The Braves Collapse Is Not Nearly As Painful As Other Past Failures
This season, I followed a Braves team that wasn't very good, yet somehow, they were pulling away with the Wild Card lead. I could never quite put my finger on it. How in the world were they 10 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals at one point? It seemed like every time I watched them or listened to a game, they were doing something ridiculously bad. They lost some painful games this year, yet the stats were showing some fantastic seasons for some players.
The only problem is...when those players had a bad game, it cost them. Being a well-rounded team means that you can make a couple of mistakes here and there and it won't cost you the game seemingly every time. It means, if your pitchers are having a bad game, your offense has the ability to pick them up, and vice-versa. The Braves never had an offense that clicked, because there were too many black holes in the lineup.
Even with the Wild Card lead, I never really believed in this team. The weaknesses were too glaring. At the beginning of the season, the leadoff man was Nate McLouth, and when he got hurt, it turned into Jordan Schafer. Neither of those guys is any good. Then the Braves got Michael Bourn, who pretty much slumped after the trade, although he was much better than those other two guys.
Then the 2nd spot was filled most of the year by Martin Prado, who for the past couple of years could be depended upon to bat around .300. He batted around .260 this year. And since he never walks, that hurts.
Chipper Jones is, of course, well past his prime. He had a decent year for someone his age and constantly injured. But he was being relied upon to be the team's #3 hitter. And I don't care what sabermetrics might say about Chipper, this is a case where the human eye was better than the advanced stats. He never could really be a #3 hitter this year, and probably never again.
Dan Uggla took an entire half of the season to get right. When he did, he was awesome. Unfortunately, nearly everybody else on the team tanked once he got hot.
Brian McCann must have been severely sidetracked by his injury after the All-Star Break. You could depend on McCann almost daily to do something great. But after he got off the disabled list, he was pretty useless the rest of the year.
Freddie Freeman had a great rookie season, and unfortunately, his production, which would be a great compliment to an awesome offense, was relied upon to be one of the main sources. You can't rely on a 21-year-old who is just learning the ins and outs of the majors be your top offensive producer, even if he's having a great season for a rookie.
Jason Heyward was so bad this year, people started remembering the types of things said about Jeff Francoeur during his stay in Atlanta. Heyward was the biggest disappointment of the year, and hurt the offense more than any one person, right alongside Prado. The Braves were relying on Prado to stay the course and for Heyward to get better in his second season. And they got worse, which made them unfortunate, almost automatic, outs.
Alex Gonzalez was a black hole in the lineup from the start. But his bad numbers at the plate only became magnified as the Braves looked for someone to start hitting. I think everyone was OK with Gonzalez' offensive production, as long as the other guys did what they were supposed to do. They didn't, so the presence of Alex Gonzalez at the plate was always a painful sight because now, his lack of production just compounded the other lack of production the lineup was getting.
I like to think in these terms--the Braves had very little room for error when it came to scoring runs, and while, rightfully so, the team was criticized for being unable to get hits with runners in scoring position, it seemed like so many times, they needed that hit with two outs. Since on average a batter is not going to get a hit somewhere over 70% of the time, the odds were always against them.
The pitching kept them winning games for much of the first half, and that had to do with solid presences Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, both who went down shortly after the All Star Break along with seemingly everyone else. With Hanson and Jurrjens unable to put in solid work, the Braves had Tim Hudson, rookie Brandon Beachy (who began to lose it in the second half), the god-awful Derek Lowe (and somehow, the saber stats supported him being just as good a pitcher as Hudson, which...I think more data is needed), and a triumvirate of rookie pitchers who were not ready to be in the majors until 2012 or 2013: Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Mike Minor.
With all this inexperience and worn-down veterans, the bullpen was used a lot. Unhittable pitchers like Johnny Venters and Craig Kimbrel suddenly became wild and hittable towards the end of the season. It would not shock me if I found out Venters needed surgery after this season. The guy was ridiculous all year, and there should have been some regression in his stats, but not to the point where he became absolutely frightening to watch later in the season, walking guys and giving up solid hits. I worry about Venters a bunch.
Venters and Kimbrel each gave up games in September that had they been played in June, would have never happened.
There were just too many holes in this team, and the prospect of going to the playoffs with this bunch was scary. I didn't think they had a chance to make it past the first round, and when the collapse began, I wondered if it wouldn't just be better for baseball that this team didn't make it anyway. They were not going to be a tough first round opponent throwing Hudson, Beachy, and Lowe against any of the playoff pitching staffs. And with this offense, even if they made it past the first round and into the NLCS, it would likely be against Philly, and Philly is way too much of a beast for Atlanta. Halladay, Lee, and Hamels would have carved this team up quickly. Another playoff loss was inevitable. Collapse or no, this team wasn't going to win the World Series.
So when the analysts and the sports pundits talk about "worst collapse" and how that's so bad that they missed the playoffs, I think it's an overblown story. Make the playoffs, not make the playoffs, this team was embarrassing for many reasons, and they were not going to be champions. Manager Fredi Gonzalez, chided by many this season and many times referred to as "Frediot," certainly wasn't going to be the balm this team needed. Just too many bone-headed mistakes. But his bad decisions were magnified mainly because of the team that was on the field. As I was saying before, good teams can overcome mistakes. When Gonzalez made one, it lost the game. When Charlie Manuel in Philly makes one, that team finds a way to blur it out.
Plus, I don't know what this idea was that Gonzalez is just like Bobby Cox. In what way? Maybe philosophy, maybe "player's manager," but not very fiery. I wished so many times he would race out of the dugout and bark at an umpire, but it looked like Gonzalez was always worried that his mom was in the stands or something and just took the "if you have nothing positive to say, then don't say anything at all," approach to leading the team.
The Braves collapse...it was inevitable. I was resigned to it about a month ago, the last time they got swept by Philly and had an 8-game lead in the Wild Card. It's not worse than Jim Leyritz in 1996 or Ed Sprague in 1992, or Kirby Puckett in 1991. It just doesn't have the same feel. I saw it coming and braced for it, and I feel a little relieved I won't have to see this team in the playoffs. Also, seeing the Rays win in the way they did, combined with the way the Red Sox lost their game, was the type of thing that made me love baseball in the first place. When I saw that, I was totally at peace that the Braves had come up short, yet again.