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Braves improve, but still struggle in May

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The season's second month was much kinder than the first, but the Braves still remained cellar-bound as spring turned to summer. Also, there was a managerial change or something.

Julio Teheran was the man in May.
Julio Teheran was the man in May.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

They say that April showers bring May flowers, and in the case of the 2016 Braves, April showers replete with losses and poor performances culminated in a managerial shakeup in May. Let me apologize for that, that was terrible. Ahem. In any case, as some of you "helpfully" pointed out, the May recap could really be summed up as "Fredi got fired," as that particular moment of catharsis for many a Braves fan may end up being the highlight of the 2016 season.

But hey, in reality, a lot of baseball was played, and not all of it was entirely dreadful. So let's take a stroll down short term memory lane and look back on a month with ups, downs, and lots of stuff in between.

Overall, the Braves went 10-18 in May. Not great, but they doubled their win total from April, while losing the same amount of games. Progress is progress. Two whole teams (Twins, Reds) had worse months than the Braves, and the pitching rebounded to be surprisingly, impressively strong. The position players on the roster, hampered by injury and ineffectiveness, continued to plod along, putting up worse production than a hypothetical replacement level team. But the pitching!

Series by Series

  • Won the tail end of a series in Chicago against the Cubs (lost the first game, middle game rained out)
  • Lost two of three in New York to the Mets
  • Swept by the Diamondbacks at home
  • Lost two of three to the Phillies
  • Lost two of three in Kansas City
  • Lost three of four to the Pirates (farewell, Fredi Gonzalez)
  • Finally won a series at home by taking two of three from the Phillies
  • Swept at home by the Brewers
  • Won a home series (two of three) against the Marlins
  • Won a game, then lost a game, against the Giants at home (four game series in total)

No obnoxiously long losing streaks in May, just two four-game skids. Almost like a tuft of relief, that.

May Team Stats by the Numbers

  • 10-18 record (15-36 overall, on pace for a better record than the '62 Mets or the 2003 Tigers, so not as interesting as the dire prognosis in April)
  • Current Pythagorean Expectation (overall) of 17-34, leading the Reds by a game.
  • Amazingly once again, not last in runs scored, despite the terrible offense. Thanks to the Phillies for the assist.
  • Offensive production: not the worst in the majors (!) with a 74 wRC+ and a .235/.300/.346 line for non-pitchers. At least the slugging was above .300 for the month, even if the OBP somehow fell by .009 from April. Thanks again, Phillies.
  • Defensive production: we're still operating somewhat blind here with small samples and lags in updating the metrics, but the Braves were squarely towards the bottom here, but not egregiously bad, with about -6 runs total (good for 25th in the league).
  • Total position player value: once again, below replacement level, and worst in the league for the second month in a row, this time at -0.9 fWAR. It's no good when the stats suggest your entire team's production could be superseded by replacement level players, but that's what we saw in May. To be fair, I find it hard to argue this, as the combination of bad defense and abominable offense leads to that conclusion fairly well.
  • Rotation: a bright spot! 5th-best ERA and 10th-best FIP among MLB teams. The xFIP is fairly low at 20th, so there may have been some homer suppression luck dragons flying about, but there were a lot of positive strides taken.
  • Bullpen: much like the rotation, considerably improved from the fire-and-brimstone that rained down in April. While the relief corps were about average at giving up runs (18th in ERA, 10th in NL), the FIP was a very shiny 3.23 (5th in MLB, 3rd in NL) and the xFIP was 6th (again, 3rd in NL) at 3.61. Overall, by leverage-weighted value, the bullpen clocked in at 9th in MLB (4th in NL), which is not so surprising given the team's overall performance.
  • Total pitching value: 9th in MLB, 7th in NL. A huge turnaround from the bottom-five-ish performance in April (mostly due to the bad relief pitching that month).

So, there you have it. The position players were again, really bad, but the pitching improved and was very respectable.

