April 2008

All around the world…

Maybe I’ve been spending too much time listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers the past couple of days and have the tune stuck in my head, but looking at the first month of the 2008 season has got me shaking my head. It’s been a weird month all over, from the Atlanta Braves that I see on a nightly basis to MLB as a whole.

There has been no shortage of stories, injuries, hot starts, cold streaks and even a little bad blood that sums up the on field and off-field product. Here are a half a dozen things that have caught my attention, arranged in no particular order.

Slumping stars:

Some of the games best players and most talented young stars are all suffering through some pretty rough starts. I could spend a whole bunch of words and more of your time than necessary to describe these struggles… or I could simply give you a chart that demonstrates my point. Thus, here you go: 

Player Name

AVG

HR

RBI

R

OPS

Ichiro Suzuki

.257

2

8

19

.695

David Ortiz

.177

4

20

15

.611

Ryan Howard

.174

5

11

13

.659

Jose Reyes

.237

2

9

13

.664

Alfonso Soriano

.175

2

5

7

.528

Gary Sheffield

.159

1

3

7

.575

Carlos Beltran

.224

2

13

17

.771

Andruw Jones

.159

1

4

11

.522

Travis Hafner

.219

3

15

12

.667

Prince Fielder

.244

4

18

14

.818

Robinson Cano

.153

1

5

5

.431

Troy Tulowitzki

.152

1

11

10

.464

(Stats through Monday April 28).

What’s worse is that I haven’t even taken a look at the pitchers who are off to rough starts. Let’s save those for another time. There is alot of baseball left to be played.

The Three-way tie for AL East Lead

Ok, so the Red Sox are pacing the AL East. No surprise right? Wrong. They happen to be tied with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Baltimore Orioles… Say what? I know it’s only one month and that does not a season make, but I would love to know the last time that the Orioles were pacing the East and I would really like to know if the Rays have ever been in front after a full month? Things to ponder and Google.

Barry Zito breaking the bank in the bullpen

So I said “later” to addressing the struggling pitchers. Later is now.

It’s not that Barry Zito‘s Cy Young season and the strong start his career got off to did not warrant the contract he recieved from the Giants. Really, big contracts are just a part of sports today, and more power to those who receive them. Zito has been horrendous since moving across the bay, however. His 0-6 start and his drop in velocity, not to mention his command issues, have all combined to give the Giants a rather pricey lefty reliever.

Zito’s numbers with the Giants, for those interested.

W

L

ERA

GS

CG

IP

ER

H

HR

BB

K

WHIP

11

19

4.91

39

0

225.1

123

223

28

98

142

1.43

Let’s hope he gets it figured out, for his sake and the Giants.

Chipper Jones’ torrid start at the plate

“The reports of my demise have been greatly exagerated.” — Mark Twain, 1897

Ditto for Chipper Jones after his 2007 campaign. Injuries sapped the slugging third baseman’s ability to put up the numbers that earn MVP awards, All-Star nods and Silver Sluggers, but Chipper announced himself healthy in a big way when he nearly won a batting title (.337) and lead the Majors in OPS (1.029). How about 75 extra base hits in 134 games and what should have been his first Rawlings Gold Glove award? That too.

This season, Chipper has taken it to a whole new level. He is pacing the Big Leagues in batting average (.410) and is right up there with eight homers and 20 RBI after the first month. Some nagging injuries have popped up, but Chipper Jones in the lynchpin of the Braves offense. A healthy and productive season will be one of the main reasons that Atlanta contends in the National League East.

Roy Halladay, master of the CG

There could come a day where the complete game (or CG) could go the way of the GW-RBI (that’s game winning RBI for those curious) stat category. That is, they count them, but they don’t really count for anything anymore. No longer an official statistic since 1989.

Maybe that won’t happen, but you just don’t find many pitchers that go all nine these days. There are match-ups to follow and relief speacialists that get the call in seemingly every situation for every manager now. It’s all about lefty vs. lefty and righty vs. righty. How about if a team finds relievers that just pitch well. And you give them the ball. And they throw an entire inning. And the world doesn’t come to an end. It could work, but forget it. I’m old fashioned I guess.

It’s become the industry standard as starting pitchers seem to last fewer and fewer innings per start each year. Roy Halladay is the clear exception to the rule. His eight and two third inning complete game effort in a 1-0 Toronto loss at Fenway Park on Tuesday was his fourth of the season. No other pitcher has thrown more than one. Call it a random tangent on my part, but it’s nice to see a pitcher start and finish the game on a semi-regular basis.

