a 3-run HR, and Giles continued to be on top of his game, reaching base 3 more times. Since June 12, he's gone from .271/.335/.424 to .301/.381/.465. He's gradually reclaiming his spot as one of the top 2Bs around.

Marte struck out as a pinch-hitter -- I'm glad we're back to 12 pitchers, but why oh why couldn't we have released Bernero instead of optioning Vasquez? Today's game is scheduled for 1:05, but is unlikely to be played. Capuano vs. Colon if they manage to play.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Braves 2, Brewers 1

Wow! Holy Moly! What a finish. Kolb enters for the 9th. But its not a save situation, its a 1-1 tie, while the Nats are leading in their game in Philly. We need to keep winning. And Kolb comes in to face his old club, and pitches like he knows the batters like the back of his hand. 1-2-3. On to the bottom of the ninth.

One out. Julio singles. LaRoche does too. Estrada gets the intentional pass (including a nearly wild pitch). Then Cox makes the 2nd surprising move of the inning. (Kolb was the 1st) Langerhans comes in to bat for Francour, to get the lefty vs. righty matchup. I thought go with the youngest youngster (suddenly Ryan seems the veteran) who had the adrenaline homer last night. But Bobby proves why he's the best again. Ryan slaps a weak single past short and the Braves win yet again. Wow.

Sosa had good results again, although the Brewers did have runners on every inning against him. But he got out of it each time. The only run Sosa surrendered was a solo homer. Also, Boyer pitched his 12th consecutive scoreless inning. We remain 2 games back of the Nats, thanks to fine work by our cobbled together pitching staff.

(Also, I take great offense when no one responds to my postings.)

Braves seeking a Closer?

Sam speculated here on the Brave-O-Matic a few days back that the Braves may be going after Lew Ford to add a bat to the outfield. But its looking as though the Braves may be thinking that a better-than-Reitsma closer is what we need. Our scouts have been seen in the bleachers at Tampa Bay, along with those from the Marlins and Diamondbacks, to check out Danys Baez, a 28 year-old from Cuba who was converted to a closer in 2003.

But the Rays haven't won a game since June 27th, so no one's had a chance to see Baez's stuff. I guess that explains why the Rays feel they can do without him.

Baez has squeezed out 13 saves in 30 appearances. (The Rays only have 27 wins on the season)Do we need a closer with an era of 2.75 and a WHIP over 1? Well, Reitsma's ERA is 3.5 and his WHIP is at 1.15. So at worst, Baez maintains the status quo. Baez is giving up .030 less in batting average (.221 vs. .253). But the downside on this is that its not because fewer batters reach base, it's simply because Baez gives up so many more walks than Reitsma. Baez also has 6 blown saves in just 30 appearances.

It seems like Baez has potential, but needs a good pitching coach to aid his control. I'm curious to hear what the scouts see. Assuming they don't die of boredom waiting for the Rays to hold a lead into the 9th.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Braves 9 Cubs 4

"The Braves have already redefined their team for the next five years." -- Peter Gammons

Absolutely exhilarating game. Cubs starter Jerome Williams had outdueled John Smoltz, and the Cubs held a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth, having countered a two-run HR by Furcal with one of their own by Aramis Ramirez. The game was essentially over before another out was recorded.

Giles tripled off the top of the wall to start the inning, and Andruw, having looked at two strikes, went deep on a low inside pitch that was supposed to be high and outside (no, Chip, it wasn't his 28th, it was his 27th...please calm down). LaRoche and McCann both reached base, then Jeff Francoeur, this week's callup, put the game away with a 3-run HR, made more exciting by the fact that he was one strike away from his fourth strikeout in his hometown major league debut. A standing ovation and curtain call ensued, and all was right with the world. Giles capped a four-hit game by nailing Francoeur square in the face with some celebratory shaving cream during the hometown boy's postgame interview. Goodbye golden sombrero, hello pie-in-the-face.

