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The Atlanta Braves are in first place, folks

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The standings on May 3 don’t mean much of anything, but it certainly is something to look at them and see that the Atlanta Braves are in first place in the National League East. The only teams with better records than Atlanta: the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros and Diamondbacks. The Braves offense leads the National League in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. Their starting pitching, which began the season poorly, has been fantastic over the past three weeks or so. The Braves are not in first place by default. They have earned their place at the top of the standings.

The last time the Braves were in first place beyond the second week of the season was back in 2014. That also happened to be the last time the Braves were actually trying to win as opposed to tearing down and rebuilding. They found themselves in first that year, off and on, until July 20, after which they went on a skid, finishing the season 25-39, in second place, but 17 games behind the Washington Nationals. The Braves would go 207-278 over the next three seasons, trading off veterans — and acquiring some other, lesser veterans for payroll purposes —  and going all-in with a youth movement. In the meantime they experienced the worst front office scandal since integration, resulting in the firing of their previous general manager and the forced surrender of multiple prospects. They’d also move into a new ballpark, abandoning the city of Atlanta for the suburbs to no small amount of controversy. It’s been a rough few years.

While most people expected the Braves to improve this year, it was expected to be incremental improvement due to the maturation of some younger players and some better health. That maturation has come more quickly than expected, with young players Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña playing fantastically in the early going and some slightly older building blocks like Dansby Swanson transforming from liability to asset. Beyond that team health has been good and, let’s not delude ourselves, they’ve had a lot of good luck in the form of some guys playing well over their head in the early going (I’m looking at you Nick Markakis and Ryan Flaherty). Of course, all winning teams experience some good luck from time to time, so that good luck should not be discounted. The wins are in the bank.

I don’t think that the Braves will hold on to first place all season. The Nationals are too good, the Phillies are pretty darn good themselves and even if the Mets are dealing with injuries and their general Metsiness, they’re a more talented team. That’s before you get to the part about the Braves pitching not being good enough and, over the course of a 162 games and hot, hot weather, young players often wilt. It was supposed to be a year of moving forward and the Braves have moved forward, but I certainly expect them to move backward a bit after this early season surprise.

But it’s certainly neat in the meantime, ain’t it?

 

Gabe Kapler chooses not to bench Jean Segura for lack of effort

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The Phillies are in a tailspin. The club lost its perch atop the NL East, losing 12 of its last 18 games dating back to May 30. They enter Thursday night’s action four games behind the now-first-place Braves. The reasons for the slide are myriad, including a rash of injuries, but the players have also simply not played well. Understandably, fans are upset.

It didn’t help when, for the second time in three weeks, shortstop Jean Segura didn’t run hard on a batted ball. On June 3, Segura didn’t run on an infield pop-up that eventually resulted in a season-ending injury to Andrew McCutchen. On Wednesday during the second game of a doubleheader, Segura weakly hit a Max Scherzer pitch to shallow left-center that wasn’t caught. Because he was watching the ball rather than running hard, he had to hold up after a wide turn around first base.

To the surprise of many, Segura wasn’t pulled from the game despite the lack of effort. To the even further surprise of many, manager Gabe Kapler included Segura in Thursday’s lineup against the Nationals, which has otherwise been thoroughly reshuffled. Per Scott Lauber of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Kapler said, “Jean is one of our eight best players. I don’t think taking one of our eight best players and our shortstop out of our lineup is what’s best for the Philadelphia Phillies.”

Kapler said he had a long talk with Segura. “I told him that we’re going to address not just him but other players in the clubhouse and we’re going to talk about the highest level of effort and talk about how we can’t win every night but we can win the game of give-a-[hoot] and be undefeated in that category. Then we can protect the Phillies by putting the best lineup together on a nightly basis and not think about making ourselves feel better by sending a message.”

Kapler hit the nail on the head with that last line. Benching Segura only makes fans and pundits feel better by punishing someone for a perceived transgression. But does it actually teach anything, and is it actually beneficial to the team? Maybe to the former, and no to the latter. Matt Winkelman of Baseball Prospectus brought up a great point on Twitter, writing, “The idea that punishment is the only way to solve a problem or change behavior is such a narrow minded idea.” People learn best in different ways. Some might respond well to punishment. Others may just need a good talking-to. It’s a case-by-case thing. Kapler is right to apply nuance to the situation.

So many of baseball’s long-held beliefs have fallen to the wayside in recent years. The idea that a player must always be punished for a lack of effort will hopefully be the next one to be taken out to the dumpster.

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Update: Appropriately, Segura hit a game-tying solo homer. Good thing he wasn’t benched.