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PHILADELPHIA -- Anibal Sanchez was the latest pitcher to flirt with a no-hitter, in a year in which a lot of pitchers have been dominant, taking his attempt into the seventh inning Sunday. The Nationals got a hit, but Sanchez and the Marlins' bullpen finished off a shutout. Johnny Cueto and the Reds held the Cubs scoreless, and Ryan Vogelsong and the Giants did the same to the Rockies.
The Braves held the Phillies to five runs in three days. On April 30, the 15 games resulted in the third-fewest runs for any 15-game schedule since 1992.
There is a usual-suspect list of possible reasons. Offensive numbers have declined since Major League Baseball put some teeth into its drug program in 2006, and since testing started for amphetamines. The weather in April this year seemed miserable all over the place, the kind of conditions that typically depress statistics. And managers and coaches and players believe that we've never seen the high volume of hard throwers that we are seeing right now.
But Chipper Jones mentioned another possible reason for the decline in numbers on Sunday afternoon, as he sat at a table in the Braves clubhouse: The skyrocketing use of the cut fastball.
"The cutter," Jones mused. "The bane of my existence."
Jones was just chatting, and he really wasn't trying to generate theories about the decline in offensive numbers. But his observations about the advent of the cut fastball sounded a lot like words coming from a football coach, as he discussed the cyclical adjustments and counter adjustments that are made by offenses and defenses. Jones can't remember seeing many cut fastballs before the late '90s. Pitchers used sliders or curveballs to complement their fastballs and changeups, generally. But then in the late '90s, something -- someone -- changed all that, Jones believes.
The Yankees' closer was on stage every fall, throwing his cut fastball, breaking bats because of the late movement, overpowering hitters. Four-seam fastballs are thrown at a higher velocity than the cutter, but they usually doesn't have the kind of late movement that a cutter has. The slider can be a devastating weapon when thrown properly, and its movement is similar to that of a cutter -- but it has less velocity than a cutter, and it's more easily identifiable to the hitter early in its journey to the plate, because of its telltale spin.
The cutter, on the other hand, is a stealthy pitch. At his peak, Rivera threw his in the low-to-mid 90s, with a rotation that more closely resembled a fastball -- but with late movement that is literally impossible for the hitter to track. The Sports Science folks will tell you that hitters will make their judgments about pitches in the first few feet that a ball travels out of a pitcher's hand. They decide whether the pitch is a fastball or a breaking ball or a splitter or some other pitch, and whether to swing or not. But the human eye cannot track the baseball all the way to home plate.
So a pitch with higher velocity and late movement can be an extraordinarily effective weapon, Jones noted, because the hitter often cannot anticipate the ultimate location of the ball -- as Rivera has demonstrated time after time. Hitters swing the bat, thinking the ball is going to be on their barrel, and instead, it's on their handle.
Jones explained that when a cutter is thrown well, driving inside on a left-handed hitter, it's almost possible to pull the ball into the field of play. "You almost have to hit it foul," Jones said, because of its location. "The best way to hit it is to pull your hands in, and hit the ball" through the middle.
He noted how Mark Grace led off the last inning of the 2001 World Series -- the rally of the Arizona Diamondbacks -- by doing this, leading with his hands and punching Rivera's cutter for the single to center field.
But through the years, Rivera has become the greatest closer in history with the cutter, and now a a generation of pitchers have watched him -- and a whole bunch of pitchers throw the cutter, Jones said, listing a couple of many, from Roy Halladay to Cole Hamels. Rivera is often asked by other pitchers how he throws the cutter, and he demonstrates. The pitching fraternity shares this secret weapon.
The cutter has changed pitching, Jones believes. And it's changed hitting.
• John Kruk obviously knows a whole lot more about hitting than I ever would, and as he watched the highlights of Sunday's games, he noted that Derek Jeter had seemed to move back from home plate in his stance -- presumably to combat the river of fastballs that he'd been getting inside from opposing pitchers. This would, in theory, allow Jeter to extend his arms, which he did repeatedly against the Rangers, mashing his first two homers of the year -- his first homers in 259 regular-season at-bats, dating back to last season.
