Flaw of Averages

They strike out a lot, have been devastated by injuries, and their highest-paid player had a ridiculously bad debut season in Atlanta, but in October that might not matter
October 07, 2013

The Braves' regular season was as disjointed as you could imagine for a team that won 96 games and had its division locked up by mid-August. But it was never as literally so as it was on the evening of July 24, when the Mets' Eric Young, racing to beat out a grounder that was gloved by Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman, took a long final stride for first base and inadvertently landed on the lower right leg of Tim Hudson, who was covering the bag. The Braves' No. 1 starter's fibula snapped in two, at the ankle.

This was the first of a pair of on-field injuries suffered by Atlanta players that were so gruesome that blogs posted video of them only after the jump, with the warning that they should be watched through parted fingers. The second came on Aug. 21, when a 90-mph fastball from the Mets' Jon Niese veered into Jason Heyward's face. "It sounded like it hit his helmet," says Atlanta third baseman Chris Johnson, "but it didn't." It struck the rightfielder's right jaw, fracturing it in two places.

The Braves also experienced more than their fair share of industry-standard maladies. They had strains or inflammations in their elbows and obliques and shoulders and backs. Second baseman Dan Uggla had LASIK surgery, and Heyward had an appendectomy. Backup catcher Gerald Laird had a kidney stone. In all, 18 Braves spent at least 15 days on the disabled list. The club's unofficial motto for this year is SUFFER IN SILENCE—it is printed on blue T-shirts the players have worn around the clubhouse since the end of spring training—but no one anticipated the extent of the suffering they would have to endure. "Maybe next year," says Johnson, "we'll pick a different word."

B.J. Upton was one of the more briefly disabled Braves—a strained right adductor muscle cost him three midsummer weeks—but, in some ways, he suffered a more sustained, trying fate. He batted .184, with nine home runs, 26 RBIs and the majors' second-worst OPS (.557) among the 204 players who made at least 400 plate appearances. The 29-year-old centerfielder has been largely silent about his struggles—perhaps because he knows that few will feel sympathy for someone in the first season of a five-year, $75.3 million free-agent deal, the largest in franchise history—and when he does speak of them, he barely exceeds a whisper. "You know what, man—it can wear on you over time," he says. "In the midst of searching for things to get right, I kind of didn't help myself. If I'd just stuck with what my body knows to do at the plate, I think things might have turned out a little better. Tinkering with the wrong things, when I should have left those things alone."

One indication that Upton's woes are largely mental is his production with runners in scoring position and two outs. He is 4 for 54, for an average of .074—far below his career mark of .251 in those situations before this season. "He's as confused as can be," says one rival advance scout who has watched the Braves extensively. "He's guessing location, he's guessing pitch. Instead of letting his natural ability take over, he overthinks every at bat."

The scout speculates that the presence in the Braves' outfield of Upton's younger brother, Justin—who was acquired from the Diamondbacks in January, and who is having a solid year (27 home runs, a .354 on-base percentage, a 122 OPS+) if not one that represents the full realization of his potential—has not helped him. "B.J. is in pull mode, trying to hit home runs like his brother, when he's really a gap-to-gap guy," the scout says. "Having his brother there puts pressure on B.J. to perform, especially when he's making all the money."

B.J. Upton, for his part, believes having Justin with him has been nothing but a positive ("It's been a blessing, man," he says), and Justin, who is 26, counsels his brother only when appropriate. "One thing I'm realizing is, that's not my job," Justin says. "There's already enough voices, and I don't need to be another one."

The leading voice in trying to steer B.J. back to his five-tool ways belongs to Greg Walker, the club's second-year hitting coach, with whom B.J. has studied video of himself from his younger, more successful days. "He was just a lot more efficient," says Walker. "Now there's more moving parts, a lot more going on with the swing before the actual swing takes place."

At some point, concedes Walker, who was the White Sox' hitting coach for nine seasons, there is only so much he can do. "I know pretty much all the drills, all the strategies and approaches," he says. "If there's anything to try, we've already used it. It's kind of to the point now where he's just got to go out and perform."

