This wasn't Greg Walker's fault

Greg Walker is out as Atlanta's hitting coach, but was the offensive collapse really his fault? No.

The Atlanta Braves had a horrific 2014 season. If you watched, you don’t really need statistics to tell the story of how bad the season was. But we’ll provide a few anyway.

The Braves were next-to-last in the big leagues in runs scored with 573 (3.54 runs per game), which was 115 fewer than the team scored a season before (4.25 runs per game). It was the worst run-per-game average for a Braves team since 1988, when that team scored 555 runs (3.43 runs per game).

Atlanta’s team batting average was .241, fifth-worst in the majors. It was the lowest team batting average since 1989, when that Braves team hit .234. A year after finishing fifth in the majors with 181 home runs, the Braves hit only 123 this season, which was tied for 22nd best in the big leagues. That was the lowest home run total since 1989, when Atlanta hitters had 96 home runs.

This is why the Braves lost 83 games. The offense was horrible. And yet despite this, there is one thing that is very clear that is somehow getting lost a bit Tuesday.

This was not Greg Walker’s fault.

Walker resigned Tuesday as the Braves hitting coach. Some were thrilled with the move, believing this was something Walker should take the blame for. It was his hitters who were not good, so if anyone is going to get fired, it should be Walker, they believe.

But that’s just inaccurate. Now sure, I am not in the clubhouse. I was not a player. I do not cover the team on a daily basis as a beat writer. But from what I witnessed the last three years with Walker on the job, his performance was the last thing that would be on a list of reasons why this offense collapsed.

Yet we know how sports works. We know if an offense in football struggles, an offensive coordinator takes the blame. If it’s the defense, guess who is going home first - the defensive coordinator.

If a pitching staff struggles in baseball, it’s the pitching coach that usually finds another job. And if it’s the offense, the hitting coach is usually the first to go.

But blaming Walker for this is misguided. He did not put this lineup together. It was the creation of Frank Wren, the general manager who was fired last Monday. Wren obviously did not believe in lineup construction, and he certainly didn’t believe in balancing out a lineup with players that would be able to manufacture runs.

Jason Heyward was not a leadoff man, but the Braves felt they had no choice. Of course, when Heyward was moved down in the lineup to the fifth spot, he had only one home run and 19 RBI in 220 plate appearances. His batting average and on base percentage in the fifth spot (.274, .368) were better than his numbers as the leadoff man (.270, .343), but he just didn’t provide any power and production lower in the order.

B.J. Upton was moved into the leadoff spot and did well for a very short period of time. His .220 batting average and .282 OBP as the leadoff man were his best numbers for any spot he hit in the lineup, but he never could gain much consistency and was eventually moved down lower in the order later in the year.

There was never a consistent number two hitter in the lineup. B.J. Upton hit second more than anyone on the team, but he hit only .207 in 252 plate appearances. Andrelton Simmons was next with 35 games as the number two hitter, but he hit .268 as the number two hitter. The most successful hitter in the two-hole was Phillip Gosselin, who hit .289 in 23 games in that spot in the batting order. But as a team, the number two hitter in the order hit a combined .231.

Freddie Freeman’s production numbers tailed off considerably from 2013. His batting average decreased 31 points, while he hit five fewer home runs and drove in 31 fewer runs. The only stat that really increased for Freeman from 2013 to 2014 was the number of doubles he hit – from 27 to 43. He was fairly consistent and you can’t say his numbers were bad, but Freeman’s production was down a bit this season.

Justin Upton’s number did improve, as he went from 70 RBI in 2013 to 102 this season. Chris Johnson obviously had a huge decrease in his batting average, from .321 in 2013 to .263 this season. That 58-point drop was dramatic, especially since Johnson provides little power.

Of course, Simmons did not make many improvements at the plate. His batting average and OBP numbers were both down, as were his double and home run totals. The Braves did get better production at catcher, as Evan Gattis’ numbers were an upgrade over what Brian McCann did in his final season in Atlanta in 2013.

Second base was a mess for most of the season. Dan Uggla didn’t last long before being shuffled off to the bench. Then Tommy La Stella took over but he faded out. Phillip Gosselin actually was the most impressive player in that position with a solid final two months of the season.

This team struck out too much. B.J. Upton and Justin Upton actually surpassed Uggla as the leading strikeout hitters in a single season in Atlanta’s history. Everyone knew this type of lineup could have problems, and it did. What hitting coach could have fixed this?

There was no A-B-C baseball. There were few comebacks. There were few rallies. When the Braves were down, they rarely came back and had a big inning to win a game. Offensively, the Braves were never on track. Even when the team started off 17-7 in April, it was all because of the pitching. The offense struggled even then.

The hitters in the Atlanta lineup had bad at bats. Working the count was never a priority. They went up there hacking, and the problem was this year they missed much more than they made contact. If they had still hit home runs, as they did in 2013, the results might have been different. But in more ways than one, this offense swung and missed.

So Walker has to leave because of those struggles. Compared to others, Walker always had a plan for his hitters. He worked diligently with hitters to try and make them think about what they wanted to do in each at bat. Yet many of them went up to the plate anyway with their own agenda, regardless of what was best for the team.

It’s easy to say that many of the hitters on the Atlanta roster just didn’t listen to Walker, but it’s true. There were never many adjustments. And look, how can a lineup succeed when there were two players – B.J. Upton and Uggla – who were near the bottom of the National League in batting average for qualified players? It was tough to have two players having historically bad seasons.

Walker had good communication skills, but sometimes his advice fell on deaf ears. This was a stubborn bunch, wanting to do it their way and they failed miserably.

A good man has to take the fall for it. What’s troubling is if the Braves are going to bring Fredi Gonzalez back as manager, as is heavily rumored, then why does Walker have to go? If the Braves believe Gonzalez can be a better manager with Wren gone and with a rebuilt roster, why can’t Walker be a better hitting coach for the same reasons?

We’ve heard reports that Wren was texting hitters on the Braves team hitting advice. How can a hitting coach have any respect with his players if his general manager is going behind his back and texting to the players directly? How awful was that?

Walker is a good man. He grew up in South Georgia as a Braves fan. He had always wanted to wear that Braves uniform. The Braves should make sure they keep Walker in the organization. He’s too valuable to not be part of the franchise. He’s respected by other coaches and by many players. Even the ones that struggled admitted that it wasn’t Walker’s fault.

But Walker took the fall Tuesday by resigning as the hitting coach. He came to the conclusion it was better for him to make the decision than anyone else. Credit him for that. He did what he thought was best for the organization. But let’s hope he understands this wasn’t his fault. The players failed, not the coach. They say you can’t fire all the players, but after this season maybe the Braves should.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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