The reasons are simple, really. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out exactly what brought the Braves down. You could call them excuses, but it's more simply the reasons why this team was unable to return to the postseason.
1. June - The Braves were 6-21 in the month of June, the worst month in Atlanta Braves history. It included a 10-game losing streak, and the team lost 16 of the first 18 games played that month. Atlanta went from 4.5 games out of first place on June 1st to 13.5 behind the New York Mets at the end of the month.
The slide really started the last few games of May, which was a good month overall as the Braves went 18-11. Atlanta played 32 of the first 50 games of the season on the road. They won a wild game in Chicago on May 28th, losing a big lead late in the game but winning 13-12 in 11 innings. After a 6-3 road trip, the Braves anxiously awaited a return to Turner Field, where they would play 26 of their next 39 games. But Los Angeles took two of three games to end May, and the Braves then lost the first five games of June.
After the 10-game losing streak, which ended on June 23rd in Tampa Bay, the Braves went 49-40 the rest of the way. If the team had simply gone 15-12 in June instead of 6-21, the final record would have been 88-74 and they would have tied the Dodgers for the wildcard.
With all the injuries that hit the team, it was simply too difficult to play .700 baseball the rest of the way, which was almost needed to recover from a horrific month of June.
"Yeah you look at June and fifteen games under .500, that'll sink most teams," Chipper Jones said Sunday. "Tried as we may, we battled, but it was just too big a hole."
2. Injuries - In all the seasons the Braves won the division, they were able to overcome injuries. But in not one of those fourteen years did the team have to deal with the number of injured players as they did in 2006. Braves players missed a combined number of 1267 games this season, significantly more than last year (497) and in 2004 (406).
The first injury we all knew about even before the season started. Mike Hampton had Tommy John surgery late last summer and missed the entire year. Despite the mediocrity in his Braves' career, Hampton was pitching very well before he got hurt last season. It's hard to argue that he was not a good number three starter behind John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, and with the reports all being positive on Hampton's return next season, we may finally be able to see how strong a trio that just might be next season.
With the absence of Hampton, the club had to re-arrange the order of the rotation. Lefty Horacio Ramirez was counted on to step in and replace Hampton, and after a 32 starts in 2005 the Braves were hoping Ramirez would break out this season. But in the third game of the season, Ramirez pulled his hamstring covering first base and would miss over six weeks. Then after pitching in fourteen games, Ramirez sprained a ligament in his left middle finger in early August and would miss the rest of the season.
Kyle Davies had the best spring training of any Braves' starter (1.89 ERA), and the Braves believed the 22-year-old right-hander could be a dependable number four starter. But on May 15th Davies strained his groin and had to have surgery a few days later. He would miss three and a half months before returning when the rosters were expanded in September.
John Thomson stepped in and replaced Horacio Ramirez in the rotation in April, after he had started the season in the bullpen with Jorge Sosa getting the edge as a starter. Thomson went 2-7 in 15 starts before going down himself in early July with inflammation in his right shoulder. Thomson missed practically the rest of the season, only returning the last week of the season in a relief role.
So while Hampton missed the entire season, Ramirez, Davies, and Thomson all missed at least half the season. Those four missed a combined 433 games on the disabled list. Needless to say, the rotation was decimated by injuries this season. How good would the Braves had been if only two of those four starters missed significant action?
The bullpen was also hit hard with injuries. Blaine Boyer and John Foster, two expected to be top setup men for the team, missed a combined 250 games on the DL. While Joey Devine didn't spend any time on the disabled list, and instead was in the minors, his hip injury early on cost him most of the season. And Chris Reitsma, who started the season as the closer, went down on June 12th with arm trouble and missed the rest of the season.
Even Danys Baez, acquired from the Dodgers to improve the bullpen, missed the final 37 games of the season after having his appendix out in late August.
With so many relievers missing time, the Braves had to turn to Chad Paronto, Tyler Yates, and Ken Ray, three unproven relievers, to pick up the slack in the bullpen. The constant turnover led to endless problems all summer long.