Thus we complete a four-game sweep of the Cubs, who sent the completely screwed-up Corey Patterson to AAA after the game. The Nats actually lost a 1-run game today, so we're only 2.5 games back, with three vs. the Brewers to close out the first 89/162nds of the season. Washington travels to Philly -- sure would be nice to pick up just one more game in the standings before the All-Star break. We're on a roll, and it wouldn't be possible without the kids.

Our rookie batting stats so far this season:

AB - 635
R - 109
H - 168
2B - 31
3B - 9
HR - 19
RBI - 74
BB - 73
BA - .265 (Team - .262)
OBP- .340 (Team - .330)
SLG- .432 (Team - .434)

Game 1: Braves 6-0

Wow. Once again, we here at the Brave-O-Matic sweat shop didn't see this coming. (And by "we here" I mean me and only me). The Braves torched Prior for six runs, while Horacio pitched a three-hit shutout just days after receiving a D+ from Sam's mid-season report card. I think the note you sent home to his parents must have done the trick.

I wish I could have seen the game, but the salt mines needed my services today. The box score suggests that Julio Franco was the hitting hero, jacking a three-run shot in the fifth that chased Prior. This, of course, raises several interesting questions, most of them concerning Franco's age and what "oldest to..." records he broke today.

The question I was refering to, however, was why LaRoche was on the bench. LaRoche has had three HRs and six RBIs in the last five games, and Prior is right-handed. I know they are playing a double-header, so LaRoche wasn't going to play both games anyway. Still, it looks like Bobby Cox once again pulled the right rabbit out of the hat in electing to start Julio. Here's hoping that LaRoche has a nice Game 2.

And by the way, our 1B platoon now has combined for 18HRs and 78 RBIs.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

There Goes Mr. Jordan?

The Braves have placed Brian Jordan on the DL with "chronic left knee inflammation" -- story here.

This appears to be a classic example of providing a graceful exit to a respected veteran, as they've done with Eddie Perez. Interesting that Mondesi didn't rate the same treatment...

The accompanying news is that they called up Francoeur to take Jordan's place. Brave-O-Matic is making the prediction that this is merely a precursor to a trade for a right-handed hitting corner outfielder. There's not much advantage to having Francoeur on the roster right now, as he won't be playing every day.

Also, an extended stint with the big club could make him a "Super Two", and therefore arbitration eligible a year early, in a couple of seasons. The Super Two rules can be found here -- the first requirement is that the player log 86 days of major league service prior to their first full major league season. If Francoeur's clock starts tomorrow, October 2 will be 87 days hence. I'm assuming that service time refers to days on the roster, not team games played, and that postseason does not count. Does anybody know?

So, rampant speculation being an integral part of baseball fandom, I'll say it's going to be Furcal and Colon to the Twins for Lew Ford, to be completed during the All-Star break. Any other ideas?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Braves 5 Cubs 1

Taking a chance that this game won't be resumed (I'll probably be sorry)...

If you'd given a casual fan the pitching matchups for the last two games, and asked what the likely outcome would be, the answer would come quickly -- Cubs win, Cubs win. Kerry Wood and Greg Maddux are infinitely more famous and accomplished than are Kyle Davies and Roman Colon -- it's our little secret that the difference in ability at this point is not that great.

Then consider the lineups. Other than Lee, who left the game with a shoulder injury, and Ramirez, there was nobody on the field for the Cubs tonight that I would trade for their Brave counterpart. Neifi Perez? Corey Patterson? Henry freaking Blanco? Please, please, please.

So, in retrospect, the outcome was not all that surprising. However, props must be given to Colon, who was in command all evening, repeatedly getting the Cubs to hit weak groundballs with runners on base. Even in the seventh, when he was tiring and the rain had begun, he managed to wriggle out of a bases loaded jam. Sutton said he's pitching with a purpose now -- I'm not sure what that means (the purpose is always the same, or so I thought), but it's the type of sentiment I'm inclined to agree with while watching him.

As was the case yesterday, one well-timed inning by the offense provided ample support. Considering the weather forecast, this may well be the final game in the series. Nats won yet another one-run game -- enough already!

