Buster Olney: Atlanta Braves

MLB win totals worth a look 

February, 14, 2015
Feb 14
Chase HeadleyJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDespite limited offseason moves, expect the Yankees to come back stronger in 2015.
To understand how adept casinos are in their business, all you have to do is look around as you walk the Las Vegas Strip. Those massive buildings, with all f their glitter and lights, are there because the folks who run them know what it takes to win. When betting lines are established, well, you’d be crazy not to take them seriously.

But there are times when the lines raise an eyebrow -- like when they set their over/under victory projections for each of the 30 teams in baseball. On Friday, the Atlantis sports book in Reno posted their numbers. As usual, some are surprising -- and heck, they might even look like an opportunity, if I ever bet on baseball (and I don’t).

Here are five, in particular.

1. New York Yankees, 80 wins

The Yankees’ fan base is really concerned because unlike in past offseasons, New York wasn’t chasing the biggest stars.

Top 10 shortstops in MLB 

November, 21, 2014
Brandon Crawford, Troy Tulowitzki, and  Andrelton SimmonsGetty ImagesThe priority at shortstop has shifted squarely to defense, something all of these guys play.
The question of whether you’d prefer to have Buster Posey or Yadier Molina at catcher has lots of layers, as does the debate about whether Miguel Cabrera is the game’s top first baseman.

But with Troy Tulowitzki coming back from major surgery and facing an uncertain future, there really is no clear No. 1 among the shortstops. You could take this in a lot of different directions, depending on what you value the most -- a preference for high-end offense, or Platinum Glove-caliber defense, or mere consistency.

Through conversations with team evaluators, general managers and our own statistical analysts, we probably considered four or five different guys in the No. 1 spot at one time or another.

We settled on this ranking of MLB shortstops:

1. Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta Braves

Simmons is not the perfect player, by any means; picking the No. 1 shortstop is not the same now as it was in 2001, when you had your choice of Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and others. Simmons had a .286 on-base percentage last season, with seven homers among just 29 extra-base hits in 540 plate appearances. It would be very reasonable here to make a case in the No. 1 spot for a better hitter, or maybe two or three others.

But a highly ranked executive put it best

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Donaldson trade looming in A's overhaul 

October, 1, 2014
Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsIf a teardown of the A's happens, Josh Donaldson is likely to go.
PITTSBURGH -- When you hear Ralph Branca tell the story of Bobby Thomson’s historic home run, he offers a full appreciation of that moment, but the hurt is still there. Dennis Eckersley bears the same tone when speaking of Kirk Gibson’s home run, that small ache about a swing that changed lives.

This is what lies before the Oakland Athletics, whose wild-card game loss to the Kansas City Royals Tuesday night was a microcosm of their season -- the great start, the enormous lead right in the middle, the collapse, the late revival, and then a finish that will forever haunt them.

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Small change makes big impact for Wood 

August, 10, 2014
Alex WoodAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillAn offseason grip change has made Alex Wood's curveball much more effective this season.
ATLANTA -- Dee Gordon is the model of improvement in major league baseball this year, evolving from a part-timer into an All-Star with a position change and a change in regimen. He explained in spring training that by eliminating hours of pickup basketball, he was finally able to gain weight he felt he needed.

This is the part of baseball for which no statistical analysis can account: A player’s ability to adapt, to make changes that can make a big difference.

Atlanta Braves pitcher Alex Wood -- who starts on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN) against Gio Gonzalez and the Nationals -- is another example of this. For him, throwing a fastball and a changeup came easily, but his curveball was always problematic and inconsistent. Sometimes it would spin sharply, sometimes it wouldn’t, and sometimes he could command the pitch and sometimes he couldn’t.

He tinkered with different grips, he explained Saturday, and during the offseason, he found something while playing catch with his former college teammate, Kyle Farmer, who is now a catcher in the Dodgers’ organization. Wood started using the tip of his left index finger as the primary lever, rather than the first knuckle, and gripped a different part of the baseball, using the seams for traction.

