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Braves Flashback/Recap: June 24

Shelby Miller was awesome, but the 2015 Braves weren’t

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Well, now that some form of MLB in 2020 seems considerably more likely than previously, I guess we best get on with it. What I’m referring to, of course, is finally getting around to the 2015 season, which I’ve avoided (sometimes deliberately, sometimes not) until now. Why have I avoided the 2015 season?

Well, for one, it was the worst Braves season I’ve ever seen, and with everything going on, it’s not something I really want to think about. For another, well, let’s look at the starting lineup for this game from the Braves’ side:

This game, though, did have one great thing going for it — Shelby Miller. While most thoughts on Miller these days focus on the ridiculously lopsided trade that moved him out of Atlanta, he was pretty great in 2015. This start wasn’t one of his five best of the season, or anything, but it was still awesome. It’s just a shame that his time in a Braves uniform had to be wrapped up in everything else.

The gist: While Shelby Miller was awesome, facing the minimum through six innings, the Braves kept wasting baserunners against Jordan Zimmermann. Miller finally faltered by allowing a leadoff walk in the seventh, and Bryce Harper eventually knocked in the game’s first run. The Braves rallied in the ninth to load the bases with none out, but could only manage single run, as their game-tying event was an 8-4 double play. After a two-reliever inning nearly blew the game in the 10th, the combination of Dana Eveland and David Aardsma did blow it in the 11th, with Aardsma’s first pitch turning into a game-ending sacrifice fly from Ian Desmond.

Box scores: Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs

The set-up: The dismantled 2015 Braves were simultaneously terrible and not. The terrible was the pitching — Shelby Miller, Alex Wood, and Jason Grilli basically accounted for all of the team’s fWAR, and the hitting didn’t really make up for it in any way. Still, the team was a weirdly non-terrible 35-36 coming into this game, just three games back and in third place. They had actually had an above-.500 May, and before this road trip, had just finished a 4-1 homestand.

The Nationals, meanwhile, were the division leaders gunning for the franchise’s first-ever back-to-back playoff appearances. They had the league’s best pitching staff, by quite a bit, coming into this game, though the offense and fielding were fairly mediocre. They sat at 38-33, with a 2.5-game lead in the NL East, after taking the first game of this midweek series from the Braves.

The pitching matchup was great for this one, even if the overall contest seemed like it could be lopsided. Shelby Miller was a revelation for the Braves to this point — with 1.7 fWAR to this point in the season, he had nearly tripled his 2014 total, and was nearly at a career high (Miller put up 2.1 fWAR in 2013). He’d had a bit of a rough go of it in June, with a couple of bad outings, including his worst start of the season (six walks, 4 13 innings) to start the month, but was good in his other two recent outings, so it wasn’t a huge concern. The Nats were counting with Jordan Zimmermann, who, along with Miller, was a top 30 starter by fWAR coming into this game. Both Zimmermann and Miller had pretty identical lines, with Zimmermann having a bit of an FIP edge while Miller had a slightly better xFIP; the surface level run prevention, though, was super-different due to the former’s really high BABIP-against, while the latter had a teeny-tiny one. (Seriously, we’re talking a .100 spread in BABIP and a 1.75 spread in ERA between two guys with nearly-identical FIPs.)

How it happened: Pitching was the name of the game in this one, and it was really pretty similar for the first six innings.

For Zimmermann and the Braves bats, that meant a scattering of ineffectual baserunners. The Braves got a two-out, 0-2 single from Nick Markakis in the first. In the second, Kelly Johnson singled with one out, and Andrelton Simmons reached base on what should have been a double play ball, with Ian Desmond bobbling the ball after picking it up at short. Eury Perez followed with an actual double play ball to second, though, and that was that. The Braves got another two-out single in the third, but it was erased on a pickoff. Then, they got back-to-back two-out singles in the fourth, but again, nothing doing. After Zimmermann finally had a perfect inning in the fifth, Markakis once again collected a single in the sixth, this time with one out. That inning ended with Joey Terdoslavich hitting one to the warning track in right.

For Miller versus the Nationals, that meant sheer domination. The first was nine pitches, the second was ten and started with back-to-back strikeouts of Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos. The third followed the pattern, as Miller finished it with 11 pitches. The Nationals got their first hit in the fourth as Anthony Rendon rolled one the other way, but Miller got Yunel Escobar to hit it Simmons for a double play afterwards, ending the inning. Apparently Miller didn’t like the idea of allowing hits, as his fifth was just a seven-pitch affair. A 13-pitch sixth followed. Through those innings, Miller had thrown 69 pitches, allowing just one hit, zero walks, and striking out four.

