Sunday, April 14, 2013

Geek Out Stat: Tomahawk Chopped

     Many baseball analysts, journalists, and experts alike picked the Washington Nationals as a favorite to win the 2013 World Series just before the MLB season started. You have a loaded rotation featuring phenom Stephen Strasburg and newcomer Dan Haren, a dangerous lineup featuring another phenom in Bryce Harper, and supposedly a solid rotation with the addition of Rafael Soriano. The Nationals haven't disappointed, starting off the season at 7-4. But here's the thing: they're not in 1st place in the NL East.
     That honor belongs to the Atlanta Braves, who are off to a 10-1 start this season and currently hold the best record in baseball. As a matter of fact, Hot-Lanta went to the nation's capital for a tough three-game series this weekend against the Nationals and won that series. This included a 6-4 comeback victory on Friday in ten innings in which the Braves were down 4-0 going into the 7th inning. What's more is that they're currently on an eight-game winning streak in spite of their newcomer and center fielder B.J. Upton (.105, one home run, two RBIs), right fielder Jason Heyward (.086, one home run, three RBIs), and second baseman Dan Uggla (.189, two home runs, three RBIs) struggling early on. This is also in spite of catcher Brian McCann (shoulder), first baseman Freddie Freeman (strained right oblique), starting pitcher Brandon Beachy (elbow), and set-up man Jonny Venters (elbow) all being out. This is in spite of Braves legend and clubhouse leader Chipper Jones retiring at the end of last season. That's the scary part.
     So who has been carrying the Braves? Believe it or not, Atlanta's been off to this blazing-hot start thanks to a former janitor. Yes, you're reading that right. A former janitor from Dallas in catcher Evan Gattis, or as Braves fans like to call him, "El Oso Blanco" (The White Bear). Gattis is currently batting .333 with four home runs and eight RBIs, including a 1 for 3 outing against Washington yesterday which included a two-run homer off of Strasburg. He's replacing the injured Brian McCann, whose career numbers consist of a batting average of .279, 156 HR, and 604 RBIs. He won the Silver Slugger award five times (2006, 2008-2011) and is a former All-Star Game MVP (2010), so it'll be interesting to see what manager Fredi Gonzalez does with the catcher position when McCann comes back.
     "El Oso Blanco" hasn't been carrying the lineup on his white bear back alone, though. Left fielder Justin Upton has lived up to expectations as an acquisition for the Braves, leading the team in the following categories*:
  • Batting Average: .349
  • Hits: 15
  • Home Runs: 6
  • RBIs: 10
  • OBP: .396
  • Total Bases: 37
  • Doubles: 4
  • Slugging Percentage: .860
  • Runs: 10
     Shortstop Ramiro Pena (one home run, six RBIs) has also contributed greatly along with third baseman Juan Francisco (one home run, five RBIs). In fact, Freddie Freeman was batting .412 with a home run and seven RBIs before he got hurt.
     But the lineup hasn't been the sole contributor to Atlanta's early success. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the team with the best team ERA so far this season, the Atlanta Braves. With a team ERA of 2.08, a WHIP of 1.10, and opponents batting .212, the Braves have effectively mowed down opposing batters. Both starting pitcher Paul Maholm, closer Craig Kimbrel, and relievers Cory Gearrin, Anthony Varvaro, and Luis Avilan all have yet to give up a run. But let's focus on Maholm and the rotation first. Maholm (2-0, 9.24 K/9, 0.87 WHIP), along with Tim Hudson (2-0, 2.50 ERA, 1.00 WHIP), Mike Minor (2-0, 0.69 ERA, 0.85 WHIP), and Kris Medlen (1-1, 1.50 ERA) have all been terrific. In fact, Hudson outdueled Strasburg yesterday, going 7.0 IP and only allowing four hits and a walk in an Atlanta victory.
     Unlike the Nationals bullpen, which has exposed a weakness for Washington by ranking dead last in the majors in ERA with 6.34**, the Braves' bullpen is for real. Even without Venters, Kimbrel and set-up man Eric O'Flaherty have combined for eight strikeouts, five walks, and four hits. Three of those hits come from O'Flaherty. As a whole, Atlanta's bullpen ranks the best in team ERA at 1.44 and are holding opponents to a mere .198 batting average. The Braves' bullpen has also combined to give up the fewest runs in the league so far with only five runs/earned runs allowed as a whole.
     Atlanta had a pretty easy start to their season. They took two of three from the Phillies in the opening series and swept two mediocre teams in the Cubs and Marlins. But for the Braves to come into Washington this weekend and win that series from a strong division rival has been a loud statement made by the Braves. What's more is that they get to take on the AL Central for interleague play and the only tough series will be a three-game set at Detroit in two weeks. Granted, they'll play the Nats more along with teams like San Francisco and Cincinnati. But the Braves have put themselves in a comfortable position to take control of the NL East.
     I will admit that before the season started, I had picked the Nationals to win more than just the NL East. Because I believed that there wasn't a single glaring weakness on Washington's team, I had picked the Nats to win the NL pennant and lose to the Tigers in the World Series. I did pick the Braves to make the playoffs and win the wild-card game and we've only played at most eleven games so far. But now it seems like I might have to tweak my predictions to best suit the tomahawk chopping that's going on throughout the country. Sorry, but it looks like Natitude might be on the chopping block this year.

* (Based on the qualifications for the batting title, which is 3.1 plate appearances per game)
** (Going into Saturday's game)

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