For years, the pundits have been saying that this is the year that someone will rise up and knock the mighty Braves off their pedestal. Some other GM in the NL East will have signed a few big names, and gotten the SportsCenter crew all afroth with "Boo-yeas!" and whatnot, and the next thing you know everyone is writing obituaries for the Braves. Except in Atlanta, of course.
Well, this year, the talking heads get some redemption. The Braves, 12 games back behind the Mets, will not win the NL East this year.
To prove this fearless prediction wrong, Atlanta will need both a miraculous turnaround in their season, plus a catastrophic failure on the part of the Mets, and some good luck thrown in for good measure. Even to make the wildcard, in which they are 5.5 games back and looking up at seven other teams, would require some serious reversal of recent fortune.
History is on their side, however. The 1914 Boston Braves were 14 games under .500 and 15 games behind the New York Giants as of July 4th of that season. However, behind manager George "Miracle Man" Stallings and the pitching of Lefty Tyler, Dick Rudolph, and Bill (not the sabremetrician) James, each of whom posted once-in-a-lifetime seasons, these Braves won 68 of their last 87 games, and ended up winning the World Series against the powerful Philadelphia Athletics.
Why it won't happen again? The times are against them. The 2006 Braves' biggest weakness, the bullpen, simply wasn't a factor back then as James, Rudolph and Tyler combined to throw 82 complete games, more than half the team's schedule. Also, today's economics of baseball, influenced by free agency, dictate strongly that a team in Atlanta's position is likely to be as a seller at the deadline, rather than standing pat and hoping for a miracle. Especially with the team's ownership in flux, every high-salaried player on the roster including John Smoltz, the team's best pitcher, and Andruw Jones, its best slugger, have been whispered about in trade rumors.
To be sure, these Braves, winners of seven of their last ten games, and each of their last four series, are not acting like they are ready to become doormats. But with the team's youth, its spate of injuries, and its decline in pitching output (especially in the bullpen), they are more than just a player or two away as we approach the July 31st trading deadline. This is a Braves team better suited for a rebuild than a renewed run for this year's pennant.
Pitchin' Ain't Easy
Perhaps the first nail in the Braves' coffin this year was the offseason departure of pitching coach Leo Mazzone to the Baltimore Orioles. Mazzone, manager Bobby Cox, and general manager John Schuerholz have been the troika of power for the franchise, the only constants from the 1991 "worst to first" season through 2005.
Each has managed to make the other look better: Schuerholz has deftly managed player acquisitions and trades, turning over every single roster position at least once (with the exception of Smoltz) since 1991; Cox is the second-winningest active manager in the majors, and won three Manager-of-the-Year awards with these teams; and Mazzone has produced six Cy Young award winners, four ERA titles, and an impressive history of getting the most out of otherwise baffling talents such as Steve Avery, Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright, and the post-Coors Mike Hampton.
However, even with most of the rotation and bullpen intact from the previous year, the team's ERA has jumped up considerably to 4.68 this year from 4.16 last year under new pitching coach Roger McDowell. Starting pitchers Tim Hudson (4.81 ERA, up from 3.52 a year ago), John Thomson (4.88 ERA, up from 4.47), Kyle Davies (6.12 ERA, up from 4.93) and former starter and now closer-du-jour Jorge Sosa (5.60 ERA, up from 2.55) have all regressed in the wake of Mazzone's departure.
Ironically, McDowell, the former reliever, seems particularly lost in managing the Braves' bullpen. The team has blown a staggering 20 of 40 save opportunities, and nearly every member of the bullpen has been tattooed by opposing bats, particularly when coming in with runners on – the team has allowed 46 "inherited" runners to score. Of the bunch, only injury reclamation project Kenny Ray (2.53 ERA with 33 Ks in 42+ innings, 5 saves in 8 chances, with only 3 inherited runs allowed) has been anything close to a reliable option.