No position player was missed more than Chipper Jones, whose first injury of the season the first week was symbolic of the entire year. Jones slipped on the wet turf in San Francisco and sprained his knee and ankle. He missed two weeks that go around, followed by two subsequent stints on the DL later in the summer for a strained left oblique muscle. Jones, who played in only 109 games in 2005 after averaging 157 games played between 1996 and 2003, spent 39 games on the DL this season, missing 52 overall.
Every team has injuries, but not many teams have had to deal with this many injuries in one season. If the Braves had stayed marginally healthy, the final record would have arguably been significantly better.
Games missed by Braves players on the Disabled List:
Mike Hampton - 162
John Foster - 162
Kelly Johnson - 162
Chris Reitsma - 96
Kyle Davies - 94
Horacio Ramirez - 94
Phil Stockman - 88
Blaine Boyer - 88
John Thomson - 83
Brian Jordan - 64
Chipper Jones - 39
Danys Baez - 37
Chuck James - 30
Macay McBride - 23
Willy Aybar - 18
Brian McCann - 15
Lance Cormier - 12
TOTAL - 1267
3. Home record - The Braves finished with a 40-41 home record in 2006, and there were several home stands that were expected to be crucial, but instead turned out to be huge disappointments.
As mentioned earlier, when the Braves ended a long nine-game road trip in late May, they were 27-23, winding up a pretty successful month. They came home with a three-game set against the Dodgers, three against the Diamondbacks, and three against the Nationals. Hoping to go at least 6-3, as they had gone on the previous road trip, the Braves instead went 2-7 to kick off their horrible month of June.
The team corrected itself, so it seemed, at home with a 7-3 home stand in early July, right before the All-Star Break. Then after a terrific 7-2 road trip after the All-Star Break, the Braves came home for three with the Marlins and three with the Mets. After a 14-5 stretch before and after the break, the team believed it was recovering from the horrible month of June. But the Braves won only one of those six games against the two division rivals, ending any hope of another division title. The Mets left town with a 15 game lead over Atlanta in the National League East.
Then in August, when trying to stay alive in the wildcard race, the Braves came home for a nine-game home stand, three games each against the Pirates, Nationals, and Giants - three teams with sub .500 records. Needing to win at least six or seven games, the Braves instead went 5-4, and they ended August in need of a miracle month to make the postseason.
So that's three big home stands, and the Braves went a combined 8-16. They were 2-12 at home in June, and won only three of 18 games at home between May 29th and July 1st. All major league teams hope to win two out of three at home, but the Braves were unable to play over .500 the entire season.
4. Bullpen - There's a lot that can be written here about the bullpen, but the most telling stat is that the Braves blew half of their forty save opportunities before the acquisition of Bob Wickman, which changed the entire landscape of a pen needing a productive leader.
There are a few more amazing facts. Of John Smoltz's ten no decisions, six were blown save opportunities by the bullpen. And the pen's performance in June leads no mystery as to why the team was 6-21. The Braves' bullpen was 1-5 in June with a 5.13 ERA, four saves, and five blown saves. Here are a few sad stories from June:
On June 1st against Arizona, after Horacio Ramirez had pitched seven scoreless innings, he loaded the bases with nobody out in the top of the eighth inning. Macay McBride came in and got a big strikeout for the first out, followed by Chad Paronto getting a line out. But then lefty Mike Remlinger gave up a two-run single to Shawn Green, giving the Diamondbacks a 2-0 lead. The runs were charged to Ramirez, although both were unearned, but the bullpen failed to pick up their starter that had pitched one of his best games of the season.
Two weeks later, on June 14th, the Braves had a 5-2 lead behind a solid start from John Thomson. But Ken Ray allowed three runs in the 8th inning to tie the game. Then in the 10th, Oscar Villarreal gave up a double. He was relieved by Remlinger, who fielded a bunt and decided to try to throw the runner out at third base. Instead, the ball sailed into left field, allowing the winning run to score. The Braves clubhouse had never been so dejected.
