Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Personal Note

Yours truly has a date with destiny on Saturday. OK, maybe not a date with destiny, but rather a non-refundable date with the Educational Testing Service - more commonly known to you and me as the malevolent administrators of the Graduate Record of Examinations.

As a consequence, I will be taking a 48-hour leave of absence from bringing you my singular analysis of the Atlanta Braves. (Did you see that? I used a GRE word in that sentence.)

Thank you for supporting the Screaming Indian in its infancy. We will pick things up full speed on Sunday morning.

Wish me luck.

AJC: Braves Release Jeff Bennett

David O'Brien of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reports that the Braves have released Jeff Bennnett.

I think I speak for Braves fans everywhere when I say, "Good riddance, kind sir."

Bennett threw 34 innings for the Braves in 2009, striking out 23 and walking 21.

Prado, Escobar banged up

Martin Prado was hit on the ankle by an errant ball during pre-game warm-ups and was scratched from the line-up. Kelly Johnson made the start at second.

The Braves' middle infield was dealt another blow when Yunel Escobar was struck on the wrist with a Rick Vanden Hurk pitch in the bottom of the second. Diory Hernandez replaced Escobar at shortstop.

Despite the injuries, the Braves have the early lead thanks to a two-run double by Casey Kotchman in the bottom of the second.

Braves call upon ace Javier Vazquez to end 2-game skid

Javier Vazquez will be playing the role of stopper on Thursday night against the Florida Marlins, hoping to reverse a two-game slide that has put the Atlanta Braves four games back of San Francisco, the NL Wild Card leader.

There's no reason to think that Vazquez won't be up to the task. Vazquez has taken very well to his return to the senior circuit this season. In 133 IP, Vazquez has struck out a remarkable 150 and walked just 27, yielding an ERA of 2.98. Some are still calling for Vazquez to be traded, but why would a team just four games out of a playoff berth deal away its best pitcher?

At just 24 years of age, Vazquez's opponent, Rick Vanden Hurk takes the hill with very little MLB experience. In his limited service, Vanden Hurk has been quite wild. In 11 IP this season, he's struck out 7 and walked 5. Vanden Hurk is also very prone to the longball (48% flyball rate).

Given the disparity in the pitching matchup, it's not unreasonable for Braves fans to be counting on a win tonight - but baseball's a funny game.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Braves visibly frustrated as Kawakami founders

In Wednesday's 6-3 loss to the Marlins, Kenshin Kawakami did nothing to quiet rumblings that Tim Hudson might immediately supplant him in the starting rotation when he returns from his rehab assignment. Kawakami was, as he has been so often this season, god-awful. In in 4 1/3 innings, he allowed all six of the Marlins' runs, giving up 7 hits (including three HR) and walking three.

The slugfest started in the third inning when Hanley Ramirez drove in Emilio Bonifacio on an RBI triple. Pitcher Josh Johnson joined the party when he hit a three-run bomb off of Kawakami to push the lead to 4 in the bottom of the fourth.

Casey Kotchman hit a solo shot in the top of the fifth to open scoring for the Braves, who were threatening later in the same inning with Ryan Church and Nate McLouth on the corners with one out, but Josh Johnson got Martin Prado to ground into an inning-ending double play.

Hanley Ramirez continued to feast on Braves pitching with a solo shot in the bottom of the fifth. Dan Uggla followed with another homerun later in the inning. Garret Anderson answered right back with a two-run homer in the fifth that plated Brian McCann. But that was the last run the Braves would score on the evening.

Josh Johnson didn't have his best stuff tonight, striking out just one while allowing three runs on two homers in six innings, but the Braves couldn't overcome the disastrous performance by Kawakami and couldn't muster any offense once they got into the Marlins' bullpen.

Pinch-hitter and trade rumor subject Kelly Johnson hit a triple with two outs in the top of the ninth. But Johnson's heroics proved too little, too late as Leo Nunez slammed the door with a swinging strikeout by Nate McLouth.


The Braves' frustration with their performance over the past two games was palpable in the eigth inning, when both Bobby Cox and Brian McCann were ejected following a dispute with the home plate umpire over the location of the strike zone.

Screaming Indian favorite Kris Medlen worked a scoreless inning and a third of relief, striking out one and walking one.

The Rockies were idle tonight, thanks to a rainout, so the Braves fell back another half game, leaving them four games out of the wild card spot.

Wednesday's Braves/Marlins pitching matchup

The Marlins will have a decided advantage in Wednesday's pitching match-up as righties Kenshin Kawakami and Josh Johnson take the hill in the second game of the series between the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins.

