Tag Archives: Major League Baseball

Thanks For the Memories? Good Riddance Turner Field

I love how the Atlanta, errr, the Metro Atlanta Braves, are making 2016 about saying goodbye to Turner Field and all the “great memories” to have taken place. I mean, I get it, anything to distract ticket buyers and fans from the atrocity that is on the field, but this is just laughable.

The only people who should be saying, “Thanks for the memories”, to Turner Field are Atlanta Braves playoff opponents.

There have been 11, yes, 11 playoff series clinched at Turner Field over the 20 years it has been around. In nine of them, the Atlanta Braves watched from the home dugout as someone else celebrated on their field. Nine times they watched someone come into their house and slap them around and leave with all their valuables, and their wife. Half of the national league has celebrated winning a postseason series at Turner Field.

Seriously.

Just think about that for a minute. Half the league has won a playoff series and sprayed champagne inside a clubhouse at Turner Field. In only two decades. That’s special, folks, real special.

By comparison, there were eight playoff series clinched in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium in the 90s, and the Braves were victorious in six of those.

So spare me the, “thanks for the memories” bullshit when it comes to Turner Field.

Whether it was Eric Gregg calling strikes in Cuba in game five to set up a stunning defeat to the rent-a-title Marlins to begin the Turner Field legacy, Sterling Hitchock two hitting a team that won 106 games during the regular season while your Cy Young Award winner gets shelled in an elimination game, or giving up 24 runs to the Cardinals in a trio of games after allowing the fewest in the regular season, Turner Field has been not just the culmination of disappointment, but ugly disappointment. And disappointment it all too often hosted.

There’s losing three straight at home, with a four error game in the middle of it against Arizona to look back fondly on, following that up with a game five loss at home against San Francisco.

Or maybe you prefer remembering 2003 when the Braves led the National League in runs scored by over a full run per game, only to strike out 18 times in 15 1/3 innings against Kerry Wood at Turner while totaling five hits, including just three in an elimination game as a team the Braves won 13 more games than during the season advanced to the NLCS.

If that’s not a sunny enough memory, try 2004, watching Carlos Beltran go ape shit as the Braves allow 17 hits at home in an elimination game. Though, that’s what you get when Jaret Wright is your game five starter, I suppose.

If you still haven’t had enough fun going down memory lane, I’ve saved the best for last. And I only need for words.

Brooks Conrad.

Infield Fly.

Turner Field can’t be a distant memory soon enough. Unless you’re an Atlanta Braves playoff opponent, then you’re going to kinda miss the place.

 

 

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Unsung Heroes Can Be the Spark to Second Half Glory

 

This moment here wasn’t the first time Francisco Cabrera came up huge for the Braves

Last night was special, no two ways about it. How many times have we seen ourselves on the losing end of those make or break type games it seems? Remember the infamous Kelly Johnson drop against Philadelphia? Or the Greg Dobbs game against those same Phillies? We expect to lose, and lose in heartbreaking fashion.

Well, it’s a damn good thing the 25 guys wearing Braves uniforms don’t.

What happened in Washington last night is the sort of thing that can light a fire under a season. For proof of that, look no further than these very Braves and examine a few of their pennant chasing seasons.

In 1991 the Braves played the third of a four game series at Riverfront Stadium against the Cincinnati Reds. The Braves had split the first two games of the series the day prior in a double header, their win the previous night being enough to get them back to 10 games above .500, and just sit 2 1/2 behind the Dodgers for first place in the National League West with just 44 games left to play.

Game three of the series started well enough. The Braves jumped all over Reds starter Kip Gross in the first inning to race out to a 3-0 lead. Only to see in the bottom of the very first inning recent Hall of Fame inductee Barry Larkin helped spark a four run inning for the Reds.

Atlanta didn’t wilt, they scored two more in the third, the second courtesy of, all things, a Francisco Cabrera walk (we know how rare those were). The Braves were back in business, up 5-4, and momentum back in their dugout.

But the Reds kept coming. Two runs in the fourth, three in the fifth. That first inning 3-0 lead had turned into a 9-5 deficit. The Braves managed to add a run in the 7th, but nevertheless, headed to the 9th inning down 9-6. And they did so knowing they were going to be facing Rob Dibble, who personified the defending world champion Reds “Nasty Boys” in their bullpen. Making matters worse? The Dodgers were beating the Padres at home, it looked like the lead was about to be 3.5, and the Braves were set to drop their fifth game in seven days. The miracle season needed another miracle to stay alive.

However the 9th started inauspiciously enough, Terry Pendleton struck out, and Ron Gant flew out on just five pitches total. The writing was on the wall. But then David Justice doubled, and Brian Hunter drew a two out walk, putting the tying run at the plate for…..Yes, that Francisco Cabrera guy again. You’ve probably heard his name a few times. Cabrera took an 0-1 offering from Dibble and promptly launched over the fence in left center field. Suddenly this thing was tied. The ever intimidating Rob Dibble had been roughed up, and by a seldom used bench player. This team wasn’t dead, no not yet.

