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Braves endure woeful April

A month that was almost historically bad was, by and large, no fun for Braves fans.

You can't see it, but this is apparently Jhoulys Chacin pitching.
You can't see it, but this is apparently Jhoulys Chacin pitching.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

On the plus side, baseball is most definitely, indubitably back. On the minus side, the on-field product for the Atlanta Braves was nearly historically dreadful in April 2016. To put a bit of a point on it: the 2016 Braves squad went 5-18 in April, a .217 winning percentage that ranks behind (ahead of?) only the 1988 team and its 3-16 record to start the year as the worst month in Atlanta Braves history. It nearly goes without saying that the Braves had the worst record in the majors in April, but there it is anyway.

In terms of the broader context, beyond wins and losses, it was an uneven season kickoff in many respects. Two-thirds of the starting outfield barely played: Ender Inciarte and Hector Olivera combined for just nine games and 31 PAs. Those absences did pave the way for rookie sensation/speed demon Mallex Smith to make his Atlanta debut, and he might have started turning a corner as April concluded after a slow start to his major league career. Further on the hitting side, Freddie Freeman began 2016 in a serious slump, but homered in both of the bookend April games.

The pitching side also had its share of its and downs in the season's first month. The Braves got stellar performances from some potential diamonds in the rough such as Jhoulys Chacin and Hunter Cervenka, and highly touted prospect Aaron Blair made his major league debut and hung tough against a powerful Mets crew before following that up with a dazzling, one-run outing against a Cubs lineup full of mashers. On the minus side, an array of veterans, retreads, and new arrivals fell somewhat flat on their faces: Eric O'Flaherty, Bud Norris, Chris Withrow, Jason Grilli, Jose Ramirez, Williams Perez, and Ryan Weber, all gave up runs in bunches when called upon to pitch. Even more depressing, potential relief phenom Daniel Winker suffered a gruesome, on-field arm injury, and the Braves will be without his potentially-dazzling services for a long while as a result.

Last year, the Braves followed up a poor April with a surprisingly effective May. With some of the season's toughest contests already behind them, will the Braves improve their record away from a historically bad mark?

Series by Series

  • Swept by Nationals (two-game series)
  • Swept by Cardinals
  • Swept at Washington (four-game series)
  • Sweep in Miami
  • Series loss to Dodgers
  • Swept by Mets
  • Swept by Red Sox
  • Series split (two-game series) in Boston
  • Lost one game in Chicago (game two rained out, split series with win of game three in May)
in case you've forgotten, you're not reading that wrong: the Braves endured a nine-game losing streak to start the season, and then followed it up with a four consecutive wins before lapsing into an eight-game losing streak.

April Team Stats by the Numbers

  • 5-18 record (on pace for a 35-127 season, which would be remarkably historic if it were to happen)
  • Pythagorean Expectation of 7-16 (tied with Brewers for worst in majors), which would put them on pace for 49 wins instead of 35. Still historically bad, but less so.
  • Amazingly, the Braves were last in neither the runs scored (Yankees) nor runs allowed (six teams) categories in April.
  • Offensive production: worst in the majors by a longshot, with a 65 wRC+ and a .236/.309/.299 line for non-pitchers. The next-closest team is the Phillies, with a 79 wRC+. (If you're wondering how they managed to be the worst offensive team and not last in runs scored, the answer is a 107 wRC+ with men in scoring position, good for 11th in the majors.)
  • Defensive production: hard to definitively say anything as defensive metric updates are ongoing, but they are currently marked as having the fourth-worst defense in the majors (second-worst in the NL) with a team mark of over 9 runs below average, after taking positional adjustment into account. Note that this may be generous: by DRS, the Braves are egregiously bad with -25 DRS (through May 1), nine runs worse than the next-closest team. (After positional adjustment, that's about 22 runs below average.)
  • Total position player value: hilariously desolate, at -2.6 fWAR for the squad, easily last in the majors. The next-closest teams are only at -0.3 fWAR. In addition to their league-worst hitting and potentially league-worst defense, the Braves were also the worst baserunning team in the NL, and trail only the Angels (who may set some kind of poor baserunning record this year) in the majors for issues with using their legs. This suggests that if the Braves replaced their entire April position player production with AAAA players generally resigned to riding the shuttle between the minors and a major league bench, they'd actually have done better. Unfortunately, this mark suggests Braves seem to have trouble finding those kinds of players on their own AAA team.
  • Rotation: 5th worst by ERA, 11th worst by FIP, 6th worst by xFIP. In the NL, these ranks are 4th worst, 6th worst, and 3rd worst, respectively. Despite an ERA over 5.00, the rotation managed an FIP of 4.44, which was somewhat (barely) above replacement level (0.9 fWAR for the rotation as a whole). Value-wise, using FIP, the rotation was 21st in the majors (or 5th-worst in the NL). It certainly could have been worse.
  • Bullpen: unfortunately, the bullpen continued to carry over some struggles from 2015 despite a different cast of characters, managing to be 4th worst by ERA and xFIP, and 10th worst by FIP. (4th worst, 6th worst, 3rd worst, respectively, in the NL.) Since reliever value is weighted by leverage for fWAR, the Braves showed that they generally pitched below replacement level in relief situations, with -0.2 fWAR for the bullpen as a whole, good for 24th in the majors (4th worst in NL).
  • Total pitching value: 25th (4th worst in NL) by fWAR, with the bullpen dragging down the rotation.

