COMMENTARY | They say those who do not learn from history are doomed to give back their big lead in the standings and fall further and further out of contention until they are left home to watch the postseason from the comfort of their own couch.
Even though the Atlanta Braves are enjoying a six-game lead over the Washington Nationals at the All-Star break, fans still have the dreadful end to the 2011 season rattling around in the backs of their minds. Entering the last month of that campaign, the Braves were poised to turn their 8-1/2 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals into a National League wild-card berth. Unfortunately, Atlanta would go 9-18 down the stretch and miss out on the postseason party entirely.
If the Braves want to ensure they do not suffer another historic collapse, there are five key things they must do in the second half of the season:
5. Get B.J. Upton Hitting
Atlanta can probably still raise another yellow banner with B.J. Upton's league-worst .177 average manning center, but, if the Braves have any real aspirations of playing deep into October, Upton has to return to the dangerous run-producing threat he has been over his eight-year career.
Luckily, for the Braves, Upton is known to wake up in the second half. Last season with the Tampa Bay Rays, Upton had just eight home runs and 29 RBIs before the All-Star break, then exploded for 21 homers and 49 RBIs on the back end of the schedule. His first year in Atlanta has gone eerily the same way for Upton as he can only tout seven homers and 20 RBIs at the break. A resurgent Upton in the second half would make the Braves' lineup very dangerous from top to bottom.
4. Make More Contact in Contact Situations
Much has been made about Atlanta's all-or-nothing approach to the plate in the first half of the year. The same team who leads the National League in home runs (114) is also the same club who ranks first in strikeouts (826). Regardless of the ultimate success of this season, there will be many dubious records falling for the Braves in 2013. Dan Uggla is chasing his own franchise punch-out record as umpires have politely asked him to take a seat 116 times. But Uggla is not alone; the Upton brothers have combined for 202 strikeouts of their own, which puts them on pace to fly by the old sibling teammate record of 218 accumulative Ks in a season.
The problem is not simply that the Braves are striking out, the troubling aspect is when these strikeouts are occurring. The Braves are hitting just .243 with runners in scoring position -- and that average is boosted significantly by the Herculean .423 Freddie Freeman is hitting in this situation.
Sadly, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla have an anemic average when the opportunity to drive in a run presents itself. Upton is hitting just .103, with Uggla not much better at .149. The two have struck out 57 times in 135 at-bats with runners in scoring position, meaning 42 percent of these opportunities are passed by without any form of contact. A lot of crooked numbers are being left off of Atlanta's scoreboard by a lack of being able to consistently put wood to rawhide.
3. Solidify the Bullpen
Atlanta has pitched extremely well given the fact that two of its bullpen stoppers, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters, have had season-ending Tommy John surgery. To make a thin bullpen even thinner, the Braves optioned Alex Wood back to Triple-A so that he may be converted back into an eventual starter. This means the Atlanta pen is left with just one left-handed reliever, Luis Avilan.
Brandon Beachy waiting in the wings to start his 2013 season presents a lot of potential moving parts to this staff. Wood being sent back down could be paving the way for Paul Maholm to either join the bullpen or be traded for other players who will help anchor Atlanta's late-inning relief. If Wood and Beachy rejoin the rotation, Kris Medlen could also if himself changing roles, or even teams.
2. Play the Best Eight Guys Every Day
Too much talent is never a bad thing, unless, of course, you are Fredi Gonzalez, who chooses to ignore his depth in favor of playing underachievers with the biggest contracts. Until B.J Upton proves he is back to being a reliable everyday player, either Evan Gattis or Jordan Schafer, when he returns, needs to be in the everyday lineup. Before he was injured, Gattis was leading the Braves in home runs and RBIs as a part-time player, while no one can touch Schafer's team-leading .399 on-base percentage. Andrelton Simmons could be the best fielding shortstop in baseball, but his .282 OBP does not belong in the leadoff spot.
Playing in a weak division does hide many of the Braves' deficiencies, but, in a seven-game series in October, these realities of baseball can be the difference between winning and losing. Gonzalez has to stop asking players to do things they can't while players who can ride the bench. I don't care if a player's bank account only affords him the ability to lease a Volkswagen Jetta. If he can get on base or drive in a run, he is more important to this team than the player rolling up to games in a Bentley.
1. Respect Chris Johnson's .330 Average
It is mind-boggling how little respect Chris Johnson has been getting from his own manager despite continuing to carry the highest average on the roster. Johnson's 89 hits are just one fewer than Simmons' 90, even though the Braves' new third baseman has been given 101 fewer opportunities to swing the bat.
Why exactly is Johnson not getting to the dish often enough? Manager Fredi Gonzalez has regularly buried him in the No. 8 hole in the lineup. When we consider Johnson is hitting .330 while being protected by the pitcher's spot in the order, thus giving the opposing team no reason to ever throw him a hittable strike, his season totals become much more impressive.
It is inexcusable for Johnson to be is hitting any lower than No. 5 in this order. His right-handed stick is a perfect buffer to place in between the left-handed swinging Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann. It only makes sense to get Johnson's No. 2-ranked average of .293 with runners is scoring position up to the plate behind the men who actually get on base. Atlanta has regularly used Uggla and B.J. Upton hitting No. 5 and No. 6, or No. 6 and No. 7, causing two players with poor contact to follow each other to the plate in key moments.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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