Biggest May Impact - Position Players

It feels a little weird to type this, but Gordon Beckham really carried the day (well, the month) in this regard for the Braves, being one of the few bright spots during the extended 2016 stay in Atlanta's offensive doldrums. Not only that, but he managed to do so while missing the first week-plus of the month with a hamstring injury. On the topic of things that feel weird to type, Beckham put up a 144 wRC+ in May, despite the fact that he's been a well-below-average hitter for his career (84 wRC+), and was even worse in 2014 and 2015 (71, 63, respectively). Still, his .299/.405/.478 line was nothing if not shiny, and it appears the Braves will miss him once again as he may have suffered another hamstring injury as soon as the calendar turned to June.

I've mentioned Beckham's strange batted ball and contact profiles this season before, but he walked more than he struck out in May and seemed to generally deliver hits in situations where other hitters failed and flailed. He had four big games in the month, including his first game off the DL (bases-clearing double, would then score the tying run) and a pinch-hit go-ahead two-run homer against the Brewers.

A special shout-out here also goes to Chase d'Arnaud. A potentially quintessential AAAA player, d'Arnaud made hay of his .390 BABIP in the month to hit .320/.414/.440 with a 137 wRC+. Unfortunately, a lot of those hits came in fairly garbage time instances, and he somehow managed to score just three runs and drive in none despite being on base 24 times in the month. This is why runs and RBI are unreliable at best to measure stuff.

Biggest May Impact - Starting Pitchers

The Braves traded the guy I thought had the most impact in April, Jhoulys Chacin, for a minor league arm in May. The clear winner in this category for the month of May was Julio Teheran, and it remains to be seen whether he'll have the same fate in June.

But boy, Teheran was something approaching dominant in May. He made six starts, lasted at least seven innings in four of them, allowed one or zero earned runs in all but one of them, and generally threw up a 1.38 / 2.89 / 3.66 pitching line (ERA/FIP/xFIP). He allowed just two dingers and nine walks while striking out 37, shut out the Cubs for seven frames with a 9/1 K/BB ratio, shut out the Pirates while pitching into the 8th, struck out 12 Brewers while walking no one, and was generally an all-around badass. The only slight mar on his performance was a poor start against the Marlins (16 outs recorded, three runs, three walks, three strikeouts), and the fact that he continued to get no run support. The Braves won just two of the six games he started.

He was overall a top-15ish pitcher in May, and it was a welcome sight given the uneven 2015 he and the Braves endured. He's still struggling mightily against lefties (his FIP against them of 6.01 in 2016 is identical to his 2015 FIP in that split), but he's trimmed nearly a whole point off his FIP against righties (about 3.00 to about 2.10), which has made it much easier to navigate opposing lineups.

Biggest May Impact - Relief Pitchers

Yeah, it's pretty much Arodys Vizcaino. It's probably nearly always going to be Arodys Vizcaino, given that the Braves relief assortment is still pretty much "Vizcaino and who else ya got?" Vizcaino pitched in 12 games in May, including three stints longer than an inning. He allowed just five runs (three earned), walked just two guys (his two walks were in two outings where he gave up runs), struck out 18, and posted mini-Kimbrel video game numbers of 1.98 / 1.87 / 2.45. Sure, it's not below zero, but it's good enough. In appropriate "winner" fashion (heh), he garnered a victory in the only game he blew (against the Cubs on the first of the month).

His best outing was probably his two-inning stint in extra innings against the Royals, as he went six-up, six-down with a strikeout to keep the game tied (but the Braves, of course, would lose anyway).

Five Moments I liked from May 2016

Ten wins is more than five, so finding these was much easier than doing the same for April. But really, this was a month for pitching. It may be kind of hard to appreciate some of these in the moment, but we were privy to some phenomenal pitching performances in May. Let's re-live them!

