Strong Sauce: Panic Button or Easy Button? The Atlanta Braves are in Familiar Territory…Again

Sunday, May 18, 2014 - by Michael Lawson
These kinds of articles are incredibly predictable and annoying. I realize this, but they are also necessary. I’m talking about those articles where the pseudo-journalists and finger pointers in the media start driving panic in certain fan bases about “under-performing” teams, and start doing so before the season is out of the toddler stage. The latter is why they are annoying…the former is why they are necessary…because, in fact, these teams are “under-performing”. The 2014 Major League Baseball season is only in its 2nd month of a long 7 month slog that requires patience, stability, and durability from a given team. Approximately, 28% of this MLB season is complete. There are only so many lessons that can be pilfered from something that is only 28% complete. Much like movies, music, or television, 28% of something can’t inform what will happen or if that thing is any good. Most who watch the movie “ROCKY”, for the first time, probably couldn’t guess the ending, nor could they grasp how effective the story is by the end. That said, there are lessons and takeaways that can’t or shouldn’t be ignored, because that 28% is informative. For instance, it only takes watching the first 28% of “ROCKY” to know that Rocky is kind of a loser, Adrian is shy, and that Paulie is both a loser and a jerk. It only takes watching the first 28% of a Daniel Day Lewis film to realize that he really thinks he’s that character, and might not be acting. It only takes watching 28% of any John Waters film to realize that you shouldn’t…ever…ever…do that. Ever. In these first few months of this young baseball season, it has become apparent that the Atlanta Braves are in familiar territory, are trying to answer familiar questions, and while the season is young, it’s worrisome.

Going into this season the Braves, and their fans, knew early that trouble was brewing. When two starting pitchers, Medlen and Beachy, were lost for the year with significant arm injuries, conventional wisdom was that the bats were going to have to carry the team, and it’s young and inexperienced stating pitching staff. In fact, the Braves front office spent lots of money in the off-season to ensure that this was the case. The problem is that this has been the hope for a few years now, and other than the occasional streak, it hasn’t worked out that way. In 2013, the team batting average was .249 with an OBP (On Base Percentage) of .321…both of those numbers ranked 8th and 6th, respectively, out of 15 National League teams. Not exactly world beaters. In the off-season, Atlanta’s front office secured the young nucleus of the team with longer and more moneyed contracts. Freeman, Simmons, Teheran, and Heyward are, without question, the foundation of what will be in a Braves uniform for a while. The problem is that pitching has been surprisingly phenomenal, with a group ERA of 2.84, players are getting paid more, but hitting production hasn’t changed. To date, the team batting average is an anemic .231 with an OBP of (.289). Every baseball fan worth his or her salt knows that, if your team ERA is under 3.00, you should have a winning percentage north of .625. The Braves are currently, as I write this, 23-19 (.548%). There is an uneasy queasy in Braves country, and rightfully so.

The problem, if I may say, and at the risk of being brutal, is the manager, Fredi Gonzalez. Simply put…he seems like he’s straight from central casting…he looks like a baseball manager…he talks like a baseball manager…he dresses like a baseball manager…but he just isn’t good at it. His reluctance to make needed changes, and his casual inability to be proactive and creative, have handcuffed a team that should be comfortable, loose, and looking for answers. If you have ever played baseball, or any sport for that matter, you know that playing “tight” only makes matters worse. In my opinion, Gonzalez has created a tight atmosphere by being too reluctant to make changes. True, a manager can’t be held hostage by his team’s fan base, and their irrational expectations, but a manager can also make things worse by having a tin ear. A Braves fan in Rock Hill, NC, Ducktown, TN, or Albany, GA may not know as much about baseball as the pros, but they do know that hitting under the “Mendoza Line” for two years in row…on a would be playoff contender…is a disaster. You see, Mr. Gonzalez and Frank Wren, Braves General Manager, have made terrible decisions in free agency, and are now tethered to those choices. Most rumblings these days come from the absolute terror of futility emanating from the centerfield and second base positions. B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla exacted huge contracts when they arrived, and have, almost, done nothing but hinder the team. They hit .184 and .179, respectively, in 2013, and are hitting .203 and .183, respectively, so far this year. Gonzalez’s indifference or hesitance about pulling these guys in favor of others has been demoralizing and confusing. Add to this the continued streaky nature of Heyward and Justin Upton’s production at the plate, and you have more than 1/3 of the team unproductive at the same time. It’s not just a rally killer, it’s a Braves killer. Recently, Fredi G. seems to have gotten the memo, as the chorus for adjustment grew louder, and he has responded by somewhat inventive lineup changes of late. This seems like a positive sign, and my hope is that he continues to facilitate an atmosphere of positive production…meaning…you hit, catch, and throw well…you see the field. It seems elementary…but for some it’s apparently a tough call.

As I wrote earlier, these columns can be annoying. If one were to read this, and not know anything else about the season, one would probably not know that my beloved Atlanta Braves are in 1st place in their division, and continue to play well at home. It is true that the wider lens gives a more hopeful picture than this column. Atlanta has really promising players, and this team could do special things. If the pitchers continue to execute, health isn’t an issue, and the bats get going, I truly believe these Braves can win the pennant. It’s just that when the same issues keep cropping up, it can be tiresome having to rely on the same old “what ifs” and “just might’s” to get you through that conversation. Atlanta is leading their division, but that speaks more to how awful the NL East is, rather than how good the Braves are. These familiar questions need new answers and propositions. Otherwise, even though the season’s young, Braves fans have seen this movie. You know…that Nicholas Sparks movie where the guy always gets the girl? Yeah…not so much.

 

W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.



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