Found April 11, 2013 on Fox Sports South:
Braves-relief-pitcher
ATLANTA -- These were the facts according to Mike Minor Wednesday night in Miami: his pitch count was too high, his location was off, his curveball was not working, his slider was not working and Tim Hudson makes for a lousy reporter. It was just one of those nights I didnt feel like my greatest, he said. The key, though, was what the 25-year-old lefty glossed over during postgame interviews: he had just spearheaded the Braves second shutout in three games by tossing 5 23 innings of scoreless ball. Hes now 2-0 and, after shutting down the Cubs just five days earlier, boasts a 0.69 ERA and the sixth-lowest walk rate in the majors. Its the best start of his young career. And hes not alone. The Braves pitching staff both starters and relievers are off to the best start in all of baseball. The lack of attention to this detail is understandable, too. Justin Uptons detonative beginning to his Braves career has captivated baseball fans in Atlanta and around the country (perhaps even in Arizona), while Evan Gattis legend only grows with time and 400-foot homers. Overall, while dealing with injuries to top hitters, slumping stars and the third-highest strikeout rate in baseball, the Braves are still averaging nearly five runs per game. As a friend advised me during the teams 3-2 win over the lowly Marlins Monday night, Chicks dig the long ball. If that is still the case, then those same people must despise the Braves opponents. Through nine games, Atlantas team earned run average is 1.89. Given that not only is the staff hovering in Greg Maddux-esque territory with that number, but that it would be the lowest team ERA since 1910, do not expect that trend to continue. The Braves will, eventually, give up runs. Call it the Law of Averages or regression to the mean, but history says that no staff including Minor, Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm and Julio Teheran can produce at that level in the Live Ball Era. Plus, facing the Guess Who? lineups of the Marlins and the Cubs will bolster any staffs statistics. However, this is not exactly foreign territory for the franchise. Over the past decade, only the Dodgers have a lower team ERA than the Braves. If the staff remains among baseballs ERA elite throughout 2013, it will make five consecutive seasons ranking in baseballs top-five: 2009: 3.57 (3rd) 2010: 3.57 (3rd) 2011: 3.49 (4th) 2012: 3.42 (5th) 2013: 1.89 (1st) The Braves have not won a playoff series during that stretch, though, not under managers Fredi Gonzalez nor Bobby Cox, so its impossible to assume thats a definitive recipe for success. Remember: Atlanta did not even make the playoffs in two of those seasons. Should the expectations really be that much higher this time around? Keep it low, strand them all Glancing across the early individual pitching performers around the league, Paul Maholms name ranks among the most conspicuous. After all, he was perhaps the rotations least intriguing storyline this season, if only because most assume Paul Maholm will simply be Paul Maholm nothing more, nothing less. Through two starts, hes been more. Hes jumped out to a 2-0 start, taking down the Phillies and Marlins with two scoreless outings. His strikeout rate is at an all-time high and his walk rate better than his career average. Much like the league-leading staff he is a part of, Maholm, who came over last year in a midseason trade with the Cubs, is out-performing the expectations. And keep in mind: this is a staff working without Brandon Beachy, who could still be the organizations ace coming off of Tommy John surgery, and starting catcher Brian McCann, who is recovering from shoulder surgery but has primarily guided the staff behind the plate since 2005. In fact, among the Braves starters, only Teheran has been roughed up giving up five earned runs in five innings during his lone start of the year against the Cubs. And guess what? Thats OK. Hes a rookie. Thats normal and the team still won the game. But along with a strong bullpen, the Braves team pitching statistics are anything but normal. Though the teams strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.27) is sitting right around league average, Atlanta is keeping runners off the basepaths. Opposing offenses are hitting just .209 thus far. Even when batters are making contact against Braves pitchers, they are being held to baseballs second-lowest batting average on balls in play (.248) thanks in large part to a plethora of groundballs and one of the best defensive units around. During the 8-1 start to what looks to be a World Series-contending year, a couple obvious baseball tips have emerged for the Braves: -- When pitchers strand more than 85 percent of opposing runners (best in MLB), they are usually successful. The Braves are limiting opponents scoring opportunities not only by keeping them off the bases but by stranding them there if they do get a hit or draw a walk. -- Ground balls are good. With baseballs fifth-highest rate at inducing grounders, Braves pitchers have avoided giving up home runs and have set up 21 double plays in nine games. Only the San Francisco Giants are giving up fewer long balls. -- A good defense is helpful, but it rarely makes up for bad pitching. Do not jump to the conclusion that the Braves staff is the beneficiary of a rangy outfield and a respectable infield led by defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons at shortstop. Atlanta ranks fifth in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) with a 3.30 score. For perspective, Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, posted a FIP of 2.89 last season. Not bad. So heres your warning: Do not expect this historic pace to continue. On paper, this does not shape up to be the best rotation (yet) in baseball, much less the best in the past century. But and here is the most obvious part of all if Atlantas staff can hover near the leagues best and the offense can continually light up scoreboards, the Braves will be playing in October. Focus on the offensive firepower of the Uptons or the Paul Bunyan references to El Oso Blanco all you want, but the Braves pitching staff has been the golden ticket behind Atlanta's three consecutive series wins to kick off the 2013 campaign. Whether Mike Minor openly confesses to it or not, that is, at the very least, a positive sign for the entire organization moving forward.
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