For a team that improved from 72 to 86 wins, there are a lot of things that went right in 2009. Here are just some of the things that helped the Braves improve by fourteen wins this season.
1. Starting rotation
After 75 quality starts in 2008, general manager Frank Wren knew he had to improve the starting rotation. So he went out and traded for Javier Vazquez and signed Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami. The push worked, as the rotation was the main reason for the Braves’ improvement.
Atlanta finished first in the major leagues with 99 quality starts and a 3.52 ERA for its starters. There were two 15-game winners (Vazquez and Lowe), and if not for more run support Jair Jurrjens would have joined them. He had 14 wins. Kawakami did well in a bottom-of-the-rotation role, and the Braves had Tommy Hanson come up in June and become a Rookie of the Year candidate.
But when Tim Hudson returned from Tommy John surgery in September, the rotation got even stronger. It solidified the Braves rotation as the best in baseball, and made the hope for next year very strong knowing some combination of the six pitchers will undoubtedly fit in the five rotation spots.
A year ago the Braves lost Rafael Soriano to surgery, and they were waiting on Mike Gonzalez to come back from his procedure. The bullpen was ok, but could definitely improve. With the two main guys healthy, the pen was much better in 2009, finishing with the sixth best bullpen ERA in baseball at 3.68.
Soriano led the team with 27 saves, while Gonzalez added 10 saves. Peter Moylan bounced back from his Tommy John surgery and set a Braves’ record for appearances with 87. Eric O’Flaherty was solid in 78 games, limiting lefty hitters to a .215 batting average.
3. Yunel Escobar’s move to lower in the lineup
When Bobby Cox moved shortstop Yunel Escobar down in the lineup, the Braves offense greatly improved. Escobar hit .288/.368/.441 in the fifth spot in the order, and then .324/.413/.434 in the sixth spot in the order. His strong and productive right-handed bat broke up all the lefty Braves hitters.
It wasn’t that Escobar was struggling when he was hitting second, as he hit .303 with seven home runs from that spot. But the Braves needed a threat in the middle of the order, and when the move was made there was a drastic improvement almost immediately.
4. Switching Martin Prado in for Kelly Johnson at second base
Kelly Johnson was his usual streaky self in the first half of the season. He struggled in April, hitting only .203. Then he rebounded in May, hitting .297. But in May the wheels came off, as Johnson hit .125 in 72 at bats.
Part of Johnson’s problem was the poor decision by Bobby Cox to hit the left-handed hitter at the top of the order. Johnson struggled in 2008 as the leadoff man, but Cox put him back in that spot again. Johnson hit only .222 as the leadoff man, which contributed to the Braves’ offensive woes early in the season.
So in June, with Johnson struggling, Cox replaced him with Martin Prado, who instantly made a difference. The move coincided with the acquisition of Nate McLouth, who took over as the leadoff man. Prado was then placed in the number two hole, which really helped the offense get people on base for the middle part of the order.
Prado hit .339 in June and July and took complete control of second base. Prado never really slowed down, hitting .301 after August 1 to finish the season with a .307 batting average.
5. Acquiring Nate McLouth from Pittsburgh
The Braves started the season with Jordan Schafer as the starter in center field. He won the job outright in spring training and deserved the job. But a wrist injury in the first week of the season caused him to struggle, and on June 2 Schafer was demoted to Triple-A.
Three days later the Braves acquired Nate McLouth from Pittsburgh. The acquisition proved fruitful as McLouth took over for Kelly Johnson as the leadoff man. For the season, McLouth hit .260 in the top spot, with a .254 on base percentage.
McLouth was solid, but not great. He provided someone at the top of the lineup that Bobby Cox felt comfortable with, and with the exception of a few games, McLouth remained in the leadoff spot for the rest of the season.
6. Acquiring Adam LaRoche from Boston
Through the first four months of the season, the Braves were a very weak-hitting team. They had only 91 home runs in their first 103 games. The biggest problem was at first base, where Casey Kotchman had 6 home runs in 87 games and 298 at bats.
They were just not getting enough production from that position. So on July 31, Wren acquired former Braves’ first baseman Adam LaRoche from Boston, where he had been traded from Pittsburgh a week earlier.
LaRoche would play in thirty fewer games and have 86 fewer at bats than Kotchman and doubled his home run total with 12 bombs. LaRoche was simply a bigger power threat, finishing the season with 25 home runs between Pittsburgh, Boston, and Atlanta.
7. Brian McCann had another solid season.
Once again, Brian McCann had an outstanding season. It was scary at the beginning of the season, as McCann struggled with his vision and had to miss a few weeks of action. McCann’s numbers were down a bit, as his average was 20 points lower that last season, his OBP was 24 points lower, and his slugging percentage was 37 points lower than his number in 2008.
McCann still was a solid run-producer, though, as he hit 21 home runs and drove in 94 runs. With four complete seasons now behind him, McCann has firmly established himself as one of the top offensive catchers in the game.
8. Matt Diaz got some production from right field
After the Braves traded Jeff Francoeur to the Mets on July 10, Atlanta turned to Matt Diaz. Ryan Church, who was acquired in the Francoeur deal, was part of a platoon for a while with Diaz. But Church’s injuries and Diaz’s productivity changed it to where Diaz got the most playing time down the stretch in right field.
It was about early August when Diaz took over as the regular in right field. From August 1 on, Diaz hit .333 with 9 home runs and 32 RBI in 180 at bats. The Braves benefited from another solid right-handed at bat in the lineup.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.