Sunday, June 12, 2011

Beware of small sample sizes

The Atlanta Braves are currently on a 5-game win streak.  Over this time, they have outscored their opponents 24 to 11.  Over this time, the Braves' have been without three of their starting outfielders, Martin Prado, Jason Heyward, and Nate McLouth.  The Braves' offense has certainly been streaking, and it has people talking of if the Braves' offensive woes are in the past.

As a season progresses, even some of the worst offensive clubs have hot streaks where they could score an upwards of 40 runs in a week.  These runs are hardly ever sustainable, and over the course of an entire season these streaks even out to show a team's true talent level.

That being said, the Braves were projected to have one of the top offenses in the league.  With a combination of walks, hits, and timely home runs, they were in the top 5 in the National League just one year prior.  With the departures of Derrek Lee, Troy Glaus, Melky Cabrera and Rick Ankiel, combined with the additions of Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla and the return of Nate McLouth, the Braves offense was seen to increase in talent.  Through the first two and a half months of the season, the Braves have not shown that same talent level that was projected for them.

Will these past five games break them out of their funk?  Will they go on a roll and be on the top of the National League in runs scored as they should be?  I am optimistic that they will turn things around, but three games against the Marlins and two games against the Astros may just be the Braves playing a hot hand.  Temper your expectations because over a six month season, there is much more to see.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Rant...of Sorts

The next month for the Braves is rather indicative of whether they believe themselves to be true playoff contenders or pretenders hoping to blow up a team and start fresh.  There has been plenty of frustration going around knowing that the Braves were supposed to be a good team, possibly contending with the Phillies for the NL East crown.  The pitching surely has been superb and definitely in the talks for Top 3 in the NL.  The hitting, fielding, defense, and baserunning leave a lot more to be desired.  As I address in the post yesterday, there are quite a few things that they have to show to me in the next month to make me believe that this team isn't simply a product of an above average pitching staff throwing like an elite pitching staff.

The normal statements that I've received about the deadline that I've placed on the Braves are in the range of "They're only 3.5 games out of 1st and they're above .500."  This is fine.  In fact, I am proud that the Braves are playing well.  However, they are and have been hitting like they're supposed to be a sub-.500 team and they would be if the pitching staff didn't go on a tear through the first two weeks in May.  

My rant would go something like this.

My boss puts me in charge of a set of people and I begin to teach them things that were incorrect and I repeated those points despite the fact that they were incorrect.  My boss would not catch this right away because there would not be results showing that there were any problems that could be shown to be my fault.  However, after receiving the first quarter reports, he notices that the statistics he is given are not at all what they should be.  He notes it within my review, from the people that I've been put in charge of to train.

Regardless of whether I knew that I did the wrong thing or not, wouldn't I still be at fault for leading my employees down a wrong path?  In my opinion, within a business or within a dugout, these stories would be the same.  

Larry Parrish, the Braves' hitting coach, seems to have been preaching aggressiveness as stats have shown that many of the Braves' hitters have been more aggressively swinging at pitches that are out of the zone.  By swinging at pitches out of the zone, most hitters hitters do not strike balls as hard, leading to more groundballs, weak flyballs and popups.  This leads to a lower BABIP and has shown that while the Braves may be hitting some balls hard, they are still not taking the appropriate measures swing at the right pitches.  This comes right down to the hitting coach and staff to notice the wrong and fix it.  

Now, maybe Parrish and Fredi Gonzalez have not noticed it yet.  If they haven't, they surely aren't doing their jobs well.  Maybe they do not believe the sample size and think it is particularly bad luck, which pretty much also means they aren't doing their jobs well, or exhausting every possible method to figure out what's wrong.  In any case, it is hard to believe that, while nearly every single Braves hitter is performing under their projected numbers and their career average, there won't be any kinds of changes over the next month.  What changes may come, of coaching personnel or with a change in hitting philosophy, we'll just have to wait and see.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It's been a while...

It is not at all with enjoyment that I give this new blog post.

The Braves over the last month have gone from good to horrendous and their numbers show that they are one of the worst hitting clubs in the National League.  If it weren't for the pitching staff, who has been well above average for most of the yaer, this Braves' club would be bottom dwellers.

The season thus far isn't a complete loss, as they aren't too far out of 1st that it would warrant a "all hope is lost" kind of post.  However, there are a few things that the Braves need to do in order to get their cards in order.

