Monday, March 05, 2007
But alas, the Braves are trying once more rise from the ashes, which is a forlorn hope. I refer to the Braves as the Bland Empire and I think they fit the bill quite nicely. No team did more to kill fan enthusiasm about baseball in the 1990's than the Braves, a collection of dull, colorless players whose passionless, mechanical domination of the N.L. East made the game a big yawn. I don't believe that Braves domination of the N.L. East was the product of their manager's genius either. Perhaps the Braves were built less to win, than the rest of the N.L. East was built to lose. The Braves record looks a lot less impressive taking into account the incompetence in Queens, New York, that mired the Mets in the 1990s, as well as the parsimonious ways of the Phillies and Marlins. Throw the hapless Expos into the mix and you’d have to say that the Braves won those division titles partly by default all of those years. Tellingly, the Braves would flop in the playoffs each and every time. Oh sure, they played in the World Series a few times in the early ‘90’s* (1991, 1992, 1995, 1996), but they won just one ('95) and since 1996 have played in just one World Series – 1999 – where they were easily beaten by the Yankees. Year-in and year-out, they dominate the N.L. East, partly thanks to the unbalanced schedule, and then flame-out in the playoffs. It is hard to be impressed by that.
* I think one of the reasons why the media rallied around the ’93 Phillies was the fact that the Braves were such a dull team and the Phillies restored some luster and character to the game that the Braves were bleeding out.
The 2006 Braves went 79-83, their first losing record since 1990, when they went 65-97. The psychological impact of the collapse will be felt for a long time if the Braves can’t mount a comeback in 2007. Was 2006 the end of the Braves dynasty?
I. Offense. A team that once prided itself on doing every phase of the game right suddenly found itself behaving like a one-dimensional squad of slow-footed sluggers. The Braves led the N.L. in home runs with 222 and Isolated Power at the plate at .184, but finished dead-last in bases stolen with just 52. These aren’t the Braves of Terry Pendleton and Fred McGriff. Their fastest player was Edgar Renteria, who stole just 17 bases. They also hit just 26 triples, another sign of the Braves lack of team speed. Yes, the Braves scored lots of runs – 849, second in the N.L. to the Phillies – but they lack the balance they used to have. Seeing the Braves rely on home runs to win games strikes me as odd … I expect to see the Braves win a lot of 7-6 games in 2007 and lose as many by that score too, even without Adam LaRoche.
II. Pitching. The Braves of the 1991 – 2005 era followed a fairly easy to understand and uncomplicated formula for success. Three parts pitching, two parts fielding and a pinch of offense. It got them far, but the team’s problem is that their pitching staff is in shambles these days. The Braves got started when their trio of talented pitchers – John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and John Avery – matured and turned into a formidable rotation. After adding Greg Maddux to the mix, the Braves rode them to their … umpteen division titles in the 1990s.
The problem is that the Braves haven’t done a particularly good job replacing them. Avery is loooong gone, but so are Glavine (now a Met) and Maddux (now a Padre). Smoltz is still with the team, but he is getting long in the tooth and is the Braves best pitcher. He went 16-9 with a 3.49 ERA in 2006 (his FIP* ERA was almost right on the money at 3.46), and had a dominating season.
* 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).
After Smoltz, however, the pitching staff is a mess. Tim Hudson started 35 games like Smoltz, but went only 13-12 with a 4.86 ERA. Let’s not mince words here: Hudson was terrible. His strikeout / walk ratio was under 2-to-1. He surrendered 25 home runs, a career high. Never a strikeout artist, Hudson is a groundball pitcher who relies on his fielders to make outs. They didn’t, so Hudson suffered. When Billy Beane unloaded Hudson on the Braves rather than see him walk in free agency, pundits assumed that the Braves had gotten the better part of the deal, acquiring a Cy Young candidate for a few minor leaguers. Now, two years later, it looks like Bill Beane swindled the Braves, getting talent for an over-paid pitcher who needed a top-flight defense to be successful.