The Braves made absolutely no threat in the 10th, and it was in the bottom of the 10th where it looked like the Reds were going to find a way to come away with a win anyway. Luis Quinones doubled with one out, and Joe Oliver was promptly intentionally walked after that to allow pinch hitter Carmelo Martinez to come to the plate. Martinez flew out to left field, but shoddy base running and alert Braves defense enabled them to double the runner up at second base, ending the inning, and ensuring more baseball.

Finally, in the 13th inning, with runners at first and third, a David Justice double plated Greg Olson, giving the Braves a 10-9 lead to the bottom of the 13. Even there, it wasn’t without drama. Tony Castillo let the first two runners reach base, with the heart of the Reds order due up; only to retire the next three in order to preserve the win.

Castillo had only arrived a year earlier as part of a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, a trade that just so happen to include Francisco Cabrera. He pitched two innings for the Braves on this night, and held the Reds scoreless, earning the win. He would never again win another game for the Braves. Just over a week later he was traded to the Mets in a deal that brought over Alejandro Pena, in a move that was vital to the teams playoff run.

What happened after this night was simple. No team in Major League Baseball finished stronger than Atlanta. The Braves took off with their momentum and reeled off a 29-14 mark the rest of the way, eventually clinching the division with a day to spare. We all know what that 1991 season eventually started off in Atlanta. But we all might have forgotten how monumental a victory this particular win over the Reds turned out to be.

So while we bask in the glow of last night’s victory over the Nationals that was far more inconceivable, and we wonder aloud how guys like Paul Janish and Chad Durbin played such an integral part in such a crucial game, remember, Tony Castillo and Francisco Cabrera may have been the two guys that saved the 1991 season. Often, it can be the 24th and 25th guy on that roster that ultimately, are the guys who are the difference in playing extra baseball, and sitting at home wondering what if.

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A Brave Take Over in the All-Star Game?

For discussion purposes, which Braves do you think deserve to be in Kansas City, and which ones should be starting?

Honestly, I think only one Brave truly deserves to start, and that’s Michael Bourn. I absolutely believe he deserves to be the starting center fielder for the National League. I’ll argue that Ryan Braun and Melky Cabrera should probably be flanking him.

Bourn has been everything we were hoping for when we traded for him last season. He’s been nothing short of outstanding with the glove, being arguably the best defensive outfielder in the league. Offensively he’s also more than held his own, being a top 15 player in the league with the bat. His value would probably even be increased were it not for a handful of shoddy calls on stolen base attempts during the course of the season.

While his numbers don’t have the sexiness of a Braun, or Joey Votto, his defense coupled with his offense make Bourn one of the league’s most valuable players and should have his name in the MVP discussion. It will be interesting to see what happens if this team does wind up contending for the division in September and how the voters treat Bourn.

Bourn however is just part of a phenomenal outfield, quite possibly the best outfield this franchise has ever fielded. It may not have the brute power and the pure offensive greatness of the 2003 unit, but defensively this trio of Bourn, Jason Heyward and Martin Prado may more than make up for that. Not to mention, offensively, they aren’t exactly chop liver. The question is, are the other two going to be all-stars?

I feel that Jason Heyward, with the run he’s gone on lately, has played himself into the All-Star game. Outfield in the National League is exceptionally crowded though, so it will be interesting to see if he gets in. What separates Heyward from the others isn’t necessarily something that usually gets a player into the All-Star game. Heyward’s exceptional on the base paths and in the field. While he trails guys like Carlos Beltran, Andrew McCutcheon and Matt Holiday in offensive production, he run circles around them defensively. Will it matter? It should. Especially now that the offensive numbers are coming around to the defense.

Heyward’s arguably the closest thing this team has to a national superstar outside of Chipper Jones, so if he keeps his performance up, and the team stays in contention, he may very well also have his name thrown into the MVP discussion.

Of course, many Braves fans will tell you Martin Prado is the team’s MVP, and his versatility might make them correct. Personally, I wouldn’t mind him playing some second base to give Uggla a spell some. But the love Braves fans have for one of the ultimate glue guys in the game isn’t enough to be an all-star.

However, with the game somewhat meaning something, though not necessarily to manager Tony LaRussa this year, Prado’s ability to play several positions might make it impossible to leave him off the squad. Of course, that’s not the only case Prado makes for being an all-star. He’s one of the better defensive outfielders in the league, in addition to his stellar .838 OPS. Overall, he, like the other two outfielders, is one of the more valuable players in the entire league. Throw in the versatility, and if all things are equal, the entire Atlanta Braves outfield will be in Kansas City.

What’s somewhat interesting is that with Melky Cabrera on his way, that’s four people who have manned the outfield for the Braves in the past 2 1/2 seasons that will be on the all-star team.

