A team that outplayed expectations for five games before falling back to Earth will face a division rival that hasn’t met its lofty preseason expectations at all when the Atlanta Braves play host to the Washington Nationals on Monday night.
Atlanta struggles after hot start
Atlanta won its first five games, something it hadn’t done since 1994. Atlanta is 4-9 since, with an ERA of 4.49 and a batting average of .225 in that span.
Starter Eric Stults (0-1) relied on his changeup more than all but three other National League pitchers last year, throwing it on 24 percent of his pitches. He has been using the pitch less often this year (16 percent) and is instead turning to his slider (25 percent, up from 17 percent).
Offensively, Nick Markakis has been the team’s best hitter after he signed a four-year, $44 million contract in the offseason. Among those with at least 50 plate appearances, Markakis ranks first on the team in batting average, OPS and hits. His .438 OBP this season is on pace to be a career-best mark.
He is not hitting for power, though. He has no home runs and is slugging .371 - 63rd among qualified hitters this season.
Nationals well-armed to make another pennant bid
The Nationals' projected starting rotation this year combined for a 219-114 record over the last three seasons: Max Scherzer (55-15), Jordan Zimmermann (45-22), Gio Gonzalez (42-26), Doug Fister (40-25) and Stephen Strasburg (37-26).
The last time that a team's first five starting pitchers of a season combined for that many wins over the previous three seasons was in 1994, when Atlanta’s rotation - Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery and Kent Mercker - had a combined 219-124 record from 1991 to 1993 (from the Elias Sports Bureau).
Fister (1-0), tonight’s scheduled starter, was sixth in the majors last year with a career-best 2.41 ERA. He has picked up where he left off, posting a 2.37 ERA through his first three starts. His opponents’ batting average has declined from .281 in 2013 to .233 this year.
Fister’s chase percentage of 33.4 is best in the majors from 2011 (minimum 500 innings pitched)
Last season, only Clayton Kershaw (44 percent) and Jon Lester (40 percent) threw inside more often than Fister (36 percent). He allowed a .091 hard-hit average on inside pitches last season, fifth-best in the majors.
This season, 24 percent of Fister’s pitches have been inside, which ranks 77th in the majors, but he has been more effective working inside this season than last, as the chart at the above shows.