Zimmermann had his second perfect inning to start the seventh, and then, Miller faltered, just a bit. As a portend of things to come, he walked Denard Span on four pitches. Sadly, only two of the pitches were actually balls, but A.J. Pierzynski was a terrible framer at this point in his career, so there you go. Rendon followed with another hit, bouncing one past Kelly Johnson at third. The next batter, Escobar, hit a bouncer that Johnson was able to field and throw on to second for the force, but the relay was not in time. Harper followed with an RBI to knock in the game’s first run on a very fitting type of contact for this game:

After that, Miller went right back to being the guy he had been — Ramos went down looking on three pitches, and a fly to center ended the inning. But, the Braves were trailing, and Zimmermann was still out there.

The Braves pinch-hit for Miller to start the eighth, but Pedro Ciriaco didn’t do anything either. The last batter to face Zimmermann, Cameron Maybin, nearly tied the game with a deep liner into center, but the ball died just short of the wall. Had Maybin hit it anywhere else... In any case, Zimmermann ended his night with eight scoreless frames, allowing just six baserunners (and a reach-on-error), zero walks, and three strikeouts. It was one of two eight inning, zero run outings for him on the season (both in June), even if the peripherals weren’t anything special.

Jim Johnson came on for the bottom of the eighth, issued a leadoff walk to Desmond, issued a two-out walk to Span, but got out of it by striking out Rendon. That set the Braves up to either score a run or lose the game in the span of their next three outs... and somehow, they did. But, boy, was it ugly.

Markakis got things going by collecting his third single of the game off of closer Drew Storen, who was generally very good but not overpoweringly dominant. Pierzynski followed with a bouncer that got by because first baseman Clint Robinson was holding Markakis on at first, and Markakis ran hard to third, getting in easily ahead of Harper’s throw. Pierzynski never stopped running, and made it to second. Storen and the Nats then chose to walk Joey Terdoslavich, putting themselves in a bases loaded, none out situation. What followed next was oh so 2015 Braves:

On plus side, hey, tie game. On the minus side, Joey Terdoslavich, what in the world were you doing? Simmons grounded out to end the inning.

Terdoslavich ended up being double-switched out of the game, with Kelly Johnson taking over at first and Juan Uribe entering the game at the hot corner, along with Jason Grilli relieving Jim Johnson. Grilli gave up a first-pitch single to Escobar, but got the next three batters in order. The Braves also got the leadoff man against new reliever Casey Janssen in the tenth, as Eury Perez successfully bunted for a hit, but also came up empty, even after a wild pitch put Perez on second with one out. Maybin once again nearly hit one out, but this time, it didn’t quite have the carry into left field and went for an inning-ending flyout on the warning track.

The Braves nearly lost in the bottom of the tenth, but lived to fight at least one more inning. Nick Masset, part of the endless procession of disposable 2015 Braves relievers, started the frame. He retired the first batter he faced, but then Michael Taylor connected for a double into left. After an intentional walk to Danny Espinosa, Masset departed for lefty Luis Avilan, who got Span and then pinch-hitter Tyler Moore to each ground out.

The next reliever out of the bullpen gates for Washington was odious human Felipe Vazquez. The Braves wasted yet another baserunner in this top of the 11th, as pinch-hitter Chris Johnson connected for a two-out double off the base of the wall in right center. However, his surname compatriot, Kelly, was eaten up on three pitches.

The fifth Braves reliever of the night was Dana Eveland, who, coming into this game, had the dubious “achievement” of having made seven appearances on the year and recorded just seven total outs. Sadly, he actually kept that streak alive in this game. Escobar made a first pitch out, but then Harper did a very Harper thing:

Hitting the ball really hard? Check. Somehow hurting yourself without doing anything extraordinary? Also check.

At that point, Eveland intentionally walked Ramos to set up a lefty-lefty situation with Robinson. The idea was sound in theory but awful in practice, as after getting ahead of Robinson 0-2, Eveland threw four straight balls, pushing the winning run to third. Out went Eveland, in came David Aardsma, yet another member of the doomed reliever carousel for the 2015 Braves. In this game, Aardsma threw just one pitch. Ian Desmond ended the game on it:

Game MVP: Jordan Zimmermann’s eight scoreless frames definitely qualify here. Zimmermann compiled .552 WPA in this game for those innings, his third-highest total ever. Despite “just” 3.1 fWAR in 2015, his lowest mark since a seven-start effort in 2010, Zimmermann leveraged that walk year into a mondo contract with Detroit... during which he’s put up just 4.9 fWAR across four seasons so far. Leaving aside whatever happens in 2020, the Tigers have paid Zimmermann about $18 million per WAR over the course of his deal so far, which is really, really bad.

