When Frank Wren assembled this ball club over the winter he knew exactly what he was getting in the general sense. No he did not anticipate B.J Upton having one of the worst batting averages in the Major Leagues but he knew these 3 things. He knew that this club would not produce many .300 hitters. He knew that this club would swing in miss a lot and he also knew that this team would live and die with the long ball.
Anyone who argues this point is missing the boat in my opinion. Frank Wren is a very smart guy and a very good General Manager. Whenever this team has been in need of something he’s gone out and gotten it. Whether it was a big power hitting right handed bat in which he traded for Dan Uggla. Or when Fredi Gonzalez was in need of a lead off man, what did Frank Wren do? He made a move for Michael Bourn who is one of the best pure lead off men in the game today.
Have all the moves panned out? No they haven’t but none of us can doubt Wren’s effort and passion to better this ball club. He was also the GM who refused to trade a top pitching prospect for Carlos Beltran when the Giants did. A trade that didn’t really pan out as Beltran ended up being injured and then leaving the following year anyways. Wren decided to trade Jordan Schafer for Michael Bourn instead and as we’ve all seen this year, Schafer has found his way back to the ball club despite Bourn’s departure.
But enough of me cheer leading for Frank Wren. I’ll put the pom poms down for a minute and tell you where I think the Braves line up stands at this moment, why it’s struggling to find consistency and how Fredi may be able to fix it.
1) Where’s the ignition?
An offense starts with the first batter who comes into the box to begin the game. The guy who is supposed to make the offense “go” or “start”. The Braves entered the season knowing that they didn’t have a true lead off man or really for that matter any lead off man at all. Simmons was unproven in that spot and B.J just doesn’t hit for nearly high enough average.
This I believe has hurt them at times. They lack that top of the order speed that allows a guy to get on and swipe 2nd base. Someone who has a high OBP and hits as close to .300 as humanly possible. The only guy that the Braves have to fill that role is Jordan Schafer who is currently hitting .310 in limited at bats. Schafer possesses a very good glove in Center Field and is more then capable of playing Right Field and Left Field as well.
Could he be the answer? It’s very possible. Although it’s been limited at bats Schafer has proven that he can hit at the big league level and has re-established himself as a credible player with a much improved attitude from his younger playing days. Schafer will also benefit tremendously from the fact that Jason Heyward and B.J Upton are both struggling. Fredi has shown that he’s willing to pull both Heyward and B.J from the starting line up but only for limited amounts of time. Do we reach a certain point where Fredi Gonzalez throws his hands up in the air and gives Schafer a full time starting job?
2) Big bats are abused behind the plate
This has been an on going concern for me and I’ve brought it up a few times in past articles but I believe it’s worth mentioning again. Brian McCann is an outstanding hitting catcher, in fact he’s an outstanding hitter period. I love what he brings to the table and apparently so do the people who keep handing him Silver Slugger awards.
However he is a catcher and he does take a beating behind the plate. The old adage that catchers lose 1-2 at bats per game because their hands hurt so bad from catching that they can barely be affective at the plate may not be 100% accurate but it does represent some valid points.
Catchers don’t play every day. And in the National League you can’t DH them. So often they are reduced to pinch hitting situation once every several games. Now this is why many N.L catchers don’t represent the most offensive production on their ball clubs. Yes there’s Buster Posey and Yadier Molina but those types of guys are few and far between. Thus making it difficult for a manager to have this type of player on their team and deal with the frustration of being forced to give them regular time off.
When your star player plays Left Field or 1st base you can get them into the line up 150+ times a year. They can play a day game after a night game without issue. Catchers can’t really do that and thus proves an issue with McCann. One of our more consistent hitters isn’t able to help the club every single day.
3) Double trouble
If having one great hitting catcher wasn’t tricky enough for Fredi Gonzalez he now has 2 of his most productive hitters at the catcher position. Evan Gattis has emerged as one of the best young hitters in the game and doesn’t falter even in the biggest moments, a flare for the dramatics if you would. He’s been extremely productive all year and has consistently found a way to drive in base runners.
However as I just mentioned he also plays catcher, just as McCann does. Often Fredi needs to choose one or the other to start behind the plate and occasionally finds other ways to get Gattis into the line up. He’s experimented with him both in left field and first base to see if he could handle the glove work of either or both of those positions.
