Atlanta Retools Their Rotation for the Stretch Run

The Atlanta Braves are currently sitting in the driver’s seat in the NL Wild Card chase, owning a 4 game lead over Pittsburgh and St. Louis for the higher seed. But this year’s Braves team is a little different from those in the past. For starters, Atlanta has the 2nd best offense in the National League, scoring 4.68 runs per game, 3rd only to the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies. The inability to score runs a year ago cost Atlanta dearly down the stretch, and this year’s roster doesn’t appear to have that weakness. Instead, Atlanta is struggling to put together a solid rotation, ranking just 9th in the NL in starter’s ERA and 12th in strikeouts at the All-Star break. Braves starters have struggled on the mound for a variety of reasons this season, be it ineffectiveness (Mike Minor), injury (Brandon Beachey), or in some cases, both (Jair Jurrjens). But since the All-Star break (32 games), Atlanta’s pitching staff has really turned it around, ranking 1st in the NL in team ERA (2.98), while posting a 22-10 record overall. A big part of the Braves pitching turnaround has been the performance of a few key additions as well as one big promotion from the bullpen from Kris Medlen.

Medlen has been excellent in his first 3 starts, allowing just 1 earned run in each outing. He’s been able to make it through 5 innings in each start, which is important, because by doing so, it allows Atlanta to save their bullpen further for the stretch run. Remember, one year ago the Braves road their bullpen a little too hard for the first 5 months of the season, and when it tired in September and began allowing runs, the Braves playoff chances disappeared into thin air. If Medlen can continue to keep runners off base (5 total walks in 3 starts) while posting a near elite strikeout rate (8.9 K/9 so far), he’s a perfect bottom of the rotation pitcher, and one who will win his team quite a few games.

Another big mid-season addition to the Braves rotation has been Paul Maholm, who was acquired in a trade with the Cubs. Maholm’s been brilliant in each of his 3 starts in Atlanta so far, posting a 1.57 ERA in 23 innings while striking out 20 batters and only walking 5. He’s been better than league average for most of the 2012 season throwing 143.1 innings for a 119 ERA+ while keeping his home runs down. Maholm should be a nice upgrade from Randall Delgado, who’s 4-9 with a 4.42 ERA, and he should be able to add a win or two to the Braves’ ledger.

Neither of these additions to the rotation rank as the biggest in-season move for Atlanta. That honor belongs to Ben Sheets, who was signed of the scrap heap to a minor league deal. Sheets, who last pitched in Oakland in 2010 before being shut down with shoulder issues, has been absolutely lights out in his 38 innings pitched this season.

He’s gone at least 6 innings in each of his 6 starts, while posting a 4-2 record with a 2.16 ERA. He’s walked more than 1 batter in just a single start, July 21st in a win against Washington, and he’s allowed just 2 home runs total. His last start against the Mets on Sunday night wasn’t his best, but he still gutted out 6 innings while allowing the Braves to hang around long enough to mount a comeback. They fell just 1 run short, losing 6-5, but Sheets saved the bullpen some innings and kept the game close. Both are important contributions over the long 162 game stretch.

What is most impressive about Ben Sheets’ return is that he’s been able to have success without having the overpower stuff he possessed 5-7 years ago, when he was the dominant ace of the Milwaukee Brewers. Sheets sits in the low 90s with his fastball, which he still locates beautifully, and he likes to mix things up with a good curveball and a plus change-up. If you combine him with Hudson and Hanson, two 12 game winners so far this year, the Braves have the makings of a pennant-winning pitching staff.

Atlanta has spent most of the season sitting a starter or two shy of really being a real threat to win the National League. Their offense, led by a bevy of hitters from Jason Heyward to Chipper Jones to Freddy Freeman is legitimately good and the bullpen fronted by closer Craig Kimbrel has also been excellent. If Maholm and Medlen can solidify the bottom of the Atlanta rotation and Sheets, Hanson, and Hudson can work his magic from the top it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see the Braves play .600-.620 baseball the rest of the way out. And if they do, that mark should put them around 94-96 wins, which could be enough to bump the 1st place Nationals down to the Wild Card round, something every playoff team wants to avoid.

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