The hottest two teams in baseball square off in a four game series starting tomorrow, and as Eric said they will probably split. Eric spotted this nugget.
Uncanny you say? Both teams were expected to compete for their respective teams division crown, and both were huge disappointments in April, both turned things around in May. Braves are already in 1st place and the Dodgers are barking at the door.
The Braves are very close to matching their pythag. Scored 255 runs, Allowed 206 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 31-21. Actual record is 30 - 22.
The Braves are riding an eight game winning streak into Dodger Stadium after having stomped all over the previous 1st place Phillies.
Have to say before I do this preview I'm unsure how the Braves are doing it. I'm going in assuming it is pitching because the only hitter doing good work besides Prado is phenom Jason Heyward. So what is driving that 22 - 8 record since May 1st?
Any numbers you see are based on games through June 1st unless otherwise noted.
1st Base-Troy Glaus looked like a hitter under water when I watched him swing a bat in April. Reminded me of Jim Edmunds when Edmunds did time with the Padres. Unlike the Padres, the Braves stuck with Glaus, and he's paid off handsomely. On April 30th, Glaus had an OPS of .601, on June 2nd it stands at .827. Glaus will be coming into this game as one of the hottest Brave hitters, carrying an eight game hitting streak, that included home runs in three of his last four games. The ex 3rd baseman has stayed healthy so far this year and his .942 OPS in May is exactly what the Braves were hoping for when they signed the oft injured 3rd baseman to be their 1st baseman.
2nd Base-Martin Prado was a huge find for the Braves last year when Kelly Johnson had early season injuries. This year he started out on fire, hitting .356 in April fueled by a .400 BABIP. He slowed down in late April / early May but has since gotten hot again. In his last seven games he's hitting .414. Prado is not some singles machine, he has 20 XBH. At home he's Chase Utley with a .946 OPS but on the road he's only sporting a .696 OPS. He's a strange cat in that his 2009 slug% of .446 was higher then any slug% he accumulated in the minor leagues. His career minor league slug% was .393.
SS - 27 year old Yunel Escobar was struggling coming into this week. In 2009 the young SS posted an .812 OPS and looked to be one of the good young shortstops in the NL. In 2010 he has a Juan Castro like line of .221/.314/.264, and that is after collecting seven hits in his last four games.
3rd Base - Future HOF, Chipper Jones is finding that being 38 sucks. Based on the numbers he's a shell of the once great hitter, and as usual he's hurting somewhere. Not sure if he is going to play in this series as he was taken out of today's game with finger injury (day to day). His OPS of .767 is okay for some third baseman, but this is Chipper Jones not Casey Blake. He's still walking but like Todd Helton the power is nothing like it used to be. If Chipper cannot go, then Omar Infante or Brooks Conrad will take his place.
C - Brian McCann started out slow for his standards but got it going in May moving his OPS upto .812. However most of that OPS is from his gaudy OBP not from his normal plus .500 slug%. Right now he's only hit five home runs, and is sporting a slug% of .420. That is a big drop from the .523 and .486 slug% he had in 2008 / 2009. Still I can't think of one NL catcher who I'd rather have. Hard for Dodger fans to believe that headed into the winter of 2008 the question was Martin or McCann, and for the most part Martin won the debate.
CF - Nate McLouth was acquired from the Pirates in 2009 and was supposed to be the Braves answer at CF for quite a while. That quite a while did not last long. He was so bad early in the year he was benched, and while he's again playing CF, he's been terrible. You think I'm exaggerating? How about an OPS of .589, for a center fielder. How about a road OPS of .387. That is not a misprint. This is June 2nd so i wouldn't think his job is very secure.
RF - Anybody who was a fan of the Moody Blues remembers Justin Hayward but this
Justin Jason Heyward wasn't even born by the time the Moody Blues lost relevance. We hear about about once in a generation players more then once a generation to the point where it gets irksome. You can't be "once in a generation" if you show up every year. That said, Jason Heyward is a once in a generation baseball player. BHSportsguy pointed out this spring how unlikely it would be for Heyward to be an impact player at the age of 20. Well, I'd say he's made an impact. For qualifying at bats his wOBA of .421 is the high mark for every single outfielder. His OPS of .977 is also number one. A 20 year old with a 15% walk rate and a slug% of .567! Better get out some kryptonite because this guy is the closest thing we have seen to Superman since Junior. Even as I write this I'm drooling. When you wonder why the Braves are in first place, you look to right field and you stop there.
