SAN FRANCISCO – When the Braves signed one Upton and traded for another before the 2012 season, they thought they had taken big steps toward assembling a power-laden lineup that would strike out but also strike fear into opposing pitchers.
Freddie Freeman was emerging as one of the top young hitters in baseball. They thought Jason Heyward would be back on a budding-superstar path if he just stayed healthy for a full season.
Evan Gattis showed light-tower power while hitting 21 homers in fewer than 400 plate appearances as a rookie in 2013. And shortstop Andrelton Simmons’ 50 extra-base hits in 2013 included 17 homers and made him an offensive threat.
It was a lineup that only had a couple of concerns for 2014. Things have not worked out as planned.
The Braves have not had a significant injury to a hitter this season. But entering a weekend series in St. Louis, they rank next-to-last in the majors in scoring (3.2 runs per game), next-to-last in OBP (.290) ahead of only the Padres (.277), and third-from-last in average (.231).
More shocking, the .371 slugging percentage ranks the Braves just 21st out of 30 teams. And while it’s early, it’s not that early. The Braves have played 39 games, nearly one-fourth of the season.
“I’ve coached teams that were bad and had bad streaks, but most of the time it was because we were hurt or just weren’t that good,” Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. “Our guys are healthy. There’s no excuse for being as bad as we’ve been. But the good news is, we’re healthy. We’ve got a chance of getting a lot better. If I looked at us and said, ‘We’re not very good,’ I’d be real worried. But we’re not this bad.”
It should be noted the Braves are in first place. Entering Friday’s game, the Braves were 22-17 and 1 1⁄2 games ahead of second-place Washington the NL East. And Walker knows that’s because of pitching: The Braves lead the majors in overall ERA (2.76) and starters ERA (2.64).
The lineup continues to play below all expectations. In the past 21 games, the Braves have hit .212 with 54 runs (2.6 per game) and 15 homers. They’ve gone 10-11 in that stretch despite a 3.18 ERA. The hitters said it’ll turn around.
“We’re good, man,” said B.J. Upton, who boasts a majors-leading 51 strikeouts in 135 at-bats. “It’s still early. It’s May. We’re going to grind out ABs, and we’re going to fight. ... We just want to see it happen on a consistent basis.”
There have been some recent bright spots, such as Chris Johnson breaking out of his early funk and having five multi-hit in his past eight, including some hits with runners in scoring position. The Braves rank 22nd with runners in scoring position (.246) and dead last in those situations with two outs (.152).
“I think we’re starting to swing the bats a little better,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to get it all clicking on all cylinders.”
The Braves do rank among the leaders in one notable category. They have 349 strikeouts, seventh-most in the majors before Friday’s games.
That’s part of the big issue as Walker sees it: The Braves swing at bad pitches, or what he calls “non-competitive pitches.” Then they grow frustrated and swing at more.
“We’re one of the youngest teams in baseball,” he said. “We’ve faced a ton of right-handed pitching with a ton of right-handed at-bats against right-handed pitchers. And pitchers don’t want to throw us strikes and we’ve allowed them to get away with that. We’ve got a lot of dangerous guys. They don’t want to throw us strikes and we’ve allowed them to get away with it. We’ve got to get better at getting the ball in the zone.”
“We’ve swung at way too many non-competitive pitches this year. When I see that I say, OK, that’s probably a frustrated hitter. He’s pre-determining swings: ‘OK, he’s going to throw me a strike here.’ And I don’t care what kind of swing you’ve got, I don’t care what kind of talent you’ve got, it’s impossible to hit a non-competitive pitch. You’ve got to take it. And we’ve not done a good job with that. I’ve never seen a team swing at so many non-competitive pitches.”