Friday, April 9, 2010

Braves go west to take on Giants

The Braves are set to kick off a West Coast road trip this afternoon with a three-game series at San Francisco's AT&T Park.

Probable pitchers:
4/9: Tim Hudson (RHP, ATL) vs. Jonathan Sanchez (LHP, SF)
4/10: Derek Lowe (RHP, ATL) vs. Todd Wellemeyer (RHP, SF)
4/11: Jair Jurrjens (RHP, ATL) vs. Time Lincecum (RHP, SF)

Sanchez will be the first lefty-handed starter the Braves have faced in 2010. Since we haven't seen Bobby Cox fill out a lineup card yet 2010 when the Braves are facing an LHP, I'll submit my recommendation:

2B) Martin Prado: .285/.362/.474
LF) Matt Diaz: .346/.383/.537
1B) Troy Glaus: .277/.399/.558
C ) Brian McCann: .267/.334/.425
SS) Yunel Escobar: .280/.357/.380
RF) Jason Heyward: .000/.000/.000
CF) Nate McLouth: .244/.317/.392
3B) Omar Infante*: .266/.310/.381
P ) Tim Hudson: .103/.143/.149

*Assuming Chipper can't play.

Jonathan Sanchez may be the best pitcher the Braves have faced so far. Certainly, his handedness will be a problem for a lineup whose platoon splits lean so heavily in the other direction. Sanchez took a big step forward as a starter last season, and the 27-year-old has the stuff to develop into a front line starter if he can build on those gains - particularly if he can keep his walks under control and pitch efficiently.

Tim Hudson will be pitching for the Braves, and - if the last month of 2009 and spring training are any indication - Huddy seems set to have a strong 2010 after spending most of 2009 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

This is what the Giants' lineup has done against RHPs:

CF) Aaron Rowand: .279/.337/.429
SS) Edgar Renteria: .283/.333/.384
3B) Pablo Sandoval: .327/.375/.542
1B) Aubrey Huff: .286/.347/.493
LF) Mark DeRosa: .265/.333/.397
C ) Bengie Molina: .270/.300/.392
RF) John Bowker: .260/.308/.439
2B) Juan Uribe: .255/.297/.425
P ) Jonathan Sanchez: .092/.148/.118

I will be live-tweeting today's game, which starts at 4:35 PM ET.

FanGraphs impressed by C.J. Wilson's first start

FanGraphs chimes in on C.J. Wilson's (LHP, Rangers) first start yesterday since 2005. They came away as impressed as I was:
Overall, it was a very encouraging start for both Wilson and the Rangers. It wasn’t against one of the better offenses in the league, but it still looks like Wilson will be here to stay as a starter in the major leagues.

Cubs shut out Braves in Atlanta's first loss

Last night's 2-0 shutout was a bitter defeat for the Braves in the style of many of the Braves' losses over the past couple of seasons: solid pitching backed by an offense that could get runners on base but couldn't drive them in. (The Braves stranded 12 baserunners on Thursday night).

Tyler Colvin's solo homerun in the top of the second put the Cubs ahead for good. In the fourth inning, Marlon Byrd's second homerun of the year plated the game's final run.

The loss was especially frustrating because - despite the homeruns - Tommy Hanson (5 1/3 IP, 7 K, 3 BB, 4 H) outpitched Randy Wells (6 IP, 1 K, 2 BB).

The Braves nearly won the game in the bottom of the ninth when Eric Hinske took a Carlos Marmol pitch to deep center with Nate McLouth and Yunel Escobar on base. The ball was well-struck but ultimately hauled in by Marlon Byrd for the second out of the ninth inning. Melky Cabrera unceremoniously struck out to end the game.

Lastly, you probably inferred this next bit of news from the fact that I mentioned that the Braves played a baseball game yesterday, but here goes: Chipper Jones injured his oblique and is expected to miss 2-3 days.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

C.J. Wilson shines in his first start

OK, so it wasn't first start - but it was his first start since 2005, and it went very, very well for the long-haired 29-year-old known to the Twitterverse as @str8edgeracer. Wilson pitched seven scoreless innings, striking out nine, walking two, and giving up just five hits.

As outlined by Matt Klaassen, a big key in Wilson's attempt to "go all Ryan Dempster" by going from a reliever to an above-average starter was that he sustain the uptick in his groundball rate that we witnessed in 2009. (It jumped up to 55.4% in '09 versus 49.3% in '10).

Mission accomplished... kind of. Wilson's batted ball data came out like this: 6 flyballs, 5 groundballs, and 4 line drives. Looks great, right? Well, 4 of those ground balls came in the first two innings. Wilson only induced one ground ball during innings three through seven. Normally, I wouldn't think anything of such a thing. However, since Wilson is transitioning from a reliever to a starter, it's worthwhile to note how his performance changes deep into the game.

As it turned out, Wilson became a much different pitcher as the game wore on. In the first two innings, he drew a lot of contact, and got a lot of ground balls. But in innings three through seven, he struck out eight batters and had a GB/FB ratio of 0.2.