Four nights later the Boston Red Sox were in Atlanta. The Red Sox led 3-2 in the 7th inning, but Jeff Francoeur hit a mammoth three-run home run to give the Braves a two-run lead. It was a huge emotional lift, and many wondered if the horror in June was coming to an end. But the lead did not last long. Macay McBride came relieved John Smoltz, who had pitched seven strong innings, and struck out David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez for the first two outs of the season.
And like so many times this season, things then fell apart. McBride walked Trot Nixon and then walked Jason Varitek. Coco Crisp then singled home Nixon, making it 6-4. Chad Paronto relieved McBride, and promptly gave up a two-run double to Mike Lowell, tying the score at six. Alex Cora then gave Boston the lead with a single scoring Lowell. And then Paronto gave up a two-run home run to Kevin Youkalis, giving the Red Sox the commanding lead and subsequent victory.
The very next game, June 20th against Toronto, the Braves were tied at 5 in the top of the 8th inning. Tyler Yates loaded the bases with nobody out, starting with a dreaded walk - the kiss of death all season to the Braves. Chad Paronto then gave up a hit to Alex Rios, giving the Blue Jays the lead. It was Atlanta's eighth straight loss.
Two days later, on June 22nd, the Braves had a 2-1 lead after seven innings. Horacio Ramirez had pitched well, allowing only one run in 6.2 innings. Tyler Yates had got the final out of the seventh inning, but then things turned sour once again. Chad Paronto walked Benji Molina on four pitches to start the inning. Braves' Manager Bobby Cox darted out of the dugout to replace Paronto, who had already had a rough week. With no dominant closer in the bullpen, Cox had to turn to Mike Remlinger, who immediately gave up back-to-back hits on the first two pitches he threw. The Blue Jays tied the game, and took the lead later in the inning on a ground out. It was the third time in the six-game home stand against their interleague opponents the bullpen had blew the game.
Even after the Braves had moved Jorge Sosa into the closer's role, he failed miserably. On June 28th in New York, after Ken Ray had blown a save opportunity in the 8th inning following a solid start by John Smoltz, Sosa gave up a game-winning home run to Alex Rodriguez in the 12th inning.
The injuries to Foster, Boyer, and Devine changed the shape of the bullpen from the first week of the season. Plus, the ineffectiveness of Chris Reitsma, thrown into the closer's job after the Braves had failed to sign a significant free agent last winter, was devastating. Although General Manager John Schuerholz tried to find a closer to stop the bleeding, the trade to acquire Bob Wickman from Cleveland turned out to be too late. When Wickman joined the Braves on July 20th, the team was already 12 games out of first place.
While these are the four main reasons for the fall of the Braves, there are a few others. Tim Hudson's second straight mediocre season did not help a rotation in dire need of co-aces. John Smoltz believed Hudson was ready to replace him as the team's best starter, but instead Hudson was only a shadow of the pitcher the Braves believed they had acquired from Oakland. Hudson had been one of the best pitchers in the American League from 1999-2004, winning 70% of his games. But with Atlanta, in his first two seasons, he's only 27-21 with an ERA almost a full run higher than it had been with the Athletics.
Marcus Giles' inability to produce from the leadoff spot did not help the team in the first half of the season. Replacing the very productive Rafael Furcal, most believed Giles, a high on base percentage player, could handle the job despite his mediocre speed. But Giles hit only .248 before the All-Star Break, enticing the Braves to look elsewhere for a leadoff man for 2007.
But the injuries are front and center. If this Braves team had stayed only marginally healthy, they would have had a shot at another playoff appearance. The injuries led to a number of players not even on the radar last winter inheriting significant roles, and that led to a horrific month that the team was unable to recover from. To bounce back from a 6-21 month, the Braves almost had to go 21-6 in another month. But the injuries kept that from happening, as the club struggled to get close to .500 for the rest of the season.
Many people wondered how the Braves' run of playoff appearances would end. Some believed the Braves might get beat on the final day of the season, just missing out. Others may have wondered if the team would completely fall off the map, resorting back to the days when the franchise would lose close to 100 games per season. But instead, this 2006 club had clear and significant reasons for its fall from grace. Thankfully, all four main reasons are correctable, and with that comes the hope that a new playoff run can begin next season.
Tuesday's question: 2. What went right in 2006?
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.