Boom-or-bust offense has undermined Braves in ‘14

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Boom-or-bust offense has undermined Braves in ‘14

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Al Behrman
Justin Upton leads the Atlanta Braves with 25 home runs this season.

There are times when the Braves’ homer-or-bust offense is both effective and exciting, such as during the 12-game stretch through last Tuesday in which they won eight times, pounded 16 balls over the fences and scored 55 runs. The team generated seven or more runs in four games.

But there have been more times when this team’s offense has been ineffective and, well, offensive to watch. Times such as the past five games, during which the Braves have posted a 1.77 ERA but only a 2-3 record against two teams, the Pirates and Reds, that had been mired in losing skids.

Atlanta hit .212 with three homers and 16 runs in those five games and half of those runs came in one game. These past few weeks, including the eight-game, 16-run road trip — which has preceded the 12-game resurgence and the latest five-game malaise — have served as a microcosm of this team.

Maddeningly inconsistent. Swing-and-miss. Long ball or long droughts. Largely as a result of their disappointing offense, the Braves were eight games behind National League East leader Washington before Monday with only 31 games left to play. The Braves open a three-game series with the Mets on Tuesday night.

Braves hitting coach Greg Walker knows how the team’s offense has been received by many fans.

“It’s a different brand,” Walker said of the offense that Atlanta has featured the past couple of seasons, with rosters centered around hitters not exactly known for small ball or situational hitting. “Last year we had basically the same guys, other than B-Mac (Brian McCann) and a few bench players. We were second in the league in runs scored and plenty of people still didn’t like us. If we hadn’t been in first place, they sure wouldn’t have liked us.”

In their past five games, the Braves scored eight runs once, but then only two, three, zero and three runs in the other four games. The latter two duds came in Cincinnati in the majors’ most hitter-friendly ballpark.

In the last three games at Cincinnati, where they split a four-game series that ended Sunday, the Braves totaled six runs while collecting 29 strikeouts, two home runs and 28 runners left on base. They were 3-for-22 with runners in scoring position.

A year ago, the Braves finally got the engine of their offense humming for about a month in the second half, before Jason Heyward had his face smashed by a Jon Niese fastball and spent a month on the disabled list. The team didn’t regain its offensive form after he returned near the end of the season.

“We faltered after J-Hey got hit and fell to about fourth or fifth (in runs scored). But all year long it was us and the Cardinals (as NL scoring leaders),” Walker said.

The Braves finished fourth in the NL with 688 runs in 2013. They tied for the league lead in strikeouts with 1,384, but overcame that by leading the league in homers (181), having a pitching staff that led the league in ERA (3.18), plus having hitters do at least reasonably well in other areas, including sixth in the NL in OBP (.321) and seventh in average with runners in scoring position (.251).

This season? The Braves are still third in the NL in ERA (3.32), but 11th (25th in the majors) in runs with 497, just four more than the Cubs.

“I think the thing that nobody thinks about, because our young guys have experience and have been in the league a few years, is that it’s an extremely young team,” Walker said. “I think there’s a lot of things going on this year that a lot of people don’t know, just where (players) are in their lives age-wise and what they’re dealing with, whether it be new contracts or getting married or whatever. Coaching a young team has its own set of difficulties.”

Perhaps it was wrong to expect the Braves to repeat their offensive performance from a year ago, given the age of their roster — youngest or second-youngest in the majors most of the season — and a lack of veterans with both the gravitas to command attention and the willingness to speak out when necessary.

But there is also the fact that this team doesn’t have many “glue” players, one who aren’t marquee names, but who get on base a lot and do the little things that lineups need to be consistent.

After Justin Upton’s two-run homer in the 12th inning Friday lifted the Braves to a 3-1 win, veteran backup catcher Gerald Laird said, “That’s just the secret to our offense. That’s what we preach and that’s what everyone knows we do. If we hit home runs, we’re going to win games.”

After he said that, the Braves totaled 12 hits and three runs in the next two games and lost both.

Which points to a major flaw: The key to their production is homers, but they haven’t hit enough homers for that to be a determining key. After leading the league in homers a year ago, the Braves were seventh before Monday with 108 — 42 fewer than the Rockies, 22 fewer than the Brewers.

The Braves also don’t get enough runners on base or generate enough hits when they do get on. What they do plenty of with runners on base — or without runners on base, for that matter — is strike out.

The Braves had the fourth-most most strikeouts (1,120) in the majors before Monday, behind the Marlins (1,158), Cubs (1,151) and Astros (1,147) and just ahead of the White Sox (1,082), Phillies (1,057), Red Sox (1,150), Twins (1,150) and Mets (1,049).

Of those nine teams, the Braves were the only one with a winning record.

You had to get down to the Nationals, 10th in strikeouts (1,044) to find another team with a winning record. And the thing is, Washington had a .321 OBP (tied for 10th in MLB) compared to Atlanta’s .311 (20th). The Nationals also had a .709 OPS (13th in MLB) compared to the Braves’ .683 (24th).

While both the Nationals and Braves were in the majors’ top five in ERA, Washington’s 3.09 ERA was the NL leader and nearly a quarter of a run better than the Braves’ 3.32. The Nationals improved their starters’ ERA to a majors-best 3.18 before Monday, while the Braves’ 3.43 was sixth.

The Braves’ pitching has been good enough to stay with the Nationals. Their offense has not been.

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