The Atlanta Braves are 18-3 when they hit a home run, 1-9 when they don’t. The homer — and its opposite pole, the strikeout — have come to define this offense and this team, and that’s not entirely a surprise. The roster wasn’t built to single anybody to death. That said, there was among its architects a reasonable expectation that the occasional non-wall-clearing hit would get mixed in.
Even after five weeks of clout-or-out, that expectation, not entirely fanciful, remains. Brian McCann was activated Monday night; he didn’t win six Silver Slugger awards by being an unabashed hacker. He has never struck out 100 times in a big-league season. He had never hit below .269 or had an on-base percentage below .320 before last season, when he was swinging hurt.
What of the folk hero Evan Gattis? Perhaps he and McCann will form a righty/lefty catching platoon. On Monday night in Cincinnati, Gattis started in left field. Whatever the means, room must be cleared for a professional hitter, which McCann is. (Or at least was. And there’s no reason to believe he can’t be again.)
Jason Heyward’s services are likewise required. In his first big-league season, he showed signs of being a high-OBP guy. Then he started striking out more. (Hey, everybody else is doing it!) Still, there’s no reason to believe Heyward will become just another no-conscience swinger. He takes the game, and himself, too seriously for that. He’s due back from his appendectomy by month’s end.
OK, that’s two reasons for order-optimization optimism. Any others?
Well, B.J. Upton joined the Braves as a career .255 hitter, which didn’t make him Tony Gwynn but didn’t make him Mario Mendoza. For Upton to be hitting .154 — far below the damning Mendoza Line — is a mystery. With his speed, he should be able to bunt .200. He went 3-for-7 in two weekend games against the Mets, which seemed promising. Then he went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts Monday. Yikes.
As for Dan Uggla: At age 33 and after 2 1/6 seasons as a Brave, it’s fair to suggest that this is all that remains. For five years as a Marlin he’d hit for much power and a decent average. Here he has become a guy who walks a lot, strikes out even more and, just when you figure he’ll never make contact again, hits a home run.
Were everyone else in this lineup hitting, the Braves could live with Upton’s and Uggla’s struggles. Trouble is, too many guys haven’t hit — except for home runs. As of Monday morning, the team batting average was .245, 19th-best in the bigs. Justin Upton, the National League player of the month for April, has seen his average dip to .286. Gattis, the NL rookie of the month, is hitting .260.
Not that there’s anything wrong with home runs. The Braves weren’t wrong to skew their lineup toward power. For a while, power alone was winning games. Against Kansas City on April 16, the Braves scored six runs; the first five came on solo homers. Against Pittsburgh two nights later, they scored six runs on five homers. The ideal, however, is to maximize 400-foot blasts by scratching out a single or two ahead of them.
We think of home runs and RBIs fitting hand-in-batting-glove. Then we note that Justin Upton, who leads the majors with 12 homers, is tied for 21st with 21 RBIs. More than half the time, the man he has driven home has been himself. Of the Braves’ 44 homers, 31 have been solo efforts; only two have yielded more than two runs.
It doesn’t help that there’s no real leadoff man. B.J. Upton doesn’t get on base enough; Andrelton Simmons doesn’t fit the profile. Still, that can be worked around. Guys can take their walks. (Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus identifies the Braves’ Greg Walker as the second-best hitting coach of the past 20 years at having his men walk.) Guys can be a tad more selective. Not everybody has to hit a home run every single night for this to work.
Strikeouts? Those won’t go away. The Braves average nine a game, which puts them on pace to break the league record and means that 33.3 percent of their outs on a given night are made without putting the ball in play. As frustrating as they are to watch, they don’t invalidate an approach. You can cluster-whiff and still score big. (They scored seven runs in Cincinnati on Monday despite striking out 15 times.)
The Braves are a tepid 16th in the majors in runs because this offense has become an HR-or-K proposition. There needs to be a third option — the base hit.