By the way, Kelly Johnson's choice of music in the first inning: "Suicide Is Painless". Hey, whatever works....

Smoke and Mirrors

Much has been made about how the Braves are keeping in the race despite losing their best hitter and three of their four best starting pitchers, seeing the Jordesi Experience go terribly awry and watching their imported closer turn into a heap of quivering goo. After all that, we are still in second place, 4 1/2 games out of first, and leading the wild card by 5 1/2 games.

What hasn't been talked about a whole lot is how the Nationals are in first place with the third best record in all of baseball. The Stat-Head Guide to the NL East shows some peculiarities when looking solely at the things stat-heads look at - stats. It shows that the Nationals are living on borrowed time.

In the NL only, the Nationals are last or next-to-last in five out of seven offensive categories. These categories include runs scored (15th out of 16), RBI (15th out of 16), HRs (last), stolen bases (last) and slugging percentage (15th out of 16). In the other two - batting average and on-base percentage, they rank 10th out of 16 in each. By way of contrast, the Braves are either 3rd or 4th in the same categories that the Nationals are either last or next-to-last.

We Braves fans know, however, that offensive futility doesn't always equate to a bad season. Look at the Braves' 2002 season during which the offense was mostly pathetic, but the bullpen was shut down and the Braves led the league in ERA by almost a half of a run. Still though,
the Braves' offense wasn't as bad as the Nationals, speaking relatively to the rest of the NL.

While the Nationals do have pretty good pitching, the Stat-Head Guide says that it doesn't look like enough to compensate for their poor hitting. The Nationals rank fifth in ERA, 9th in hits allowed, 10th in walks allowed, 15th in Ks and 10th in WHIP. The Braves boast eerily similar numbers, having a slightly better ERA, but about the same on every other measure.

So, how to explain the National's success?

- Each of their pitching totals are dramatically better when they play at home, which is a pitcher-friendly park. In fact, the Nationals have the league's best home ERA.

- Their hitting totals dramatically improve after the seventh inning, where their batting average is second in the league, behind only the Padres.

- Chad Cordero. He has a .125 ERA and only three blown saves versus 29 successful ones.

Still, though, overall, based completely on the stats, one would not conclude that the Nationals have the third best record in all of baseball. Let's hope that the statistical evidence which predicts a National's decline plays out in the real world. And let's hope that our own smoke and mirror show holds up.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Braves 4 Cubs 0

We know Adam LaRoche isn't going to hit 35 HR in a season anytime soon -- even though he's a first baseman, he's still something of a second-tier offensive threat. So as long as he's relatively consistent and comes through with the occasional big game, that's all we can ask. He had one of those big games tonight, hitting 2 HR and driving in three of the four Atlanta runs.

Pitching staff took care of the rest. Kyle Davies declared himself unimpressed with first-half MVP Derrek Lee, retiring him twice with a runner on base. Davies had some control issues, but his overall command seemed to improve, and he made tough pitches in tough spots against some tough hitters (sorry, I've been listening to Sutton).

Kerry Wood settled down after giving up three in the first, but he's definitely lost the aura he used to have. Sure, he's coming back from injury, but when is that not true?

Good day all around -- the Nationals and Marlins both lost as well. Tomorrow Greg Maddux makes his first start at Turner Field since leaving the Braves. Anyone that boos him is a moron.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Brave-O-Matic Midseason Grades (Part 1)

Starting pitchers

John Smoltz -- Among ERA qualifiers, Smoltz ranks 5th in pitcher VORP, behind only Clemens, Willis, Oswalt, and Pedro. He's 3rd in IP (which is more than a little scary), tied for 4th in ERA, and 8th in Ks. Maybe we should have listened when he said he's been ready to start for two years now. He absolutely must stay healthy for the Braves to have a shot at winning #14. Grade: A+

Tim Hudson -- His oblique strain will keep him out for a couple more weeks. Considering this was a pre-existing condition that hasn't gone away, there's much cause for concern going forward. He's shown flashes of his old form, but his vaunted control has deserted him on several occasions, and his K rate of 5.36 per nine innings indicates that he's not the pitcher he once was. Grade: B-

