Saturday, May 13, 2017

What Happened? - The 2017 Braves Story (Part 2 of 2)

By Arturo Pardavila III from Hoboken, NJ, USA [CC BY 2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday, I went over the offense and if suggested a couple of quick fixes. Now, let's look at the pitching staff. As I said in the previous article, things haven't worked out like they were supposed to. Mike Foltynewicz currently leads the rotation in FIP and xFIP and his marks aren't even good. All five starters are serving up homeruns at an alarming rate (1.41 per nine, fourth worst in baseball). It's been rather ugly.

Let's address three questions here. What's going wrong? Is there reason to believe things will be fixed? And if not, what can be done?

Julio Teheran's troublesome start would be much more newsworthy if a certain bigger-than-life starter wasn't struggling so spectacularly. Nevertheless, through seven starts, Teheran has stunk in ways we just aren't used to seeing. To this point, he's serving up a 4.79/5.41/5.24 FIP/xFIP/SIERA - a stark change from his 3.2 fWAR year last season. Teheran's control is all over the place with an 11.2% walk rate that is dangerously close to twice his career average. Conversely, his K% is down 4%. His control issues have led to a 4% decline in swing percentage. Hitters that are ahead in the count can afford to let the borderline pitches go.

The good news is that Teheran bounced back last year after similar control bugaboos in 2015 (though not as bad). The less-than-good news for Braves fans is we have come all too used to watching big-time starter prospects flash monster potential early in their career only to decline and fall to pieces before their 30th birthday (Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson may stand out the most). That's not to say Teheran will be next, but the Braves cannot take anything for granted at this point.

Nearly 18 years older than Teheran, it's difficult to look at Bartolo Colon and not think the end of the road has rapidly arrived. Over a week ago, I played the optimist and talked up Colon's bad luck. There's still a bit of that going on (a shockingly low 56% of runners left-on-base, higher-than-normal HR/FB and FB rates). However, with every bad start, just awful luck becomes harder to believe as a real reason for his failures. His walk rate - while still very good - has gone up. His strikeout rate continues a moderate decline that began three years ago. And worse, like Teheran, he's not living in the strikezone.

Colon gets by on being stubborn, changing speeds, and hitting his spot. He won't blow it by anyone, but he's got enough giddy-up and movement to deliver quality strikes. Over the last five years, Colon has pounded the strikezone with between 57% and 61.2% of his pitches. That's down to 51.6% this season - the lowest total he's had since PITCHf/x began to chart pitches in '07. Despite that, hitters are swinging more at pitches in the strikezone than any year of the past decade when facing Colon. While his contact rates are practically unchanged, any pitching coach in baseball will tell you one thing - you want hitters swinging in pitching counts rather than trying to throw strikes to even up the at-bat. While Colon still flashes excellent control, it's just not as pinpoint as he needs it to be successful.

Jaime Garcia's ERA climbed recently and still needs to come up a bit to match his FIP (4.92). The problem with Garcia is a bit different than Teheran and Colon. He's throwing about the same amount of pitches in the zone as we have seen in recent years from the former Cardinal. Despite that, his walk rate as up 4% and his K rate is the worst of his career at 13.6%. I want to believe he's fine, though his .255 BABIP suggests we haven't even seen the worst. Righties right now are crushing Garcia and the reason looks pretty clear - his breaking stuff is awful right now. Throughout his career, Garcia has kept righties (and lefties) at bay with a good slider and a solid sinker. So far this year, all hitters are hitting .367/.387/.700 off his slider. They also have an isolated slugging of .205 against his sinker. To put that in another way, when Garcia throws a sinker or slider, they tend to go far away. He throws those two pitches over 40% of the time, by the way.

R.A. Dickey knows a bit about watching balls fly off the bat. He's surrendered eight homers in 35.2 innings. That's a rate of 2.02 per nine innings or, to be more to the point, 26% of all flyballs become homeruns. That can't last, but there's nothing to suggest he's going to get much better either. Now, Mike Foltynewicz gives us hope. He's the youngest of the group and showed some improvement last year. But he, too, is living in the zone less and suffering because of it. Last evening, he was spotting his changeup as well as he had all year. It's the pitch he used much more frequently down the stretch last season than he did in his five handful of starts this season. Hopefully he continues because while it's not a great pitch, the 8-10 mph difference between it and the hard stuff can go a long way to keeping batters off-balanced.

I could address the bullpen in this increasingly lengthy diatribe, but honestly, I'm getting depressed and can't take more negative news about a group I was so hopeful of.

With that in mind, let's look at the future moving forward. The Braves certainly aren't going to dump their veterans just yet. They are doing one thing they sought out to do - provide innings. The Braves bullpen has thrown 103 innings on the year, which is the fifth fewest. Some might argue that number is soft and built on schedule quirks that have seen the Braves play the fewest games in baseball. It's a fair argument. Nevertheless, the Braves wanted a staff they could rely on for innings and so far, they have gotten that. Here's the problem, though. So far, those innings have been among the worst in baseball.

What can be done? Not much at this moment. Like I said, the Braves aren't going to give up on Colon, Dickey, and Garcia this early in the season. What Atlanta can do in the meantime is bring up Lucas Sims and get his feet wet in the bullpen. On the year, Sims has a 2.57/3.43/3.61 ERA/FIP/xFIP. Much of that is due to a commitment to be a better pitcher rather than a harder thrower. His K's are down, but more importantly, his walks are way down (about 9% lower than last year). Atlanta could do something similar with Sean Newcomb, who after seven starts, is riding his best K/BB rate since his first year in rookie ball. I was probably the only Braves blogger to make Newcomb the top pitching prospect in the Braves system during the offseason. I'm not sure I'd keep him there, but the adjustments he made in the second half last year seem to be sticking.

I know the prevailing wisdom is to keep starters in the minors until you need them, but my thinking is that Sims and Newcomb each have a chance to move into the starting rotation at some point in the foreseeable future. Why not use them in 2-3 inning spurts to piggyback a fledging rotation until it either finds its way or is blown up?

In the end, much like is the case with the offense, the pitching staff is essentially going to sink-or-swim at this moment. Oh, it's swallowed a good deal of water trying to keep their head above water, but it hasn't drowned yet. Maybe a few tweaks will help.

Then again, maybe not.

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