Braves (8-7) at Mets (7-9) Series Preview

A little-known fact: kissing the bat makes it hit more fly balls.

After failing to muster an earned run against the Phillies' dominant starting staff (I mean that seriously in the case of Halladay and sarcastically for the other two), the Braves will try to snap out of their funk against the Mets in a weekend series at Bank Fraud Field. Let's hope that the Mets' pitchers are the cure for what ails the Braves offense. The Braves miss Johan Santana this time around, so the stars seem to have aligned for an offensive explosion. Here are the pitching matchups:

Friday, 7 P.M.: Kenshin Kawakami (0-2, 4.91) vs. John Maine (0-1, 10.38)

KK gets his first start of the season against a non-ace, so hopefully he can pick up his first win of the year. The Dragon Slayer pitched great against Tim Lincecum but took the loss, then pitched less well against Ubaldo Jimenez (not that it mattered--we weren't going to win that game).

Maine, a 28-year-old righty, has yet to go more than 5 innings in any of his 3 starts and has served up at least 1 home run in each. He has given up 8 walks and 21 hits in only 13 innings (that's a WHIP of 2.23 if you're scoring at home). So I guess you could say he's off to a bit of a rough start. He has pitched to a bit of bad luck as his BABIP is nearly .400 (league average is around .300) and his FIP and xFIP are in the 7.00 range, which is terrible but much better than his actual ERA.

Another hopeful sign is that Maine has a 5.06 ERA lifetime versus the Braves in 7 starts, although we really haven't hit him that hard--only 2 home runs in 169 plate appearances. Chipper Jones is 5/11 with a homer and 4 walks off of Maine; Brian McCann is only 2/13, though, and Nate McLouth is only 1/8 (though that hit is a homer).

Saturday, 1 P.M.: Jair Jurrjens (0-1, 6.06) vs. Jon Niese (0-1, 4.32)

JJ had a nice rebound outing last time out, striking out 9 and giving up only 3 runs in 8 innings. His velocity was back to normal as well. He was not rewarded with a win, although the Braves did win the game (on Jason Heyward's walkoff single).

Niese, a promising 23-year-old lefty, has been so-so in his 3 starts this season, though he pitched well his last time out, limiting the Cubs to 1 unearned run in 5.2 IP while striking out 7. The one alarming statistic is that Niese has given up 25 hits in 16.2 IP. Much of the blame for that can again be placed on a high BABIP (.407), but he's obviously going to have to cut down on those hits if he wants to keep a respectable ERA.

Niese is 1-0 with a 3.55 ERA in two career starts versus the Braves. In 2008, he pitched 8 shutout innings against Atlanta, striking out 7. Last year, though, he gave up 5 runs on 7 hits in 4.2 IP. The only 2 Braves with more than 3 PAs off Niese are (weirdly) Omar Infante and Martin Prado, and they are a combined 1/13 off him.

Sunday, 8 P.M.: Tommy Hanson (1-1, 2.81) vs. Mike Pelfrey (3-0, 0.86)

Hanson has pitched very well in the early-going, though he has struggled with high pitch counts that have limited how deep he can go into games. Hopefully he can go a bit deeper this time out.

No, Pelfrey's ERA is not a misprint. The 26-year-old righty has given up only 2 runs in 21 innings--and both those were in his first start. In his last 3 appearances, he's pitched 7 innings of shutout ball against the Rockies, saved the Mets' 20-inning win over the Cardinals, and pitched 7 more shutout innings against the Cubs. That's pretty good, to say the least. All of which means that he's due for some regression to his true ability level, right Braves fans?

The Braves have generally hit Pelfrey very hard in his career. In 9 starts and 1 relief appearance, he is 2-5 with a 6.09 ERA against Atlanta. Many Braves have hit him well, most notably Brian McCann, who is 12/27 (a .444 AVG) with 5 doubles and a homer. Chipper Jones is 6/18 off Pelfrey with 2 homers and Martin Prado is 4/9 with a homer. Nate McLouth is just 2/10 off him.

Stats of the Series

David Wright has 19 walks. The Houston Astros have 18 walks. 

David Wright has 74 plate appearances. He has put the ball in play in only 30 of them (19 walks, 1 HBP, 21 K, 3 HR).

Question to be Answered: Can the Braves' hitters get the ball in the air?

The secret to a successful offense is lifting the ball. Hitting line drives and (to a lesser extent) fly balls are far more effective means of scoring than hitting grounders. Coming into this series, the Braves hitters have the second-highest groundball rate in baseball: 49.9% (the Astros are a tick ahead with 50.0%). Any time your offense is comparable to the Astros', that is not good. 

Yunel Escobar and Melky Cabrera are both hitting more than 60% grounders, which goes a long way toward explaining their struggles so far this year. Both players are around 10% higher than their career average groundball rate, which is a huge difference. To give some perspective, the league average is around 44%.

If you look at the pitchers that the Braves have struggled against, you can see the importance of groundball rates. Here are the pitchers who have shut down the Braves and their GB rates:

Name GB%
Ryan Dempster 57.0%
Randy Wells 45.6%
Tim Lincecum 49.0%
Kevin Correia 53.1%
Ubaldo Jimenez 55.6%
Kyle Kendrick 53.1%
Roy Halladay 51.7%
Jamie Moyer 55.6%

Aside from Wells, all those guys have well above-average GB rates. Six of the eight are above 50 %. Clayton Richard, who stifled the Braves for 5 innings before falling apart in the 6th, also has a GB% above 50%. That's a pretty striking pattern, isn't it?

Here are some of the pitchers that we have knocked around a bit:

Name GB%
Carlos Zambrano 39.3%
Jonathan Sanchez 35.0%
Todd Wellemeyer 43.8%
Mat Latos 50.0%
Jason Hammel 40.0%

As usual, the small-sample-size caveat applies. It is not possible to tell exactly how much of the Braves' groundball tendencies can be attributed to the hitters and how much can be attributed to the opposing pitchers. It does seem pretty clear, though, that at least some of the Braves' problems have been due to facing an inordinate number of extreme grounball pitchers. Some of our hitters are likely struggling with mechanical problems as well. At any rate, we'll need to increase our GB% if we hope to have an above-average offense.

Fortunately, the Braves may be facing the perfect team right now to end their groundball fetish. The Mets' pitchers have the 6th-lowest GB% in baseball at 40.9%. Even more impressive, John Maine (the Mets' game 1 starter) has the lowest groundball rate in all of baseball: 19.6%. This isn't an isolated event, either; Maine's career GB% is a very low 37.9%. The Braves should be able take advantage of this aspect of Maine's pitching style to start driving the ball more. Because of this, I predict that we will score at least 6 runs tonight.

The last two games will be tougher but still doable: Niese and Pelfrey have good-but-not-great GB rates. Let's all repeat this weekend's mantra a few times:

Lift the ball!
Lift the ball!
Lift the ball!

If all of us on TC repeat that phrase in unison, the Braves have to listen, right?

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