Where I Was Last Night

Frustrating to watch. In all fairness, I didn’t watch all of it; about halfway through, I went to a concert, as the ’90s band Come came through town, and I really adored their albums 11:11 and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The Black Cat isn’t a huge club and not that many people were out on a Tuesday night, but the band was touched by the cheers they got from us. A few songs in, it was clear that something special was happening. It was a genuinely lovely, intimate show.

Yeah, There Was a Game, Too

Whatever else you could say about it, Jared Shuster‘s pitching performance was not the same thing.

Obviously, it was his best start in the majors so far; this time, he recorded 15 outs, after recording 14 in his first outing and only 12 in his second. This time, he yielded but three runs and two walks, after giving up four runs apiece in the first two starts, to go with five walks the first time and four walks the second. It was progress, sure, if only a bit.

The trouble, to my untutored eyes, is he’s still unable or unwilling to throw it in the strike zone a lot of the time. His four-pitch walk to Leody Taveras in the third inning, with two men out and no one on, was a case in point for me. He threw a number of pitches too low or wide to even offer at, and Taveras earned his base having only once lifted the bat off his shoulders, to swing through the fifth pitch for strike two.

Oh, and Ronald Acuña hit a ball so long and hard that you just had to sit down for a minute. God, we’re lucky to get to watch him.

E Pluribus Damned Unum

Shuster, therefore, embodies one of my least favorite common archetypes: the Little Lefty Who Can’t or Won’t Just Throw a Damn Strike. There have been zillions of ’em in baseball history, but I remember the ones we’ve had the misfortune to employ. (And by remember, I mean I’m scrolling back through baseball-reference, because right now the only names that are coming to mind are Jo-Jo Reyes, Damian Moss, Horacio Ramirez, and Terrell Wade. Sean Newcomb wasn’t a “little” lefty, but he might be one of ’em too. Oh, and Tucker Davidson. And Chuck James, whose autographed cap I later purchased in the team store for less than the price of a regular team-branded cap. And on and on.)

I’ve been bitching about them for decades now, and complaining that the right way to break these guys in is to put them in the pen, tell them to chuck it with all they’ve got, not worry about saving their bullets, and just try to overpower guys in the zone rather than trying to finesse them on the corners, but for some reason the guys on the television never give any indication that they’ve heard me. Infuriating, really.

The Gaspail Brigade

Anyway, back to the game. Shuster wasn’t the problem, but nor was he the solution. The problem was the pen, which yielded four runs in “relief.” Dylan Lee had a shaky first inning, but got through it; he was not so lucky in the second. In all, he gave up six singles and a walk in the space of 11 batters faced. Joe Jimenez was much more efficient: he got an inning-saving double play to clean up Lee’s mess, then he gave up a massive home run to Ezequiel Duran the next inning.

The pen has been shaky lately, but it’s possible to make too much of their struggles. Since the beginning of May, the Braves pen is sixth in baseball with 58 1/3 innings pitched, nearly eight innings behind the ML-leading Mets; their ERA is 4.01 (17th), FIP is 4.38 (18th) and xFIP is 4.15 (12th). It’s worse than they were in April, but I wouldn’t pinpoint them as *the* problem with the team.

Bottom Line

The offense is streaky and the slumps from Austin Riley and especially Michael Harris II have been difficult. But there are encouraging signs.

Riley has hit a bunch of balls on the screws right at people. And Harris is showing signs of fixing the greatest holes in his offensive game: his walk rate this year is more than twice what it was last year, his strikeout rate has fallen, and he has significantly improved in both his O-Swing% and Z-Swing%, reducing the percentage of pitches he swings at outside the zone while increasing the percentage of pitches he swings at inside the zone. His BABIP is more than a hundred points lower than it was last year, and his ISO is half what it was. He’s not hitting the ball with authority right now. But he appears to be making conscious strides towards controlling the zone, which was his single greatest weakness. He’s a star. He’ll get where he needs. So will Riley.

The starting rotation’s a mess right now, but that pretty much always happens at some point in the summer. Right now this is a 26-16 team – the .619 winning percentage translates to 100 wins in a 162-game season – with a five-game lead in the division. In second place, five games behind us, are the Marlins. The Mets are in fourth, a tenuous game and a half ahead of the Nationals. If you were going to slump, you could not have picked a better time to do it.