Beginning tonight, the Braves begin a four game set against the Dodgers as they begin their last Western road trip of the year – nice to get that out of the way so soon. At the same time, the team is also in the midst of a long slog - twenty games on consecutive days… nearly the limit of what is permitted by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Thanks to the scheduling quirks brought about by the new inter-league arrangements this year, it is also the second road trip of this 20 game span. At least they are facing the two teams currently occupying the bottom of the NL West standings.
The Braves (37-22) are on a roll: winners of five in a row and 15 of their last 19. Pending the Wednesday evening contests, their 7.5 game lead is easily the best in baseball (2.5 is the max anywhere else), and Atlanta is thriving while their division rivals are fighting to keep treading water. Oh, and did you notice that the Nationals aren’t even in second place anymore?
The Dodgers’ Disabled List is getting extremely crowded: starters Matt Kemp (hamstring), A.J. Ellis (oblique), and Carl Crawford (hamstring) are on it. Their starting pitching is falling apart, too: Korean surprise Hyun-jin Ryu missed his Sunday start (sore foot after getting drilled during his stellar prior start), and Chris Capuano missed his Monday stint, and has now been DL’d as well. Chad Billingsley had Tommy John surgery back in April, so he’s gone for the year. But the bigger deal may be Josh Beckett, whose entire baseball future may be in jeopardy as he is investigating a nerve problem affecting his pitching hand. He is now shut down for at least a month and otherwise out indefinitely.
The Dodger record is 25-33, good for 4th worst in the NL. They are 27th in run scoring. 24th in slugging, but as you’ve just read, they have troubles everywhere. The team has been trying not to panic, but it’s getting more difficult each day. Calls for the head of Manager Don Mattingly have not helped.
Then again, maybe that panic has subsided… at least for a couple of days. A spark ‘puig’ has just been added: Yasiel Puig.
Cuba escapee Yasiel Puig (pronounced: ‘Yah-zi-uhl poo-’WEEG) made his debut on Monday… and apparently somebody forgot to tell him that rookies need to take their time to get acclimated to their new surroundings:
> On Monday night, Puig went 2-for-4 playing RF and leading off. He also ended that game with an outfield assist catch-and-throw from the warning track to double off Chris Denorfia. I still don’t know if the complaints from Denorfia and his base coach were entirely because they thought he was safe (he wasn’t) or from shock.
> Tuesday, 3-for-4 with a double, five RBI and two homers… one an opposite field shot. There are a ton of occurrences (2,136 times, since 1916, according to records from baseball-reference.com) in which a player has at least 5 RBI in a game. Only 11 times did this happen within the player’s first two game major league games. Only twice ever has a player had five hits in his first two games… this is #3. Never before: 12 total bases in first two games. That’s something, indeed.
> Wednesday. Okay, so he’s human after all: 0 for 4
Meanwhile: Probably just as significantly, our friend Peter Moylan has righted his ship enough to earn the call-up to their bullpen (replacing Javy Guerra). In two appearances thus far, he has yielded 3 hits, but no runs. Their bullpen really has been awful, so this is highly helpful for them. But amidst all of their doom and gloom, there’s some actual excitement now at Chavez Ravine… but sorry, Pete, it’s not for you.
OFFENSE – PUIG
What should we expect from the 22-year-old? The belief is that he could easily be bigger/better than Yeonis Cespedes, which is saying a lot. But to say that the Dodgers have rushed him to the big leagues is to understate the point: in 2012, Puig only had 23 games – 9 in Rookie ball, 14 in High-A (skipping A Ball). This year, he’s had 40 games, all at the AA level (so he’s skipping AAA). The results this year? Oh, a slash line of .313/.383/.599/.982, thirteen stolen bases, eight homers, 37 RBI along with a 9% BB rate and 17% K Rate. I think they can probably justify the move.
How should the Braves pitch this guy? Probably beyond the edges of the plate. In eight plate appearances, he has no walks and no strikeouts. He’s seen 39 pitches in his 12 ABs. It may be that Atlanta should exploit that early eagerness and force him to hit their pitches. Certainly, he’s hitting anything right around the plate… and hitting it hard.
