Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Bobby Cox channels Dusty Baker

Last night was a good illustration of the precept that obsession with the "Moneyball" approach to baseball can sap the fun out of the game. The game was played on a picture-perfect summer night in Atlanta. The Braves played smart baseball (for the most part) against A.J. Burnett, working counts to get his pitch count up and to force him to throw them strikes. They chased him from the game after six innings and then Andruw Jones pounced on their bullpen. John Smoltz was completely dominant, allowing five hits and two walks over nine shutout innings. Hell, there was even a babe sitting in front of us, baring her thong every time she leaned forward.

And despite all of this, I was grumbling on the way home that Cox and Mazzone left Smoltz in for the 9th inning with a five-run lead after he had already thrown 110 pitches. For G-d sakes, the guy is 37 years old and has a history of elbow problems. You have a lead so big that even Dan Kolb would struggle to blow it. (Wait, let me think about that for a second.) Yes, Smoltz had a shutout going, but Cox is famous for thinking about the long-term and pitches 111 through 123 are not good for your only healthy, quality starter's arm. Yes, I'm sure that Smoltz said he was fine to throw the 9th and would have been angry if he would have been taken out. You're the manager, Grady Little, er, I mean Bobby Cox. Take him out! If the Baseball Prospectus' approach to pitcher abuse is right, then expect Smoltz to have trouble in upcoming starts after bearing such a workload in this one, especially if the Braves bring him back on three days rest against the Orioles on Saturday.

On the other hand, maybe Cox and Mazzone know a little more about Smoltz and pitching than I do.

Other thoughts:

1. I'm getting close to having a man-crush on Kelly Johnson. I've waited so long for the Braves' farm system to produce another hitter like Chipper who can lay off of crap and then whack good pitches to all fields. Last night, he turned on a Burnett fastball in the first inning, showing terrific bat speed, and got a double that led to the Braves' first run. He then drew a walk in the third to set up a potential rally that was squelched by a truly dreadful LaRoche at-bat (swinging at two pitches in the dirt from a hurler who had walked three batters in a row, then watching called strike three) and an unlucky instance in which Wilson Betemit hit a screamer right at Alex Gonzalez, who made a nifty play on the ball. Johnson then had a nice RBI chopper in the 5th for the Braves' second run. Johnson and Pete Orr were terrific last night, getting on base five out of six times against Burnett, working the count almost every time. Orr did get charged with two errors, although one was harsh, since it was on an absolute laser from the bat of Carlos Delgado. (The official scorer was in bizarro world last night. He gave the Marlins a hit on a soft liner that Furcal could have easily caught, then he tagged Orr and Betemit with errors on very difficult plays.)

2. Andruw continued to carry the team offensively. Orr and Johnson kept getting on base and Andruw kept moving them along or bringing them in. His Katyusha shot off of Chad Bentz put the game away and was a proper reward for the team's good job driving up Burnett's pitch count. He also did a good job in the first inning putting the ball in play to score Orr after falling behind 0-2 with runners in scoring position and one out.

3. Maybe I'm a nerd (wait, don't answer that,) but I highly recommend ESPN's Stat Pack when going to a baseball game. It's an easily printable score sheet (that allowed me to play Joe Simpson and Don Sutton during the game - "you can close the book on Burnett, six innings...") and complete batting and pitching stats for the teams. Without it, I wouldn't have known that Cox was playing Orr in place of Giles because Giles is 0/8 in his career against Burnett, or that A.J. Burnett's control is actually pretty good this year. Bore your companions at games; use the Stat Pack!

4. Why are the Marlins at .500 despite a seemingly very good roster? If last night's game is any indication:

a. They have dreadful Mike Lowell batting behind Cabrera and Delgado, which allows opposing pitchers to be careful with the Marlins' best two hitters. They also have Juan Pierre and his poor OBP in the lead-off spot, which means that their three best hitters - Castillo, Cabrera, and Delgado - typically come up with one out and no one on. In other words, they have a spotty lineup. Of course, that lineup will look a lot better against Horacio Ramirez than it did against John Smoltz.

b. Their bullpen outside of Todd Jones is dreadful, so when the Braves got past Burnett, they could feast Chad Bentz (31.50 ERA) and Travis Smith (7.20 ERA).

5. I love the way that Smoltz responds to a challenge. He decided that he needed to get back at the Marlins for tagging him on Opening Day, so what does he do? He twirls a shutout at them. Mazzone should get in his ear right now: "John, your challenge is to make it through the season without missing a start. Your detractors say you can't do it."

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