His four-hit, two-homer game will shut off, for now, all of the conversation about whether his decline is irreversible. This is the way it goes with every star player as they reach their late thirties. Every slump raises natural questions about whether age has eroded skills, about whether the player can bounce back. Willie Mays went through it, before he was traded to the Mets -- and after. Hank Aaron went through it, finishing his career as a designated hitter with the Milwaukee Brewers. Pete Rose went through it, to the point that there were whispers in baseball circles that he was among the least effective first basemen in the sport, and that his pursuit of Ty Cobb's hit record was completely selfish. Cal Ripken went through it, whenever he struggled at the plate the last decade of his consecutive-game streak. Every time his batting average declined, the issue of whether or not he would be a more effective player if he took days off popped up -- and, as Cal noted himself, if he hit, all of that conversation would just go away.
This is how it will go for Jeter for the rest of his career. If he slumps, media and some fans -- and the Yankees' brain trust -- will evaluate the issue of whether he can be an effective player. When he hits, as he did on Sunday, all of that talk disappears. As an aside, the Yankees to have four hits, 2 HR, 3 RBI, and a stolen base in a game during the live ball era:
Derek Jeter: 2011
Alex Rodriguez: 2010
Mickey Mantle: 1961
Babe Dahlgren: 1939
Lou Gehrig: 1935
From ESPN Stats & Information: Jeter's struggles to hit the ball in the air have been well-documented; his groundball percentage of 73.1 entering Sunday led baseball by a wide margin. Sunday, Jeter hit a season-high three fly balls and a line-drive single, giving him four balls in the air. He did that just four times last season. Jeter's second home run came on an outside fastball, a pitch that he has pounded into the ground all season. Entering Sunday, Jeter had put 36 outside fastballs in play; he hit 30 of those on the ground.
Jeter had a breakout game, writes George King.
• Chipper Jones has been struggling with his left-handed swing of late, and so after Saturday's game, he called his father, his hitting coach for life. His father watches virtually every Braves game, but never calls his son with advice. "He always waits for me to call," Jones said, smiling.
Neither father nor son messed around with niceties when they talked this weekend. Chipper just went right into it. "What do you got for me?" he asked.
"You're feeling jammed up, right?" his father responded.
Exactly, Chipper replied, and his father talked him through a couple of adjustments to get his hands freed up and away from his body. After the third baseman got to Citizens Bank Park, he went to the cage, implemented the changes -- and he could immediately feel the difference. "Amazing," the son said about his father's coaching ability, on Mother's Day.
• Freddie Freeman hit a home run and made plays on Sunday Night Baseball, and our producer, Tom Archer, asked for Freeman to be the post-game guest. After the Braves went through their lines of handshakes and high-fives, I asked Freeman to come over, to talk about the game.
When Freeman was 10 years old, his mother passed away.
Before we went on camera to start the interview, I mentioned to Freddie that my last question to him would be about his Mom, and how he handles Mother's Day, and right away, you could see the emotion in his face. Mother's Day, he said quietly, can be very tough, and he thinks of Rosemary Freeman.
He was clad in pink on Mother's Day.
• Tony La Russa's eye feels terrible, and he is going to the Mayo Clinic today, writes Rick Hummel.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Giants Manager Brian Bochy is going to have to make some tough lineup calls in the days ahead, as Henry Schulman writes.
5. Boston called up a shortstop.
Dings and dents
1. The Mets got more bad news, placing Chris Young on the disabled list, as Joel Sherman writes.
1. The Giants closed out a series sweep of the Rockies, getting a big lift from Ryan Vogelsong. They shut down the Colorado lineup, as Carl Steward writes.
2. By the way: The Braves-Phillies game Sunday night had a real playoff feel to it, in its intensity, and how focused the players on both sides seemed to be. This will be a hell of a race.
3. How Marlins starter Anibal Sanchez shut down the Nationals:
• He generated a career-high 11 strikeouts, 10 of them swinging. Induced 18 swings and misses, tied for the most in a game in his career.
• He had a heavy use of his slider, especially with two strikes. He threw 41 sliders overall, more than his past two starts combined, and a whopping 26 of those came in two-strike counts. Although both hits he surrendered were against the slide-piece, he also got eight of those strikeouts with it.
• Twenty-nine foul balls were also his most ever in a start and the highest by percentage since his start on Mother's Day LAST year.
