The All-Star break has come and gone, and we’re back to the grind tonight against Philadelphia. In an attempt to make this a little less boring for all involved, I’ve decided to make this a preview for the second half, rather than a basic series preview (pitching match-ups and start times for this weekends series are still available after the jump).
We’re at that point where we look at how far we’ve come and examine not only how we have arrived at this point, but how those same means of transportation will perform from here on out.
In this piece, I’m going to take a look at some of the biggest influences on the Braves play this season (for better or worse), and determine how they will affect the Braves chase of the Nationals throughout the summer and into the fall.
Mr. Harang was a late spring addition to the club at the expense of Freddy Garcia. Frank Wren and company saw a strong spring with Cleveland and increased velocity as a reason to roll the dice with a pitcher with a bit more “stuff” than Garcia, and it is still paying off for the Braves. Harang started the year nearly no hitting the team with the second most wins in the league (The Brewers), and continued his tear all throughout April. But as the clock was primed to strike May, Harang almost imploded.
On April 30th, Harang lasted just 4.2 innings on his way to surrendering 9 earned runs against the Miami Marlins. The Miami Marlins. It was the first in several hiccups in performance against Harang, which has left him with Braves starters highest walk rate, lowest strikeout rate, and an all around normal performance for Aaron Harang. Now this isn’t to say Harang hasn’t and will not continue to be productive – the 36 year old has produced a 1.4 fWAR so far in 2014, but I can’t say it will look any better from here on out. We my see streaks of brilliance, and more than likely a few more hiccups, but the peak for Aaron has been reached. Harang is the Braves number 4 starter right now, and now that Gavin Floyd is lost for the season, we’ve got to ring the rest of that $1MM for all it is worth.
The Braves bullpen has been a bit rocky, but in the end has shown up quite well with the addition of Shae Simmons. Simmons is showing everyone why he was so highly touted and is already the Braves 5th best reliever, despite only having thrown ~60% of the innings of David Carpenter, who comes in at number 4. This is a bit more impressive when you remember that Carpenter was disabled for two weeks. Couple Simmons with the quiet but deadly performance of Anthony Varvaro, and your seventh inning shouldn’t look be looking that bad.
Unless you’re Fredi Gonzalez, who continues to use sole bullpen lefty and the Braves worst pitcher so far in 2014, Luis Avilan, in high leverage situations. And honestly, I can’t blame Avilan. He was thrust on to the scene with little fanfare down the stretch in 2012, and performed well throughout 2013 despite mediocre peripherals. His splits scream lefty specialist, but these things tend to fall on Fredi’s deaf ears. Bullpen performance isn’t as much of an issue as bullpen management, which we all know isn’t Fredi’s strong suit.
Additionally, you’ve heard by now that the Braves are in the market for bullpen help, as per usual. Their main targets include Arizona’s Oliver Perez, Boston’s Andrew Miller, and the Cubs solid pair of Wesley Wright and James Russell. It is in my opinion that the Braves need to acquire an impact lefty reliever, not just a LOOGY, as Luis Avilan already more than fits that bill. This would leave Perez (who is signed through 2015), Russell, and Wright out, and make Andrew Miller the most obvious choice, but maybe not that obvious. His career splits aren’t too kind against righties, but over the past two years he has handled righties nicely, especially this year.
The bullpen could be lethal if handled a bit better, and I believe it will have a huge impact for the Braves down the stretch.
The Legend of El Oso Blanco spread like wildefire last season, as 26 year old rookie Evan Gattis launched 21 homers in just over 100 games, including the longest of 2013. Evan was handed the starting job after Brian McCann departed to make his family’s future $85MM more secure, and has not looked back. Building on his power stroke and good pitch framing, Gattis has improved his play on both sides of the ball this season, and has realistically been the best catcher in baseball behind Jonathan Lucroy.
Gattis has been disabled for nearly three weeks now with a bulging disc in his upper back, but his injury has been a time to showcase 22 year old catching prospect Christian Bethancourt. Bethancourt has long been considered the catcher of the future for the Braves, but with Gattis’ emergence and extended team control, the Braves theoretically could use Bethancourt to stabilize the rotation by adding a starter (see one of our 300 articles on attempting to acquire David Price).
Whatever happens with Bethancourt, Gattis has been a huge part of Atlanta’s success this year, and their 3rd best player. He’s about to hit his peak years, so while there is some skepticism that his numbers will not hold, there is surely an argument to be made about how valuable Gattis can be throughout the second half and the immediate future. And I have reason to believe that Gattis will be a major player in stabilizing the offense in the second half.
Chris Johnson and B.J. Upton: Who Can Be Less Bad?
Speaking of stabilizing the offense, the Braves offensive output could come full circle if one of CJ or BJ could find any kind of consistency. Both are very similar: They are both overpaid for the next 3 seasons, both are striking out over 1/4th of their plate appearances, both have recently enjoyed good streaks, and both are registering a 0.4 fWAR. Of course, for very different reasons: BJ does it with baserunning and defense, while Chris Johnson does it by being the Lord of BABIP.
If I had to bank on an improvement for one of these two over the second half, I’d be betting on the luck of Chris Johnson over BJ taking a few more walks and striking out a bit less (even though it’s obvious that a BJ improvement would be most beneficial). Securing one of these spots in the lineup would give Fredi less room for his “creative lineup construction”, if I’m putting it nicely.
The Braves have constructed a good, if not great season so far with so many little things that have gone wrong, that it’s not hard to feel optimistic about the second half. The club has already faced such adversity as Dan Uggla still being on the roster or Fredi Gonzalez’s Bullpen Management 101 classes, and if a team with this much inconsistency can brave those things and still be tied for first place, they may be just a nice bullpen addition or an offensive epiphany away from making this a very fun summer race to the playoffs.
7:35 PM, Friday, July 18th
Probables: AJ Burnett (6-8, 3.83 ERA) vs Ervin Santana (7-6, 4.01 ERA)
7:10 PM EST, Saturday, July 19th
Probables: Cole Hamels (3-5, 2.93 ERA) vs TBA
1:35 PM EST, Sunday, July 20th
Probables: Kyle Kendrick (4-9, 4.62 ERA) vs TBA
Tags: Atlanta Braves