October has represented a fresh start for Upton in the past. In 2008, when he was a 24-year-old Tampa Bay Ray, he had a disappointing regular season—he hit nine home runs that year too—but then produced one of history's great playoff performances. In 16 games he slugged seven homers and drove in 16 runs, and he led the Rays to the World Series. He wasn't thinking about his swing, or the situation. He was, he says, "just kind of in the moment."

Says Walker, "You know you can play in the postseason, you've done it before, it's on the back of your baseball card. Yeah, we've had that conversation."

As the Braves, who lost to St. Louis in the NL wild-card game last year, embark on their first full playoff series in three years, it is easy to point out their flaws. While the pitching staff—even without Hudson and (for most of the year) righthander Brandon Beachy, and lefthanded reliever Eric O'Flaherty and (for all of the year) top setup man Jonny Venters—has been steady, as its MLB-best 3.18 ERA would suggest, it does not feature an ace in the mold of Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright. And the offense, outside of MVP candidate Freddie Freeman, is a cause for concern. While it finished fifth in homers and sixth in walks, its overall major league rank is a middling 14th, at 4.3 runs per game, and only two teams—the Astros and the Twins—struck out more. A propensity for whiffing has in recent years augured poorly for postseason success. None of the last eight World Series champions has finished higher than 12th in strikeouts, and their average ranking was 22nd.

AND YET, for extended stretches this season, everything came together for the lineup in the way that GM Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez envisioned. For the month of July, for instance, it was second in the majors in runs scored and ranked an acceptable 12th in strikeouts. The Braves had three winning streaks of at least eight games—including one, of 14 games, that was the longest for any club since the 2002 A's reeled off 20 in a row. "For two, three, four weeks at a time, it was like we were just playing slo-pitch softball," says Walker. "If that happens at the right time, watch out."

That 14-game tear began just two days after Hudson's traumatic and potentially traumatizing injury, and it coincided with the elevation of Heyward to the leadoff spot. Heyward is hitting .322 with six home runs and 16 RBIs in 134 plate appearances atop the order, and .223 with eight homers and 22 RBIs in 306 PAs batting further down. His jawbone refastened, Heyward is back in the lineup—as is, finally, most everyone else, save a couple out-for-the-season reserves, Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pe√±a.

You can look for regular- season statistical trends that seem to predict postseason prosperity, but that is often an exercise in drawing a bull's-eye after observing where the arrow has hit. In today's expanded and convoluted playoff structure, the champion is often simply the team that gets the hottest for the right four-week stretch. No team has demonstrated the potential to get hotter than the as-whole-as-they're-going-to-get Braves, their beleaguered centerfielder included. It will all come down to the timing.


The Cover Shoot in Full

For three hours on a Braves off day in late August at CitiField, the Uptons filled a small family album of photos and video. You can view the historic first cover shoot of a Swimsuit model for a non-Swimsuit issue at SwimDaily.com


October momentum shifts from pitch to pitch—but SI.com's postseason coverage will be locked in all month. Get previews of every series, daily analysis from Tom Verducci, Albert Chen, Ben Reiter and Joe Lemire, and video news from SI Now. Go to SI.com/mlb

PHOTOCURTIS COMPTON/MCT/ABACAUSA.COMOVERTHOUGHT The older Upton (left) cops to tinkering unnecessarily with his plate approach, but he refutes the idea that Justin's presence is a burden. PHOTOPOUYA DIANAT/ATLANTA BRAVES/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOJASON REED/REUTERS (MEDLEN)WHIFF OF TROUBLE Medlen (left) leads the NL's best staff; Freeman (above) is a longshot MVP candidate, but his high K rate is a postseason red flag.
PHOTOBUTCH DILL/AP (FREEMAN)[See caption above] THREE PHOTOSWALTER IOOSS JR. FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PHOTOMIKE STOBE/GETTY IMAGESJUST SAY HEY Heyward is back from his horrific injury, giving Atlanta some much-needed OBP atop the lineup. PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES

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