October 6, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL East
Final Moments of a Brave 2011 Season
Last week, we discussed the potential collapse of the Atlanta Braves in their attempt to hold on to the National League Wild Card. Well, on one of the greatest nights in baseball history, that potential collapse became a crippling reality for the Braves, as they lost a late-inning heartbreaker to their division rival Philadelphia Phillies. At the risk of picking at a wound that has almost assuredly not begun healing yet, let us take an episodic look through the lens of Win Probability Added and Win Expectancy (provided by Baseball-Reference) and see how the game progressed from the Braves being on the brink of a second straight playoff berth to heading home without a chance at the World Series.
3rd Inning: Dan Uggla hits a two-run home run, Braves lead 3-1
One cannot help to think that the Braves could have even eked out an extra possible run had Michael Bourn not gotten caught stealing third base on a strong throw by Carlos Ruiz. On the replay, it does appear as if Bourn has a foot on the bag when Placido Polanco places the tag, but instead of placing runners on second and third, the Braves end up losing a whopping eight percent off of their win expectancy due to the play. Of course, one batter later Uggla homers, and it is easy as a fan to feel cheated out of an extra run, especially with the game's result being so close. However, there is no guarantee that Uggla is pitched in the same fashion that led to that home run, so tallying an extra run for the Braves in that situation would be inappropriate analysis.
6th Inning: Freddie Freeman walks, Dan Uggla to second base, Braves lead 3-1
7th Inning: Raul Ibanez scores on a Jack Wilson error, Braves lead 3-2
However, there was something to be said about the theory that Hudson should have been pulled early because of the strength of the Braves' bullpen. As the night progressed, this theory would grow to sound more ridiculous in hindsight, but during Hudson's final inning, it certainly did not sound terrible. After a routine groundout, Hudson allowed a double and a single to Ibanez and Polanco, surrendering 13 percent of the Braves' odds of winning. At that point, the Braves could have gone to any of their main cogs in the pen, in particular ace lefty relievers Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters. At least one of them would have been left to pitch the eighth inning to face the duo of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and it would have brought a fresh pitcher to face Carlos Ruiz in that important situation (LI of 3.03). Neither O'Flaherty nor Venters would have been a poor choice for inducing that inning-ending double play grounder either, as both have very favorable career groundball rates. Instead, as many managers often do, Fredi Gonzalez left Hudson in for one more batter than he should have, waiting until a run came through and the Braves lost 10 percent more off of their odds before removing Hudson in favor of O'Flaherty. Again, it is easy to second-guess Gonzalez's decision after the fact, even if the results came off a sharply-hit error, but the idea of utilizing the Braves' bullpen depth to help preserve a lead instead of leaving a starter in during his third trip through the order is a sound one even without knowing what ultimately happened.
9th Inning: Chase Utley hits a sacrifice fly offCraig Kimbrel, scoring Pete Orr, Game Tied 3-3
Rob Neyer did a good job covering this concept, but it is worth noting that, at least in terms of velocity, Kimbrel has not missed a beat.
Still, Kimbrel and Venters did not look good on Wednesday, combining for two strikeouts versus five walks in an abnormal loss of control. There could have been numerous other factors involved in their performance on Wednesday, but coming off of four days rest and displaying the sort of lightning fastball he has flashed all season, it does not seem like physical fatigue is one of those factors.
12th Inning: Jack Wilson sacrifice bunt, Jason Heyward advances to second base, Game Tied 3-3
Last week, I mentioned that the Braves did not have egregious problems in the month of September but rather that they were sunk by small deficiencies in performance that piled up. This game was a bit of a microcosm of that concept as well. Bourn and Uggla may have made slight baserunning errors. Leaving Hudson in that long may have been a mistake. The management of the pen or the pressure of the situation may have gotten to Kimbrel and Venters. All of these things may have been small, but they snowballed when piled on top of each other and led to a final, disappointing Braves defeat in 2011.