1) Get healthy.  Jason Heyward, Tim Hudson, and Chipper Jones headline some of the Braves current minor injuries, though I currently do not have a lot of info about Huddy at the moment.  Brandon Beachy and Peter Moylan are also part of the injury club.  Moylan's injury has him out for an indefinite period of time.  Back injuries to pitchers can be career ending if not fixed correctly.  Beachy has his own problems with a strained oblique.  Quite a few players throughout the majors have experienced setbacks with this injury and the Braves do not want to miss Beachy for any more time than he's currently expected to be out for.

2) Hitting.  Before Jason Heyward went down with a shoulder injury, he was not showing the prowess that he showed us all in his freshman season.  It may be a sophomore slump, but it could also be the fact that he isn't correctly notifying the coaching staff, and thereby rehabbing, injuries.  Dan Uggla has also been a black hole in the line-up proving only the ability to hit at or below the Mendoza line.  The hitting outside of these two players is nearly as bleak.  Before this Sunday's game, the Braves' hitters had a .309 OBP. 

3) Coaching staff.  Something's gotta give here.  Fredi Gonzalez is receiving less and less fan support each day and his in-game decision making is proving to be maddening each day.  While this may or may not be something that Larry Parrish has preached, the Braves' hitters have been quite a bit more aggressive at the plate and their swing percentages across the board have been up.  If there isn't a change in coaching techique over the next month, the Braves will be further out of the division race before even All-Star break.

It's absurd to see such a good team struggling as much as it has, and if the struggles continue the NL East division will leave the Braves in the dust.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Team ERA in May

The Braves' rotation has gotten a few people talking thus far, including, but not limited to, the fact that their top four starters' ERA is better than the Phillies big 4 right now.  Many fans of the Braves like to use that as a stepping stone to say that the Braves are better than the Phillies.  It's hard to disagree with this results based analysis.  A Philly blog did the analysis, and while I don't disagree with the premise of his argument for his team, I think he's got a few holes that he does not address or may be wrong about.

1) Sustainability: If you're looking at this from an outsider's perspective, you see the names of Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt.  They are good-to-great pitchers, deserving their own designations, and they are going to be good-to-great when they are on the mound.  Barring potential injuries, which you can say for any team in any sport, they are a known factor and they've proven themselves before.  If you're looking at the Braves' rotation of Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, and Brandon Beachy, you may not know who three of those guys are.  The former two are 10+ year vets and have their own track records of where they've come from and how they will most likely do in the future.  However, looking at Hanson, Jurrjens, and Beachy, I wonder just how many baseball fans have no clue who they are or how long they've been in the majors.  In my opinion, as well as many within Braves' fandom, these pitchers are above average pitchers capable of greatness in any single night.  With limited track records, though, these three pitchers will continue to be looked at differently until proved otherwise.  And this is a rather dangerous thought, because these three names are ones you should want to know about.

2) Pitching depth: It sounds pessimistic to say so, but every team will have injuries in some area of their team.  Many teams carry extra arms so that they can have spot starters just in case one of their starters goes down.  In some cases, you can see an injury coming from a dangerous overly dramatic pitching technique.  In other cases, pitchers just break down and have to rest for a period of time.  Within the Phillies rotation, they use Joe Blanton as their 5th starter, have Kyle Kendrick (who was their 5th starter last year because they had nobody else), and something called a Vance Worley as pitching depth in their minors.  Yes, Kendrick has given the Braves some fits for some odd reason last year and this year, but overall last year, he gave the Phillies a very pedestrian 4.73 ERA in 10 starts.  Vance Worley is by all accounts not a bad minor league pitcher, giving the Phillies something around a 3.50 ERA between AA and AAA last year.  The guy is added pitching depth and that's all the Phillies can put on him at the moment, as his numbers do not seem to show him ready for any big league club right now.   

Looking at the Braves' depth, their 5th starter is Brandon Beachy.  Through 7 starts this year, he's given the Braves a sub-3.00 ERA and posting a little more than one strikeout per inning pitched.  The Braves next option is Mike Minor, who started eight games last year for the big league club, but was shut down after exceeding his previous innings high by over 60 innings.  In a pinch, the Braves would turn to him with no doubts that he could provide a good start or three without many ill-effects.  Next in the pitching depth, I would say that you could turn to 20 year old Julio Teheran.  Teheran made his major league debut against the Phillies on Saturday and proved that he had the stuff to make in the big leagues when the need for him arises.  He did not fail to impress me with the stuff that he had, but his command just wasn't there for the debut.  He will be a great option to turn to if one of the main starters needs a breather or goes down for an extended period of time.  If you dared to look deeper in the Braves' minor leagues, you could look at 5th starter material in Rodrigo Lopez who actually started 33 games for the Diamondbacks last year.

