Monday, April 10, 2006
I’ve said that I’ve always felt that the Braves were bland adversaries. Think of the difference between Hugo Drax in Moonraker and Goldfinger in … well, Goldfinger. Can’t remember Drax or Moonraker? Don’t worry, I’m one of the biggest 007 fans around and I can’t either because it was a fairly forgettable movie. Goldfinger on the other hand … there was a great villain. A great foil for Sean Connery’s 007, with great lines and a great scheme for world domination. Who can ever forget Goldfinger’s response to 007’s question about whether Goldfinger expected him to talk: “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
The Mets are Goldfinger. Great villains. They come from a city Philly loves to hate, and they’ve had irritating success (e.g., winning the 1969 World Series just after seven years of existence, winning the ’86 World Series on Buckner’s bobble, having zillions of dollars to spend every year). The Braves? Comparing Atlanta to Philly doesn’t make any sense: Philly is a northeastern city, while ATL is a sunbelt city. Sure, the Braves have dominated the NL East since the introduction of the three division format in 1995, but they’ve won just one World Series in that time and have seen the Marlins win two. Every year they win 90-ish games, win the division and flame out in the playoffs. It is a dull script, which is why the Braves are boring bad guys. Oh, and their fans are nice too.
Jeez, what’s to hate? (Okay, their GM is a jerk, but I'll get to that another day.)
The 2006 Atlanta Braves are a different version than the one we’ve grown accustomed to shrugging our shoulders at. Despite the addition of Tim Hudson and the decision to move John Smoltz back to the rotation, the Braves pitching looked pretty ordinary in 2005. Their FIP ERA* was just a little better than the Phillies (4.15 to 4.25). The much maligned Mets pitching staff posted a much better FIP ERA: 3.94. In fact, the Braves had the fourth-best FIP in the division. I ask this: if the Braves pitching is so much better than why are their numbers so poor?
* FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).
Defensively, I don’t see how the Braves improved or even stayed the same: they’ve replaced Rafael Furcal, one of the best shortstops in the NL with Edgar Renteria, who the Red Sox cut loose after one awful season. Furcal had a +26 Plus / Minus rating in 2005, while Renteria posted a -11 with the Red Sox. That is a swing of 37 plays and approximately 17-18 runs. Assuming that is accurate (the 17 runs), then the Braves 2005 ERA would have been 4.09 instead of 3.98 with Renteria at short (closer to their "real" FIP). Furcal also ranked ninth in turning double plays in 2005, while Renteria ranked 30th of 32 SS’s. How this change is anything except a disaster for the Braves is beyond me.
Overall, the Braves were a good defensive team in 2005, finishing sixth in plus / minus, but a lot of that was Furcal. Without Furcal, the Braves infield goes from -3 to -29, and their team defense from +47 to +23 (which would have ranked them thirteenth). Meanwhile, the Phillies have arguably upgraded the #1 defense in the MLB with the addition of Aaron Rowand and have suffered no major losses.
Offensively the Braves were a one-man show in 2005. Andruw Jones had 27% of their home runs (51 of 184) and 17% of their RBIs (128 of 733). When most of your offense is tied up in one player, you have a problem, which probably explains why they flamed out of the playoffs against the Astros. The Braves had better hope that Chipper Jones plays more than just 109 games in 2006, because they will not be able to score many runs unless they protect Andruw Jones a little more. We'll see if Chipper can even play in this series after his injury at the Giants yesterday.
The Phils, meanwhile, have four potential 100 RBI men in the lineup. Advantage, Phillies.
Bottom-line, the Phillies are deeper and stronger. Defensively and on offense there is little question that the Phils are better. I think the Braves vaunted pitching superiority is a myth too: Jon Lieber is an effective pitcher (please ignore opening day). He might not be as flashy or as well-respected as Tim Hudson, but look which player's 2005 FIP was better:
The Phils might have problems in the bullpen, but the gap between the Braves and the Phillies on the mound is smaller than people think.
Despite the Braves dominance, the Phillies have played them very well over the last three years: 29-28 (.509) … I see things moving in the Phillies way this season. Don’t believe the hype or the records going into this series. The Phillies are the better team. And we'll soon forget the Braves, just as we've forgotten about Hugo Drax.