Dan Uggla is likely going to start at second base for the National League thanks to the fan vote. But, should he? I say no. Brandon Phillips, in my opinion SHOULD be the starting second basemen for the National League as I feel he is the most complete second basemen in the league. In fact, if Prado makes the team, it’s possible Uggla wouldn’t even be on the roster, and the National League would go with just the one second basemen and then use Prado as the backup.

That said, if you’re taking two second basemen, a strong case can be made for Uggla, as in the National League there are really only three all-star caliber second basemen in the league. Yes, Uggla strikes out a ton, and no his average that pops up on the screen isn’t exactly nice to look at, but looking deeper into things, he’s still a very good offensive player with his on base percentage thanks to newfound patience at the plate and his power. And at a position like 2nd base, that’s a nice, nice bonus to have. Defensively, he’s also not exactly been a problem, though it would be nice if he had more range to help offset Freddie Freeman’s lack of it.

Darwin Barney is phenomenal defensively, but his offensive game is still too lacking to be an all-star. Not only that, you gotta think Cardinal fans would be none too pleased if LaRussa decorated this all-star team with members of the Chicago Cubs.

However, there is one player out in the desert that makes a very, very good case for Aaron Hill, who since coming over from Toronto last year has been nothing but outstanding at the plate. Actually, now that I think about it, if Uggla weren’t to win the fan vote, I honestly don’t know that I’d put him on the squad. But that’s not something we have to worry about, as the fan vote will land him on the team, and starting.

Freddie Freeman currently sits second among first basemen in the fan voting, and that’s as close as he’ll get to the All-Star game. For some reason Fredi Gonzalez continues to bat him 3rd, despite the fact that right now he’s definitely not a three hitter. The power is nice, and when Freeman gets hot, he gets really hot. But he still makes way too many outs to be an all-star.

For what it’s worth, Andrelton Simmons and David Ross both have better oWAR numbers than Freeman does, and Randall Delgado is right there with him. That’s what happens when you make a lot of outs. He has 100 more plate appearances than Chipper Jones, yet he has the same number of walks. Until that changes, Freeman’s not going to be playing in any all-star games. Plus, Joey Votto plays his position, so the starting spot should be anchored down for years to come.

However, on the flip side of this coin is a dearth of big name guys to go. Consider that Lance Berkman has played in all of 13 games this year, yet he’s second in voting at first base. So who goes as Votto’s backup? Bryan LaHair probably should, but again, that whole Cubs thing may get in the way. Brandon Belt has quietly put together a solid year, but Freeman’s power numbers and RBIs might tilt the scales in his favor. However, when it comes to putting the sexy power numbers with a solid offensive game all around, former Brave Adam LaRoche may make his first appearance in the mid-summer classic.

At shortstop, Andrelton Simmons hasn’t played enough games to warrant all-star consideration, but, had he, one would think he’d be in the discussion. The National League isn’t exactly a hot bed for shortstops this year. When you think of the position, does anyone in the National League jump out at you as a sure-fire all-star game starter? Didn’t think so.

The race itself is a close one between Rafael Furcal and Troy Tulowitzki to get the fan vote, though Tulowitzki obviously is injured and won’t be playing in the game. Even if Furcal doesn’t get the vote, I expect LaRussa to nab his former shortstop and have him start. Starlin Castro has done enough offensively to go with his superior defensive skills to make his way on to the team as well, though Jed Lowrie certainly has done enough with the bat this year to keep his name in the conversation as well.

Brian McCann’s run of six straight all-star games will certainly come to an end this season. In fact, it can be argued McCann hasn’t been even a top five catcher in the National League this season. I expect LaRussa to take two backup catchers, and the three it should be are pretty clear-cut, in my opinion. Yadir Molina and Buster Posey are locked in a tight battle for the starting nod, and Carlos Ruiz should also be secure as an all-star.

Now comes the controversial topic of Chipper Jones. He’s made a late run, and is closing the gap on David Wright and Pablo Sandoval for a chance to start an all-star game in his swan song season. Performance wise, does he deserve to? Of course not. But sometimes the all-star game, and the selection process isn’t about performance, it’s about names, and sentimental favorites. Two things Chipper has going for him.

Another thing Chipper has going for him is, who else you gonna take? David Wright is the unquestionable rightful starter. In fact, as long as the Mets stay in contention, you have to consider him a heavy favorite to be the league’s MVP with the way he’s played thus far. But after him?

Yes, Pablo Sandoval has put together some solid numbers, but he really hasn’t been ALL that better than Chipper. If Chipper were marginally healthier in fact, the two would be much closer I believe in terms of production. In a surprise development, Chipper actually hasn’t been atrocious at third base defensively this year, he’s been solid. Sandoval though on the other hand has been absolutely pitiful. His terrible defense pretty much negates everything he does with the bat. So, you factor in the nostalgia, feel good, retirement aspect of Chipper, he’s probably got a spot reserved in Kansas City. And he may actually be deserving of it too.

