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Gary Armida's Blog
Braves Perseverance Pays OffPosted on September 26, 2012 at 08:27 AM.
A year ago, the Atlanta Braves were putting the finishing touches on one of the biggest collapses in Major League Baseball history. The 2011 Braves won just nine games in the month of September and lost their last five games of the year to narrowly miss the playoffs. Their epic collapse was largely overshadowed by the Boston Red Soxís collapse and aftermath of Bostonís chaos. But, the impact of that collapse could have lingered like it has for so many teams in similar situations.
Collapses such as the one the Braves had last season are often organization cripplers. Few teams get back up the next season. The Boston Red Sox were even worse this season than they were last year. The New York Mets had consecutive September swoons and have been a second tier team since. But, the 2012 Atlanta Braves seemed different from the moment they stepped foot on the field in spring training. The organization didnít make any hasty changes. Most of the team was brought back. There was no talk of removing Manager Fredi Gonzalez. There were no quick fixes. General Manager Frank Wren added a caddy for Chipper Jones in Juan Francisco, but the Braves didnít really look to add anything. They showed confidence in their club. The talk of September was kept to a minimum.
Last night, Freddie Freeman hit a walkoff home run that clinched a playoff spot for the Braves. With their 89th victory (the same total as the 2011 Braves won), the Braves are guaranteed the Wild Card and are still technically in the NL East race, just four games behind the Nationals with just eight games to go. Despite the long odds of overcoming last September, the 2012 Braves are the fourth National League team to clinch a playoff berth. The playoff appearance is a credit to their ownership, management, manager, and players as the entire organization displayed a quality that few teams in their situations have ever exhibited: perseverance.
The difference in how the Braves handled their 2011 failure and how the Red Sox handled theirs is just incredible. The Red Sox fired their Manager. They allowed their General Manager to move on to another organization. They hired a big name Manager in Bobby Valentine. They traded all of their shortstop depth in an effort to build the bullpen and save some money. During the season, they traded Kevin Youkilis for nothing. And, after a disappointing season, they essentially gutted their roster. They are the very definition of an organization in turmoil.
Meanwhile, the Braves did nothing. Wren was never on the hotseat. Fredi Gonzalez never had to worry about his job. As much as Gonzalez has been criticized for some of his decision making, he cannot be criticized for how he kept the topic off of September 2011. Gonzalez kept his team focused and controversy free.
Wren and Gonzalez didnít make any changes other than allowing Tyler Pastronicky to begin the season as the starting shortstop. When Pastornicky was shown to be overmatched, they inserted another rookie Andrelton Simmons. When Simmons went down, they traded for defensive wiz Paul Janish. In the middle of the season, they took a chance on Ben Sheets, which paid off nicely, considering the cost. Other than adding Reed Johnson and Paul Maholm in a deadline deal, the 2012 Braves are essentially the same team from a season ago.
That confidence in this group proved wise. They believed in the talent of 22 year old Jason Heyward after he struggled during his sophomore campaign. Heyward has rewarded that confidence by hitting .277/.337/.488 with 29 doubles, 5 triples, 27 home runs, 79 RBI, and 19 stolen bases. His 2012 season is a far cry from his 2011 when he was actually benched in favor of Jose Constanza.
Michael Bourn has turned in a season that makes him worthy to be considered one of the best center fielders in the sport. The speedy Bourn is hitting .274/.346/.391 with 25 doubles, 10 triples, 9 home runs, 56 RBI, and 39 stolen bases. He is also the best defensive center fielder in the sport according to most metrics.
Actually, the entire Braves team has played elite level defense this season according to both UZR and defensive runs saved, both of which they lead the National League. Last season, they were one of the worst defensive clubs in the NL.
That defense has allowed the Braves to overcome subpar offensive seasons from Brian McCann and Dan Uggla. While their offense doesnít rank any higher than seventh in any major offensive category, the rebound seasons from Heyward and Martin Prado have helped compensate.
One of the biggest reasons that the offense has been adequate is how Gonzalez has been able to keep Chipper Jones relatively healthy this season. The 40 year old Jones is on his farewell tour, but his bat is still one of the better bats at the hot corner and, most importantly, very important to the Bravesí success. The future Hall of Famer is batting .296/.381/.473 with 23 doubles, 14 home runs, and 61 RBI in 105 games. Jones leads the team in on base percentage and slugging percentage. His presence is quite important. Gonzalez has been able to keep him fresh and avoid the season ending injury.
While the offense is adequate, the elite level defensive supports one of the best pitching staffs in the league. As a whole, the staff ranks in the top four in almost every major category. The rotation, in terms of WAR, is the third most valuable rotation in the league. Their 3.73 ERA ranks fifth in the NL, while their 3.65 FIP ranks fourth. The bullpen is even more valuable as their 7.1 WAR is tops in the NL. Their 3.03 ERA and 3.19 FIP both lead the league.
Again, the idea of perseverance applies to the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen. Closer Craig Kimbrel blew the save on the final day of 2011 that wouldíve sent the Braves to the playoffs. But, the Braves simply allowed their young closer to continue to develop. There wasnít talk of a job share or choking under pressure. Kimbrel has responded with a season that will garner him Cy Young Award votes.
Setup man Jonny Venters struggled mightily to begin this season. He pitched to a 6.55 ERA in May and then followed that month up with two consecutive months with an ERA over 4.00. But, they were patient and now Venters has settled back into being one of the more reliable relievers in the sport. He is also flanked by one of the most underrated relievers in the sport, Eric OíFlaherty. The top three relievers have also been supported by veteran Chad Durbin.
Perhaps the best decision that Wren and the Braves made this season was how they handled Kris Medlen. Medlen made it back to pitch a couple of innings last season after rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery. They knew that his innings were going to be limited this season so instead of starting him the rotation, Medlen began the season in the bullpen. Because of their patience, Medlen was inserted in the rotation at time when his innings limits would not be an issue. The results have been spectacular. In 11 starts, the right hander is 8-0 with a 1.04 ERA in 77.2 innings. Heís allowed just 54 hits, 9 walks, and has struck out 80 batters.
Because the Braves were patient with him and didnít rush Tim Hudson back from injury at the start of the season, they now have a top two that can match up with any top two in the playoffs. Medlen has turned into one of the best starting pitchers in the sport and the argument can be made that he is the best of the playoff starting pitchers.
The Braves could have panicked when they started the season 0-4. They could have panicked when they lost eight consecutive games at the end of May to finish the month with a losing record. Considering their previous September, there could have been rash decisions. Medlen could have been inserted into the rotation immediately. Lineup changes could have been made. Relievers could have been demoted. A reactionary trade could have been made.
All of that seems ridiculous, but the other team that had an epic September collapse did all of those things. Instead, the Braves remained calm. They believed in their plan and their talent. They persevered and now have a week to prepare for the playoffs. They are likely playing in the first ever one game Wild Card round, which seems a bit unfair to some. But, given how they have reacted to everything else this season, it will just be another challenge to meet with their greatest quality.
The 2012 Braves are a case study in how to deal with something that could have consumed them. They had a good plan and stuck with it. Now, they are heading to the playoffs. It is a fitting way to send Chipper Jones into retirement. But, itís also a fitting way to encapsulate all that has made the Atlanta Braves one of the best, most consistent organizations in Major League Baseball. There are no controversies or off the field dramas. There isnít an excessive amount of attention paid to them. Yet, without the fanfare, they are heading into the 2012 tournament. Perseverance and belief has led to another playoff run.
Perhaps other organizations should take note.
BORN: April 17, 1975 (38)
JOINED: Oct 26, 2003 (9 years, 208 days ago)
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