OFFENSE – EVERYBODY ELSE
This has been a continuing problem, despite all the money spent last year. [these rankings are NL-only] Team fWAR: 11th. HR: 14th (Marlins worst). Runs scored: 14th. Doubles: 11th. Steals: 9th. No wonder they promoted Puig. There are some guys to watch out for, though: Adrian Gonzalez is hitting very well, back to his pre-Boston levels (.328), though with fewer homers (8) so far. Scott Van Slyke is doing his best Evan Gattis impersonation, with a .673 slugging rate and .990 OPS.
But there is a second Wild Card in their lineup now besides Puig. Hanley Ramirez has returned. Hanley started the season hitting a robust .357 over five games. Gotta watch out for him now since he tends to start hot and then get bored later. We should not be nearly into the ‘bored’ part yet.
In terms of team UZR/150 – the Dodgers are 12th in the NL (18th overall; Braves 2nd/NL, 7th overall). If you can’t figure out UZR (and hardly anyone can), then note that this team is also #1 in all of baseball in Errors (46), with Atlanta 16th (34). Shortstop is their worst infield-ing position overall, a stark contrast from the Braves (and it hasn’t mattered who is playing that position). As for the outfield, the absence of Matt Kemp should actually improve their defense significantly… regardless of the new kid roaming right field. Inexplicably, AGonz leads the team in errors with six. Advantage: Braves.
The Dodger pen is 7th worst in baseball (4.08 ERA) with just 14 saves and 12 blown saves (tied for 2nd worst). They have the fifth highest BABIP rate and the ninth worst LOB% (it was 6th worst 2 days ago). The Braves are best in the majors (2.67 ERA) with 18 saves (5th) and 8 blown (now that the Pirates have been ousted from that #1 spot. This stark difference was never more evident than in the first Dodgers/Braves series in which the home team exploited the Dodger pen for a three game sweep. They just got a bit better with Pete joining the group, but he can’t pitch all the time, so every night the Braves can get the starters out early will be good for the road team. Big Advantage: Braves.
I’m going to list these pitching matchups, but I think you still have to call these “tentative”, given the state of Dodger pitching right now. Regardless, the Braves will miss Clayton Kershaw this time ’round. That’s a good thing.
THURSDAY, JUNE 6*, 10:10PM EDT
> Zack Grienke RHP, 6′-2″, 192 lbs. 29 years old (from my home town of Orlando). 2-1, 4.80 ERA, 1.60 WHIP
> Tim Hudson
Grienke pitched well during his first outing back from his own DL stint (vs. Washington, thankyouverymuch), but he had not looked good since: three straight outings giving up 4+ runs and never getting past the sixth inning. This is a ‘strikeout-per-inning’ guy who isn’t getting many strikeouts this year. Hopefully this doesn’t become a case of the Stoppable Force defeating the Movable Object as he faces the swing-happy Braves. Grienke has been better at home this year, but there’s not a lot to go on, especially recently.
Several Braves have had excellent success vs. Grienke, but unfortunately, two of them are named Chipper Jones and Javy Lopez. McCann is 1-for-3 (HR) and Laird 6-for-20, but the big hits are coming from Jordan Schafer (5/11), Uggla (3/6), and Justin Upton (5/9, HR). Since BJ is only hitting .182 (4/22) vs. Green Key, you might see Schafer in there for this game.
FRIDAY, JUNE 7, 10:10PM EDT
The second lefty-lefty matchup this week. You kinda have to hope that Ryu misses this start, too, but it’s not likely. His last outing was his best as a pro – a two hitter complete game shutout of the LA Angels. He is also much better at home than on the road (2.90 ERA vs. 3.50, with the xFIP and WHIP spreads a lot more pronounced), and has been their best pitcher overall. But the Braves have already seen him, and recently so: May 17th. The Braves took that game 8-5 thanks to Justin’s grand slam, though that was not off of Ryu, who went five innings and did not factor in the decision. The Braves did get five hits and five walks off of Ryu that night, but just two earned runs. It was the second time through the lineup that this damage was done, with singles by Simmons, Freeman, Chris Johnson, and Paul Maholm; plus a double from Heyward.
SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 10:10PM EDT
Chris Capuano LHP, 6′-3″, 221 lbs. Age 34. 1-4, 5.45 ERA, 1.52 WHIP [Forget this one - he's now on the DL]
> Stephen Fife RHP, 6′-3″, 220 lbs. Age 16. 1-0 (2 games started), 4.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP
> Kris Medlen
Yeah – like you think he’s never heard that before. I had all this great stuff written for Capuano… and Fife has not faced Atlanta. Sigh. Stephen Fife throws Fastball/Curve (50%/33%) with the occasional change-up… and even less occasional slider. He strikes out 1 batter per inning and walks one for every 10 outs. Batters are hitting .316 against him; .407 when they put the ball into play. When Fife gets into trouble (often, judging from the WHIP), runners will score (75% strand rate).
Fife was actually a bit better last year when he had a five-start cup of coffee in 2012… then he was throwing fewer change-ups/curves; many more sliders. That fastball goes around 89-90mph, and the change-up 84, so there’s not a lot of difference there. He does have a decent ground ball rate (60%) and Infield Fly rate (20%). Frankly, there isn’t much in his stats sticking out as being above or below average, at least not for a ground ball pitcher.
Looks like selectivity will be the key: teams get on base against Fife at a .357 clip with a .257 BA, but it’s with singles and walks: Of the 37 hits he has surrendered in the majors, only 4 were doubles, 3 homers… 30 singles. Make him throw a lot of pitches and be willing to show patience throughout, so that we can get into the bullpen.
SUNDAY, JUNE 9, 4:10PM EDT
Where are all of these Southpaws coming from? Lilly only has 23 innings so far this year, with three consecutive starts now since May 25th. It has been hot and cold for him… literally outings with maybe 1earned run allowed, then the next giving up 3 to 5 runs, including the last outing on Tuesday. So it will be tough to tell which Ted Lilly shows up, but at least the Braves have been consistently beating up on Lefties this year (a welcome change from prior years).
There are some telling stats here. Lilly owns Justin Upton: .077 in 26 AB. Brian McCann (.200/15 AB), Heyward (.125/8), and Freeman (.200/5) don’t particularly like seeing him, either. So look for the possibility that both Reed Johnson (.429/7) and Gerald Laird (.400/5) get starts then to support Dan Uggla (.385/13) and Chris Johnson (.357/14). Good idea for a daytime travel game anyway, but the numbers break nicely for Atlanta.
Meanwhile, why is it that every Ted Lilly photo looks like the guy just got caught in an awkward moment?
It is hard to stake a claim against any team’s home turf, and Atlanta has not been that good on the road so far (16-15). But if there was ever a time to take 3 out of 4 from somebody, this might be it. You’ve got to take down the teams that are scuffling, and that’s definitely the case with LA right now, Puig notwithstanding. Minimum expectation should be a 2/2 split.
Sorry East Coast Fans: 5 of the next 6 games start after 10pm – ugh.
* One more note for this particular series: Thursday, June 6th is Don Sutton Bobblehead night at Chavez Ravine. Good on the Dodgers (Stan Kasten in particular), both for honoring Don in this way and in scheduling it for his arrival as part of the Braves broadcasting crew. The combination of Don and Jim Powell on radio is really a hoot – very entertaining during literally every inning. Much better to have the Alabama native on our side now instead of carving up the Braves as he did regularly while a member of the Dodgers.
Listening to games as I grew up, I would have sworn that Sutton pitched (and shut out) Atlanta twenty times every year while the Braves were members of the NL West. He was the one pitcher I remember giving them fits during the 1970′s and 80′s (okay, he was really 35-17 lifetime, with 15 no decisions). But note that of all the great pitchers LA has had over the years – including guys like Koufax and Drysdale: Don Sutton has the most wins (233), strikeouts (2,696), shutouts (52!) – and more – in a Dodger uniform.
Very nice to see them do this for him.