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Braves New World

In Baseball on April 22, 2013 at 6:08 pm

The Atlanta Braves have dominated the National League in April. Can they keep it going through October? CDH’s Ian Brickey doesn’t think so.

The Atlanta Braves are living up to their hometown’s “Hotlanta” nickname. Baseball is back in Atlanta, and it’s National League opponents who are getting burned. Three weeks into the 2013 season, the Atlanta Braves have a 13-5 record — tied for best in Major League Baseball — and a three game lead in the NL East. Atlanta fans should enjoy it while they can, because it probably won’t last.

But before we get to the bad, let’s look at the good. Three things have contributed to the Braves’ success thus far: pitching, pitching and pitching. Through the season’s first month, Atlanta’s pitching staff has compiled the lowest team ERA in the majors at 2.36. They’ve surrendered the fewest earned runs in all of baseball with 42 and allowed the fewest runs per game at 2.44. Braves pitchers have given up only 11 home runs — fourth best in baseball — and have issued only 45 walks — also fourth best in baseball. The staff’s combined performances have produced an eye-popping and MLB-leading team ERA+ of 171. And that’s with an unimpressive Tim Hudson and an awful Julio Teheran.

The Braves’ pitching is the main reason for their fast start in 2013, but their gaudy Win-Loss record overshadows some troubling figures. While Atlanta pitchers have kept opponents from scoring, Braves hitters have done little better. True, Atlanta has the best run differential in baseball at +33, but their 77 runs scored is a much less impressive 14th in the league, while the MLB average is 76. Moreover, 40 of those runs have come via the long ball. The Braves lead all of baseball in home runs with 29, but have shown an inability to manufacture runs inside the park.[1] The team batting average of .242 ranks 21st in baseball, while their 24 doubles are second to last in baseball.[2] They also strike out — a lot. In 18 games, Atlanta batters have struck out 161 times, fourth most in baseball.

That high power strategy has worked in the past. But if a team is going to rely on the home run, it needs to actually hit home runs. Atlanta’s two biggest power threats this season have been Justin Upton (9 HR) and Dan Uggla (5 HR). Uggla has demonstrated power, but dropped to only 19 home runs last season, down from his average 31. Meanwhile, Upton’s power has been inconsistent at best. In seven seasons, Upton has surpassed 30 home runs only once, and 20 home runs only twice. At 25, Upton is young and could develop into a serious power hitter, but Uggla is already 33. When those two don’t produce, it gets ugly for the Braves. In their five losses, the Braves have scored only three runs, been shut out three times and recorded zero home runs. It’s been feast or famine for Atlanta. Relying on the home run can win ballgames, but even Earl Weaver wanted three-run shots.

That one-dimensional offense might not be a problem if the Braves’ pitching staff can keep up their so-far stellar performance. One problem — they probably can’t. No doubt, Atlanta’s trio of Paul Maholm, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor have been dominant. But their peripheral stats suggest that their success is unsustainable. Each of the three has benefited from a lower-than-average HR/9:

Maholm: .3 HR/9 2013, .8 HR/9 career

Medlen: .4 HR/9 2013, .7 HR/9 career

Minor: .5 HR/9 2013, 1.1 HR/9 career

As hitters work out their early-season timing issues and the Atlanta weather warms up,[3] expect those numbers to rise closer to career averages.

Maholm, Medlen and Minor have also benefitted from some good luck. In addition to their low HR/9 rates, each pitcher also has a significantly below-career-average BAbip.[4] This discrepancy is more pronounced than the home run rate:

Maholm: .215 BAbip 2013, .309 BAbip career

Medlen: .256 BAbip 2013, .289 BAbip career

Minor: .269 BAbip 2013, .300 BAbip career

Some variance from those career marks can be expected, but a pitcher’s BAbip usually falls within a small range from season to season. The sabermetric community loves to toss around the phrase “regression to the mean,” and while it’s become somewhat cliché, it’s still valid. Barring some kind of dramatic change,[5] baseball players tend to play like they’ve tended to play, that is, close to their career averages. These figures — and especially Maholm’s — look like statistical outliers. That doesn’t bode well for Braves fans.

Right now, the Braves are the cream of the National League. But the stats suggest that that cream could quickly turn sour if the team doesn’t adjust to a regression. We’re barely a month into the regular season, and Atlanta has plenty of time to change their approach. But hoping that the wheels don’t fall off the Maholm-Medlen-Minor-mobile and praying the power stays on can’t be a long-term strategy. Otherwise it could be another long winter.

[1] And of those 29 home runs, 17 have been solo shots, 10 have been two-run home runs, and two were three-run home runs.

[2] They’re also one of only three teams left in MLB, along with the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays, without a triple.

[3] The warm air of late spring and summer provides less resistance against fly balls than does the cold, dense air of early spring.

[4] Batting average on balls in play. Essentially, the rate at which batted balls turn into hits.

[5] For example, a new hitting approach, bodily change, additional pitch or something that rhymes with “speroids.”


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