Braves' strikeout problem hampers playoff chances
Lack of power pitching, hitters' high K-rate could prove costly for Atlanta
For the Braves to capture their second World Series championship since moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, they'll have much to overcome. Yes, they can hit, but their offense is rarely conducive to longevity in the postseason. And, yes, they finished with the best ERA in the Major Leagues during the regular season (3.18), but they have a pitching issue, which Braves icon Chipper Jones will explain in a moment.
Here's another thing: The Braves haven't prospered in October since the first half of their record streak of 14 consecutive division titles through 2005. If you include last year's NL Wild Card Game, they've lost in the first round in each of their last six trips to the playoffs, and they were eliminated at home five of those times.
Not good. Even so, with a heavy dose of youth and enthusiasm, the Braves will try to get it right after they open their best-of-five Division Series on Thursday night at Turner Field against the Dodgers.
Nobody in the NL slammed more home runs than the Braves' 181, and they finished fourth in runs scored (688). Plus, first baseman Freddie Freeman has MVP numbers -- a .319 batting average, 23 homers, 109 RBIs -- and that's impressive. So is much of the Braves' pitching, including super-closer Craig Kimbrel and the rest of the game's most prolific bullpen, whose 2.46 ERA was the lowest in baseball in a decade.
The Braves spent just one game this season out of first place in the NL East. In addition, courtesy of their ability to overcome adversity late in games, they rolled through most of the summer with the best record in the Major Leagues.
Now to the bad stuff -- strikeouts. That's an issue for the Braves when it comes to both hitting and pitching, but we'll start with pitching, which brings us back to Jones, the always-insightful future Hall of Famer. Of the 10 teams who made the playoffs this year, only Oakland pitchers struck out fewer batters (1,183) during the regular season than Atlanta pitchers (1,232).
"I'm a firm believer in, come October for a team, you've got to have power pitching," said Jones. "I think the starting rotation of a successful playoff team has to have guys who have the strikeout in their arsenal. And one of the areas where the Braves have lacked in the past is that they didn't have pitchers who could get a strikeout when they've needed it. There were a lot of guys who pitched to contact, and they were very good at what they do. But it's been our undoing over the last few years by not having that ability to get a big strikeout."
Take the Braves' Big Three of yore, for instance. Until Andy Pettitte came along, John Smoltz spent years holding the Major League record for most postseason victories. It isn't a coincidence that Smoltz threw as hard as anybody in history. Conversely, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine had fastballs that could barely slice a breeze, but it didn't matter. They were crafty enough to capture more than 300 victories each, multiple Cy Young Awards and future spots in Cooperstown with Smoltz and Jones.
So this doesn't necessarily make sense: Maddux and Glavine finished their careers with losing records in the postseason -- 11-14 and 14-16, respectively. Actually, this makes perfect sense, when you consider that neither Maddux nor Glavine could strike folks out in October on a consistent basis, at least not as much as their hard-slinging peers who repeatedly eliminated the Braves from the playoffs during their run.
"You know, when you look at it, all of those postseasons past for the Braves, we had to go against Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, and we had to go against Kevin Brown and Andy Ashby, and we had to go against Kerry Wood and Mark Prior," Jones said, recalling how the Braves' offense regularly vanished against those duos. "And you know, all of those are guys probably had pretty good postseason records, because they could bring the strikeout to the table."
The Braves? Not so much. Not then, barely now.
Added Jones, "[Before Tim Hudson's injury], you get seven innings out of Huddy, and you'll probably get five or six K's, maybe seven. The same thing for [Paul] Maholm. And Kris Medlen certainly is capable of striking you out, and [Mike] Minor has shown he can get K's from time to time, certainly when he's on. But this is why, before the season, I gave the pitching nod in the division to Washington with Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. They can rack up 10 or 12 strikeouts every time they go out there, you know, if they want to, but that's something the Braves really have lacked recently."
The Braves have also lacked the ability to manufacture runs on a consistent basis, and much of that is attributable to the ugliest of numbers: 1,384. That's how many times Braves hitters struck out during the regular season, tied with the Mets to lead the NL. Only the Astros and Twins struck out more.
Then there's that shutout thing. The Braves were shut out 17 times during the regular season, and the only team that was blanked more was Miami, a team that lost 100 games.
The Braves have high hopes, though. That's fine for fans, but this would be better: Strikeouts, but only if we're taking about a Brave on the mound instead of at the plate.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.