Thursday, July 25, 2019

Braves Playoff Chances: Win the Weekend or Panic

Hey all, it's been a while as usual in the summer. I've been in Vegas and on a cruise in July, so I'm settling back into a season where for the last month I heard about how great the Braves are, and how them making the playoffs this season is nigh-assured. This was coming from people on the radio, people in media, and people on Twitter.

Guess what?

We just dropped 2 games at home against the Royals. The Kansas City Royals. The Royals only had 37 wins coming into that series, which put them as the 3rd worst team in all of baseball. And they swept us in a 2-game series inside SunTrust Park.

Now, as you know I'm not one to react much about short term issues. I usually look at the season in 2-week chunks, not 2-game chunks. However, this is going to be one of those few times I'm going to panic just a bit. Here's why:

Let's go back a couple weeks to July 11th. The Braves were up 6 games on the Nats, with a chance over the next three weeks to absolutely bury them. They had series against the Padres (average), the Brewers (average), the Nats (a tick above average), and the Royals (terrible). The expectation over that lineup with 12 games is to do better than .500 baseball. Instead the Braves went 6-6, and dropped two of those games against the worst team.

So why does that worry me? Because the Nats went 8-4 in that stretch and closed the gap now to 4 games back. The Nats get the Dodgers at home while we take on Philly this weekend, and then it's another heads up for the last time with the Braves until September. The Braves have one last big chance to strike now and take out most of the division, putting their foot on the throats of their enemies.

And yet, we have so many concerns on the pitching side. Nobody really knows what's going on with our rotation. We have Keuchel, Teheran, and Soroka. After that? It gets really suspect really fast. Sure Gausman came back and has been good once, but I can hardly use one outing as the yardstick when he was terrible earlier in the year. Fried? Yes it was good to see him come off injury and have 5 innings of shutout ball against Milwaukee, but before that his ERA was spiraling up quickly and now cresting over 4.00. Is that good? This year probably, but it's not exactly awe-inspiring if you compare him to pitchers of a year ago.

We're seeing a fairly rapid rise of ERAs in the league from an average of 3.96 in 2015 up to 4.49 right now. The last time it was up in the 4.50 ERA range as a league average was 2006-2007 before the league put the complete kibosh on the steroid era of baseball. And yet, it's happening again with rumors of the balls being juiced, and pitchers publicly declaring shenanigans. I'm hearing those 10 year old excuses cropping up again. Players are better conditioned! Players try to hit the ball hard all the time now! It's an approach thing!

Something's up my friends. You don't just jump in ERA that much for no reason. Home runs are up everywhere in the league and balls are flying out of parks with 400 footers becoming regular occurrences. That brings me back to the concerns with the Braves. If we don't have good answers for 2 of our rotation spots, or they don't firm up fast, we're ultimately reliant on the bullpen to solve problems when they can't get into the 6th inning. And from what I've seen of bullpens, everyone's is an absolute trainwreck.

No, we need to stop the bleeding here. Don't let the Nats get their foot in the door. Let's sweep the Phillies and hope the Nats take a beating from the Dodgers. Put a 6 game lead back on them, then take 2 of 3 on the road head to head. With 8 games up and no head-to-heads for a month, I think the Nats will start to wither and die.

But if the Braves lose to the Phillies and the Nats pull within a couple of games coming into town? You're going to start seeing people panic, and that's what I want to avoid.


Friday, June 7, 2019

Braves sign Dallas Keuchel

Usually when the Braves are reportedly interested in a high-priced player, that report is completely wrong. The Braves are notoriously tight-lipped about their agreements, and they love to fly low under the radar.

This signing of Dallas Keuchel is the exception. I had heard from recent reports on Twitter that it was down to the Braves and the Yankees as possible candidates, which usually means that the Braves aren't really in the ballgame since the Yankees toss around cash like a trust-fund baby in South Florida.

HOWEVER, there's always the exception to the rule, and this time the Braves are the beneficiary of that exception. Dallas signed a deal with the Braves for a reported $13M, which is just over $21M prorated for the remainder of this 2019 season, after which he becomes a free agent again.

