Braves: Flipping an offensive portfolio


A YEAR LATER

Nine games in, the Braves are behaving differently at the plate. A comparision to 2014, including league rankings:

Season, Batting avg., Runs/game, RISP, K/game, BB/game

2015; .236 (7th); 4.0 (T-5th); .323 (2nd); 6.4 (13th); 2.8 (T-8th)

2014; .241 (11th); 3.5 (14th); .236 (13th); 8.5 (3rd); 2.9 (6th)

Nine games hardly make for a decisive statement on how the Braves will behave at the plate this season.

So let’s do it anyway.

Compared with the mess left by the 2014 Braves, this year’s edition is scoring about a half-run more per game (4.0), is striking out a couple of times less (6.4) and hitting 87 points higher in RBI situations (.323). Which is to say, thus far they’ve flipped the charts.

Much of this is addition by subtraction. Just by dealing away the Upton brothers, the Braves got rid of 3.4 whiffs per game.

But perhaps more significant, a team that brought 17 new faces to the opening-day roster is trying to do what new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has asked: Introduce yourselves and let’s be sensible up there.

“Everyone’s been wonderful,” Seitzer said. “I mean, I’m asking them to do something that they don’t agree with.”

Which is: don’t pull, work the count, hit it back the way it came in. How radical is that?

The Braves open a nine-game trip Friday in Toronto as one of the spring’s ranking curiosities. A team that was 14th in National League scoring a year ago divested itself of most of its power and demonstrated in a transformative first two weeks that small ball can work. Just don’t call it that in front of Seitzer.

“For me, it’s not small ball,” he said. “It’s giving yourself a better chance to make solid contact. When you’re making solid contact, you’re driving balls into the gaps and still out of the park.

“It’s not like we’re trying to just shoot balls the other way. That’s our two-strike approach, when we’re trying to battle the other way. But prior to that, we’re looking to drive the ball into the middle of the field and stay aggressive.”

Whatever you want to call it, the team found something to believe in during spring training and brought it north.

“We know it can work,” said utility player Kelly Johnson, who added he has never seen such a transfiguration in any of his six previous major league stops. “That’s not even the question. You’re not giving enough credit for what we’re capable of.

“Now, whether or not we do it over the long run remains to be seen, but there’s no question that the way we’ve played in the first couple weeks is good. That’s going to be the type of ballclub that we need to try and be to do our thing.”

Until the past two losses to the Marlins, the Braves were hitting .255, among the top seven clubs in the majors. That’s probably wasn’t going to last. But the team’s new speed element is in play — the seven steals are tied for third in the NL — and the early power numbers have surprised. The Braves’ slugging percentage (.387) is up 27 points over last season and the early home run rate — one every 36.5 at-bats — is higher that the one every 44.5 at-bats of last summer.

But these aren’t the stats Seitzer typically trafficks in. The first numbers out of his mouth following Wednesday’s loss to the Marlins’ Dan Haren cited the 11- and nine-pitch at-bats that Phil Gosselin stacked together during an 0-for-4 day.

“We’ve got some guys that can really handle the bat and grind out at-bats,” Seitzer said. “Gosselin had 20 pitches in two at-bats and he didn’t have anything to show for it, but we made Haren work.”

That thinking won’t change, even if the early stats falter. If anything, flushing the roster helped make exploring a new ideology more possible.

“How do you explain it?” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Basically, (turnover) is the only way it happens. This is probably the only sport where you want to change something, you’ve got to change personnel. Yeah, so we’re getting a lot less strikeouts.”

“This really didn’t happen that fast,” Seitzer said. “It happened over the course of a month and a half in spring training. We’ve been working on it in batting practice every day and in cage work. Just a little different approach, shortening the swings when need be, trying to get us into position to see the ball better and make more consistent, solid contact. That’s it in a nutshell.”

All this sensible swinging should not diminish the other elements that have contributed to the Braves’ 7-3 start. The pitching staff’s ERA of 3.00 is fifth in the NL and a .997 field percentage (one error in 347 chances) is the highest in either league.

But the Braves have seen good pitching and field before. Re-thinking the method behind the at-bat? Nine games has been plenty to suggest the possibilities.

“I think what’s good about it is that we’ve all got a chance to see it work, be a part of it,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish and that’s the goal.”