Power outage: Punchless Braves see no end to homerless streak
The Braves didn’t hit a home run on Monday night, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. With a 1–0 loss to Rick Porcello and the Red Sox, Atlanta now has 19 games in the books and just three home runs, the last coming in the fifth game of the year on April 10. The Braves have now gone 14 straight games without a home run, and if they fail to go deep against David Price and the Red Sox on Tuesday night, their homerless streak will become the longest in the majors since the Cardinals went 18 games without a homer in 1991.
Those 1991 Cardinals finished the season with just 68 home runs, with third baseman Todd Zeile as the only member of the team to reach double digits (he hit 11). That stands as the lowest home run total by a major league team since another Cardinals squad hit just 58 round-trippers in 1986. Since the 1994 strike, the lowest home run total belongs to the 2011 Padres, who hit just 94. The Braves, meanwhile, are currently on pace to hit just 26 home runs this season.
Of course, on-pace numbers are absurd this early in the season. Bryce Harper is on pace for 81 home runs and 207 RBI; five pitchers are on pace for more than 30 wins; and five hitters are on pace for more than 70 doubles, including Atlanta’s Nick Markakis. The Braves are going to hit more than 26 home runs if for no other reason than corner infielders Freddie Freeman and Adonis Garcia—who have two of the Braves’ three home runs this season (both coming off Max Scherzer on Opening Day)—combined for 28 homers on their own last year. Just two other current members of the Braves’ 25-man roster reached double-digits in home runs in 2015, however: veterans Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson, who are both part-time players and who share playing time in leftfield.
It should come as no surprise that the Braves aren’t getting home run production from five of the four spots in their lineup. Second baseman Jace Peterson, shortstop Erick Aybar and rightfielder Markakis all qualified for the batting title last year and combined to hit just 12 home runs. Centerfielder Ender Inciarte, currently on the disabled list, hit just six. His replacement, speedster Mallex Smith, hit only one last year in the minor leagues. The pitcher’s spot makes five positions that will contribute little to no power, putting the onus for home run production on the aforementioned corner infielders, leftfielders and catchers.
The home run production from the remainder of the lineup should come in time, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Braves finish the season with fewer than 20 home runs at each of those positions. Freeman has managed just 18 home runs in each of the last two seasons, only one of which saw him lose time to the disabled list. Garcia hit 10 home runs in just 198 major league plate appearances last year, but that was an uncharacteristic spike; he had three home runs in 350 plate appearances in Triple A and didn’t reach double-digits in home runs in any of his four previous minor league seasons. There’s no reason to expect the 31-year-old Cuban to defy that track record over a full season.
There isn't much hope for power from behind the plate, either. A.J. Pierzynski and Tyler Flowers, the latter of whom was non-tendered by the White Sox in December, combined for 18 home runs in 797 plate appearances last year, but there aren’t that many plate appearances available for the two of them this year. Last year’s Braves catchers came to the plate just 650 times. What’s more, the catcher who has seen his playing time shrink the most in the early going is Flowers, who has the most power of the two.
As for the leftfielders, Francoeur and Johnson combined to hit 27 home runs in 678 plate appearances last year, but the team’s intended starter at the position is Hector Olivera, a 31-year-old Cuban defector acquired from the Dodgers at last year’s trade deadline. Olivera, who is currently on administrative leave in connection with a pending domestic violence case, has hit just four home runs in 243 plate appearances since debuting in the minors last June and never topped 17 home runs in a season in Cuba. Francoeur and Johnson, meanwhile, are homerless in a combined 74 plate appearances on the season (backup outfielder Drew Stubbs, who averaged 15 home runs per 162 games over the last five years, collected the Braves’ third home run).
Let’s say the Braves get exactly 20 home runs from both first base and leftfield, 15 from their catchers and 10 from Garcia and company at third base. Add Enciarte’s six home runs to the 12 hit last year by Peterson, Aybar and Markakis and add five more for random homers from the bench and/or pitchers. That would add up to 88 home runs, or 12 fewer than last year’s Braves. That 2015 Atlanta squad was not only last in the majors in home runs but also had the lowest homer total by a team in a full 162-game season since 1992, when five teams—the Angels, Red Sox, Brewers, Royals and Dodgers—hit 88 or fewer.
That team home-run totals that low were so common prior to the strike might suggest that the Braves’ power outage is merely a symptom of the decline in offense in recent years. Run-scoring and slugging percentage averages thus far this season are exact matches for last year’s figures, however, and those were, in turn, increases on 2014’s numbers. What's more, we have yet to get into the warm summer months when power numbers increase. The Braves’ aren’t a canary in a coal mine; they are just a sick canary.
Not that a lack of home runs is damning in and of itself. The last team with a notable homerless streak was the 2014 Royals, who failed to go deep in their first seven games, the longest season-opening home run drought in 24 years. Kansas City finished the season with just 95 home runs, but the team also made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. The 1991 Cardinals mentioned above finished second in the NL East with an 84–78 record. The 1986 Cardinals had a losing record but were in the World Series both the year before and the year after despite team home run totals of 87 and 94, respectively. The 1992 Brewers, who hit just 82 home runs, won 92 games and finished second in the AL East. The last team to go 14 games without a home run, the 2007 Angels, won 94 games and their division despite out-homering just two teams in the AL on the season.
There are many ways to assemble a winning baseball team, but no one is under the illusion that this year’s Braves will win anything. Atlanta didn’t need a homerless streak to signal to the baseball world that it is one of the worst teams in baseball. If anything, the lack of home runs might actually make the Braves more interesting than they would have otherwise been this season. Consider this: the Braves are just 4–15 on the season, but they didn’t hit a home run in any of their wins. Heading into Tuesday’s action, only four teams—the Pirates, Dodgers, Red Sox and White Sox—have won more games without the help of a home run than Atlanta has this season.