Braves Pitching Roller Coaster Frustrates Fans, Highlights Indecisive Management
Saying Braves pitching this year has been erratic is being kind and Braves fans good reason to question some of management’s decisions. Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy were the only stable starters then Brandon Beachy’s aching UCL let go and he was lost for the season and part if not most of next.
As a quick review, here’s what the performance data looked like for the first three months of the season.
|June||3.13||1.168||4.55||1.482||4.80||1.378||2.03*||0.975*||* 2 games|
The infallible bullpen trio from 2011 was suddenly human again – well Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters were; particularly Venters who hasn’t been able to locate his sliders as well and left sinkers up in the zone to get crushed. Add these issues to a streaky lineup that left some good pitching performances unrewarded while supporting some not so good ones and it’s easy to see why fans expecting another division title challenging season are frustrated. Why management (GM Frank Wren, Manager Fredi Gonzales, and presumably pitching coach Roger McDowell) are acting like this is a surprise and seem unable to chose a course of action is not as easy to comprehend.
A quick recap for those who forget what happened last month, last winter etc. When the Braves feeble attempts to add a bat fizzled because horrible trades and contracts saddled the 2012 team with 11.5 million in sunken costs, the letter from John Schuerholz promising changes to prevent another collapse was completely forgotten. I suppose it’s forgotten, management doesn’t mention it and the traditional press hasn’t asked about it so I assume they have ADD and don’t remember it either. I don’t count Juan Francisco as an improvement because that acquisition was more about filling the GMs personal wish list than a need. Instead management renewed the drumbeat that Braves mythical pitching depth was back after injury so all would be well. Questions asked about progress from injury and poor spring training performance were brushed aside by the ‘don’t worry we have depth’ argument. That was of course just another head office fantasy. A far better assessment of the rotation would have been “hopeful that everyone is healthy, finds their arm slot, recover their lost velocity and doesn’t get injured.” But I suppose that doesn’t sell tickets.
Six starters fought for five jobs while their most dependable starter from 2010 (Kris Medlen) was relegated to long man along with Cristhian Martinez and late addition Livan Hernandez. The five starters who broke camp were anything but strong or dependable. While management brushed these issues aside they’ve turned out to be mighty important. Here’s a brief review
- Tim Hudson was coming off back surgery and while they expected him to be ready by May and he looked good in spring training, back surgery always leaves questions and durability.
- Hudson did recover completely and has been his stellar self, He is however carrying bone spurs in his heel that was a known issue last year. Surgery was not done because it would have hindered recovery from the more serious back issue. He’s missed one start already and had cortisone injections but that doesn’t eliminate the pain they cause. Huddy will pitch until he can’t of course, that’s his style. If the ‘he can’t’ period comes in August/September the impact will be severe. Hudson has become our defacto ace but he doesn’t match up well with other aces. I love Huddy but he’s a three.
- Hanson was okay in April but not near his best. May was awful by his standards however June’s seen him looking more like June 2011 Tommy again. He is still not the pitcher he was in 2010 but he’s considerably better than three months ago. Hanson’s pitching like a two. Lost 7-2-12 when the offense failed to show up.
- Jurrjens was awful. He was so awful that even his $5.5M contract couldn’t keep him on the team. A month in Gwinnett – where he might well still reside had Brandon Beachy not blown out his elbow – was not what he wanted. He felt “hurt” when the Braves sent Medlen down to be stretched out instead of recalling him. His two outings since returning have been very good. Although his velocity is 88 occasionally touching 89 his control has been as good as early 2011. Time will tell if he’s transformed himself into a finesse pitcher. In any event he can’t currently be considered a top of the rotation pitcher. He’s at best a three.
- Minor’s performance has been wildly unstable, good in April, horrible in May and back to okay in June. Minor never projected as a top of the rotation guy. He’s currently pitching like a fourth starter.
- Delgado is pitching like what he is; a young, rookie fifth starter. he has games where he looks like he’s figured it out and then the next start gets hammered and doesn’t last three innings. That would be fine if Minor and Jurrjens didn’t occasionally pitch that way as well.
