Last night I stayed up to watch the rain delayed defeat of a Braves team seemingly incapable of scoring even after they put men in scoring position with no one out. This morning I saw this headline in the AJC Nats win 4-1 when Braves bullpen falters in 11th inning and wondered if they saw the same game I did. The bullpen and David Carpenter are charged with the loss but the cause was the perennial nemesis of this team since 2011; RISP failure.
The same thing that happens all too often these days. For those who went to bed at a reasonable hour; a recap. The Braves put men on but couldn’t bring them in. Aaron Harang was super once more. The Bullpen held them for three innings during which time the Braves twice had opportunities to end the game. In the eleventh David Carpenter working his second inning of relief put two men on, James Russell finished loading the bases then Anthony Varvaro allowed the Nats to score. The AJC story starts out as I did by pointing out that the lineup consistently failed to score but the problem is the completely misleading headline.
Headlines like that cause the casual fan browsing the paper this morning to blame the bullpen for not holding. While that’s technically true, the reason for the bullpen failure was the lineup’s failure. This lineup strikes out too much, swings for the fences too often and refuses to make adjustments.
Inside the Numbers
If asked who they want up in a RISP situation my guess would be the majority would choose Freddie Freeman. Last year F5F was a beast – .443/.541/.695/.1.236 in 170 PA – and while he’s slowed some he’s still the man with the best overall numbers. Would you have picked Chris Johnson as the next guy in line or Tommy La Stella in the third spot? No? Well, you should have. (Numbers from the Baseball Cube except BAbip which is calculated)
|Tommy La Stella||51||3||1||0||6||12||2||.314||.400||.390||.412||.802|
Based on team OPS with RISP in the NL from Baseball-Reference.com the Braves are eighth just behind the Phillies and in a dead heat with the Nats. The central leading Brewers are second and the West leading Dodgers are third. Mid-league isn’t a bad average but hitting with RISP is also a question of when or under what circumstances. It seems that many of the Braves best numbers come when they aren’t as critical to winning.
I know that a run in the first is as valuable as a run in the ninth but a hit with RISP when you’re up by four isn’t as valuable as a hit when you are down by one. Last night the Braves tied the game when Span missed a cutoff man allowing La Stella to score. Once tied or behind the Braves are one of the least likely teams to come back. Using Baseball-Reference.com numbers based on OPS, in clutch situations the Braves rank like this.
|2 out RISP||13th||12th||5th||4th||1st||3rd|
|Late & Close||6th||5th||7th||11th||8th||1st|
Those rankings confirm that once down, the Braves are one of the least likely to actually get the hits they need.
Yes but why?
Braves pitching keeps them in games late. Those close games mean that when they get runners on the opposing pitcher is likely to be a one inning specialist. We all remember how nice it was to have Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel when leading after six , it made it extremely hard for even good teams to come back. When they were beaten it wasn’t often with thunder but to borrow a line from Fredi Gonzalez, it was by teams that kept the line moving and didn’t give up at bats.
Even allowing for facing better pitching our big guns aren’t nearly as potent as one might think. While others may homer La Stella is the player most likely to get an important hit. This isn’t a sample size creating statistics issue. In spite of playing in 50 less games TLS has enough opportunities to prove this isn’t a quirk.
|Tommy La Stella||21||0||1||0||1||3||1||.333||.389||.364||.429||.792|
Moreover pitchers throw most hitters less strikes in the late innings because to quote Tom Glavine, “Hitters have egos and I’m going to use that to get them out.” La Stella on the other hand sees a higher percentage of strikes (up from 59% to 63%. ) Justin also gets a higher strike rate (up from 58% to 66%) but doesn’t made the same contact and Tommy. Justin sees his jobs and lift and separate instead of understanding what the pitcher is trying to do. He’s determined not to let the pitcher win and in the process the pitcher wins about 80% of the time.
La Stella has no ego, he makes the pitcher throw strikes, fights off close pitches and doesn’t try to do too much with a hittable pitch in the first inning and the ninth inning. He’s a good hitter instead of free swinger and is still able to drive the ball with authority. He knows who’s in trouble with runners on base and it isn’t him.
Don’t Blame The Hitting Coach
I see lots and lots of fans who want to fire Greg Walker because BJ isn’t hitting, he couldn’t fix Dan Uggla or can’t get Simmons to stop falling across the plate when he swings. This isn’t his fault. No hitting coach, not Walker or everyone’s fantasy Chipper Jones, can change a player’s mind if the player won’t listen and work hard to change.
In a post on SFGate Mike Schmidt told a story about George Brett attempting to help Royals hitters. Brett in one cage and an assistant in the other. The hitters lined up with the assistant instead of Brett because the assistant was telling them what they wanted to hear and Brett was going to tell them things they didn’t like. Brett resigned as coach. If the Royals players won’t seek out help and listen to guidance from a Hall of Fame hitter like Brett, why would Braves players listen to Chipper?
Schmidt went on to offer this insight,
. . .(when I was playing hitters improved) because of an open mind to experimentation, willingness to listen and change . . it used to be that a hitter couldn’t make $10 million a year batting .230 with 60 RBIs. A batting average under .250 for a regular player was a red flag, unless you were a power guy among the league leaders in run production. . . Early in our day it seemed the Latin hitters such as Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente and Tony Perez were unique in that they could consistently use right field. Why couldn’t I do that? I was a young pull hitter, prone to strike out.. . .(I changed and was successful) . . only because I was open to experiment and change.. . . These days, major league hitters are being eaten alive by pitchers. The strikeout rate is over 20 percent. If there is a coach out there attacking this problem, I’d like to know. Even more, I’d like to know if there is a hitter out there willing to allow a coach to attack it. (my emphasis)
In his Hall of Fame induction speech Joe Torre told about the first day of Hidekli Matsui’s time with the Yankees. Don Zimmer told Torre to ask him Matsui – the top power hitter in Japan – if he could hit and run. Mastui said any time you want; and he could. When Fredi Gonzalez first started managing in Atlanta he tried to hit and run a few times. It didn’t work and he stopped trying. The hit and run is great way to force the RISP situation in your favor but the hitter has to be able to execute.
In an interview on XM radio during the 2013 Hall of Fame weekend Pete Rose put it like this.
That’s A Wrap
Rose would love TLS but his criticism fits most of the rest of our lineup. The Braves stay in contention in the NL East because the National have had a marshmallow center and suffered a series of injuries to key everyday players. That’s unlikely to continue but even if does in DC, the Marlins, and Mets are retooling and their pitching will make them a force to be reckoned with. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Until the roster changes the Braves will continue to be a streaky, frustrating team without post season success.