From the time the Braves added brothers Justin and B.J. Upton to a lineup that already included Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, they seemed like a science experiment built for this question: How many strikeouts can one lineup generate while still being successful?
The Braves racked up 1,384 strikeouts in 2013, most in the National League, and they also finished second in the NL in victories, with 96. The parts fit together.
Here in 2014, Atlanta hitters are still striking out a lot; their 297 K's are tied for the fourth most in the majors. But what has changed significantly is this: Braves hitters have stopped drawing walks, which often are a companion to strikeouts.
In 2013, Atlanta drew 542 walks, second most in the NL, which helped the Braves finish fourth in the league in runs scored. This year, however, the Braves are 12th in walks and next to last in runs among all teams; the only club with fewer runs is the San Diego Padres.
It's an unusual development, because for the most part, the lineup is the same. Brian McCann departed as a free agent, which has meant more at-bats for Evan Gattis, who is unquestionably a more aggressive hitter. But McCann drew only 39 walks in 402 plate appearances last season, so it's not like the Cincinnati Reds losing Shin-Soo Choo. The collective patience at the plate for the rest of the Braves hitters is down almost across the board.
Pitches Per Plate Appearance
The Braves have just one player among the top 45 in pitches per plate appearance (minimum 25 plate appearances), and as you can see to the right, some key members of the Atlanta lineup have seen a regression in the number of pitches seen.
You can strike out a lot and still score a lot of runs. No team is striking out more these days than the Chicago White Sox, who rank second in runs scored. Last year the Boston Red Sox finished eighth in the majors in strikeouts, and yet scored 57 more runs than any other team on their way to the 2013 championship. Oakland's offense could be a mirror of what the Braves should be: big power, high strikeouts, high walks.
The big strikeout totals without the walks, without consistently getting deep into counts and wearing down opposing starters and getting into the bullpens, now that's a serious problem, and it's showing in Atlanta's production.
Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information dug this out: The Braves' opportunities for damage have been slightly limited as well. In 2014, 24.8 percent of the team's plate appearances have reached a 2-0, 3-0 or 3-1 count. It was 28.0 percent last season.
One more statistic to pass along about the Braves' offense, courtesy of Katie Sharp from ESPN Stats & Info: As we headed into the week of play, 54.5 percent of the Braves' runs this season (54 of 99 runs) have come via home runs, the highest rate in the majors. Second on the list are the Giants at 48.1 percent.
Around the league
• On Wednesday's Baseball Tonight podcast, Jason Grilli discussed the first walk-off replay challenge, and Nolan Arenado talked about learning to play third base and the Rockies' growing confidence. Arenado then extended his hitting streak to 27 games Wednesday night, and the Rockies rolled, again.
• Richard Griffin doesn't think cheating could be worthwhile for Melky Cabrera. From his story: "He has a defender in Jose Bautista, the Jays' best hitter and the man who currently bats after Cabrera in the lineup. Bautista, Cabrera's friend and fellow Dominican, was once victimized by similar innuendo in 2010, when allegations of PED cheating put a damper on his breakout 54-homer season."
Bautista weighed in as well: "What bothers me specifically about Melky's situation is that he's a free agent after the year, and those types of comments can really affect his status as a free agent and his ability to negotiate. That story can get picked up by somebody else, and it can get expanded and blown up into whatever they want, which could be detrimental to his negotiation."
More from Griffin: "Clearly Cabrera is the wrong guy to pick on in trying to make a case that cheating is worthwhile. Down the road, with that suspension in his background, he will likely never get the huge deal he might have expected if the stats were clean. See Nelson Cruz with the O's."
I'd respectfully disagree, and I know a whole lot of current and past players who would, too. If any player takes PEDs and gains an unfair advantage over his union brethren, that means he's holding a position somebody else should hold, and making money somebody else should make. Just because somebody doesn't make as much as Ryan Braun doesn't mean cheating isn't worthwhile, and it's hardly a stretch to suggest that Cabrera made extra cash through his past transgression.