And finally, I saved the best for last…. Nick Johnson’s mustache

Nick_Johnson.JPGThis may truly be one of baseball’s great mysteries. I mean, why? I don’t care who you are, that is just a bad look. My only regret is that I cannot find a picture that can properly demonstrate the pure 70’s cheesiness of Johnson’s ‘stache.

And that is all I have for you, my readers.

 

Till Next time,

G-Mc 

Stumbling out of the gate…

Before we even get started, let me just say this:

It could be worse… They could be the Detroit Tigers.

After all the off-season moves and pre-season predictions, I never thought I would be saying that. Here we are though, just over one week into the season and the Braves are 3-5 while the Tigers sit at a woefull 0-7.

Yes, the Atlanta Braves are off to a less-than-stellar start, but there are some bright spots. There are also some things that haven’t gone quite according to plan. Let’s take a look at both.

What’s going right: 

Tom Glavine:  Some critics, including ESPN’s Keith Law, thought that the Braves opting to bring in a 42-year old left-hander was not the right move. Law blasted the move in a call-in interview with a local Atlanta sports station. It’s not shocking that a baseball analyst would be drawn more to younger arms given the choice, but it was rather strange how vehemently he attacked the move as a complete waste of money. Tisk, Tisk.

Let’s just say that this Tom Glavine is looking more like the vintage Tom Glavine we remember than the one who allowed seven runs in a third of an inning in his final Mets outing. Two starts into the season, he has allowed just two runs and a holds a 0.79 ERA in the early going. I don’t think there is anyone who expects Glavine to recapture his Cy Young magic of ’91 or ’98, or duplicate his ’95 World Series Game 6 everytime out. However, if he can average about 6 innings every time out, it will put the Braves in position to easily win the majority of Glavine’s starts. (See: One run losses a little later)

Chipper Jones: There’s a rumor going around that Chipper Jones really knows how to hit. Ok, so it’s not a rumor – it’s a fact. He doesn’t just beat you with the long ball, Jones constantly works over pitchers and sprays base hits all over the ballpark. That is how you contend for a batting title. Jones has picked up right where he left off last season. Through eight games, he is 13-for-34 for a .382 average – good for the ninth best mark in the NL thus far.

What’s more? Jones drives in runs, lots of them. How about one a game? If a player can hold that ratio over the full season, then you would have a 162-RBI guy in your line-up. I’d take that. Realistically though, Jones driving in 100 runs in crucial to the Braves success. He’s off to a good start.

Mark Kotsay: He must have answered the question of how he planned to replace Andruw Jones all spring long, but Kotsay never presumed that he needed to “replace” Jones. Instead, he concentrated on getting ready for the season and doing the things he knows how to do. That’s been pretty evident in the first week.

Kotsay is a completely different kind of player. He has line-drive power and a shorter more compact swing that garners more contact. The guy just doesn’t strike out (only three times this season). He makes play after play in center, turning in a number of dazzling catches and showcasing the throwing arm that has gained him a reputation as one of the best throwing outfielders in the game today.

For those curious, here’s a look at Andruw and Kotsay in 2008:

Kotsay: .267 AVG | 1 HR | 3 RBI | .833 OPS | 3 SO

A. Jones: .103 AVG | 0 HR | 1 RBI | .325 OPS | 9 SO  

It may not stay that way all season, but Kotsay has given the Braves a quality everyday player to plug into the line-up and in center field.

Beat the Mets, beat the Mets: Everyone loves a sing-a-long. As a matter of fact, the Braves were able to accomplish just that over the weekend. They stepped right up and swept the Mets in a rain-shortened two-game series. That’s enough of that tune for now.

Kelly Johnson returned in a big way after missing most of the week with a balky right knee, hitting a pinch-hit grand slam that punctuated the 11-5 win on Saturday afternoon. We saw the return of John Smoltz, who threw five scoreless innings to help Atlanta get the best of Mets ace Johan Santana. Even Mark Teixeira got into the action in support of Smoltz with a two-run homer and a sparkling defensive play to preserve Sunday’s win.

There’s no getting around the fact that the Braves will have to perform at a high level against both the Mets and Phillies in head-to-head match-ups this season. Having their way with the Nationals and Marlins would also go a long way toward putting ground between Atlanta and the rest of the division.

What’s gone wrong?

Mike Hampton: Not that this comes as a complete surprise to anyone, but Mike Hampton is hurt again. After the strong spring when he went 1-0 with a 2.16 ERA in five starts, there was hope that the veteran left-hander would be able to boost the Braves rotation this season. He still may, but the latest set-back is a strained left pectoral muscle.

The injury has put him on the 15-day disabled list for now, giving Chuck James a chance to reclaim his spot in the rotation. Still, the Braves are hoping that the return of Hampton could occur this season. I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see if he is able to overcome the two and a half year layoff.

