Despite unpredictable offense, Braves sit atop East
Atlanta general manager Wren confident lineup will eventually click in unison
ATLANTA -- When Braves general manager Frank Wren reconstructed his lineup with the offseason additions of the Upton brothers, he had visions of his team vaulting to its current spot atop the National League East. But it's safe to say the journey has been much different than he or anybody else could have envisioned.
It is no secret that the Braves have gained their six-game division lead based on the strength of a pitching staff that shares Major League Baseball's best ERA (3.21) with the Cardinals. But with a little more than half the season remaining, there is reason to wonder if Atlanta can extend its success if its offense continues to be inconsistent and mystifying.
The Braves have split their last 62 games since going 13-2 to open the season. Despite those mediocre results, they are just 3 1/2 games behind the Cards for the NL's best record.
"We all feel like we haven't played up to our capabilities really in any part of the season," Wren said. "We've been able to win games. Now as we go into the second part of the season and other teams get healthy and other teams start playing better baseball, the challenge is going to be for us to play our game."
It's not surprising that the Braves lead the NL in both strikeouts (698) and home runs (96). They entered the season recognized as a team that would clear outfield fences and whiff with great regularity.
The Braves have minimized the potential negative value of their strikeout total with timely power -- 31 of their homers have come in the seventh inning or later -- and by drawing one walk every 10.86 plate appearances -- the NL's best mark.
Still, Atlanta has not consistently taken advantage of the scoring opportunities it has gained via these walks. The club has been shut out in 14 percent (11-of-77) of their games, a total influenced by the fact that they have hit a Major League-worst .224 with runners in scoring position.
"We're in a fortunate situation where our pitching has been really good," Wren said. "The power has provided enough offense most of the season to help us win games. We're waiting for the offense to click as a whole."
The Braves' offense has certainly attempted to bring a new meaning to unpredictable. Since hitting .298 with 14 home runs and a 1.136 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) in April, Justin Upton has hit .208 with three home runs and a .619 OPS in the past 46 games.
As his younger brother finds himself in the midst of a two-month slump, B.J. Upton has finally showed some signs of life as he has hit .246 with four home runs and a .844 OPS in June. But after hitting .145 with a .476 OPS through the season's first two months, he finds himself with a .175 batting average -- a mark the Braves did not envision when they gave him a five-year, $75.25 million contract in November.
While Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson are the only regular members of the lineup hitting above .300, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla (.195) are below the Mendoza Line. Jason Heyward has improved his batting average to .211 since struggling for the two weeks that followed his month-long disabled list stint caused by an emergency appendectomy.
B.J. Upton, Uggla and Heyward all entered June hitting below .200. But they have accounted for three of the top four OPS figures compiled by the Braves this month.
"Everybody is going to have struggles at some point during the season," Wren said. "That's just the way the game has always been. Our struggles seem to lump together where it seems it's not one or two guys, but half or three-quarters of the team are struggling at the same time. We need to get past that. I can't tell you when. These guys have all had the careers and put up the kind of numbers that indicate they will put it together at some point."
While playing 48 games over the past 50 days, many of the Braves have had a tough time distancing themselves from the frustration created by their offensive woes. But with Monday marking the first of three scheduled off-days in an eight-game span, they will have a chance to relax amid the comfort of the division lead they have gained with an offense that has not yet lived up to expectations.
"We're going to come out of it, I don't know when," Wren said. "I've always felt that way. We're not holding our breath and holding on real tight waiting for a big hit. They're just going to come naturally. When that happens, our offense will click."