Braves defying logic with remarkable start on mound
Atlanta rotation stringing together dominant performances after early setbacks
By Thursday, the Atlanta Braves could complete the compiling of the lowest end-of-April starters' ERA in the big leagues in nearly four decades.
Raise your hand if you saw that coming in mid-March, when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy went down in succession with ulnar collateral ligament tears and Mike Minor was held back because of a rather uncomfortable surgical procedure.
The point is, if general manager Frank Wren is reading this, I'm guessing his hand is not raised. Same goes for manager Fredi Gonzalez. And yeah, I suspect even Aaron Harang is a little surprised by all this, too.
What the Braves are doing, with their 1.57 starters' mark, defies all reasonable preseason estimation. And it is, naturally, the key to their standing atop the National League East, where they have a 3 1/2-game lead on the second-place Mets and, perhaps more notably, a four-game edge on the Nationals.
First in the East has been a familiar status for Atlanta the better part of the last, oh, 23 years, and starting pitching strength is a familiar means of attainment of that status.
But with a largely revised cast of characters (Harang and Ervin Santana only recently joined an arrangement in which Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and David Hale all moved up the depth chart in the wake of the losses of Medlen, Beachy and Minor), the Braves have, thus far, amassed an April achievement that not even the famed Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz troika accomplished.
Indeed, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, you have to go all the way back, oddly, to the 1976 Brewers to find an opening statement this strong. The Brew Crew that year rode Jim Slaton, Bill Travers and Jim Colborn to an April ERA of 1.44 -- all with Hammerin' Hank Aaron looking on at the outset of his final season.
The key caveat here, though, is that those Brewers played just 12 games in April. The early success was merely a mirage in a season in which they'd finish sixth in the American League East with a rotation ERA right in the middle of the pack.
So the Braves' early sample, at 24 games, carries twice the heft. And if this is a mirage, it's an entrancing one, to say the least. In the Wild Card era, only two other clubs have posted a sub-2.00 ERA in any full month -- the 2011 Phillies (1.96 in June) and the '12 Nationals (1.78 in April).
Considering those clubs finished those respective seasons ranking first (Phils) and second (Nats) on the starters' ERA chart, I'd say the one-month sample was an illustrative one.
I'm inclined to buy into it with Atlanta, too, and not because I expect Harang to maintain the ridiculous 0.85 ERA and 0.88 WHIP he's carrying through five starts.
No, what intrigues about the Braves is the pending return of Minor to an already stout starting unit in which Santana has predictably made the most of his entry into the NL, the rookie Hale has proved the dependability of Atlanta's depth, the sophomore Wood has taken another step forward with his putaway pitches and control and, most importantly, the 23-year-old Teheran has looked legitimately like an ace-in-the-making.
Now, "ace" is a subjective term, of course. So subject that all that offseason hand-wringing over whether the Braves actually possessed one (and this was before all the aforementioned injuries struck) looks completely silly now.
But watching Teheran hold his ground in his second 1-0 tilt of the month Sunday afternoon, when he and Johnny Cueto both pitched eight scoreless innings while allowing only three hits apiece, was eye opening. It was further affirmation of how far Teheran has come in the evolution of his slider and further confirmation that the Braves were wise not to deal him two winters ago, when his name was a regular in the rumor mill.
"He's proving to people that he deserves to be the ace," Andrelton Simmons said Sunday.
And Wood is proving to be a nice left-handed complement to the right-handed Teheran. With an increased reliance on his breaking ball to offset a 90-mph fastball that's actually a tick slower than 2013 (when he spent part of the season in the bullpen), Wood has increased his strikeout rate by three percentage points while similarly lowering his walk rate. Wood's duel with the Marlins' Jose Fernandez last week, when both went eight innings with double-digit strikeouts and zero walks, might have been the best of the young season. Fernandez getting the edge in that 1-0 result did not diminish Wood's effort one iota.
The Braves have actually already been involved in five 1-0 decisions. They've won three of them -- two started by Teheran and one by Harang, the 36-year-old journeyman who has been one of the best stories in baseball thus far. Atlanta is Harang's sixth organization dating back to the start of 2013, and all throughout the industry, people are shaking their heads in wonderment at what he's done in his latest landing spot.
There's no getting around the fact that the opposition's .200 batting average on balls in play against Harang is not a sustainable mark, but the fact that he's amassed it to this point is evidence of how much Harang has benefited from one of the best defenses in the game. The Braves, in fact, have more defensive runs saved in the early going than anybody, per Baseball Info Solutions.
Between the defense and the depth (Minor is expected to return this week), what we've seen from Atlanta early on feels very real. The hired hands entrusted in emergency have paired beautifully with the kids in the cupboard, and the Braves have a very familiar feeling to them:
First on the starters' ERA chart, first in the NL East.