Josh Johnson has been superb so far in 2009, and one might be forgiven for not remembering that it was only a year ago that Johnson made his return from Tommy John surgery. Typically, post-TJ pitchers struggle with their control for a while after they come back, but this has not been the case for Johnson.

Johnson hit the ground running in the second half of 2008 and picked up right where he left off when the new season began. In 135 IP, Johnson has struck out 113 batters while walking just 35, yielding an earned run average of 2.80. When he's not missing bats altogether, Johnson has been able to induce ground balls at an impressive rate (54% GB rate in '09).

Though it will be hard to beat out the remarkable seasons of Tim Lincecum, Dan Haren, and Javier Vazquez, Johnson should at least be in the conversation when people start filling out NL Cy Young ballots.

Much less impressive has been the Braves' Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami. The 34-year-old has been plagued by control problems all season long, walking almost 4 batters per nine innings on his way to a 4.04 ERA (an ERA he's fortunate to have given his 1.9 K/BB ratio).

Kawakami's struggles have gotten worse of late. Over the past month, he has walked as many batters as he has struck out. Somehow, he has managed a 3.27 ERA over that period of time. But if he doesn't turn things around soon, his luck will eventually run out.

If for no other reason, Kawakami needs a good start to quiet speculation that he might eventually be moved to the bullpen - the footsteps of Tim Hudson are only going to get louder.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Braves lose to Marlins on 2-run walk-off HR by Ross Gload

The Braves took the early lead in the third inning on a Martin Prado single that plated Ryan Church, but the Marlins answered right back with a 2-run double by Hanley Ramirez in the bottom of the frame, accounting for the only two runs that Jair Jurrjens allowed in his six innings of work.

The Braves were threatening again in their next turn at bat when Garret Anderson and Yunel Escobar reached base with none out, but Ricky Nolasco got out of trouble by getting Ryan Church to ground into an inning-ending double play.

In the top of the sixth, the game was knotted up 2-2 after a Chipper Jones solo shot, his fourth in as many games against Nolasco.

Garret Anderson hit a home run off of Marlins closer Leo Nunez in the top of the ninth to give the Braves what appeared to be the game-winning run. But Rafael Soriano gave up a two-run homer to Ross Gload in the top of the ninth to blow the save and lose the game.

Jair Jurrjens - for his part - pitched very well, striking out five, walking only one batter, and giving up five hits. Over his last 13 1/3 innings, Jurrjens has 15 K, 2 BB, 10 H, 3 ER. Perhaps, after a first half in which his skills deteriorated compared to last year, Jurrjens is beginning to turn things around on the stretch run to the playoffs.

The Rockies also lost on Tuesday by a score of 4-0 to the New York Mets. The Marlins will move ahead of the Braves by a game in the Wild Card race, but the Braves keep pace with the Rockies and remain 3 games back.

Rumor Mill: Braves eager to become latest franchise to be fleeced by Billy Beane

With only 3 days before the MLB non-waiver trade deadline, the rumor mills are a-churning. And while we've been inundated with the details of the negotiations between the Blue Jays and Phillies over the fate of Roy Halladay, the Braves on the other hand haven't been a topic of trade deadline discussion since some bizarre rumors that Javier Vazquez was being shopped fizzled out a couple of weeks ago.

... until today.

A rumor surfaced Tuesday afternoon that Atlanta was in talks with the Oakland Atheltics regarding a potential Kelly Johnson-for-Michael Wuertz swap.

I bet I know where the front office is coming from: they think that, between Martin Prado, Yunel Escobar, and Kelly Johnson, they have a surplus of middle infielders.

But what they may be mistaking as a surplus is in actuality a misallocation of resources.

Kelly Johnson would be an offensive upgrade over Casey Kotchman at first base. Kelly Johnson would be an offensive and defensive upgrade over Garret Anderson in left field. And while Martin Prado has been stellar over the past year, he's hardly a known quantity at this point. I don't think I could say with any certainty that Kelly Johnson won't have a better career than Martin Prado (for what it's worth, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA lists KJ's second closest comparable player as Chase Utley).

The preceding claims are only true, of course, if you believe the entirety of the 2007 and 2008 season to be more representative of Johnson's true skill level (as I do) versus the injury-riddled 2009 version of Johnson.

But this doesn't even begin to consider the fact that the Braves probably don't need the bullpen help in the first place. True, there's something of a drop-off after Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, but Peter Moylan has been fine, Eric O'Flaherty has been a solid LOOGY option, and Kris Medlen is stepping up nicely. And, oh yeah, some dude named Tim Hudson is currently rehabbing in Single A.