In fact, it's almost certainly a lock that he already has benefitted from cheating. He made $3.1 million as an extra outfielder with the Braves in 2010 and had such a mediocre season that he was cut free; the Braves agreed with the Yankees' assessment that he was essentially an extra outfielder. He signed with the Royals for $1.25 million in 2011 and became a star, at a time when he reportedly became a client of Biogenesis. He was suspended in 2012 while playing for the San Francisco Giants, and the Blue Jays then signed him to a two-year, $16 million deal before anybody knew about Tony Bosch and Biogenesis.
And if all that information impacts the market assessment of Cabrera, well, too bad. These are all plain, simple facts, and while Cabrera served his suspension, that doesn't mean his history is whitewashed. His peers in uniform, in fact -- who know something about the risk/reward equation -- decided that a first offense shifts a player into another level of scrutiny, that of a potential two-time offender. It's because of Cabrera's case and others in the past few years that the union ramped up penalties for PED cheats.
• Jeff Samardzija doesn't want the Cubs' front office to monitor his pitch counts. From Gordon Wittenmyer's story: "The Cubs' lame-duck ace didn't call anyone out by name, but he made it clear he wasn't happy with the front office for raising eyebrows over his career-high 126 pitches during a nine-inning gem Monday against the Sox."
"No. Absolutely not," Jeff Samardzija said when asked if he understood upper management's potential concern, "because this is an on-field issue for uniformed personnel. That's all there is to it. I'm a grown man. I'm 29. I'm not a prospect or 22. I feel good, and I'm grown up enough and responsible enough to understand when I can go out and when I can't go.
"I've earned my right in athletics to be able to understand my body and where I'm at."
• More on the Braves: Jordan Schafer told manager Fredi Gonzalez he wants to play more. Gavin Floyd is going to stay in the Atlanta rotation, and somebody else will be dropped. Mike Minor was hit hard Wednesday.
• Speaking of that Cardinals-Braves game Wednesday, it's hard to imagine a more difficult matchup for the Braves, given their offense's struggles, than Adam Wainwright: a Georgia native pitching against his former organization and coming off a subpar outing good luck with that. Wainwright was outstanding, as Rick Hummel writes.
• The Astros are 10-24, on pace to win 47 games and finish the season with a run differential of minus-309. Houston has lost five straight, and counting.
• Derek Jeter ended a streak of 161 straight at-bats without a home run, and he got a huge reaction from fans in Anaheim following his homer, No. 257 of his career. It's too early to write him off, writes Mike Lupica.
From Wednesday's games
A. He threw a season-low 43.9 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. However
B. He got a career-high 26 swings at pitches out of the strike zone and tied a career high with 15 chases on his off-speed pitches (changeup or curveball).
C. Hitters were 1-for-15 with 5 K's in at-bats ending with a pitch outside the strike zone, and Strasburg had only two walks.
D. He induced a ground ball on 72.7 percent of the balls in play, the third-highest rate in his career.
3. The Indians got to frolic.
4. The Reds' loss was a second-guesser's delight, says manager Bryan Price.
5. The Red Sox are back at .500.
7. The Mariners split a doubleheader.
Moves, deals and decisions
Dings and dents
2. The Reds' injuries are mind-numbing.
• You can't stop the Marlins, you can only hope to contain them.
• The Mets left the cupboard bare, writes Mike Vaccaro.
• There's a new twist to the Gregory Polanco watch.
• Oscar Taveras could be doing better in Triple-A, writes Bernie Miklasz.
• The Dodgers' long trip came to an end.
• The Orioles dig the long ball.
• The Tigers' win streak is at eight games.
• Outfield inexperience cost the Twins.
• The Rangers have been pummeled by the Rockies.
• King Felix didn't record a strikeout in his 6 1/3 innings Wednesday.
• With the Angels, it's just a matter of perspective, writes Mike DiGiovanna.
• Some college buddies will face off today.
• The Brewers are honoring Joe Torre.
And today will be better than yesterday.