Here are five detailed thoughts about the Atlanta Braves, as they trudge home from another unfulfilling trip along the West Coast (2-4 overall).
On the plus side, Washington (37-28) and Atlanta (36-27) remain in a virtual-tie-dance for first place in the National League East, so the Braves' 5-5 mark over the last 10 games has been somewhat benign.
1. It's tough to wrap one's arms around the Braves' baffling California Curse
If you watched Sunday night's riveting episode of Sports Extra on 11Alive, you first learned about the Braves' stupefying drought of not winning a road series against the Padres, Dodgers or Giants since 2014.
Yes, the Braves have an overall winning percentage of .453 since the beginning of 2014 (including this season), but even bad clubs occasionally perform well in spots when crisscrossing the country. It's one of the established givens of partaking in marathon campaigns of 162 games.
Yet, it's still difficult to find a definitive explanation for Atlanta's inability to win at Petco Park, Dodger Stadium and AT&T Park over a four-year span.
Here are two quick rationalizations:
a) Since the 2014 season, the Braves pitchers have a cumulative road ERA of 4.30. This typically doesn't pass the muster when playing in unfamiliar territory.
b) Atlanta misses Ronald Acuna Jr., even though the rookie had been a tad erratic before injuring his knee on May 27. To be blunt, the Braves might lead the National League in runs scored, but there's no current fear factor throughout the lineup, in Acuna's absence.
Especially with outfielders Preston Tucker and Ender Inciarte batting .184 and .214 since May 11, respectively.
How bad has the offensive rough patch been? In that 30-day span, the Braves sport a woeful on-base percentage of .284.
2. Mike Foltynewicz has become the redoubtable linchpin of the Atlanta rotation
Here are four ways to judge if a pitcher from your favorite team qualifies as a true ace:
a) If the strikeout-to-walk ratio's higher than 2.5/1.
b) If the K/9 rate approaches double digits.
c) If the FIP figure (Fielding Independent Pitching converts a pitcher's three true outcomes into an earned run average-like number) is in the neighborhood of '3' or lower.
d) Charting the number of times a starting pitcher has yielded two or fewer earned runs.
Well, Foltynewicz easily checks all of the above boxes:
**His K/BB rate (2.67) and K/9 figure (10.7) are elite-level class.
**Foltynewicz owns the 13th-best FIP among all starting pitchers (2.98).
**And of his 13 seasonal starts, Foltynewicz has incredibly posted 12 outings of two or fewer runs allowed.
That leaves just one clunker in the bunch (May 4 vs. the Giants).
Even aces are entitled to random flops.
3. Dan Winkler has been the Braves' most effective pitcher ... which is saying quite a lot
Winkler has logged only 26.1 innings this season (28 appearances), while starting zero games and registering zero saves; and yet, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more dominant pitcher in the National League.
The conventional stats are mind-blowing: 2-0, 0.84 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 37/7 K-BB, zero home runs allowed.
The secondary stats are equally amazing: 1.31 FIP (tops on the club), 383 ERA+ (ditto), .184 opponents' batting average.
Bottom line: Good luck finding a better in-the-moment pitcher from the first two-plus months of the season. In 'high leverage' situations, opposing hitters have a .154 batting average; and with tie games, the Winkler opposition has a microscopic batting tally of .063.
The only blemish on Winkler's resume? According to Baseball Reference, opposing batters in the 5-hole are strangely hitting at a .429 clip.
Granted, it's a small sample size (seven total at-bats), but we had to find at least one nitpick item.
4. Freddie Freeman has been red-hot at the plate ... and on the base paths
We covered Freeman's pursuit of National League MVP honors in great detail last week. In that piece, we even offered a glib projection of the 28-year-old stealing 15 or more bases—the comparative equivalent of a 6-foot-5 first baseman running a sub-5-minute mile in track.
But it's certainly a doable accomplishment. Along with Freeman leading the Senior Circuit in hits (85), doubles (19), total bases (142), OPS (.998) and OPS+ (142), he's also the Braves' 30-day-sample leader in steals (four).
In fact, since May 11, Inciarte serves as the next-closest Atlanta challenger in steals (two).
Freeman has long running strides, justifying his effectiveness when scoring from second on a base hit. However, this doesn't necessarily make him a viable threat for 12-15 thefts per year; and yet, to borrow a phrase from 'The English Patient' episode of Seinfeld—when George meets a girl who's dating a guy who looks exactly like Costanza—Freeman (six steals) has been out-Goldschmidting Paul Goldschmidt all season in the steals department.
(The Diamondbacks' Goldschmidt, a perennial MVP candidate, routinely leads his fellow first basemen in steals.)
5. It's imperative for the Braves to collect nine or more wins over the next 14 games
The Braves couldn't ask for an easier slate, covering the next two weeks.
Check this out: For Atlanta's immediate docket (New York Mets, San Diego, Toronto, Baltimore, Cincinnati), only the Padres have posted more than 30 victories ... and San Diego currently claims last place in the ultra-competitive National League West.
As a bonus, 12 of these 14 upcoming games take place at SunTrust Park (lone trip: Toronto).
But ay the rub: If the Braves plan to be serious contenders for the NL East title, they essentially cannot do any worse than 9-5 for the aforementioned stretch.
Why is that? Well, the schedule turns quite onerous beginning June 29, when Atlanta launches a 10-game road swing through St. Louis (the Cardinals are 35-28), New York (the Yankees own baseball's best record—42-19) and Milwaukee (Brewers boast the National League's best mark—39-26); and soon after that, division leaders Arizona and Washington come calling around the All-Star break.
History tells us good teams typically capitalize on the proverbial soft spots of a long schedule. As such, you cannot entertain bottom-feeding clubs like the Orioles, Reds, Padres and free-falling Mets (2-8 in their last 10) and harbor realistic thoughts of divisional domination.
On the flip side, asking for a 9-5 stretch might be on the ambitious side. Here's why:
**Julio Teheran's stint on the 10-day disabled list has the potential to be extended. The reason: Blister issues and thumb injuries just don't magically dissipate after a week-plus of rest; and even when Teheran has been healthy, his troubles when exclusively pitching at SunTrust Park have been well-documented on this Web site.
Also, since May 11, Teheran has surrendered eight homers to the opposition—easily the highest tally among the Braves pitchers.
**Charting the last 30 days, four Atlanta regulars have posted a batting average of .235 or less—Dansby Swanson (.231), Ozzie Albies (.218), Ender Inciarte (.214) and Johan Camargo (.212).
So much for the dog days of baseball occurring in August. A handful of Braves hitters have already reached that point.