Hopefully, Frank Wren will realize what a talent he has in Kelly Johnson (relative to those who are stealing playing time from him) and this will all have been a bunch of griping over nothing on my part.

A Tale of Two Pitchers: Nolasco / Jurrjens matchup kicks off important intradivision series

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Nolasco's was the highest of ERAs, Jurrjens' was the lowest of ERAs. OK, you get the picture.

The Braves and Marlins head into action today tied at three games back of the National League wild card spot. In Ricky Nolasco and Jair Jurrjens the Marlins and Braves, respectively, send two young pitchers to the mound whose differences don't stop at their widely divergent ERAs.

Jurrjens' sparkling 2.67 ERA belies a deteriorating skill set (128 IP, 88 K, 47 BB, 43% groundball rate) likely brought on by his heavy workload during the 2008 season - a season in which, it's worth noting, the Braves were not in contention for a playoff spot late in the season at which time a more cautious approach might have called for Jurrjens to be shut down.

Nolasco, on the other hand, has been haunted all season long by a 5.42 ERA despite displaying skills that promise much better future results (103 IP, 105 K, 26 BB, 39% GB rate).

So give the advantage in staring pitching goes to the Marlins tonight, but what about the bats? The Braves are hitting .261/.334/.408 against righties on the season, while the Marlins are a little worse at .260/.331/.397.

If the Braves can work deep into pitch counts and send Nolasco home early, they might fare better against the Marlins' bullpen who have had to work a little more often than the Braves' bullpen has this year. In 312 IP, Marlins relievers have struck out 294, walked 161, and given up 23 HR while boasting a 3.79 ERA. The Braves' bullpen has given up earned runs at a slightly higher clip (3.80), but have the better K/BB ratio (2.01 to Florida's 1.83), including 271 K, 135 BB, and 17 HR in 295 1/3 IP.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Idle Braves gain half a game on the Rockies

The Rockies lost to the Mets on Monday by a score of 7-3. The difference was a Fernando Tatis grand slam in the eigth.

Fernando Tatis? Yes, Feranando Tatis.

Stop checking your calendars. It's not 1999 again.

Colorado's loss brings the Braves within three games of the the Rockies in the NL wild card race.

As Ugly As I Seem: the anniversary of the Mark Teixeira trade

We're coming up on the anniversary of the Mark Teixeira trade. Does it seem as god-awful now as it did at the time? Briefly, yes. It's still awful.

To refresh: the Braves dealt Mark Teixeira to the Angels for Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek.

Kotchman has been putrid with the bat to the tune of a 0.8 wins above replacement since the trade (in other words, Kotchman's contribution has been worth less than one run better than what a random, non-prospect dude from AAA would have produced). Marek has been just as awful. In 34 innings between AA Mississippi and AAA Gwinnett, Marek has given up 23 earned runs, 27 strikeouts, and 30 walks.

Alternate universe scenario: Braves offer Teixeira arbitration. Teixeira declines. Teixeira signs with Yankees. Braves receive two sandwich picks.

Yeah, I like that version better.

Alternate universe scenario two: Braves offer Teixeira arbitration. Teixeira declines. Braves sign Teixeira.

Now, suppose the Braves spend the same $20 million on Mark Texeira as the Yankees did (this is problematic, but bear with me until the end of the paragraph). The Braves are immediately 5.46 wins better than they are in the depressing reality where they instead have Casey Kotchman under contract. These extra wins have monetary value, especially if they prove to be the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. If you place the value of each marginal win at $4.5 million, Mark Teixeira's production net of Casey Kotchman is worth $24.57 million. The Braves could have outbid the Yankees by $4.57 million and the result would have been a wash!

Now, I should point out that Teixeira's contract is heavily backloaded, and it is highly unlikely that he'll be worth the $22.5 million he'll be paid as a 36-year-old, but the Yankees to be sure are due some surplus on the front end.

In any case, my point is this: trading for Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek was the worst of all possible decisions. Casey Kotchman is a first baseman who has no power, no longer gets on base, and isn't especially good with the glove. As for Stephen Marek, I'd be shocked if he ever set foot on a major league baseball diamond, and the fact that he was given the title of "prospect" when news articles covering the trade were written was, quite frankly, laughable.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Is Martin Prado for real?

Martin Prado is hitting .320/.387/.489 on the season. His perfomance to date is almost a perfect replication of what he did for the Braves in 238 plate appearances in 2008, when he hit .320/.378/.461. Now that he's sustained this level of performance for a full season, we have to ask ourselves - is Martin Prado really this good?

