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The 30: Braves New World

Atlanta catcher Evan Gattis is our first feel-good story of the season on a team that never loses. All that plus the rest of our MLB rankings.

Evan Gattis

Two weeks tells us a little bit more about the state of every team than does one. But not much more. For now, these rankings will continue to reflect several teams’ reputations more than records or run differentials after, say, 12 games. If you’re a Rockies or Mets fan hoping for a little more respect — or at least a triple-header that’s not a Twitter hoax — you’re just going to have to wait for more wins, and more games to be played. If you’re the goal-oriented type, that’s a good thing. You now have something to shoot for, and the world’s greatest role model to guide your way.

It’s Week 2 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

1. ATLANTA BRAVES

The Braves own the best record in baseball. They owe much of their success to a pizza flipper, ski-lift operator, and janitor from Texas.

If you’ve never read the story of Evan Gattis’s journey to the big leagues, you really should do so now. David O’Brien’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution story profiles a 6-foot-3, 235-pound catcher who dropped out of baseball for four years, fought depression and substance abuse, wandered the country and took any odd job he could find before making his way to the Venezuelan Winter League, where he earned the Kenny Powers–esque nickname “El Oso Blanco,” only to crack the big leagues for the first time this year, then terrorize the league for the first two weeks of the season.

The Braves have allowed fewer runs than any other team in baseball. For that, they can thank a pitcher they were never supposed to get in the first place.

Seeking starting pitching help at last year’s deadline, Atlanta struck a deal with the Cubs to acquire veteran righty Ryan Dempster. With trade veto rights in hand, Dempster mulled the situation, then decided he’d rather not go play for the Braves. That’s how Atlanta ended up with Paul Maholm, the once-mediocre lefty who’s been arguably the best pitcher on the planet over his past 21 starts.

Several usual suspects deserve credit for Atlanta’s 11-1 start. Tim Hudson’s anchoring a strong pitching staff, Craig Kimbrel’s been his usual unhittable self out of the bullpen, and Justin Upton’s hitting like the MVP candidate we all knew he’d become.1 But the Braves have garnered huge contributions from lesser lights too, helping them stake an early claim for NL East supremacy.


1.

All of us except Kevin Towers, that is.

The unsung heroes’ talents were on display during the Braves’ three-game demolition of the Nationals over the weekend in D.C. On Saturday, Gattis got a letter-high, 96 mph fastball from Stephen Strasburg in the third inning of a scoreless tie. Few players would even make contact with the pitch. Gattis took a short, quick hack … and smashed the ball over the wall in left-center for a two-run homer, a blow that would provide the Braves with their margin of victory for the game.

The 23rd-round draft pick has gone from cute story to Braves cleanup hitter and an essential part of their offense in a flash, hitting .324/.385/.735 in 39 plate appearances. That small sample size tells us little to nothing about a player’s abilities. Add his .308/.374/.546 line in 933 minor league plate appearances to his two-week big league barrage, and things get interesting. The Braves will get Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman back before too long. But at this rate, they might have to find room for the mopper-turned-bopper.

It’s not easy to outproduce a guy slugging .735. But Maholm has done it. In his first three starts this season covering 20⅓ innings, Maholm has struck out 20 batters, walked five, allowed 11 hits, and zero runs.2 Again, since we try not to fixate on small sample sizes in 30ville, consider this: In Maholm’s past 21 outings dating back to last season (20 of them starts), he has put up these numbers: 134 innings, 111 strikeouts, 33 walks, 2.15 ERA (and a 12-5 record, if you care about such things).


2.

Per ESPN Stats & Info, Maholm is the fourth major league pitcher in the expansion era to win his first three starts of a season without allowing a run. The other pitchers to do so since 1961 are Luis Tiant (1966 Indians), Woody Williams (2003 Cardinals), and Zack Greinke (2009 Royals).

What’s changed? Check out Maholm’s pitch patterns from the indispensable site BrooksBaseball.net. Flip to 2009 and 2010, then compare those pitch offerings to 2011 and 2012. Maholm is throwing fewer changeups and a lot more sliders, especially when he gets two strikes on a hitter. The result has been an uptick in strikeouts and a drop in walks since 2010. Maholm’s fastball still averages just 87 mph, and even with the positive trend in strikeout rates, his strikeout percentage last season still sat slightly below league average. But by making his pitches more unpredictable, and getting a little help from defense and luck, he’s getting hitters out more frequently than ever before.

How difficult a matchup has Maholm become for hitters? Check out the 62 mph sweeping curve he threw to Ian Desmond for strike one in the fourth inning of Sunday’s start; by comparison, the 80 mph slider that dived to Desmond’s ankles for a swinging strike three that same at-bat must’ve looked like pure gas. Both those pitches lapped his slowest offering of the season: a 58 mph lollipop that froze Chase Utley looking in Maholm’s first start. Seriously, I’ve watched this clip 10 times already and can’t stop.

Some of these heady performances will regulate over time, of course. So, too, will Andrelton Simmons’s slow start (.211/.262/.316 even after Sunday’s three-run homer), as well as the sub-Mendoza numbers for B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward, and Dan Uggla. This is a very good Braves team, and a deeper Braves team than we’ve seen in a while. The NL East could be one hell of a dogfight this year.

9. LOS ANGELES DODGERS

If you’re going to score fewer runs than everyone except the two Florida teams, your pitching better be damn near unimpeachable. The Dodgers, so far, can make that claim.

Only the Braves have allowed fewer runs per game than the 2.75 RA given up by L.A. Clayton Kershaw’s led the charge, not allowing a run until the fourth inning of his third start. Newcomer Hyun-Jin Ryu has been dominant, striking out 20 batters and walking just three over 18⅔ innings and three starts. Zack Greinke was also pitching well before Carlos Quentin decided being hit by a pitch 231 times was OK, but 232 granted a license to do a Bald Bull impression. One luxury of having a payroll well north of $200 million is depth, at least in a few areas; few if any teams have more starting pitching depth than the Dodgers, which is why the very capable Chris Capuano replaces Greinke, with the Dodgers unlikely to lose much for the two months their $147 million man is out.

Sunday’s 1-0 loss was a perfect microcosm of these first two weeks. Josh Beckett, the Dodgers starter who’d gotten off to the slowest start, pitched a gem against the Diamondbacks. Through eight innings, Beckett ceded just four hits and no walks, holding Arizona scoreless and striking out nine. But the Dodgers couldn’t push anything across against Trevor Cahill and the D-backs bullpen, either. Don Mattingly sent Beckett back out for the ninth and saw him surrender a one-out double to A.J. Pollock, an intentional walk, and a run-scoring single by Paul Goldschmidt that gave the Diamondbacks a 1-0 win.

A couple of oh-fers stood out. Matt Kemp went 0-for-4, striking out three times and dropping his season line to .174/.220/.239. Under normal circumstances, there’d be no reason to give Kemp’s slow start any thought. The All-Star center fielder had offseason shoulder surgery, though, leaving just a slight doubt about his ability to return to pre-injury levels. Still, the most likely scenario with Kemp is some kind of return to form, even if it’s not quite to the level of 2011’s monster year.

The same can’t be said for Luis Cruz. Though the temptation is to say that Cruz, too, will revert back to career norms, we need to ask what those norms are. Last year, the then-28-year-old minor league lifer finally got his first clean shot at a full-time big league job and seemed to fare well, hitting .297/.322/.431 in 78 games with the Dodgers. But this was the same Luis Cruz who had the patience of a 14-year-old boy at the Playboy Mansion, walking just 3 percent of the time and ranking near the bottom of the league for pitches seen per plate appearance. Given his long track record of minor league mediocrity and lack of peripheral stats that would suggest sustained success, regression figured to wallop Cruz in the face this season.

Yet even before Hanley Ramirez suffered his thumb injury, the Dodgers had committed to playing Cruz at whichever left-side position Ramirez wasn’t going to occupy. When Ramirez did go down, suddenly the Dodgers were facing the prospect of rotating Cruz, Justin Sellers, and Nick Punto between short and third, creating by far the worst infield left-side combination in baseball. On Sunday, Cruz went 0-for-3, seeing five pitches in those three at-bats and dropping his season line to .091/.114/.091. Through Saturday (Cruz switched from third to short for Sunday’s game), the Dodgers had put up a stat line that seemed almost impossible, even after just a handful of games: Dodgers pitchers were hitting .286 (6-for-21) … while Dodgers third basemen were hitting .105 (4-for-38) (h/t @jonweisman).

Cruz won’t be quite that bad all year, Ramirez just had his thumb removed from its cast and is making progress, Adrian Gonzalez is hitting, and, most encouragingly, Carl Crawford appears healthy, not only hitting .372/.426/.558 (again, small sample size) but also looking like the Carl Crawford of old, lashing balls into the gaps and running them down, too. But acknowledging that every team has flaws, the Dodgers will need to do better than a likely replacement-level player to hang with the defending champion Giants, the good-even-without-Upton Diamondbacks, and other National League contenders. Once everyone’s back and healthy, a team with this many resources should have no excuse for that level of settling.

16. NEW YORK METS

The art of breaking a team’s spirit, by Matt Harvey:

• Facing Chris Parmelee, two outs, bottom of the fifth: knee-high 95 mph fastball outside corner for strike one. Curveball out of the zone just to mess with Parmelee’s mind for ball one. Another fastball, 95, outside corner, strike two. Another fastball, 96, up in the zone, blows him away for strike three.

• Facing Brian Dozier, leading off, bottom of the sixth: curveball near the black drops in for strike one. Belt-high, riding fastball, 95 and moving, taken for strike two. 90 mph slider low, ball one. 96 mph, letter-high fastball off the plate, fouled off. 91 mph slider, swing and a miss, strike three.

• Facing Eduardo Escobar, one out, bottom of the sixth: 96 mph fastball blown right past him for strike one. 97 mph fastball, eye-high, ball one. 96 mph fastball fouled off, strike two. 97 mph fastball, shoulder-high, no chance in hell. Strike three.