LF - Melky Cabrera is the starting left fielder but Eric Hinske is getting plenty of at bats. Melky is not much of a hitter for a left fielder. In 2009 he showed some signs of life with the bat but those signs of life have not shown up in Atlanta. Like McLouth he has struggled all year and currently sports a TSL of .235/.305/.295. With struggles like these it is no surprise that Eric Hinske is getting playing time, and when Hinkse plays he hits. Actually hits is an understatement, Hinske is pounding the shit out of the ball to the tune of .337/.398/.614. The vagabond former ROY seems to end up on the right team. In 2009 he was on three teams but ultimately ended up with the Yankees and won a ring. In 2008 he was with Tampa Bay when they went to the World Series. In 2007 he won a ring with the Red Sox.
Bench - Infante plays everywhere and we might see him at 3rd this series. Or we might see Brooks Conrad who has some power and has hit a walk off grand slam this year. The 30 year old Conrad has driven in 9 runs in only 38 at bats. Lindsey, don't lose hope. David Ross is still around as a back up catcher. Brent Cleveland just went on the DL and was replaced by Gregor Blanco.
Starting Pitching for our Series:
Game 1 - Kris Medlen - replaced the injured Jair Jurrjens, and as expected has handled his spot in the rotation. Medlan got a sport start on 5/8 but joined the rotation for good on 5/18 and has made three starts. In each successive start he's given up more hits going from 4 to 7 to 9 so we have to like that trend. Fangraphs says he's a three pitch pitcher with 90MPH fastball, a curve he uses about 10% of the time, and finally his change up, which he likes enough to use 25% of the time. This guy is a good pitcher, and when Jurrjens comes back expect the guy who is pitching game two to get bounced.
Game 2 - Kenshin Kawakami is 0 - 7 but with a ERA/FIP/xFIP that falls within 4.69 - 4.56, so it is not like he's been the Ortiz twins. He doesn't strike out very many but he doesn't walk very many either. FB(89), Cutter, CurveBall, and Split finger he has an interesting arsenal but no change up.
Game 3 - Tommy Hanson is one of the better young RHP in the game. He's what Allen Webster is going to become. Right now Hanson is striking out hitters close to a hitter per nine innings (8.95) while walking 3.22. The 23 year old Redland boy does most of his work with hard stuff. A
91 93.5 MPH which is a full one MPH less then 2009, along with a 81.7 84.5 Slider. Hanson was as lucky last year as Clayton Kershaw, and this year his ERA is in the expected range of 3.78.
Game 4 - According to his ERA of 2.30 Tim Hudson is back, but is he really? His FIP says he's been lucky as hell with a full two runs getting added in at 4.38. xFIP agrees at 4.39. Hopefully he will normalize this weekend. According to Fangraphs he throws seven different pitches with his fastball topping out around 89.9. He's always been a good GB pitcher but he's taken that to a new level this year, getting 66.7 of batted balls on the ground. That is his career high.
Bullpen - Billy Wagner just like Mr. Broxton had to wait until May to get some save opportunities but he's made up for lost time. Wagner has not lost anything and has a 14.16 K Rate to back up his glittering 1.70 ERA. They lost a good setup man when Medlen moved from the bullpen to the rotation. Old friend Takashi Saito has struck out eight in his last four outings, and while his ERA says 3.00, his FIP says team best 1.82. So Smiling Sammy has plenty left in his tank. Rounding the bullpen will be Peter Moylan, LHP Eric O'Flaherty, Jesse Chavez, and LHP Jonny Venters.
So the Braves are winning with an incredible performance from Heyward, surprising comeback from Glaus, shocking hitting from Hinske, and the steady hand of Prado/McCann. That group has been enough to offset the weak contributions from the rest of the team. The rotation has been solid, not fantastic. The bullpen is good at the end game. This is a good team, is it the best team we have faced this year? Not sure about that? I'll let you know in four days.