Braves at Mets Series Preview: Peach State of Mind

With the season already more than half over and only one more series left before the all-star break, the Braves head into New York to take on the Mets. Citi Field proved to be a house of nightmares for the Braves in their first series there this year, in which the Mets swept them (during the 9-game losing streak). That was a completely different Braves team, though (in swagger if not in personnel). 

The Braves have gone 13-1-3 in their last 17 series, including 4 straight series wins since being swept by the White Sox in Chicago. One more series win against the Mets would ensure at least a 4-game lead in the NL East at the break. Even if the Braves get swept, they are guaranteed at least a tie for the division lead. That's good to know.

As for the Mets, they just lost 2 out of 3 at home to the Reds. Before that, they went just 3-4 on a 7-game trip against the Marlins and Nationals. Over those 10 games, the Braves gained 2.5 games on the Mets in the standings.

On offense, the Mets are led by third baseman David Wright, who has been putting up MVP-caliber numbers all year (.316 / .393 / .541, 4.1 WAR). Aside from Wright, their top offensive performer has somewhat surprisingly been fill-in center fielder Angel Pagan (.303 / .363 / .458, 2.9 WAR). When (if?) Carlos Beltran comes back, the Mets need to find a way to keep Pagan in the lineup (*cough* bench Frenchy *cough*).

Speaking of Jeff Francoeur, it seems his resurgence--you remember, the one that "proved" that Terry Pendleton is a terrible hitting coach--was not meant to be. He's hitting just .259 / .310 / .401, with 0.3 WAR, which is just... well, the same as the past few years. I guess TP wasn't the problem after all.

Starting pitching matchups, stat of the series, and some spider graphs after the jump...

Pitching Matchups

Friday, 7:00 ET: Tommy Hanson (8-5, 4.19 ERA, 3.38 FIP) vs. R.A. Dickey (6-1, 2.62 ERA, 3.01 FIP)

Big Red looks to build off of his excellent last start, in which he gave up only 1 (unearned) run on 5 hits and 2 walks in 6.2 innings. He has had 3 terrible starts this year that have skewed his ERA, but has also been dominant at times.

Dickey, a 35-year-old knuckleballer, has experienced the greatest success of his career so far in 2010. His unexpectedly awesome performance has surprised many and given the Mets a huge boost. I wouldn't expect it to continue all season, though; Dickey has never put up a full-season ERA below 4.62 or a FIP below 4.31. He's likely just been on a good run that will eventually come to a crashing halt. Of course, that doesn't mean that we'll hit him on Friday... He could easily shut down our Heywardless lineup. But I wouldn't bet against Brian McCann taking him deep once or twice, either.

Saturday, 4:00 ET: Tim Hudson (8-4, 2.44 ERA, 4.30 FIP) vs. Mike Pelfrey (10-3, 3.39 ERA, 3.84 FIP)

Huddy looks to continue his great work in game 2. He has yet to have a bad start, and continues to boast the highest groundball rate (67.8%) in the FanGraphs era (2002 onward).

He'll be going up against the guy that some consider to be the Mets' new ace. Pelfrey certainly has a gaudy record and ERA, but really he is not any different than he's been the last two years. That is, a passable #2 starter, but not an ace. Really the only difference between this year and last (when he had an ERA above 5) is that his luck has been better. His BABIP has dropped from .321 to .298 and his HR/FB has dropped from 9.5% to 6.8%. His 2010 BABIP is normal, but the HR/FB rate is very low and should go up... hopefully on Saturday.

Sunday, 1:00 ET: Derek Lowe (9-7, 4.40 ERA, 4.12 FIP) vs. Johan Santana (6-5, 3.15 ERA, 3.67 FIP)

Lowe has been pretty good in his last 5 starts (2.97 ERA), though he only has a 1-2 record in that span. Why only 1 win? Well, he's received only 10 runs of support in those 5 starts--and 6 were in 1 game (unsurprisingly, that was his only win in this stretch). What happened to the "Derek Lowe is pitching so we know we're going to score 8 runs" theory? I hope it's not dead!

Speaking of poor run support, Johan Santana has received the 5th-worst support in the majors this year (3.30 RS/9). In fact, he's had 3 games in which he has given up 0 runs and still not gotten a win! That helps explain his lackluster 6-5 record. (If Jeff Schultz wrote for a New York paper, he'd be giving Santana a huge THUMBS DOWN.) Hopefully Lowe can stifle the Mets to continue Santana's run support troubles. He's not as good as he was with the Twins, but he's still an excellent pitcher, and we'll probably need Lowe to bring his A game.

