Braves Check: April 13, 2009

The first week of the season was almost an undeniably good one for the Braves.  Five wins in six games is a good stretch for any team, especially one that lost 90 games the previous year.  (Were the Braves really that bad last year? I guess I didn’t watch a ton of games down the stretch.)

The biggest difference so far in 2009 is that the revamped starting rotation is keeping the team in every game.  With the exception of Derek Lowe’s rain-shortened start on Friday, every starter this year has lasted at least five innings and allowed three or fewer runs.  With the offense averaging over six runs per game, that’s been enough to win every game.

The Braves would have won every game in the season’s first week if not for an epic multi-reliever meltdown in the 7th inning of Wednesday’s 12-11 loss in the series finale to the Phillies.  Four runs scored on walks alone as the Braves’ bullpen blew a 7-run lead without really making the Phillies hit the ball hard, and the Braves’ top relievers were nowhere to be found.

Because of Bobby Cox’s adherence to traditional (since 1990, at least) reliever usage patterns, he had burned his best guys “saving” a four-run game on Tuesday that was never really in doubt.  When an actual crucial situation came around on Wednesday, the game was left in the hands of Blaine Boyer and Jorge Campillo.  It was a gut-punch loss, to be sure, with a sweep of the defending champion Phils in sight.

It’s easy after that loss to say that the Braves should be 6-0 and the class of the National League, but for now they’ll have to share that title with the 5-1 Marlins.

The bullpen still looks soft in the middle, but I am fairly confident in the back end if both Gonzalez and Soriano stay healthy.  I wouldn’t expect the lineup to keep giving the pitchers six runs to work with, but one of the other hallmarks of a Cox-managed team (aside from the frustrating ‘pen) is consistency in demeanor and performance.  The Braves certainly have enough talent to get good results with that style this year, enough even to compete with the division heavyweight Mets and Phillies.

Last Week’s Stats

Virtually every regular is hitting the ball well to start the season.  Jordan Schafer has looked tremendous in center field, although I wonder how long he’ll keep swinging the bat like this.  I’d expect his contact rate to fall off, especially as pitchers see him for the second or third time.  Schafer, Brian McCann, and Kelly Johnson have smacked multiple homers in the season’s first week.  Of the nine Braves with at least 10 at-bats (the regular starters, including both Anderson and Diaz), one is slugging over .700 (McCann), five more are slugging at least .600 (Johnson, Schafer, Jones, Diaz, Escobar), and even Francoeur is slugging .520.  The first six have an OPS over 1.000, and Frenchy’s is a somewhat respectable .789.  Only Casey Kotchman and Garret Anderson, who is hurt, are off to slow starts.

I looked through some of the early batted ball and pitch/zone numbers to see if I could verify any of the improvements that Francoeur has reportedly made since last season.  The new stance is apparent, but the patience is really not.  He has drawn just one walk in 26 trips to the plate, although his pitches-seen-per-PA number is up by a tenth: 3.61 this year vs. 3.49 a year ago.  In the first week, Frenchy has cut down on his swings outside the strike zone (25.7%, virtually league average) and is making better contact when he does swing at them (66.7% vs. 60.2%).  He’s still making less contact within the strike zone than the average batter, though.  It’s too early to say whether this represents any sort of real improvement, but based on early scouting and anecdotal evidence, it would seem that he has improved, if only slightly.

I’ve already touched on the starting pitching some, and it has been quite good.  Lowe has looked the best, only allowing one run in 11 innings.  Jurrjens has labored a bit through his starts but only allowed 3 earned runs, also in 11 innings.  Javier Vazquez will have two starts this week, and he looked relatively good in the meltdown game, which cost him a win.  Kawakami struggled with command early in his debut on Saturday, but he held the Nats to 3 runs in 6 innings.  I’ll come back to him shortly.

Tom Glavine made a rehab start yesterday and at the moment is still scheduled to pitch on Saturday against the Pirates, but he left the game after two innings.  There’s no telling who might replace him if he can’t go, with the Braves’ newfound pitching depth.  Campillo, Carlyle, and Bennett have all started for the Braves before, and they’re all in the bullpen.  The Braves also have Charlie Morton, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Tommy Hanson in Gwinnett.  I’d expect to see Hanson only if the injury to Glavine is of a long-term nature.  Otherwise, Reyes or Morton could get the call.  Charlie pitched a gem yesterday, striking out 12 in 6 innings.

Kawakami’s Debut

Melissa and I decided on Saturday morning to spend the day in Atlanta and go to the game that night.  We saw a larger-than-normal group of Asian fans and media on hand for Kenshin Kawakami’s MLB debut.  I saw one fan wearing a Chunichi Dragons Kawakami jersey, and several groups of fans had signs written in Japanese.  It was a festive atmosphere anyway, being the first Saturday home game, and the Braves recognized Chipper Jones and Brian McCann before the game as 2008 Silver Slugger winners.

The story of the game was Kawakami, though.  He fell behind to virtually everyone early in the game, and as can happen with a lineup that features Adam Dunn and Nick Johnson, he surrendered a couple of walks and gave up some early runs.  In the end, he settled down, went six innings, and struck out eight batters, which is a good sign for the future.  There was some concern coming out of Spring Training that he might not be missing enough bats, but he started the regular season on a positive note in that department, totaling eight Ks in his first six innings.

Upcoming Schedule

The Braves will host Florida for three games, starting on Tuesday with Javier Vazquez against Chris Volstad.  Lowe and Kawakami will finish the series against Andrew Miller and Anibal Sanchez.  Then, they head off on a three-city road trip, with the first stop this weekend in Pittsburgh.  Jurrjens will face Paul Maholm on Friday, and [hopefully someone good] will face Ian Snell on Saturday.  Vazquez will finish the week against Zach Duke, probably backed by the Braves’ infamous Sunday Lineup (so he’d better be good).

I’ll try to post some pictures from Saturday’s game when I get the chance to get them off my camera.  The Braves now have their own between-inning mascot race with Home Depot tools, so I had to get a few shots of that.

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