Now, to the pitchers…

Going into the season we all thought this was a strength. Now, with the injury to Brandon Beachy, it’s pretty much all but assured only one Braves hurler will be in the all-star game.

Craig Kimbrel is as close to a lock as there is in the league, no sense even really discussing him. He’s become one of the most dominant closers in the entire league. The National League will do well to have him pitching the bottom of the 9th inning in Kansas City.

So, do any starters even warrant consideration? Maybe. Tim Hudson likely would if he’d been healthy to start the year and had more than five starts under his belt. He’s had his rough spots, but he’s been for the most part the typical Tim Hudson. Unfortunately, those bone spurs in his ankle aren’t going anywhere, so he’s somewhat of a question mark the rest of the year. He’s going to be a wildcard as we may have no idea what we’ll get out of him every time he takes the hill.

Tommy Hanson might get some consideration, but the National League is so deep in pitching, I just don’t see where there’s a spot for him. I can only see it if the rotations of other teams prevent some guys from playing in the game that otherwise would. Hanson hasn’t been bad this year at all, but he’s not been as good as we all expected when he first got called up. We were expecting an ace. What we have is a good number two, and very solid number three pitcher. That’s typically not an all-star. If Hanson could just learn to keep the ball in the park, it would help immensely. Consider he’s only allowed four fewer home runs than Mike Minor has. Ouch.

So there you have my evaluation of the chances of Braves players to make the all-star game. If I were betting, I’d say the locks are going to be Bourn, Uggla, Jones and Kimbrel, while Prado and Heyward SHOULD be joining them with Freddie Freeman having an outside chance to join them. If those who I think should make it, indeed do, that’s six all-stars, not bad.

However, what would make those six even more intriguing, consider the number of former Braves likely going. Adam LaRoche is a possibility at first base, while Rafael Furcal and Melky Cabrera are absolute locks. It’s conceivable that at any given time during the all-star game, every position but catcher will be manned by a Brave, or former Brave. Now wouldn’t that be wild?

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The Braves Can Win It All Because There Are Reasons Everyone Else Can’t (AL Version)

Yes, we know our beloved Braves have their many fallacies and faults. We also know that they have many strengths, and they have the potential to put together an offense, starting pitching staff, and bullpen on the field in October that can beat anyone in baseball.

Yet, it’s those faults, a woeful offense early, a recently struggling rotation, and an over-used bullpen, as well as countless injuries, that lead to a plethora of doubt as to the validity of the Braves World Series hopes. The good news is, the playoffs don’t last long, and EVERY team has their faults. Every team could lose a five or seven game series. And for that, the Braves absolutely can win the World Series.

Detroit Tigers- I have a hard time seeing either Cleveland or Chicago catching Detroit in this division. The Indians have injury issues and the White Sox seem to be mired in a rut of mediocrity they can’t get out of.  Either way, if one of those two sneak into the playoffs, nobody is going to look at them as a team to be deemed a favorite to hoist up a trophy at the conclusion of their final game.

As for Detroit, they’ve allowed more runs than they’ve scored. Yes, you read that correctly. We are in mid August and the Tigers have been outscored on the year. If that doesn’t indicate some serious flaws with this team, what exactly would?

The lineup is good enough to win a short series if Miguel Cabrera hits. Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander alone could possibly get this team out of the first round. In the extended seven game format, there are still enough big bats that the thought of them advancing through the playoffs isn’t ludicrous.

The problem for Detroit is that Justin Verlander and Jose Valverde cannot pitch every inning in the playoffs. Aside from Verlander there’s not a pitcher on this roster I’d trust starting a playoff game. Considering the likely AL opponents in the playoffs are Texas, Boston and New York, yeah, good luck winning four out of seven against any of that trio.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim- I said Texas is a likely playoff team, but that’s doing a dis-service to the surging Angels. They are 21-12 since the beginning of July. They were 51-46 on the morning of July 20th, five games back of the Texas Rangers. They’ve won 12 of their last 18 and pulled to within one game of the Rangers, suddenly interjecting themselves into this conversation.

However, for all their hotness as of late, the Angels would still enter the playoffs with a ton of question marks, most notably on offense. The offense is a very mediocre one. However, it’s mediocre throughout the lineup. In some ways, it’s not a bad thing. The problem is that there isn’t that one guy, or pair of hitters who could carry a team through a series.

Granted, the Giants lacked that last year as well, and rode Cody Ross and dominant pitching to the World Series.

The Angels have a good recipe for postseason success in their collection of arms. They boast three very quality starters, including Jered Weaver who is the type of pitcher who could win every postseason start he makes. Their bullpen is also solid, and one they could rely on in those close October games.

But it comes back to the offense for this club. They just don’t have anybody that scares you. If one or two guys even get it going in a playoff series, it will be too easy to pitch around them and make the other guys beat you.

