Did you know that at 14-9, this is the best April record that the Braves have had since 2007? The downfall of that year's team was the lack of starting pitching depth, and if all the cards fall right in 2012, the Braves might be able to avoid such a fallacy.
Anyway, it's that time of the baseball season again, with the first month officially in the books, to recognize the best and the worst of the Atlanta Braves for the month of April. To those who aren't familiar how this works, it's fairly simple; we have six categories, and between an odd number of us Talking Chop writers, we vote on them. Statistics are mostly the basis for choices, but we also don't ignore the little things either.
So, here are the best and the worst of April, as brought to you by Talking Chop.
Most Valuable Player
(yes, we're puzzled to why you still have a Houston Astros cap too)
#24 / Center Field / Atlanta Braves
Dec 27, 1982
Credentials: Played in every single inning throughout all 22 games through the month of April, and after a slow start through the first six games, the Bournstar flipped the switch and set the rest of the month on fire. In a team leading 105 plate appearances, Michael Bourn hit .337/.400/.411 for a team best .811 OPS among starting players. Bourn's 32 hits leads the team, and he crossed home plate 13 times. He struck out just 14 times and nursed out ten walks, ground into zero double plays, and swiped seven bags. His .359 wOBA and 130 wRC+ were second on the team, but his +1.3 WAR was the best on the Braves.
I'm sure most of us are aware that this is Michael Bourn's contract year, and as often is the case with many soon-to-be-free agents, some players tend to go all out, with hopes of impressing would-be suitors to pony up the big bucks for their services. Now we won't discuss whether or not Bourn will be a Brave next year, but if he's going to play like this for as long as he can for the Braves, only good things can come from it. His .395 BABIP says he's getting a little luck, but Bourn is actually hitting fewer ground balls, and more line drives than his career norms, and if he can maintain such trends, would yield positive results.
Most Valuable Pitcher
Credentials: Made four starts in which the Braves went 3-1 in, with Beachy notching a 2-1 record in the process. In 25.2 innings, Beachy held 102 batters to a paltry .191/.248/.255 batting line and struck out 20, for a K/9 rate of 7.0. His ERA of 1.05 was best amongst starters, and he had a FIP of 2.71, also tops amongst starters. He walked just seven and allowed just one homer throughout the month, and a keen WHIP of 0.974. Beachy was worth +0.6 WAR in April, and contributed a cool +0.161 WPA on the month.
It was actually a pretty tight decision going into the end of the month, but Mike Minor's poor performance to close out the month pretty much tanked what would have been a shoe-in. Tommy Hanson also notched +0.6 WAR on the month as well, and had higher K/9 than Beachy did, but he also walked a higher rate, and was a little plagued by the homer-bug throughout the month. What it really came to was Beachy's stinginess as well as superiority in preventing hits that garners him with our April award.
Jonny Venters Award for Relief Excellence
Credentials: Appeared in nine games and pitched a total of 8.2 innings. 38 batters fared a dismal .219/.324/.250 and struck out 17 times, which translates into a jaw-dropping 17.7 K/9 rate. There was a stretch of four appearances where Jonny struck out seven consecutive batters, and then nine out of ten. Zero runners crossed home plate on Jonny's watch for a clean 0.00 ERA and a 0.76 FIP, best amongst the relief corp. Jonny Venters also was worth +0.4 WAR on the month while contributing +0.540 WPA in April, and he earned five holds, and even vulture two wins too.
You know what the scary thing is? These are Craig Kimbrel's numbers: 9.0 IP, .212/.333/.242 against, 16 K versus 6 BB, 16.0 K/9, 2.00 ERA, 1.39 FIP, +0.4 WAR, +0.848 WPA, 8 saves. Most of these numbers are gaudy and fairly unbelievable. Yet Jonny Venters was literally just a hair neater than Craig Kimbrel was. Like the year prior, I think everyone feels comfortable with these two flamethrowers at the back end of the bullpen trying to one-up the other, because if the results are anything like April on a regular basis, the only losers are the other teams.
David Ross Award for Off-the-Bench Excellence
Credentials: In just 18 plate appearances over a span of six games, David Ross hit .333/.444/.667, with three of his five total hits being for extra bases (two 2B, one HR). Ross the Boss drove in four runs, and walked three times versus three strikeouts. Technically, his OPS of 1.111 is highest on the team, but again, 18 plate appearances. It's another small sample size, but snaring two out of five would-be-thieves is good for a 40% caught stealing percentage. Overall, his +0.4 WAR in the month is tied for fifth best on the entire team, despite the small number of games he has appeared it.
C'mon, it's not like the award is named after him without reason. Enjoy David Ross while we have him, because having such a talented "backup" catcher such as him is a grand luxury that so few teams can boast.
Least Valuable Pitcher
(No, not Chad Durbin, but we'll use his image anyway because since Jair is in the minor leagues, his widget has mysteriously disappeared)
#49 / Pitcher / Atlanta Braves
Jan 29, 1986
Jair made four starts in which the Braves went 2-2 in, but in all honesty, the two wins were double-digit shootouts that the Braves were fortunate to be the victors in. We're mostly going to give benefit of the doubt that something was clearly wrong with Jair Jurrjens in April, whether it's an undisclosed injury or perhaps something not right up in the noggin, but none of it hides the fact that he was still the worst pitcher on the Braves' pitching staff last month (yes, worse than Chad Durbin). Jair was blasted to the tune of 84 batters hitting .411/.482/.685 in 16.1 innings of work, while walking 10 versus just eight strikeouts, and allowing five home runs. His unsightly ERA of 9.37 was the worst on the staff, as was his -0.5 WAR and -1.130 WPA staff (yes, all worse than Chad Durbin).
It's hard to pinpoint the biggest problem with Jair Jurrjens. The most likely culprit is simply that his velocity is down across the board, and that there's a much smaller difference between his fastball and his changeup. Whether this is the result of him not trusting his legs at the moment, or there's an injury that nobody knows about is yet to be determined, but the end result of it all is simply the fact that everyone's way better at making contact with his pitches this year, and contacting them to base hits. His groundball percentage is way down, and his flyball percentage has gone up; typically this isn't a problem with the talented outfield the Braves have, but when the flyballs are going over their heads and into the seats, then it is.
Ultimately, his poor performance led to his unfortunate demotion to AAA-Gwinnett, but we here in Braves Country are all rooting for him to figure out what's ailing him, and for him to return to the All-Star form he showed us in 2011.
Least Valuable Player
Appeared in 14 of the 22 games played in April, starting in six of them. In 29 plate appearances, Jack Wilson was a beacon of futility, putting up a putrid .115/.111/.115 batting line. He collected just three hits, all singles, and struck out seven times while walking zero times. A .150 BABIP says he was kind of unlucky, but with a flyball percentage 12% higher than his career norms and his line drive percentage down six percent indicates he's hitting too many lazy flies instead of line drives. Wilson dinged the team to a -0.359 WPA throughout the month, and amongst hitters cost the Braves -0.4 WAR, worst on the team in both accounts.
We're all aware that not much was expected of Jack Wilson coming into 2012, but this doesn't really excuse him for this kind of performance. The decline in performance that comes with age to the 34 year old veteran with 12 seasons experience is one thing, but compared to last season, he's dropped .130 points in each slash category. Anything remotely close to the stratosphere of his career average of .265/.306/.367 would be a great relief to the fans and a great contribution to the team as a whole.