• High command. Even with all the foul balls, Sanchez ended up with only three 3-ball counts the entire day, and two of those were full.
4. How Reds starter Johnny Cueto returned with a win:
• He threw 49 offspeed pitches (48 pct), highest usage since last June, and well above his 35.5 pct rate from last year.
• Worked the corners: of 78 pitches to righties, only 11 were right down the middle. Used slider heavily to righties (23 pitches), getting 52 percent strikes despite only 30 pct of the pitches being in the zone.
• The Cubs fouled off half their swings, more than any game by a Cueto opponent last season (average rate 38 pct). That put them in a lot of two-strike holes (15 of 24 batters), and Cueto held them to three singles out of those 15 two-strike at bats.
• He had good movement on changeup: Although he threw just 12 of them, they averaged 7.1 inches horizontal break and 3.4 vertical. That's almost double the 4.0 and 2.0 averages from last season.
6. The Mariners struggled for runs again.
7. The Nationals were shut down.
10. The Pirates reached .500, the latest sign of progress.
11. The Texas bullpen was drubbed by the Yankees, writes Jeff Wilson.
12. The White Sox had another good day, as they try to string some together.
15. The great offensive drought continues for the Brewers.
Verlander's no hitter.
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Before every game, position players on both teams will gather on the foul lines and do their last sprints before the first pitch, and often this leads to greetings in the outfield behind second base -- hearty handshakes and hugs.
If Joe Torre, baseball's new czar of on-field discipline, has his way, then this kind of thing will be curtailed. Torre has asked club staff members to nudge their players toward curtailing that kind of fraternization after the gates have been opened to fans.
Friends from rival teams will often have dinner after games, away from the park. But what has rankled some folks in the game has been the gradual increase in on-field conversations when fans are in the park, because they would prefer that the players reinforce the lines of competition. Some players -- like the Yankees' Mariano Rivera -- already prefer to limit their conversation with opposing players, but others don't draw that distinction.
Torre's preference might be to curtail the fraternization, but the reality is that MLB can't really make this happen without the cooperation of the players -- and as MLB learned in its effort to get players to speed up their at-bats, some players will simply ignore the request.
Justin Verlander didn't jump and scream, nor did he run around like crazy and leap into the arms of his catcher. He gave it a pump of the fist, in front of a big grin. Because he's done it before, and there's no reason to think that a pitcher clocked at 100 mph in the eighth inning of a no-hitter on Saturday won't do it again.
From Daniel Braunstein of ESPN Stats and Info, some Verlander tidbits: Justin Verlander threw his second career no-hitter and joined Mark Buehrle and Roy Halladay as the only active pitchers with two no-hitters (including postseason). It was the second no-hitter in the majors in the last five days.In Verlander's first no-hitter, he struck out 12 hitters; he struck out just four Saturday.
How Verlander threw a no-hitter:
A. Verlander threw five pitches at 100 mph or higher, tying his most in any start in the last three seasons. Verlander's velocity got stronger as the game went on. All five of his pitches at 100 or higher came in either the seventh or eighth inning. Verlander's average fastball velocity of 97.3 mph ties his second highest in a start in the last three years.
B. The Blue Jays did not hit a ball out of the infield against any of Verlander's 52 off-speed pitches. Three of Verlander's four strikeouts were with off-speed pitches. Toronto grounded out six times (one of which was a double play) and popped out four times in the infield against Verlander's off-speed pitches. Overall, just three of the 22 balls the Blue Jays put in play against any of Verlander's pitches left the infield.
C. He kept Toronto off balance by throwing his slider 23 times, his second most in a start in the last three seasons. His most is 25 sliders in a start, also against the Blue Jays (Aug. 27, 2010).
As he looks back on the early part of the season, Chipper Jones thinks that he probably could've played in every game. But he is coming back from knee surgery and he is 39 years old, so every day, Fredi Gonzalez will ask him how he feels, and if they agree that it would be good for Jones to rest, then he will. Bobby Cox, the only manager that Jones ever played for before this year, had a different approach -- more old-school, because he wouldn't go up and ask Jones if he needed a day off.
So far this season, Jones has played very well, hitting .291, with an .842 OPS, and his left knee -- which was surgically repaired -- has felt very good, he said.