Mark Teixeira: Yes, he has been known as a slow starter, but the Braves are going to need  Teixeira’s bat to awaken from its slumber. Despite his stellar track-record, it would be a bit much to expect him to continue his pace from the final two months of 2007.

Most of his struggles have occured from the right side, where he is just 1-for-14 this season. The Braves have seen quite a few left-handed pitchers on the young season, but that is a trend that will change over the course of the season.

Keep in mind, Teixeira started the 2006 season off by hitting .275 with nine homers and 49 RBI before the All-Star break. All he did in the second half was explode to the tune of .291 average, 24 homers and 61 runs knocked home. It could be one of those years, or it could be too early to tell.

One run losses: When I said a little earlier that Glavine’s work thus far should have been enough to give the Braves victory, this was what I was referring to. Glavine’s first start, the wild 12-11 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the home opener, doesn’t exactly hit the nail on the head, but Monday’s start does. For six and a third innings, Glavine kept the Rockies scoreless. Matt Holliday then victimized Blaine Boyer for a two run blast that held up for a 2-1 Rockies win.

What was the real story in that loss? I contend that it was not a bullpen meltdown, but rather the fact that Aaron Cook and the Colorado bullpen was able to keep Atlanta off the board for the final eight innings. They did so by allowing just one hit over those frames. That makes it hard to string together any kind of rally.

This one run loss stuff goes back to opening day, when Ryan Zimmerman stung the Braves with a walk-off homer in a 3-2 opening day defeat. Either way, the Braves are going to have to find a way to get on the other side of these close games, or they may be looking back at these frustrating losses as the reason they are playing catch-up this season.

 

Till next time,

G-Mc

 

Remember the name, Jurrjens…

Well, 21 runs and two games into the homestand, the Atlanta Braves finally picked up their first win on Wednesday night. A close contest into the eighth inning, the Braves bats came to life and put seven on the board against the Pirate bullpen.

Lost in last night’s offensive barrage (for those who like games with lots of runs) may have been a solid first effort by 22-year old right-hander Jair Jurrjens. His peers believe that his baseball acumen to be far beyond his years, not to mention his poise on the mound.

Just ask Braves catcher Brian McCann.

“He’s 22-years old and when he’s on the mound, you’d think he’s a 10-year veteran,” said McCann, the man calling the signs. “When you’re a pitcher, and you’ve got the stuff he’s got and you can put the ball where you want, he’s going to do what he did tonight.”

McCann got the closest look at Jurrjens performance, save the Pirates hitters who struggled to do much against him in the way of run-scoring opportunities. Sure, Xavier Nady knocked home a pair of runs, but no one is expecting a shut-out every time out. More times than not, if you can limit an opponent to two runs a start, you are going to put your team in a position to win.

Jurrjens is a cool customer, no doubt about it. He prides himself on getting outs early in the count and using location and command as the hallmarks of his pitching style.

“I wanted to get the team in the win column tonight,” said Jurrjens of his goal for the night.

Would you expect anything less from the guy who has spent the spring making one of the best first impressions of any pitcher I can remember? This may be the best young pitcher Atlanta has seen since Kevin Millwood ascended into the Braves rotation full-time as a 23-year old in 1998.

Over the first few innings, he did not commit the mistake of many young pitchers and try to overthrow. For five innings he held the Pirates comfortably in check, before trouble cropped up in the sixth inning and he reverted to being more of a thrower than a refined pitcher.

But you don’t have to tell him. Jurrjens knew upon meeting with the press after the game that if there is anything he can take from this start to work on in the future, it would be stick to the game plan.

“That last inning, you could see I tried to over do it,” said Jurrjens. “I got in trouble and tried to overthrow. I need to stop doing that, especially if I want to go deep in the game.”

Now that’s a stream-lined way to get better results next time out. Identify the problem areas and address them. This kid has got it down.

So what do his teammates think of Wednesday’s performance?

“He was great,” said first baseman Mark Teixeira. “This is what we expect from him. It’s alot of pressure for a young kid… but we expect alot of things out of him. He stepped up tonight and showed how good he can be.”

There are some men on the Braves bench that have seen alot of baseball, and I’m not talking John Smoltz and Tom Glavine here. Bobby Cox has seen every arm the Braves have trotted out for more than two decades, serving as Manager and General Manager, beginning in 1986.

“He threw a great game,” said Cox. “He was sensational I thought, [did] a very impressive job.”

When you’ve seen it all, you don’t really have to spend a great amount of time and a great amount of words to describe what you seen. Mark it down though, if injury takes its toll on the Braves veteran rotation, Jurrjens could become an impact player in a hurry.

 

Till Next time,

G-Mc