Braves Check: April 20, 2009

For a while, it looked as if the Braves might never score another run, but they broke out in a big way on Sunday to end a five-game losing streak against the Marlins and Pirates.  They’re still five games behind the Fish, who are 11-1 and pacing the entire league.  The Braves and Mets are tied for second at 6-6, with the Phillies at 5-6 a half-game behind them.

This Week’s Stats

Full Season Batting Stats (from FanGraphs)
Last 7 Days

Anyone want to guess who leads the Braves in WPA through two weeks?  It’s not Chipper Jones or Brian McCann, who were awarded Silver Slugger awards as the best hitters at their respective positions in 2008.  It’s not even Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, or Casey Kotchman.  No, it’s actually everyone’s favorite Braves whipping boy, Jeff Francoeur.

I’m not going to speculate about why Frenchy has improved this year.  Much has been said about his stance and refined approach, but I’ve resigned myself to believing it only when I see the results over an extended period of time.  His .357 BABIP is a little high but not extraordinary, so let’s just leave it at this for now: he’s off to a good start at the plate, leading the team in WPA at +0.56.  He’s sporting a respectable .868 OPS, although much of that is tied to extra-base hits and not an improvement in OBP.  Jeff has still only drawn one walk in 49 trips to the plate so far.

Virtually every other Braves hitter struggled through the week, at least until Sunday, when they piled on runs they didn’t need.  That’s a frustrating way to win and lose games, as you’d prefer to have just a little predictability to the offense.

The Braves’ pitching has been decent, although the middle relievers have been unreliable.  Despite his poor ERA, I think Mike Gonzalez will eventually come around, and Moylan has also shown signs that he can still be effective.  Jeff Bennett has been lucky to post a 1.29 ERA so far, since he’s allowed 15 baserunners in 7 innings.  Boyer needs to reboot in the minors (if he sticks around), while Carlyle, Campillo, and O’Flaherty just look bad out there.  I’m still rooting for O’Flaherty for purely selfish reasons.

The rotation has been solid.  Between Lowe, Jurrjens, Vazquez, and Kawakami, the Braves have remained competitive in just about every game, and I don’t see any immediate reason why that would change.  Kawakami’s been hit a little, but his 15 Ks in 12 innings are a positive sign.  Jurrjens has had some issues with command on and off, and the 2.04 ERA isn’t going to hold up without some dramatic improvement in that department, but he should continue to be effective.  Lowe and Vazquez have both looked great.  Before long, these guys should be going deep into games, which will help alleviate the relief issues.

The Road Ahead

I’m still optimistic, despite the Marlins’ fast start.  They’re not as good a team as they’ve looked so far, but really no one is.  Their five-game head start could mask their deficiencies for a while, though, so it could be a four-team race for the division title.  That doesn’t bode well for the wild card coming out of the East, but I still think the Braves have as good a shot as anyone, at least as long as Chipper’s playing more often than not.  The Mets and Phillies both lack starting pitching depth, while the Braves don’t (for now).

The schedule is somewhat kind this week, even though the Braves play the whole week on the road.  They will see the best of what the Reds’ rotation has to offer this weekend in Cincinnati, but that’s not tremendously scary.  The Nationals are 1-10, so that part of the trip kind of speaks for itself.

Here are this week’s pitching matchups:

@Washington
Mon: Lowe vs. Jordan Zimmerman (ML debut)
Tue: Kawakami vs. Shairon Martis
Wed: Jurrjens vs. John Lannan

@Cincinnati:
Fri: Reyes vs. Edinson Volquez
Sat: Vazquez vs. Bronson Arroyo
Sun: Lowe vs. Micah Owings

John Sickels rated Zimmerman a B+ prospect back in November, which is a good rating from him.  He has shown good command in the minors, and the Braves seem not to fare well against pitchers making their ML debuts.  I think you still have to like those matchups, though.

Errata

Below I’ve posted two sets of pictures from my recent baseball adventures.  The first set is from the Braves’ second home game of the season (Kawakami’s debut), and the second is from the Gwinnett Braves’ second home game, which was this past Saturday.  I didn’t take many pictures during the games, but you can get a feel for what the new Gwinnett Stadium looks like in the second set of shots.

http://picasaweb.google.com/s/c/bin/slideshow.swf

http://picasaweb.google.com/s/c/bin/slideshow.swf

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