Braves' First Half in Review

Scott Cunningham

Repeat after me: "There's no place like home. There's no place like home."

54-41, 1st in NL East by 6 games

Just keep repeating "54 wins." When you’re feeling lonely, repeat "54 wins." When you’re feeling gloomy, repeat "54 wins." When you’re feeling happy, repeat "54 wins." When you’re remembering how odd a first half the Braves have had, repeat "54 wins."

The season certainly hasn’t always been pretty. Injuries flooded the gates from the get-go, and the once formidable bullpen lost two key cogs in Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to Tommy John surgery before the season even started. A few days into the season, Cristhian Martinez was lost due to a shoulder injury that eventually needed surgery. And the bullpen that had incredible depth was now down to Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan, and the crowd.

But Justin Upton quickly made everyone forget about that. After a torrid Spring Training with 6 home runs, the younger Upton kept it going into the early part of the season, leading the Braves to a 12-1 start on the year. While he couldn’t possibly keep up his early pace, the .298/402/.734 line with 12 home runs pegged him as the early NL MVP, and he was almost single-handedly holding up the team in its 17-10 April as Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton, and Jason Heyward got off to slow starts and Freddie Freeman was lost to injury.

The "almost" there is reserved for the incredible start to Evan Gattis’ career. While there were significant questions as to how Gattis’ minor-league offensive success and catching skills would translate to the majors, Gattis has resoundingly answered in the affirmative to this point in his career, hitting .246/.310/.563 with 14 home runs. He was a boon to the lineup while Brian McCann was recovering from shoulder surgery, and he has served as an excellent bench option/spot starter since, with 4 pinch-hit home runs that came at crucial parts of games. Gattis, unfortunately, strained his oblique in the middle of June and has only since returned, but he made his mark in his 2+ months in the majors, much like Jason Heyward did at the beginning of his career.

Speaking of Heyward, the 23-year-old right fielder has had a rough start to the season. He just had terrible luck on balls in play, but an appendectomy at the end of April left him wondering how he angered the baseball gods. Once he returned, the offense slowly returned with a strong June, though July has been unkind 10 games in.

While one 23-year-old can’t wait for the second half to start, 23-year-old Freddie Freeman wants to keep his first half success going. Hitting .308/.386/.468, the left-handed first baseman won the Fan Vote for the last spot in the All-Star Game by a landslide. Freeman rebounded from an early injury to provide the offensive boost the Braves needed when Justin Upton cooled.

Justin’s brother, B.J., has been cool since the season started, however. The Braves gave the older Upton the largest free-agent contract in franchise history before the season started, but B.J. was atrocious to begin the season, illustrated by a strikeout rate that neared 40% and a batting average still 20 points below the Mendoza line. He’s largely recovered over the past month+, and while he’s currently performed below replacement-level, he’ll look to have a strong second half after he returns from the DL.

Another guy looking for a strong second half on offense is Andrelton Simmons, but despite the rough start at the plate, he’s continued to be a whiz defensively. Even accounting for the offense, FanGraphs still has Simmons as the third-most valuable position player on the Braves.

The man playing alongside Simmons’ spectacular defense is on the other side of the defensive quality spectrum. But Chris Johnson can hit. His .415 BABIP won’t continue, but it seems like Johnson has been lacing line drives and finding holes all season, being one of the better 8th hitters around. Despite the atrocious defense, Johnson has been a nice pickup from the Upton-Prado trade, and he's been good enough that the Braves felt they could trade Juan Francisco and still be okay at third.

The Braves have, of course, had a few other nice pickups. Jordan Schafer proved the doubters wrong with a strong first half, improving everything about his game, and he’s currently missed as the reserve center fielder, which wasn’t something anticipated at the beginning of the season. In a similar fashion, Ramiro Peña provided a spark off the bench and in the field, and he, too, will be missed as he’s out for the season. The other big pickup has been Gerald Laird, who has unexpectedly sat the bench for most of the season while making the most of the time he does get.

On the other side of the ball, the Braves' pitching staff has been excellent. Mike Minor has continued his success from the second half of 2012, and he is unquestionably the top pitcher in the rotation. With improved strikeout and walk rates along with 122 innings, Minor has been worth over 2 wins so far, which easily outdistances anyone else on the staff.

The starter seeming to close in on Minor is, surprisingly, Julio Teheran. After a miserable 2012 campaign in which he failed in a repeat of AAA, Teheran has rebounded to post a very solid first half. The 22-year-old right-hander had a little bit of a rough start to the season as he worked out his secondary pitches, but since that point in the season, he’s been a revelation - all of sudden throwing a ton of strikes and using a slider/curveball combo instead of the changeup that gained him his prospect status. It remains to be seen how he’ll encounter the league the second time around, but he’s been the second-best pitcher on the staff so far, when most expected him to be the fifth-best.

Rolling around the rest of the rotation is a bit of a mystery, though they’ve essentially made all of their starts and remained healthy. Paul Maholm started the season on fire, but a decent segment of the population wouldn’t mind seeing him traded. Tim Hudson has had good peripherals, but his results have been the worst in the rotation. And Kris Medlen has been unable to come close to repeating his 2012 breakout as the command has been nowhere near what it was. While they haven’t been sexy, these three continue to take the ball every time, and doing that and doing it fairly well is a lot more than most other rotations could say.

Now what about that bullpen that started the season in tatters? It’s been remarkable. Craig Kimbrel has remained one of the top closers in baseball, and while it hasn’t been up to his 2012 performance, he’s still absolutely dominant. Jordan Walden, however, has been the real catch. Despite being injured for parts of the season, Walden has been incredible as the top set-up man, even sometimes bridging the 7th and 8th instead of just the 8th.

After those two - or I guess technically before those two - Alex Wood and Luis Avilan have done well as the main lefties in the ‘pen. Avilan began the year a little slow, but he’s been much better over the past month or so. Wood was surprisingly promoted, and while there’s still some question as to his ultimate role, he’s proven he can handle major league hitting at least one time through the order.

Since the 12-1 start, the Braves have "only" played 3 games above .500, but taking away those games is like taking away anyone’s hottest stretch - hint: it’ll make them look worse. They’ve played above .500 every month except for the beginning of July, and they remain ahead of the second-place Washington Nationals.

It hasn’t always been pretty - there have been injuries, a lot of strikeouts, and some massive slumps - but all teams have those. The key is that the Braves have been good enough to weather those storms, win 54 games, and have the second-best run differential in the NL and fifth-best overall.

Again, it hasn’t always been "pretty," but it’s "working."

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