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The wheels are falling off the Braves Express

Sep 20, 2011, 8:25 AM EDT

Jonny Venters

Actually, I think the wheels fell off about ten days ago.  They’ve been carving up pavement with the rotors since then, but now the rotors are about to go too.  At this rate, this time next week they’ll be up on the back of a flatbed, off to the junkyard, wondering what the hell happened.

And what has happened?  What has caused them to lose 12 of 18 and fritter away a once seemingly insurmountable lead in the wild card race?  It’s hard to find one damning culprit. When you lose a game because your third basemen loses a GROUND BALL IN THE LIGHTS, you know that something greater than mere bad luck.  But let’s ignore the supernatural angles to all of this for a second and try to think in baseball terms.

The starting pitching has obviously taken a hit since Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson went down, but it hasn’t been disastrous. At least in games that Derek Lowe hasn’t started.  The offense has never been a source of strength this year, but it’s not in anything approaching its worst swoon of the season.  Each are mediocre at the moment, and given how much the Braves have relied on pitching this year that would make for some sub-par baseball.  But what’s been going on lately has been worse than merely sub-par.

No, what happened is that the safety net — the thing that has covered for periods of mediocrity throughout the year — has finally given out. I’m talking about the back end of the bullpen, of course. It has simply tuckered out.  Johnny Venters was touched on Sunday. Craig Kimbrel last night.  These guys have pitched a combined 159 games this year and have less than three years combined service time.  They’re gassed. It’s something that anyone who watches the Braves has seen coming since May, when Fredi Gonzalez acted as if those two were invincible. Well, sorry Fredi.

The Braves are a good team with an imbalance of talents.  When the greatest strength of an imbalanced team becomes a liability, it turns them into a bad team.  That’s what’s going on right now. That and a spectacular surge by the Cardinals.  We can call it a choke because that’s what we’ve come to call late collapses like this one, but a choke is an effect, not a cause of this kind of breakdown. Chokes are comprised of identifiable failures, and here we have a fairly identifiable one: the one thing that gives a team the best chance to win close games — it’s bullpen — is not at its best right now.  And given the rest of the team’s flaws, they’re almost always going to play close games.

And of course the poor planning of Theo Epstein certainly isn’t helping.

  1. Chris Fiorentino - Sep 20, 2011 at 8:35 AM

    I think this is just the Braves season normalizing. Like paper always says, sample size is important. In this case, the Braves played WELL over their heads for the first 136 games and were on a pace to win 95-96 games. NOBODY thought this was a 95-96 win team before the season started. They are 6-11 since, and are now on a pace to win 91-92, which would be a damn fine season for them whether they win the WC or not. And I still think they definitely will unless you think the Cardinals are going to win out.

    • paperlions - Sep 20, 2011 at 8:40 AM

      Couldn’t have said it better Chris. No objective person would look at the Braves roster (when healthy) and think they were a 95 win team….90 wins? Sure, but not 95.

    • Francisco (FC) - Sep 20, 2011 at 8:48 AM

      Interesting point on winning out, history shows any team can sustain momentum for a two week period. In ’07 the Phillies went 13-4 and the Rockies were even better. Both the Giants and Cardinals have been riding hot streaks for a week now, the question is will they peak and flame out in the next few days or can they ride the hot streak into the post-season?

    • delawarephilliesfan - Sep 20, 2011 at 8:49 AM

      I completely agree. I work with a Braves fan who wanted to know if I was panicked when the Braves cut it to 2 1/2 games in early July. I pointed out the Braves had just gone 9-1. Clearly that could not continue, then what?

      I always thought the Braves were an 88-90 win team. That is darn good, and it is Wild Card worthy. And my call? They will win the Wild Card

    • vader000 - Sep 20, 2011 at 8:54 AM

      I agree, that roster just isn’t that great and they had a lot of young guys playing over their heads. The injuries to the pitchers have to be concerning especially Jurrjens, all these knee problems so young, he’s probably never going to be a great pitcher with that. They do have tons of young talent but nobody ever knows how a prospect is going to turn out. Maybe they should have looked to make another move at the deadline, oh wait I forgot the Bourn move was “masterful” yea, how bout no. They have potential but I don’t look at this team and see a championship contender in the next couple years.

