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July 27, 2004
The Devil Went Down to Georgia
Maybe it's never going to end.
Maybe, in the winter of 1990, in the back room of a bar just outside of the city limits, Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz sat down and made a deal, never quite noticing that their co-conspirator had a tail and lit their cigars by snapping his fingers. ("Ultra-small lighter from Japan," he claimed.)
Maybe the Atlanta Braves are going to make every postseason from now until the Rapture.
I wrote the Braves off this season, figuring that the cumulative talent drain since the end of 2002, coupled with the improvement by the Phillies, was finally going to be too much. It was an amazing run, winning a division title in 12 straight completed seasons, but all good things had to come to an end. They'd turned over an entire rotation in two years, never really solved the corner infield problems that had plagued them since moving Chipper Jones to the outfield, and watched two of the five best players in the NL last year move to the AL East. Their corporate ownership continued to Wal-Mart the payroll, and the farm system wasn't nearly as productive as it had been in the 1990s.
I was working with incomplete information. I didn't know about the 1990 meeting, and a contract signed with an all-too-warm pen, and the eventual destination of two souls.
As of this morning, the Braves have a 1.5-game lead in the NL East. It's not that they've played great baseball; their 53-45 record is the worst of any division leader, and a look at the Adjusted Standings shows that there's barely a dime's worth of difference between them and the three teams below. However, that they're even in this position with two months left is a surprise, and virtually a miracle when you consider just how many very good Atlanta Braves are working in other places right now.
After a one-year hiatus in which they bludgeoned opponents with their bats, the Braves have reverted to being a pitching team. Both their rotation (fourth ) and their bullpen (sixth) rank in the upper tier of the NL, while they sport a league-average offense. The Braves' run prevention is almost entirely a credit to the pitching staff; they have the next-to-worst Defensive Efficiency in the league, the lowest of any team not dealing with major physics issues. Braves' pitchers have helped themselves by allowing the second-fewest homers in the NL.
I know that I'm a broken record on this issue, but I think you have to look at Leo Mazzone for the reasons behind the success. Even some of my BP colleagues think he gets too much credit for what the Braves have done, and I might have bought that a few years ago. However, since 2002, I've now watched him preside over the resurrections--and there really is no other word--of Chris Hammond, Darren Holmes and, in '04, of Jaret Wright. Hammond had missed three seasons before coming under Mazzone's wing, Holmes one (with just 19 1/3 innings pitched in 2000), and the two combined to allow just 27 runs in 130 2/3 innings.
This year, he's topped that. Wright's last three seasonal ERAs were 7.35, 15.71, and 6.52. He hadn't reached 60 innings in a season since 1999, and for all the hype over his status as a great young pitcher, had never posted an ERA below 4.38 or a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Waived by the Padres last September, Wright actually threw as effectively under Mazzone as he had since the 1998 season, with nine strikeouts and three walks in nine innings.
This year, Wright has been the pitcher the Indians saw in the '97 postseason. He's made 20 starts, striking out 98 men in 117 innings while walking just 48 and allowing just seven home runs. His 3.23 ERA is a bit deceptive, as it hides 10 unearned runs, but even an ERA around 4.00 would be a career-best for the right-hander. For the third time in as many seasons, Mazzone has taken a pitcher who was out of baseball, or on the fringe of being so, and turned him into a major contributor. Has anyone else ever done that?
I've written before that I think Leo Mazzone should be a Hall of Fame candidate, and his work with Jaret Wright adds to that argument.
The counterargument is that the rest of the Braves' starters haven't shown this kind of improvement. John Thomson and Mike Hampton have been innings guys providing above-replacement-level performance, but with ERAs pushing 5.00, certainly haven't responded to Mazzone's tutelage in the same way. Still, their contributions have been important; many teams--including the Braves' rivals--lose ground because they can't find guys like those two to fill the back of the rotation. Like the Cardinals, the Braves' rotation is good not because the pitchers are great, but because no one is killing them.
The Braves' bullpen no longer includes Hammond or Holmes, but it's still doing well. At the back of that pen is John Smoltz, who is having another fantastic season, with 55 strikeouts and five walks in 49 2/3 innings. Since allowing eight runs in 2/3 of an inning against the Mets on April 6, 2002, Smoltz has been amazing: a 1.87 ERA in 192 2/3 innings, with 209 strikeouts and just 35 walks. Juan Cruz, Chris Reitsma and Antonio Alfonseca have all been moderately effective in front of him this year, largely by keeping the ball in the park. Kevin Gryboski has the second-lowest ERA in the pen, but with 17 walks and 10 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings, that is likely to change.
Losing Gary Sheffield and the 2003 version of Javy Lopez would cost any team a lot of runs, and the Braves have slipped to the middle of the pack in the NL in offense. However, the best Braves' hitters in '04 are, once again, their right fielder and their catcher. J.D. Drew and Johnny Estrada have made Schuerholz, who acquired both in trades, look good by posting seasons at or above their 90th percentile PECOTA projection. The two have carried an offense that, well, has needed carrying. Drew is on pace for career highs in everything, most importantly playing time. Estrada has chipped in a .430/.478/.620 line with runners in scoring position, which, while not predictive, is productive. Estrada is the best of the Braves' contingent of up-the-middle players, featuring Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal and the healthy-again Marcus Giles, who give the team a real competitive advantage.
Sheffield and Lopez apparently took Chipper Jones' talent with them when they left. The switch-hitter is having the worst year of his life, batting .223/.332/.423. A troublesome right hamstring is a contributing factor, and Jones has returned to third base in part to protect the damaged leg. The team has had its usual problems at first base, where Adam LaRoche was a disaster, and Julio Franco was only a good hitter for a 45-year-old. Left field, in the absence of Jones, has been filled by an assortment of randoms, such as Eli Marrero and Charles Thomas, hitting well in limited playing time.
The Braves are in much better shape than I thought they'd be in right now, but it's a tenuous position. They haven't outplayed their division rivals by much, and they still do not appear to be as good as those teams on paper. The organization's--read, Time Warner's--willingness to invest in roster improvements will probably determine whether they can sustain this success. The Braves need at least one left-handed reliever, and a bat they can stick at first base or in left field, and those things will cost money. The team doesn't have a lot of desirable prospects.
I still think the Phillies, with a stronger lineup and a better chance of improving via the trade market, will move ahead of the Braves before the year is out. Even if they do, however, that the Braves continue to compete despite going through change after change is a great baseball story.
I want to tack on a note about how strange things were in baseball last night. If I told you that both Todd Zeile and Octavio Dotel had pitched, would you be able to guess which had been used in a closer game?
Dotel closed out the A's 14-5 win over the Mariners. Zeile started the eighth inning of the Mets/Expos game down 14-8. That's just strange. I can't remember a position player being used in quite this way before, where the game wasn't a total loss and it wasn't the 16th inning. I've been trying to dig up records to no avail, but I'd be willing to bet that we haven't seen a position player in this situation in a very long time.
I strongly disagree with Art Howe's decision to use Zeile. The Mets had been scoring on the Expos' bullpen, and there are no shutdown relievers out there. Conceding that Mike DeJean had thrown two innings both Saturday and Sunday, leaving the pen short-handed, I think that removing Mike Stanton after he'd thrown just two pitches getting out of the seventh was a ridiculous move. Get one more inning of relief and see if you can't have a miracle in the ninth.
The Expos scored five times off of Zeile, rendering the game a blowout and making the Mets' mini-rally in the ninth (they got two runs) a lot less relevant than it might have been. Art Howe made a big mistake last night, and in retrospect, is probably pretty happy that his Mets didn't score more than two in the ninth.