The issue there is that Freddie Freeman is becoming one of the best overall 1st basemen in the National League. He fields his position as well as anyone with his great glove, agile footwork and his 6’5 frame. Some experts are already predicting a batting title in his future as well. So 1st base isn’t going to provide much playing time for Gattis which leaves left field.
Gattis in the outfield ( no that’s not a movie) is a bit of an adventure. I mean the guy is a catcher by trade and that doesn’t really translate outside of his throwing arm to tracking balls down in the outfield. So when put out there the Braves do sacrifice quit a bit of defense and puts even more added pressure on him to hit to make up for the difference.
4) B.J Upton and Jason Heyward
I’m just going to group these two guys in one category because they have almost identical batting averages and unfortunately that’s not flattering for either player. The comparison betweenwhat was supposed to be 2/3 of our All Star type outfield is that they are both hitting under .150. The Braves just can’t afford to have both of those guys struggling at the same time.
This topic has been worn out in my opinion and I think Braves fans already have a good enough sense of where I’m going with this but I couldn’t not point out the obvious. If I’m Fredi Gonzalez I would have my staff working around the clock with both B.J Upton and Jason Heyward to see if I can’t get at least one of them going.
The Braves have been good this year without getting any production from either one of those guys. If one or both of them could heat up during the summer months then I think this team is capable of pulling away from the Nationals in the N.L East.
5) Am I working today?
Can you imagine driving to your place of employment, walking in the door and asking your boss if you’re going to work today? And all he does is point to a piece of paper hanging on the wall with a bunch of names on it. He tells you if your name is on there then you’re working today, if not then you’ll sit out. And when you are selected to work you don’t know exactly where you’ll be working or which department you’ll be in that day.
Now obviously there are limited comparisons to being a Major League Baseball player and that of someone working a regular job that doesn’t involve a bat and a ball. However I’m sure you can get my gist of where I’m going with this. People in any work environment strive when they have consistency and understand their job and their responsibilities. It allows them to not only relax and settle in to what they’re doing but it allows them to perfect their craft.
Fredi Gonzalez hasn’t allowed his players that luxury. Outside of a few select players everyone is thrown in and out and up and down the line up. They don’t know if they’ll be on the bench or batting lead off. And I understand that Major League Baseball players need to be capable of performing in any situation whether it be predictable or not but what I’m getting at is this. Does it produce the best results?
When looking for stability I’d start with the top of the order. My suggestion would be to take Chris Johnson who’s batting .336 and put him in the 2 hole. This club needs a guy or two who can get on base in case Justin Upton hits one over the center field fence. How many of Justin Upton’s home runs have been solo shots? Too many guys, way too many. We need runners on the pillows when he comes up to bat so that we can maximize his production in the line up.
If Fredi can establish a regular line up that he puts out for the majority of games then I think you will see more offensive production from this club on a more consistent basis.
6) He who hesitates is lost
At certain points you need your leader to be decisive. Leaders solve problems and they do so in a way that displays confidence and the faith of his troops, players or employees that they are doing the best thing for everyone as a whole and that this decision will benefit everyone in the long term even if it doesn’t appear so at the time.
If Fredi has the trust of his players and the relationship with them that allows him to make critical and season altering decisions without an emotional outburst in the club house then I’d like to see him display this authority soon. What is the problem with Jason Heyward? Why is he not hitting? Is it his mechanics? Is it health? Is it where he’s hitting in the lineup? Examine all of these aspects with the comments and suggestions from your coaching staff included and make a decision. Is Jason Heyward going to be a regular player in the line up? Is he going to come off the bench for an extended period of time and try to work out his issues in the big leagues? Or does he get sent down?
Putting Heyward in a situation where he plays one day and then sits the next isn’t helping him at all. There’s no consistency other then Fredi being inconsistent. If he’s not in the line up for a week or two weeks then have him in the cage with the hitting coaches on a regular basis. Have him watching films till all hours of the night. Ask him questions to see where his head is at.
The same needs to be done with B.J Upton. Make a firm decision and stick with it. The wishy washy attitude of Fredi Gonzalez is only contributing to their struggles.
Without direction you’re lost. This team needs more defined direction. I’m not bashing the team nor am I saying there is any reason to panic. This club is in 1st place and by 4.5 games over a team that every one else picked to win the division.
Do I think this team will hit? Absolutely. When the dog days of summer come across the country the Braves bats will heat up with the weather. The heat and humidity cause the ball to fly out of the park at an alarming rate and that will play right into Atlanta’s style of play. It could be a very good summer in Atlanta and I predict it will be.
By: Bob McVinua