We’re into that sort-of in-between part of the early season, the part where it’s early enough where you can see ridiculous things like Charlie Blackmon hitting .379/.425/.621 and know that the dreaded “small sample size” caveat is absolutely in play, but also to know that it’s not that early any longer and that the things we’re seeing count. Whether it’s to further inform us about a player or a team, or just to have added value and wins now that will be important later even if the current production can’t be maintained, what we’ve seen over the first month matters. It’s just up to us to decide how much it matters.
That’s where we are with the Atlanta Braves, who have somehow managed to keep their early run of insanely good pitching alive and well through the end of April. And when I say insanely good, I mean just that. Even after Alex Wood got hit hard in Miami on Tuesday night, Atlanta’s rotation ERA- is 55. Since Jackie Robinson integrated the game in 1947, the lowest rotation ERA- we have on record for a full season is 73, by three teams, including the 1997 and ’98 Braves of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. If it’s unfair to compare a month of play to full seasons, well, then you might like to know that since the 1968 “Year of the Pitcher,” only three other teams have had a rotation ERA below 2.00 in a month of at least 25 games, as the Braves currently do. Each of those teams — the 1976 Dodgers, 1992 Braves and 2011 Phillies — had at least one Hall of Famer in the rotation or someone with a strong case to be there in the future.
That the 2014 Cardinals sit second behind the Braves on the ERA- list further shows you how early it is, that the Braves won’t continue pitching like this, and that regression is coming. Obviously. Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana aren’t going to pitch like Maddux and Smoltz all year. I imagine it isn’t shocking, breaking news that the 2014 Braves aren’t going to end up as the pitching version of the 1927 Yankees.
Still, this all matters. It matters that they’re out to a 17-8 start, behind only Milwaukee for the fewest losses in baseball. It matters because this is quite a nice head start they’ve pushed themselves out to, one they can take advantage of when the rotation inevitably hits a rough patch.
You can see the effects of this already in how we’re viewing the Braves’ likelihood of reaching October. In late March, our staff projections came out, and 28 of the 31 of us selected the Nationals as the NL East favorite. That’s about the same as I saw on other major sites, and while the Nationals/Braves rivalry seems to be even hotter than Red Sox/Yankees these days — at least among those who comment on baseball articles and assume bias in everything — I don’t think it was unfair to have thought that way. At the time, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy had recently exploded. Mike Minor was sidelined. Ervin Santana had just signed, but had missed most of camp. Doug Fister, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper weren’t yet injured in Washington, and Stephen Strasburg wasn’t yet allowing a .407 BABIP. Harang had just signed with Atlanta that day, in what was termed a “curious swap” when Freddy Garcia was let go, which tells you a bit about how Harang was viewed. These rosters were different a month ago then they are now.
The playoff odds have changed along with them, although it’s not like Atlanta was coming from last place. (The Braves were the overwhelming choice for NL Wild Card in our staff picks.) Right now, we have the Braves on pace to win the second-most games in the majors. The playoff odds have them now as a toss-up with the Nationals to win the East, and equally as likely as the Dodgers to make the playoffs at all, at nearly 76%. Obviously, even if everything reverts back to what we thought we knew about the Braves a month ago, this run has made a huge difference. They have banked a good deal of wins. They’ve asked their bullpen to pitch the second-fewest innings in baseball. The Nationals are greatly weakened. Harang could never win another game, and he’ll still have been an important part of a potential playoff run.
But then: what will happen to this rotation? Other than not pitching as well, which seems obvious, but what, if anything, has this month taught us about them?