In my mind there's two reasons why the Braves structured the deal that way. First, it allows Keuchel to save a little face, because he rejected a $17.9M qualifying offer from the Astros, and subsequently will make less money to pitch this year. But with the Braves structuring it as a $21M deal, he can say he was worth more than the qualifying offer because the deal was actually prorated for less service time. That's a mental hurdle the Braves had to clear because Keuchel went out on a limb and got burned by the market.

The second reason the Braves structured the deal this way is because they only need Keuchel for this year. The starting pitching is stacked behind the current guys we have in the majors, and the Braves had a stop-gap solution in Kevin Gausman that simply didn't work. With Gausman a bust, they needed another mid-line starter to fill in the gaps, and possibly pitch in the playoffs. The rotation now would be Soroka, Fried, Keuchel, and Teheran in the playoffs. With Folty pitching the way he is right now, I don't think he would get a start in any series, but he's currently the 5th guy during the regular season.

Now, the Braves have to wait for Keuchel to get ready, which is the big concern. With this much time off, will Dallas be as effective as he would be with a full spring training behind him? The Braves will send him down to AAA to work things out, and I would expect to see Keuchel just before the All-star break given about 2-3 weeks to prepare.

The other questions is that at 31 years old, will Keuchel still have the same stuff that won him a Cy Young award in 2015? In 2018, he showed that he was a horse who could pitch tons of innings with a respectable 3.74 ERA, but he gave up more hits than he's ever allowed in his career, and his WHIP was the highest it had been in 4 years.

As a pitcher, he's a 4 pitch guy (Fastball, Slider, Cutter, Change), with the emphasis on his Cutter and Slider as his out pitches. He needs ground balls because he's not a blow-you-away guy with velocity (the Fastball is around 90). He's going to change speeds, mix up pitches, and dazzle you with an array of looks in the hopes the batter will roll over into a double play. When he's at his most successful, the walks are down, he's confusing hitters and he's keeping the ball in play in the ballpark.

Overall, if the Braves get the 2018 version of Keuchel, that's great and we can use it to make the playoffs. If they get the 2015 Cy Young version of Keuchel, they could easily have a piece that would help them battle to win a World Series. It's that simple.

The best part of the move, like many Alex Anthopoulos has made, is that it's a short term low risk gamble. One year deals are becoming the norm in baseball for older athletes because younger GMs have learned they are no longer in the steroid era of baseball. You can't pay a guy until he's 40 and think that's a good deal anymore. That's why Keuchel was on the market so long. He wanted an unreasonable amount of years that no MLB team was willing to give him.

Instead, now he's a rental player on a team that may be in the best position to win the NL East.


Thursday, May 30, 2019

Braves can win this division - Post-Memorial Day Review

Yes, the Braves lost two games to the Nats, and just got their butts handed to them in the final game 14-4. I'm aware that making a blog post declaring that we can win this division on the heels of beat-down might seem asinine. However, I'm the person who tells you not to be a prisoner of the moment when it comes to this team, or baseball in general.

I've settled into a pattern with this blog of being able to do a post about every 15 days. There are two reasons. One, I'm always busy now, and two, I really think you get better analysis from me when we don't look at the team in day-by-day chunks.

What I've seen over the past two weeks is that Austin Riley is a complete stud who is knocking the cover off the ball early. He's hit 7 homers in 14 games, and has an OPS over 1.10, which is frankly ridiculous. He'll never be able to keep that pace up and we all know it, but this looks like a kid with a great ceiling. I'm the person who will tell you not to freak out over a rookie, but it's hard to stay mentally balanced when the kid is jacking balls all over the yard and hitting .375 to boot. It's not like he's all power either, he's got 12 singles to go with his 7 homers and 2 doubles. It's impressive.

Meanwhile the pitching got a lot better than where we started this year. The staff is in the top half of ERA for the season now, and in the month of May the Braves are 10th, even including the debacle last night. Also keep in mind that the bullpen was almost dead last in April in ERA, and they've moved out of the cellar into a not-respectable-yet-but-trending-up 20th in the league on the season.

You basically have these pitchers who are functional right now as starters:

Mike Soroka is amazing with about 50 inning pitched and an ERA approaching 1.00
Max Fried has an ERA of 3.19 and is cruising along in most of his starts
Julio Teheran is functional currently as much as it pains me to say it since I can't stand him

That's pretty much it. Kevin Gausman just got lit up for 8 runs so that's going to sting, but he really hasn't been amazing this year since at all anyway and I think we need a better option from the younger talent. Also Mike Foltynewicz shows promise coming off his injury but he hasn't done enough to say he's functional yet.

