June 14, 2012

The Braves Could Compete in the AL East

Monday night, just before the start of our first game against the Yankees, I received a text message from a friend calling the series a rematch of the 1996 World Series. While this series obviously didn’t have the same magnitude of that fall classic, it always feels that way when the two clubs go at it, or at least to me it does. In fact, I get really excited for interleague play in general. I see it as an opportunity to prove to the baseball world that the Braves are a force to be reckoned with and not just a middling NL team that’s no threat come playoff time. And over the years, believe it or not, our team has risen to that challenge. Atlanta’s winning percentage in interleague play from 1997-2011 was .535, the second highest percentage for an NL team, behind only the Marlins (.536). However, the AL has accumulated more total interleague wins than the NL in each of the last eight seasons, which only adds to the laundry list of signs that analysts and fans tend to highlight when arguing that the AL is a much stronger league than its counterpart.

Because most of my friends are northerners and Yankees fans, I end up comparing and contrasting the two clubs at least a few times each season. Any time I manage to conjure up a few reasons why the Braves are as good as or better than the Yankees, the standard end-all response is, “Yeah, but the Braves wouldn’t win half as many games if they played in the AL East.” But is that really true, or just the result of inflated egos form years of disproportionate amounts of coverage and hype-building for the AL East by the national sports media?

 I’ll admit that at the moment, the Yankees are a more complete team than the Braves. They have a stellar offense (as always), a good rotation (although not as solid as usual), and a bit of a shaky bullpen with the absence of Mariano. I don’t hear anyone talk about this, probably because they are still winning almost sixty percent of their games, but the Yankees are getting old. Almost all of their everyday players are 30 or older.

The Braves have been streaky all season, on both sides of the ball, but on most days we field a great defense and a sound lineup, starting with the best leadoff hitter and center fielder in the game right now. Freeman shows few signs of slowing down after his hot rookie season, and Uggla and McCann offer much-needed power in the middle. Heyward isn’t living up to expectations, but we get enough flashes of brilliance from him to remain star-struck. Our rotation isn’t perfect, but we at least get consistent quality out of our top three (Hudson, Hanson, Beachy), and there are few closers in the game who can match up with the Craig Machine.

It’s hard to make this argument while on a four-game losing streak, and having just been swept by the evil empire, but I believe that the Braves are as good as or better than two-thirds of AL teams, including three or four of the AL East teams. And, if you look closely at our interleague games so far, we are only a few bad innings away from having swept the Blue Jays and taken two out of three from the Yanks. If Venters doesn’t leave that pitch to A-Rod right down the pipe, the sweep doesn’t happen. If Bourn doesn’t leave three men in scoring position last night, we win that game too.

Of course, interleague play and actually playing as part of the AL East are two completely different ideas. For one, if the Braves played in the AL, they’d have an everyday pinch hitter, meaning three ABs a night for Hinske, or more plate appearances from Chipper without him having to risk a line drive off his shin. And playing against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays on a consistent basis would mean more ticket sales, more money for our franchise all around, and maybe the front office wouldn’t be as apprehensive about making moves and picking up a big-name bat or two.

I’m not calling for a big shake-up of the divisions. That’s the last thing I want. I’m totally comfortable with the Braves in the NL East, I like the different rivalries we’ve developed over the years, and I enjoy the extra strategy that revolves around the pitcher being part of the lineup. I just think it’s easy for fans of the big-market, spotlight teams to develop a sense of superiority, almost invincibility. But that’s alright, I guess. It makes the wins against those teams (even when they are hard to come by) that much sweeter. The good news is that we’ve got three more games against the Yankees next week, which gives the club a chance at redemption in the Bronx.



5 Responses to “The Braves Could Compete in the AL East”

  1. 1
    Amos Magliocco Says:

    Great post. Thanks for writing against the easy instinct to rant to rave (which I did on Twitter two nights ago) and for briefly shifting my attention away from EOF’s elbow. It’s such an important elbow. It’s the most important elbow, I think. Anyway.

    Over lunch yesterday, I lacked such discipline and continued my rant about Fredi to my friend David, a lifelong Cubs fan, and in the course of describing how well Minor had pitched before Fredi prematurely hooked him, I recalled Chip Carey’s intonation at the end of seven when he said, “Mike Minor has pitched seven shutout innings against the NEW YORK YANKEES,” as if Minor were a modestly impressive AA call up and the Yanks some unfathomable juggernaut. It was so ironic because only a few innings before that, Joe Simpson showed how the Braves and Yankees’ offensive numbers were nearly identical this season, home runs being the exception. For Chip Carey, I think, the idea was: these are the YANKEES. Zoink!

    I’ve lived in North Texas long enough to see the Rangers evolve from a team that cowered at the sight of postseason pinstripes to the current squad which is too uber-talented to worry about “ghosts” or plaques or all the money swirling around the NY organization. Nolan Ryan, Ron Washington, and the Maddux brothers are particularly difficult to impress. Texas possesses not only the most polished gems of the Braves’ middle-oughts farm system in Adrus, Harrison, Feliz (all All-Stars or will be All Stars), but they have our old Don Draper swagger as well, the too cool to worry about you confidence Atlanta was famous for. The Rangers demystified the Yankees by bludgeoning them enough to notice that they were only human.

    But until the Rangers second AL crown–maybe not until a few weeks ago when Josh Hamilton owned the world–did the ESPN/NY sports media nexus finally concede that Texas was the best team in baseball, that nobody else was in the conversation, and the Rangers were the team to beat in the American League, a conclusion that should have been obvious for back to back pennant winners.

    None of this is to say the Yanks aren’t great. They are. And they swept us without much trouble. But, man, they’re overexposed, like the Red Sox, I guess because we’re all forced to pretend a TV station in Bristol Connecticut is actually a national media organization.

    Here’s hoping we can demonstrate some competitiveness in the Bronx.

  2. 2
    Shaun Says:

    Good stuff, Mike. Those games against the Yankees were very close. And I realize it’s only 3 games so even if one team had blown out the other, it’s not like we can read all that much in to it. But also there is no indication from those three losses and everything else that the Braves couldn’t hang in the AL East.

  3. 3
    Mike Says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Amos- I watched the YES network (Yankee Entertainment Sports) this week, and the commentary was essentially the opposite of what you say about Chip. It’s obvious how totally unimpressed they were with pretty much every player but Chipper, and only impressed with him because of his legacy and looming retirement. Well, they did have some nice things to say about Kimbrel, but it’s not like he was in a save situation.

    And yes, that’s a very important elbow in the middle of EOF’s arm.

    Shaun- I agree with what you say about not being able to read too much into just 3 games, but what do you think about 6? Are two series enough to definitively prove one team being better than the other? I’m really looking forward to the next series, but if the Yanks sweep us twice in one month I might go into a coma of depression.

  4. 4
    Walker Says:

    Nothing fills my heart more than to watch the Phillies struggle. HA HA

    Anyway, lets finish this sweep.

  5. 5
    Walker Says:

    Oops I thought this was the comments section.

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