After riding high from a series win against the Marlins, the Braves got a stern reminder from the Tampa Bay Rays that they are not actually a very good team of baseballers. The first game Atlanta showed off their potent offense by managing to get on base six times to score zero runs. The second game it was all about the lightweights in the bullpen that gave up 6 runs in the 7th, putting the team behind 6-9 for one of their nicest losses of the season. The Braves 51-63 record is worse than every other divisions’ 4th place team and the AL Central’s 5th place team (the Indians). I don’t tell you stuff like this in each of my previews to be negative or cynical; I tell you to remind of the reality of what rebuilding years are like. If we are to emotionally survive this, we’ve got to come to terms with the fact that we’re not going to win many games. Once we’ve made peace with that, we can then begin to again enjoy the games for things other than wins and losses. That part is above my pay grade, though, so let’s just get on with the preview.
Tonight the Braves start a three game series against the Diamondbacks, who just got done dominating the Phillies. Yes, I realize it is the Phillies, but any team that can score 32 runs across 3 games is impressive. The only teams who have been better offensively this year than the D’backs have been the Blue Jays and the Yankees. Both of those teams have gotten it done with both strikeout and walk rates that are better than average along with no small amount of power. The D’backs success, on the other hand, has largely been a product of good old fashioned speed. Their strikeout and home run per flyball rates are firmly around league average, and their walk rate is only slightly better, but they’re 2nd in baseball in both stolen bases and BABIP. Now, I obviously recognize that BABIP is often driven by luck, but the D’backs have been able to combine one of the fastest lineups in baseball with a below average pop up rate. Toss in a slightly above average line drive rate and you’ve got all the tools you need to turn batted balls into hits.
Two guys in particular to pay attention to in this line up are Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. While I still consider him greatly underrated, it has become fairly common knowledge that Goldschmidt is one of the top five hitters in baseball: He walks a ton, he doesn’t strikeout too much, he hits a lot of line drives, and he hits for power. What may be less well known, however, is how incredible of a baserunner he is. Goldy is currently second on his team in stolen bases with 19, good enough for 8th place in the entire National League. How a 6’3″ 245 pound first baseman can run like that is beyond me, but it’s certainly exciting to watch. First place on the team in steals is the aforementioned A.J. Pollock, who thanks to his speed, on base ability, and decent power joins Goldschmidt as one of the top 5 batters in the NL by fWAR. He also happens to play gold-glove caliber defense. Pollock has been a bit of a late bloomer at age 27, but he’s still plenty young enough to continue to contribute for years to come.
On the pitching side, things are much less pretty for Arizona. This series will see Atlanta face Robbie Ray, Patrick Corbin, and Rubby de la Rosa. All three are young guys who are either slightly better or slightly worse than “meh”, depending on your personal method of evaluating pitchers. Luckily for them they get to face Atlanta’s round robin offense. Newly acquired Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn may be solid clubhouse additions, but they’ve both lost out on the speed that made them former All-Stars. For Swisher, that means bat speed, as I think he’s the exception to the rule that all Major Leaguers can put a 90 mph fastball in the seats at will. For Bourn, that means foot speed. While he may have the smarts to still snag some bags, he’s lost his ability to cover much ground in the outfield. His bat was never anything to write home about, and as he’s gotten older it’s gone from firmly mediocre to just trash. The rest of the lineup is a familiar story, with Pierzynski and Markakis being the only solid hitters left now that Freeman is gone.
That likely lack of run scoring will be protected by a likely lack of run prevention tonight and tomorrow, as Julio Teheran and Mike Folynwefoifjavhcc mount the mound. Teheran continues to befuddle me, as I fully expected that by now he would have either turned things around or revealed a nagging injury. Instead he continues to mix in the occasional flash of his former self amidst struggling starts. If he can get in a groove and really find his delivery for 100 pitches, he can still be a lights out guy. But right now I’d say that’s a big “if”. Folty is simply a 23 year old pitcher who is pitching like a 23 year old pitcher. He has his moments where his stuff looks filthy and you’re reminded that he’s a legitimate prospect, then he has those moments where he can’t find the plate and you’re reminded that all pitching prospects require no small amount of polish before they’re ready for the big stage. Shelby Miller leads the way on Sunday, and while he’s shown recently that he’s probably not as good as his early-season statistics suggested, he’s still one of the better throwers of round balls in the game and will hopefully provide another quality start that afternoon. Let’s just hope that bullpen doesn’t come in and do their thing again.