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Atlanta Braves continue summer struggles, wilt in July

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Some good but a lot of bad transpired in the season's fourth month.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The start of summer could have been better for the Braves. Its continuation offered much of the same, with some exciting highs but a plethora of lows. As they head into the season's last third, the Braves find themselves with the league's seventh-worst record, nine games out of a playoff spot and closer to the Phillies (to whom they've lost two straight) than to the Nationals in record. It was, at times, a dismal month, but let's try to focus on the highlights lest we go insane. I wrote last month that June 2015 was the worst non-September month for the Braves since April 2010 (and only the 2011 and 2014 Septembers were worse). July 2015 was slightly worse than June 2015, so it's added a bit of insult to insult. In any case...

Off the Field

Before getting into the performances of the month, it makes sense to acknowledge some of the bigger off-field action. As July features the waiver trade deadline and a flurry of activity nearly every season, the Braves were similarly embroiled in some player swapping activities. First, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson were shipped off to the Mets for a couple of low-level pitching prospects. Then, Alex Wood, Jose Peraza (who hadn't yet played an inning with the big-league team), Jim Johnson, and Luis Avilan were traded to the Dodgers in exchange for Hector Olivera, Paco Rodriguez, a low-level, high-upside minor league arm in Zach Bird, and a late first-round draft pick.

Earlier in the month, Shelby Miller was elected as the Braves' lone representative to the All-Star Game. He didn't pitch.

Lastly, while this happened on the field, Jason Grilli suffered a season-ending injury on July 11 in Colorado. It was tough to watch both literally and figuratively, and put somewhat of an exclamation point on the pivot of the season from "kinda bad" to "really bad."

Series by Series

As is evident from the below, there was a bit of whiplash in the Braves' July performances. The Braves reeled off three straight series wins at the beginning of July for the first time all season (and it was the first time they had even won back-to-back series since the first two series of the year). However, they have also been swept in two of their last five series, and only won one of those.

  • Won last two games against Nationals (had lost first game on last day of June)
  • Won two of three against Phillies
  • Won two of three in Milwaukee
  • Swept in a four-game series in Colorado
  • Lost two of three to the Cubs
  • Won two of three (!) against the Dodgers
  • Lost two of three in St. Louis
  • Swept in three games in Baltimore
  • Have lost first two games of four-game series in Philadelphia

July by the Numbers

  • 10-16 record (46-57 overall)
  • On pace for 72 wins, projected for 71 wins. (Note, this is the first month in which both the Braves' actual record and their projections have coincided with their preseason projections. I know there's some contention about the usefulness or accuracy of projections but the 2015 Braves are making a good case for why one shouldn't let early-season performances set in stone beliefs about a team's expected performance the rest of the way.) The Braves have the 4th-worst run differential in baseball and the second-worst SRS (run differential adjusted for schedule). The fact that they can't consistently beat the Phillies (they are now 5-6 against them this season and have outscored them in head-to-head contests by just one run) is somewhat alarming.
  • Offense: dreadful 81 wRC+ for the month, 4th-worst in MLB and 3rd-worst in NL. Over the last two weeks (i.e., half of July), the Braves have had the worst offense in baseball, with a 62 wRC+. Note that when baserunning is included into the calculations, the Braves have the worst offense in the NL and second-worst in MLB for July, second only in badness to the Athletics.
  • Defense: 8th-worst in MLB, 4th-worst in NL (by UZR). Andrelton Simmons kept doing the expected but Eury Perez somehow managed to give away more runs on defense than Simmons saved. It's probably just tiny sample weirdness, but that's some kind of achievement.
  • Total position player value: 2nd-worst in MLB, worst in NL, again second just to the Athletics (who were below replacement level as a team as far as position players go in July). "Fun" fact: there were more Braves position players who posted sub-replacement level performances in July than there were players who posted over-replacement level performances.
  • Rotation: ERA - 19th in MLB, 12th in NL; FIP - 21st in MLB, 13th in NL; xFIP - 23rd in MLB, 13th in NL
  • Bullpen: ERA - 13th in MLB, 7th in NL (heh); FIP - 13th in MLB, 8th in NL; xFIP - 15th in MLB, 8th in NL.
  • Total pitcher value: 21st in MLB, 11th in NL.
Given the above, the Braves were dreadful on the position player side and below average on the pitching side. Given this, it's not surprising that they had the 3rd-worst record for all teams in June. Amusingly, the team with the worst record, the Rockies, swept the Braves in four games in Colorado... in July.

Okay, enough depression for a while.

Big Damn Hero for July 2015 - Position Players: AJ Pierzynski

In a month where offensive production stagnated for much of the team, the 38-year-old AJ Pierzynski tore it up in July with a .359/.390/.500 line, good for a stellar 148 wRC+. He hit two homers and drove in seven runs, and while his line was surely aided by a .366 BABIP, 30 percent of his batted balls went for liners. Something fairly telling about the team's offensive performance this month is that despite reaching base nearly 40 percent of time, Pierzynski managed to score just three runs and drive in just seven for the month. AJ has definitely found the fountain of youth, though: he keeps hitting and hitting and will likely put up his best season since 2012 and third-best overall at this rate (unless he gets traded in August and has to take up a reserve role). Pretty amazing when you think about it.

Big Damn Hero for July 2015 - Starting Pitchers: Matt Wisler

As a preface, I should point out that I'm assigning Big Damn Hero awards here, and not "most valuable" or "best" monikers. Sure, usually, those things all dovetail. But in this case, while Shelby Miller was a better pitcher in July than Matt Wisler, I think he was less heroic.