That means we have 2 pitchers I can trust right now, a possible 3rd, a 4th that's coming along, and we need a better 5th line guy in the rotation. The good news is that is like most teams in the league. However, most teams in the league aren't as good offensively as the Braves. If you look at the runs scored this year the Braves are 14th. Slightly above average, but that's at the MLB level, what we care about is the division.

Once you consider the fact the Braves play 76 of their games against the NL East, and when you compare the NL East in scoring against the Braves? The Braves are in second place behind Philly with only a 6 run deficit. That's nothing. Offensively the Braves are neck and neck with the Phillies with only one game more played, and they are better in average, OBP, slugging, and OPS than Philadelphia. When you look at pitching, same story. Second in the division behind Philly slightly by about 0.19 in ERA.

What does that mean? Obviously it adds up to the fact that in the standings we're 3.5 games back of the Phillies who have played better than us so far, and those 3 games are essentially the sweep the Phillies handed us head-to-head early in the year. What gives me hope is the home records. Atlanta is 14-14 at home, and Philly is 20-10. If the Braves can improve their home record slightly, they are good enough on the road to win this division.

Also take note, the team with the best road record in the NL East has won the division every single year since 2014. Right now, even though the Braves are behind in the standings, they have a better road record at 16-12, than the Phillies at 13-12. If that trend continues, I think the Braves can win this division because they've played well on the road since last year. This young team really travels well, and eventually we know the home wins come along.

With the offensive talent, and enough pitching, I don't think the NL East is anything special this year, and I think the Phillies are easily catchable. The Braves will have a race on their hands, and the next few head to head games will really matter when we see Philadelphia again in mid-June.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Mike Foltynewicz's Slider is the problem, and he's likely still hurt

Something is very wrong with Mike Foltynewicz. If you've watched his major league starts at all in 2019, since coming off what was described as "right elbow soreness" initially, you've noticed that very little of the All-Star caliber pitcher from 2018 has translated to the field lately.

Folty has pitched 21 innings in 4 games and has an ERA over 8.00. Those are the simple numbers so I like to look a little deeper to see where the problem lies. For that we head into a few advanced statistics I like.

In terms of pitchers with more than 20 innings pitched this year, there are 193 qualifying players. Of that 193, Folty ranked 189th in WAR (Wins Above Replacement). In fact, his negative WAR of -0.6 in such a short amount of time is indicative that almost anybody else could have pitched instead of Folty, and the Braves would have had a better result.

This is a HUGELY different WAR than what Folty posted in 2018 when he was 20th in WAR out of 140 pitchers that pitched more than 100 innings that season. That's not even the same person really. What does that tell me? Something is still wrong with his arm or his mental game.

Missing spring training can throw a pitcher off for sure, but usually those pitchers don't get more than 20 innings of work during the spring. As an example in 2018, Folty only got 16 innings of work in the spring, and he was excellent for the year. In my mind, having 20 regular season innings is enough to be "prepared" for the regular season and not screwing around with morale-building double-talk which belies the performance on the field.

The numbers get worse when you dig deeper. Folty is giving up 3.38 HR/9, 3.38 BB/9, and only 5.58 K/9. The walks are fairly consistent with his 2018 numbers, but the K's are almost 3.5 lower per 9 innings, and the Homers have increased by 2.5 per 9 innings. He's not striking out people and he's giving up bombs left and right.

What's the reason? His slider is way off. In 2018, it was his most effective pitch, and the pitch he could go to for outs, coming off a 96 MPH fastball. In 2019, it's getting killed. His Slider Runs against average is a -4.5 in 2019, where in 2018 it was a +22.9. You know what you can't do when your elbow is hurting? Throw a slider well.

My feeling is he's still hurt and not admitting it at all, but the lack of effectiveness of that Slider is what's turning 2018 All-Star Mike Foltynewicz into 2019 probably shouldn't be pitching on an MLB roster Mike Foltynewicz. I'm hoping he either heals up fast, admits he needs to take time off to fix it, or the Braves realize what needs to happen and decide it for him.