On Eric Hosmer's first day in the big leagues with the Royals, almost 10,000 fans bought tickets to see him. At his pregame news conference, there were seven television cameras in place, including one from a station that carried the whole thing live. Two local radio stations carried it live.
Right away, in his first inning in the big leagues, Hosmer showed his range of skills, beyond his swing, starting a 3-6-3 double play. Kansas City manager Ned Yost remarked after the game that none of the other first basemen that the Royals have played at the position could have made that play -- and what he meant by that is that Hosmer throws left-handed and the others throw right-handed. But the ease with which he fielded and threw was one piece of evidence to support what Paul Splittorff once said after watching Hosmer in the minors -- he's going to win some Gold Gloves.
"Why such long faces?" he said. "It feels awkward."
• Julio Teheran, born on the day Scott Norwood kicked wide right in the Super Bowl, is just 20 years old, and the youngest pitcher to start a game since Steve Avery. The Braves juggled their rotation so that Jair Jurrjens would have the start on national television tonight, rather than Teheran.
And in his debut on Saturday, Teheran had the same kind of struggles that a lot of young pitchers go through. He had difficulty establishing any of his secondary pitches, and the Phillies sat on his fastball and took big swings -- none bigger than a hack from Ryan Howard on a 2-0 fastball, a swing which resulted in a monstrous home run.
But Teheran will be back, and by all accounts, he's going to be good. Atlanta GM Frank Wren recalled the first time he saw the right-hander, at age 16, pitching in instructional ball at the Braves' complex in Orlando. "You could see that he was special," said Wren. "There's no question he has electric stuff, but beyond that, he looked like he belonged. There wasn't anything he was seeing or facing that fazed him."
Fredi Gonzalez thought he did a nice job.
• Derek Lowe said that the blister on the bottom of his right foot -- which may have resulted from him trying a shoe a half-size bigger -- began to bother him in the fourth inning of his dominant start Friday, and that he knew, even as he was rolling up hitless innings, that he wouldn't last. "No chance," he said.
Moves, deals and decisions1. FYI: The Chicago White Sox baseball minds intend to give their team -- which generally drew raves in spring training -- more time to work through their early-season problems. The internal diagnosis is that the struggles are on the shoulders of the players, and not Ozzie Guillen or his staff, so there are no plans for major changes. The White Sox hope to ride this out, and they had a good day against the Mariners.
2. It might be time for the Padres to consider a trade of Heath Bell, writes Tim Sullivan. From the Padres' perspective, it's a no-brainer to swap Bell, at a time when teams are starved for relief and Bell would fetch a decent return on the open market.
3. There is a way for Frank McCourt to complicate his situation, Bill Shaikin writes, and parking lots are a key component.
Dings and dents1. Kendrys Morales isn't close to being ready to come back. It's been almost a year since his injury.
Saturday's game1. Daniel Hudson was The Man for the Diamondbacks.
2. For the third consecutive game, the Rockies had their guts ripped out.
3. When it was all over, Bruce Bochy smiled wearily.
4. The Athletics got really mad, as they lost.
6. A very underrated part of what the Indians do is grind out at-bats, and they did that on Saturday against one of the game's best pitchers, Paul Hoynes writes.
8. From Mr. Braunstein, how Yovani Gallardo almost no-hit the Cardinals:
A. For a change, he was dominant with all pitches. Gallardo entered Saturday with a 6.10 ERA and opponents were especially hammering his fastball and slider. The Cards were 0-for-12 with four strikeouts on at-bats that ended with a fastball (.370 BA, .605 SLG entering the game) and 1-for-10 with two strikeouts against the slider (.316 before Saturday).
B. Location. Entering Saturday, opponents feasted on Gallardo's low pitches (.343 BA)and inside pitches (.303). The Cardinals were 0-for-6 on at-bats that ended with a low pitch and 0-for-5 on those inside.
C). He got ahead in the count. Of the 28 batters Gallardo faced, only two saw a 2-0 count.
8. The Padres were shut out, again. From Stats and Info: The Padres have been shut out eight times, tied for the most by any team through their first 33 games since the 1969 season. Good news for the Padres: None of those teams were shut out more than nine times the rest of the season.