The Braves do have a few guys who've hit Santana well, led by Matt Diaz (.522 / .542 / .696 in 24 PAs) and Troy Glaus (.346 / .438 / .692 in 34 PAs). Everyone should hope that Bobby doesn't start Omar Infante on Sunday, though: he's hitting just .107 / .161 / .107 in 31 PAs against Santana, despite being a right-handed hitter. Here's a case when playing the "percentages" is a bad, bad, bad idea.

Stat of the Series

Don't worry too much if the Braves lose the first game of this series. Why? The Braves are 5-6-2 in series in which they lose the first game. In fact, since May 10th, they are actually 4-1-2 in series when losing the first game. That is some excellent resiliency.

This resiliency is made all the more impressive when you consider the teams that the Braves have come back to win series against: the Padres, Twins, Rays, Marlins, and Phillies. In addition, 4 of those 5 series were on the road. That ability to bounce back from losses against tough teams is a great sign; you need to be able to do that to win in the playoffs.

Here are the Braves' records in each game of a series:
1st game: 15-13 (.536)
2nd game: 20-8 (.714) and 10-3 (.769) after a loss
3rd game: 14-12 (.538)
4th game: 1-2 (.333)

Question of the Series

So how does the Braves' offense look, compared to preseason fan projections?

Let's find out. In the graphs below, the red represents the preseason fan projections from FanGraphs. The blue represents the actual stats from the first half. Let's start with the Braves' catchers.

Cs_midseason_medium

The preseason projections thought that Brian McCann and David Ross would have an isolated power (ISO) 30% better than league average; in actuality, they have "only" put up a +11% figure. Part of this is due to McCann's eye-related troubles and part is due to Ross's surprising 0 home runs so far. Ross' AVG is higher than projected, though.

Mac and Ross have compensated for this relatively low (but still above average) power by walking more. In fact, they've been walking a TON. Ross has always walked a lot (and is walking in 14.5% of his PAs this year), but this year McCann has raised his game (13.4%; previous career high: 9.9%). Because of this, McCann's OBP is actually higher than his projected OBP despite the fact that his batting average is 30+ points lower than projected. 

Bottom line: these guys were supposed to be the best catching tandem in baseball, and they have been, though in a slightly different way than we all thought.

Now, the infielders:

Ifs_midseason_medium

The fans seem to have nailed our infield's strengths (walking a lot, not striking out, hitting for a good average) and weaknesses (not having a lot of power). Fortunately, our guys have managed to exceed projections in all four areas. For this, we can thank Martin Prado's phenomenal year, Troy Glaus' injection of power, Brooks Conrad's out-of-nowhere contributions, and (surprise) Yunel Escobar's newfound plate discipline.

Escobar has a 12.5% walk rate this year, easily a career high. He's actually walked 5 more times than he's struck out. Joining him in that exclusive club is Chipper Jones, who has 50 walks to 38 strikeouts. While those two certainly haven't hit for the average or power that we expected, they have found ways to contribute to the offense, which is commendable.

Finally, here's the chart for our outfielders. I recommend that you put the children to bed before looking at this graph. It's frightening.

Ofs_midseason_medium

The fans cannot be entirely blamed for the fact that the Braves' outfielders' actual performance has been so different from its projections. For one thing, they could not project Heyward's stats (I used the average of his CHONE and Bill James projections). For another, who would have predicted that 3 of the Braves' 4 main outfielders would all completely lose the ability to play baseball? In addition, the projections did not have Eric Hinske spending much time in the outfield.

On the plus side, Hinske and Heyward have led the outfield to an excellent walk rate (anyone else seeing a pattern there?). But those two guys have also contributed to the poor strikeout rate, though Nate McLouth is the main culprit there. McLouth's .169 average hamstrings the AVG figure, too.

Somehow, the Braves have managed to hit for even less power than projected, despite Heyward and Hinske having very good ISOs. We can blame this on Melky Cabrera's penchant for hitting choppers, Matt Diaz's power outage (which hopefully is at an end now), and the presence of Gregor Blanco on the roster. Gregor's played well, but let's face it--he has no power at all. Omar Infante has also hit terribly when playing in the outfield, by the way (he has done his best hitting when playing shortstop).

All in all, this is a Braves lineup without a ton of power (7% less than the NL average overall), but one that hits for a decent average (3% above average) and walks a TON (27% above average). They also don't strike out very much (8% better than average). Anyone who thinks Terry Pendleton is a terrible hitting coach should take a look at the Braves' walk rates. They have 6 regulars who are walking at least 12.5% of the time. Chipper ranks 1st in MLB in walk rate; Heyward is 13th, Glaus 16th, McCann 21st, and Escobar 31st. That is not an accident, folks.

Our hitting has not been perfect this year. We've had our share of disappointing performances. But overall, it'd be hard to complain too much with the results. We may need to add another outfielder (depending on how Heyward's wrist bounces back after the break), but we don't have a lot of needs, and we're sitting in a great position as we approach the all-star break.

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