• Exclusives

    Braves Offensive Swoon Just a Blip or Something More?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was “Sandlot Day” at SunTrust Park on Saturday, complete with a postgame showing of the classic movie following the Braves loss to Arizona. And in the midst of that iconic 90s classic, a famous four-word phrase was uttered on two occasions when Scotty Smalls’ ignorance left his buddies in exasperated shock.

    But safe to assume, those weren’t the only two times on this muggy, cloudy July afternoon when that phrase left the lips of Braves fans as another Atlanta hitter trudged back to the first-base dugout, bat in hand. Eight losses in the past 10 games for a team that had yet to blink in a pennant race joined sooner than expected has everybody on the edge of frustration, and Atlanta’s maddening offensive slump has become a flashpoint for the (insert sarcasm font) always-composed, mild-mannered, slow-to-panic denizens of Braves Country.

    Consider:

    • In the past 10 games, the Braves are hitting .241 as a team with 33 runs scored – six of ’em coming in one inning Wednesday against Toronto – while striking out 100 times and leaving 76 runners on base.
    • The Braves have mustered a grand total of one run in dropping the first two games of this weekend set to Arizona, the type of team Atlanta would see should it reach the playoffs, collecting 11 hits while striking out 23 times.
    • Atlanta has belted two homers in its past eight games, after hitting 98 in its first 87 contests, and both of those came off Ozzie Albies’ bat three innings apart Wednesday.

    It isn’t hard to look at any successful team and find a 10-game stretch where the wheels come off one aspect of the game, be it offensive production or starting pitching or bullpen execution. But when it comes to these Braves, with so many young players performing at a high level for the first time, with older veterans who are enjoying a renaissance of sorts, it begs the question:

    Is this merely a bump in the road, or is it regression to the mean?

    I don’t have the answer, and none of us will know until the final tale of 2018 is told and we see how this week and a half impacted the final, finished product. But I do think there are elements of both in play here.

    This team looks like a squad that needs the All-Star break. Desperately. Like, last week.

    There are several areas offensively where the production consistently is falling short of what’s expected or what’s needed (or both). Each one puts more pressure on the guys who are hitting, and what I’ve noticed the past two weeks is – for the first time this season – the Braves pressing a bit. Baseball’s hard enough without trying to hit a five-run homer with nobody on base.

    Some counter by saying the Braves have faced good pitching during this rough stretch – and Zack Greinke was outstanding for Arizona on Saturday, no question – but one of the hallmarks of Atlanta’s early-season success was beating good pitchers (Sale, Scherzer, et al). Playing in May as a feel-good story is one thing. Playing in July with more eyes and, yes, more pressure on every at-bat, is different.

    I don’t believe this team is as bad offensively as it’s shown of late. Nor, do I think it’s sustainable or realistic to expect this team to lead the National League in batting average and homers and slugging percentage, as it did in barnstorming its way to 15 games above .500 at one point a couple of weeks ago.

    That’s not to say there isn’t offensive talent available here.

    Did Ender Inciarte forget how to hit? No. He brought a career .295/.341/.733 slash line into this season, but he’s not performing at all in the leadoff spot. He’s better than a .241 hitter, but at this moment in this season that’s what he is. It’s time to move him down in the lineup, remove some of the pressure of having to set the table and let him get back on track.

    Is Dansby Swanson a .302 hitter, as he was in 38 games at the end of 2016? Most likely not, but is he the .249 hitter he is now (and that’s after collecting two of Atlanta’s five hits Saturday)? Perhaps he is, but his defense and a .327 average from the seventh inning on this season make it easier to roll him out there every day.

    The above two gentlemen are the first names that fly off the lips and fingertips of a fanbase that spends far too much time in panic mode and far too few minutes enjoying this ongoing emergence from the rebuild. Yes, there will the pain as the scar tissue from four straight losing seasons and an embarrassing front-office scandal is broken through.

    And if you think that hurts, sunshine, just wait until the end of this month, or this offseason, when some of the prized prospect possessions this team has amassed are sent off to fix the holes some of you yell about from sunrise to bedtime.

    The key to making any team successful is putting the parts in the best place possible to contribute to the maximum level for the common good. In baseball, that means determining the right prospects to deal and the right ones to keep. It also means putting players in the best spot to succeed, foregoing personal preferences or comfort levels to amplify a positive impact on the sum of the parts.

    For baseball teams, that comes down to wins and losses. And that squarely sits on the manager’s shoulders. There are inputs from various sources, be it the mountains of data now available in every front office or the weathered eyes and gut of a 40-year baseball lifer. But at the end of the day, I wonder (and in a way, fear) that some of the stubbornness we’ve seen from Brian Snitker these past few weeks will cost him a chance to run this show next spring.

    The players love Snitker, and there is something to be said for that. At the same time, there are instances – be it overreliance on Sam Freeman as the first lefty out of the bullpen or leaving Inciarte at the top of the batting order – that certainly must give Alex Anthopoulos pause. The new Braves general manager has no tethers to Snitker or your favorite prospect.

    Prepare yourself accordingly.

    Anthopoulos spent part of his Saturday entertaining questions from season-ticket holders, with many of the queries focused on the July 31 trade deadline. Every inquiry certainly was reinforced by the pain of a magical season suddenly feeling as if it’s souring by the day (news flash: it’s not, for if nothing else the rest of the NL East is every bit afflicted with its own warts and flaws).

    There will be plenty of work done over the four-day All-Star break this week regarding the rest of 2018 and setting the table for 2019. The players need to be as far away from baseball as possible (save the four Atlanta All-Stars who head to D.C. on Sunday), but for this front office and coaching staff, there will be a lot to discuss before the “second half” begins Friday in Washington.

    There are sensible moves the Braves can make at the deadline that won’t gut the farm system (granted, it would take a lot to gut a system more stocked than a hoarder’s supply of canned goods). It will be fascinating to see how this unfolds for Atlanta over the next two-plus weeks. Some of that groundwork gets laid this week, while the sport pauses to celebrate its best and brightest, while most of the Braves hopefully hit the refresh and relax buttons.

    And no, I’m not expecting Manny Machado to have a tomahawk on their jersey come Aug. 1. The bullpen needs an upgrade (or two, to be honest). It doesn’t take the biggest name. It takes the right player in the right position at the right time.

    So, put away those dream proposals floating all over social media. Atlanta is no more likely to meet Baltimore’s asking price for eight weeks of Machado than the Mets are likely to deal Jacob deGrom – in division – for a haul of Atlanta prospects – again, in division.

    In other words: “You’re killin’ me, Smalls.”

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.