The Good Old Days?

Everyone talked about the new Braves rotation all winter, and mostly they asked questions. Could John Smoltz handle the strain of throwing 200 plus innings? How would Hudson (or any of the Big Three for that matter) perform on his own? How many times could Mike Hampton homer off Mets and Nationals pitching? Can anyone even remember who the hell else starts for the Braves? (John Thomson and Horacio Ramirez, by the way)

The one the puzzled me the most was taking Smoltz from a role in which he had been dominant and putting him into a position where there is enormous potential for risk, both for the team and for his health. It was clear when the Braves acquired Danny Kolb that they were going forward with this gambit. Like a lot of other people, I felt that Kolb was suspect, and that his microscopic strikeout numbers would catch up with him eventually. Gammons was convinced that his numbers from 2003 showed that he had the potential to be a dominant closer who gets key strikeouts, but his numbers have fluctuated wildly throughout his career. In 2001 and 2003 his K/9 were 8.80 and 8.49, but he threw only fifteen innings in '01. 2003 was a great season for Kolb, with an ERA less than two, but that may be what the old folks call a "career year." So far this year, his performance has been disturbing.

You can get away with allowing hitters to put balls in play in order to get outs as long as you don't give up baserunners, and in only five innings this year he's given up six walks and five hits. Right now OBA is .500, and the OPS of hitters against him is 1.247. To give that number some perspective, in 2003, Barry Bonds' season OPS was 1.278, and the AL MVP last year (Guerrero) only had an OPS of .989. it is very early to speculate, but there are signs everywhere. His pitches per inning is up almost three from last year, and his pitches per AB is up one and a half.

I watched most of the Sunday Night game last night on ESPN, and saw all of the 10th inning heroics by the Phillies. But that's not really an accurate description of what happened. What I actually saw was the complete meltdown of Dan Kolb. He proved unable to find the strikezone, and walked the eighth and ninth men in the batting order. Kenny Lofton came up with no one out and tried to bunt towards the third baseman. Kolb pounced on the ball and had more than enough time to cut down the man at third, and possibly to even turn two. However, Kolb threw the ball three feet wide of Larry Jones (Chipper for those of you who are so inclined) and into the outfield, allowing the tying run to score. Next up was Jimmy Rollins, who had the most brilliant bunt I've ever seen, a high bouncer off the dirt in front of home plate that died in the grass, eliminating any possibility of a play. I don't fault Kolb for not being able to field it, as it would have been almost impossible to play. Bobby Cox brought in Kevin Gryboski, who promptly gave up a game winning single to Placido Polanco, a rocket shot that was past Larry (Chipper) Jones before he even had a chance to react.

It was nice to see the Phillies play with some heart, after the dismal seasons they've had over the last few years. Really, though, this seems to me to be an example of a rare misstep by the Braves as an organization. I think that the closer position has been ridiculously overpaid in the last few years, and is held in much higher regard than it should be. This article from The Hardball Times gets to the heart of some of my feelings on the modern, ninth inning, no men on closer. Still, it is a position of great import and was a missing ingredient for the Giants last year that no doubt cost them a playoff spot (and to all you Dodger's fans, if they'd picked up even 3 of their 11 blown saves last season, they'd have won the division). We'll still have to wait and see how Kolb recovers, but for now, the Braves are probably wishing for the good old days when their man in the ninth was the only man left from 1991, and their first NL East Divisional title. It looks like a good week's worth of games on ESPN this week, starting with the Reds at the Cubs tonight. Play ball!

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