In recent years when we talked about strikeouts we were usually talking about the efforts of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. Unfortunately, while the bullpen had another big strikeout year the lineup itself had a bigger one. Those Ks and not a horribly miscalled infield fly rule or a couple of unfortunate errors were the primary reason the Braves didn’t win the division and avoid Bud’s one game, NFL envying (I’ll explain in another post – keep reading) death match. As a team the Braves were 13th in the league with 1289 Ks and while the Nationals had 36 more and finished were 14th (1325), they also had 120 more hits, 31 more runs and 45 more home runs in 190 more at bats. The league average for a team was 1238. When you look at just our regular starters including composites for catcher and shortstop, you’ll see that the Braves fielded five players with over 110Ks this year. When one of those is your leadoff man/catalyst and the other four are relied upon to be your main RBI producers, the probability that RISP will not turn into runs increases and that’s really the story of the season.
I’ve said a few times in this past season that the lineup lacked balance. I was asked to explain in 140 characters or less and apparently wasn’t able to so let me try again. A balanced lineup includes many facets.
- The players must be capable two way players – at least ion the NL where the DH is thankfully absent – who can catch and throw the ball as well as produce offensively.
- The ability to hit right and left handed pitchers successfully.
- An offense that puts balls in play has men who put the ball in play and are hard to strikeout as well as those that can pop one into that stands when a team needs it. If you’re fortunate you find men who do both; Miguel Cabrera, Martin Prado. Chipper Jones.
The first point wasn’t a concern in 2012. Even though errors cost The Braves a chance to win in the death match game, for the year they were one of the best defensive teams in baseball.
While bashing lineups with lots of Ks are explosive they can also go ice cold all at once. That inconsistency means they seldom win championships. In general terms a balanced lineup won’t have more than two key run producing bats with big strikeout totals. For all the talk of how 100+ strikeout men are now an accepted part of the game, only those who produce runs and get on base consistently seem to have much longevity because the rest create potential black holes in the lineup.
As a Braves fan you already know our much publicized struggles against left handed pitchers, The Braves slash when facing lefty starters – .241/.305/.363 – works out to a 12th/12th/15th positional slash compared to a 9th/5th/6th rank against right handers.
With runners in scoring position we ranked 15th/13th/11th but we were third in sac flies, tenth in double plays and surprisingly only sixth in strikeouts. We finished sixth in runs as well but a lot of that production came in our 31 blowout game victories when we averaged just under nine runs a game.
When the core of your offense has 700+ strikeouts between them, even great pitching is less likely to pull you through. This year the Braves saw more pitches per at bat than any other NL team – 3.93 up from ninth place and 3.79 pitches in 2011 – so perhaps the new hitting coach system worked. Seeing them and hitting them are two different things of course and individually the Braves lineup had only two bright (non-composite) spots in their lineup relative to strikeouts; Chipper Jones and Martin Prado.
Thursday on XM radio I heard an interview with Huston Street who was asked what made the Giants and Cardinals lineup so tough. He said (paraphrasing here) that from top to bottom they put the ball in play, fouled off pitches and made the pitcher work hard. More pitches thrown mean more chances for error and putting the ball in play gives the defense a chance to boot it. As we saw when the Braves played St Louis and the Cards learned when they played the Giants, all plays – even routine ones – aren’t made. Some plays can’t be made, ask Cabrera about the ball that hit the corner of the bag,changed directions and turned into a Giants run.
Put The Bat On The Ball
Of the five teams who made the NL playoffs this season, the two teams with the lowest number of strikeouts in their regular starting lineup played in the NLCS and the team with the lowest number went to the world series.
The ALCS saw the team with the least Ks go through as well though Oakland who had the most Ks in the league did beat Texas in their death match playoff.
In Game one of the World Series the Giants got to Justin Verlander partly because they wore him down. Verlander threw 98 pitches in his four innings and the Giants made contact on 44. He struck out four and gave up six hits to the 19 batters he faced. A little quick math says that they got fifteen outs with batted balls meaning they fouled off 23 of the 98 pitches he threw; just under 24%. That’s how you get into a questionable bullpen early in the game and beat a Cy Young winner.
That’s A Wrap
Here’s the bottom line. The Braves have too many hitters that strike out too often. It really is that simple. With Chipper leaving and Bourn a free agent w all know the obvious needs ; a center fielder and a left fielder or third baseman – preferably at least two right handed and with some power and it would be nice if one was a speedy leadoff man with a good OBP like Bourn was the first half of the season. The Braves have to find a way to do this while reducing Ks and maintaining a high OBP in the regular lineup to a minimum. Perhaps our hitting coach tandem can remind players that when behind in the count shortening up the swing and taking a pitch the other way for a single is preferable to swinging for the fences and striking out spectacularly. If the Braves had been in the AL – a league at least stereotypically, full of big swingers – this year they would have finished 11th in strikeouts ahead of only Oakland, Tampa and Baltimore. That simply must change next year if the Braves hope to win a division and go deep into the post season.