I’ve Lost That Loving Feeling

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Over the past year, I have lost that loving feeling….for sports and it is sad. Actually, it has been occurring for a bit longer than that and really started with the beginning of the steroids era in baseball. However, the realization that more likely than not, probably every team cheats, and probably every player cheats in some way, in every sport.

Yes, I still watch sports. I would still probably rather watch a good baseball game than just about anything else. But I can no longer watch it with the same enthusiasm and love of the games that I once had. The great plays, the wins, great accomplishments, championships – they no longer hold the same feelings for me that they once did. I have also lost my enthusiasm for writing about sports because everything I think I want to write about I can no longer find the joy in it.

Sure I could fake it. I could write about sports every day of the week but most of what I would write I wouldn’t believe or wouldn’t really care about. Eventually I wouldn’t be able to come up with fake enthusiasm or the joy that I once had. It’s like losing a part of my life. A part that at times I’ve been paid to do and at times I did only for the love of it.

I have had many people tell me that I should just forget about the fact that no sports are untainted by the stain of cheating and just go back to the oblivious watching and writing. I know this is what most people do. Most people who watch sports or participate in sports in any way push the cheating aspects out of their minds in favor of wins and money….because really that’s all that matters right?

I have come to realize that this behavior is in a nutshell the epitome of the representation of our society and all of it’s problems. It’s just one more extension of these behaviors. People are rude and disrespectful and we allow it to continue by saying it is expected and we should just accept it. People who want to erase symbols of history rather than confronting the truth in their own hearts. All of the evils of the world. We see them, we post our obligatory “isn’t that awful” comments on social media, and then we go back to not caring or doing anything to make a difference because as long as it’s not happening to us, who really cares right? As long as our team is winning the fans are happy and as long as they are making money everyone else is happy.

Will I continue to watch sports? Probably, but likely not nearly as much and that probably makes me some kind of hypocrite. Will I continue to write about them? I am not sure but as this is the first sports thing I have written in months, it’s not likely. As Lao Tzu once said, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

Rebuilding

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My yearly opening day optimism is a bit tempered this year. Don’t misunderstand, I still think the opening day of baseball season is quite possibly one of the best days of the year, but the word rebuilding has lessened my enthusiasm. The Braves are rebuilding. They are rebuilding the farm system and rebuilding the team. Rebuilding doesn’t lend itself to a season with a winning record.

All is not dismal however. The pitching staff is still fairly good. Not outstanding but all things being equal it could hold it’s own with other teams. Starting rotation this year: Julio Teheran (14-13, 2.89, 2 shutouts), Alex Wood (11-11, 2.78), Shelby Miller (10-9, 3.74 with Cardinals), Eric Stults (8-17, 4.30 with Padres), Trevor Cahill (3-12, 5.61 in 32 games, 17 starts with Arizona). Mike Minor (6-12, 4.77) will start the season on the 15 day DL. Bullpen: Craig Kimbrel (0-3, 1.61, NL-leading 47/51 saves, 95 Ks in 61 2-3 IP), Jason Grilli (1-5, 4.00, 12/17 saves with Pirates and Angels), Jim Johnson (5-2, 7.09, 2 saves with Athletics and Tigers), Luis Avilan (4-1, 4.57), Andrew McKirahan, Josh Outman (on the 15 day DL), Juan Jaime, Cody Martin.

On the hitting side, it may be much more of a struggle. Catcher Christian Bethancourt (.248, 0, 9), 1B Freddie Freeman (.288, 18, 78, .386 OBP), 2B Jace Peterson (.113, 0, 0 in 27 games with Padres), SS Andrelton Simmons (.244, 7, 46, NL Gold Glove), 3B Chris Johnson (.263, 10, 58, 159 Ks), LF Jonny Gomes (.234, 6, 37 with Boston and Oakland), CF Eric Young Jr. (.229, 1 HR, 17 RBI, 30 SBs with Mets), RF Nick Markakis (.276, 14, 50, AL Gold Glove with Orioles). Melvin Young Jr (or the player formerly known as BJ Upton with a 75 million dollar contract will start the season on the 15 day DL. On the bench: Alberto Callaspo, INF (2B, 3B), Phil Gosselin, INF (2B, SS, 3B), Kelly Johnson, INF/OF (1B, 2B, 3B, LF, RF), A.J. Pierzynski, C. Eric Young looks to be the leadoff hitter and one of the few (possibly only) hitter with any speed.