With some playoff contenders boasting players in the midst of a down year, or dealing with injuries, thus leading to the thought they could still turn it around and deliver when it counts, the Angels lack anyone to expect that from. Nobody in their lineup is a player you can say, “Well, they’ll get it turned around, it’s going to happen”. Mark Trumbo is the best bet for them to find such a player, but that’s a huge onus to put upon a youngster.

Age seems to have caught up a bit with  Bobby Abreu, you can’t expect him to carry a team in October either. Tori Hunter is perhaps the one guy you look at and think, perhaps he’s the one who will turn it on and get hot. But a 35 year old former center fielder who played the way he did, age isn’t going to be kind, and we are seeing it.

The offense just doesn’t have that guy that can put a team on its back, and without a lineup 1-9 of good hitters, you need that to have a real shot in October. As such, winning in October will prove to be difficult.

Texas Rangers- We know the Rangers can score, and can score in bunches and score a lot. There are several potent bats throughout the lineup, enough that team wide slumps are rare. Enough that pitching around one or two of them often proves to be a futile act.

We also know the rotation is solid, so is the bullpen. Feliz has been injured, and has struggled at times, but he still presents a trustworthy option at the end of games. Trade deadline acquisitions such as Koji Uehara and Mike Adams only make the bullpen better, the point they could enter the American League playoffs with the best bullpen of everyone at the party.

However, they don’t have an ace starting pitcher. Winning a World Series almost always means having one,  usually more than one, ace caliber pitcher taking the hill for playoff games.

In the playoffs everybody’s good. And good pitching generally tops good hitting. So the Rangers offense, as good as it is, isn’t likely to carry this team all the way to the World Series. There will be nights in won’t get it done. And it’s on those nights they need a starting pitcher to keep them in the game.

The 5-13 combined record against Detroit and New York doesn’t do anything to squelch such concerns.

C.J. Wilson and Matt Harrison have been good, very good actually. And Alexi Ogando has been outstanding. But do you really trust either of those guys to go head to head with Verlander, or John Lester or Josh Beckett, or even C.C. Sabathia? I didn’t think so.

If you’re Texas and you absolutely face a must win situation, do you have the pitcher to trot out there trusting he can get it for you? No, you probably don’t. And without that, it can be tough to find those 11 wins necessary in playoff baseball.

New York Yankees- For as good as the Yankees are, they could enter the playoffs with as many questions as anyone else.

We’ll skip the obvious one for the moment, and look at a potential underlying issue.

Distractions.

The backbone of this Yankee dynasty has been Derek Jeter, with a lot of supporting help coming from Jorge Posada. The fact that the two of them have been arguably the most unproductive hitters on the club could be a huge matter of discussion as playoff rosters and lineups are set.

Do you really enter a playoff series without “The Captain” leading things off? Do you keep Posada relegated to bench duty? How do they handle something different? It may seem like nothing, but should they keep struggling, or should they struggle in the playoffs, how this gets handled could be interesting.

Beyond that though, who do they have pitch after C.C. Sabathia? And if they play Boston this question becomes even more pressing due to Sabathia’s consistent struggles with the rival Red Sox.

A.J. Burnett shouldn’t be trusted to win a game against high school kids at this point. You absolutely never know what you’ll get with him. He walks half as many as he strikes out, and he allows a home run for ever ten punch outs.

Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have been solid thus far in the year. And of course, the response to that would be, “Who?”, and “Wait, it’s 2011, right?”

You don’t enter a playoff series with those three guys as your 2-3-4 starters and expect to win a World Series. Even if you somehow make it out of the American League playoffs, do you want them matching up with the big three out of San Francisco, Philadelphia, Atlanta, or Milwaukee? I think not.

Boston Red Sox- Aside from the distraction possibility, simply see above. The starting pitching without question is an enormous question mark in the playoffs for the Red Sox, especially if they were to face, say, the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander in a five game series.

If they were to somehow lose two games against Verlander, do they have enough confidence in the rest of their starting pitching to win the other three?

The one difference with the Red Sox starting rotation and the Yankees starters is the depth at the top. The Yankees can throw Sabathia, and then the questions mount.

For Boston, they can throw Beckett and follow that up with Lester, giving them a 1-2 punch that nobody else in the American League can really match, save perhaps the Angels.

But after that, if Clay Buchholz can’t get healthy and pitch the way he has this season, things get ugly, and in a hurry. Uglier than even the Yankees.

And this is another area in which Boston might differ from Texas and New York. While both those clubs would enter the playoffs with a trio of pitchers who have pitched well in the regular season, but leave doubt as to how much they can be counted on in the playoffs.

With Boston, they know going in, to win the starts of any of their middle to back end starters, they are going to have to outslug people to do it. While the Red Sox possess the offensive firepower to do just that, remember, it’s the playoffs. You don’t win many playoff games 9-7.

Now this was not to say none of these teams can win the World Series. Of course they all can, but for the sake of argument, these are merely reasons each team cannot win it, reminding even the most serious of Braves doubters that the Braves still have a chance. Because as long as everyone else can find a way to lose it, the Braves can still win it.

