Atlanta Braves

  • Streak: Following Sunday’s win in Milwaukee, the Braves have won 11 of their last 13, including sweeps of the Cardinals and the Expos. Although the Braves have improved on both sides of the ball, the more dramatic improvement has come from the pitching staff:
    Period          RS/G    RA/G
    3/31-4/12       4.25    7.16
    4/13-4/27       4.92    3.23

    The beginning of the hot stretch coincided with a turnaround performance by Greg Maddux against the Marlins, as well as the acquisition of Shane Reynolds. Usually a streak is just that–a random occurrence–but in this case, the Braves’ bullpen usage pattern also has something to do with it:

    Braves Bullpen Usage by Batters Faced, 3/31 – 4/12

    Dawley          31
    Bong            25*
    Gryboski        22
    Hernandez       22*
    King            21*
    Holmes          17
    Hodges          15
    Marquis         12
    Smoltz          11*

    Atlanta’s bullpen isn’t as deep as in years past. Appearances by the Braves’ four best relievers–John Smoltz, Roberto Hernandez, Jung Bong and Ray King–are marked with an asterisk. Together, they accounted for only 45% of the Braves’ batters faced through the first two weeks of the season. Here, by contrast, is the Braves’ usage pattern since the 13th:

    Braves Bullpen Usage by Batters Faced, 4/13 – 4/27

    Hernandez       32
    Smoltz          31
    Gryboski        25
    King            22
    Bong            21
    Hodges          17
    Holmes          13

    The better relievers have accumulated nearly two-thirds of the playing time since the streak began. While it’s possible to confuse the cause-effect relationship–it doesn’t make any sense to tire out your closer when you’re down 9-1 in the fourth–these sorts of numbers testify to the fact that teams often compound their problems by refusing to use their better relievers except when they have a lead.

  • Star Performer: Apart from Smoltz–who hasn’t been scored on and has posted a wicked ratio of 17 strikeouts against just one walk–the Braves’ most inspired performance has come from Marcus Giles, who is playing nearly every day and has a 1.047 OPS. Giles is excelling in all areas of the game: He has 12 extra-base hits, a healthy number of walks, a couple of steals, and his fielding numbers are outstanding. None of this should be all that surprising–we’ve been touting Giles’ skill set for years. But for a player who has had his share of off-the-field problems, a hot start may be especially important in creating confidence and positive feedback. We wish the best of luck to Marcus in keeping it up and getting rewarded with an All-Star appearance.

  • Noteworthy Prospect: Even though it’s just an A-ball performance, pitching prospect Kyle Davies has posted some ridiculous numbers this season: 36 strikeouts, 16 walks, and just 7 hits allowed in 22.2 innings. The 19-year-old flew largely below the radar screen prior to the season, making neither our book nor the Baseball America Braves Top 10 list. His numbers this season are out of character, since Davies has a reputation as a command-and-control guy, rather than someone who overpowers hitters. The Braves have worked on improving his delivery, and may have an exciting prospect on their hands as a result, provided he can get the walk rate back down.

Minnesota Twins

  • Star Performer: Where once our sights were drawn to the oppression of such martyred heroes as Russell Branyan and Erubiel Durazo, a new breed of BP revolutionary appears to be making a name for himself along the front lines: Bobby Kielty. Kielty–who despite picking up fewer than 350 PAs, was arguably Minnesota’s most potent offensive weapon in 2002–has been a house on fire this season, leading the team in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and just about any other offensive category you could pull off’s sortable statistics page. He’s the American League’s version of Bobby Abreu, really–a player who does everything well, and in virtual anonimity from the public.

    If given the playing time he deserves, there’s little reason to believe that Kielty can’t continue to be one of the most productive outfielders in the American League, and lead the Twins’ charge toward an AL Central crown. Given the organization’s back-log of outfield talent, though–not to mention their inability to recognize Jacque Jones‘ severe platoon deficiency–that ‘if’ is much larger in Minnesota than it would be in almost any other organization in the league.

    Neglecting to play Bobby Kielty full-time, as either an outfielder or a DH, is kind of like hiring David Mamet to adapt a screenplay but only putting him in charge of the copy-editing.

  • Disastrous Performer: In contrast to his explosive start in 2002, Torii Hunter seems to have begun 2003 by impersonating teammate Cristian Guzman. He’s neither hitting for average (.213) nor for power (.371 SLG), despite logging half his at-bats this seasons against the weaker sisters of the American League–Detroit, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. Given the fact that he’s walking, though–10 times in roughly 100 plate-appearances–it’s doubtful that this slump will last. Because that’s what this is–a slump. Anything can happen in 100 at-bats; just ask Rey Ordonez.
  • From The Mailbag:

    For the second year in a row, the Twins’ Johan Santana is putting up sick numbers. He struck out 137 in 108.1 innings last year and has struck out 23 in only 16.2 innings this year, with a 1.08 ERA. Do you see the Twins fitting him into their starting rotation this year, perhaps supplanting Rick Reed?

