In every season since the end of the 14-year run of division titles, the Braves have finished with an actual record that is worse than their run differential. Continuing with the trend, the Braves are 14-15 in 2011, but with their run differential, they should be 17-12. The Braves are the only team in baseball with a record three games off of their expected record. In baseball parlance, this means that the Braves have been unlucky, but when the same thing happens again and again, can it really be seen as bad luck? Here is what I wrote about the subject last May:
Sure enough, we're six weeks into the 2010 season and the Braves are two games under .500, but with their run differential, they should be two games over. Normally, I wouldn't care about about a two-game disparity, but coming on the heels of four straight "unlucky" seasons, this is a a problem. I'm at a loss to come up with an explanation, so I need some help. The bullpen is normally the first explanation for a team underperforming its expected record, but the pen was good last year and it has been good this year. Here is the best I can come up with:
1. The Braves are not good at situational hitting, so they struggle to eke a run across when they really need one.
2. The Braves are slow, so they can't manufacture a run in a close game.
3. Bobby isn't a good tactical manager at the end of a close game.
4. Karma is punishing us for 1991-2005.
This year, we can add a suspect bullpen back into the mix. We should have seen this issue coming, but the Braves basically replaced Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito with Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill. The club’s approach was that Craig Kimbrel and and Jonny Venters were replacing Wagner and Saito, but then who was replacing Kimbrel and Venters? Thus, the team has fairly reliable eighth and ninth inning guys (although this weekend was not a good one for Kimbrel), but no bridge to them, especially with Peter Moylan injured. How many times has Venters had to enter a game to put out a fire started by one of the other relievers in the pen?
Otherwise, the other factors remain true, with the only difference being that Bobby Cox’s tactical issues have been replaced by those of Fredi Gonzalez. I have thoroughly enjoyed Braves Journal’s invective launched at Fredi over the past several weeks, but yesterday’s post takes the cake:
You have to hand it to the Braves players. Despite heroic efforts by the manager to lose the game, they managed, barely, to pull this one out and salvage at least one win in the series. Fredi’s utter contempt for what wins in baseball began with his version of Bobby‘s Sunday Surrender lineup. He did start Brian McCann — with no off-day tomorrow and a lefty going, so if you’re ever going to rest him, it’s now — but decided to give a start, at first base, to Joe Mather, who has about as much business in the major leagues as he does leading an expedition to the headwaters of the Amazon. Somehow, it worked out, and no doubt Fredi will inform us that he is a super-genius and should never be criticized or questioned.
Watching Mather try to get a bunt down on Friday night was painful. The episode illustrates the facts that the Braves aren’t good at situational hitting (compare the hit and run that the Cards executed in the ninth to tie the game with … well, everything that the Braves do), that the bench is weak (the appalling lack of pinch hits from this team are a major reason why they struggle in close games), and that Joe Mather is not a good major leaguer.
One other factor contributing to the Braves’ poor record in close games: Tim McClelland. Showing the value of a degree from Michigan State, McClelland put on the worst umpiring performance I have ever seen. I kept comparing him to Frank Drebin, with the major difference being that Drebin over-embellished every call, whereas McClelland couldn’t be bothered to make a strike call for several seconds after a pitch.
McClelland’s third strike call on Freddie Freeman in the eleventh was unbelievably bad, as the pitch was both low and outside by several inches. In fact, the call was so bad that the Braves decided to show a replay of it on the big board as Tony LaRussa was over-managing by making a pitching change with two outs in the eleventh. I have never seen the Braves use the giant screen for the useful purpose of showing a call that went against the home team. Apparently, McClelland hadn’t seen such a tactic either, because he immediately started complaining to Fredi about it. You know, because it’s easier for McClelland to complain about the video board than to actually do his job by calling balls and strikes in a competent, consistent manner.