In the minors, Prado demonstrated decent on-base skills but showed little in the way of power (.300/.353/.393 in 1,920 minor league at bats). But since being called up to the majors, Prado's slugging percentage has gone up nearly .070 points (.455 SLG% 560 MLB at-bats).

Prado's current 8.9% HR/Flyball seems sustainable enough. HitTracker lists three of Prado's homeruns as being of the "Just Enough" variety while just two were hit "Plenty" far, which might portend a mild dip in his slugging percentage. Aside from that, there's no other evidence to suggest that Prado is a flash in the pan.

Most metrics give his glovework at third base better reviews than at first base or second base so far this season. This may have interesting implications as Kelly Johnson returned from the DL in grand fashion on Sunday and Chipper Jones is often banged up. Still, Prado's profile as a strong on-base man with doubles power probably plays better long-term at second base than at third. It will be interesting to see how Bobby Cox manages this situation.

Braves rout Brewers 10-2

A game that had the makings of a pitchers' duel through the fifth inning turned into a slugfest by the end of the sixth. Already up 1-0 on a first inning Brian McCann double that drove in Nate McLouth, the Braves put a four-spot on the Brewers in the top of the sixth, fueled by a McCann walk, singles by Garrett Anderson and Matt Diaz, and a two-run homer by Casey Kotchman to cap the rally.

The Brewers answered with two runs in the bottom of the inning off of Derek Lowe, who had a solid but unspectacular outing, walking none while striking out three. Ten out of the 15 outs Lowe induced on balls in play came via the ground ball, so the groundball machine was in peak form today.

Kelly Johnson was impressive in his first start back from the disabled list, going 3-for-4 with a walk, a homerun, 2 doubles, and a stolen base.

Kris Medlen gave up one hit in a scoreless ninth inning. The Braves were already up 8 runs when he came into the game, but one can't help but wonder if Bobby Cox's decision to use him in the 9th was a test to see how well he might do in high-leverage relief situations. Last week, we suggested that such a role would be the ideal short-term use of Mr Medlen.

The win allowed the Braves to keep pace with the Rockies in the NL wild card race. Colorado topped San Francisco 4-2 on Sunday.

The Braves are off on Monday but pick things back up on Tuesday against the Marlins, who are currently tied with the Braves for second place in the NL East.

Lowe and Looper in series finale

Derek Lowe and Braden Looper take the mound on Sunday in what is easily the least sexy pitching matchup of the series. Lowe is a groundball artist who has struggled this season, striking out just 67 batters in 124 2/3 innings while issuing 41 walks. Lowe is still inducing ground balls at a rate of 55%, but he'll need to get the walks down and the strikeouts up if he intends to help the Braves catch the Rockies in the NL wild card race.

Looper has been surprisingly effective throughout his career given his modest skills. Most of his success, however, came out of the bullpen while he has hovered around replacement level as a starter for the past three seasons.

Braves can't take advantage of Gallardo's wildness

Neither Yovani Gallardo (7 1/3 IP, 6 K, 4BB, 9H, 0 ER) nor Tommy Hanson (7 IP, 1 K, 2BB, 4H, 2 ER) were as effective as they've shown they can be. Still, neither team did very much to take advantage until Yovani Gallardo squared to bunt with two on in the bottom of the fifth. When Hanson threw the pitch, however, Gallardo pulled his bat back and hit a single that bounced just over the head of Chipper Jones. Gallardo has proven before that he's no slouch with the bat, and this proved to be the only run the Brewers would need to put the Braves away.

Elsewhere, the Rockies beat the Giants 8-2, putting the Braves 3.5 games (and four losses) back of the Rockies for the wild card spot.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gallardo, Hanson take the mound in battle of talented young arms

Yovani Gallardo of the Brewers was born just six months before the Braves Thomas Hanson (almost to the day), but the former has been on the MLB scene for three seasons now, while Mr Hanson made his first start on June 7th of this year.

Hanson dominated AAA to the tune of 99 K, 17 BB, 40 H, and a sparkling 1.49 ERA in 66 1/3 innings pitched. When Hanson was called up to the big leagues his surface statistics remained outstanding (8 ER in 29 IP, including four wins), but there was reason to wonder how long it would last (16 K/17BB over that same stretch).

But ever since his start against the Nationals on the Fourth of July, Hanson has turned it around, striking out 18 batters in just 19 innings while walking just six. It will be interesting to see if Hanson has finally turned the corner.

