The Atlanta Braves’ rollercoaster ride reached its halfway point over the weekend. If the first half is any indication, the ride isn’t going to level off any time soon.
The Braves played their 81st game last Saturday, winning their 47th. You’d like to think that, at this pace, 94 wins would grant them a ride into the playoffs.
But can anything be expected of this team? Beyond the myriad of strikeouts, of course.
Braves hitters took the figuratively long trek back to the dugout 723 times through last Sunday. That’s a staggering average of 8.8 strikeouts per game.
If they really bear down, they can make a strong run at striking out once an inning, which would be a truly remarkable achievement. Sigh.
Here’s where I differ with the sabermetricians. A strikeout remains an unproductive out. You’re not moving a runner over from second or, Heaven forbid, a runner in from third.
And when you put the ball in play, good things can happen. The Red Sox won a game last Sunday on the rare walk-off error.
The saving grace?
When you’re striking out, you’re not hitting into double plays. And guess what? The Braves have hit fewer ground balls than any team in the National League, not named the Mets, and eight teams have hit into more double plays.
They also finished last week leading the league in walks, one ahead of the Reds, and at least 49 ahead of every other team. Between walks and strikeouts, the Braves are masters at raising pitch counts, and that’s a good thing.
At the end of play last Sunday, the Braves led the Nationals by 6 1/2 games. No big deal. They led the Nats by 4 1/2 at the end of April and May. After a 17-9 record in April, the Braves posted a 15-13 record in May and a 16-12 mark in June. Nice, solid, consistent baseball.
But take a closer look. This maddening team shot out of the gate and won 12 of its first 13 games. They followed that with a dreadful 10-17 stretch.
From mid-May through early June, they reeled off 15 wins in 19 games, then immediately dropped 11 of 17. They closed out the month by winning 5 of 6. Roller coaster, you bet.
That’s what you get when you have Three Blind Batters in your lineup: Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla, and B.J. Upton, all of whom spent the first two months of the season vying for the lowest batting average in the league. The competition was heated.
Justin Upton carried the team in April, and he’s been carried since. When you have that many holes in the lineup, opposing pitchers can throw around everyone else. The lowly Mets won their recent series in Atlanta by constantly pitching around Freddie Freeman.
Jordan Schafer, Chris Johnson, and, of course, Evan Gattis have been pleasant surprises. Catcher Brian McCann, just now rounding into form, will hit. Heyward doubled his totals from the first two months in June.
And despite his aggravating 102 strikeouts, you look up and Uggla’s finally hitting over .200, with 14 home runs.
Last Sunday, on ESPN, analyst Curt Schilling observed that he loved to pitch to guys who strike out often, because he could always get them to swing and miss. Now, not every pitcher is as skilled as Schilling, but the Braves sure do make a lot of pitchers resemble him. They will continue to strike out, get shutout once a week, and aggravate us with poor situational hitting.
But when all the runs were tallied, the Braves had scored the fourth most in the league through the start of the week. If scoring runs is still what counts most, the first half wasn’t really all that bad, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
The Braves don’t have to hit much better, because they’ve got one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.
When the week began, the Braves combined earned run average of 3.19 was second in the league. Their batting average against opponents was third. And if its runs that count, the Braves were second, three behind the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates.
Here’s a pitching staff without Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, and Brandon Beachy, yet the only pitcher on the staff with an era over 3.69 is the erstwhile ace, Tim Hudson.
The development of Julio Teheran has been a sight to behold. Mike Minor and Paul Maholm are on pace to win 16 games, and Kris Medlen remains solid, except when throwing to third.
The bullpen keeps coming in waves with Luis Avilan, David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, Anthony Varvaro and Alex Wood. It’s hard to imagine a pen this deep getting burned out, especially when the Braves lead the league in quality starts (53 through last Sunday).
The best news is that the top four records in the National League belong to the teams with the four best earned run averages: Pittsburgh, Atlanta, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
So the name of the game is still pitching. And the Braves can pitch with anyone.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears on Wednesday.