The Braves won last night. (This not just in: Winning > losing.) What made this especially nice was that it marked the first time in three weeks that they’d won the opening game of a series. The past five series had begun with a loss, which helps explain why the Braves won just one of those five sets.
Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, but it is. Bobby Cox had this little mantra: “Win a series, split a series; win a series, split a series.” Given that every manager post-BC had worked for BC — there have been two — you hear something similar today. And here we offer one of those this-time-last-year check-ins.
On the morning of April 30, 2018, the Braves were 16-11. They’re 14-14 today. They hadn’t spent — and wouldn’t spend — a day below .500 last year. This team hasn’t been more than a game above .500 in two weeks. Those series? They’re why.
At the end of April 2018, the Braves were 6-1-2 in series. The 2019 club is 4-4-1. These Braves have won more than two games in succession only once, and that came just after going 0-3 over the opening weekend in Philadelphia. Last year’s crew didn’t have any longish winning streaks until they won five straight as April became May, but they weren’t swept in any series, either. These Braves have been swept twice.
These Braves aren’t appreciably worse off than last year’s club: On the morning of April 30, the 2018 team was a game and a half out of first place; they’re two back now. Last April, however, was skewed by the Mets’ 11-1 start. By May 9, they were 18-17. On the morning of April 30 last year, the Braves were tied for the National League’s fifth-best record; they’re tied for eighth-best now.
What’s different about this year? Easy answer. Starting pitching. Brandon McCarthy — remember him? — won four games in March/April. Mike Foltynewicz won two. Anibal Sanchez, Julio Teheran, Sean Newcomb and Matt Wisler won one each. Of those first 16 victories, starters took 10.
Of this year’s first 14 victories, starters have taken eight — three by Max Fried, two apiece by Teheran and Mike Soroka, one by Kevin Gausman. Given that Foltynewicz, Gausman and Soroka began the season on the injured list, this isn’t surprising. The Braves deployed nine different starting pitchers over the season’s first 26 games. A year ago, they needed only six starters to make it to May.
We’ve been saying for a while that this rotation, with everyone again hale and hearty, should begin to rotate. We saw it last night: Soroka yielded one run over six innings, and the second number was as important as the first. He left only nine outs for the beleaguered bullpen, and three guys who aren’t exactly mainstays — Josh Tomlin, Jerry Blevins and Jacob Webb – held the line. The Braves beat San Diego 3-1.
As bad as the bullpen has been, some of that has had to do with the uncertainty/inefficiency of the Braves’ starters. The team ERA is 4.70, which ranks 21st-best among 30 MLB clubs. At the end of April 2018, the ERA was 3.64, which ranked the Braves among the top 10. The team’s quality-start percentage — at least six innings with no more than three earned runs — was .525 last season; through 28 games this season, it’s .393.
It’s a reasonable assumption that we’ve seen the worst of the Braves’ starting pitching for 2019. Sure, something will go wrong. (Something always does.) Someone will get hurt. (Someone always gets hurt.) And I’d be lying if I said that consecutive saves by Luke Jackson and Webb offer reason to believe the bullpen has sorted itself out. I don’t think it has, and I’m not sure that, as constituted, it will.
But rotations win divisions, and the cobbled-together nature of this rotation is largely the reason the Braves are only a .500 team. The season, however, is young, and these starters have gotten healthy. The month of May should be much better. Should, I say.
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