• Exclusives

    2012 Atlanta Braves — the season that was

    It was apparent at the start that Jair Jurrjens wasn’t the same pitcher. Just one of many challenges the Braves were forced to overcome.

    When the first pitch of the 2012 season was thrown, the Braves seemed most likely to battle the Philadelphia Phillies for the National League East crown. Despite big trades by the rebranded Miami Marlins and the Washington Nationals, the Braves and Phillies began the season with the best starting pitching in the division, if not the entire league. With a starting rotation of Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and either Mike Minor, Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran, Braves pitching looked solid coming out of spring training. Combined with the stacked bullpen of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, Kris Medlen and Craig Kimbrel, the Braves appeared a likely contender with their pitching alone.

    As the season got underway, it was quickly clear that the many arms battling for the starting rotation spots would all be needed.

    The Braves didn’t have Tim Hudson to begin the season as he recovered from offseason back surgery. The young guns, Minor, Delgado and Teheran, turned out to not be as developed as the Braves had hoped. Mike Minor developed as part of the rotation and turned into one of the go-to arms, but Delgado and Teheran returned to Triple-A. Jair Jurrjens fell apart in the first weeks of the season, returned to the minors, found himself, returned to the big leagues giving the Braves a boost for a few games and then fell apart again due to injury. Jurrjens never returned to his former self while in the minors in the latter part of the season and will likely be with a different team outside the Braves organization next season. Tommy Hanson is a shell of his former self. Though it seemed injury was the likely culprit at the end of last season and again midway through the 2012 season, those who follow the Braves are fearful that Hanson’s drop in velocity and dominance is a sign that the Tommy of old will not be returning. The biggest blow to the Braves came in June when Brandon Beachy, then the NL ERA leader, blew out his arm and required Tommy John surgery. By the all-star break, the Braves rotation looked nothing like it was expected to on opening day.

    Kris Medlen was the NL Pitcher of the Month in August and Septmber

    There were, of course, some real Cinderella stories in the Braves rotation this season. Two guys who both underwent Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2010 gave the Braves a needed boost. Ben Sheets was signed to a minor league, no-risk deal in July. He began his Braves career with 2+ scoreless starts. His dominant return to the big leagues after a 2 year absence was unfortunately short lived, but his contribution to the Braves rotation at a time when starting pitching depth was shallow was greatly needed. The second of the two Tommy John success stories was Kris Medlen who had the best season of his young career and the most spectacular run of any pitcher in all of baseball this season. Medlen’s complete dominance once installed in the Braves rotation earned him back-to-back NL Pitcher of the Month awards for August and September. As a starter, Medlen achieved a 9-0 record with an 0.91 ERA in 12 starts. All 12 of those starts were wins for the Braves. Medlen would set a Major League Baseball record this season with 23 consecutive starts in which his team went on to win the game. What Medlen was able to accomplish this season is unheard of. While putting on a pitching clinic in each of his starts, Medlen secured himself a spot in the 2013 rotation.

    Often overlooked in the more dramatic pitching stories was the consistency of ace Tim Hudson. Hudson missed the first month of the season recovering from back surgery and still managed a 16-7 record and a 3.62 ERA. In Huddy’s appearances, the Braves were 20-8.

    Craig Kimbrel followed up his Rookie of the Year season with another standout season solidifying his place in the league as the top tier closer. Kimbrel finished the season tied with Jason Motte of the St. Louis Cardinals in saves at 42. Kimbrel ended 2012 with a 1.01 ERA and a ridiculous 16.7 strikeouts per 9 innings.

    A rundown of where Braves pitching ranked in the National League:

    W L ERA G GS SV SVO IP H R ER HR BB SO AVG WHIP
    Atlanta Braves 94 68 3.42 162 162 47 60 1445.1 1310 600 549 145 464 1232 .243 1.23

    The Braves finished 4th in the National League in ERA, tied with the Reds for 2nd in WHIP at 1.23, 3rd fewest hits allowed to their opponent, 3rd in opponent’s batting average, and 4th in runs and earned runs allowed.

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    Key to the story on both sides of the ball this season were injuries. Consider this timetable of when and how frequently the Braves dealt with big injuries:

    2012 Atlanta Braves Injuries
    Arodys Vizcaino (RP) Underwent Tommy John surgery (3/20/12)
    Robert Fish (RP) Rule 5 draft pick went on DL 3/25/12 with left elbow tendinitis
    Chipper Jones (3B) Torn meniscus (3/26/12)
    Tim Hudson (SP) Recovery from offseason back surgery (4/3/12)
    Chipper Jones (3B) Left calf contusion that required surgical draining (5/24/12)
    Brian McCann (C) Bruised left knee (6/2/12)
    Tim Hudson (SP) Bone spurs in left ankle (6/9/12)
    Eric O’Flaherty (RP) Left elbow soreness (6/12/12)
    Freddie Freeman (1B) Jammed left thumb (6/13/12)
    Brandon Beachy (SP) Out for season with Tommy John surgery (6/17/12)
    Jonny Venters (RP) Left elbow impingement (7/5/12)
    Andrelton Simmons (SS) Broken right pinky (7/8/12)
    Jack Wilson (SS) Dislocated right pinky (7/14/12)
    Matt Diaz (RF) Out for season with right thumb surgery (7/20/12)
    Tommy Hanson (SP) Lower back strain (7/31/12)
    Jair Jurrjens (SP) Right groin strain (8/1/12)
    Ben Sheets (SP) Right shoulder inflammation (8/25/12)
    Brian McCann (C) Right hamstring tendinitis (9/15/12)
    Paul Janish (SS) Dislocated left shoulder (9/18/12)
    Michael Bourn (CF) Jammed left thumb (9/23/12)

    None of this takes into account the struggles of Freddie Freeman with his vision, the ongoing shoulder trouble of Brian McCann that kept him out of several games down the stretch including the Wild Card game (Brian McCann was diagnosed with a frayed labrum and cyst in his right shoulder and may need offseason surgery), the days veteran Chipper Jones simply couldn’t play because of 40-year-old knees, and the injuries to backup catcher David Ross that he battled throughout the season. The shortstop position seemed to be cursed from day one this year when Jack Wilson was injured while working out with rookie Tyler Pastornicky before the season even began. Paul Janish was a godsend for the Braves with the injury to Andrelton Simmons. Janish produced in the clutch and was better than advertised on defense. Unfortunately, the shortstop curse caught up to Janish as well. Injuries did not make Fredi Gonzalez’ job an easy one.

    As pitching struggled to live up to their billing, the offense was at times a perfect melding of talent and at others a complete mess. The 2012 Braves were streaky and that streakiness came from the inconsistency of the offense. When the Braves swept teams, they did it with pitching and offense. When the Braves were swept, they lost due to the offense.

    Perhaps the best offensive news this season for the Braves was the rebound of Jason Heyward. Heyward joined the 20/20 club, finished with a .269 average and had 158 hits. What Heyward contributed on defense cannot be overlooked. Heyward’s name will certainly be in the conversation when an NL Gold Glove is awarded to a right fielder.

    If fans were to vote on the team MVP, there is no question who would win their support. Martin Prado finished his season having played left field, first base, second base, third base, and shortstop. Yes, Martin Prado filled in at first base. If there is anything Martin Prado can’t do, he has not let anyone in on the secret. Martin’s average on the season leading the Braves at .301. His on-base percentage of .359 and his 186 hits also led the team.

    Other notable contributions on offense came from Freddie Freeman who led the team with 94 RBIs and Michael Bourn who led the team with 42 stolen bases and 96 runs scored. Though Dan Uggla had a horrendous year offensively, his 94 bases on balls tied him for first in the league with Cincinnati’s Joey Votto.

    Here’s where the Braves offense ended up on the season at the dish:

    G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG OPS
    Atlanta Braves 162 5425 700 1341 263 30 149 660 567 1289 101 32 .247 .320 .389 .709

    Atlanta was 11th in hits in the National League, 4th in strikeouts, 7th in runs scored, 13th in doubles, and 9th in homers. The highlight seems to be their finishing 1st in walks with nearly 30 walks above their nearest opponent.

    The most successful aspect of the Braves’ season is how well they did on defense. The team finished 1st in fielding percentage among the 16 National League teams and with the least number of errors committed. The Braves finished ahead of the Los Angeles Angels as the best fielding team in Major League Baseball. Atlanta also finished with the best defensive efficiency rating (DER) in the league.

    Any wrap-up of the 2012 season requires mention of the final season of Chipper Jones’ 19-year career. There are, as Jayson Stark noted, many accomplishments in Chipper’s career that standout. Kent Covington wrote for BravesWire about Chipper’s standing amongst third basemen and switch hitters. But the true x-factor is what Chipper has meant to the Braves organization over the past 19 years and what he will continue to mean to it for decades to come. While Braves fans weren’t able to watch Chipper go out with the bang they would have liked, they were privileged to watch him visit each city and see opposing fans honor and respect Chipper the way Braves’ fans have over the years. Watching Chipper tip his cap to fans in cities all over this country was as much a part of the 2012 season as all of the stats.

    2013 will hold new challenges as each new season always does. While the Braves will no longer have to hear about the great collapse of 2011 at every turn, they will now have the shadow of the infield fly game over them. And like 2011 when the Braves faced the greatest challenge of all, playing baseball without Bobby Cox in the dugout, they will face a season without the veteran leadership of Chipper Jones. As challenges go, the Braves will have their work cut out for them.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#%21/framethepitch">@framethepitch.