|Tuesday, May 13
New Braves aren't necessarily improved
By Rob Neyer
Last week, somebody asked me what had most surprised me about the 2003 season.
The obvious answer was my Kansas City Royals.
But that wasn't what came to mind. No, my answer was the Atlanta Braves. At that point, the Braves were 21-11, having just won 17 of their last 20 games after a 4-8 start.
Now they're 26-12, they've got the best record in the National League, and I still say they're the biggest surprise of the 2003 season.
But are the Braves for real?
I don't have any idea.
The Braves have outscored their opponents by only 18 runs (203-181). Typically, a team with Atlanta's run differential through 38 games would be 21-17 rather than 26-12.
Before you start typing your e-mail to that silly ol' Rob Neyer, let me hastily mention that I already know the two arguments against run differential as applied to the Atlanta Braves ...
1. The Braves have played in a lot of blowouts, which skews their run differential, and 2. The Braves have a great bullpen (Smoltz!), which allows them to win more than their fair share of close games, which also skews their run differential.
It's true, the Braves have been engaged in plenty of lopsided scores. They've lost six games decided by six or more runs ... and they've won eight games decided by six or more runs. In those 14 games, the Braves have scored 100 runs and allowed 102. It is true that the two biggest blowouts were losses -- 17-1 and 16-2, both in games started by Greg Maddux -- so I'm willing to accept the argument that the Braves' run differential has been skewed a bit by blowouts. But just a bit.
As for the bullpen, yeah, Smoltz has been great: 15 saves, a 1.23 ERA, and he's struck out 25 hitters in 22 innings.
But the rest of the bullpen hasn't. Jung Bong (4-0, 2.25) has pitched well, but everybody else has been shaky, at best. Overall, Brave relievers sport a 4.62 ERA. Remove Smoltz and Bong from the equation, and the Atlanta bullpen has a 6.18 ERA, with some ugly individual K/BB ratios. Maybe Leo Mazzone just hasn't had enough time to work his magic, but I just don't see Roberto Hernandez and Ray King turning into the next Mike Remlinger and Chris Hammond.
So what explains the Braves' apparent over-achievement, as suggested by their run differential? Simple: they're 10-1 in games decided by one or two runs. And now, that's not going to continue. As I've written (and "proved") many times, "winning the close ones" is not the hallmark of a great team. The hallmark of a great team is winning the blowouts.
But you know, what's really odd about the Braves isn't that they've won five more games than their run differential might suggest. What's really odd about the Braves is that they've done a complete about-face from last season. Yes, the results are the same -- lots and lots of wins -- but how they're doing it is completely different.
In 2002, the Braves finished 10th in runs scored and first in runs prevented.
In 2003, the Braves are third in runs scored and 11th in runs prevented.
It's unlikely that those 2003 rankings will hold, of course, but they're still strange. It shouldn't be a huge surprise that the Braves are allowing more runs, considering they lost two of the league's best starters (Kevin Millwood and Tom Glavine) and two of the league's best relievers (Remlinger and Hammond). But it should be a huge surprise that the Braves are scoring so many runs, considering they made just one offseason change to the lineup, adding first baseman Robert Fick (who signed for a cool million bucks).
One relatively minor change -- Fick's not even an everyday player -- and they've jumped seven spots in the National League rankings. How? Basically, they're getting amazing production from their middle infielders. Shortstop Rafael Furcal is getting on base 38 percent of the time and hitting with power, and second baseman Marcus Giles, a fearsome minor-league hitter who entered this season with a .247 career batting average in the majors, is hitting .331 with walks and power.
Both Furcal and Giles are over their heads, but we shouldn't be surprised if both wind up with big seasons. They're both talented hitters, and they're at the right age for such things.
So yes, I think the Braves will score more runs this year than they did last year (and there's no telling what they could do if they got a real third baseman). What worries me is their pitching. With a 2.70 ERA, Mike Hampton's been one of the feel-good stories of the spring and yet another argument for putting Mazzone in the Hall of Fame. But in 30 innings, Hampton's walked 17 batters and struck out only nine. Russ Ortiz is 4-2 with a 3.60 ERA, but he's walked nearly as many hitters (29) as he's struck out. Stopgap starter Shane Reynolds looked great in his first two starts, but has allowed six homers in his last four.
Bottom line, it's easy to look at the Braves' record and think they're the same old Braves, here comes yet another division title, etc. But these are not your big brother's Braves, and they haven't won anything yet. So let's wait another month or two before we start printing the playoff tickets, OK?
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.