In too deep: Braves Rotation

After a day off from blogging, I’ll continue the series I started last week by looking at the Braves’ rotation.

John Smoltz

The Braves’ ace was off to a rough start, but he’s back under control, leading the team with seven wins.  He has only recently surpassed the play of the Braves’ “other” ace, Tim Hudson, and he now sits at +.912 in WPA, almost two full wins above average.  He has only had one truly disastrous start, on April 22, when he gave up six runs in 5 2/3 innings.  Before his injury troubles last week (and including Tuesday’s start), that was his only outing shorter than six innings.  As far as starting pitchers go, that’s really the model of consistency.

Smoltz has been basically the same pitcher for the whole time since he returned to the rotation in 2005.  He allows about 8-9 hits per nine innings, walks about two, and strikes out just under eight.  This year has been no different, although his hit rate is up just a little.  If he stays relatively healthy and remains basically the same pitcher, the Braves will not regret his recent contract extension at all.

WPA-wise, Smoltz climbed almost all the way to two wins above average (+.991) before he gave up three runs in last Tuesday’s short outing.  He’s currently sitting at +.912, pacing the Braves’ rotation.  On a per-plate-appearance basis, his WPA/LI of +0.26 is solid, but not outstanding (that’s two-thousandths of a point of positive WPA per batter, so it’s really WPA/LI/PA*100).

I’d look for more of the same from Smoltz this year, and I hope the Braves don’t have to ride him too hard, so that he will still have something left for the playoffs.

Tim Hudson

Until his last start, Hudson had led the Braves’ staff in WPA all year.  He’s now a hair behind Smoltz, though it’s hard to doubt that he’s still having a stellar year.  He’s averaging almost seven innings per start with an ERA a notch over 3.  Most people, including myself, agree that this is because his sinker is sinking once again.  With a GB/FB ratio nearing 3, it’s hard to dispute that he’s keeping the ball on the ground more than ever before.  Coupled with a slightly fortunate line drive rate and home run/fly ball rate, he’s managed quite the improvement.  Hudson is not really a strikeout guy, so this has been especially important for him.

The bad news for Tim is this: three of his last four starts have been duds, with at least five earned runs each time.  He was unlucky in Monday’s start, with a couple of defensive blunders costing him some earned runs because they were not scored as errors, so perhaps he has actually turned things back around after a tough two-start stretch.

Remarkably, Tim has a very strong WPA/LI of +1.709, which is actually the best number on the team.  Yet, he has a WPA of +.844, meaning that he has been worth a win and a half below average (-.865) in terms of clutch play.  I’m not sure that’s anything to be disturbed about, but it’s a huge difference at this point of the season.

The Braves would possibly be fighting to stay at .500 were it not for his excellent performance thus far, and it’s really great to see Hudson looking like the Oakland version of himself.

Chuck James

The Braves have one extreme groundballer in the rotation in Hudson, and Chuck James is his polar opposite.  In what basically amounts to a full season in the Braves’ rotation between this year and last year, James has seen over 50% of batted balls go up in the air behind him, with about 11% of those leaving the park.  The latter number is about average, so it’s probably reasonable to expect him to allow 30 homers in a full year on the mound.  That’s a staggering number, and one I wouldn’t take lightly.

Of course, James has always been an extreme flyball pitcher, and somehow he’s still managed to get people out.  He only has decent command thus far in his big league career (about a 2:1 K/BB ratio), but he’s not that easy to hit, and he has pitched well in some tight spots.  I think he can be a decent #3 guy in the rotation, and though he seems to lack some consistency and stamina right now, it’s possible that he already is decent for that role.

Looking at WPA, Chuck is a win above average at +.530.  Most of that has come from clutch play, where he is +.459 vs. +.071 in WPA/LI.  I don’t know if that’s sustainable or not, but I’ll take it.

