The Braves are 21 games into the season. It’s a large enough sample size to form initial impressions but too small to assume anything over the next … well, 141 games.
They defeated Miami Wednesday 3-1. They received another strong start from Aaron Harang (who is this guy?), a pinch hit, two-run double by Evan Gattis (been there) and a three-batter/two-strikeout save by Craig Kimbrel (not dead).
At 14-7, and having won six out of seven series, the good has far outweighed the bad.
But here's an early progress/regress report.
Three things that haven’t been a problem:
1. Starting pitching. To anybody who says something is not possible, I now respond: “Aaron Harang.” He allowed one run in six inning Wednesday -- and his ERA went up (from 0.70 to 0.85). So much for the angst of the team's starting pitching. The five starters and their ERAs: Harang 0.85, Santana 0.86, Alex Wood 1.54, Julio Teheran 1.80 and David Hale 2.93. Mike Minor’s imminent return likely will prompt a move with Hale, either to the bullpen of the minors. The next major decision will come when Gavin Floyd is ready to come off the disabled list. But if you're Fredi Gonzalez or Frank Wren right now, how can you even think of taking Harang out of the rotation?
2. Freddie Freeman. The Braves’ best player last year is still their best player. It's what you want if you’re Liberty Media and you just signed off on the longest contract extension in franchise history (eight years, $135 million). Freeman leads the Braves in nearly every offensive category, including hitting (.338), RBI (14), on-base percentage (.426), and batting average with runners in scoring position (.438). He is the Braves' only regular who has started every game (Justin Upton was out of the lineup for the first time Wednesday).
3. Evan Gattis. Letting Brian McCann go in free agency was partly about economics, but the decision to go with Gattis as the full-time catcher carried some risk. Forget whether Gattis could replicate his hero-worship moments of a year ago (21 homers, 65 RBIs, 11 game-winning RBIs in 105 games). The bigger question was whether he could handle everyday catching duties. He has. Gattis should be given some credit for his handling of the pitching staff. Defensive results are mixed: He has three errors (tied for third most among major league catchers) and has thrown out four of 14 runners attempting to steal (.714 stolen base percentage ranks near the middle of the pack). But the offensive heroics continue, winning two games against the Marlins (with a walk-off homer Monday night and the two-run double in the eighth inning Wednesday).
Three things that have been a problem:
1. Oy-fense: The Braves have one of the best records in baseball. That’s in spite of their offense, not because of it. They rank 24th in runs scored, 18th in batting average, 24th in batting with runners in scoring position, third in strikeouts. Two of the reasons are listed below. But in the big picture, Greg Walker was hired as hitting coach to help fix some of the problems. The results need to be better.
2. B.J. Upton: His batting average made it up to .200 for one day in 2013. It has been 200-plus for 10 days in 2014. Progress! But at .205, he’s still far below where he needs to be for an everyday player, let alone one in the second year of a $75 million contract. For anybody who wants to draw a parallel between Upton and Dan Uggla (.227), there's one signficant difference between the two players: With runners in scoring position, Uggla is hitting .333 (5 for 15) with nine RBI, while Upton is hitting .071 (1 for 14) with one RBI. If Schafer (.214) were started hitting better, he would give manager Fredi Gonzalez to think about, especially since he can bat leadoff.
3. Jason Heyward. Maybe he's starting to shake out of his funk. A modest five-game hitting streak, including two hits Wednesday, has elevated his average from .136 to .198. But as the guy who rescued the Braves last season when he stepped into the leadoff role, Heyward isn’t yet at the level he needs to be offensively if the Braves’ lineup is going to be productive. When he struggled a year ago, it largely was because his timing was off following two extended absences (once for an emergency appendectomy, the other for a broken jaw after getting hit by a pitch). The only other two other players on the roster who could be effective leadoff hitters are both backups (as of this typing): Schafer and Ramiro Pena.