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In a season more notable for star players off to slow starts and a league-wide offensive malaise, the way Lance Berkman has scalded the ball at the outset of his St. Louis Cardinals career is nothing less than shocking. Not only is he hitting .390/.461/.750 in a league averaging only .250/.320/.388, but he was doing so after a 2010 season in which he was reduced from perennial All-Star status to ineffectual part-time work with the New York Yankees.
There was plenty of reason to think that Berkman's posterior was ready to have the proverbial fork stuck in it. Thirty-four years old last year, Berkman lost the beginning of the season to knee surgery and when he returned his bat didn't have the life that had produced career .299/.412/.555 rates through the end of 2009. His problems hitting left-handers, a career-long problem for this switch-hitter, became extreme and a power stroke that had produced as many as 55 doubles and 45 home runs in a season seemed to have weakened.
Hitters tend to have a fairly linear evolution to their careers -- normally, when they start to fade, they don't come back. Berkman's physical deterioration, combined with his miserable results in New York (.255/.358/.349, one home run in 123 plate appearances) seemed to suggest that the Cardinals' plan to sign him and give him regular playing time in an outfield corner ranked somewhere between foolishly optimistic and delusional. Of course, Berkman has shown in his career that he is not a typical hitter, and a look at history shows that his renaissance should not be surprising.
Consider the great third baseman Darrell Evans. He had just hit .277/.378/.516 with 30 home runs for the San Francisco Giants as a 36-year-old when he signed a free-agent contract with the Detroit Tigers. He slumped to .232/.353/.384 with 16 home runs for the Tigers and it could have been a sign that the curtain was about to drop. Instead, Evans came back in 1985 with .248/.355/.519 rates and a league-leading 40 home runs, then played four more seasons before retiring with 414 home runs.
Another third-base great, George Brett, had his worst season in five years when he hit .282/.362/.431 as a 36-year-old in 1989, throwing in what had become an all-too frequent visit to the disabled list with a knee injury. At that moment, Brett had only 2,528 hits, and his quest for 3,000 seemed a stretch, but he greatly improved his chances by rebounding to .329/.387/.515 in 1990, winning his first batting title since 1980 in the process.
A third example is Paul Molitor. For most of his career, he was known as an extremely fragile player, and spent almost 500 days on the DL in his career. As such, it was easy to believe that when he followed up his age-37, .341/.410/.518 season of 1994 with a .270/.350/.423 season in 1995 that he was heading for the last roundup. Yet, Molitor had one last comeback in him, a .341/.390/.468 1996 season in which his batting average ranked third in the league.
The real lesson here is not that we can't generalize about a hitter's career arc, but that we shouldn't get carried away by small samples. Berkman's Yankees phase was undeniably miserable, but it also represented a fraction of both his career and the 2010 season. His time with the Astros was poor by his own standards but not in any sense bad; a .372 on-base percentage and .436 slugging may be bland, but they are solid, particularly in a league where offensive levels were sinking. Also, he is not a typical hitter. And we should not always apply generic trends when evaluating the career arcs of hitters as good as Berkman, not to mention Molitor, Brett and Evans.
Since Berkman did retain some skills, it was also possible for him to make some adjustments to his approach and surprise pitchers around the league. He's been a more aggressive hitter this season, swinging at more pitches and taking fewer walks. He has already had 20 at-bats in which he has put the first pitch in play, a high rate compared to his career patterns.
Berkman has also no doubt benefitted from returning to the National League Central, his home for his entire career outside of his New York sojourn. He has hit .600 in three games against the Reds, .571 in three confrontations with the Astros and .300 against the Pirates. Despite the transience of defensive lineups and pitching staffs in the age of free agency, there is something to be said for 12 years of familiarity with the general environment, from something as innocuous as hotels and restaurants to elements as key as the way the sunlight slants toward the batter's box during day games at PNC Park.
That said, just as Berkman's age and poor season made it all too easy to infer a permanent decline, we also can't get too worked up about the start to his 2011, as wonderful as it is. There is no precedent in Berkman's career for him to hit .390 or, for that matter, .340. When pitchers realize he is swinging at first pitches, they will stop throwing him first-pitch strikes, and then he will have to make another adjustment, one which may not be as successful. The odds of Berkman making something of a comeback were not as bad as we thought.
