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.


Smith And Greer Win Four-Ball Championship

Jack Smith and Ryan Greer won the 49th Tennessee Four-Ball Championship on Saturday at the Black Creek Club. Smith and Greer defeated Lake Johnson and Scott Stevens, 4 and 3, in the final.   ... (click for more)

Potter And Allmond Leading Moccasin Bend Four-Ball

Jay Potter and Sport Allmond shot 61 on Saturday and took the lead in the Moccasin Bend Four-Ball at the Moccasin Bend Golf Club. David Watts and Matt Crowder finished second after the first day with a 62. In third place are Walt Moffitt and Richard Spangler at 63. The event concludes Sunday: Saturday Results: Steve Revels - Paul ... (click for more)

Preserving 90-Year-Old Grammar School Just One Of Challenges Facing Town, Signal Council Told

Rather than spend millions upgrading Signal Mountain ’s historic grammar school so it can continue to house the Mountain Arts Community Center (MACC), it would make more sense to incorporate that project into a larger multi-pronged one that would solve several issues facing the community, according to town manager Boyd Veal.   For example, Mr. Veal said, the current ... (click for more)

Firefighters Put Out Fire In Compost Pile At City's Wood Recycling Center

Chattanooga firefighters were called to a fire at the city's wood recycling center on N. Hawthorne Street around noon on Sunday. Battalion Chief Don Bowman said the smoke and flames could be seen from several miles away.   Firefighters with five fire companies worked to get the blaze under control, using master streams from two aerials and some hand-held hoselines. The ... (click for more)

Improvements Needed At Entrance To Wilcox Tunnel

I am writing this letter to bring to your attention to a city traffic issue that needs to be addressed immediately, the sooner the better. I can see no large cost factor.   Recently, while as a concerned citizen, removing trash and litter from the entry/exit area of the Wilcox Tunnel on the side that runs into Chamberlain Avenue, I fully realized that this area could ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Looking For A Wife

Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, is a really cool place. I tried to buy a huge mounted buffalo head in an antique store there one time until I found out the shipping charges were four times what the head was worth. But suddenly my rapt attention is riveted on Coeur d'Alene again because a dazzling social experiment is taking place this very moment at a plush resort in north Idaho. Several ... (click for more)