After a weekend of feasting on the Royals the Braves have improved to 42-28, the best record in baseball outside the AL East. It wasn’t long ago, however, that the Braves were in last place. On May 9, fresh off a series loss to the then-division-leading Phillies, the Braves were 13-18, last place in the NL East. Their outfielders, outside Jason Heyward, were hitting horribly. Melky Cabrera was at .192/.279/.222 and Nate McLouth was at .176/.304/.294. Clearly something had to change if the Braves were going to turn around their season. The answer, as it happens so many times, sat right in front of them.
Through May 9, Eric Hinske had started just five games. Bobby Cox regularly used him as a pinch hitter, so he did have 36 PA. In that limited playing time he was hitting .273/.333/.424, right around his career totals. Still, those numbers were far better than those of the starters. Cox didn’t start Hinske the next day when his team faced the lefty Doug Davis, but the next day, against David Bush, he penciled Hinske’s name into the sixth spot, taking Cabrera’s spot in the field. Hinske went 2-for-2 with two doubles and two walks. Bobby had created a monster.
Since that day in mid-May, Hinske has started 27 of the Braves’ 38 games. He has hit .324/.391/.588 in 115 PA, raising his season wOBA to .397. He falls about 70 PA short of qualification, but if he did qualify he’d rank fourth among NL outfielders in wOBA, just one point behind Josh Willingham. Combined with a resurgent performance from Troy Glaus during the same period, .300/.405/.614, the Braves have displayed a greatly improved offense. They went from 3.90 runs per game in their first 31 games to 5.72 per game in their last 39. That has shown up in the standings. After their low point, 13-18 on May 9, they’ve gone 29-10 and now sit at 42-28, 2.5 games ahead of the second place Mets.
Unsurprisingly, Hinske, a lefty, has demonstrated marked career platoon splits. Against lefties he sports a .295 career wOBA, while against righties he has a .351 wOBA. This year he’s demonstrating a similar tendency, posting a .287 wOBA against lefties and a .405 wOBA against righties. His wOBA against righties is so close to his season wOBA for a reason. Of his 151 PA, only 10 have come against lefties. Cox should have an easier time keeping Hinske out against lefties once Matt Diaz returns, too. He struggled in general before suffering a thumb injury, but he has a career .384 wOBA against lefties. A Hinske-Diaz platoon could be the answer for the Braves in left field. It helps, too, that Cabrera is hitting .340/.367/.468 in his last 99 PA.
That Hinske’s increased playing time has correlated with the Braves winning ballgames should come as little surprise. As Tommy Rancel so aptly put it, “Not only is Hinske better in the East, but he makes his teammates better.” (Yes, he was obviously being tongue-in-cheek.) Tommy was referring to the AL East, but apparently it’s any team in the East. It’s the Hinske magic, and Frank Wren captured it when he signed Hinske to a mere $1 million deal in January. It looks as though he’ll also get that $500K in performance bonuses as well. Hinske has been a savior to the Braves this season. The question is to which team he’ll bring his mojo next year.