Braves Check: May 4, 2009

We’re four weeks into the season now; 24 games, or 15% of the season, is/are in the rear-view mirror.  In the standings, the Braves are looking up at the Marlins and Phillies and down at the Mets and Nationals.  I expect they’ll be looking down on the Marlins in due time, which is reason #1 not to draw sweeping conclusions after two weeks of the season.  We’ll try not to do the same four weeks in.

This Week’s Stats

FanGraphs Batting

With a clutch single on Tuesday, Matt Diaz took the lead in Braves WPA for hitting.  His week was otherwise only average, and Omar Infante probably had the most productive week overall at the plate, with 9 hits, 2 walks and a sacrifice in 21 trips.

Kelly Johnson, meanwhile, is the forgotten man at second base.  He got stuck in a cold spell at the wrong time, since it seems that Bobby Cox has grown to like Infante, who probably isn’t even the Braves’ best backup infielder (I might argue for Martin Prado).

Infante is currently sporting a .367/.407/.429 slash line for a solid-at-second-base .836 OPS, but he’s not going to hit .400 on balls in play all season.  Expect his average to dip by around 100 points, which is going to make him far less useful as a hitter.  Prado, on the other hand, is hitting .308 with some gap power, and he has a more sustainable .318 BABIP.  Let’s also not fool ourselves and think that Kelly is really a .219 hitter.  He’ll climb back up in the .260s eventually, which will also make him a serviceable hitter.

The rest of the infield also contains some points of interest.  Casey Kotchman’s numbers keep trending positively, although he’s hitting for virtually no power.  He does have nine doubles, which is encouraging.  Elsewhere, Chipper is off to a slower-than-usual start, and Yunel Escobar is showing that he needs to work on his sprint to first base.  Yunel has a team-high 2.41 GB/FB ratio and isn’t enough of a speedster to turn those little dribblers into hits, so he’s making a ton of outs.

The Jeff Francoeur Improvement Watch has continued for another week, and I’m only seeing signs of marginal improvement so far.  He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, but he’s not seeing any more pitches or taking any more walks than he did last year.  His contact rate and batting average are up, but his OBP is still just .307.  At 4%, his walk rate is actually down from last year.  He’s on pace to draw just 27 free passes.  Maybe if the average stays high, he’s a league-average hitter.  Otherwise, I’m not seeing anything that gets me excited for the future.

Jordan Schafer got a chance to lead off this week, and he may get some more in the near future.  The Braves have shown zero speed this year (4 steals in 7 tries), and even Schafer hasn’t run much while hitting in the 8-hole.  He somehow only has 3 RBI, but he’s hitting .260/.400/.416, which along with his solid defense is quite impressive for the rookie.  It might take Omar Infante cooling off, but I bet he’ll get a few more chances to lead off pretty soon if he keeps this up.  Something to work on, though: his 63% contact rate is worse than any Braves non-pitcher by far.

Brandon Jones and the catching tandem had rough hitting weeks, and that rounds out the offensive stats.  The Braves scored 20 runs in 6 games, which isn’t nearly enough to win games consistently.

Moving on to the pitching rotation, Jair Jurrjens had another good week.  His last start was cut short, but he still has a 1.89 ERA.  That 16/14 K/BB ratio is a little troubling, so he’ll need to keep improving his command before that comes back to bite him.

Jo-Jo Reyes followed the best start of his career with a dud yesterday afternoon, so it was more of the same roller-coaster ride we’ve come to expect from the young lefty.  Hopefully the highs keep getting higher and he somehow learns to avoid getting shelled in every other start.

Without some improvement from Jo-Jo, the Tommy Hanson watch will continue.  I suppose it would continue regardless, since he’s the best advanced pitching prospect in baseball.  My main reservation about his game, which is his high fly ball ratio, shouldn’t be enough to keep him in the minors for much longer.  He struck out 9 in 6 innings in his last start, bringing his K/BB ratio to 38/9 in 26 innings this year.  It’s looking more and more like he’s just too good to leave in AAA.  The question is, who will he replace?

It certainly won’t be Javier Vazquez or Derek Lowe, nor will it be Jurrjens, whom we have already discussed.  Vazquez gave up five unlucky runs in his only start against the Cards this week.  They singled him to death in one inning, but he still lasted 8 innings in that start and looked good overall.  Lowe went 6 2/3 with 2 runs allowed in his only start.  Both of the Braves’ big acquisitions have ERAs in the low-threes.

Ken Kawakami, on the other hand, was awful in his last start and is already complaining of shoulder fatigue.  I think he can eventually turn it around, but if he fails to show up for too many more starts, he could be the one getting demoted (at least to the ‘pen) to make way for Hanson.  They’re even starting on the same day now.  Right now, I’d still bet on Reyes being the odd man out, but Kawakami’s next in line.  I don’t expect to see  Tom Glavine pitch again.

The relief staff had a pretty good week, even though they were worked hard over the weekend.  Pete Moylan gave up a couple of runs, but everyone else looked great.  Mike Gonzalez didn’t allow a run in 3 outings, notching one save.

The Road Ahead

This week is packed full, with the final two games of the homestand and then an important road trip.  The Braves’ next 10 games are within the division, so the time to start hitting is now.  Today and tomorrow are against the Mets; then, it’s off to Miami (Wed-Thu) and Philadelphia (Fri-Sun).

Here are this week’s probable pitchers:

Mon: Vazquez vs. John Maine
Tue: Kawakami vs. Livan Hernandez
Wed: Lowe vs. Graham Taylor
Thu: Jurrjens vs. Anibal Sanchez
Fri: Reyes vs. Cole Hamels
Sat: Vazquez vs. Joe Blanton
Sun: Kawakami vs. Brett Myers

Thank you for reading, and have a good week.  Charts will resume tomorrow.

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