Another interesting tidbit is Wilson's performance against right- and left-handed batters. Wilson has always dominated left-handed batters. Thursday was no different. He faced eight lefties, struck out half of them - and fifty percent of those he didn't strike out grounded out.

He was still good against righties but not as good. He struck out five, walked two, gave up four hits, and posted a 0.6 GB/FB ratio.

Normally, analyzing one start would be absurd - and maybe it still is in this case. Wilson's still got some work to do with respect to maintaining his extreme GBer profile deep into ball games and being consistently effective against RHBs, but if his first start is any indication, the Rangers look to have planted the seeds of something that could be very special.

Game 3 Preview

The Braves (2-0) and Cubs (0-2) take the field on Thursday night for yet another righty-righty pitching matchup - Tommy Hanson and Randy Wells.

I won't waste your time by reading from Hanson's résumé. He had a great 2009. He had a great spring training. Barring injury, 2010 should be no different.

Randy Wells had a pretty successful 2009 himself, breaking into the Cubs rotation with a moderate strikeout, low walk, high ground ball rate approach. Think of him as Jair Jurrjens-lite - a decent talent, but he's not going to be fronting any major league rotations (unless he gets traded to the Padres, who trotted out Jon freaking Garland on Opening Day).

Before the opener, I outlined the Cubs' and Braves' historical performance against RHPs.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Chipper's eighth inning blast pushes Braves past Cubs

Another dramatic homerun stole the show on Wednesday night. This time, it was Chipper Jones hitting a two-run homer to center field in the bottom of the eighth to drive in the game-tying and -winning runs against the Chicago Cubs. John Grabow took the loss for the North Siders.

Ryan Dempster (RHP, CHC) was dominant in the loss, striking out nine in just six innings of work while walking just two. A Jason Heyward double in the second inning drove in the only run that Dempster allowed.

Jair Jurrjens' performance was less impressive. He walked two, struck out just as many, and allowed two runs in 5 IP. Screaming Indian favorite Kris Medlen worked two solid innings of relief (2 H, 2 K, 0 BB, 0 R). Peter Moylan picked up a vulture win, and Billy Wagner was lights-out in the ninth, recording all three outs via the K.

The three game series concludes on Thursday with a showdown between Randy Wells and Tommy Hanson. Advantage: Braves.

NOTE: I had previously written that Hit Tracker recorded Jason Heyward's Opening Day homerun at 433 feet. They are now saying that it was 476 feet, with a speed off the bat of 120 MPH. Yowza. Needless to say, it was upgraded from "Plenty" to "No Doubt".

Game 2 Preview

Wednesday's 7:10 ET game against the Chicago Cubs will feature another righty-on-righty matchup when Ryan Dempster (RHP, CHC) and Jair Jurrjens (RHP, ATL) take the hill for their respective teams.

I broke down the Braves' and the Cubs' historical performance against RHPs on Monday.

It will be interesting to see how Jurrjens holds up given his struggles with shoulder inflammation this spring. It seems like it would have made a lot of sense to slot Jair in at the fourth starter position to give his shoulder just a little bit more rest. But the Braves have been pretty agressive with the 24-year-old's workload, trotting him out for 188 innings in 2008 and 215 innings in 2009.

Off-day loose ends

Upset about high ticket prices at MLB games? Like most problems, the United States' government has something to do with it.

Oh, and the Braves (1-0) are currently tied with the Mets and Phillies for first in the NL East.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Jason Heyward fever drowns out Lowe's awfulness

On any other day, Derek Lowe's dreadful outing (6 IP, 3 BB, 2 K, 5 ER) would have had Braves fans everywhere in a miserable mood on Opening Day. But April 5, 2010 was not your average opening day. It was Jason Heyward Day.

Heyward's first inning three-run homerun off of Carlos Zambrano in his first MLB plate appearance is already the stuff of legend. The towering shot to right center traveled 433 feet, registering as "Plenty" on HitTracker's scale of Plenty, Just Enough, and Lucky. Watch the homerun here.

Heyward's blast was part of the Braves' 16-5 rout of the Chicago Cubs, led (along with Heyward's 4 RBI) by a 2-run single and a 3-run double by Yunel Escobar. Escobar and Heyward accounted for 5 of the 6 runs plated in the Braves' big first inning, in which they regained the lead for good after Derek Lowe gave up a three-run homer to Marlon Byrd in the top of the first.

The Braves are off on Tuesday but resume action at Turner Field on Wednesday when Jair Jurrjens will face off against Ryan Dempster.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Braves Opening Day Preview: In the Field

If you had told me five months ago that Derek Lowe (RHP, Braves) was going to be the 2010 opening day starter for the Atlanta Braves, I would have enjoyed a hearty laugh at your expense. Javier Vazquez and Tommy Hanson were easily the Braves' best pitchers in 2009 while Derek Lowe fell well short of the expectations set by his $60 million contract and seemed a safe bet to be traded. My, how things have changed.

Since Javier Vazquez was traded to the Yankees, Derek Lowe has gone from clubhouse pariah to number one starter. The Braves' newfound confidence in Lowe was buoyed by a dominant spring (18K/2BB in 22 IP), and Lowe will need to build on that success to regain his 2008 form.