Mike Hampton -- Another injury story, of course. "Forearm strain" is a sufficiently nebulous diagnosis that it's anyone's guess how to treat it or when it might get better. When healthy, Hampton was having a marvelous season, although he was doing it with mirrors somewhat. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is .235, which means he was getting very lucky, and also has been the primary beneficiary of Furcal's defense. He's still not striking anyone out, but he's not walking anyone either, and is keeping the ball in the park. He won't have a 1.83 ERA at season's end, but he's crafty enough to be effective anyhow. Grade: Inc. (A- while healthy)

John Thomson -- He's hurt; stop me if you've heard this before. Another pitcher having a fine season -- along with Hampton, his early season success was a carryover from his post-All-Star performance last season. Although Hudson and Hampton are slated to return more quickly, I have greater confidence in Thomson being able to continue his success once he comes back. The finger ligament injury was a freak thing, but surgery should take care of it with no lasting effects, and presumably he's been able to stay in good shape in the meantime. After a slow start to his Braves tenure, Thomson has quietly asserted himself as a rotation rock, and here's hoping he decides to stick around. He's a Brave-O-Matic favorite. Grade: Inc. (B+ while healthy)

Horacio Ramirez -- Today's start against the Phillies exposed the main problem with Ramirez; that being, if you can't miss bats, sooner or later the bats are going to put a hurting on you. Horacio's K/9 rate of 2.79 ranks dead last among the 111 major league pitchers with enough innings to qualify, as does his 0.85 K/BB rate. That combination makes it impossible to succeed consistently. He's reached his ceiling as a major league pitcher. Comparisons to Glavine are completely off-base -- Glavine was striking out more than twice as many batters as Horacio at a comparable age. Health and confidence are Horacio's main attributes. If he can ride run support to 13 wins this year, perhaps the Braves could trick someone into taking him after the season -- the Tigers used to have entire pitching staffs of Horacio clones. Grade: D+

Kyle Davies -- Has encounted some tough times of late, but that can be attributed to a heavy workload at a tender age. He's got four quality pitches, but obviously needs more seasoning. I've harped enough about his usage pattern, because we've needed him, but he should be sent back to Richmond for the rest of the year, and monitored carefully, as soon as we can do so. He's done nothing to sully his rep as a top prospect. Grade: B

"Starting pitchers"

Jorge Sosa -- Sosa was quietly doing good work in medium-leverage situations out of the bullpen when our spate of injuries pressed him into starting duty, and he has not disappointed. Given four starts, all against quality lineups (Rangers, Reds, Marlins, Marlins), Sosa has given us a chance to win each time out. Cox has carefully and gradually increased his pitch count (74,75,84,88), and Jorge has earned a rotation spot for the rest of the season. But Cox seems to prefer his hard throwers to stay in the bullpen, so we'll see what happens if/when all the starters come back (the very definition of an iffy proposition). Grade: A

Roman Colon -- Spent the early part of the season pining for his Richmond girlfriend or something, as he quickly wasted an opportunity to build on his late-season success last year. An 8.50 ERA sealed his fate, and Braves fans might be excused for thinking they'd never again have to say, "Ramon, err, ROMAN Colon". But faced with the specter of calling up Seth Greisinger again, Schuerholz gulped hard (New Journalism, Brave-O-Matic style!) and tabbed Colon for an emergency start. Lo and behold, Colon took a page from the Jorge Sosa Book of Unexpected Brilliance and shut down the powerful Orioles. His next start against the Marlins was less successful, but he still looked pretty good, and earned another start. This is probably how it will be for a while. Grade: C

Brave-O-Matic Midseason Grades (Part 2)