Wisler gutted through five starts in July and persevered through a lot of peaks and valleys. In Washington, he allowed one hit and five walks while pitching into the sixth, somehow keeping the Nats off the board. He kept the Rockies to two runs in six innings at Coors, giving the Braves a great chance to win until the usual implosion from the bullpen late in the contest. Most recently, he pitched the Braves over the Cardinals by allowing just two runs in seven innings. Shelby Miller was also great, but he got trashed by both the Phillies and Rockies in July, while Wisler gave the Braves a chance to win even in his relative worse starts against the Dodgers and Brewers this month (4 runs and 3 runs allowed, respectively).

Overall, Matt Wisler threw up a 3.30 ERA and a 3.98 FIP for the month across 30 innings (6 innings a start on average). He struck out 24 to his 12 walks, and allowed three homers in the process.

I expect great things from Wisler in the future, and hopefully he keeps up that nice roll he's been on as the season winds down.

Big Damn Hero for July 2015 - Relief Pitchers: Arodys Vizcaino

After returning from an unfortunate PED-related suspension, Vizcaino lit the Braves relief world on fire. He allowed just one run in his nine innings of work, with eight strikeouts and four walks. But moreover, that one run was allowed in relative garbage time (the Braves were already down two at the time), and the remainder of his appearances were shutdown affairs, quite literally, at that: he recorded five shutdowns in his ten tries (a shutdown is an appearance where a reliever enhances his team's chance of winning the game by six percent or more).

Some of Vizcaino's biggest fist-pump moments this July were when he coaxed a double play from Aramis Ramirez in his first appearance while the Brewers had the tying run on base, getting three outs against the vaunted Dodgers lineup after Andrew McKirahan had allowed the first two hitters to reach base, and shutting down the Cardinals to preserve a one-run lead in the 8th.

Jason Grilli also pitched amazingly for the first part of the month before his season-ending injury, and Jim Johnson continued his run of incredibly solid relieving and closing. But Vizcaino came right in as though he hadn't missed a beat and blew away many of the batters he faced. He may slide into the closer's role now, and while that might be a meaningless distinction as I'm not sure how many games the Braves will win going forward, I look forward to seeing how he fares with the added pressure.

My Favorite Moments of July 2015

I'll be honest, this was way harder than June 2015, and that was pretty hard as it is. But here we go, let's relieve some of the awesomeness we were privy to this past month. (Only three this time, as I honestly could not find a fourth or fifth one that I was all that excited about.)

Everyone Loves a Walkoff

This one was pretty simple: the Braves went into the bottom of the 9th tied 1-1 against the Nationals. Max Scherzer, who had been obliterating teams left and right coming into the game, was still on the hill as the Braves ventured into the land of potential walkoffs. Pedro Ciriaco singled to short to start the game, and Jace Peterson bunted him over to second. Cameron Maybin, who scuffled in July, got the month off to a good start by hitting Scherzer's 105th pitch of the game:

The Nats tried to instill some controversy by questioning whether the ball was truly fair, but to no avail: the Braves captured a victory on Maybin's walkoff single.

If At First You Don't Succeed, Eu-ry Better Try Again

Eury Perez was not having a good game against the Cubs.. He had already gone 0-for-2, and in the 6th, he had grounded to short with the bases loaded in a 2-2 tie to toss away a scoring chance in an inning where the Braves had already knocked Cubbie starter Kyle Hendricks out of game. You usually get chances for redemption in baseball, but Perez's chance came two innings later in veritably the same situation, and he capitalized:

The huge hit would make winners of the Braves and Arodys Vizcaino. Amusingly, this was Vizcaino's second career W, with his first coming in 2011, also as a Brave. He had gone 22 appearances across two trades and nearly four years between wins.

The Adonis of WPA

The Braves went into the 9th inning of a game at Camden Yards in a scoreless tie with the Orioles. If they didn't score, they'd be in walkoff territory, which is not a great place to be given the way the bullpen has performed this season. The Oriole closer, Zach Britton, started the frame off with a rare strikeout of July 2015 Braves MVP AJ Pierzynski. Not long after, this happened:

The thing about this blow, which was probably the most exciting thing to happen to the Braves this month as far as single plays go, is that it didn't even look all that hard hit. Off the bat, I would have sworn it was a medium-depth fly ball, likely caught in foul territory. But instead it was a ball that cranked well over the right field railing and gave the Braves a huge lead. Jim Johnson only had to get three outs to send the Braves to their hotel rooms with a win, but alas, he could not, and the Braves would lose on a Matt Wieters walkoff shot a couple of innings later. But still, what an awesome shot by Garcia, big damn heroing up and down the block.

The Worst (In-Game) Moment of July 2015

(No, I'm not going to put Grilli's injury here. That was grueling and no one wants to see it again. Though I'm not sure anyone wants to see this, either.)

The Braves were on the verge of sweeping a Brewers team that had been pretty hot prior to the series, in Milwaukee to boot. With a two-run lead in the 8th, the Braves called on Luis Avilan to get them through the frame. Avilan allowed a single to Shane Peterson (a lefty) to lead off the inning, and then another to Gerardo Parra (another lefty). Despite the fact that Jonathan Lucroy was due up, Avilan was not removed for a right-handed hurler. Miraculously, Avilan struck out Lucroy, bringing Carlos Gomez to the plate. Apparently doubling down on... something... the decision-makers in the Braves' dugout left Avilan in to face Gomez. It's hard to say that the result was unpredictable:

Gomez turned a two-run deficit into a one-run advantage and denied the Braves a sweep. Though he didn't know it, the Braves wouldn't win another game until the All-Star Break after his big blow. I still don't understand why Avilan was left in to face two righties, especially when Arodys Vizcaino was called into the game after the homer anyway.

The Braves will play out August and September with a fairly obliterated roster. Let's hope they can still deliver some excitement and exhilaration in the process.