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Braves beat Padres 3-1, Bullpen looks amazing for once

If you watched disappointing Colorado series where the bullpen imploded in the 9th inning and gave up 5 runs, you probably stopped watching the team for a little while out of pure unadulterated rage. I fully support taking a break from MLB when you need a mental health day.

However, the Braves came storming back over the last two games, including the win last night 3-1 against the Padres. Mike Soroka looked great in his start, going for 6 innings and 81 pitches with only 1 earned run. Many would say that with the bullpen struggles, Snit could have left him out there for the 7th with only 81 pitches, but he made the call to go to the pen...

And it was the right call. Enter Tomlin, Blevins, and Webb. Josh Tomlin is a 34 year old 9 year vet coming off a deal in Milwaukee that the Braves picked up March 21st. He's pitched sporadically so far with only 8 appearances on the year. Against the Padres, he was stellar with only 1 hit allowed in 2 innings. Blevins came in next and allowed absolutely nothing. He is a lefty the Braves picked up from the A's on a trade for cash about two days ago. Lastly Jacob Webb, a 25 year old who only has 6 appearances this year came in for the save. Webb has given up absolutely no runs and one hit in his appearances over 3.2 innings. I can say he looked very impressive and I like the fact he's becoming a late inning option. We'll see how he develops as hitters get more looks.

The Braves offense was very ho-hum with the exception of two guys. First in one of the weirdest plays I've seen in a long time, Mike Soroka bunted a ball as an intended sacrifice to move Johan Camargo to second base, but the Padres ended up throwing the ball not just past the second baseman, but past the center fielder as well. So Soroka ended up with what we dubbed a "Little League Triple" on Twitter, and the Padres managed not one but TWO errors on the same play. That scored the first run, and then Ozzie knocked in Soroka with a single.

Ozzie stole the show offensively with another run in the 5th as he hit a 401 foot homer into the left field stands, on a pitch I'm honestly not sure how he kept it fair or hit it out. It was very low and he was off balance but it was way gone. Ozzie is emerging as one of the best hitters on the team.

Side note, Ender pulled up lame early when running to first base, and had to be replaced by Camargo. No word yet on what the issue is but from reading lips he said he didn't hear a pop so I'm hoping everything is just a DTD issue. He needs a day off anyway so maybe we'll see him before the weekend.


Monday, April 22, 2019

Good, Bad, and Ugly: Braves First 20ish Games

I like to recap the team after every 20 or so games because I think that provides a proper barometer on what we've seen so far. If you're taking in baseball in less than 20 game chunks, I think you're going to draw some insane conclusions based on the roller-coaster that is day-to-day baseball. In fact, 20 games is probably insane to draw conclusions from as well, since I think 40 might be more accurate, but I'm a blogger not the Farmer's Almanac. I don't think that far out.


