June 9, 2008
Brave New Problems
One of the notions I've toyed with and dismissed over the years is finding the fulcrum point in a team's season, the point at which their championship hopes went south. For a team like the Royals or Nationals, that point comes as early as a key loss in April. For, say, the 2007 Mets, it would be Billy Wagner not coming out for the ninth inning, leading to a loss, or perhaps Tom Glavine's last-day implosion. You can usually even narrow it to a single play, or pitch.
I bring this up because I think I may have seen the Braves' fulcrum point this weekend. It was Friday night, to be exact. With two men on and two out in the ninth, and the Braves leading 2-1, Chris Coste lifted a pop-up to the right-field line. Kelly Johnson ran to the line, got under the ball… and dropped it, the ball smacking the palm of his glove and bouncing out. The tying run scored on the play. An inning later, the Phillies got two runs, and held on in the bottom of the frame when Shane Victorino threw out Gregor Blanco trying to score the tying run on a single with two outs. The Braves would lose the next two games, despite being tied in the eighth in one and tied in the ninth in another. A fraction from trailing the Phillies by 2½ games Friday night, they're now 6½ out.
The Braves didn't lose Saturday and Sunday because Johnson made an error Friday, but the games played out in much the same manner as Braves games have played out all season: close games that the Braves didn't win. The Braves are 32-32 with the third-best run differential in the National League, +44, behind just the Cubs.and Phillies. Their record by run differential cries out for an explanation:
Diff. W-L 1 3-17 2 8-1 3 6-4 4 3-3 5 3-3 6 1-3 7 4-0 8 4-0 9 0-0 10+ 0-1
The 3-17 mark in one-run games is just off the charts. Just four teams have had 40 one-run losses in a season going back to 1959, and all of those had at least 16 one-run wins. The worst one-run percentage I could find was the 1999 Royals, who lost nearly three-quarters of their one-run decisions in going 11-32. Teams that played under .300 ball in one-run games back to 1959:
Year Team W-L Pct. 1999 Royals 11-32 .256 1975 Astros 16-41 .281 1966 Yankees 15-38 .283 1981 Padres 12-30 .286 1985 Rangers 11-27 .289 2007 Orioles 13-31 .295 1959 Senators 11-26 .297 1992 Dodgers 17-40 .298
The catch is that the Braves' record in one-run games is so disparate from their record in other close games. They're 14-5 in games decided by two or three runs. It's that kind of split that lends credence to the idea that a team's record in one-run games is as much about luck as any trait the team possesses, with a team's bullpen running a distant second. The popular cliches about clutch, desire, execution, heart are empty words-close games are decided by breaks and bullpens.
This is where it gets strange. The Braves' bullpen is not notably disastrously bad, even given all of the team's injury problems back there. The Braves' pen is 10th in the majors in Adjusted Runs Prevented, and 18th in Reliever Wins Expected. They're tied for 11th in blown saves, with nine. This isn't a great bullpen, but it certainly doesn't seem like it should be responsible for 3-17. The raw numbers aren't bad either, although the most effective relievers, Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan, have spent substantial time on the DL and, in Moylan's case, are out for the year.
How about the offense? Here we perhaps see some of the Braves' problems. Baseball-reference breaks down team batting performance in many split categories, and what we find is that a Braves team that hits .275/.352/.427 overall is getting chopped down in close games. In "Late and Close" situations, the Braves are at .256/.346/.380. With two outs and runners in scoring position-a circumstance that is not always "clutch," of course-they're hitting a measly .223/.337/.322. When the game is within a run, the Braves hit .271/.348/.404, their worst split by score difference.
I looked at the Braves' 17 one-run losses to see if any pattern was apparent. The Braves have lost one 1-0 game, one 2-1 game, five games 3-2, four others 4-3, winning just one game by any of those scores (3-2). So in low-scoring one-run games, the Braves are 1-11. That's just slightly better than the 2-6 mark in high-scoring one-run games, and is probably not significant, but may point to the offense being the problem, rather than the bullpen.
Looking deeper, the one thing I did find is that the Braves seem to have created a lot of one-run losses with their offense. By that I mean that of their 17 one-run losses, they scored last in eight of them. Yes, they have their share of blown ties, blown ninth-inning leads and such, but a chunk of their one-run losses are games in which a team with a lesser offense might have lost by two, three or more runs. I suspect that this explains the gap between the one-run games and the rest. If you call games decided by three runs or less "close games," the Braves are 17-22, which given their bullpen issues seems about right.
At 6½ games behind the Phillies, the Braves are not nearly done. Better performance in close games-or just a little better luck-will be part of their closing the gap. They do need some help in the bullpen; Soriano's return will make a difference as long as he can be used aggressively. If Mike Gonzalez can also come back next month, that would give the Braves two power arms who, at their best, have been dominant. With Will Ohman and Blaine Boyer available for matchups, that would make for a strong bullpen in the season's second half.
At the plate, the Braves are in decent shape, although they could use a masher in an outfield corner. The Jeff Francoeur breakout season threatened in this space has not materialized, and Matt Diaz's turn as pumpkin has left the Braves wanting in left field. With the Greg Norton experiment failing, the team has gone defense in left, which isn't such a bad idea given that the pitching staff leans towards fly ball-oriented once you get past the top two starters.
It is, in fact, that part of the staff that will probably make or break the Braves. With a good offense and an improving bullpen, the Braves don't need the back of their rotation to be dominant; they just need it to keep them in games. Last year, they didn't get any production from that part of the staff, which left far too many innings to be thrown by the back of the bullpen. As long as Tom Glavine, Jo-Jo Reyes and Jorge Campillo can keep pitching into the sixth and not allow four or more runs while doing so, the Braves have a chance to make the postseason for the first time in three years.