Yovani Gallardo, on the other hand, has been heading in the opposite direction of late. Gallardo had a 2.86 ERA through the end of June, striking out 9.4 batters per nine innings. But since the beginning of July, Gallardo's control has been slipping. In his last 23 IP, Gallardo has walked 13 batters. Gallardo's past performance suggests he'll get back on track eventually. The Braves will just hope he waits until his next start to do so.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Javier Vazquez without best stuff, Braves still get it done

Last night, Javier Vazquez didn't dominate the Brewers in the way he's dominated the rest of the Naitonal League this year, giving up 4 ER in 7 innings while striking out nine and walking three (this was just the fourth time this season he'd issued four walks in a game).

Luckily, the Braves' suddenly potent bats (the Braves have scored 5.75 runs per game in the post-Frenchy era) picked him up by plating 9 runs, including a Chipper Jones solo shot in the 6th that put them up for good and two-run homer by Nate McLouth in the top of the eight that put the game out of reach.

Yesterday, I wondered if Manny Parra had re-harnessed the considerable skill he displayed in the second half of 2009. Clearly, he hasn't. His night was done after throwing 106 pitches in only five innings, only 63 of which were strikes. He issued three walks, struck out three, gave up 10 hits, and allowed 4 runs to cross the plate.

Elsewhere, the Giants beat the Rockies 3-1, leaving the Braves 2.5 games back (and three losses back) of Colorado and San Francisco, who are currently tied for the wild card spot.

Vazquez and Parra face off

Javier Vazquez has unquestionably been the ace of the Braves' staff this season and arguably the best non-Lincecum, non-Haren NL starting pitcher (his curious exclusion from the All-Star game notwithstanding).

Though it's died down of late, there had been considerable buzz about Braves GM Frank Wren shopping Vazquez over the past couple of weeks. Now that Matt Holliday is a Cardinal, however, it's difficult to imagine a trade in which the Braves deal Vazquez and improve their chances of making the playoffs.

A great start tonight might go a long way toward making the front office realize that Vazquez is worth holding onto. Given his Cy Young level of performance this season(126 IP, 141 K, 24 BB, 2.86 ERA), there's little reason to expect otherwise. And who knows, maybe - just maybe - Vazquez will finally receive some run support from the suddenly hot-hittiing Braves line-up.

I can't imagine using any of the adjectives that I used above to describe Vazquez when talking about Manny Parra, who has been nothing short of wildly unpredictable in his brief career.

Parra had an impressive skills breakout in the second half of 2008 (9.0 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, GB/FB ratio greater than 2 in 79 1/3 IP) but has struggled to build upon those gains in 2009. In fact, Parra was so bad during the first half (55K/41BB in 63 IP) that he was sent down for three starts at AAA Nashville.

Though his time with The Sounds gave some cause for worry (24 2/3 IP, 19 K, 13BB), Parra has been much more effective since being recalled on July 9th. In two starts since he rejoined the Brewers, Parra has thrown 13 innings, giving up only one earned run while striking out 13 and walking just one. But is it a fluke or a full-on skill recovery? Tonight, the Braves are hoping it's the former.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Kris Medlen: use him or send him down

I'm big on Kris Medlen. Probably moreso than most. He does have a smallish frame and probably projects longterm as a high-leverage reliever rather than a front-end starter. But still, the man has some talent, as evidenced by the success he had prior to his call-up (37 2/3 IP, 44K, 10BB, 20 H, 1.19 ERA at AAA).

But you wouldn't know Medlen was one of the Braves' top prospects by the way Bobby Cox has been using him over the past couple of months. Since moving to the bullpen following a start on May 31st in which he dominated the Diamondbacks (6 IP, 9K, 1BB,4H, 1ER), Medlen has only made ten appearances out of the Braves' bullpen.

Medlen's performance in the big leagues has been hit or miss so far. He's dominant on some nights but can't find the plate on others. But there's good news! We are able to isolate his bad performances from his good performances by analyzing the duration of his appearances.

In games in which he has pitched more than two innings, Medlen has 27K/19BB with 20 ER in just 26 innings. When Medlen has pitched 2 innings or less, he's put up 10 K against 1 BB in 8 IP. True, this is a very small sample. But through four MLB starts, Medlen has proven he isn't ready to be a full-time SP (although he might already be a more interesting option than Kenshin Kawakami), and since the evidence so far has indicated that he might be an effective one or two inning relief pitcher, that option ought to be worth exploring.

If not, send him back down to AAA Gwinnett, and keep stretching him out as a starter.