      • frenchysplatediscipline - Sep 20, 2011 at 9:41 AM

        I respectfully disagree Chris (and not just because I view the world through Brave’s colored glasses). I think that on paper this team looks better than it has played down the stretch. Prado and Mccann both spent time on the DL and neither has regained their stroke since returning. Losing Hanson and Jurrjens for the stretch run was painful. And Bourne was a great move (upgrade over Mclouth) but its hard to have a table setter make a difference when we have Prado not hitting behind him and Chipper missing every third game behind him. Are we as good as the Phillies? Not a chance. But this is (was?) a good team that has just had key pieces fail at inopportune times. While this collapse is painful, I think this is a team that can compete and continue to enter the tournament for years to come.

      • paperlions - Sep 20, 2011 at 10:56 AM

        That isn’t what Chris said. What he said was that the recent down turn is just natural variation and that earlier in the year they were winning at a higher rate than their talent merited. Taken all together the ENTIRE sample of all games played, including the recent skid, is a more accurate reflection of the Braves talent level than their pre-skid record was.

      • frenchysplatediscipline - Sep 20, 2011 at 12:17 PM

        I understand what he was saying. This recent slide is not a ‘correction” or an evening out of a team that played above their level early in the season. That was the point I was trying to make.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Sep 20, 2011 at 1:12 PM

        In other words, you think they are a 95 win team? Then we’ll agree to disagree there.

  2. Francisco (FC) - Sep 20, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    I know the talk has been about St. Louis, but the Giants aren’t too far behind, of course if they do get in it would be as a wild card, because Arizona has continued to play pretty good, their magic number is 4, it would take a Red Sox like plunge of 9 straight losses or something to really put them in danger of losing the division. At this point the Braves have used up all their safety net, magic # of 7 with 8 to play? I don’t see them going on a tear this late.

  3. delawarephilliesfan - Sep 20, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    The important thing to remember here is that Chipper Jones is not afraid of the Phillies.

  4. amhendrick - Sep 20, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    Over the 6-12 stretch, its been Venters more than Kimbrel. Kimbrel’s pitched well, 8 innings, 3 runs, 3/4 in saves. Venters has 2 blown saves. Win Probability Added for the Braves’ top three relievers in that time (according to BB Ref) is: Kimbrel: 0.255, O’Flaherty: .710, Venters: -.366.

  5. phillyphever - Sep 20, 2011 at 9:08 AM

    FC, forget about the Giants making the playoffs. They got the Dodgers (who would love nothing more than to be the team to knock them out of the playoffs), the D’Backs (who would love to clinch the NL West in the Giants hometurf) and the Rockies left in their schedule. As for the Cardinals: they basically have to win out against the Pirates, Astros and Cubs (not likely, but who knows). Basically, it’s gonna take a full scale Met-like collapse for the Braves to miss the playoffs. How far they go is another story.

    • Francisco (FC) - Sep 20, 2011 at 9:23 AM

      Well the Braves are certainly in the midst of doing just that. I agree the Giants are an iffy proposition, but the Rockies don’t impress me, I easily see SF taking that series if not sweeping, the Rockies have been pathetic lately. Now Dodgers and Arizona on the other hand… let’s put it this way, if they do make it’s well deserved.

      St. Louis doesn’t necessarily need to win out, they just need to win 3 more than Braves to at least tie, with the way the braves are playing if they go 3-5 the Cards can easily go 6-3 or 7-2, it’s not far fetched. Come on, they’re playing: Mets (NOT the Pirates BTW), Astros and Cubs… if you’re an MLB team looking for a Wild Card spot you CAN’T ask for a better schedule unless you transfer to the AL Central and play the Indians, Twins and White Sox.

    • tomemos - Sep 20, 2011 at 10:04 AM

      Just for the sake of accuracy, the Giants play the D’Backs in AZ, not SF.

  6. gb4ever0811 - Sep 20, 2011 at 9:16 AM

    I’d rather face the Braves than the Cards right now. I truly believe the Braves are the better team, but sometimes it’s tough to compete with a hot streak. Look at my Phillies in ’08. That team wasn’t the best team in baseball, but they won. This ’11 team would destroy that team in a seven game series, but that team was hot.

    • delawarephilliesfan - Sep 20, 2011 at 9:26 AM

      I know what you are saying gb – but think about it. Any team you face in the playoffs did something good in the year, otherwise they would not be in the playoffs.