I am not convinced that the Braves will have the dismal season everyone is predicting. I do think they won’t give the Nationals any kind of run for their money in the East, but they might be able to hold off the Marlins for second and maybe an 85 win season, maybe. But it is sure to be painful along the way and hard to watch. The team is rebuilding – for 2017 when the new stadium opens. The next two years may be a bit of struggle for the fans, but opening day is still one of the best days of the year.

EDITED 4/5/15 6:40PM ET : The Braves have traded closer Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr to the Padres in exchange for pitching prospect Matt Wisler, minor league outfielder Jordan Paroubeck, outfielders Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin, and the 41st overall pick.  While dealing Upton is a BIG positive, dealing Kimbrel is not, well not for this year anyway. So Braves fans should cinch up because this is going to be a very bad season.  I retract my 85 wins prediction and will be surprised if the team wins 75 games this year.

Faith

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Faith is not something I have in abundance in regards to baseball in general and the Braves in particular.  It is also not something I believe I’m going to get a healthy dose of anytime soon.  As sad as that may be, it remains true and it has really affected how I feel about baseball as a whole.  It’s as if I have lost a very old friend and even if they come back, the relationship will never be the same.

I lost faith in baseball when it became clear that a lot of the players were using some kind of drugs.  From steroids to amphetamines, the drug use is rampant.  Not just in baseball I realize and not all of the athletes are using.  Most are or have.  Most would if they believed it would give them an edge, allow them to play longer, stronger, better, faster.  They would.  The suspensions, drug tests, publicity mean nothing.  The fans still keep coming to games.  They don’t care what a player is taking as long as he is playing well and the team is winning.  The idea of a clean sport is something of an era gone by, for older fans like me to wish for, but it is never, ever coming back again and not many fans care one bit.  This is why it will never be clean again and why I will never, ever love the sport as I once did.  It’s heartbreaking.

The Braves most likely have players who are using.  Have they been outed or suspended?  No, but they are most likely there, law of averages and all.  The Braves minors system has suspended multiple players this year for 50 games and more.  But that’s not the main reason I’ve lost faith with the Braves.  That faith was lost over their inability to play small ball and win games.  The team fired the GM and I have had countless conversations about how this is good because it’s going to get someone in there who can get the right players to change the game on the field.  That’s crap.  The mindset of the Braves goes from the top of the front office to the bat boy.  Good pitching, hit home runs.  There’s nothing…absolutely nothing in between.  The Braves wouldn’t know how to play small ball with diagrams.  They wouldn’t know how to spell bunt or squeeze or stolen base.  It’s not who they are and it’s not who they have been for years.  It is why they have probably the highest RISP and LOB in the majors.  It is why they lose games by 1 and 2 runs every other day and sometimes every day for weeks at a time.  It is why they are not in the playoffs year after year.  A new GM is not going to change that.

Watching the Royals in the playoffs has been like watching the most perfectly played baseball I have seen in years.  They play small ball better than any team I have seen in the last 10 possibly 20 years.  They will bunt with their #3 hitter.  They will pinch run through the game to steal bases.  They will contemplate a squeeze to home with 2 outs near the end of the game and their opponent knows it and has to adjust for that possibility.  The Braves opponents know that when their 3-6 hitters come to bat they are ONLY trying to hit homeruns period regardless of how many runners are on base or in scoring position.  Difficult to have faith when they do the same thing every game.

Faith..it is a difficult concept.

And Then There Were 10

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The Braves 2014 season has come to this, and then there were 10.  Just 10 games left in a season that started out with such promise and now is very likely to end with the games 10 games back of the Nationals or more.  There will very likely be no post season action for the Braves this year.

The season started out looking pretty good.  The team was winning more than they were losing and they were leading the NL West by several games for a fairly long stretch.  Braves fans had hope.  The new season looked so very promising.  Then, the injuries started.  The pitching went down like so many bowling pins on a strike.  One, then another, then another.  It started a chain reaction it seemed and there would be no coming back from it.

Not because there still wasn’t decent pitching on the team, there was.  The injuries were not the cause of the Braves downfall, they were just a side piece.  The Braves downfall, on display even when they were winning and leading the division, is what it has been for the past several years and the injuries had nothing to do with it.  As I have stated numerous times, the numbers back me up, the Braves are utterly incapable of playing small ball.  They seem unable to learn this skill.  The team plays hoping some home run or two will secure the game and they swing freely trying to get those home runs.  It is all about power hitting.

Hundreds, and I am not exaggerating, hundreds of men left on base.  Through hits or walks, hundreds get on base, any base.  Many, many games lost by one or two runs and they could have, should have been won.  Add to the men left on base, an utterly abysmal RISP.  It seems if any runner gets near second or third base the ONLY thing the Braves know how to do is swing away trying to get home runs.  Nobody understands the concept of moving men around….nobody.  Not the coach, not the hitters.  They are all in the “let’s hit a home run” mind set all the time.  Squeeze plays, stolen bases, bunts, sacrifice flies…those are foreign concepts.

Yes, the pitching injuries were significant, but the pitching that remained was good enough to keep most of the games close enough that they could have been won.  It was the abandonment of the fundamentals of the game that put the Braves in the position they are in right now.  Sitting 11.5 games behind the Nationals in the division and 5.5 games back in the Wildcard race.

And then there were 10…and another season slips away.

Trade Winds

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Trade winds have been swirling throughout Major League Baseball for over a week getting stronger and more intense as the deadline approached.  Some teams made wholesale changes like the Red Sox and some teams chose to make surgical trades like the Braves.  It remains to be seen which teams prosper and which falter after the winds die down, but the Braves seem, at least at first glance, to have made a beneficial trade.

The Braves received infielder/utility player Emilio Bonifacio and left-handed reliever James Russell from the Cubs for cash considerations and minor league pitcher Victor Caratini.  The Braves finally released the very expensive, but still dead weight Dan Uggla earlier in the season.  Tommy LaStella has filled that spot admirably 42 complete games (56 games total) this season for the team with a .294 average and only 3 errors.  Bonifacio has played 8 seasons total with a .264 batting average and over the 8 seasons he has played every position including DH except pitcher and catcher.  He has 59 total errors over 8 seasons with a .969 fielding percentage.  He also has 14 stolen bases this season for the Cubs.  Bonifacio is the kind of player who can fill in at almost any position giving rest to players like the currently ailing Andrelton Simmons and the Braves lose little if anything on the field and at the plate.

James Russell has played all 5 seasons with the Cubs.  He has pitched in 44 games this season.  His career ERA is 3.87 with 203 strikeouts in 272 innings pitched.  In 2014, he has held right-handed batters to a .103 average.  Definitely a nice tool to have against right-handed hitters out of the bullpen.

The Braves are currently in 2nd place in the NL East 1.5 games back of the Nationals.  They are 4-6 for their last 10 games having lost their last 3 in a row.  Several of the 6 they have lost are once again by 1 or 2 runs.  Once again, and I know it’s like beating a dead horse, the team is abysmal, ABYSMAL, on LOB, team LOB, and RISP.  In double digits in almost every single game win or lose.  They have not corrected this for the last few years and if they don’t correct it before playoffs, they won’t make it out of the first round, IF they make it into the first round at all.  Baseball Prospectus has the Braves chances of making the post season at 50% right now.

The Braves have the Padres and Mariners before facing off on Friday August 8 with the division leading Nationals.  A series that could greatly impact post season prospects.  It will be interesting to see how these trade winds play out for the Braves.  Let’s hope for fair winds and following seas…..

 

Winning Is Good

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The Braves have won 9 games in a row as of today.  Winning is good.  Winning is always good.  However, if you have read any of my Braves blogs you know I always look beyond the wins.

There are three reasons for the Braves recent win streak.  In the last 7 days, hitting has come around for several players.  This is mostly due to the very poor pitching of the teams they have faced.  The second reason is that the Braves pitching has been outstanding limiting these admittedly lower ranked teams to very few hits.  The third reason, the  teams the Braves have faced are not playing top tier baseball this season so far.  In fact, they are scraping the bottom of the standings barrel at the current time.  Three of the teams faced in this 9 game winning streak are 2-8 for their last 10 games.  The Astros are 3-7.  They are overall playing poorly.

