Most successful major league ball teams have some sort of veteran presence. Whether it is the know-how of a manager like Charlie Manuel of the Phillies, or the pitching of the 47 year old Jamie Moyer, also of the Phillies, there are veterans all around the league. Our very own Atlanta Braves have a few notable names who have played their share of games in the majors, but the question that begs to be asked is: Just how important have these elder statesmen been to the first place success of the Braves in the first half of the year. Let's take a look at four of them, one at a time.
You've got to go back a long way to find where Derek Lowe was drafted, 19 years in fact. Lowe was the 8th overall pick by the Seattle Mariners in 1991, and ever since, Derek has pitched in 586 career games. A starter in 386 games, Lowe has a career record of 150-125, coupled with 85 career saves in his days as a reliever/closer.
Lowe's numbers this year have not been all-star numbers by any account, but his easy-going presence and decent numbers have made Lowe a great addition to the Braves. Lowe's track record speaks for itself if questions of his realiability come in to play, just look at his career 3.86 ERA, and his 150 wins that we talked about in the open. The Braves surely knew what they were getting with Lowe, and his 15-10 record last season was decent though the Braves missed the playoffs. Lowe's 9-8 record and 4.35 ERA pre-allstar break aren't super impressive numbers, however, Lowe has faced some tough competition including a complete game shutout by Jamie Moyer, in which Moyer fanned 5 and the Phillies won 7-0. Lowe was thrust in to a pitcher's duel with rightie Gavin Floyd, in June. Lowe and Floyd both went 7 innings, and the Braves offense couldn't provide firepower against Whitesox reliever J.J Putz, and Lowe was stuck with a no decision in a game where he pitched brilliantly against a potent Chicago lineup.
In July, offensive support continued to be at a premium for Lowe, who has lost both of his appearances 1-3, and 0-3 to the Phillies and Mets respectively. In Lowe's last 3 appearances, against division rivals Washington, Philadelphia, and the New York Mets, Lowe has had 3 runs scored for him by the Braves bats. I'm no math major, but that's a run per game of run support for his last 3 starts, that's a tough hand to be dealt.
Lowe is a big man, at 6'6, 230 lbs, but as it turns out, the 37 year old is an important part of the rotation for our Braves. Look for a less than stellar record for the first half of the year to be improved in the second half, and continue to watch Lowe's free spirited personality guide the Braves down a road that has so far, kept them in first place in the division.
There are some sounds that major league ball players just don't enjoy hearing. For any pitcher, it may be the crack of a bat, which signals that one of their pitches has been hit hard. For managers, it could be cries of agony coming from an injured superstar, which signals that the player is down for the count, and could miss significant time. For hitters, late in a ballgame at Turner field, it's Metallica's "Enter Sandman," coming from the stadium loudspeakers, which signals the coming of 39 year old closer, Billy Wagner.
Wagner was drafted shortly after Lowe, in 1993 by the Astros. It took Billy a couple of years to reach a defined role as a major league closer, but after he did, opponents of the Houston Astros were filled with fear if trailing late in a ballgame. Wagner was on again off again to a certain extent for a few years with the Astros, pitching only 1/3 of an inning in 1995, and gathering 9 saves with 3 blown in 1996, complete with an 0-2 record. After 1997 though, it all turned around. In 3 seasons with Houston, 1997, 1998, and 1999, Wagner threw flames, capturing a very impressive 92 saves, with only 14 blown... in 3 seasons. After a handful of impressive years with Houston, Billy tried his hand in the National League East, hey that's us! Wagner pitched for 2 years with the Phillies, 2004-2005, and he pitched very well. As a closer, Billy gathered 59 saves and 7 blown saves in his short stint in Philly. After 4 seasons with the Mets, and an abbreviated year with the Red Sox, Wagner was back to the NL East, with the Braves in what he announced to be his farewell tour in the majors.
Final year or not, Wagner has been a big part of the Braves first place season so far. He has appeared in 38 games so far, and is a perfect 5-0 record-wise. Obviously, record doesn't always tell the whole story when talking about a closer, so check out his other numbers with Atlanta this year: 20 saves, only 3 blown, with an eye popping 1.21 ERA. In 37.1 innings, Billy has fanned 56 batters. Wow. Batters are also only batting .156 against Wagner, just in case you needed more convincing before saluting this guy.
