ATLANTA -- With essentially one-quarter of the season complete, the Atlanta Braves find themselves in the midst of a frustration-filled journey that has taken them where they want to be -- atop the National League East standings -- via a route that the most advanced GPS system likely would not have detected.
As this season's second quarter approaches, the Braves have reason to feel good about the sustainability of their once-suspect and now-healthier starting rotation that has produced a Major League-best 2.64 ERA. But there are definite concerns about their potentially potent offense that has averaged just 3.23 runs per game -- a mark that bests only the Padres in the 15-team NL.
"I've coached teams that were bad and teams that have gone through bad streaks," Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. "Most of the time, it was because we were hurt or we just weren't that good. But our guys are healthy. There's no excuse for being as bad as we've been. The good news is we're healthy and we've got a chance to get a lot better. If I was looking out there every day and saying, 'God, we're not very good.' I'd be real worried. But we're not this bad."
Other than the fact that Evan Gattis has replaced the departed Brian McCann, the Braves have essentially the same cast of position players as they did last year, when they scored the fourth-most runs in the NL and ranked third with a .723 OPS.
But despite the fact that this relatively young lineup is one year older, the results have not yet been similar. This might have something to do with McCann's departure leaving Atlanta with a right-handed-heavy lineup.
The Braves have hit .273 with an .812 OPS against left-handed pitchers. But they have compiled approximately 80 percent of their plate appearances against right-handed pitchers, who have limited them to a .220 batting average and a .625 OPS.
"At one time or another, every team in baseball has been scuffling during the first six weeks," Walker said. "But we're kind of the poster child for it, because we've done it more than anybody. We're going to get better. There's no doubt about it."
Atlanta ranks third worst in the NL with a .663 OPS. The .402 slugging percentage produced last year has been replaced by a .373 mark this year. And last year's .321 on-base percentage looks much better than this year's .290 -- once again a mark that betters only San Diego in the Senior Circuit.
Yeah, there are still plenty of free swingers in this lineup, as evidenced by the fact that the Upton brothers rank first and second in strikeouts. But even while leading the NL in strikeouts last year, the Braves still produced the NL's second-best walk percentage (8.8 percent). This year, they have drawn walks in 7.2 percent of their plate appearances, a mark bettered by nine NL clubs.
"Pitchers don't want to throw us strikes, and we've been allowing them to get away with it," Walker said. "Pitchers don't want to throw us strikes because we're dangerous. 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. That is the one thing that sticks out to me.
"I don't care how good a swing you have and I don't care how much talent you have, it's impossible to hit a non-competitive pitch. You've got to take it, and we've not done a good job of that. We've swung at more balls up and out of the zone than any team I've ever seen at any level, coaching or watching the other team. I've never seen a team swing at so many non-competitive pitches, and a lot of it is out of frustration."
This frustration has certainly mounted and been displayed more frequently as the Braves have scored two runs or fewer eight times while winning just five of their past 15 games. But this should not simply be viewed as a two-week skid. Atlanta also scored two runs or less nine times while winning 17 of its first 24 games.
"The number one reason I think people slump and struggle is they don't swing at strikes," Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. "When you don't swing at strikes, you're not going to walk either, because that means you're swinging at balls out of the zone. When we start getting more confident and start taking the balls that are out of the zone, I think we'll do a lot better. But right now, top to bottom, we are swinging at balls that are up, that are down, that are out, that are sliders that are in. We're just not swinging at strikes."
According to FanGraphs.com, Atlanta has swung as frequently (49.4 percent of the pitches they've seen) as any NL club and made contact with its swings less frequently (75.1 percent) than any other big league club.
The Braves have swung at 31 percent of the pitches they have seen outside the strike zone and made contact with 61.1 percent of those swings. The Rockies, Orioles, Giants, Brewers, Dodgers and White Sox have all swung at a higher percentage of pitches that miss the zone. But the Brewers and White Sox are the only clubs that have made contact with less than 65 percent of these swings.
Maybe more alarming is the fact that Atlanta has swung at more pitches inside the strike zone than any club other than San Francisco, and made contact with these such swings less frequently (81.7 percent) than any club.
Walker believes many of his club's unproductive, impatient at-bats have been a product of pitchers pitching backwards to a fastball-hungry lineup. Once opposing pitchers have gotten ahead in the count, they have given themselves a chance to stick with offspeed stuff and entice with fastballs out of the zone.
"So far this year, we haven't done a good job of fighting the guy [on the mound] instead of fighting ourselves," Walker said. "We've fought ourselves way too much this year. You're not going to win when you're fighting yourself, instead of the other team."
The Braves' offense has recently shown some signs of life, scoring at least four runs in three of the past four games. While this might not qualify as eye-opening production, Walker has no other choice but to hope these few games are a sign that better days are on the horizon.
"It's kind of the like the 'you've got to walk before you run' mindset," Walker said. "That's where we're at. We've got to walk before we run. We've got to crawl, walk and then run. This team is going to run. Eventually we're going to run, and hopefully we're still in first place when we do it."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.