He had a better feel for the ball throwing it this way, and a better curveball, which was confirmed by a moment in spring training. With a two-strike count, Wood threw the curve to David Ortiz, who watched it spin right over the plate for Strike 3.

With his new curveball -- which he’s using about 50 percent more than he did last season -- Wood feels that he now has a third pitch for which hitters have to account, and cannot simply dismiss.

“Just being able to throw it whenever I need to throw it, for the most part, and for an out pitch against left-handers and right-handers has been a big improvement this year,” said Wood, who has a 2.96 ERA this season in 15 starts, with 88 strikeouts in 94 1/3 innings.

Here are some other players who made small adjustments that have had yielded colossal results this season

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Remaking the Atlanta lineup 

June, 16, 2014
Tommy La StellaScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBatting Tommy La Stella near the top of the lineup is an option for Atlanta.
ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman is now 24 years old and like Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates, he is learning that opposing pitchers have decided they simply have no reason to give him anything to hit.

Going into Sunday’s game, Freeman had seen the third-fewest pitches in the strike zone in all of baseball, behind Pablo Sandoval and Giancarlo Stanton, as you can see here (Sandoval is a big hacker, Stanton an obvious power threat):

Pablo Sandoval, SF: 36.9 percent
Giancarlo Stanton, MIA: 39.1 percent
Freddie Freeman, ATL: 40.1 percent
David Ortiz, BOS: 40.2 percent

Those numbers -- and the generally poor numbers for most of the Atlanta batters -- have created a quandary for Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who must structure his lineup in such a way that will nudge opposing pitchers to throw to Freeman. At the same time, there is a concern about stacking one part of the order with too many strikeout hitters.

For the readers: Put yourself in Gonzalez's shoes and consider the Rubik's Cube that is the Atlanta lineup structure. This is what Gonzalez opted for on Sunday night

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videoATLANTA -- Jeff Trout stays up to watch his son Mike play, no matter what part of the world he happens to be in. Mike knows this because, no matter how late the Angels’ games end, he gets text messages from his parents after the final pitch is thrown.

“He doesn’t miss a game,” Mike Trout said Saturday.

The words are positive, as they have always been, from the time Mike was growing into his love for baseball to now, when he’s generally regarded as the best in his sport. Way to get some knocks, his father might text if Trout has a few hits.

“He’s never negative,” Trout said. “If I go through a little skid or something, he’ll say, ‘Keep a smile on your face,’ or ‘Keep your head on straight.’

"There have been times when he might’ve said, ‘Do this,’ or ‘Do that,’ and I’d be thinking too much out there. He knows I got here for a reason and that it'll turn around.”

What rival players and evaluators love about Mike Trout, beyond his talent, is the unabashed joy he plays with, and this seems to stem from the way he was raised into the game by his mother, Debbie, and father, Jeff.

“They always told me that if they had to put a uniform on me, they didn’t want to do it,” Mike Trout said. “Baseball was a thing where I woke up every day ready to play. It’s always been fun. I was probably driving them crazy to play.”

Mike Trout would get up early and be waiting for his mom to take him to the field or for his father to go outside to play catch, throw batting practice to him or play whiffle ball in their backyard. The driveway was the home run boundary to left field, and in right, hitting the ball into the woods, beyond the grass of the lawn, was pay dirt.

“Every chance he got, he would throw to me,” Mike Trout said. “I’d have my buddies over and he’d be out there playing with us.”

He started beating his father in whiffle ball, he recalls, sometime when he was about 8, 9 or 10, and as Mike pitched to his father -- with Jeff Trout bent down in a crouch or sitting on a bucket to frame the strike zone -- he started to occasionally get the ball past him when he was a sophomore in high school. Such is the life of the father of a prodigy.

To this day in the offseason, Jeff Trout will flip balls to his son in the cage, but he doesn’t throw a lot of hitting advice at his son, doesn’t break down his mechanics. What he does is encourage.

“That’s why he’s always been so helpful,” Mike Trout said.

