VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – The Atlanta Braves have gone back to the future this season.
It’s been out with the new, in with the old — as in styles of playing the game.
The Braves are currently taking a page from their recent history, the halcyon days from 1991 through 2005, when Atlanta won 14 National League divisional titles in 15 years.
That period of unprecedented Atlanta dominance saw future Hall of Fame hurlers Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine mowing down batters with regularity as the Braves also captured five National League pennants and one World Series title.
Now, simply put, Atlanta has gone back to those pitching roots.
Because trying to outslug foes in 2014 led to the club’s first losing season since 2008 and just its third dating back to 1990.
As a team, the Braves led the majors in strikeouts a season ago. Four of their hitters topped the 145 mark in Ks and ranked among the top 26 in all of MLB in fanning rate.
Clearly, Atlanta had lost its way.
“We had an offense that either we won with or we didn’t and we didn’t fare too well,” Braves coach Terry Pendleton, a former NL MVP, batting champ and Gold Glove winner, told MAS “I think that was something we wanted to get away from.”
So, the Braves traded away three of those whiff-prone sluggers — B. J. and Justin Upton and Chris Johnson — as well as another offensive star not paying dividends, Jason Heyward.
In return, the Braves landed current star hurler Shelby Miller and several pitching prospects who could develop into future mound luminaries.
Said Pendleton: “I think we’re trying to refurnish our minor league system because it had deteriorated to a certain extent and we’re also trying to use more young talent at the major league level.”
Atlanta picked up several younger position players as well as a few solid vets afield who fit the old Brave profile: speedsters who play solid defense and are satisfactory —if not HR Derby candidates — at the plate.
“We don’t have the power that we traded away,” offered Pendleton, “but we have some guys who are capable of putting the ball in play and running the bases.”
With Miller, acquired from St. Louis for Heyward, joining staff ace Julio Teheran, the Braves are one starting pitcher shy of, potentially, a reasonable facsimile of a Maddux-Smoltz-Glavine triumvirate.
Miller currently has a terribly misleading 5-9 win-loss log. His ERA of 2.48 — sixth best among NL starting pitchers — is much more indicative of his stellar performance this campaign.
The 24-year-old right-hander has been victimized by horrible run support. He is the only one of the NL’s top 17 in ERA to have a losing record.
Miller’s high point occurred when he came within one out of a no-hitter early in the season.
Another glaring area of weakness a year ago was the bullpen. That was addressed with the addition of several veteran relievers who have done a nice job.
“When we won the division two years ago, when teams got into our bullpen they knew the score was gonna stay as it was,” Braves bench coach Carlos Tosca told MAS.
“But last season, teams added on runs and we had a difficult time catching up.”
All the Braves off- and in-season moves were made with at least one eye on 2017 when the club will move into a new stadium in nearby Cobb County.
As presently planned, the new ball yard and the Braves’ current home, Turner Field, could both be classified as more pitcher-friendly than neutral.
That factored into the Braves’ Marty McFly-type philosophical backtracking.
So, how’s that plan progressing?
Well, the Braves are currently in third place in the NL East, exactly where they finished last campaign.
But at least they haven’t lost ground while in restructuring mode.
Not that they’ve given up on this season though.
“We’ll continue to stock up our minor leagues,” Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez said. “But I feel like the club we’ve got now, we can feel pretty good about.
“We’ve got to win now —that’s the bottom line.”
And for a while Atlanta was doing a pretty good job of that.
Before a recent Braves slide and a Washington spurt in late July, Atlanta was lurking within striking distance of the NL East lead, just 5½ games back.
Atlanta fell further off the pace, though, as July entered August.
But more importantly, many of the pieces needed for wireto-wire divisional contention appear to now be in place.
Nick Markakis, signed as a free agent to replace the traded Heyward, typifies the type of player the Braves are now into.
Markakis, fast afoot, leads the club in hitting at .300 and on-base percentage at .372 and has won a Gold Glove as a right fielder.
Add well-rounded homegrown youngsters like shortstop Andrelton Simmons and acquired talent like blossoming center fielder Cameron Maybin (tied for No. 1 on team with 48 RBIs and a flyhawk) and versatile infielder Jace Peterson, who also has 48 RBIs, to the mix and you have a nice core of a team that may not have to wait for the new stadium to become a legit NL East contender.
The Braves, though, have just one hitter with double digits in homers — Freddie Freeman (14), the only one of that 2014 K quartet who was retained.
His solid .284 average and steady glove at first base help make Freeman’s strikeouts tolerable.
But the Braves recently acquired highly-touted Cuban infielder Hector Olivera in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Atlanta honchos feel Olivera, who had been tearing up Triple-A minor league pitching after signing with the Dodgers for $62.5 million, will ease some of the power burden on Freeman and help give the ball club adequate long ball pop.
This retro Braves way makes Pendleton, who played on similarly constructed St. Louis and Atlanta title teams, beam a contented smile.
“I think we’ve gone back to playing the game like it should be played,” offered Pendleton.
“You gotta pitch and play defense and find a way to score runs to win championships.”
This baseball version of a DeLorean DMC-12 has taken off, its time machine set for sometime soon.
The new old Braves are hoping lightning strikes the Cobb County courthouse clock well before 2017.
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