Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bravos must improve against better teams

There’s a baseball axiom that says you have to pole ax the bad teams and hold steady against the good ones. We’re great on the first half of that; we need work on the second.

The Bravos are a sterling 12-3 against teams with losing records. However, against .500 or better clubs, the home team’s just 15-22, a .405 winning percentage. Play .405 ball for a season and you’re 66-96. We’ve only played three teams with losing records – the Marlins, Natspos and Cubs. In the 15-5 May run before the Dodgers came to town, 11 of the wins came against those three sad sacks.

That’s great work. The Braves did what they needed to do, and then some. Now we must beat stronger clubs more often. Like this entire season, much of that probably hinges on the bullpen. You’re rarely going to pound quality teams, so the pen will more often pitch decisive innings in those games.

All too often, those decisions are going the wrong way. According to the Office’s elite research department, the pen is either wholly or largely responsible for 12 of the club’s 25 losses. Reverse half of those 12 and the home team’s in first place. I included in that figure not just blown leads but also close games that the relievers sparked into conflagrations, like last night. That doesn’t count a few wins that the pen made a lot tougher, like Sunday at Wrigley, or games in which a starter stayed in longer than he should’ve and was less effective because Bobby was, rightly, hesitant to bring in a reliever.

Right now, the Braves relief corps stands 14th in the NL in ERA, at 4.90, better than only the Giants and Brewers. Only the Nationals, Marlins and Pirates have worse save conversion rates, and those are three of the Senior Circuit’s four worst teams. (Chicago is the other.) In walks plus hits per inning pitched -- a key stat as you don’t want relievers filling the bases – the home team’s pen is better than only San Fran’s, 1.58 to 1.62. And the Giants’ closer has been hurt most of the season.

It becomes clearer every day that any moves must focus on bolstering the bullpen. We’re more or less OK elsewhere. The starting pitchers rank solidly in the middle of the league and are improving, as Sosa notched his third straight crisp game last night. Offensively, the team strikes out too much and gives away more at-bats than you’d like. Still, only the Dodgers and Arizona have scored more runs than the Bravos, and we’re just one run behind the D’backs for second place.

Last night, the pen’s collapse began with a single pitch, as it often does. With two outs in the 8th inning of a 3-3 game, Remlinger threw a two-strike fastball down the middle that Andre Ethier, a lefty hitter who had been 3-for-15 vs. lefties, slapped into left field for an RBI single. Tyler Yates then threw more gas on the fire. The game was still tied in the 8th because an inning earlier Danys Baez made the pitches to get Chipper, with one out, and then Andruw with the go-ahead run on third.

-- CD

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