Thursday, May 17, 2012

Atlanta Braves: Can Youth, Depth, and Promise Carry Them to the Postseason?

With the battle at the top of the NL East all but knotted it’s time to look at the Atlanta Braves rotation. Going into the season, the rotation looked to be a strength in Atlanta, and why not? The team went into the season with 5 starters all under 27 years old, and a good number of other options floating around the organization’s depth chart. This has been a strange truth. The rankings would lead you to believe that they have a terrible pitching staff, but how much of that really falls on their starters, and similarly how much of that falls on the current roster is a totally different matter.

Jair Jurrjens managed to lose his starting spot due to gross ineffectiveness over his first 4 starts. The Braves might be kicking themselves for not selling high on Jurrjens, as he has 1 year of arbitration eligibility left, and isn’t going to be providing much value at the major league level any time soon if his last minor league start is any indication.

Tim Hudson has been with Atlanta for a while now and is looking about as league average as they come so far this season. A lot of his peripheral stats are looking right in line with his career averages, so that’s a plus for the Braves. Hudson’s BABIP (.321) is a little under 40 points over his career mark, so that might come down some which would likely help make him look a bit better than average. Hudson’s keeping his infield busy which will go a long way for him, and as his BABIP comes down, his ERA will likely follow.

Randall Delgado has put together a solid if not overwhelming start to the season, He has however only made it through (let alone past) the 6th inning twice, and could start being an issue for management if that continues. Nobody likes to see a starter continually leaving more than ⅓ of the game to the bullpen, it’s a real strain on the team and can really hamper a winning streak or easily extend a losing streak if he happens to get the ball when the ‘pen has had a heavier than average workload. That all said Delgado is all of 22 years old, and while he hasn’t been much other than league average, he is showing a lot of promise at such a young age and could be an asset if he can start getting deeper into games. Delgado has done a good job of striking out batters, but has made an ugly habit of walking them as well, 4 walks per 9 innings, or just over 10% of batters faced. He’s getting batters to keep the ball on the infield grass incredibly well so far, so if he can limit those walks, he might start to really look impressive. There’s not a lot of data to go on, but Delgado doesn’t look quite like the pitcher he was in 7 starts a year ago, but aside from giving out more walks than one might like to see, he’s only really changed for the better.

Mike Minor has looked about as pretty as Gary Busey in a dress. Aside from a trio of outings ranging from good to impressive, Minor has looked awful giving up 6 or more earned runs in 5 of his starts so far, and having been confined to the first 5 innings in all three outings this month. So far in his young career Minor has continually had an unsettlingly high BABIP and WHIP and this year has allowed that to turn into more than a lot of baserunners, and into a lot of balls reaching the outfield seats having given up 8 home runs so far. I have not hidden my skepticism about the legitimacy of flyball pitching, and Minor is acting as an excellent case for why nearly every pitcher should at least learn to throw a splitter if not a pair of good downward moving breaking pitches. I don’t see Minor hanging on with the big club too much longer if he can’t start stringing together a few quality starts in a hurry.

Brandon Beachy has been lights out so far, and, while it’s a bit hasty to declare it, he may well be the kind of young arm you build a rotation around. He’s limiting walks pretty well and has put together six quality starts in a row. He’s keeping men off the base paths pretty well and while he’s not a groundball pitcher, he is limiting line drives effectively (13% of balls in play), which is by no means a bad way to win games. He’s seeing an absolutely insane .220 BABIP so far, and while he’s not made a full year’s worth of starts before, I don’t know that I’m ready to believe that a stat like that won’t go through some adjusting. He is only 25 years old, and he hasn’t been avoiding contact at all this year (72% of plate appearances ending in the ball being put into play), but he’s keeping that to a huge bulk of singles with only 1 ball leaving the yard so far. Given how different he looks from last year, it’s hard to say Beachy’s going to keep up this ace caliber work , but it’ll be exciting for as long as it continues, and if his numbers last year suffered from a bit of unfamiliarity with opposing batters and his catcher, he could be the anchor that the Braves need.

Tommy Hanson is another 25 year old helping out this Braves rotation. He’s not looking as impressive as Beachy, but nobody in the league is so far. I’d be somewhat leery of what Hanson’s numbers are at the moment compared to what they might be come season’s end. He’s striking out just under a batter per inning, which is great, but he’s also walking nearly 4 per 9, and is giving up about a hit per inning too. While his career WHIP is a much more palatable 1.196 it’s sitting at 1.410 at the moment, while he gives up both more hits, and more walks this year. It appears that the greater number of hits is coming from an unreasonably high (.325) BABIP despite his 12% line drive rate and close groundball/flyball splits. There is however, no defense for the walk, and that’s not going to make Hanson’s life any easier. Due in large part to the hits and walks dilemma, Hanson’s also averaging fewer innings per outing than one might like to see averaging a little less than 5 and ⅔ innings per outing so far. Overall, I think a lot of things could happen for Hanson, and if things normalize he could be an effective member of their rotation for this year, and going forward.

The Braves have collectively pitched less well than one might hope, but with Livan Hernandez in the ‘pen and a few very solid pitching prospects in the minors the team has a very fair chance to right the ship before their rotation can cause them any real trouble in the standings. The team’s bats have been carrying them so far, and they have the ability and potential to carry a league average rotation deep into the season.

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