Biggest April Impact - Position Players

It's hard to give this to anyone other than Nick Markakis, who really carried the team on his back. He maybe didn't carry them very far, but he was a beacon of light in a really terrible offensive month. Get this: despite not always hitting in the middle of the order, Markakis drove in more runs (17) than the next two guys combined (14, Mallex Smith and Freddie Freeman). He and Freeman were the only Braves with an above-average batting line in April, and his .302/.406/.430 line was good for a delicious 127 wRC+. He hit nearly as many doubles (11) as singles (15), walked nearly as many times (13, and one intentional) as he struck out (15), and had positive WPA in 15 games as compared to only eight games with a negative WPA.

Yes, the defense remains average-to-below average as best we can tell, he doesn't run the bases well, and his April BABIP of .366 is likely to come down, but there's no denying he hit like a man possessed in April, and the Braves' record should be thankful for his contributions. (As a side note, we should remember that Markakis hit even better in April 2015, with a 137 wRC+ and a .446 OBP, though most of his hits were singles. However, he was overshadowed back then by the ridiculous month that AJ Pierzynski had, in addition to usual powerful production from Freeman.)

On a more somber note, Markakis provided more positive value (fWAR) than the rest of the position players on the team combined. He was largely all alone in the actual "productive" array of Braves position players.

Biggest April Impact - Starting Pitchers

With just five wins in the month, it's hard to find starters that contributed to more than one. Amazingly (or perhaps not so much), four of those wins were started by one of two pitchers: Williams Perez and Jhoulys Chacin. Perez, unfortunately, did not stick around in those games to give the Braves a decent chance to win, but Jhoulys Chacin had a very solid month after being called up from AAA to take his turns in the Atlanta rotation.

Chacin made four starts and kept his team in each one. In his first start, he threw six shutout innings against the Nationals; the Braves lost the game after he departed. In his second start, he held the Marlins to three runs while getting 16 outs, perhaps not great, but the Braves had spotted him to a decent lead and he continued to just throw strikes. Chacin did not walk a single hitter through his first two starts, but racked up 14 strikeouts while allowing just nine hits. His next two starts were somewhat worse but still passable: four runs (three earned) in five and two-thirds against the Mets, and two runs in five innings to secure his first W of 2015 against a strong Red Sox lineup that had mauled Braves pitching up to that point.

Overall, Chacin has recorded a 3.72 ERA / 1.52 FIP / 2.70 xFIP to date. He's yet to give up a homer (suppressing his ERA), but has also allowed a .338 BABIP against (increasing his ERA). He's proven to be exactly the kind of find the Braves were hoping for when they went dumpster-diving to fill out their roster this offseason, and hopefully he can continue to post a K%-BB% of around 20% in May and beyond. On an fWAR basis, he was more productive than the rest of the rotation combined.

Biggest April Impact - Relief Pitchers

As may become a trend that happens pretty much every month, Arodys Vizcaino was once again dominant in April. He allowed just one run all month, saved two of the Braves' five wins, and recorded a positive WPA in every single game he appeared in. (Of course, he ruined this streak with a poor blow save outing on May 1, but shh!) In perhaps his best stretch, he pitched back-to-back scoreless ninth innings in tie games against the Dodgers, but the Braves were unable to take advantage of either opportunity to walk it off.

Overall, his numbers were a video-game-esque 1.13 ERA / 1.69 FIP / 2.46 xFIP for April. He struck out 36% of the batters he faced, and 72% of balls put in play against him were grounders. He stranded over 90% of all runners he either put on base or inherited. He was great. If he cuts down the walks, just a bit, he will be a terrifying force at the tail end of an otherwise-subpar bullpen.

Five Moments I liked from April 2016

You'd think it would be hard to find these in a dismal month, and it kind of was. But there were things worth celebrating about all the same, as is the beauty of baseball. (Note: the obvious happy narratives, like the debuts of Mallex Smith and Aaron Blair, are covered elsewhere. I tried to focus on perhaps less obvious, but still pleasant, occurrences.)

