As fun as it was to beat up on the Hector Noesis and Paul Maholms of the world, they are probably not a representative sample of what the Diamondbacks are going to have to face if they want to get back into the NL West race. Their 5-1 home stand came at the expense of two teams that are a combined 56-91, and they managed to avoid the aces of both teams. Obviously, the games all count the same in the standings, and it's not like the Dodgers and Giants are playing 162 games against the best teams in baseball either, but I'd feel far more confident saying that the Diamondbacks "have turned the corner" once they beat up on a team their own size. A team like the Braves, for instance.
For those that have somehow inexplicably forgotten one of the 75 or so previews I've written for this site, I painted a somewhat rosy picture for the Braves the last time we faced them. They looked pretty good at the time, and with a bunch of young talent on the team and on the way, it looked like they would only get better. As it turns out, however, baseball doesn't always work that way. As astonishing as it sounds, sometimes building around young players goes less than smoothly.
Since that series at Chase near the beginning of the season, the Braves have played almost perfectly .500 baseball, going 27-26. This stretch has included their talented 22-year-old shortstop going up the plate with one of those cardboard rolls at the center of wrapping paper rather than a bat 157 straight times without anyone saying anything. It has also seen one of the top pitching prospects in baseball go full Brian Matusz on them. The 2012 Braves haven't been bad, not by a long shot. But injuries and the foibles of young players have exposed them as just another contending team, nothing more, nothing less.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
If you haven't payed much attention to the Braves this year, you're probably a bit surprised to see such a high FIP from their pitching staff. At least, I'm basing that off the fact that I was surprised, and I haven't payed much attention to the Braves this year. This is, after all, the team that had about eight starters at the beginning of the season, and the best 7-8-9 bullpen combination in baseball last year. The rotation has been a particular problem, with an FIP of 4.32. Their rotation has struggled collectively with their walk rate, which is tied for fourth-highest in baseball.
- Michael Bourn is quietly on pace for his best season of his career, which is saying something, because Michael Bourn has been pretty awesome for a while. This is the first year he's really put everything together, with great defense (as measured by UZR, at least) along with solid contact and even some power, as his ISO is up noticeably this year.
- You know who are the problem children in this lineup right now? Brian McCann (OPS+ of 91), Freddie Freeman (OPS+ of 94). Before I started researching for this, if you had asked me who were the two best hitters on the Braves, I probably would have answered Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman. I would have felt smug about it too, like I was being clever for avoiding the Chipper Jones pitfall. I should really pay more attention to the Braves.
- Jason Heyward has always seemed like the Blu-Ray version of Justin Upton. It's the upgrade that no one really asked for to something already awesome, that makes it just a little bit better. Heyward's a little bigger than Justin, and a little younger, but he's fundamentally the same product. He's a mega-hyped prospect with a propensity for strikeouts and a tendency for extreme slumps and hot streaks. His struggles also bring out a certain "segment" of the fanbase, as evidenced by the comments on this article from the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
- He's also hitting .372/.411/.754 in June. Can't believe I left that part out.
- Who had Martin Prado as the best non-Ryan Braun LF in the National League going into the season? Anyone?
- After the team got fed up with Tyler Pastornicky, Andrelton Simmons, who is also 22, showed up to take his place. Pastornicky, Simmons, Freeman, Heyward, and SP Randall Delgado are all 22. I'm pretty sure the Braves put up a sign outside Turner Field saying "Pay Off College Debt + Cheap Booze Here," because there's no other reason a major league baseball team should have this many 22-year-olds just hanging around.
Insightful Commentary: I'm officially worried about Daniel Hudson. Yes, I know his BABIP is high, his strand rate is below normal, and his HR/FB is out of whack, but there's a little more to it than that. The velocity on his fastball has been down since his return, just a tick over 1 MPH, which isn't much in isolation. This wouldn't be terribly significant on its own, but his LD% has also shot up, from just above 19% in the last year and a half to 25% this season. The strand rate wouldn't bother me, except that it clearly bothers him when he gives hits with runners in scoring position, which, as Nick points out, can cause him to lose his composure a bit on the mound. If he still has an ERA over six when Saunders gets back, it's not unrealistic to suggest that he could end up in Reno.
With Mulder long since out of the league and Zito being Zito across the Bay, Tim Hudson is the only member of Oakland's old big three still pitching well. He never racked up a ton of strikeouts, and he certainly doesn't now with a declining fastball, but he throws a bunch of different pitches, doesn't walk many, and keeps the ball in the ballpark. It's been enough to give him an excellent career.
Insightful Commentary: I think Cahill's proven that he's going to have starts like that from time to time, starts where he gives up nine hits and six runs to the freaking Mariners. He didn't go walk-crazy like he sometimes does, he just had some poor BABIP luck and a badly-timed home run. Cahill's going to get hit when his sinker doesn't work, and even sometimes when it does, but the home run doesn't bother me at all. His numbers are still better than I could have hoped for at the beginning of the season, so I'll let a couple starts like that slide.
Tommy Hanson has been fine since coming up from the minors, but he seems to be going in the wrong direction. After producing a 3.33 ERA in 202 innings in 2010, he suffered through an injury-plagued 2011, and his walks have gone up and his strikeouts have dropped in 2012. He's still only 25, but his K-rate drop has been accompanied by a drop in his fastball velocity, so that's something the Braves are going to have to keep an eye on.
Insightful Commentary: Be honest, you just skipped to this section, didn't you? Well, there's really not much I can tell you about Bauer that you don't already know. You know about the otherworldly strikeout rate, and you know that it's accompanied by a thoroughly unsettling walk rate. But you also know that he has nothing left to prove in the minors, with a smooth 2.79 ERA in Reno of all places. No matter what happens, "Trevor Bauer" is going to be a name that we remember for a long time, either as a fantastic pitcher...or a cautionary tale about players who don't ever make good on the hype. It's going to be a fun ride.
Jair Jurrjens is not Trevor Bauer. Why are you even reading this? Ugh, fine, Jair Jurrjens has been a solid starter for the Braves since 2008, and was a great starter in 2009 and 2011. But he's been injured this year, and he's been frankly miserable when he's pitched. Those numbers are only in 24 innings, but any time you have a K:BB of just over 1, you probably aren't doing great for yourself.
Final Verdict: It's encouraging to see how evenly these two teams stack up, considering that the Braves have been a solid contender since the beginning of the season. Normally, with all else being equal, the deciding factor is the pitching matchups, but there are a whole lot of variables there as well. Who even knows. Find a coin, assign one team heads and one team tails, and call it in the air. Also, BAUER!
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(Stats via Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference)