Pitching staff shines in accomplished 2013 season
Rotation, bullpen overcome adversity to lead Braves to division title, postseason
ATLANTA -- While their World Series hopes might have been erased by another disappointing October conclusion, the Braves had reason to be satisfied with all that they accomplished in the midst of the adversity that surrounded them this season.
Two years after experiencing a September collapse and one year removed from a loss in the inaugural National League Wild Card Game, the Braves notched 96 victories and captured their first division title since 2005. This earned them a spot in the NL Division Series, which they lost in four games to the Dodgers.
"We all realize we didn't achieve the goal we set out to do," Jason Heyward said. "But we did give our best and I'm just proud to do it with this group."
Had Heyward's jaw not been fractured by Jon Niese's fastball on Aug. 21, there is a chance things might have turned out different for the Braves. Heyward returned with 10 games remaining in the regular season. But the club never regained the promise it produced while winning 20 of the 24 games played leading up to the second of the two ailments that would sideline Heyward for a month.
The optimism created by the offseason acquisitions of the Upton brothers grew as the Braves won 13 of their first 15 games. This fast start combined with a 14-game winning streak that began in late July to enable Atlanta to unseat the defending division champion Nationals in convincing fashion.
But life was anything but easy for manager Fredi Gonzalez, who had to deal with a number of significant injuries and the disastrous seasons experienced by his two highest-paid players -- Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton.
The Braves proved to be at their best when it appeared they were destined for doom. Jonny Venters began the season on the disabled list and learned he needed to undergo season-ending Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery just a few days before his fellow top setup man Eric O'Flaherty suffered the same fate in the middle of May.
Still under the guidance of Roger McDowell, who has established himself as one of the game's top pitching coaches, the Braves set a franchise record with a Major League-best 2.46 bullpen ERA.
McDowell's wisdom also benefitted an inexperienced starting rotation that began the season with three members who had yet to make at least 55 career starts. But despite all of the questions that surrounded the pitching staff, Atlanta's pitching staff still led the Majors in ERA for the first time since 2004.
While the offense proved maddeningly inconsistent, there were plenty of positives that developed in this department as well. Freddie Freeman established himself as a legitimate MVP candidate and Chris Johnson did more than simply fill Chipper Jones' void as he battled for a batting title through the regular season's final week.
"At the end of the day, you want to win the World Series," Gonzalez said. "But our goal was to win the division and go to the playoffs. We won the division and it didn't go the way we wanted in the playoffs. But a team that wins 96 games and the division should be proud."
Record: 96-66, NL East champs
Defining Moment: Two days after Tim Hudson suffered a gruesome season-ending right leg injury on July 24, the Braves entered a three-game series against the Cardinals having lost 11 of their previous 19 games. Mike Minor turned the tide when he outdueled Adam Wainwright in the opener of this three-game series against St. Louis. This marked the start of the 14-game winning streak that erased any drama surrounding the NL East race.
Best Hitter: Justin Upton hit nine home runs in the first 15 games and Heyward might have been the most influential offensive contributor when he moved to the top of the lineup in late July. But there was no doubt that Freeman was the consistent key to Atlanta's offense throughout the season. The 24-year-old first baseman finished this year with the NL's third-best batting average (.319) and second-highest RBI total (109) -- a product of his .443 batting average with runners in scoring position. Along with showing the ability to put the ball in play with consistency, he displayed his still-developing power while totaling 23 homers for a second straight season.
Best Pitcher: Craig Kimbrel might not have been as dominating as he was when he struck out more than half the batters he faced in 2012, but as he notched his first 50-save season this year, he further strengthened his status as the game's most dominant closer. While converting each of his 37 opportunities in the 47 appearances he made from May 9-Sept.16, he compiled a 0.38 ERA and limited opponents to a .142 batting average.
Best Rookie: It's hard to choose whether Julio Teheran or Evan Gattis had a greater impact. But because Gattis missed a month with an oblique strain and served as a backup much of the year, the nod goes to Teheran, who began the year as the club's fifth starter and then quickly proved why he was considered such a promising prospect. His 3.20 ERA ranked as the second-best mark ever recorded by an Atlanta rookie.
What Went Right: Justin Upton earned Player of the Month honors after hitting 12 home runs in April and then showed how influential he can be while compiling a 1.325 OPS during the 14-game winning streak. …Johnson, who was considered a throw-in in the deal that brought Upton to Atlanta, assumed the everyday role at third base in late May and then surprised many when he simply continued to hit. He led the NL batting title race as late as Sept. 21. Andrelton Simmons surprised many with his 17 home runs and also further established himself as a defender while being credited with 41 Defensive Runs Saved -- the highest total ever recorded since the metric was first utilized in 2003. …Luis Avilan filled the significant void created by the absences of Venters and O'Flaherty. … Minor built off the success he had during the second-half of the 2012 season and Kris Medlen put it all together in time to produce another stellar September.
What Went Wrong: When Uggla learned his vision was blurred by an astigmatism in Spring Training, he opted not to wear contacts because they were uncomfortable. Safe to say they were much more comfortable than his .179 batting average -- worst mark ever produced by a qualified Major Leaguer -- and .362 slugging percentage -- second-worst mark produced by a player during a 20-homer season. ... While Uggla at least provided some occasional power, B.J. Upton provided very little after signing a franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract. He hit .184 with a .557 OPS and spent most of the season's final two months on the bench. ... Brian McCann hit .200 with a .595 OPS in his final 35 regular season games and then likely ended his days with the Braves by going hitless in the NLDS.
Biggest Surprise: The Braves entered this season with the hope that their offense would overcome some of their pitching weaknesses. But it did not take long to realize the pitching staff was this club's most consistent and valuable asset. McDowell deserves a lot of credit for what he did with the inexperienced rotation and the injury-depleted bullpen.