A LOBster for a LOBster - April 29 @ Cubs

During what would be April's final game against the apparent NL powerhouse Chicago Cubs, the Braves had a golden opportunity to steal a win as they loaded the bases against Jon Lester in a tie game with none out. Unfortunately, what transpired thereafter was pure misery, as Lester got two strikeouts (Drew Stubbs, Jace Peterson) and then elicited a groundout to escape the game tied. So, of course, the Cubs then proceeded to load the bases (with one out) against Alexi Ogando, and as Braves fans, we knew we probably should have covered our eyes to avoid seeing the way in which the Cubs would not fail to capitalize on an opportunity.

But fail to capitalize they did, thanks to Alexi Ogando and old friend David Ross:

Just goes to show you that the Braves aren't the only ones that fail to execute in situations like this. (Of course, the bullpen would blow the game the following inning anyway, and the Cubs would hit a tie-breaking single and then hit a grand slam in their next two bases-loaded situations.)

Wisler's Success - April 21 vs. Dodgers
Matt Wisler had a very up-and-down 2015 and his 2016 got off to a rocky start as well. He continues to ooze potential and pitchability, but the results haven't been there as often as anyone (short of his opponents) would like. For that reason, I found his very effective start against the Dodgers incredibly heartening. After having his spot in the rotation pushed back after appearing in relief against the Marlins, Wisler spun six and two-thirds innings of one-run (none earned) ball, allowing just four hits and two walks while striking out six. As was a pattern in April, the bullpen would blow this one as well, but it's always great to see some of the potential in the Braves' young arms realized.

Unfortunately, Wisler would go right back to being knocked around by the Red Sox in his next start, but we're all hoping he can continue to build on the positive outings he's able to showcase here and there.

Mr. Smith Goes to Miami - April 17 @ Marlins
Mallex Smith had a rough acclimatization to the majors, collecting just two hits in his first 21 PAs (a couple of walks were thrown in there too). But, struggles or not, he made his first major league RBI an exceedingly meaningful one, against Marlins closer AJ Ramos in the 10th inning of a tie game in Miami.

The huge hit secured a sweep for the Braves, and was the first of a few critical knocks Smith amassed through April. That it came with two outs after the Braves had just failed to secure the win in a similar situation (see below) made it all the sweeter.

Braves Win (Finally) - April 15 @ Marlins
It took 10 games, but the Braves finally managed to put one in the win column, thanks to Adonis Garcia's two-out, bases loaded single in the 8th inning against Bryan Morris.

Nick Markakis had singled earlier to tie the game, and Garcia came up big when it counted. I don't know about everyone else, but I finally exhaled a bit after that hit, as it meant just six outs until a win, and I had confidence the Braves would finally get one there. It was a little dicey as Arodys Vizcaino had to work out of a jam in the eighth (thanks, Jim Johnson), but all's well that ends with a win.

Chacin Delivers - April 12 vs. Nationals
I mentioned this above, but this was just a beauty of a Braves debut by Chacin against a lineup that mercilessly manhandled Braves pitching up to that point.

Yes, the Braves would lose this one, but Chacin did everything he could to prevent it, navigating the lineup like he was a team's number one starter and not a guy who had to make his first start in AAA before being called up to fill the fifth starter role.

Irrationally Irritating Moment of April 2016

Jason Grilli was very good for the Braves before going down with a scary injury right before the 2015 All-Star Break. Unfortunately, he's seemed like he's running on fumes in 2016, with some really poor numbers out of the bullpen. His fifth outing of the year was a perfect storm of annoying: with Arodys Vizcaino unavailable due to heavy usage, he was asked to secure three outs and send the Braves to their first sweep of 2016.

For some reason, the Marlins used old friend Chris Johnson to pinch-hit against a righty. Irritating, but we'll take it. Then, Chris Johnson singled on a fly ball. Doubly irritating. The Marlins then pinch-ran for Chris Johnson with a catcher (this is a thing that actually happened, at least it wasn't Gerald Laird). Grilli got Adeiny Hechavarria swinging, but a groundout from Jeff Mathis moved Johnson to second. Since this is an irritating moment and not a happy one, you know what happened next:

It was an 0-2 pitch! That throw from Drew Stubbs was terrible! It was a catcher that was pinch-running for a guy even slower than him! Daniel Castro almost caught it! Just give us a sweep, baseball gods! Of course, Mallex Smith would make up for this bit of pique (see above), but still. At least Bryce Harper wasn't somehow involved.

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