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Interleague Play Begins: Atlanta Braves Preview

I'm pretty sure 25 other fanbases deserve this man more than Atlanta does. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
I'm pretty sure 25 other fanbases deserve this man more than Atlanta does. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Getty Images

When it comes time in mid September for talking heads to start complaining about unbalanced inter-league schedules, don't let anyone say that the Rays had it easy. The Atlanta Braves are a very good team, and currently sit atop the competitive NL East Division with a record of 24-15.

Friday at 7:10 PM: RHP Tommy Hanson vs. RHP James Shields

Hanson was Matt Moore before there was Matt Moore. He breezed through the minor leagues, striking out over 10 batters per nine innings at almost every stop. There's a feeling among Braves fans that he hasn't quite lived up to his pedigree, rarely working deep into games and falling behind batters (especially this year), but I'd be shocked if he doesn't improve as the year goes on. Last year he posted a 3.23 SIERA, which was slightly better than Shields, so yeah, he's pretty good.

Hanson leans heavily on his fastball and his excellent low 80s slider, which has more drop to it than many pitcher's curves. He mixes in a curve himself 13% of the time, and although he can throw a changeup, he very rarely does. This season he's really struggled against lefties, but he hasn't had major problems with them before in his career, so I'm not sure if it's real. One thing to keep an eye on is that his fastball velocity, which once sat above 93 mph has it's average down below 90 mph this year. It might just be Hanson mixing in non-four-seam fastballs more often, but that's not obvious in the pitch f/x data so far.

Saturday at 4:10 PM: RHP Randall Delgado vs. TBD (Chris Archer or Alex Cobb)

One of Atlanta's "four horseman," the pitching prospects who they would absolutely not trade this past offseason, Delgado is impressive at the tender age off 22. He throws a good four-seam fastball that averages 93 mph, a better sinker that averages 92 mph (GB% over 50%), and a truly outstanding changeup that at it's best will fall off the table like Shields's or Rodneys's. When batters swing at Delgado's changup, they miss over 43% of the time, and 50% of the balls put in play off it are grounders. He also features a pretty decent curve. So far this year, Delgado has struggled a bit with lefties, but given his repertoire, I wouldn't expect that to continue. Really, he's the total package, and only lacks in experience.

Sunday at 1:40 PM: RHP Tim Hudson vs. LHP David Price

Tim Hudson just keeps plugging along at the ripe old age of 36, giving year after year of 200+ innings of sub-3.5 ERA ball. This is a guy with a long enough career and a consistent enough pattern that I'm comfortable labeling him as an honest to god FIP-beater. Since 2009, he's actually been better than his "glory days" in Oakland. His pitch mix is unique enough to merit a picture:



The four-seam fastball averages 90.5 mph, the sinker is at 90.2 mph, the cutter 86 mph, the splitter 81.7 mph, and the curve 77 mph. Every single one of these pitches has over a 50% GB rate, some well above that, making Hudson one of the most groundball-heavy pitchers in the majors. His cutter and his splitter are Hudson's two swing-and-miss weapons.

Side note: A "tender" age means young, and a "ripe" age means old. But a ripe fruit is tender. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

These splits are made using my splits regression tool. The tables are sortable.

Batter Hand PAs Vs. RHP Vs. LHP
Jason Heyward L 1225 0.362 0.316
Brian McCann L 3596 0.358 0.324
Freddie Freeman L 819 0.357 0.327
Chipper Jones S 5523 0.349 0.330
Dan Uggla R 4209 0.345 0.326
Michael Bourn L 2842 0.335 0.291
David Ross R 1807 0.334 0.348
Juan Francisco L 242 0.329 0.281
Eric Hinske L 4153 0.328 0.286
Martin Prado R 2269 0.325 0.338
Tyler Pastornicky R 118 0.304 0.283
Matt Diaz R 1960 0.283 0.324
Jack Wilson R 4886 0.258 0.277

The Braves are a solid offensive team, and they're especially scary against righties. Their lineup is stacked with high quality lefties, Chipper, and the right handed Dan Uggla, who actually has reverse splits. I expect to see Shield's changeup early and often, and I expect TBD to mean Cobb, who has a high quality changeup himself.

Against righties the Braves are far less imposing, but they're not terrible. Long-time backup catcher David Ross is actually their projected best bat, with a .wOBA of .348. That makes now an appropriate time to whine. As we Rays fans know, it's difficult to find one good catcher. We've suffered long and we've suffered hard, trying to find a starter without warts. Atlanta has two. Brian McCann is undoubtedly the best backstop in the National League and the fact that against lefties David Ross is probably better is ridiculous. Both of them rated as above average in Mike Fast's pitch framing study (though they're no Jose Molina) and while McCann isn't great at throwing base stealers out (24%), Ross is pretty impressive (38%, like Jose Molina).

Also, the Braves are one of the teams, like the Rays, who really work their platoons. Ross, Hinske, Prado, and Diaz are all mediocre to slightly above average players who can give significantly more value than their overall talent level if used correctly.

Edit: There's something fishy about Uggla's regressed splits. Don't go betting your house on them. I'll figure and fix them eventually, but here are his career numbers: .360 wOBA in 2775 PAs vs. RHP; .342 wOBA in 936 PAs vs. LHP.

Now for the relievers:

Pitcher xFIP vs. R xFIP vs. L IPs Vs. R IPs Vs. L
Craig Kimbrel 2.06 2.17 58.1 53.1
Johnny Venters 3.36 1.82 126.2 58
Kris Medlen 3.55 3.6 105.1 95
Cristhian Martinez 3.21 3.75 81.1 69.2
Livan Hernandez 4.18 4.89 1127.1 1017.2
Eric O'Flaherty 4.32 3.45 142.2 115.1
Chad Durbin 4.76 4.76 296.1 223.1

These numbers are not regressed. That's because pitchers, especially relievers, show much greater splits than hitters do, and much more variation in their splits.

The back of the Atlanta bullpen is just crazy. There's a sense that Kimbrel and Venters have dropped off from last year, but that's only because their rookie seasons were so preposterous. Both of them are still striking out over 14 batters per nine innings. Medlen is an interesting addition to the pen this year. He was a starter and a decent one, with xFIPs around .350 in 2009 and 2010 (arrived at via a miniscule walk rate). He's not been quite that good as a reliever so far, but he should be expected to improve as he grows into his new role. He's still a long man, having collected a three inning save this season, but he's not restricted to low leverage appearances like fellow former starter Livan Hernandez.

Data is from Fangraphs, Texas Leaguers, and Brooks Baseball.