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The Great Nate McLouth Tommy Hanson Debate

In this day and of instant gratification with just about everything, it comes as no surprise that instant conclusions are all the rage after the first week of the Major League Baseball season.

In general, these conclusions are simply panic-stricken fans making irrational, sometimes even idiotic, claims based on less than five percent of the season.

A word to the wise; chill out.

The baseball season is a long one, and as Tony LaRussa once said, “Great baseball players who have a bad week are still great baseball players”. Rushing to judgement is often a sure-fire way to make yourself look silly come July, and being the guy who once let go of Cliff Lee a long time ago, I know how this works.

However, this is not to say it’s always too early to feel confident in your conclusion about a player.

For the most part, all one needs to do is simply look at a players past before making ridiculous claims about how a player either a) needs to be traded immediately for a bag of popcorn, or b) is headed to the All-Star game.

When a player that has a track record of being an elite player gets off to an amazing start in the season, one can feel rather confident that their numbers at the end of the year will likely keep on pace with what has typically been the result.

However, when a player without a proven track record gets off to a heart, before suggesting they’ve suddenly uncovered something new and are set to bounce back with a great season, or suddenly found their groove, one must seriously consider scaling back the level of expectations placed upon a player. You might want to hold off on the all-star talk for a few weeks.

On the flip side of that very coin, when a player with a solid track record gets off to a slow start, it might be a good idea to consider what this player has done in the past before demanding this player be sent packing.

I bring this up because two names in particular seem to create a dividing line among Braves fans. These two have been lightning rods early in this 2011 Braves fans.

On one side, you have the camp that believes Nate McLouth is going to round out into a solid contributor to what they feel is a championship caliber club. They feel that McLouth will revert back to the hitter he was with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008 and be a solid piece of the Braves lineup before the season is over.

Then you have those who have zero confidence in McLouth and would probably prefer to see Matt Young manning center field for the Braves.

 

This image of an exasperated Nate McLouth bears a striking resemblance to how many fans feel as well

 

 

With Tommy Hanson, it’s somewhat of the opposite. You have the sector of fans who feel is rather less than stellar start is an indication that the pitcher just doesn’t have it, and that the Braves should part ways with the youngster while he still has value.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those that feel Hanson still has the makings of an ace, and that his 2010 season was actually pretty solid, and that he will more than adequately add to the pitching staff of a club expecting to go to the World Series. Their belief is that his struggles early in the season are minor, perhaps just coincidental, and nothing to be alarmed about.

Here’s where the two arguments differ though, and why in one player’s case, the gloom and doom is probably correct, while in the others, the glass empty is pure insanity at this point time.

Everyone, including yours truly, is waiting on, and yearning for, the Nate McLouth of 2008 to show up one day and starting being a power and speed threat for the Braves lineup.

However, there is a faction of people who simply no longer believe it’s going to happen. And as much as they’d like to be wrong, and as much as perhaps those on the other side of the fence wish to disagree, the numbers say they are right.

Consider for instance that the average big league player strikes out 20.7% of his times to the plate. The bottom tenth percentile come in striking out at a clip of 27.5%, or worse.

McLouth has twice in the past four seasons has twice been over 23%. In 2009 his number for the entire season was 19.5%, a bit better than the league average. But I think it is indeed worth noting that it went from 17.3% to 20.6% once he became a member of the Atlanta Braves.

The high strikeout percentage isn’t that big of a deal if a guy is still drawing a lot of walks, and hitting for power.

McLouth has only once seen his base on balls percentage climb into double digits. So, maybe he’s offering something in the power department, right?

Well, aside from three terrific months in 2008, no, not at all. He slugged .497 in 2008, which has turned out to be .038 points higher than his second best season. In fact, he’s seen his slugging percentage drop to .436, and then a dismal .322 last season.

Let’s look at that 2008 season itself a little more closely too. It’s already established that his 2008 season was a career year, but a closer look tells us that it was more the product of a career three months.

McLouth’s OPS before the all-star break was .899, a very, very fine number, and worthy of his all-star bid, as were his 19 home runs and 33 doubles.

However, somewhere over the course of the summer, pitchers began to figure him out. That or the real Nate McLouth emerged. McLouth would hit just 7 home runs the rest of the way, and collect only 13 doubles while seeing his OPS drop all the way  to .781.

Over the final two months of the year he struck out in roughly 18% of his plate appearances, a good deal higher than the 12% mark he displayed during the seasons first three months.

In all actuality, the hopes people have for Nate McLouth are basically centered around the months of April, May, and July of 2008. McLouth, in those three months posted an OPS of .900 or greater. Here’s the problem, only one other time in his career has he managed to do this.

McLouth set career highs in 2008 for home runs and doubles, and the difference between his 46 doubles in 2008 and his second best year in terms of two baggers is really staggering, as his second highest output was 27.

McLouth did indeed get off to pretty good start with the Pirates in 2009, but it wasn’t quite up to the level of play he had reached in 2008. However, once he was traded to the Braves, his production at the plate quickly took a turn for the worse.

You look at his stat line from 2008 with 152 games played (.256, .356, .497, 46 2B and 26 HR) and compare it to what he’s done in 172 games as a Brave (.228, .329, .375, 33 2B and 17 HR) , you see why the downward trend can’t be expected to cease.

Beyond that, McLouth doesn’t offer much by way of speed on the bases, or defensive help in center field.

He’s only stolen 19 bases as a Brave, and been caught 9 times. A conversion of rate of barely above 66% is terrible, especially for a guy getting on base as infrequently as he is.

Perhaps if McLouth wasn't spending so much time looking lost in the field, his offensive inadequacies would be forgiven

 

In the field, his range is limited and pedestrian, and he doesn’t do much with his arm to hold base runners, or even attempt to throw them out at times. In fact, his defense has steadily declined since becoming a Brave. It has declined so much so that in 2010 McLouth was in the bottom tenth percentile of all fielders in baseball according to UZR.

Weak offense can be accepted if you play premier defense at the game’s most pivotal defensive positions (catcher, shortstop, center field). However, when you combine offense that fails to be above average with defense that is among the worst in baseball, what you get is a serious problem when filling out your lineup card.

McLouth fans long for him to return to what he did in 2008 with the Pirates. The bad news is that there is simply nothing to indicate that he will.

With Tommy Hanson though, just the opposite holds true.

Yes, Tommy Hanson has struggled out of the gate, although his performance against a very good offensive team in Milwaukee wasn’t exactly the stuff of Vicente Padilla.

However, it hasn’t stopped people from saying Hanson needs to be traded while he has value. Some have gone so far as to suggest Hanson was actually “bad” in 2010, that it’s been a steady digression for the young right hander.

Sometimes I wonder if people are watching the same game I am.

Or maybe they just aren’t watching them all. Apparently the only three games that a great many people saw Hanson pitch last year were his three worst outings of the year, and arguably of his young career.

Never mind the fact that in his 31 other starts last year Hanson posted a 2.34 ERA (would be good for 3rd in the NL) and a WHIP of 1.073 (would have been for fourth in the NL). I don’t really know about the rest of you, but if you’re going to tell me I can have numbers like that from a 23, or 24-year-old kid for 31 outings, I’ll take them all day, any day, every day. Without question. Anyone who wouldn’t should probably find another sport to follow, or in the very least quit expecting everyone to be Bob Gibson.

I understand when Hanson was bad last year, which wasn’t that often, he was really bad. But what seems to have been forgotten is that when he was good, which was quite often, he was very, very good.

Have people really already forgotten how good this kid is?

 

I’ve heard more than one person say that Hanson wasn’t as good last year as he was his rookie season. This sort of ludicrous statement can only come one of two ways. Either the only games they watched last year were those few disastrous starts, or, the only numbers they look at for a pitcher is the W-L record, with a little glance at ERA.

The problem is, people point to his apparent decline in 2010 as proof that his 2011 struggles are even more of a sign that he will never be a front line pitcher, and he needs to be dealt while he still offers value.

Well to begin to refute this absurd line of thinking, one should first look to see just how “bad” he really was in 2010, and how much worse he was than in 2009.

One of the first things people point out was the decrease in strikeouts. These people probably forget that for a pitcher to be most effective, pitching a lot of innings is something managers and fans of teams that want to win place a lot of value on. Taking five pitches to strike a guy out is far less efficient than inducing a ground ball after two or three pitches.

So yes, his K/9 ratio did decrease from 8.2 to 7.7. However, what is completely forgotten and ignored by his critics is that he also decreased his BB/9 ratio by a 50% better margin. His K:BB ratio actually increased from just 2.52 to 3.09. Not only that, also saw his HR/9 average go from .70 to .62.

Now, I’m not sure if you’re completely aware of how baseball works, but when a pitcher faces a batter, there are, for the most part (rare instances such as catchers interference, or a 3rd strike getting away aside), there are three possible outcomes that a pitcher, and a pitcher alone, is in complete control of. He can issue a walk, strike the hitter out, or allow a home run.

So, I’m thinking that if a guy is is increasing his strike out to walk ratio, while decreasing the number of home runs he allows, he’s probably pitching better.

Oh, sure, his ERA goes up, but ERA is highly fielder dependent. And please don’t start in with how ERA accounts for errors. It does NOT account for the range and skill, or even mental acuity of the fielders in charge of turning batted balls into outs.

Hanson’s FIP (Fielder independent Pitching) actually dropped in 2010. In other words, if Hanson had the typical average major league defense behind him in both 2009 and 2010, his ERA would have dropped in the 2010 season.

ERA skews numbers two ways, it can be made to be higher than it should be for pitchers with poor defenses, while making pitchers who benefit from great defense behind them appear to be world beaters, not taking into much account how good the pitcher is actually pitching.