Game LVP: I have no idea. The game loss was really split across Eveland and Aardsma, so nah. Drew Storen, for extending the game and only really getting out of it thanks to Joey Terdoslavich’s boneheaded baserunning? Sure, let’s go with that. This was actually only the second Storen negative WPA game of the season; 2015 was actually his career year by fWAR (much better run prevention and WPA in 2014, though), and he collapsed immediately afterwards.

Biggest play: Funnily enough, Pierzynski’s single, Markakis beating Harper’s throw to third, and Pierzynski moving up on the play. The Braves probably should have won the game after that, but nope.

The game, in context of the season: The Braves ended up being swept by the Nationals, and this was the second loss in a five-game losing streak. The Braves’ 11-16 June was followed by a 18-36 record in July and August, so the season went more or less as expected — 67-95 was enough to avoid a fifth-place finish, but not enough to avoid the team’s worst performance since prior to the division streak.

For the Nationals, this win was their fifth in a row, and they’d run the streak to eight before having it snapped in the second game of the doubleheader. It was their longest winning streak of the season. They opened up their biggest division lead of the season on Independence Day weekend, holding a 4.5-game lead. And then, they collapsed. going 8-11 for the rest of July, and then 12-17 in August. On August 3, the division lead was lost for good to the Mets; the Nationals finished with just 83 wins despite being on pace for over 90 through July 5.

Miller was great most of the year, finishing with 3.7 fWAR. His mark could have arguably been higher had he not tinkered in live action during much of September, giving him by far his worst month of the season. Sadly, injuries destroyed his promising career soon after the Braves traded him for a massive package, including Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte.

A.J. Pierzynski randomly found the fountain of youth in 2015, putting up a 111 wRC+, his third-best mark ever, at age 38. Unfortunately, though, his defense (as evidenced at times in this game) was fairly weak, so he only managed 0.9 fWAR in 2015 PAs. The Braves brought him back for 2016, where he was drag-out awful (-1.7 fWAR in 259 PAs) before he retired. Nick Markakis’ first year as a Brave went pretty much as expected — 1.4 fWAR across nearly 700 PAs, with little power (just three homers all season) and poor defense, but marginally above-average hitting anyway.

Among the last four Braves relievers in this game: Nick Masset’s career ended after five more appearances; Luis Avilan was traded to the Dodgers a month later; Dana Eveland was sent packing after two more appearances; and David Aardsma made it through August with the Braves, but then never pitched in the majors again.

Video?

Condensed game:

Recap: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH3sBsXxmYs (for some reason, embed disabled)

TC Recap: https://www.talkingchop.com/2015/6/24/8842761/great-outing-by-miller-spoiled-nationals-beat-braves-in-extras

TC Game Thread: https://www.talkingchop.com/2015/6/24/8841393/game-thread-6-24-braves-at-nationals

TC Commentariat Zeitgeist: Dana Eveland’s control is bad, Joey Terdoslavich’s baserunning decision was horrible, the Braves should’ve gotten more runs but their flies just didn’t carry out, and you guessed it — lots of Fredi Gonzalez-blaming.

Anything else? From 2012-2014, Ian Desmond had a great three-year run for the Nats, putting up 12.6 fWAR. However, in 2015, he kind of collapsed — 83 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR. Through this game, he had a 62 wRC+. Through August 4, it was still in the 60s. It would have been worse had he not had one good run in August to raise it. Desmond bounced back with a one-year prove-it deal with the Rangers (3.5 fWAR), and then signed a massive contract to go do stuff in Colorado... where he’s been sub-replacement for three straight seasons since, with two more (well, 2020 and one hopefully real season after) left on his contract.

Harper’s very exaggerated injury ended up being just a cramp. 2015, was, of course, Harper’s more-than-elite 9.3 fWAR season; he hasn’t even combined for anything close to that total in any two consecutive seasons since. Through this game, Harper had a 215 wRC+, with a higher ISO than BABIP (which is insane).

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about June 24: As recorded, perhaps the first major outbreak of “St. John’s Dance” happened in Aachen on this date in 1374. While no cause for this type of dancing mania has been identified (and probably won’t be until someone figures out time travel), theories range from ergot poisoning to deliberate staging of dancing outbreaks (medieval flash mobs!) by religious cults.

Wondering what my plan is for these given that baseball might be restarting? Well, basically — these will keep going until there is actual game action to cover on the schedule on a daily or near-daily basis.