    — D.H.

    No, but that’s only because the Twins have a fetish for wasting talent (See also: Kielty, Robert).

    Johan Santana (16.2 IP, 23 K, 1.08 ERA) has the ability to be the best starter in the Minnesota rotation right now, and yet Ron Gardenhire et al. seem to be under the impression that 180 closely monitored-innings recorded every fifth day is somehow less valuable than 70 innings recorded every third day. Whatever.

    The only way Santana breaks into the rotation again is through injuries to Mays and Radke, at which point they’ll be forced to give one of their own a shot. If and when that happens, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Santana top the world in K rate and suddenly become a national story…only to be forced back into the pen because Joe Mays proved in a medical exam that he could reach the plate without hearing something tear.

    It happened before, it can happen again.

  • Upcoming Schedule: Losers of eight out of their last 10 games, the Twins have a mixed bag in terms of scheduling over the next few weeks. After a short, three-game series against the Devil Rays that begins on May 6, the Twins are blessed with a 10-game homestand where they will face Boston for three games and then division rivals Kansas City and Chicago for a combined seven games. If the Royals officially turn back into a pumpkin between now and then, the Twins could pick up some much-needed ground and finally narrow the race to just themselves and the White Sox. If the Blue Wave continues to play .730 ball, however, the Twins could be in for serious trouble–easily finding themselves 10 games out by the time they pack their bags and make their first trip of the season out to the west coast on May 20.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • He’s Back: Josh Hamilton, who left Tampa Bay’s minor league camp five weeks ago for “personal reasons,” is ready to start playing baseball again. The reasons for Hamilton’s absence have been sealed tighter than a Ball Jar, and strict organizational confidentiality mandated by the employee assistance program means that will remain the case until Hamilton or his smothering parents choose to discuss the issue.

    Hamilton has seen his career dragged down by injuries since being the first pick in the 1999 June draft. He has gone under the knife four times and hasn’t been healthy enough to play more than 96 games in any season since turning pro. The lack of game experience has severely stunted his progress, enabling fellow high school draftees Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli to roar past him on the Devil Rays’ depth chart. Though Crawford and Baldelli now make up two-thirds of Lou Piniella’s outfield, all three youngsters are still more tools than skills. However, Hamilton offers something the other two don’t: big-time power potential.

    The tattooed love boy will restart his career in Double-A Orlando as soon as he rounds into playing shape. If he can stay in one piece and build on the talent he’s flashed when healthy, Hamilton could find himself inside The Trop before the end of this season. The Devil Rays haven’t been shy about promoting their youngsters, and even before Ben Grieve‘s puzzling hand injury there was plenty of opportunity.

  • Streaks: Current wunderkind Rocco Baldelli had an 11-game hitting streak end yesterday, which followed immediately on the heels of a 13-game binge to open the season. In fact, were it not for an 0-for-3 collar fastened by Pedro Martinez and last night’s 0-for-4, Baldelli would have at least one base hit in every major league game he has started, and the first words past Karl Ravech’s lips tonight would be “The Next DiMaggio?”

    Baldelli’s 9:1 K/BB ratio is enough to make Alfonso Soriano blush, but a month into the season he continues to confound worshippers at the altar of plate discipline with a .362/.384/.476 line. While a new millennium Wall Street-like correction is inevitable, Baldelli’s ability to leg out infield hits will help stem the bleeding and prevent a hitless week. Instead, expect to see something along the lines of Crawford’s recent 9-for-60 slide.

  • Aura and Mystique: Not only were they the names of Will Carroll’s two favorite showgirls on his recent trip to Las Vegas, they’re qualities that Manager Lou Piniella feels he needs in his closer. Apparently, Lance Carter doesn’t possess them, since Piniella is making noise about rotation refugee Victor Zambrano taking over the club’s ninth inning duties.

    It isn’t that Carter hasn’t done the job, as he leads the team in both wins and saves, while on pace to work nearly 100 innings as the leader of a surprisingly sturdy Devil Rays bullpen. While Carter could be more valuable outside of the closer’s confines (after all, how important is a closer on a 100-loss team?), the role change is being considered due to physical attributes, not performance.

    Carter may be short on “closer’s stuff”, but he is long on intestinal fortitude, coming back from two Tommy John surgeries to establish himself as a dependable big league hurler at age 28. He signed on with Tampa Bay after seven years in the Royals organization, where for two decades Dan Quisenberry and Jeff Montgomery demonstrated that the last pitcher used in a ballgame doesn’t have to push three digits on the speed gun to put a “W” in the won-loss column.

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