After the Braves clinched their 12th straight division title this week, Andrew Bare takes a look at some of the lessons Braves fans should have learned this season
The Braves clinched the division on Thursday, and one of these years that's going to stop being newsworthy. One of these days, we can stop writing these "Braves win the division, and gee, hasn't this run been so darn swell?" But that day isn't here quite yet, and you know, gee, hasn't this run been so darn swell?
So what have we learned from this season, lessons we maybe should have learned at some point in the last 11 years but managed to avoid doing so? Well…
You ignore minor league statistics at your own peril: Many fans (and baseball men) are taken with the concept of the AAAA player, the minor league slugger who simply can't hit at the major league level. It's a brush many hitters have been unfairly painted with, and Marcus Giles was nearly consigned to the same ring of Hell as Alex Cabrera and Roberto Penagine. Despite an impeccable record of hitting in the minor leagues, Giles was exiled back to AAA Richmond last year after struggling in May. Meanwhile, Mark DeRosa had become a fan favorite and seeming frontrunner for the second baseman's job after hitting .297 for couple hundred at-bats in 2002, despite a pedestrian minor league career.
To the credit of both Bobby Cox and John Schuerholtz, they did not take the easy way out and give the job to DeRosa. While they completely mishandled the Giles/DeRosa/Lockhart decisions in 2002, they did well to give Giles the starting job, despite a career batting average of .247 heading into the season. Cox and Schuerhohltz have been amply rewarded for their new-found patience, as Giles has hit for average (.319 BA) and power (.528 SLG), drawn walks (.395 OBP), and played tremendous defense (leading all NL second basemen in Range Factor and Zone Rating). DeRosa's been solid off the bench ( .272/.321/.402) but doesn't possess Giles' power, plate discipline, or defensive ability. None of this should have been surprising, considering the two's respective minor league careers.
Maybe, just maybe, Bobby Cox knows what he's doing: Bobby Cox has now won division championships with teams that had great starters and bad bullpens to go with decent offenses, good starters and great bullpens with horrid offenses, great starters, bad bullpens, and solid offenses, and finally, this year, a team with mediocre starters, a poor bullpen, and a phenomenal offense. There are only so many permutations, and I'm pretty sure Bobby has won with all of them.
As mentioned earlier, it would have been easy to give the second base job to DeRosa, but Cox did the right thing and gave it to Giles. Many Braves fans, and I was one of them, were enraged when Cox allowed Vinny Castilla to remain the starter at third in spite of his horrendous 2002. Again, Cox's patience was rewarded. He stuck with Javy Lopez after 2 down years from the All-Star catcher, and received an amazing comeback season from Lopez.
In fact, this entire season could safely be called a complete shock. ½ of the BravesCenter staff submitting predictions had the Braves finishing second to Philadelphia, and I was one of them. 19 out of 27 ESPN staffers predicted the Phillies to win the division. It was hard to look at the Phillies' and Braves' respective rosters on March 31st and not conclude that Philadelphia was the more talented team. And yet somehow, someway Bobby Cox has piloted the Braves to an easy division title.
It's easy to point at career years by Giles and Lopez, solid comeback seasons by Castilla and Furcal, and just plain great seasons by Gary Sheffield and Chipper Jones. But Cox fostered the environment that saw the players flourish, and to not give some substantial portion of credit to the manager is foolish.
There is no one way to win games: Joe Morgan likes to rant and rave about the virtues of a "small-ball", pitching oriented team, the ballclub that doesn't slug it's way to wins, but instead does the "little things" on offense and gets great pitching. Sabrmetricians, and I count myself in their camp, campaign for offenses proficient at drawing walks and hitting homeruns. For years, the Braves have specialized at winning divisions with great pitching and offenses that have ranged from bad to solid.
Well, now the Braves have won another division title, but this time with medicore pitching and an offense reliant upon homeruns. It's more exciting, but it's not inherently "better" than the previous way of doing things. Nor is it worse. Wins are wins are wins, whether they are 2-1 or 10-8.
Other Lessons Learned:
Trying to throw a fastball by Gary Sheffield is suicide.
Trying to throw Javy Lopez a breaking ball for a strike is also suicide.
Opposing pitchers might as well just grant Marcus Giles a double.
Fear John Smoltz.
Just because a pitcher throws a 96 MPH fastball and a hard splitter doesn't mean he's hard to hit. (See Hernandez, Roberto)
Andrew Bare can be reached at AndrewBare29@hotmail.com.