By Rhett Lewis
Over the next several weeks leading up to the Braves Opening Day match up with National League East division rival New York Mets, I will be sharing with you five things to look forward to as the Braves attempt to make their way back to the top of the NL East in 2012.
Be sure to check back regularlly for updates and new posts.
Already in the books is a look at the man, the myth, the legend, Larry Wayne “Chipper” Jones, Jr.
Now for the second thing to look forward to in 2012:
The Super Sophomore Show
2011 was a good year to be a rookie for the Atlanta Braves.
First year closer Craig Kimbrel was unanimously selected as the NL Rookie of the Year while collecting a league rookie record 46 saves.
First baseman Freddie Freeman started from day one and finished runner-up in the ROTY voting to Kimbrel, only the third time a pair of teammates finished 1-2 in the award’s history.
And let’s not forget about starting pitcher Brandon Beachy who was a big part of one of the most consistent starting rotations in all of baseball.
This season the trio will look to build on their stellar 2011 campaigns and help the Braves challenge the defending division champion Philadelphia Phillies for top spot in the NL East.
Kimbrel, a native of Huntsville, Ala., grew up a Braves fan and has relished pitching at Turner Field. In his first year as the full time closer he dominated the ninth inning. His overpowering 95+ MPH fastball and knee jerking slider made putting good wood on the ball nearly impossible for opposing hitters.
He recorded 46 saves in 79 appearances while also being credited with four wins. His 127 strikeouts came at a rate of 14.84 per nine innings, an inhuman number for a full season. His 2.10 ERA and 1.04 WHIP also ranked among the best for all relief pitchers in the NL. At one point during the season he threw 37.2 consecutive scoreless innings.
Unfortunately, although it may be hard to phantom based on the above statistics, the 2011 season did offer several speed bumps for Kid-K. He registered eight blown saves, none more demoralizing than in game 162 against the Phillies. The Braves would go on to lose that game in 13 innings and miss the playoffs by one measly game.
The month of September in general, as it was for almost every member of the team, was a let down for Kimbrel. He converted only five of eight save opportunites, had an ERA of 4.76, and walked as many batters, seven, as he did in July and August combined.
Still, the future and 2012 look bright for the young flame thrower. This winter Kimbrel ratcheted up his off season work out program in an attempt to avoid the fatigue that may have been part of his undoing late in the 2011 season. A marathon type effort will be his mindset as he enters spring training this season, with the finish line hopefully being a championship.
As quietly as possible, Freddie Freeman took the NL East by storm last season. With many eyes and ears around the league focused on the second year performance of fellow teammate Jason Heyward, Freeman turned in one of the most solid, consistent rookie campaigns in recent years.
Freeman was the team’s Opening Day starter and expected to contribute mainly with his glove and solid understanding of the game. His defense turned out to be some of the finest at first in the league as he saved numerous throwing errors and runs. Although he struck out over 140 times, Freeman showed the ability to work the count and was never accused of giving at-bats away as is customary with many first year players.
For the season he batted .282 with 21 home runs and 76 RBI. His .996 field percentage was second best in the NL among all qualifying first baseman. His ability to hit against left-handers, a respectable .247 for the season, also gave Braves manager Freddy Gonzalez the confidence to play Freeman everyday.
Freeman will play almost the entirety of the 2012 season as a 22 year-old (he turns 23 on Sept. 12), making him one of the youngest everyday players in Major League Baseball. For many players the second season can be one of the toughest in their careers. Opposing pitchers and coaches have plenty of game tape to find and exploit your weaknesses. If Freeman can make the proper adjustments when necessary and cut down on his strike outs, there is no reason why he can’t continue his solid play in 2012.
The Atlanta Braves have a rich history in the pedigree of their pitching staff, especially their starters. Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine, Hudson. Brandon Beachy’s performance in 2011 shows the list may be getting longer over the next several seasons.
In his first full year as a starter Beachy started 25 games and finished the season with a 7-3 record. His smooth delivery and sharp competitive nature made him one of the better back end of the rotation starters in the league.
A pin point command of his fastball allowed Beachy to strike out more batters, 169, than his innings pitched, 141.2. His rate of 10.74 strike outs per nine innings was higher than previous Cy Young Award winners Zach Greinke, Tim Linecum, and Cliff Lee. His combination of a 3.68 ERA and 1.21 WHIP were similar to those of household names Yovani Gallardo, David Price, and CC Sabathia.
Beachy showed a calm and controlled demeanor the entire season, a desired trait of any starting pitcher and one not found often among rookies. His 4-2 record on the road was proof that he can handle himself in any hostile, unfriendly environment.
One thing Beachy must improve upon moving forward is his stamina. Like many young pitchers his innings pitched total was closely monitored last season to ensure that his arm did not become over used, which can led to a debilitating injury. The Braves will be in a good spot this season if he can close in on the 30 start mark and push his innings pitched closer to 200.
Historically the Braves posses many luxury arms to throw at opposing teams. With the recent addition of Brandon Beachy to the starting rotation and his hopeful improvement, that trend seems sure to continue.
As teams around the league continue to search for quality starting pitching, top tier closers to finish out games, and well rounded, do everything first baseman, the Atlanta Braves seem to be ahead of the game. Their three answers, Brandon Beachy, Craig Kimbrel, and Freddie Freeman all passed the test in 2011 and are poised to set the curve again in 2012.