Consistent with how the rest of the pennant races in baseball are shaping up, the Braves are looking at the prospect of a no-drama close to the regular season. 7.5 games behind the Phillies, but eight games up on the Giants in the Wild Card standings, the Braves are a virtual lock for the Wild Card and a first round match-up against the Brewers. According to the Baseball Prospectus, the Braves have a 96.5% chance of making the playoffs. Barring a Mets-style collapse, we will have October baseball for the second year in a row. Taking six of seven from the Giants and D-Backs saw to that.
One of the explanations for why wild card teams seem to out-perform their expected results in the playoffs has been that wild card teams are typically fighting until the end of the season to qualify for the postseason, so they enter October in form. The best teams in baseball, by comparison, lose their edge in September as they go through the motions, knowing that their places in the playoffs are secure. At least, this is something that I told myself when the Braves consistently lost playoff series to inferior opponents over the latter part of the 90s and the early part of the Aughts. If this phenomenon is true, then the Braves are not going to be in great shape in October because they will have nothing to play for in September.
It’s important that the Braves use the final month of the season to get ready for October. Here is what Fredi Gonzalez needs to be doing to ensure that the Braves have the best possible lottery ticket:
1. Get Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens back into form. Hanson and Jurrjens were among the best starters in baseball up to the All-Star Break. Jurrjens was a candidate to start the All-Star Game, whereas Hanson was unjustly omitted from the roster by Bruce Bochy, a factor that made the Braves’ success against the Giants last week even sweeter. Since the Break, Jurrjens and Hanson have been injured and ineffective. Because the Braves’ farm system has an embarrassment of pitching riches, the team has been able to steam merrily along, plugging Mike Minor and Randall Delgado into the rotation. However, to have a good chance in October, Jurrjens and Hanson will have to be back. The last 35 games should be used to get them the rest they need and then gradually get them back to form. A late-season injury break could be good for both of them, as they will arrive in October with less mileage on their tires, but that only works if they come back from their current doldrums.
2. Give O’Ventbrel a Break. This is self-explanatory. With Aroldys Vizcaino emerging as a relief option and Peter Moylan on his way back, the bullpen is deeper. Fredi needs to use that depth to reduce the workloads of his three top relievers. The Braves haven’t had a bullpen like this since 2002, but they have to make sure that their modern day version of the Nasty Boys isn’t sucking wind at the end of the season.
3. Has anyone seen Jason Heyward? Jose Constanza is a great story. It’s rare for a 27-year old career minor leaguer to come to the majors and put up a .923 OPS in the course of almost a month of play. That said, there is a reason why Constanza kicked around the minors for years, while Jason Heyward was a first round pick, one of the top prospects in baseball, and then an outstanding rookie in 2010. There is no comparison, talent-wise. Who would we rather see starting in right field in October? To the extent that a manager can have an effect on these things (a debatable point), Fredi needs to be thinking about getting Heyward’s head right for October. As with Jurrjens and Hanson, a late-season break could be good for Jason; the Braves need to exploit the chance.
4. Figure out the error of his ways on the basepaths. There is a natural tendency for successful people to think that everything about their routines is the cause for their success. Fredi has led the Braves to the fourth-best record in the Majors this year, right behind three teams with significantly higher payrolls. He very well may think that his managerial style has caused this result. He certainly deserves some credit, but he is not without flaws. The most obvious is that he over-manages. The Braves are fourth in the NL in sacrifice hits. They are 14th in stolen bases, but fourth in times caught stealing, thus leading to the fact that only the Cardinals have a worse stolen base percentage. Outside of Michael Bourn, this just isn’t a fast team, as evidenced by the fact that they are dead-last in the NL in triples. The Braves bunt too much, they try to play hit-and-run too much, they squeeze too much, and they generally make too many outs on the basepaths. This is a big deal for a team that isn’t great at getting on base and it is especially important headed into the playoffs where every chance to score is critical. Fredi claims to be a stathead. His management style reflects that he hasn’t processed many of the basic findings of the SABR revolution. It would be nice if he took a critical look at the Braves’ stats and changed his style.