Catcher

Johnny Estrada -- Last year's production was largely the result of his .314 BA. The hits aren't falling with the same regularity this year, and I think his present line of .278/.320/.404 probably represents his true level of ability. There aren't any great NL catchers right now, so he rises near the top almost by default. His throwing has improved greatly -- up to 36% CS rate from 19% last season. No errors and only 2 PB so far. I wish his contract was a year longer -- we could use him for one more season splitting time with McCann, but he'll likely seek (and deserve) a multi-year contract elsewhere. Grade: B

Eddie Perez -- Organizational loyalty and the perceived need for more seasoning among our minor league catchers explained Eddie's continued presence on the roster at the beginning of the season. McCann's performance has kept Perez stowed on the DL, where he'll probably stay until September. Grade: Inc. (unlike his playing days)

Brian McCann -- Our top catching prospect was promoted when Estrada got leveled by Darin Erstad, and was kept in favor of Brayan Pena when Johnny returned. He's shown immediate power (albeit in just 30 AB), and has earned the John Smoltz seal of approval as his personal catcher of late. That means he stays. Grade: B+

First base

Adam LaRoche -- His rate stats (.263/.324/.451) are a tick below what he hit last year, but he's second on the team in RBI with 47, largely due to staying healthy and hiting well with RISP (.308/.380/.508). He's very slow, of course, but still decent defensively. He tends to stray too far to his right to field grounders, but I haven't seen it come back to haunt us -- so far so good. We were severely disappointed in LaRoche at this time last season, so if he repeats his second half performance from last year (.302/.368/.576), we will be quite pleased. Grade: B-

Julio Franco -- What can you say? The first player in major league history deserving of HOF induction based on general coolness continues to defy expectations. It's not enough, either, to say that he's playing well for a 46-year old -- he's just plain producing once again. He's hitting .278/.338/.476, he's 4-4 in SBs, and still gets the job done in the field. Also one of the top pinch-hitters in the league. Grade: A

Second base

Marcus Giles -- As usual, he's missed some time with various injuries, but has avoided catastrophe so far. He hit poorly in May (.259/.316/.426) but regained his stroke in June (.302/.410/.479) to somewhat regain his 2003 form. He's worked hard to become a decent fielder, and nobody hangs in tougher on the double play. If he can stay healthy, he should continue to produce, though the promise of greatness he flashed two years ago is beginning to fade. Grade: B

Pete Orr -- Every bench needs a guy like this. Orr, 26, has never been considered a top prospect, so you know he's got to be happy with his role on the team. Reserve players must love playing for Cox, as he's found a way to get Orr into 62 games already, and Orr has been a real asset as the last guy off the bench. It must be said that his success at the plate (.298/.333/.404) has almost everything to do with singles dropping in -- he could go Lockhart on us at any time. Nick Green was a better fielder. Still, Orr's fun to watch -- all hustle, all the time. Grade: B+

Shortstop

Rafael Furcal -- Along with Andruw, the most polarizing player on the team. With Andruw on an epic tear, Raffy is now the designated love-him-or-hate-him Brave. The haters have a point -- Furcal is terribly undisciplined at the plate. There's no reason a 5'9" leadoff hitter shouldn't walk at least 80-85 times per season, and an OBP of .298 is flatly unacceptable. Still, he grades out higher now than he would have 2 weeks ago, when his batting line bottomed out at .220/.272/.343. He's now at .240/.298/.367 and, hopefully, rising. Now for credit where credit is due: he's stolen 28 bases with an 85% success rate, and his fielding has never been better. By all available metrics he looks like the Gold Glove frontrunner, and it's an aspect of his game we're sure to miss when he departs after the season. Grade: C+ (batting - D+, fielding - A)

Wilson Betemit -- Betemit's story is well-chronicled, the tarnished prospect given one last shot and finally (thus far) makes good. His hitting approach, which admittedly has faltered a bit lately, has been something of a revelation. He's shown good patience and a willingness to go with the pitch -- the exact opposite of what you might have expected. He's doing his best to salvage a decent career. That said, our groundball pitching staff may be in serious trouble if we go into next season with a Chipper-Betemit left side of the infield next season. Grade: A-