In 2009, Lowe struck out more than a batter fewer per nine innings (5.13) and walked more than one additional batter (2.91) than in his last year as a Dodger. His groundball rate also dipped from 60% to 56%. A strong debut against the Cubs would go a long way toward alleviating some of the buyer's remorse that Frank Wren and the Braves were feeling this offseason.

This is how the Cubs' opening day lineup has fared against RHPs:

(SS) Ryan Theriot: .283/.347/.351
(RF) Kosuke Fukudome: .262/.372/.417
(1B) Derrek Lee: .285/.364/.505
(3B) Aramis Ramirez: .284/.341/.493
(CF) Marlon Byrd: .282/.342/.416
(LF) Alfonso Soriano: .278/.320/.508
(2B) Mike Fontenot: .272/.348/.435
(C) Geovany Soto: .257/.338/.456
(P) Carlos Zambrano: .220/.226/.367

Any time Derek Lowe takes the mound, there are going to be more than a few balls put in play. The Braves finished 22nd in UZR for 2009 and firgure to be about the same or slightly better in 2010. The Braves' infield defense will likely be a bit worse in 2010, with Troy Glaus replacing the league average defensive combo of Casey Kotchman and Adam LaRoche while Chipper Jones' defensive prowess continues to deteriorate with ever-advancing age. The outfield should be improved with Melky Cabrera and Jason Heyward replacing Garret Anderson, Ryan Church, and Jeff Francoeur. The outfield defense could be further improved by moving Melky to center and Mclouth to left, but that's a topic for another day.

Braves Opening Day Preview: At the Plate

After enjoying a period of dominance in the early 2000s, Carlos Zambrano (RHP) saw his once-elite skills deteriorate during the latter part of the decade. If there's one encouraging sign, it's that Zambrano's K/9 rebounded to 8.1 in 2009, reversing a three year slide (8.8, 7.4, 6.2). But the most troubling number of all may be that Zambrano's innings pitched continued their downward trend (223, 214, 216, 188, 169), yet another sign that Big Z's arm is succumbing to the high-stress workload placed on him during Dusty Baker's days in the Cubs' dugout.

Zambrano's spring training was something of a mixed bag. While he only struck out 15 batters in 24 innings pitched, he demonstrated much better control than he has in previous seasons, walking just 6 batters.

Still just 28, Zambrano may yet have his best seasons ahead of him if he can conquer the command issues he's battled over the last several seasons. His performance against the Braves on opening day could be a big indicator as to which Carlos Zambrano will be fronting the Cubs' rotation in 2010.

This is what the Braves' opening day lineup has done against righthanded pitching in their careers:

(LF) Melky Cabrera: .272/.332/.395
(2B) Martin Prado: .321/.358/.436
(3B) Chipper Jones: .307/.410/.551
(C) Brian McCann: .304/.365/.527
(1B) Troy Glaus: .248/.345/.476
(SS) Yunel Escobar: .311/.382/.448
(RF) Jason Heyward: .000/.000/.000
(CF) Nate McLouth: .265/.350/.474
(P) Derek Lowe: .131/.175/.139

After finishing 21st in UZR in 2009, the Cubs should be an improved defensive unit in 2010. Milton Bradley and his brittle frame were shipped to Seattle, and Marlon Byrd was signed to replace him, allowing Kosuke Fukudome to move to from center to right field, where he is a much better defender.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A scout's take on Edward Salcedo

A quote from an anonymous scout in Kevin Goldstein's Grapefruit League Scouting Notebook:
Braves SS Edward Salcedo: "I saw where you wrote that he'd be around No. 5 on your Braves list, and that's way too low. He's not a shortstop, but he has a hose and huge power. Get ready for that guy."

The Braves signed Salcedo, an 18-year-old Dominican prospect, to a contract with a $1.6 million signing bonus in March.

Spring Training Recap

Hello, Internet. We're back.

I made the decision to give myself a little break during spring training. With seemingly every sportswriter on the planet tweeting inning-by-inning score updates ad nauseam in games that don't count, I figured that it was territory that was already being thorougly covered.

But in three days, the games will start to count. And Screaming Indian is very excited about kicking off its first full regular season.

Now, despite my previous comments and overwhelming evidence that spring training performance is not useful in predicting regular season performance, there are some interesting stories that emerged from the Grapefruit League.
  • Jason Heyward's .346/.469/.481 spring, which earned him a starting spot in right field. While exciting for the fans, the decision to not hold him back in AAA for a couple of weeks could prove costly down the line when he earns 'super two' arbitration status.
  • The starting rotation's 68 to 13 K/BB ratio. Tim Hudson looks fully recovered and Derek Lowe appears primed for a rebound. Kenshin Kawakami had a disturbingly low strikeout total (13) in 24 2/3 innings while only walking two. It's highly unlikely that he'd be capable of sustaining a walk rate that low during the regular season.

Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA standings currently have the Braves taking the NL wild card, while CHONE has them winning the East. They'll need some things to go their way in order for these projections to come to fruition, but it should - if nothing else - be a very exciting season in Atlanta.