Wagner is a little guy. Stature wise that is. 5'10, 180 lbs, he doesnt exactly have intimidating size, but he does have intimidating stuff on the mound. Wagner carries a 3 pitch arsenal, a 4-seam fastball that he slings at the mid to high 90's on a good day, a slow moving change-up to get hitters out in front, and a wicked slider that gets Billy groundout's on a regular basis.
This season, if the Braves have a small lead, after the starter departs, you can count on a stellar bullpen to hold the lead for a few innings at least, and you can count on Billy Wagner to slam the door in the 9th. Billy hasn't played here before this year, but you wouldn't know it. Atlanta fans love seeing number 13 stride confidently to the mound, and hitters hate it. Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzales were good during their time in Atlanta, but dare I say, Wagner has been just as good, if not better.
Perhaps no player in baseball is as synonymous to an organization as Chipper Jones is to the Atlanta Braves. Chipper has been in the league for 16 years, and has spent every single one of them with Atlanta, and has been managed by only one man, our beloved Bobby Cox.
Chipper has a career .306 average, with 432 homeruns, and 1.478 RBI's. The future hall of famer entered this year with speculation surrounding his potential retirement. Jones has been plagued with injuries this season, but thanks to a very deep Atlanta bench, the team hasn't missed a beat because of it. Brooks Conrad has gotten extended looks, and chances to be a hero not only pinch hitting, but filling in for Chipper. Injuries have been bad, but how about his numbers?
At the halfway point, we take a look at Chipper's year so far. Despite injuries, he has managed to play in 72 games, and his average sits at .252. The 38 year old brings 6 homeruns and 33 RBI's. Not the kind of year to write home about, but not one to beat yourself up over, as an aging veteran.. right? From what I hear, Chipper isn't satisfied with his performance, and that tells you what kind of player Chipper has been for all of these years. As ESPN asked, "When was the last time you saw Chipper with less than 10 HR's and under 50 RBI's at the All-Star break?" Good point ESPN, Chipper's career best put him at 45 HR's and 110 RBI's for the 1999 campaign.
Although Chipper has apparently been down on himself, and isn't on pace for another 1999, he has been an important piece of a 1st place Braves team. Chipper couldn't add another allstar game apperance to the six he has played in during his career, but Chipper's timely hitting and dugout presence could be one of the reasons the Braves have had the kind of year that they have enjoyed so far.
We're almost done here, but there's one more veteran you should remember this season.
Pitchers are important to a ball club, and so are hitters. A good bullpen is a great thing to have, and so is a closer. Fans fuel a team significantly, and TV and radio commentators help make a team a media hit. What's more important than all that? A great manager.
Luckily for the Braves, they have been blessed with one of the finest managers the game of baseball has ever seen: the one and only, Bobby Cox. The 69 year old manager has won quite a few games with the Braves... 2,110 to be exact. Along with wins, Bobby brought 5 NL penants and a world series championship in 1995.
Bobby cox is no stranger to ejections, being tossed a major league leading 132 times. This isn't due to the fact that Bobby runs around the field and dugout steaming and screaming at whoever will listen, but rather to the fact that he defends his players to such a high degree, or so they say. Bobby Cox and Chipper Jones just seem like a package deal, and as it would seem Bobby would run through walls to defend Chipper, he would do it for any player on his team... which may explain the ejection totals.
Perhaps it's more than just win totals, awards, and accolades that make Bobby Cox legendary. Perhaps it's more than just ejections and great decisions, perhaps it's that special bond that Braves players seem to develop with Cox. Atlanta's rotation, bullpen, and lineup has been great, but their manager has been stellar.
It's Bobby's farewell tour, or so he says, and he would love nothing more than to cap off his career with a second world series championship. The talent is there, the great managing is there, and Bobby has a heart as big as his vast baseball knowledge.
And there they are. Four of Atlanta's most important veterans. After a stellar first half of the year, these four can pat themselves on the back for doing their share, and if the train that is the Braves great year keeps rolling, veterans will surely fuel the locomotion. Salute the veterans and let's have a great 2nd half Braves Country.