Hanson managed to increase his ground ball percentage in 2010, while also decreasing the number of line drives hit against him . Yet, the average on balls in play against him went up. Usually, the correlation between such events works the opposite, in Hanson’s case it didn’t. For that, you can attribute some of that to the defense behind him.

It is forgotten also that Hanson, in 2010, in 25 of his 34 starts allowed 2 earned runs or less. You don’t think that’s pitching well? Yikes.

So yes, Hanson hasn’t exactly been brilliant in his TWO starts to begin the year. I think however his track record has shown that more often than not, he will be, and he’s getting better.

But I wouldn’t want anything like the actual numbers to fool you.

So, yes, you can indeed take something from a players first week, but not a players first week alone. Sometimes the first week is only the continuation of a troubling trend that is possibly years in the making. Sometimes though, it’s just a blip in a strong career that just so happened to come in the first week of April.

Talk to me in July, and I’m willing to bet that most will have completely forgotten their disdain for Tommy Hanson, while if Nate McLouth is still in the lineup, there will be much anguish in Braves country.

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All Star Games, Really?

The Major League Baseball All-Star game is upon us, and?

Yawn.

That’s the noise you hear from the collective sports viewing public. The All-Star game is no longer fashionable, it’s an over-hyped, inconvenient, charade of people who don’t want to be in a place they are forced to be, doing something they don’t really want to do, for approximately 37 people who actually care.

The All-Star game was cool, and hip, and relevant up through the 80s. No longer does it hold such meaning.

Blame it on interleague play, blame it on the fall of baseball as the nation’s most popular sport, or blame it on the massive media coverage at everyone’s disposal. Blame it on Bud Selig for cheapening it with his ill-conceived plan to have “This one count”.

Regardless of where the blame gets placed, the All-Star game has been rendered an afterthought in the American sports culture.

The All-Star game used to be a chance for fans of the National League to see the stars of the American League take the field, and vice versa. Thanks to interleague play, the expanded post-season, the difference in the haves and have-nots of baseball, and free agency, that’s not such a novelty anymore.

Whereas once upon a time, the only time you ever really saw anyone from another team playing baseball, or had much coverage paid to them, was when they were playing against your home team. American League teams didn’t play National League teams aside from the World Series. In turn, stars from opposing leagues might as well have been foreign stars playing across the ocean. Interleague play brought those players to everyone’s city.

The dearth of free agency and player movement also contributed to the excitement around the All-Star game. As mentioned, players from the American League and National League rarely crossed paths. The All-Star game was the only way to see some of these superstars take the field.

With player movement at such an all-time high, (see Cliff Lee, arguably the best pitcher in baseball now pitching for his 4th team in two years), players are constantly crossing over leagues. An American Leaguer one day, a Chicago Cub the next. It happens all the time.

The player movement also contributed to taking away from one of the other great allures of the All-Star game. The love affair between fan and player is no longer what it once was. Players change teams constantly, owners and players alike seem to have lost a sense of loyalty. As a result, fans aren’t so enamored with their particular players, as they recognize that as soon as the end of that month, that player could be wearing a different uniform.

Where once fans took great pride in watching the All-Star game to see “their guy” play, to see him on a field with other stars. In today’s climate, that pride is non-existent, and for good reason.

Do you really think Royals and Pirates fans are overly excited about seeing their guy for his couple at-bats, or their pitcher pitch one inning? It’s imply a reminder that he’s pretty much the only good player their miserable franchise has at its disposal. Worse, they are fully aware that that particular player will more than likely be traded away within the next couple of weeks, or in the very least, the coming off-season. So, yeah, that pride in your players thing, eh, not so much.

There was once a time the All-Star game was the only game outside of World Series games that really seemed to matter. There were no LCS, there were no wildcard series. Baseball came down to two things, the Mid-Summer Classic, and the Fall Classic. That was it. You didn’t miss either.

Now the post-season lasts an entire month. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of players who comprise the All-Star teams will also be those still playing baseball in October. So what’s special about seeing them all on the field now? You can see them all together for an entire month in October.

The biggest contributor however to the lack of interest in the All-Star game is the endless coverage afforded to baseball fans 24/7. All the reasons mentioned previously refer to the same basic concept, that the stars from the “other” league were like hidden secrets that only got exposed on a very infrequent basis.

No longer is that the case. Fans can watch any player take every single at-bat of their season if they so wish. There’s nothing secretive, or alluring for a Dodgers fan to watch Derek Jeter bat. They can watch every single inning of every single game that Jeter participates in. So what now is so special of watching him take two meaningless at-bats in an All-Star me.

The fact that this game actually counts for something, and determines home field advantage in the World Series is nothing more than a joke, and all that joke does is take even further away from what once was a spectacle of superstars.

Now it’s a collection of baseball players who wished they had three days off instead of trotting around for a nation that doesn’t really care anymore.

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