It wasn’t long ago that I was evaluating the Braves as a playoff team going into the All-Star break. Now, the day play resumes, I’m trying not to go too far into it. Andrelton Simmons going out with a broken pinky, an injury that guarantees at least four weeks while his finger is in a cast, is a big blow to the defense. The shortstop position seemed completely locked up with easily one of the better young defenders I’ve seen in a long time. I bring this up because I mentioned something in my last post about Jason Heyward playing more like we expected him to and it’s directly related to how Simmons’ injury happened.
For those who don’t know, Simmons broke his pinky by sliding into second base on a single that he stretched out when the center fielder lollygagged his throw back to the infield. Now, many people would probably criticize his aggressiveness, particularly his headfirst slide, which Braves fans know the dangers of. After the game, manager Fredi Gonzalez said he had been pushing his players to play with that level of competitiveness and he couldn’t really fault Simmons for pushing the play.
I see both sides, certainly. On one hand, you want your players to play safe ball and stay healthy throughout the season. On the other hand, a team can find a lot of success by pushing the pace and the energy of the game.
Enter the “gamer.”
Braves fans have been wowed by Simmons on many levels. His speed is an obvious improvement to the team, an asset the Braves haven’t seen a lot of in the past. They play more small ball than they’ve relied on power, but speed has come at a premium. But Simmons also brought a sense of the game that not every player has, as well as an arm like a cannon and a fairly reliable bat. What more could you ask for?
Let’s go back to his “baseball sense” for a moment. This is an instinct for the game that isn’t easily taught. Brian McCann has often been picked out for his natural talent for the game and was let off the leash early as a catcher, meaning he was calling pitches and plays because he had the head for it. Chipper Jones has that sense, which is supported by his numbers at the plate. I think Jason Heyward has that sense, but has kept it somewhat under wraps for the start of his career.
When I say that, I mean that when Heyward came on the scene, no one could say enough about the potential he had as a ballplayer. His bat and speed were the high points; he was projected to bring new power to the Braves and be a strong outfielder. But his first year, while good and somewhat eye-opening, wasn’t what I expected from all the talk. I certainly didn’t expect his second year to be such a letdown. Sure, it was shadowed by some injuries (headfirst slide!), but his bat all but died and people began to wonder if they hadn’t been premature in their speculation.
The last month and a half, Heyward has played like a different man. His bat has picked up, both in power and straight contact. His speed and running decisions have been upped to almost a frantic pace and his arm in the outfield has become a Jeff Francoeur-like weapon. Better, even. It’s accurate and powerful, and he is anticipating plays as they unfold. He hasn’t made all good decisions, there was a particular running gaff that prevented an easy run from scoring, but my point is he’s pushing the game. He’s forcing plays and putting the other team on the defensive, rather than waiting to react.
The Braves need to perform like a gamer team. I think over the last few years, including the transition from Bobby Cox to Gonzalez, they’ve lost a little of that excitement and energy that used to come so easily to them. That can certainly be changed with youth, who tend to bring a fresh-faced energy with them, but it helps for it to be infectious, to encompass the whole team.
That’s partially what makes this year so special, and also why I haven’t thrown in the towel on the Braves yet. It’s Chipper’s last year, and I know the whole team wants to see him finish in the postseason. It’s Michael Bourn‘s first full season with this team and he’s an intense player; just watch him leg out a triple and you’ll understand. Add the youngsters who have shown up ready to perform, like Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel, and the potential is there.
If these players continue to be gamers and bring a high level of energy to every game, the second half of this season could be very exciting for Braves fans.