Can The Atlanta Braves Starting Pitching Prevent Another Collapse?

The Atlanta Braves hit their way into playoff contention during the first half of the season, but as they’ve solidified their wild-card position with six weeks left in the regular season, it’s the pitching that’s suddenly stepped front and center. Atlanta has the National League’s best ERA in the month of August. Even allowing that the bullpen is a key part of this, there’s no question the Braves’ starting pitching is coming through as the race heats up. Is this real or is it a temporary August mirage that will give way to another September fade? TheSportsNotebook breaks down the Atlanta Braves starting pitching…

Atlanta is currently using a six-man rotation. Let’s open with a quick listing of the numbers, the W-L records and  ERAs…

Tim Hudson: 12-4, 3.69
Tommy Hanson: 12-5, 4.27
Paul Maholm: 11-8, 3.50
Ben Sheets: 4-3, 3.07
Mike Minor: 6-10, 4.74
Kris Medlen: 5-1, 1.86

A lot of observers, TheSportsNotebook included, thought the Braves, with their good farm system, would be a strong player for an arm like Zack Greinke, or at the very least Ryan Dempster, at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The Braves opted for grabbing a castoff like Ben Sheets, who hadn’ t pitched in the majors for two years, and letting Kris Medlen come back from the elbow surgery that had sidelined him since last season.

The performance of the two pitchers speaks for themselves. Medlen has won four straight starts and been lights-out. Sheets’ comeback is one of the great stories in baseball this year and Dennis Quaid will play him when they make a movie out of it. When you consider how much Greinke and Dempster have struggled, you have to give a thumbs-up to the Atlanta front office for ignoring those of us who thought they should be bold.

But let’s assume, as we should, that Medlen’s performance will come down to more human levels and we can see one clear problem with this rotation—there’s no clear #1 starter. Tim Hudson is still a reliable vet, but no longer the stopper he once was. Paul Maholm, another low-cost acquisition, compiled his numbers against mostly mediocre lineups in the NL Central, when he pitched for the Cubs. Minor is a touted prospect who proved to be not-quite-ready for prime time. Although in fairness, Minor has improved from being terrible at the start of the season to at least functionable in the second half.

Atlanta is 71-53 coming into Thursday’s games and they’ve fallen six games back of Washington in the NL East. With the possible shutdown of Stephen Strasburg coming, there’s a chance for a late push by the Braves, but that margin looks a little imposing. On the flip side, Atlanta is a solid plus-four in the wild-card standings, with Pittsburgh and Los Angeles in pursuit.

I think the overall depth of the Atlanta rotation is enough to get them over the top and into the wild-card game, when you consider the starters we’ve looked at combine with a good offense and solid bullpen. The problem I’ve got is envisioning them having playoff success when they don’t have a clear go-to guy for the one-game shootout, nor can they pair up ace on ace effectively in a Division Series setting.

The current wild-card game would be Atlanta hosting St. Louis. When you consider the way last season ended, and with Chipper Jones potentially playing his final game at home, this would be an electric setting if it works out that way. The Braves will at least get to that game and that might even win it, but they won’t go further.