Braves pitchers beating the Nationals with execution, planning


Nationals Manager Matt Williams is at a loss to explain his team’s lack of success against the Braves. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

The Braves’ grip on the Nationals may seem inescapable, but Manager Matt Williams insisted Friday afternoon he does not think about the Nationals’ 19 losses in 26 games against their primary divisional rival. “It’s probably good that I’m naïve in that regard,” Williams said. “I just think about tonight. Good, bad or indifferent, we’ll move on to tomorrow.”

If Williams did look back, the biggest reason for their failure against Atlanta would be blinking in neon lights. Simply, Braves pitchers have dominated Nationals hitters.

Since the start of 2013 against the Braves, the Nationals have hit .218 with a .277 on-base percentage while slugging .591. They have struck in 22.5 percent of their plate appearances and walked in 6.6 percent. The Nationals have scored 65 runs in 26 games – 2.5 per game – and the Braves have a 2.13 ERA against them. Head-to-head, the Braves have essentially turned the Nationals’ offense into a slightly below-average Class AAA lineup.

The Nationals haven’t been a solid offense over that span against every other team. Overall, including games against the Braves, the Nationals have hit .250/.314/.393 since opening day 2013, with a 20.2 strikeout rate and a 7.8 percent walk rate. The Braves have a very good pitching staff overall, but not good enough to create a such a striking disparity.

Why? Williams pointed to simple execution. He used Braves right-hander Gavin Floyd’s start Thursday as an example, specifically Ian Desmond’s at-bats against him. Floyd had an electric curveball – Jayson Werth flailed at two for strikeouts, looking utterly fooled in the process. a rarity for him. Desmond chased two curves out of the zone for strikeouts.

“Last year, all but one of his homers came on curveballs,” Williams said. “He certainly hits them. But last night, it was really good. We don’t go beyond that. I don’t think you really can go beyond that, as a player or as a coach, other than to say they played than we did last night. Doesn’t mean we can’t flip the coin tonight.”

Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez believed both the Braves’ execution and their plan against the Nationals allowed them to dominate the Nationals offense. Mostly, though, he leaned toward the one-sided match-up as unexplainable. “I know we try to find reasons,” Gonzalez said. “I couldn’t give you one.”

Given the breadth of the Braves’ pitching success against the Nationals, though, it seems like something deeper would be at work than randomness or a string of great performances. Do the Braves plan for the Nationals and make adjustments better than other teams?

Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell said the Braves keep video dossiers of a hitter’s past 750 at-bats, but they focus on a hitter’s most recent two weeks. So even though the Nationals play the Braves 19 times per season, the Braves have an evolving scouting report on Nationals hitters.

“So you kind of get a now read for where the guys are,” McDowell said. “We do that with every club. We do that with every preparation. We go into a series with a general plan. Pretty much, on a given night, it’s the guy on the mound, the guy behind the plate that have to make those adjustments. Sometimes, they have to make them on the fly. He might not have a pitch, so where do we go? Is it a strength or a weakness for them? I don’t think there’s any secrets. We know what everybody over there has got. It’s just a matter of executing.”

If the Braves have an advantage, it may be that their starters are adjusting to recent performance by a Nationals hitter. When the Nationals study past film of a Braves pitcher, the pitcher’s pitch selection may not match their strategy for that game, even the hitter only watches the starter against himself.

“Up and down that lineup over there are some pretty professional, quality hitters,” McDowell said. “From a respect standpoint, God knows I’ve seen Ryan Zimmerman for nine years. And so, from an opposing coach standpoint, it’s nice to watch those guys grow. Ian Desmond, you watch him grow as a hitter and a player. It’s a nice competition to have.”

Except lately, it’s been extremely one-sided.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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Adam Kilgore · June 20, 2014

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