The Miami Marlins swept the Atlanta Braves by a combined score of 23-7 this week to bring their season record up to .500, and that has the Braves asking some questions. In particular, Atlanta is wondering how it is that Miami managed to light up Braves starters Alex Wood and Aaron Harang, who entered their starts with season ERAs of 1.54 and 0.85, respectively, and had allowed a total of just two runs in 14 innings against the Marlins in Atlanta the previous week. In Miami, however, Wood and Harang combined to allow 16 runs in just 9 2/3 innings. The Marlins are now 12-4 at home, where they have scored 6.2 runs per game. On the road, however, they are just 2-10 and have scored 2.7 runs per game, all of which strike the Braves as signs of foul play.
Are the Marlins stealing signs? The Braves had their best men on the case on Wednesday night, as Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
If you would have taken a look at our dugout at one point in the game, it was like the fourth or fifth inning, they were hitting balls everywhere, we got three guys looking at the scoreboard. You got two guys looking at their bullpen. I’m calling [bullpen coach] Eddie [Perez], ‘Eddie do you see anything?’ I’m looking at [catcher Evan] Gattis, thinking he’s maybe tipping his pitches. [Bench coach] Carlos [Tosca] is looking in the bench over there, maybe somebody is whistling or something. . . . Yeah, you have this conspiracy theory, but at the end, we came up with nothing. It wasn’t like we saw a guy with the [binoculars], like Mick Billmeyer in Colorado. . . . There was one guy sitting [in the outfield seats] who had a red hat and an orange shirt. I said ‘Boy that’s a bad combination to have.' I told [Jordan] Schafer and [Tyler] Pastornicky to keep an eye on that guy over there. The guy got up, went to get a Coke.
Gonzalez told the AJC that he changed signs five times while Harang was on the mound and used multiple signs even with the bases empty, but saw no change in the Marlins' success against his pitchers. Nor, said Gonzalez, did the Braves detect anyone hiding in the Marlins' home run sculpture relaying signs. The Braves next move was to review video of their pitchers to see if they were tipping pitches.
That last would seem the most likely. Pitch tipping is quite common, and the Marlins faced both Wood and Harang in consecutive starts, giving them ample opportunity to sniff out their tells before either had a chance to correct them. Looking at the pitch charts, it's possible the Marlins knew when Wood's curveball was coming, as they took 12 of the 14 curves he offered and, of the two they swung at, one was a Giancarlo Stanton home run. Looking at Harang's start, a game I watched, it seems telling that the Marlins either made contact with or took for a ball the first 15 sliders Harang threw, but that four of the last five Harang threw resulted in either a swing-and-miss or a called strike (the fifth was a ball in the dirt). Perhaps the change was the result of one of Gonzalez's sign changes, or perhaps Harang unconsciously altered his tell on the pitch.
Of course, there's another possibility here: That Aaron Harang getting lit up in a major league start is not an unusual occurrence and that his success coming into Wednesday's start was far more suspicious than his lousy outing against the Marlins. In 2012, Harang gave up two more runs than innings pitched eight times, three of those coming in his first six starts of the season. You'd be hard pressed to find someone outside of the Braves' organization who didn't think he was overdue for a shellacking heading into Wednesday's game. Watching that game, nothing Harang was doing looked terribly impressive, as he spent the early innings scattering upper 80s fastballs around the strike zone. He had better success with his changeup and curve as he got deeper into the game, but the Marlins were indeed all over his slider. As for Wood, he only gave up three runs in his first five innings, two of them on that Stanton home run, hardly a suspicious outburst by the Marlins.
Whatever the source of Harang's disastrous outing, it was fortuitously timed, as the Braves will be forced to activate Gavin Floyd on Sunday with Floyd's 30-day minor league rehabilitation assignment having expired. Atlanta has already bounced rookie David Hale to the bullpen to make room for Mike Minor, who will come off the disabled list to start against the Giants on Friday night. Harang, who has a 91 ERA+ since the start of the 2008 season, is on his sixth team in the last two years, and will turn 36 next week, making him the obvious choice to surrender his rotation spot to Floyd. But the Braves would have had a difficult time pulling a starter with a sub-1.00 ERA from the rotation, no matter what his track record might be. As it stands, Harang's first five starts may yet earn him another turn, which would come against the Cardinals on Monday, but the Floyd/Harang swap would seem inevitable, even if it doesn't happen immediately.
Floyd allowed just one run on a solo home run while striking out five against one walk over five innings in his last start at Triple-A and topped out at 86 pitches in the start prior to that. He'd be on regular rest on Tuesday, leaving open the possibility that the Braves could use six starters this time through the rotation, with Floyd following Harang, then make use of Thursday's off-day to start Floyd in Harang's place if he does indeed out-pitch the veteran against St. Louis. The caveat there is that pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery typically require some time to return to their previous form, something the Braves don't need much of a reminder about given their recent experience with Brandon Beachy, and Floyd was merely a league-average pitcher in his last three qualifying seasons (2010 to 2012). Given that, there wouldn't seem to be much harm in letting Floyd re-acclimate himself to the majors out of the bullpen for a week or two. Either way, the Braves appear to be close to the point at which we can say they have successfully survived the loss of Beachy and Kris Medlen to Tommy John surgery. When Minor and Floyd return this weekend, they will join a first-place team that has the second-best record in the National League (17-10) thanks largely to its pitching staff, which has been the stingiest in baseball thus far with a major league-best 2.69 staff ERA and a 139 ERA+ that is tied with the A's for the best in the majors. Harang has been a big part of that, as has fellow late-addition Ervin Santana (3-0, 2.41 ERA). Going forward, however, only one of those two is a good bet to sustain his April performance, and it isn't the guy who just gave up nine runs to the Marlins.