May 2, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves left fielder Justin Upton (8) reacts to striking out in the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Turner Field. The Giants won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

No Ifs, Ands, or Bats: Why the Braves Can't Hit

May 4, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves left fielder Justin Upton (8) reacts to striking out in the sixth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

 The trends are getting worse.

  • Overall team batting average:  .233
  • Last two weeks: .205
  • Last 7 days:  .183
  • 2nd worst in majors in runs scored (99).

Those are the results, but that doesn’t get to the “why?” factor, as in “why can’t this team hit?”  Sure, you can point to bizarre oddities, such as Freddie Freeman‘s .080 (2 for 25) past six games (though he’s really been slumping since April 20th).  You can point to the solid opposition pitching such as the Jose Fernandez games, but then again, this team has even made Bartolo Colon look like the second coming of Tom Seaver.

Fact is, the Braves are now exposed.  Yes, the pitching has been carrying them, but you knew that couldn’t last – not at that rate  But even during this six-game schnide, the pitching still ranks first in the majors in ERA.  But if you don’t score, you can’t win – and it’s pretty difficult to go out onto the mound knowing that you essentially have to be perfect since your offense is not giving you any margin for error.

 

A Few More Stats

The Braves have played 30 games now (17-13).  Somehow they’re still in first place, though even that is looking like a mirage right now.  Here’s the runs-per-game breakdown:

  • Scoring no runs:  5 times
  • Scoring once:  7 times.
  • Scoring twice: 1 time.
  • 3 runs:  3 times
  • 4 runs:  5 times
  • 5 runs:  twice
  • Half-priced pizza threshold:  3 times
  • 7 runs or more:  4 times (max:  10 runs in 1 game… once)

In fact, 20% of the SEASON’S total runs came on 2 consecutive days:  April 13-14.  On two occasions, they managed 6 and 7 runs on consecutive days. 45 total runs – 46% of the season’s total – in 20% of the games.  We clearly need more pizza days.

 

Here’s the Problem

It’s all about aggression and contact.

It appears to me from the statistics I’m seeing that the Braves’ hitters are collectively trying to be far too aggressive at the plate.  By that I mean “swinging at the first decent pitch they see.  They are getting behind in counts, and then are missing ‘pitcher’s pitches’ near the end of the AB.  Here’s the data that justifies that opinion (all of this from fangraphs.com):

  • Atlanta hitters are seeing the 7th fewest pitches per plate appearance.

  • Atlanta hitters are seeing the 4th fewest balls per plate appearance.
  • They have the worst contact rate in baseball (75.4%)
  • They have the worst contact rate in baseball for pitches in the strike zone (82.2%)
  • They have the highest swing rate on pitches in strike zone - leading all others by 5%
  • They have the 6th worst swing rate on non-strikes, too.
  • Not surprisingly, they have the worst whiff rate in baseball (12.1%)
  • They have the 8th worst walks rate (7.5%) and 4th worst on-base percentage (7.5%)

In checking the player-by-player cards on Brooksbaseball.net, a number of corroborating findings leap off the (virtual) page:

  • Of the 8 regular starters, ALL are characterized as having somewhere between an ‘Aggressive’ to ‘Exceptionally Aggressive‘ approach at the plate – mainly with fastballs, but some other pitch types as well.
  • Six of the 8 regulars are characterized as having a “High” to “Disastrously High” Swing-and-Miss chance with certain pitches – usually fastballs, with off-speed and breaking pitches occasionally noted.

These profiles effectively tell you everything you’d need to know as a pitcher to beat the Atlanta Braves.  Give them your best well-placed fastballs near the strike zone (excepting Chris Johnson and Jason Heyward – throw them nothing but breakers unless you want to jam them up-and-in) and you’ll win the game.  Note that it’s not just Uggla or anyone else in particular:  this is a lineup-wide problem.  If you threw the lineup card into a lake, it would sink for all the holes in it.

 

So the result is…

  • Lots of whiffs:  second worst strikeout rate in baseball
  • Terrible hitting with runners in scoring position (.205/RISP), but that’s only half the story, because…
  • The Braves only have 205 ABs with runners in scoring position – easily the worst in baseball.
  • So that 4th worst on-base percentage is multiplied because they cannot generate even a threat to score runs – never mind cashing in the opportunities that they do manage to create.

Even when contact is made, it appears that the Braves’ hitters are seemingly trying to make up for each others’ failings by themselves:

  • 10th highest fly ball rate (35.9%) along with 10th best ground ball rate and 6th best infield fly ball rate.
  • 10th best homer rate (a rank that was a lot higher just 1 week ago).
  • In other words, I think most of them are trying to hit the ball out of the park… but aren’t getting good pitches to drive.
  • My “eye test” suggests that Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton and Freddie Freeman do not do so, but that’s difficult to quantify.

 

Summary

There is on-going debate amongst the stat pundits about how much a strikeout hurts in the grand scheme of things.  Yes, it’s only one out.  Yes, putting the ball in play sometimes results in a double-play, and that’s clearly worse.  But if you’re not making contact, then is also possible that something is just wrong.  I believe that’s the case here.

For the Braves, I believe that the strikeout is a symptom of too much at-the-plate aggression.  A sign that these hitters are trying to jump on the first good pitch they see (and pitchers are figuring out that they don’t even need to throw strikes to get these guys out).  That approach is not working – clearly – and they need to each start taking an average of at least one more pitch per AB.  This alone could help them to get settled in better, perhaps gauge pitches better, and battle the pitchers more.  The “ambush” approach isn’t cutting it.

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But of course – as I’ve been reporting – it doesn’t get any easier since the May schedule is brutal.  Now St. Louis comes to town with its stable full of strikeout pitchers.  Things had better change quick, or this could get really ugly even quicker.

 

Tags: Atlanta Braves Hitting

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