Now to the good things the Braves are doing.  The pitching for the last 7 days has only 2 pitchers over a 3.00 ERA, Wood and Minor.  Minor is struggling at 8.31.  Wood is hanging in at 4.50.  Remember this is the last 7 days only.  Santana and Teheran are performing stellar pitching with 2.45 and 1.29 respectively.  The rest of the Braves pitching roster for the last 7 days have a zero ERA.  Relievers and closers are getting the job done and limiting these poorly performing teams to a close to zero sum production.  It makes it a lot easier to win when your pitching is so dominant.

For the last 7 days, the hitting has been dominant as well from most of the team.  Again, they are hitting against less than great pitching, but it is still worth mentioning as no matter what the circumstances a boost in confidence is always good and some of these hitters have certainly needed that with some less than great overall season numbers from some of them.  Two pitchers are hitting .500, Minor and Teheran.  Laird doing some catching duties and 8 at bats is also at .500.  Simmons, La Stella, Freeman, BJ Upton, and Bethancourt are all hitting over .300 for the last 7 days.  Justin Upton continues to struggle with 20 at bats and a .200 for the last 7.  Heyward is .217 with 23 at bats.

You know I cannot write a Braves blog without mentioning the following, RISP and LOB.  Unfortunately, even with this win streak, the team is still putting up abysmal numbers in both of these categories.  When I list LOB here it is TEAM LOB.  The overall LOB is much, much higher.  Yesterday’s game, yes a win, yes a big win, but there were 22 LOB total.  Against a better team, this would likely not have resulted in a win.  Over the last 12 games, the team has 32-129 RISP and 82 team LOB (the actual LOB is much higher).  The Braves average almost 7 players as their team LOB for the last 12 games.  Against better teams this would result in a lot more losses than wins.  Against teams where their pitching is lacking and the Braves pitching is overall great, leaving this many on base every game is not a detriment.

The Braves get the Mets for another series and then the Cubs before the All-Star break.  Again, these teams are not playing anywhere near well.  If the Braves pitching holds up, it shouldn’t be hard to get some more wins out of these two series.  It doesn’t eliminate the fact that the team will face better teams at some point.  That point is not in the near future though as it will be the middle of August before the Braves face a team that’s playing well in the Nationals.

When this will really matter will come in the playoffs.  If the Braves continue to win against poor teams they will most likely make the playoffs again.  This is where their inability to get the runners around the bases will come into play just as it did last year.

It’s all well and good to win during the regular season, but if you cannot get it done in the playoffs…you’re just a good regular season team without any titles.

Close

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In general, most stats say one thing about the Braves, close.  They are close to winning or losing games generally with just a run or two either way.  They are close to being in or out of 1st place with a game or two either way.  Close is a big risk the longer the season gets.

Close allows other teams to beat you in games and close allows other teams to push you down the standings with just a couple of losses.  As the season goes on close allows for no mistakes.  Close makes playing small ball even more important.  Close makes being 1-12 with runners in scoring position and losing a game by 1 run a very bad thing.

The Braves were in 1st place for quite a while but their margin of lead kept steadily shrinking with close game losses, a few blow outs, and the abysmal aforementioned RISP and men left on base.  The next thing you know they are losing 6 games in a row and leaving 1st place in the rear view mirror.  Being so close to the Marlins and Nationals in the standings and losing several games in a row allowed those teams to move up while the Braves were in free fall.

Of course being so close can work to your benefit as well if you find yourself falling down the standings but still with a game of the teams ahead of you.  The Braves win a couple of games, the other two teams lose a couple and just like that they are back in 1st place but once again ahead 1 game of the Marlins and 1.5 games ahead of the Nationals.  Any repeat of a run of losses and the tides could turn very quickly again.

For Braves fans, this is the normal way a baseball season goes for the last few years.  The team does well enough to win close games and they stay just ahead of the next closest team but it’s always a razors edge.  Up and down, close but no breathing room allowing for the inevitable losses that come with the inability to play small ball.

Close is a scary place to be for a Braves fan.