The Atlanta Braves posted the second-best record in the National League last year at 96-66, bested only by the 97-65 St. Louis Cardinals. The team was able to ride on the shoulders of an incredibly young and somewhat unexpectedly talented pitching staff to the tune of yet another NL East Division title. Pitching has been Atlanta’s strong suit since the early 1990s, and the Braves’ future on the mound looks bright with the amount of highly sought after arms they possess at various levels throughout their system.
But if championship baseball is to once again find a home in the hub of the south it won’t be pitching that gets Atlanta there – it will be timely work at the plate.
The team was almost entirely one-dimensional last season, scoring the vast majority of its runs off the long ball. They struck out hand over fist, a staggering 1384 times (third most in MLB) topped only by the Minnesota Twins and the lowly Houston Astros. But the strikeouts are not the only problem the Atlanta offense faces.
The 2013 Braves were one of the worst clutch-hitting clubs in all of baseball, consistently finding themselves in the bottom half of MLB in offensive categories. The team batted only .251 with runners in scoring position (18th), and just .230 with runners in scoring position and two outs (17th), striking out 317 times (7th most) and 175 times (4th most) respectively in each situation.
Not only did the Braves hit for an extremely low average and strike out at a staggering rate with runners in scoring position, but out of their 1224 ABs with runners in scoring position (25th most) the team logged a 0.94 G/F (groundball to fly ball ratio). It is this statistic that is perhaps the most telling – it would appear the team isn’t making solid enough contact with runners on, popping up and flying out much more often than they hit the ball on a line or on the ground through a hole.
Coupling the high strikeout rate with a penchant for popping up should have resulted in an abysmal offensive year for the Braves, yet somehow they managed to score the fourth-most runs in the NL with 688. If the team can learn to hit the ball on the ground at a higher rate and make more consistent contact, driving the ball the other way and striking out less with runners in scoring position, the Braves could (and should) be looking at a 100-win season and an appearance in the World Series.
It must be remembered that Atlanta had two players batting under .200 in their starting lineup for much of the season. I expect Dan Uggla to replaced by Tommy LaStella who will be a drop off in power but a certain improvement in batting average and OBP. No one expects BJ Upton to be as inept at the plate as he was last season, and if the Braves can get any amount of production from those two positions they will be in much better shape than last season.
But it will be clutch hitting that gets the team to the playoffs. Cut down on the strikeouts, improve the quality of contact made with runners in scoring position (especially with two outs) and as a result drive in more runs in pivotal situations, and the Braves will be poised for a highly successful 2014 season. This team will be better than they were last year — how much better will be determined by their situational hitting.