Disclaimer: I was debating whether or not to belabor this point. I didn't want to seem flippant about what I think is kind of a big deal in terms of the offense underperforming, but didn't want folks to get bored while reading and miss my point. So hopefully this represents a suitable middle ground - probably less verbose than some people may be used to from me.
Suffice to say, the offense has been pretty bleh through the first two months of the 2014 season for the Braves. Last season, the Braves had crushed about 75 homers by the end of May, and they sat at 32-22 atop the NL East with a 4.5 game lead over the Nats. In 2014, the offense has only hit about 50 homers so far, and rolling around in the bottom third of all offenses while the Braves' league-best pitching (definitely best in the NL, arguably best in the majors) keeps them afloat with a 1.5 game lead over the Marlins (wtf).
Now, there's a lot of really obvious stuff to point out about the offense. Chris Johnson hasn't been doing his best Michael Flatley of BABIP impression, Heyward had a brutal start, Uggla's been worse than last year and replaced by a couple of guys who haven't fared much better at the plate, and so on. Aside from Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, and Evan Gattis, the offensive performance of the team has largely been forgettable, but that trio has actually been hitting well enough to keep the team in many games without contributions from others.
But here's the real kicker, and it's not something you'll hear about in terms of narratives (unless you've been hearing me complain about this): the Braves have had a weird, troubling, and disappointing inability to hit with men on base. And I'm not just talking about runners in scoring position here, or multiple runners on base, or anything like that. Even when a lone runner reaches first via a hit or a walk, the guys behind him suddenly transform into noodle-wielding Lilliputians. The team's wRC+ with the bases empty is 92, good for 20th in the majors. Not great, but not the end of the world. The team's wRC+ with any runner on any base is 85, only 24th. Okay, so they're somewhat worse with men on base, but, not horrible, right?
But... you shouldn't expect teams to hit at the same rate with men on base as they do with the sacks empty. That's because pitchers that allow baserunners are worse pitchers, so worse pitchers pitch more with guys on base, so everyone should hit better, on average, when there are runners on. Sure, in close-and-late situations hitters might be facing tough bullpen arms that neutralize this advantage, but the majority of runners on base, by definition, come against not-all-too-great pitchers in a game's early and middle innings. In general, this swing isn't that pronounced, but it does exist: in 2012, the wRC+ swing between these two states was +7 in favor of men on base, it was +3 in 2011 and +7 in 2010 (it was weirdly only +1 in 2013, and is only +1 so far this season). In any case, though, hitters should NOT be hitting worse with runners on base. They just shouldn't, unless it's bizarro baseball world.
Newsflash: The Braves play in bizarro baseball world.
The following table has wRC+ figures for all the Braves players with 50 PA or more in 2013, and those same players in 2014 (sorry Doumit, you're not on this list, but you only have like 40 PAs so far, so eh).
With the bases empty, J-Up, Freeman, Gattis, and B-Up have been mashing the ball way better than they did in 2013. CJ's been way worse than his 2013 version, as has Uggla; Heyward's been worse but getting better. With men on base, only the Upton brothers have outperformed their 2013 versions (and it's not like that's even hard for BJ, he's outperforming his prior-year self with a 43 wRC+ in men-on-base situations). The rightmost columns compare the "bases empty vs. man on base" split across 2013 and 2014. In 2013, Gattis, Freeman, and Heyward were the only regulars to hit better with a baserunner than sans one. In 2014, Gattis has abandoned the cause, and it's just the salt-and-pepper duo in the green shading there. But what kills me, and the real purpose of this post, is that very rightmost column. Every single regular hitter except Heyward has been considerably worse at hitting with men on base relative to bases empty in 2014 than they were in 2013. And these aren't marginal changes. Justin's wRC+ drops 30 "points," and Freeman's is 51 "points" lower! That's brutal. That's ridiculous. That's almost criminal. Now, I wasn't expecting Freeman to maintain a career 185 wRC+ with runners on base. But now that he's only somewhat better when runners are on base as opposed to Godzilla wreck yo' shit better, it hurts. And everyone else, well... mega-blah. Gattis and J-Up are just inexplicably hitting worse with men on base, by a large margin. Simmons, CJ, and BJ are hitting somewhat worse, but it still adds up.
There's just a few more things I want to share, but I'm still trying not to belabor the point. The next table has slugging percentage, with the same sets of columns. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair: again, aside from Heyward, everyone's slugging worse with men on base, and again, only Freeman and Heyward are even out-slugging their bases-empty versions. May I point out for the umpteenth time that this doesn't make sense? Bizarro baseball world, indeed.
Which brings me to my final chart, ISO. Just in case guys weren't taking their walks and hacking at bad pitches with a runner on base, I wanted to really see whether there was a power outage going on. And... yeah, there is. (Big surprise, right?)
Justin has at least joined Heyward as a regular with a better ISO split in 2014 than last year. But everyone else's ISO dip is brutal. Freddie's relative ISO is nearly 0.1 lower in 2014 than last year, as is SImmons'. Gattis and BJ are at 0.05 lower. It's not pretty.
So there you have it: we weren't great at hitting with men on base last year, and we're even worse this year. Last year, Freddie went beast mode with men on base while Gattis and Heyward chipped in, everyone else was bleh-ing it up. This year, Freddie is not quite beasting on pitches with guys on base, and Jason's trying, but his relative improvement is over a pretty mediocre overall batting line. And with Gattis providing less thunder with men on, with Simmons having an even wider split than last season (30% worse with men on base, ugh), and CJ just being worse overall, the offense has certainly empowered a certain frustration aura around the team.
There's plenty of time for all these stats to turn around, and I'm still expecting the "men on base" columns to get better for everyone that's currently hitting worse with men on base than with no one on. But until that starts happening in earnest, the offense will continue to hit roadblocks.
tl;dr == start f'in hitting doubles and homers with men on base, guys.