Jeff Trout had reason to send positive texts to his son Saturday night, after Mike had three hits and four RBIs and the Angels broke out in extra innings to beat the Braves. This is how Kole Calhoun saved the game.

Mike Trout is the third-fastest player to reach 75 career home runs and 75 career steals in MLB history, doing so in his 399th game. Only Eric Davis (335) and Alfonso Soriano (395) did it in fewer games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Other Angels-Braves notes

• We have a small sample for 2014, but Josh Hamilton has basically doubled his OPS against lefties since last year, improving from .596 to his current 1.190. He is chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone, according to FanGraphs, down from 45.4 percent in 2012 to 36.9 percent this year, and he is hitting .342 in 19 games.

Between rounds of batting practice Saturday evening, Hamilton explained that he had a shift in thought process early in spring training.

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Justin and B.J. UptonGetty ImagesBrothers Justin and B.J. Upton are both among the top 15 in the majors in strikeouts.
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.

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A record-setting day for pitchers 

April, 28, 2014
Johnny CuetoAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto didn't allow a run in eight innings on Sunday and still couldn't get a victory.
There had never been a day in which at least eight different Major League Baseball starters each threw at least seven innings while allowing no more than three hits. Well, on Sunday, this happened a record 10 times.

From ESPN Stats and Info, how history was made:

Johnny Cueto: Hitters were 1-for-8 with five strikeouts in at-bats ending in his cutter, the most strikeouts he's had with that pitch in any start in his career.

Just one problem for Cueto and the Reds: They lost 1-0 in extra innings.

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Braves may have to trade for pitching 

March, 10, 2014
Kris MedlenBrad Barr/USA TODAY SportsThe Braves have their fingers crossed regarding the health of Medlen's right arm.
Kris Medlen recoiled in pain and immediately walked off the mound Sunday, and today the Atlanta Braves will learn more about their Opening Day starter after he undergoes an MRI for what was initially diagnosed as a forearm strain.

So the rotation could become an immediate area of concern for the Braves. Tim Hudson has moved on to the Giants, and the Braves don't know if Mike Minor will be ready at the outset of the season, after having an offseason procedure.

If Medlen is sidelined, then Atlanta could be looking at an opening rotation of Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy, Freddy Garcia, Alex Wood and David Hale (the 26-year-old Hale made two starts for the Braves last year, and pitched effectively). The Braves also believe that Gavin Floyd, who is progressing well through his rehabilitation in camp this spring, could be available to them in late May or June.

They could look for alternatives in other camps -- and typically, March 10 is about the time that general managers and scouts begin to check in with rival clubs about needs and available players.

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Ranking strength of early NL schedules 

February, 26, 2014
Starlin CastroNuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty ImagesStarlin Castro and the Cubs are not getting help from their early-season schedule.

In following Tuesday's column ranking the American League's early-season schedules, Wednesday we have the National League. The teams are ranked toughest to easiest in caliber of early-season schedule.

1. Chicago Cubs

Games vs. teams with records of .500 or better in 2013: 31 of first 40.
Home/away: 18 of their first 40 are at home.
Notables: The Cubs basically get to run an NL Central gauntlet in the first quarter of the season, with 21 of their first 40 games against the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.

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Phillies hurt long term by informing NCAA 

February, 22, 2014
Ben WetzlerAP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensBen Wetzler, a lefty from Oregon State, was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round last year.
LAKELAND, Fla. -- For the third consecutive day, the Philadelphia Phillies did not comment on the decision to inform the NCAA that the college juniors they drafted in the fifth and sixth rounds last summer -- Oregon State pitcher Ben Wetzler and Washington State outfielder Ben Monda -- might have violated rules regarding agent contact.

Monda was cleared by the NCAA weeks ago, and, on Friday evening, the NCAA announced that Wetzler will become eligible to play again on March 2 after completing a suspension.

As time passes and the Phillies’ silence continues, the impression hardens within the industry -- particularly among agents and college coaches -- that the team acted out of vindictiveness, because neither Wetzler nor Monda accepted their offer. That will not have a chance to change unless the Phillies explain their side of the story.

