“There’s different ways of scoring runs,” said hitting coach Greg Walker, in his second season with the Braves after 8 1/2 as White Sox hitting coach. “This is what the Atlanta Braves chose to do. And I’ve coached teams like this before, and answered all the questions, and seen what works and what doesn’t work.
“Last year we had probably as good a combination of leadoff and No. 2 hitter as there was in baseball (leadoff man Michael Bourn and No. 2 hitter Martin Prado), especially in the first two-thirds of the season. Bourny scuffled down the stretch. We did get a lot of early leads, but we didn’t score any more runs than what we’re doing now. It’s just a different style, and we have the potential to get better in (this style).”
The Braves currently rank second-to-last in the National League in average and on-base percentage from their leadoff hitters — primarily B.J. Upton and Andrelton Simmons — and rank last with a .138 average from the two-hole, where Jason Heyward (.121) struggled for three weeks and had an emergency appendectomy Monday.
That goes a long way to explaining how 10 of Justin Upton’s 11 homers have come with the bases empty.
Heyward should be back in a couple of weeks, and the Braves are confident that it’s only a matter of time before he starts to heat up at the plate along with B.J. Upton, Simmons and Dan Uggla, who has the most at-bats in the five-hole slot, where the Braves rank last in the league with a .173 average.
“We’re just kind of scratching the surface,” Uggla said of the team’s offense. “Justin’s off to a great start. We’ve got to get some guys on consistently for him, so those solos turn into two- and three-run shots. Me and B.J. are going to get going, J-Hey’s going to come back and get going, Simmons …”
Three of the top five spots in the Braves’ batting order have underperformed, while Justin Upton has been otherworldly batting third, and rookie catch Evan Gattis has surpassed expectations and filled in admirably in the cleanup spot while Freddie Freeman was on the 15-day disabled list with a strained oblique.
Freeman’s back now. Five-time former Silver Slugger Brian McCann (shoulder surgery) starts a rehab assignment with Class-A Rome on Friday and should be off the DL at some point in May, and streaky hitters B.J. Upton (.150, five RBIs) and Uggla (.184, six RBIs) are overdue.
In the meantime, the Braves will keep swinging. All of them.
“We’re not up there trying to hit homers,” Uggla said. “But the fact of the matter is, we’ve got a lot of strong guys in this lineup, and when we connect, we don’t even have to hit it perfect to hit a homer.
“Last year we had to pretty much get two or three hits in a row to score a run. This year we’re in scoring position as soon as we get in the box. But that’s just the type of hitters that we have on this team. Justin’s capable of hitting 40 or 50 homers. We have three or four others that are capable of hitting 30. Couple others capable of hitting 20.”
And several are fully capable of striking out well over 150 times.
According to Fangraphs, Braves hitters have swung and missed at 11.2 percent of all pitches, the highest percentage in the NL and the second in the majors behind Houston’s 12.6. Twelve teams have swung and missed at 8.6 percent or fewer.
Braves hitters have made contact 75.1 percent of the times they’ve swung the bat, the lowest contact rate in the NL and second-lowest in majors ahead the Astros (72.8). Fourteen major league teams were above 80 percent.
The Braves’ homer pace projects to 270, six above the record by the 1997 Seattle Mariners.
Walker was hitting coach when the White Sox led the majors with 236 homers in 2006 and 235 in 2008, and set a franchise record with 242 in 2004.
But the White Sox also led the American League in sacrifice bunts and bunt hits while hitting 200 homers in their World Series championship season in 2005, and in 2006 they led the league in average with runners in scoring position (.307) while having four players with 30 or more homers.
The Braves rank 22nd in the majors with a .223 average with runners in scoring position.
“I think one thing that’s going to get better is our hitting with runners in scoring position,” Walker said. “It’s been horrific so far, but, you know, we’ve been able to score more than they have 15 times. And we’ve done some things really outstanding, and done some things poorly. We’ll probably end up in the middle somewhere on both of them.”