Nine games are gone. Still a teensy sample size, but twice as big as those three opening losses in Philadelphia. The Atlanta Braves are no longer winless, or even below .500. They’re 5-4, which puts them 1-1/2 games out of first in the National League East. They haven’t allowed themselves to fall in an early hole. In sum, they’re OK.
And their injury-beset starting pitching, the subject of much March hand-wringing? Well, through those nine games, the Braves’ starters have the sixth-best ERA in the majors, third-best in the NL. They’re at 2.83, which will play in any league.
Sean Newcomb’s ERA is 1.64. Kyle Wright’s second career start saw him work six innings and yield two runs – a quality start, to invoke the shorthand. Max Fried carried a perfect game into the sixth inning of his 10th career start. Kevin Gausman exited the injury list and yielded two hits in seven innings. And don’t look now, but Julio Teheran is again striking people out; he has 14 K’s in 10 innings.
Oh, and Mike Foltynewicz, an All-Star last season? He just worked five hitless innings in a rehab start for the Gwinnett Stripers. He’ll be back in the big-league rotation soon. So might Mike Soroka, on whom much depends; he worked five hitless innings — with seven strikeouts and no walks — in his first rebab outing. All of which means: The team that appeared strapped for starting pitching only two weeks ago now must ask, “Of these seven guys, which five do we pick?”
As problems go, that’s about the best a team can have. It’s also the reason the esteemed baseball writer Joe Sheehan, bucking the trend, picked the Braves to repeat as division champs. As Sheehan wrote in his newsletter last week: “More and more, teams are starting the year knowing they will use eight, nine, even more starting pitchers to get through the grind of 162 games. It won’t be because they can’t pick five; it will be because they’re unwilling to put 200 innings on any one arm.”
Then: “The Braves are well-positioned for this new world. They’ve used four starters so far, and a fifth, Max Fried, will start Wednesday. The next five guys on their depth chart — Touki Toussaint, Mike Soroka, Luiz Gohara, Kolby Allard and let’s say Ian Anderson — make for an average MLB rotation. That doesn’t include Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman, who have started the year on the DL, or Josh Tomlin. The Braves have a dozen credible major-league starters, which is how you get to 162 starts in today’s game.”
We around here should know this better than anyone else: You win divisions with starting pitching. Those 14 in a row were in large part a function of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, the Hall of Fame triumvirate, but guys like Charlie Leibrandt and Denny Neagle and Tim Hudson and even Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton contributed, too. (We also know that the best rotation doesn’t always, or even often, prevail in postseason. Bullpens matter more there.)
Go back to Sheehan’s list of names, He mentioned 13 contemporary Braves as “credible major-league starters,” and even if he’s overrating Allard ... well, that’s still a depth of arms that nobody else has.
Is there a No. 1 starter on this roster? Foltynewicz is the closest, but you wouldn’t yet take him over the No. 1s of the other three NL East contenders. Washington has Max Scherzer. The Mets have Jacob deGrom. The Phillies have Aaron Nola. The Mets also have Noah Syndergaard, and the Nats have Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. But how many teams in this division look stocked for No. 4s and No. 5s?
That’s where the Braves of old ran up their win totals. They never gave the opposition an easy night. Their No. 4 starter was usually better than anyone else’s No. 2. I don’t know that there’s a Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz in Generation Coppy — it’s almost impossible to project Hall of Fame pitchers — but it would be a surprise if three of these young arms don’t come up trumps.
If you’re still wondering why the Braves didn’t throw $150 million at Dallas Keuchel, who’s 31, there’s Reason No. 1. This is one organization that shouldn’t have to find starting pitching on the open market, which is always the most inefficient place to shop. Reason No. 2: The Braves just extended Ronald Acuna’s contract for $100 million over eight years, and he figures to be winning MVPs long after Keuchel has flung his last pitch. If you start buying Big Names just because your fans would like a Big Name, you risk becoming the Cubs, who are 2-7 having sunk $310 million into Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish.
Bottom line: The Braves’ starting pitching should be just fine. The bullpen — 24th in ERA, having blown two of three save chances — could stand some help. But you knew that already.
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