As a counterpoint, the Cardinals have also struggled mightily in the "inherited-runs-allowed" department, with 55 ducks out on the pond coming home to roost, most in the National League. This may be a by-product of how often manager Tony La Russa makes mid-inning pitching changes – Josh Hancock and lefty Tyler Johnson, two situational players, are the "leaders" in this dubious category. The difference, though, between the Cardinals' scuffling bullpen and the Braves' all-out disaster area is Jason Isringhausen, Established Closer™. Even though Izzy has made things a little too interesting out there, allowing 8 inherited runners to trot home pointing to their deity of choice, he has nailed down 26 of 33 save opportunities. Pitchers whose names fit neatly on the backs of their Cardinals jerseys, mind you, are a mere 2 for 7 in getting those worrisome final outs.
Meanwhile, coming full circle on this tale of woe, Mazzone has hardly been the savior in Baltimore. The O's are lagging only the Royals in ERA (5.30 to 5.82), only the Cubs in walks given up (269 to 270), and Baltimore's opponents are tagging O's pitching at a .284 clip. In the snarky-commetary business, we call this a "lose-lose" situation.
A Month to Forget
The month of June, aside from the obvious highlight of my birthday (yay parents!), can't be forgotten soon enough by fans of both the Cardinals and Braves.
While St. Louis scuffled through interleague play, an eight-game losing streak, the two-week loss of Pujols from the lineup, and the implosion of our starting pitching, we still managed a 9- 16 mark, winning three series against NL opponents. The Braves, meanwhile, suffered through a 6-21 month, including a 10-game losing skid.
Perhaps, to say "suffered" doesn't say it well enough. Perhaps it should be "screamed in agony like Prometheus chained to the mountain as a neverending swarm of buzzards tore out his intestines."
On May 31st, the Braves were a plucky 28-25, four-and-a-half games back of the Mets but still in striking position. Their offense was second only to the Dodgers in run-scoring, and their pitching, while not great, was holding together.
By June 30th, the Braves were completely plucked, and strung up by their feet for display in baseball's butcher shop. Their record had fallen to 34-46, 13-and-a-half games behind the Mets, and into fourth place in the division, behind even the $20 million dollar roster of the Florida Marlins.
Both teams have rebounded with strong a July so far, regaining some of what they had lost. The Cards have since rebuilt their five-game lead in the division and Atlanta has returned to second place in the division, but not yet to .500.
Should we believe?
Given how difficult it has been to kill the Braves these past fifteen years, it is hard to write them off even after these struggles. Though, many times these past few years, baseball writers have tried.
In 2002's preseason, after a relatively weak 88-win season (good enough for the 2001 NL East crown), Sports Illustrated declared the New York Mets the team to beat, with Roberto Alomar, Roger Cedeno, Jeromy Burnitz and the mighty Mo Vaughn signed to bolster their offense. That year, the Braves won 101 games, while the Mets finished last with a 75-86 season that was even worse than it sounds.
Nevertheless, in 2003's preseason, seeing Atlanta lose Glavine, Millwood and Marquis from their pitching staff, ESPN fearlessly declared the Philadelphia Phillies its consensus pick to win the East. Apparently, the fiery leadership of Phils' manager Larry Bowa didn't have quite the kindling effect, as Philly finished 15 games behind yet another 101-win season for the Braves, and yet another chapter in Leo Mazzone's eventual biography.
Even after this shaming, in 2004's preseason a group of advanced baseball statisticians at The Diamond Mind simulated 100 possible outcomes of the upcoming season. The rebuilt Phillies, featuring Cardinals-killer Jim Thome at first base, won 87 of these simulated seasons, prompting yet another chorus of talking heads to declare the Braves' demise. Philly ended up running in place, finishing with 86 wins for the second year in a row, ten games behind the Braves and out of the playoffs.
Try as I might, I couldn't find any major sporting news outlet brave enough (no pun intended) to pick against Atlanta in 2005. But after this season, that may not be a problem any more.
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