When you’re talking about the bottom of the Minnesota Twins lineup, in frigid April weather, over a span of three batters, throw shakers of salt on top of your grains of salt. But watching Harvey throw his third consecutive unhittable start of the young season, you start to dream on the guy. Three starts, 25 strikeouts, six walks, six hits.3 Thirteen career starts, 81⅓ innings, 95 strikeouts, 32 walks, six homers, just 48 hits, 2.21 ERA, 2.98 FIP. More than the numbers, it’s the quality of Harvey’s offerings, and his knack for using them to maximum advantage, that should terrify the rest of the National League. It’s the mid-90s fastball that spikes to 97 as the game wears on and Harvey gets strong, with a slider that breaches 90 and a curve that’ll give you nightmares when spotted well. After Harvey made quick work of the Twins’ JV crew with almost entirely fastballs, he served up three pitches to the great Joe Mauer to start the seventh: curve, 90 mph slider, changeup, weak groundout to first. Harvey was very nearly literally unhittable, firing goose eggs at the Twins until Justin Morneau homered off the foul pole on an incredibly tough cutter down and in and off the plate, breaking up the no-no and the shutout at the same time.


3.

Per Elias Sports Bureau, Harvey’s the first pitcher in modern major league history (since 1900) to win his first three starts of a season, with at least 25 strikeouts and six or fewer hits allowed over those three games.

John Buck and Daniel Murphy aren’t going to hit like Ruth and Gehrig much longer. Lucas Duda’s outfield defense is going to cause nightmares all year long. And the Mets’ hot start will more than likely turn to dust soon enough. Still, they have Matt Harvey. After 46 whifftastic minor league starts and a huge open to his big league career, we can’t treat Harvey like any random pitcher anymore. If you’re flipping through MLB.TV and see Harvey’s pitching for the Mets, you’re going to drop whatever you’re doing and keep it locked on SNY’s breathless coverage of baseball’s next big thing.4

22. CLEVELAND INDIANS


4.

And if you’re like me, you’ll kick yourself for not following your own damn advice.

Justin Masterson beat the reigning NL and AL Cy Young winners to open the season. Facing the White Sox in his third start, Masterson fired a five-hit shutout, striking out seven, walking just one, and generating 16 ground balls all told. The Masterson we’ve seen this season is a hybrid of the hard-slinging big-strikeout arm we saw in 2009 when Cleveland first acquired him from the Red Sox, and the ground ball overlord with pinpoint control who stultified the league in 216 excellent innings in 2011.

Can we expect this to continue?

Masterson’s biggest problem has always been his ability to contain left-handed hitters. Chucking the ball from a three-quarter angle, the right-handed Masterson has been murder on same-handed hitters, with lefties getting a good look at his two-pitch fastball-slider combo and thwacking him on a regular basis. In 842 career innings, righties are hitting a microscopic .223/.303/.300, versus a fat .289/.363/.427 for lefties. He hasn’t added any new pitches to his repertoire this season, failing to expand on the occasional changeup he throws that other hard-platoon pitchers have learned to use to their advantage against opposite-handed hitters.

Aside from the vagaries of small sample size, the lineups Masterson has faced in 2013 do offer some clues as to what’s going on. Facing the White Sox, Masterson had to contend with just three left-handed hitters: Alejandro De Aza, a decent hitter known more for his speed; Adam Dunn, one of the most powerful hitters in the game who also has Grand Canyon–size holes in his swing; and Conor Gillaspie, a light-hitting rookie scooped up from the Giants organization as a backup, who’s been forced into action with starting second baseman Gordon Beckham landing on the DL.

In the start before that, Masterson tossed seven shutout innings at the Rays. Tampa Bay did start six left-handed batters in that game. They’ve also scored the second-fewest runs of any team this year, nearly getting no-hit by Clay Buchholz on Sunday because it was a day that ended in a Y. Masterson probably didn’t lie awake in bed the night before, trembling at the thought of facing James Loney, Kelly Johnson, and Jose Lobaton. In the one start this year in which he did give up a run, Masterson faced a Jays lineup that was stronger than Chicago’s or Tampa Bay’s. Still, the Jays’ two best hitters are right-handed, and pop-gun hitters like Adam Lind, Maicer Izturis, and Emilio Bonifacio offered plenty of easy outs whenever Masterson fell into a jam.

Masterson’s next start comes against the Red Sox, a team that even without David Ortiz trots out a potent lineup, with as many as seven left-handed options when counting switch-hitters. It’s one start that’s mostly meaningless in the grand scheme, following three starts that are mostly meaningless in the grand scheme. But beyond that game’s score, and whether or not three-hoppers scoot through the infield, watch to see if Masterson’s able to truly fool lefty hitters or at least induce weak contact. That’ll always be the truest test of Masterson’s progress. And until he fully addresses the issue, it’ll be the one thing holding back a potential rise into the AL’s elite class of starters.