Take Harang, for example, the obvious poster boy here because of the 0.85 ERA in his age-36 season a month after being cut by the Indians. Maybe he was better than we gave him credit for before the season, but he’s still Aaron Harang, in every possible way. Even he doesn’t seem to have an answer as to what’s been different (at the end):
Here’s Harang’s FIP numbers dating back over the last five years, from 2009-13:
4.14, 4.60, 4.14, 4.17, 4.79
Now here’s his ERA:
4.21, 5.32, 3.64, 3.61, 5.40
It’s not hard to see the variances there, is it? By FIP, he’s been more or less the same guy for years. By ERA, subject to fluctuations in ballpark, defense and bullpen — he’s now on his sixth team since 2010 — as well as luck, he’s been all over the place. Last year, despite the ugly ERA, he actually got more whiffs and walked fewer than he had in years, but was set back by homer troubles and poor bullpen support. While the underlying peripherals may not have changed much, we’ve see the results differ greatly. This is the same guy who once struck out nine straight Padres in a season where he had his lowest swinging-strike percentage; we’ve seen him be very productive for stints of differing lengths.
So far, the 2014 Harang has succeeded because he’s been extremely lucky with batted balls (.200 BABIP), missed a few extra bats and hasn’t allowed a single homer, a rarity for a flyball pitcher. (Or, you know, any pitcher.) He’s actually given up the highest flyball rate in baseball, and he’s been helped by excellent outfield defense, particularly from Jason Heyward. Obviously, the homers are coming, eventually; that’s why his xFIP is 3.79. Still, simply being away from the atrocious defense of the 2013 Mariners and into the outstanding defense of the 2014 Braves is going to be a huge component for him, even if he goes back to the “regular” Harang from now on.
Otherwise, this is the same Harang. He doesn’t appear to have learned a new pitch, changed his repertoire (other than some mild reductions in his change & curve), improved his control, added movement or gained any significant velocity. This year, he’s faced the Mets twice, the Brewers, Nationals and Marlins. That means that four of his five starts have come against teams who rank among the bottom third of clubs who make contact. The Mets may be the least powerful team baseball has seen in decades. He’s got the Marlins again tonight. This isn’t so much about a “new” Harang as it is one who is pitching well in front of the right team against the right teams, but even the “usual” Harang could be a decent back-end starter.
It’s a little different for Santana, because he actually does have something new to point to: his new and improved changeup. Jeff wrote about Santana recently, so I’ll direct you to that post rather than repeat it here. Well, okay, I can’t help but share this GIF Jeff made of Santana making Joey Votto look foolish on a change, because it’s so, so good:
Santana, like Harang, isn’t going to keep up exactly what he’s done — he’s second in the game behind only Masahiro Tanaka in swinging-strike percentage — but he’s got a long history of being an average to occasionally above-average starter, and now he’s got something new to offer hitters. Now armed with a month of additional knowledge, Santana can be viewed as a more dangerous pitcher than we would have figured when he signed.
Like Santana, Julio Teheran isn’t going to keep an ERA below 2.00 all year, because that .224 BABIP is going to come up, but so should his strikeout performance. A drop from 8.24 K/9 to 5.44 K/9 is startling; a swinging-strike percentage that is nearly identical to last year’s 10.5 percent is not, and he’s coming off a very good 2013. Wood was very good last year in limited time, and he’s been very good this year, without any particularly striking BABIP or luck numbers. David Hale still hasn’t allowed a major league home run, which is how he managed to survive a high walk rate in four starts, but it no longer matters for now as he’s being moved back to the bullpen.
Again, obviously, the rotation isn’t going to keep doing what they’re doing, especially Harang. Then again, they might not need to. Minor returns to the rotation on Friday. Gavin Floyd should be available in May. Hale can always return if needed. If one of these guys turns back into a pumpkin, they have some options. Our projections have them as the No. 25 rotation in baseball from here on out, partially because none of the pitchers are suddenly seen as the true Felix Hernandez / Jose Fernandez type ace, and if you want to argue that’s too low, that’s fine. The Braves rotation, for the most part, is still the Braves rotation, with a possible exception in Santana. They’re just that with a month of outstanding performance replacing the month of decent performance we thought we’d see. That shouldn’t significantly change how we view them, but it all still counts — and it just might be what gets them another division title even if we never see them perform anything like this ever again.
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