The rest of the starting rotation is a mess. Injuries forced the braves to go with rookie Chuck James as their third starter. Surprisingly, james went 11-4, but his 3.78 ERA masked a FIP ERA that is 5.16. Bottom-line: the Braves played very good defense behind James (.753 DER*), but that won’t be repeated in 2007. He’ll get shelled, often.
* DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.
The bullpen has been bolstered by the acquisition of Mike Gonzalez, a fairly arrogant move for the Braves. The deal, which sent talented first baseman Adam LaRoche to the Pirates, is the sort of deal teams thinking they can contend make. Gonzalez is a talented relief artist who saved all 24 games he could for the Pirates, surrendering just one home run in 54 innings of work. The problem is that Gonzalez is going to discover that his new team has as much use for his services as his old one: the Braves aren’t going to be handling Gonzalez leads to protect night-after-night, because they are going to be behind because their starting rotation is as porous. I can’t imagine the Braves improving on their 19-33 record in one-run games in 2006.
III. Fielding. It was a major surprise to me that the Braves defense profiled on as badly as it did in 2006. Atlanta’s .689 DER was .004 below the league average This team has Andruw Jones in centerfield. In 2006 Jones was +30, the second-best mark in the majors. Over in left field, Jason Lanerhans was +15, so this team has a lot of talent on defense and ought to have played better than they did. The problem the Braves have is that while their outfield defense is outstanding – the Braves +63 was the best in the majors by far – their infield was simply awful at a combined -48.
Edgar Renteria and Marcus Giles are an atrocious middle infield combination. The Red Sox made a savvy move by dumping Renteria after the ’05 season, another move that pundits applauded the Braves for making that turned out to backfire. Meanwhile, Chipper Jones is a shadow of his former self at third base.
I don’t see much hope for the braves to improve this season. Their infield returns intact, but for LaRoche, who might have been the strongest performer of the quartet. Their outfield is strong, but defense really starts in the infield.
IV. Outlook. I think most pundits are making the assumption that the Braves will improve on their 79-83 record and make a run at the Mets for the division title. I say they won’t. The sun has finally set on the Braves Empire. This is an aging team, with an ailing farm system, and a rotation that is thin and old. This team can’t keep up with the younger, more aggressive Phillies and Mets. The balance of power has finally shifted north. It was inevitable – all of the great empires of the world have risen, dominated the world and then fallen into the abyss … Rome, the Byzantines, the Aztecs, Venice, Spain, Sweden, Russia, Great Britain … all empires rise and then fall. It is inevitable. Now the Braves can fall into the abyss. It’s their turn.
Good call on Chuck James though--I remember the Phils rocking him last season.
Writing off the Braves as "bland" definitely set the pace for a jaded read. I'm an Indians fan and I'd gladly take the Braves success instead of cherishing our win way back in 1948. And to say that the Phillies brought life into baseball in 1993 because people were sick of seeing the Braves is far-fetched. The Braves had been to the World Series all of twice before then.
The Braves have 16 players on their 25-man roster this year that are under 30. The Phillies have 16 as well (excluding those not on the active roster). The staffs are identical so there goes the "Braves are old" argument unless you are in denial of your own team.
Rather than debunk anymore of this blog, I'll just take it as a fan getting excited about the 2007 season by trying to convince himself that other teams stink.
I thought the Mets were going to run away with the division this year. However, injuries and poor signings have evened things up.
The Phillies are not my enemy by any means (unless we meet in the World Series) but the NL East looks like the division to watch in National League.
I'll watch a Braves game here and there when my Indians aren't playing and they are on TBS. For that reason, I keep up with the NL East more than any other division in the National League.
The Braves beefed up their bullpen, but what about the Phillies? I heard they are still shopping Lieber and his 7.something-ish contract for bullpen help. The Braves blew 29 saves last year (2nd worst in the majors). I doubt that'll be the case.
Anyway, here's to baseball. I don't think anyone will be running away with the division like the Mets did last year. Also, the Marlins have the young squad and I wouldn't count them out.