Our rotation lacks an ace. We have a couple of twos, a couple of threes and a five. When the young arms in the rotation faltered in June, management decided to send Medlen down so he would be ready to start. Then one good outing from the two young arms made them change their minds and put him back in the bullpen. Now the same guys are faltering again and management is unable to decide if Medlen is the guy or these guys just need time to work it out. They should know this is what young pitchers do; one day brilliant the next just bad. They seem however, to be shocked when it happens. If they don’t know what the plan for our pitching is – let them grow and accept we aren’t winning this year or replace them and win now - how are the players supposed to know?
Young Rotations Do Not Win Championships
It is really that simple. Even with all cylinders firing it takes experience, maturity and mental toughness as well as good stuff to win. (Before you look it up and I know you will the 09 Giants ages were 25,26,32,27 and 20.) There seems to be a feeling among some fans that Minor, Delgado and to some extent Hanson and Teheran, should be pitching like Glavine and Smoltz; they are. . . well, sort of. Please understand comparing these guys in no way suggests equivalent talents, only similar stages of development.
In Glavine’s first full year he was 7-17 (led the league in losses) with a 4.56 ERA and a 1.352 WHIP.
Hanson has started in about the same number of games as Smoltz had after three years with the Braves. In his third year Smoltz was 14-11, 3.85, 1.280 while Big Red is 9-4, 3.59, 1.349.
Smoltz isn’t in any way a fair comparison to Delgado so I looked to see if I could find a 22 year old right handed that had started at least 10 games for the Braves between 1987 and 2003. Besides Smoltz I found one – remember that stat, I will be back to it. The starter was Pet Smith.
Here’s how Delgado’s numbers compare to the 1988 numbers for Smith.
In comparison to similar pitchers at similar ages, Minor, Hanson and Delgado don’t look that bad. In case you’ve forgotten, the Braves didn’t win anything in 87 or 88. Need more reinforcement?
It Has Always Been Thus
Lets look at some history. For the sake of this we’ll consider a pitcher successful if he starts 10 games a season and his record is over .500.
Between 1990 and 1999
- 1613 different pitchers had at least one season where they started 10 games
- 346 of those (21.5%) were aged 20-24
- 153 (18%) of the young pitchers had a winning season
- 82 won 10 or more – 30 of those lost 10 or more
(For all the sabre folks who don’t like the counting stats, I did similar comparisons with ERA and WHIP. The results were similar but I didn’t want to rewrite.)
Championship teams have pitching rotations heavy in experience and the knowledge that comes with it. Remember that between 87 and 2003 only one right handed 22 year old other than Smoltz made 10 starts for the Braves in a season? During the streak 1991-2005 the rotation never had more than one starter under 25 with 10 starts or more.
Except for Hudson, our rotation is very light on real experience. Tommy Hanson has 93 regular season games and one post season game, Jair Jurrjens has 121 regular season games while Minor and Delgado together have only 61. To challenge successfully this year with or without Brandon Beachy, the rotation needs a veteran arm and since we don’t have a true ace on the staff, that arm needs to be an ACE.
That’s A Wrap
Pitchers who win big before they’re 25 year old are rare. It takes time to learn how to do it at the very top. Our young arms – regardless of their projections and stuff – have to learn by doing or be taught by a good coach so they can practice on the field, what to expect and how to react. Our young guns were thrown n at the deep end and are pitching like it.
A championship rotation can live with one good young arm as their fifth man. Depending on more than that because of their projections is folly almost certainly ending in disappointment. If Braves leadership really believes we can win this year they need to do what it takes to make it happen. In order to win we need:
- At least one veteran starter; a number one starter.
- to rebuild a bench that’s so shallow a tadpole could drown in it and
- To get the right people playing the right position every day
If we don’t address those issue we’re not contenders, we’re pretenders.
Those moves will undoubtedly mean trades some will hate because their favorite guy is gone. Those same folks however want the Braves to be champions again. They want to chop and wave banners in October. They’ll be happy to applaud when their old favorite returns to the Ted as a visitor if there’s a new championship banner hanging in the outfield.