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Atlanta Braves Need Jair Jurrjens To Step Up In 2011

With improved competition, it is not a lock for the Braves to have a top three pitching staff next season. They would go a long way towards repeating it with a better year from Jair Jurrjens.

The Braves boast one of the top pitching staffs in the league, but with the emergence of a strong Phillies rotation, it will take a repeat or more to keep up. One Braves pitcher in particular may be counted on more than ever because of it.

The Braves led all of Major League Baseball in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) in 2010 at 3.65. They led in xFIP at 3.79. They were fourth in fWAR (FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement) at 20.5. They were sixth in K/9 at 7.76 despite having two ground ball specialists in the rotation, which also resulted in the best GB% in baseball at 49.9%. They were third in ERA at 3.57.

I could go on for days, but it is clear the Braves had perhaps the best pitching staff in baseball in 2010. For 2011, they are all returning with the exception of Mike Minor replacing Kenshin Kawakami in the fifth spot. So why are they not the favorites in the National League East after acquiring Dan Uggla to shore up the offensive production? The Phillies added Cliff Lee to boast potentially one of the top 10 rotations of all time.

So what do the Braves need to do to retain their spot at the top of baseball's staffs? Repeat seasons from Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson would help, the re-emergence of Derek Lowe would be big (and could very well happen) and a solid rookie year from Minor would do wonders. But the missing piece for much of 2010, Jair Jurrjens, could be the piece that puts the puzzle together for the Braves.

As a 22-year-old rookie in 2008, Jurrjens threw 188 innings and the Braves got 3.7 wins of production out of him. He had a 3.68 ERA and 3.59 FIP. But a 1.99 K/BB (3.35 BB/9, 6.64 K/9) was not worth getting excited about, and his minor league rates showed it was more of a sign of things to come. However, again, he was just 22 and whenever you get this kind of value from a rookie at that age it is worth a lot.

His value seemed to grow in 2009 as he threw 215 innings and posted a 2.60 ERA. But a 3.68 FIP and 4.34 xFIP continued to cast doubt on his ability to continue the success as the innings increased. Jurrjens had a 2.03 K/BB, slightly better than in 2008 but not enough of an uptick to lower concerns. His strikeout rate decreased slightly while his walk rate also slightly decreased. More worrisome was a big decrease in GB% from 51% in '08 to 42% in '09, while FB% saw a huge spike in relation. The result was not a major increase in home runs allowed, it increased only slightly, but the trend was headed in that direction. Also worrisome was a .273 BABIP and 79% LOB%, both indications that it was unlikely for him to repeat the ERA.

In 2010, Jurrjens threw 116 innings, posting a 4.64 ERA, 4.19 FIP and 4.47 xFIP. He had a 2.05 K/BB due to a slight increase in walks and slight increase in strikeouts, but both were very similar to the '08-'09 rates. The batted ball trends continued in the wrong direction as he posted the worst HR/9 of his career at over one homer per nine innings. His GB% continued to decrease to 39% as his FB% increased to 41%, and his LD% increased to 18%. The trends seemed to hit their worst as expected.

Now, the first question is how much his 2010 should be taken into consideration. Jurrjens went down early in the season with a hamstring injury that kept him out for two months, followed by a torn meniscus in his knee late in the season that prevented him from contributing down the stretch. How much the hamstring hurt his numbers is not known, and it is impossible to say, but judging by my point of view, it is safe to say it did hurt.

I have been able to watch almost every Jurrjens outing since 2008 and have seen his mechanics both on television a thousand times and in person, and I could repeat them in my head without fail. He relies heavily on timing to stay on top of the ball due to a high finish and flat landing. His mechanics make it easy for him to get under the ball because, naturally, finishing high (leading side stays high when throwing and after throwing) leads to throwing high, and a flat landing (landing foot lands flat) leads to the entire body finishing high because the leg locks.

Therefore, when Jurrjens has a weak landing leg, it naturally prefers to lock to take pressure off it. I saw far too many times during the season when Jurrjens' lead side locked up and he could not get on top of his pitches to save his life, leading to 475-foot Adam Dunn homers (shudder). His slider doesn't have tremendous bite, so he has to rely on keeping it down. Same goes for the changeup, and his fastball for that matter. He can run the fastball around the plate and in on righties when he's on, but it doesn't happen enough. But I digress.

When Jurrjens returned, he showed signs of returning to normal and actually pitched pretty well, but he also showed signs of not being able to repeat mechanics. I'd rather it be because of injury and not just inability to find his mechanics. But after three years and continued downward trends, I have to wonder if Jurrjens will be able to hit his potential once he reaches his prime years, or if we should just expect more of the same in the coming years. The walk, strikeout and home run rates tell the story of a pitcher who should not be counted on for much more than what we have received so far. That's good enough for a number three or four starter, but it isn't the ace-type material some have come to expect, and it's not enough to overtake a Phillies staff that features a couple of aces and a couple of number one or number two starters.

It might be in the Braves' best interest to consider Jurrjens as a stopgap until Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado can take over, instead of a potential long-term Brave. They may be able to sell high in the next year or so.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.