Kyle Davies

I’ve made a couple of references to “Good Davies” vs. “Bad Davies” this year on a start-to-start basis.  After the season’s opening week, Good Davies didn’t really make an appearance again for a whole month, when Kyle had a solid game on May 11th.  Since then, he has alternated from good to bad starts, although one of the “bad” starts involved four unearned runs, so it’s probably not fair to punish him for that.  Overall, he’s two wins below average with a WPA of -1.033.  An ERA of 5.31 and a WHIP of 1.50 will do that for you.

Davies has been too hittable this year, and he hasn’t really shown any kind of command, striking out about one more batter per 9 innings (5.7) than he walks (4.1).  He hasn’t really shown a distinct ground ball/fly ball tendency…all we know is that he gets hit hard regardless.  He hasn’t walked more than two batters in a start since April, but he also just concluded a five-start stretch where he didn’t strike out more than three.

Davies has had some good starts.  I’d call it something to build on.  His career is off to a rough start, but he’s just a few months older than I am (b. 9/9/83), and I still consider myself young.  He’ll have to improve at something in order to stick around for the long term.  Right now he’s still a below-average #4 starter.

Lance Cormier

The flavor du jour in the #5 hole, Cormier didn’t really offer an improvement over the previous options in his first start since returning from the DL.  Unlike some, I don’t have faith that he will hold the back end of the rotation together.  He won’t eat innings, and he won’t get guys out often enough to be even moderately sucessful as a starter.  Right now I guess the hope is that he’s better than Mark Redman, which is kind of like setting “breathe daily” as one of your career goals.

Buddy Carlyle

Carlyle is probably pitching better right now than he ever has.  Though he’s not exactly oozing potential, he had an outstanding start on Tuesday to make up for a rough outing in a previous spot start.  He has had decent command throughout his minor league career, and it’s entirely possible that he is the fifth best starting pitcher in the Braves’ organization at this moment in time.  He’s probably too hittable and not enough of a strikeout guy to be successful in the long term, but for now I like him better than Lance Cormier.  Carlyle is just a hair below zero in WPA, which isn’t terrible, but it’s a ridiculously small sample size.

Anthony Lerew

Lerew was decent enough in one start before he decided not to tell the team he was hurt and pitched anyway.  So, there’s really no telling what to expect from him when he returns.  He has decent potential and is perhaps the most major-league ready of the players the Braves would actually consider to be prospects.  In three starts, his WPA was -.343.

Minor League System

Macay McBride was starting in AAA Richmond before his callup and might be worth a shot in the rotation.  He was always at least a decent starting prospect.

Jo-Jo Reyes has been decent this year in AA Mississippi (3.80 ERA in 66 innings) and is on the short list of the Braves’ best pitching prospects.  He’s not ready for the majors now, and he may not be next year, either.

Matt Harrison has been marginally better than Reyes at Mississippi (3.41), and he was actually a candidate for the #5 slot out of spring training.  He’s probably not far down the list of potential call-ups.

Dan Smith has been outstanding, with a 2.13 ERA between Mississippi and Richmond.  Though he’s not considered a top prospect, I’ll put things in perspective and note that he and Kyle Davies were born on the same day.  His strikeouts are down a little bit this year, which you’d think would hurt his command, so that’s something to watch with him.

Francisley Bueno has also pitched well in AA, but he’s old for that league.

James Parr is 21 and has a 3.73 ERA between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, so that’s not bad.

Moises Hernandez has led the Myrtle Beach team with an ERA just over 3, but he’s 23 and probably needs to move up if he’s going to show up on any prospect lists.

Tommy Hanson has been great in Rome with a 2.35 ERA as a 2o-year-old.  He may climb some folks’ lists if he keeps this up, but obviously he’s nowhere near ready.

Jamie Richmond has also been good in Rome, with a 3.29 ERA, and he’s considered the best prospect currently pitching there and one of the Braves’ better options for the long term.

Deunte Heath (2.34) is also pitching well in Rome.

The minor league system isn’t really stacked with starting pitching, but there are some intriguing arms.  That doesn’t help the major league situation, though, since most of them aren’t ready.

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