Julio Teheran Dominates the Best Team in Baseball - May 1 @ Cubs

The Cubs series was really exciting, and that was even with rain taking away one of the games. And through May, the Cubs had only lost 14 games, with one of them coming at the hands of the lowly Braves. A huge reason for that loss was the way Julio Teheran straight-up dominated them on May 1. Seven innings, three baserunners, nine strikeouts. Sure, the bullpen blew it, but the Braves came back. In any case, Teheran just dazzled.

Three Cheers for Folty - May 14 @ Royals
Mike Foltynewicz had a bad, bad first start in 2016, following up on a less-than-ideal 2015 season that saw him work through ineffectiveness and scary injuries. His second start, against the Diamondbacks, was waaaaay better, as he allowed just two runs in seven innings, punching out eight, and most importantly not walking a single batter. So, of course, everyone was totally unprepared for his gem against the World Series champs: eight innings, seven hits, zero walks once again, and four strikeouts. It showed he could manage a game even without overpowering hitters, and gave him a plethora of awesome moments to build on as he tries to work himself into a groove.

Folty continues to battle some inconsistency and growing pains, but he's had a handful of starts where he's showcased the vast reserves of potential that made him such an intriguing acquisition.

I am including Jeff Francoeur in this list - May 8 vs D-backs
The Braves had been dominated by Patrick Corbin for seven innings before getting something going against the Arizona bullpen. With one out and the tying runs on base, Jeff Francoeur came to the plate. The Diamondbacks maneuvered to have him face a righty rather than a lefty, but for once, it didn't work out so well.

I like this because it's the quintessential Francoeur. It's an offspeed pitch low-and-outside, not a strike, and Frenchy swings at it in a 1-2 count. However, it's not buried enough that he, with his ill-advised pull swing, can't yank it into the left field corner and tie the game. It must have been incredibly "ARGHHH" for the other team, but that's baseball. And Jeff Francoeur's doofy grin always seals it for me: I may really dislike him as a player and use of a roster spot, but the guy is just so excited whenever he does anything well.

One hit, one win, one Wisler - May 3 @ Mets
Okay, back to pitching. Basically, Matt Wisler one-hit the Mets for eight innings. He walked two and only struck out four, and maybe he was not as in control of the game as the box score showed (he benefited from some balls hit hard but near fielders, and so on), but he sure didn't act like it, and it was amazing to watch. Wisler straight-up breezed into his first win of 2016 as the Braves, for once, scored some runs to let him cruise. He dispatched the Mets on 106 pitches, set up a save for Vizcaino, and induced two double plays while working around an error behind him. Enjoy this one, folks.

Teheranosaurus Takes a Bite out of the Pirates - May 18 @ Pirates
Let's end this happy reminiscence session where we started: with another great Julio Teheran outing. We had the Cubs first, and another NL Central team also appeared on the list of teams Julio has roughed up this year. In this start, Teheran pitched into the eight, allowing five hits and zero walks while striking out three. The Pirates had beat up on Braves pitching throughout this series (they scored eight, eight, and 12 runs in the other three games...) so this was a top-flight pitching performance against a strong opponent, and Teheran did not disappoint in the least.

Sadly, this was his first official "win" of the year, despite his good work, because the Braves are the Braves. But boy, this was another great outing to watch.

Irrationally Irritating Moment of May 2016

Chris Herrmann has eleven career homers. He hit two in the same game against the Braves. I think I've said enough. But, in case I haven't, you should know that one of them came with two outs, on an 0-2 pitch, in the 11th inning of a tie game. A game that the Braves had rallied back to tie thanks to the silly Francoeur double noted above.

Thanks for nothing, Chris Herrmann. Thanks for nothing, Jim Johnson. Thanks for nothing, Chris Johnson, just because I accidentally typed your name since it's a composite of the two guys that combined for this irrationally irritating moment.

Seriously, look at that 0-2 pitch! It was the worst pitch ever! Argh!