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Series Preview #41: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Atlanta Braves

This is not how it was meant to happen.

After getting to watch a pitching staff that was anchored by three probable Hall of Fame candidates in John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine for much of the '90s and early '00s, Braves fans should have to suffer for a little while. Obviously, if they see good pitching again immediately, they'll get spoiled and lose perspective on how good the Big Three actually were. And besides, it's only fair that they should have to take their turn in mediocrity, right?

Wrong, evidently.

The 2011 Braves have a team ERA of 3.43. That's not luck, either, according to their team FIP of 3.43 and xFIP of 3.49. They've assembled an eye-popping assortment of young pitching, including Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor in the rotation, and Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty to anchor the back of the bullpen. There's more on the way, as well, with Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran--both of whom were in Baseball America's top 40 prospects entering the season--either lurking in the minors or easing into the majors. That is simply an embarrassment of pitching riches, and while they might not have the same name recognition as the Phillies rotation, I have a feeling that everyone will know these pitchers very well in the next few years.

So, yeah, not really a welcome reprieve after watching this team spend 26 of its last 27 innings flailing at Philadelphia pitching.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

Hitting (wRC+): 95 93
Pitching (FIP-):
100 91
Fielding (UZR):
52.9 -25.7 Arizona

As I may have already mentioned, the Braves' strength is their pitching, and their bullpen pitching in particular. The Braves' bullpen has an FIP- of 82, which translates to an FIP of 3.11 and an ERA of under 3. For the sake of perspective, the D-Backs have only two relievers--David Hernandez and Joe Paterson--with an FIP under 3.11. While bullpens are more prone to fluctuations than any other aspect of a baseball team, the Braves bullpen right now is the safest bet in relief by far.

In particular, pay attention to closer Craig Kimbrel and primary set-up man Jonny Venters. Kimbrel has the lowest FIP in the majors at 1.28, and no one else is particularly close to catching him. And all Johnny Venters has done this year is strike out over 10 batters per nine innings while maintaining a HR/9 of 0.16.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Willie Bloomquist, SS
2. Ryan Roberts, 3B
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Chris Young, CF
5. Miguel Montero, C
6. Kelly Johnson, 2B
7. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
8. Gerardo Parra, LF

Atlanta Braves

1. Michael Bourn, CF
2. Martin Prado, LF
3. Brian McCann, C
4. Dan Uggla, 2B
5. Freddie Freeman, 1B
6. Chipper Jones, 3B
7. Jason Heyward, RF
8. Alex Gonzalez, SS

Like the Phillies, the Braves also pilfered a talented outfielder from the Astros at the trade deadline, as Michael Bourn brings his 112 OPS+ to the leadoff spot in Atlanta. He's best known for running really, really fast, but he also managed to accrue an OBP of .363 this season while everyone was watching him run. Martin Prado has been a part-time player at a couple of different positions, but a guy who can give you an average OPS as a platoon player while manning multiple positions is a nice luxury to have.

Catcher Brian McCann might just be one of the most underrated players in baseball. He's a 27-year-old catcher who is an excellent defender and has a career OPS of .852. If the Braves ever make some noise in the playoffs, everyone will start talking about how McCann is the glue that holds the team together, and he will instantly become overrated. I'm giving you a chance to like Brian McCann before he becomes popular. Seize that chance.

Unfortunately, Dan Uggla's recent hit streak has propelled his OPS back above average and out of the depths in which it resided before the All-Star Break. I say "unfortunately" because it torpedoed our only chance of not hearing Diamondback announcers refer to him as "Former Diamondback Rule 5 draft pick Dan Uggla." Freeman and Heyward represent the future of the Braves' lineup, as both are only 21. Freeman has hit well, but Heyward has struggled this year, posting only a 93 OPS on the season. It's gotten so bad lately that he has been has been splitting time with Jose Constanza, who once did this in a professional baseball game. Personally, I expect Heyward to carve a 2011 Justin Upton-esque swath of destruction through the National League next year to silence his doubters. Dude's good.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday: Daniel Hudson (12-8, 3.76) vs. Derek Lowe (7-11, 4.89)

Insightful Commentary: Hah! And you were worried about Daniel Hudson.... Ok fine, so we all were, but it was good to see him post the sort of line we've come to expect from him, as he went 8 innings and gave up only 1 run against the Mets. The recent dip in strikeouts is still a concern, but it was a very nice start after he posted some concerning numbers for about a four-game stretch.

On the surface, it looks like Father Time is finally catching up to 38-year-old Derek Lowe, as his 4.89 ERA is his highest mark since 2004. On the other hand, it seems like he is just getting unlucky, as his BABIP is well above his career average. Lowe is actually above his career K/9 mark, and he is getting the same percentage of ground balls as he has the last few years. I suspect that he's still the same old sinkerballer we know and are ambivalent towards, just with a bit of bad luck on batted balls.

Saturday: Wade Miley (0-0, 0.00) vs. Brandon Beachy (5-2, 3.43)

Insightful Commentary: I'm not the prospect maven that some on this site are, so I'm probably not the best person to tell you about Wade Miley's debut in the rotation. I do know that he managed a 3.64 ERA while playing his home games in the Biggest Little Anti-gravity Chamber in the World. I also know that that 3.64 ERA was belied by a 2.98 FIP and K/9 of over 9 in 8 starts at Triple-A, so it's difficult to argue that he hasn't earned the role.

Brandon Beachy came more or less out of nowhere this year, seizing a rotation spot after an injury. Somehow, he just happened to end up being amazing. He's not yet 25, has an FIP of 3.61 and has a K/9 of almost ten. It's official: the Braves are that girl who always shows up to social events wearing the perfect outfit and claiming that she just found it lying the back of the closet and thought she'd try it out*. The Braves found a little-used Brandon Beachy lying in the back of their closet and thought they might let him pitch a little. It just makes you mad.

*This is probably the least-manly metaphor I've used in the history of Series Previews.

Sunday: Josh Collmenter (7-7, 3.47) vs. Tim Hudson (12-7, 3.13)

Insightful Commentary: Josh Collmenter has kept having success long after pretty much everyone expected him to stop having success. Part of that is the arm angle, of course, but I suspect that part of it is the development of the curveball. It seems like he's been throwing it more frequently, in less-likely counts and with more success in his last few starts. The knock on Collmenter as a starter is that he only has two reliable pitches. If he could become a three-pitch starter, while changing speeds and using the deception of his delievery, he has a chance to stick as a starter.

Tim Hudson just keeps chugging along, and he is actually having one of his better seasons at age 36. His strikeouts are up, his walks are down, and that ERA would be the lowest since the Oakland years if he's able to maintain it. His BABIP is a bit low at .254, but his FIP of only 3.47 suggests that there isn't too much to worry about.

Final Verdict: The Braves are a good team, and these pitching matchups make me a bit uncomfortable. There's also the issue of fatigue to consider, as the D-Backs are just now en route to Atlanta as I write this. It will be very telling to see how this team responds to being exhausted and exposed on the pressure-cooker of East Coast series with playoff-level intensity. For now, I'm going to be conservative and say Braves two games to one.

Talk about the Braves over at Talking Chop.

All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.