Third base

Chipper Jones -- Chipper began the season as though he'd read reports of his imminent decline -- on May 16 he was hitting a cool .333/.464/.631. Then the injuries started to crop up, diminishing his effectiveness until finally ending up on the DL until sometime after the All-Star break. He's avoiding surgery, but it remains to be seen how effective he'll be once he returns, and indeed, how long he'll be able to continue playing this season. A reasonably healthy Chipper will doubtless bolster a lineup that's been hitting over its' collective head lately, but reports (including in this space) of the team's demise after the loss of Chipper were greatly exaggerated. I'll continue to maintain that he'll have "DH - Angels" on his resume before it's all said and done. Grade: Inc. (B+ while he was healthy)

Other infielders

Andy Marte -- Showed decent power and fielding range in his brief debut. He's probably ready now, but Betemit's good play will likely relegate Marte to Richmond for the rest of the season. He'll be on the field somewhere on Opening Day 2006.

Brayan Pena -- A hot start with the bat earned him a promotion when Perez was injured -- unfortunately, he hit poorly and gave no indication that he can handle major league catching duties. With McCann and Saltalamacchia, the Braves future at catcher seems set, so Pena will likely become a AAA nomad.

Left field

Kelly Johnson -- I admit that I'd never heard of Johnson before this season, and he wasn't listed in our top tier of prospects. But he began the season strongly at Richmond, and was tabbed over McCarthy (who's now hitting very poorly) when the Raul Mondesi Experience left town for good. He started 1-30 (as you may have heard about once or twice) -- since then, he's Ted Williams (.353/.457/.647) over his last 81 PAs. That won't continue, of course, but I submit that anyone who can put together two weeks like that is almost guaranteed to have a future. Grade: A- (would be higher, but the 1-30 counts, too)

Center field

Andruw Jones -- He's always been streaky, but this is ridiculous:

4/5 - 5/3 (26 G) .234/.308/.394 10 R, 3 HR, 12 RBI
5/4 - 5/20 (14 G) .396/.448/.981 16 R, 8 HR, 16 RBI
5/21 - 6/8 (18 G) .134/.171/.179 4 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI
6/10 - 7/1 (21 G) .397/.484/.987 17 R, 14 HR, 28 RBI

Fortuitously, his recent play has coincided with Chipper's injury. We trail the Nationals by 4 games, but without Andruw's production it's safe to say the deficit would have been twice as large. Taken all together, Andruw is having an All-Star season, and has nosed his way into the MVP hunt (or would have, if not for Derrek Lee's sick season). As you may know, he can play a little center field. Grade: A

Right field

Ryan Langerhans -- Has gained more playing time as the season has progressed, and has been fairly mediocre (.247/.330/.414). Mediocrity, of course, representing a massive upgrade from the contributions of Jordan and Mondesi. He appears to have been well-schooled -- his batting stroke looks simple and repeatable, and he exhibits a strong arm and precise form in the outfield. Lack of present competition means his job seems safe for the rest of the season, but in the long run he looks like a decent fourth outfielder. Grade: C

Brian Jordan -- Does one thing a week to help the team. A timely hit, a decent catch, excellent head cheerleader. He's had a fine career and seems like a good guy, but he's obviously through, and I look forward to future success in his efforts to help rebuild south Fulton County. Grade: D

Raul Mondesi -- Remember him? Believe it or not, he was not the worst player in 1991-2005 Braves history. Four words: Ken Caminiti, first baseman. Grade: F

Brave-O-Matic Midseason Grades (Part 3)

Bullpen

Chris Reitsma -- Got off to a fantastic start, which put him in position to assume closer duties after repeated Dank Lob flameouts. He's been less consistent since then -- seems like he either doesn't allow a baserunner, or can't get an out. He's come up a little short of his advance billing when the Braves acquired him from the Reds, but his stuff is undeniable. You keep thinking he'll get it figured out, and he may yet. Grade: B

Adam Bernero -- I'd say he's a reclamation project but, looking at his career, I'm not sure exactly what there is to be reclaimed. He showed up throwing strikes and pitching multiple innings, and began to nose his way into a higher-profile role. His ERA was 2.42 on May 25, but since then he's given up multiple runs in 7 of his last 15 appearances. He's getting hammered consistently -- no end in sight. Grade: D-

Dank Lob -- Only Kenny Rogers strikes more fear in the hearts of dugout water coolers. Brought in to be the closer despite the hue and cry of statheads, he immediately set about confirming all our worst fears, and then compounded them by showing himself to be a head case. Rocker and Wohlers were head cases, too, but at least they established some record of success with the team. The lack of consistent competetion means that three or four good outings in a row by Lob will likely thrust him back into high-leverage situations, where we'll see once and for all whether he can hack it with a decent team. Grade: F

Kevin Gryboski -- By two seasons the senior member of the bullpen. Gryboski has long been Cox's designated groundball reliever, but he's proven most adept at allowing inherited runners to score while keeping his own ERA nice and tidy. Winds of change recently, though, as he was used to start an inning in seven consecutive appearances. It's a better role for him, in my opinion. He's not a strikeout pitcher, nor does he have great control, so bringing him in with runners on base only exposes his weaknesses. Grade: B

John Foster -- Back with his original team, and our only lefty in the pen (until we pick up Stanton, it says here). Not a whole lot to say other than he's been fine in the LOOGY role -- only two bad outings in 25. Grade: A-

Blaine Boyer -- Promoted three weeks ago despite not pitching particularly well in AA, he's now working on a string of 10 consecutive scoreless appearances since his debut. He'll probably be farmed out once we get some folks off the DL, but he can feel good that he's established a little bit of success. Grade: A

Jim Brower -- For a team going nowhere, the Giants sure gave up on him quickly after a good 2004. Great low-risk pickup by the Braves -- he's been okay so far. Grade: Inc.

Others

Jorge Vasquez has pitched mostly in losses so far, and will be the first to return to Richmond unless Colon flames out or Bernero gets released...Matt Childers and Frank Brooks popped in to say hello...Tom Martin made Dank Lob look like Goose Gossage.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Phillies 6 Braves 3

Before the game Joe Simpson asked Cox if he was concerned about the team possibly coming out flat today, what with it being a day game after a night game after an arduous night of travel. Cox said he wasn't worried -- that the adrenaline rush his boys got from pulling on the old uniform would carry them through.

Far be it for me to quibble with the a Hall of Fame manager, but if what he said was actually true, then no team would ever come out flat. But alas, it happens, and it happened today. A second inning bloop single by LaRoche was the sum total of the offense the Braves could muster in the first eight innings against Brett Myers, until a ninth inning rally made the score respectable.

As for Horacio -- I'll save the bulk of my comments for his Midseason Grades entry, but suffice it to say I'm less than sanguine about his future with the club. Rubber game tomorrow evening, Sosa vs. Tejeda.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Braves 9 Phillies 1

Earl Weaver would have loved this game. Strong starting pitching supported by a pair of three-run HRs, and the Braves righted themselves after two tough losses to the Marlins. I've joined M Norman as a Kelly Johnson believer, and Andruw twice hit the ball about as hard as it can be hit, on his double and homer. Adam LaRoche drove in the remaining three runs with a single and homer, and Johnson and Furcal reached base four times each.

Smoltz wore down after six innings and 86 pitches -- not surprising considering his recent workload. The bullpen, for a change, did not allow the Phillies to sniff a comeback, as Boyer, Brower, and Reitsma were all effective.

It's been alleged that the Braves need an upgrade at first base, but it must be said that Julidam FraRoche are doing a fine job of producing runs. Their percentages don't look great (.260/.320/.443 entering tonight's game), but they're on pace for 120 RBI as first basemen (they also have 12 RBI as PH/DHs). Not too shabby -- think Tino Martinez in his prime. I'll take that any day.

Marlins 6 Braves 2

The Braves suffered a loss in the series finale in a game delayed by rain and unseen by Brave-O-Matic. Go Julio!