Some real talent began arriving in 2009, however, and reliable (if largely unspectacular) rotations and deep, hard-throwing bullpens have been more or less the order of the day ever since. McDowell’s job security has seemed only to grow with each passing year. Here’s an annual chart of Braves pitching performance in the McDowell tenure:
A lower team ERA every year since 2008 is difficult to argue with. Pretty good trend, right? Well, maybe. Here’s the chart with league averages and the Braves’ league rank:
OK, so providing some context renders the team’s performance a little less impressive. After the quantum leap in results in 2009, the team ERA has declined 5.6%, but in an overall environment in which the league ERA has declined 11.4%. This context is reflected in the gradual slippage in league rank.
Well, so what, you could argue. Our pitchers continue to perform significantly above average, and if we’re in a tightly bunched pack atop the league ranking, the difference between, say second and fifth could just be an exercise in hair-splitting.
One last chart, this time with Fangraphs’ pitching WAR added:
Now that’s a little more disturbing. In general, a pitching staff’s line-drive rate will correlate with its batting average on balls in play. The Braves, meanwhile, rank 10th in the NL with a 20.5 LD% but 3rd in BABIP at .277.
A lot of this disparity is due to the presence of a rangy (if error-prone) outfield and the stellar Andrelton Simmons (seriously, if you extrapolate his performance in his first 90-some games at shortstop to a full season, it would rank as one of the absolute best SS defensive seasons of all time. Andrelton is up there with Belanger and Ozzie, and you need to know that…it’s an honor to watch him in the field). But some of it is also luck — no NL team in the last ten years has combined a 20+% LD rate with a sub-.280 BABIP, so something’s gotta give.
If you buy the premise that the team’s pitching performance is in decline, then the question becomes why. Of course, there’s no simple answer, because any pitching staff’s dynamics are in permanent flux — players are acquired and jettisoned, some guys develop, others get old. Some find an effective new pitch, others lose command of their old reliable pitches. But in the Braves’ case, over the past six years they find themselves dealing with one variable more often than any other major league team — our guys keep tearing their elbow ligaments.
To be continued….