      The Cardinals have been 17-6, and no disrepect – but they have been 8-2 against the Pirates and Braves in that strech, two teams who clearly are in freefall. That still leaves 9-4 in the other games, and they played great against the Brewers and Phillies, so give them credit. But as was alluded to else where in this string, you can’t ignore the full season

      With the sample size we are talking about during this “hot” streak, with the bull pen issues the Cardinals have, with the shaky starting pitching…..they don’t worry me. Sure, anything can happen in the playoff, but applies to any team you face.

  7. amaninwhite - Sep 20, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    Chipper said it was the fact that they played in a football stadium that caused him to lose the ball. It must have gotten lost amongst all the hash marks leading up to third base.

  8. sdelmonte - Sep 20, 2011 at 9:21 AM

    And just to add insult to injury, Braves fans have to root for the Mets the next three days. Even as Red Sox fans root for the Yankees.

    The difference, sorry to say, is that I think there isn’t a lot the Mets will do to help the Braves. And while the part of me that loves late season drama wants to see it come down to the wire, I would rather see the Mets dig deep and find their inner spoilers. I just don’t see it happening.

  9. cowartsh - Sep 20, 2011 at 9:28 AM

    I have to disagree with you Craig. They posted a stat last night that the starting pitching had posted like a 4.5 era over this stretch and that clearly isnt going to cut it. kimbrel and oflaherty have had few hiccups and venters velocity is fine he’s been struggling with control.

  10. spudchukar - Sep 20, 2011 at 9:42 AM

    Yeah, the notion that the Cards have to stay hot and win out is probably not necessary. With 3 at home vs. the Mets and Cubs, and then finishing in Houston for 3 even when playing mediocre ball the Cards should go 6-3. If the Braves who play 2 more in Miami, and then 3 more in Washington (and Strasburg in the opener) before coming home to face the Phils for the final 3, go 3-5 then it is a WC tie, not an unlikely scenario. It will be interesting to see how the Phightens’ play it. They will probably rest a few regulars this week, but like to get them sharp in the final 3 games. But don’t look for Halliday or Lee in Atlanta. They will most likely get one more start for Halliday and one more for Lee after today. Perhaps they could go the short outing route? Time will tell.

    • natstowngreg - Sep 20, 2011 at 6:43 PM

      Take a look at this afternoon’s Nats-Phillies box score. Neither team was playing it like a playoff game.

  11. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Sep 20, 2011 at 10:09 AM

    When the Braves DO make the playoffs and maintain their wild card league, can we have this “the sky is falling” post retracted? Yes, it’s time to worry, but no this is not time to give up and pack it in Braves fans. Their lead isn’t insurmountable any longer, but the defeatist post above makes it seem like they’ve already lost. Yes, the recent bullpen issues fit right into Craig’s storyline of bullpen overuse of the young guys, but it doesn’t mean they won’t bounce back tonight or tomorrow. It’s a couple games (literally). Hold some hope for the Braves b/c whatever anyone says, I think they’re still better than the stinky redbirds.

    • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Sep 20, 2011 at 10:17 AM

      league = lead. edito functiondino

  12. amhendrick - Sep 20, 2011 at 10:59 AM

    Also, Bourn has caught Braves outfielder’s disease. His OBP as a Brave is only .324.

  13. jwbiii - Sep 20, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    At this rate, this time next week they’ll be up on the back of a flatbed, off to the junkyard

    Nah, it’s Georgia. They’ll be up on cinderblocks in the middle of the front yard.

  14. sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Sep 20, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    I still find a great deal of amusement in the fact that the 2 greatest failings of Fredi this season, according to most press outlets including this one, are that he (a) overworked his late inning trio of relievers, and (b) didn’t use his trio of late inning relievers enough.

    They have had huge workloads for use, yet every time they lost a game tied or close in the late innings, there were cries that a closer should not be limited to closing, and Kimbrel should have been in there. Perhaps the ideal paradigm shift would involve a league-wide rule change mandating that closers be used if the game is up by a max of 2 runs OR TIED, instead of having a lead of 1-3 runs.

  15. sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Sep 20, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    I still find a great deal of amusement in the fact that the 2 greatest failings of Fredi this season, according to most press outlets including this one, are that he (a) overworked his late inning trio of relievers, and (b) didn’t use his trio of late inning relievers enough.

    They have had huge workloads for sure, yet every time they lost a game tied or close in the late innings, there were cries that a closer should not be limited to closing, and Kimbrel should have been in there. Perhaps the ideal paradigm shift would involve a league-wide rule change mandating that closers be used if the game is up by a max of 2 runs OR TIED, instead of having a lead of 1-3 runs.

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