  • The Offense - Wow, who saw this coming? Through 20-something games the Braves actually have the 5th ranked offense in the MLB per Fangraphs, and they 6th in total runs scored. That's a good sign for the mix of young and old that we have on the team. After all, offense is what gets you to the playoffs. However, pitching is what wins when you get there.
  • Ronald Acuna - Dude's not just good, he's en fuego. Acuna is hitting everything well, and the stats back it up. You want average? He's hitting .307. You want Slugging? He's slugging .600 on the year so far. Plate discipline? He has almost a 15% walk rate to a 25% K rate. Fangraphs has him 7th in WAR among hitters, and almost 90% of his balls are hit medium or harder. Acuna doesn't know what a weak contact bloop looks like. He's ripping stuff.
  • Max Fried - One of the only pitchers we can count on right now, Fried looks like the young stud we were all hoping for when we traded all the 2015 players for magic beans. Fried is 3-0 with an ERA of 1.38, a ground ball rate that's 5th in the league (ground balls don't leave the yard so that's good), and he's striking out over 6 guys every 9 innings. I like everything about the kid so far, and hope he can stay healthy long term.
  • The Pitching - Pretty much everyone that's not Fried in the starting rotation isn't getting the job done well. Teheran has an ERA over 5.50 and we all know I think he should be shipped off to Siberia. Kyle Wright got blown up in his 3 starts, Sean Newcomb was so bad he was shipped off to AAA, and Kevin Gausman is functional but got shelled in his one game against a decent team (The Mets). Also Touki Toussaint looked good until he didn't and gave up 7 runs in Cleveland.
  • The Walks - The Braves are #1 in the league in giving up walks. That can be really bad news, but not always. In 2018, the teams that gave up the most walks were the White Sox, the Braves, and the Cubs. The White Sox lost 100 games. The Braves and the Cubs won 90+ each and made the playoffs. Why were the White Sox so bad while the Braves and Cubs were successful even giving up that many walks? Because the Braves and Cubs gave up less than 1 HR per 9 innings, and they stranded runners at a 74% or higher rate. The White Sox gave up 1.23 HR per 9 and stranded runners at a dead last 63%.
  • Giving up Homers - Case in point about why the walks worry me, the Braves are giving up 1.31 HR/9 right now, and that's a cause for concern. If you walk tons of people and you're giving up more than a homer a game? You're giving up multiple run homers at that point, and that causes you to lose games in the long run.
  • Pitching Injuries - Folty is still hurt, Vizzy is hurt, Venters is "hurt" because he's terrible, and Darren O'Day is still hurt and hasn't even played a game yet. All of this is bad because we are desperate for decent pitching right now. Why? Because...
  • Bullpen - Good lord the bullpen is wretched. Terrible. Awful. Abysmal. I predicted bad, they went beyond bad and landed in some circle of bullpen Hell I wasn't aware had a zip code. How bad is it? In 80 innings, the bullpen has an ERA of 4.71, and that seems generous to how they look on TV. In 10 wins, the bullpen only has 3 saves, and 3 blown saves. They have a -0.5 WAR according to Fangraphs, which is 27th in the league. The bullpen gives up 5.5 walks per 9 innings, worst in the majors. They give up 1.57 HR/9, 7th worst in the majors. I could go on, but you have eyeballs and you've seen it.
What does this all mean? If we can score, score a ton. No lead is safe in my book. Let's just try to put 8 on the board every night and hope the bullpen can get it over the plate while keeping it in the yard. Also, can we please get Folty back? I need some more solace in my everyday starting rotation.


Friday, April 12, 2019

Braves sign Ozzie Albies to 7 year extension for $35M

Much in the same way I was in favor of the Ronald Acuna deal for allowing him to have security over his finances for the long-term, I'm in favor of the Albies deal because to him it had long-term value that will allow him to be a millionaire for the rest of his life.

Remember, value is in the eye of the beholder. Fans generally hate to see the local free agent guy bet on himself, leave the local team, and take as much money as he can from the Yankees or the Red Sox. Time and time again I see people complain on social media, burn jerseys, or boo the player for taking the big deal in another town.

Yet, if a guy takes a seemingly lesser deal for financial security? Fans freak out and say he left money on the table, what was he thinking? I'm not like that. I see a contract for Albies that makes total sense for him and his family. He's taking a long term insurance policy of $35M that is fully guranteed against all injuries, bad play, and unforeseen circumstances.

Could Albies if he's a complete amazing talent over the long haul make more money? Of course, but the likelihood that he could struggle or get hurt is just as prevelent. And let's not forget that Albies size would be an issue on the open market at some point. As much as Braves fans love the kid, he was only a .757 OPS hitter in 2018 even with 24 homers. I also have to figure that 24 homers is an anomaly for a 2nd baseman that hit only 31 in his entire minor league career.

Julio Teheran took a similar deal when he was 23, and got $32.5M over 6 years. People questioned the deal then, but I think if you look at Teheran's lack of great play over that contract, he made the right decision. If Teheran had bet on himself, he wouldn't be set for life on his first major contract deal. He made the call to take the sure thing, and it paid off. One of the few times you'll see me credit Teheran for anything.

I'm not saying Ozzie will fail or he will succeed. What I'm saying is that $35M is still more money than most people will ever see in a lifetime, and it's enough to never worry about money ever again. For a kid out of Curacao whose father passed away recently from a heart attack in 2013? Ozzie knows that life is short and that he's the patriarch of his family now. People look to him to secure not just his legacy but the family as well. It was important for him to take the deal so he did.

On the surface it's also a great deal for the Braves because it locks up a long term talent. If Ozzie plays well it's a great contract for them. If he plays poorly it's essentially going to amount to one year of Josh Donaldson when they want to write it off. I say good for the management team figuring out what was important to both Acurna and Albies and make the appropriate deals.

I like where the future of this team is heading.