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Matt Williams brings new order to Nats 

February, 17, 2014
Matt WilliamsAP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackMatt Williams has some changes in mind for the Nats, with defense a likely starting point.
VIERA, Fla. -- Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and some of the other Washington pitchers waited on bullpen mounds here Sunday morning, and somewhere else on the field, the hands of a clock reached the prescribed moment and an air horn sounded -- and the pitchers went to work, like horses coming through the gates.

Not long after, at another work station, a pitcher began to gather his equipment and prepare for a move to another field, but before he could leave a coach said to him, “Wait here until you hear the horn.”

The horn sounded a few seconds later, and the coach shooed the pitcher along.

This is the structure built under new Nationals manager Matt Williams, and before you get the wrong impression and think of the place as humorless and sterile, please understand that just about everybody else here pokes fun at his need for order, including Williams.

This is about commitment, the players understand, about being purposeful in work, and not about Williams counting seconds and identifying loiterers. In his first meeting with the pitchers and catchers here the other day, the players say that Williams was direct and positive and all about helping them get better.

“He hasn’t forgotten about how hard the game is,” one veteran said. “He played, and he gets it.”

Williams was so highly regarded by a core of the players in Arizona, where he has coached in recent seasons, that if Kirk Gibson had been let go, Williams would’ve had a lot of support in the Diamondbacks clubhouse to be the replacement. They responded to him, because of how direct and businesslike he is, and the Nationals are doing the same in his first days on the job, with his schedules and air horns and all.

He is well spoken, succinct and thoughtful, and he absorbed their work Sunday. “I just want to see their commitment level,” he said. “It’s a team that has a lot of talent, and there’s a lot being said about this club, but we have to fully commit if we’re going to win. So that’s what I’m looking for -- I’m looking for their enthusiasm and attention to detail, and we’ll go from there.”

What Williams noticed in Sunday’s workout was how Strasburg

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Implications of the Freeman contract 

February, 5, 2014
There is snow and ice piling up outside again, so here are some quick observations about Freddie Freeman's $135 million deal.

1. Among the group of talented Braves youngsters -- Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor -- Atlanta has placed its largest investment, with its very limited resources, on the player it believes will provide the greatest return in production. It's that simple.

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Braves must go low with Kimbrel 

January, 30, 2014
KimbrelPouya Dianat/Getty ImagesIf the Braves want to keep Kimbrel for all of 2014, where they meet in arbitration will be crucial.
The arbitration case that will be made for Craig Kimbrel next month will be unique, because no reliever has started a career with three-plus seasons like Kimbrel -- 381 strikeouts among the first 883 hitters he's faced, with a 1.39 ERA and 139 saves. The Braves love Kimbrel, having drafted and developed him and promoted him into the closer's role just a couple of months into his career.

But the gap between what the Braves have offered Kimbrel -- $6.55 million -- and what Kimbrel wants in arbitration -- $9 million -- is enormous, and there’s more at stake for Atlanta in this hearing than the $2.45 million that separates the sides.

If the Braves win the case, they will give themselves a legitimate chance to keep Kimbrel for 2015. If they lose

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Top 10 teams in the majors 

December, 31, 2013
Miguel CabreraMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWith Miguel Cabrera no longer out of position, the Tigers should be even better in 2014.
As 2013 becomes 2014, here's a look at the top 10 teams in MLB.

1. Detroit Tigers

Some of the teams that employ advanced metrics determined at the end of the last regular season that the Tigers were the best team in the American League -- by far. This, in spite of a bullpen that repeatedly went through changes at closer, and in spite of what was widely regarded as the worst defense in the majors. The Tigers won the AL Central for the third straight year, and again they couldn't win the World Series, losing to Boston in the ALCS. And since the end of the season, Detroit GM David Dombrowski has gone about the business of plugging the holes.

He allowed Jhonny Peralta to depart, cementing Jose Iglesias' spot at shortstop.

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