Overall, if the Braves lost a starter for a week or three (or for the season?) they could bring in a starter who is ready and capable of filling in and giving quality innings.  Philly fans themselves might find a hard time making up reasons for Kendrick or Worley to give good innings for an extended period of time, which is why the Braves show a club that is much more capable of handling an injury than the Phillies are.

My final thought about this debate, however, is that the Phillies big 4 will most likely have the better season.  Their track record shows that they are capable of sustaining themselves if healthy.  The Braves top 5 starters may very well be a step or two below the Phillies by the end of the season, but right now they are pitching to outduel each other every game and right now their ERA shows that they're doing better at keeping runs from crossing home.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Julio Teheran - The Dawn of a New Age

It doesn't feel like it should be just a normal Saturday.  Tonight, Julio Teheran makes his major league debut at Citizens' Bank Park against the Philadelphia Phillies.  He will be the youngest Brave making his debut since Steve Avery in 1990.  Because this will be his debut, though, there is a good chance there will be some jitters coming from the bright spotlight on him.  There is no doubt that Teheran has the stuff to make it in the majors, but the point that would need to be made is that the Braves would not even think about starting him on the road, against the Phillies no less, if they didn't think he was ready.

The Braves have developed quite a few really good pitchers over the last couple of years, including Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen.  It's an embarassment of riches, and looking at years down the road, they could have a rotation that could challenge the majors for top ERA as the Braves of the 90s have done.

This game is a can't miss tonight, and I will be tuned in for every minute of it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Umpires and instant replay

Last night I was talking with my friend, Kyle, who showed me BJ Upton's called third strike and subsequent tossing after vehemently arguing the call.  I looked at this video a few times and, looking at the called 3rd strike, I said concluded that this pitch was too close for Upton to take.  "Do you think it was a strike?"  I do think that with two strikes, every ball player is told that you're supposed to expand your zone and fend off the close pitches.  Upton went against that common teaching, and let that pitch go right on by.

Umpires are given a whole lot of flak when they call really close plays the other way, especially from fans whose teams are being robbed.  We have the amazing technology to slow down a play and show it frame-by-frame if we want to do so, and yet, as many people quizzically wonder, Major League Baseball continues to stay away from in-game instant replay, currently only employing replay during questionable plays at the end of games.

If we can see the plays almost instantly and see that an umpire is wrong in his live calling of a play, why don't we use everything we can to make sure that everything is 100% correct?  I wonder where you can even start here.  Do we allow managers to stop play and demand that a call be reviewed because they think it is wrong?  Do we employ some kind of system that the NFL uses (2 challenges, booth challenges during the final two minutes) or should we give this up to the game's umpires' discretions?

I don't have an opinion either way.  A game is 9-innings and many games could possibly come down to one play that is right or wrong.  I do know that Bud Selig is being very careful to not open a huge can of worms that he is showing too large for him to handle.  If baseball should further expand instant replay, where does it go and where should it even stop?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Francisco Liriano and some thoughts

As many people have heard, Liriano pitched a no-hitter last night.  It was far from a gem, and it was arguably the worst no-hitter in major league history.  Here are a few stats to chew on.  Francisco Liriano had the 2nd worst ERA going into his no-hitter in history with a 9.13 ERA.  He also had the lowest game score, an 83, of a pitcher who threw a no-hitter.  (Here is a link about Game Score if you do not know what it is.)  Finally he walked 6 batters and labored to 123 total pitches. 

He definitely had rough spots.  He was also very lucky.  He recorded 2 strikeouts, which means that he relied on his defense behind him to cover enough ground to record the other 25 outs.  Normaizing this start to the league average BABIP stats that 6 or 7 of those balls in play should have fallen for hits.  Of course, facing a team scuffling like the Chicago White Sox, who are also having a very unlucky time with their BABIP, Liriano's luck was somewhat justifiable.  

It wasn't pretty, but it was still a no-hitter, and the first of quite a few we will see this season.

In other news, the Braves' play a doubleheader, so I may have some thoughts going around about that later tonight or tomorrow.  Go Braves