Both the Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres have comfortable leads in their division as the end of July approaches. To say that is surprising is an understatement. As good as we feel the Braves are, I don't think many of us expected them to have a 5.5 game cushion on July 20, nor did many honestly feel that they would have a 6 game lead on the reigning N.L. champion Philadelphia Phillies.
As surprising as the Braves have been, it doesn't touch how shocking it is that the Padres have been this good. The Padres were expected, for the most part, to be cellar dwellers in a tough N.L. west and Adrian Gonzalez was projected to be one of the most valuable trade pieces before the deadline. The best record and best run differential in the N.L. belongs to the Padres, as does the third best record in all of baseball behind only the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees. The Padres have managed to allow the least amount of runs in baseball thanks to Mat Latos and an absolutely incredible bullpen.
The Braves have won all three of Jair Jurrjens' starts since he returned from the DL. He allowed one run in his first start, just two hits in his second start, and just one run again in his third, so it seems like we are seeing the Jair we are used to over the past few seasons rather than the early 2010 version. His opponent, Wade LeBlanc, allows a lot of men on base and gives up a lot of fly balls (31.6 %, league average is 28.4%). LeBlanc has been below average this year on the mound this season, and the Braves should have some success against him tonight.
More after the jump.
Hanson has stated that he is struggling to find consistency. Batted balls keep landing for hits and that will obviously be frustrating for a pitcher. I doubt Tommy looks at many advanced metrics, but his BABIP being the second highest in the NL at .349, behind only Dan Haren, is likely a big reason for his results seeming poor. His strikeouts are up and his walks are down, but one thing I have noticed is that his fastball is moving less, which could be a reason for the increased amount of hits allowed this year. Last year his fastball averaged -6.1 inches of horizontal movement and this year it is averaging just -5.4 inches. This means the tailing action has decreased with his increased velocity (92.2 mph in '09 and 93.2 mph in '10). It's not a tremendous difference in movement, but it is a small one that could be making a difference. Garland is another below average pitcher and walks a ton of batters, which usually means good things for the Braves as they lead the NL in walks by a large margin. These are the types of pitchers the Braves have to score on.
Richard is the best starter in the Padres rotation with Mat Latos on the shelf. Richard strikes out a bit more batters than your average pitcher, but only really has a plus fastball. His fastball is only thrown in the low 90's, but it generates a lot of movement (7.1 inches horizontally). He walks as many as your average pitcher and has a normal BABIP at .302. Richard is a bit above average but as a lefty going against the Braves, you can expect him to perform a bit better. This is definitely the best pitching matchup of the series, and on paper, it should be the game that gives the Braves the most trouble.
The Padres have a .312 team wOBA, third lowest in the N.L. in front of only the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates. Nobody outside of Adrian Gonzalez is too threatening, but Scott Hairston, Chase Headley, and their catching combination of Nick Hundley and Yorvit Torrealba are decent bats. The Braves staff should be able to handle them, for the most part.
The San Diego bullpen has been their biggest asset this season. Mike Adams (1.3 WAR), Heath Bell (1.4 WAR), and Luke Gregerson (1.1 WAR) have been dominant. They have been the Padres most productive pitchers outside of Latos and Richard. Along with those three, Edward Mujica has 43 strikeouts to 4 walks this season. He has allowed 10 home runs which shows that he is hittable, but that's a notable K/BB ratio. The Padres rank first in reliever's ERA (2.85), FIP (3.01), xFIP (3.09), K/BB (3.79), and BAA (.218). Something to note is that the Braves actually rank second in FIP and xFIP. I wouldn't expect many blown leads by the bullpen this series, and the Braves would be wise to score early as the Padres bullpen is the best in baseball, by far.