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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Atlanta Braves finding success despite multiple injuries to pitching staff


By on 4/30/2014 09:00:00 AM

The old adage in baseball is a team can never have enough pitching.

The Atlanta Braves learned this the hard way during spring training.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez watched veteran Tim Hudson leave after nine seasons to join the San Francisco Giants. It was tough to watch that kind of leadership sign elsewhere, but Atlanta was confident in its young pitching moving forward.

That includes Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy. Atlanta signed Gavin Floyd to provide a veteran presence, but wouldn’t be on the mound until the beginning of May as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

Alex Wood would be tasked with keeping Floyd’s rotation spot warm. In 31 appearances (11 starts) last season, he went 3-3 with a 3.13 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 77 strikeouts in 77.2 innings pitched. Once Floyd was healthy, Wood would likely convert back to a bullpen role.

Everything was in place at the start of spring training. By the time the regular season was underway, their starting rotation looked completely different.

      Within a span of four days, both Medlen and Beachy were lost for the year. Each hurler would be going under the knife for their second Tommy John surgery. Then, Minor hit the disabled list with shoulder issues.

In the blink of an eye, three-fifths of their starting rotation was missing.

The patience of free-agent Ervin Santana paid off, as general manager Frank Wren quickly agreed to a one-year, $14.1 million deal with the right-hander. They also signed Aaron Harang after being released by the Cleveland Indians.

The final void would be filled with rookie David Hale.

A once dominant Atlanta rotation ready to repeat as National League East champions now looked mortal on the eve of Opening Day.

It’s unrealistic to expect a pitching staff to stay intact and healthy over the course of an entire season, but not many teams are able to bounce back quickly after losing two important pieces for the entire year, especially in such a short period of time.

The Washington Nationals had a chance to jump out to an early lead in the season’s first month. Fast forward to 25 games later, the Braves hold MLB’s second-best record, including a 2.5-game lead in the NL East.

Freddie Freeman’s fast start has ignited the offense, but the pitching staff is among the best in the league. Their team 2.32 ERA and 1.09 WHIP rank first and second in baseball, respectively.

To get more specific, the starting rotation owns a miniscule 1.90 ERA, with three starters posting an ERA lower than 2.00.

How did this happen?

This early-season success is a testament to Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell for making the best out of an unfortunate situation. When players go down with injuries, it’s important for coaches to expect excellence from those filling the void.

Santana posted a solid 3.24 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 211 innings pitched for the Kansas City Royals last season. However, since he signed so late in the spring, he had to get into midseason form quickly.

The player-coach relationship between him and McDowell has gotten off to a good start, with the right-hander posting a 1.95 ERA and 0.98 WHIP with 31 strikeouts in 27.2 innings pitched. The increased use of his changeup (17.5 percent this season, compared to 7.2 percent in 2013) has aided this dominant showing.

The breakout performance from Harang is more surprising, pitching to a league-leading 0.85 ERA through his first 31.2 innings. Holding opponents to a BABIP of just .200 and stranding those that get on base at a rate of 89.3 percent are big reasons for his resurgence.

Since he's allowing more fly balls this year (52.9 percent) than ever before in his career (41.2 percent) without surrendering a home run yet in 2014, it will be interesting to see how long this stretch can last.

As a pitching staff, they’re among the league leaders in several key categories. Heading into Tuesday's game against the Miami Marlins, their team 8.74 K/9 rate is fifth-best in the league, while allowing 2.72 BB/9. Only three teams walk hitters less often.

The staff has generated ground balls 41.7 percent of the time, making outfield defense increasingly important. Fly balls have turned into home runs at a rate of 5.2 percent, the lowest in baseball.

Even when the opposition reaches base, Atlanta pitchers are stranding them 78.2 percent of the time, tied for third-best in the league.

On Monday, Rising Apple (a Mets-centric blog) posted an interesting stat from ESPN’s Mark Simon about the Braves’ early-season pitching success:
Whether that’s sustainable remains to be seen. This statistic, with the others above, makes it clear why Atlanta’s pitching has been so dominant.

This start is impressive enough by itself. Considering how decimated their starting rotation was in the week leading up to Opening Day, it’s unbelievable.

With Bryce Harper out until at least July due to hand surgery, the division is Atlanta’s to lose. They will undoubtedly experience rough patches along the way—Harang’s sub-1.00 ERA likely won’t stand up over 30 starts.

When the rotation starts to struggle, there will be others waiting to contribute. Minor should be back very soon, and Floyd won’t be far behind. The bullpen will also receive a reinforcement with the return of Jonny Venters from Tommy John surgery last season.

Significant injuries were supposed to handcuff them in the season’s first month, but they rose above and produced at a level no one expected.

As the Nationals continue to get weakened by injuries, Atlanta is in the driver’s seat with regard to its division lead as the calendar flips to May.

They can thank consistently incredible performances from their starting rotation—one that looks nothing like they envisioned throughout the winter.

Player and team statistics sourced from MLB.com. Advanced statistics sourced from FanGraphs.

You can follow Matt on Twitter: @mmusico8.

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