None of this is to take anything away from Berkman, who looked demoralized at times last year and very easily could have taken his millions and gone home to Texas. Instead, he worked hard, getting past his knee problems to the point that he's not an embarrassment in the outfield and has revitalized his swing. Even if he cools off dramatically as the season progresses, he has already shown that it was foolish for anyone to write him off.
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It might have been the biggest story of the offseason: The Philadelphia Phillies collected four arms that collectively would challenge the best rotations in the history of the game. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels would bring them to the promised land, or so the story went.
When you look at the Phillies, it appears that they are on their way to accomplishing the mission. The team is in first place and the Big Four are firing on all cylinders. They've given up the fewest runs in the major leagues as a staff, so perhaps the case is closed: Philadelphia's rotation is the best in baseball.
Except there is a team -- in their own division, no less -- that might not be so impressed, mostly because they've got an impressive rotation of their own.
The Atlanta Braves have practically pitched the Phillies to a standstill. Philadelphia's starting rotation has a 3.14 ERA; the Braves' hurlers stand at 2.88. Their underlying statistics so far are equally impressive, even if the names Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens don't quite carry the same weight. These rotations are closer in quality than we thought.
Perhaps this won't be the case going forward. Lowe is showing a strikeout rate that far outshines his career numbers -- he's more of a ground-ball pitcher with good control and may now be dealing with a blister problem -- and Jurrjens won't continue to put up an ERA under two.
But there's reason to believe that the Braves can survive a little regression from their front four.
Teams averaged 1,444 innings pitched per staff in the National League last year. The ZiPS projections, compiled by Dan Szymborski and housed on FanGraphs.com, have the Phillies' Big Four throwing a combined 824 1/3 innings this year. Even with Roy Halladay projected to pitch more innings than anyone in baseball (231 1/3), there are about 620 remaining for the non-big-four to pitch. In other words, depth matters.
And in those 620 innings, the Braves will have the advantage.
For one, Atlanta has perhaps the best fifth starter in baseball. Brandon Beachy may not have had the pedigree of being a high draft pick (he was actually an amateur free agent), but as soon as he hit professional baseball, he never looked back. He has excellent control -- his 2.5 walks per nine in the major leagues are in line with his minor league work and well below the 3.3 average -- and he uses his four-pitch arsenal to rack up about a strikeout per inning.
Behind him, the Braves may also have the best sixth starter in baseball, Mike Minor. The lefty does have the pedigree, as he was drafted seventh overall just two years ago. All he's done since then is strike out 10 per nine in the minors -- with above-average control. Even in the major leagues, he's shown those abilities despite some early struggles. Behind Minor, the Braves have Julio Teheran -- the sixth-best prospect in baseball, according to Keith Law. Teheran, who spot-started Saturday, can touch the upper-90s and has a plus changeup.
For Philadelphia, the cupboard isn't as full. Behind Joe Blanton for the Phillies is Vance Worley, who has been performing admirably as a stand-in for Philadelphia so far. He's struck out 6.8 per nine over his minor league career and is thought of as a capable fill-in at best. Behind Worley, the Phillies have Kyle Kendrick, a pitcher with a 4.62 ERA in almost 500 career major league innings.
Atlanta's bullpen is also exceptional. Led by the excellent lefty-righty tandem of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, the Braves' 'pen has the third-best FIP (3.00) in the National League. They strike out 8.37 batters per nine and walk 3.29, with a 52.9 percent ground ball rate. Philadelphia relievers have struck out 6.87 per nine, walked 4.31 batters per nine innings and generated ground balls 47.1 percent of the time -- good for a FIP of 3.90. The Phillies are also currently on their third closer of the year, and while their bullpen isn't bad, it's certainly not as good as Atlanta's.
In addition, FanGraphs colleague Jeff Zimmerman has shown that veteran starters across baseball are about 38 percent likely to hit the DL. The Braves are much more prepared for that moment, with their excellent sixth and seventh starters. With those pitchers in place, and their excellent bullpen, Atlanta is more equipped to put up zeroes in those 620 innings that the Phillies' top four won't pitch.
As the Boy Scouts say, it's best to "be prepared." It's a long season, after all. The Braves seem better prepared in the bullpen and the rotation if something goes wrong, and that depth could carry them into the postseason.