Braves' new-look lineup aims to cut down strikeouts

Club will rely more on speed, consistent contact to generate offense

Braves' new-look lineup aims to cut down strikeouts

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As the Braves prepare to enter this season without the power they lost by trading Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis in the offseason, they are hoping their new-look lineup will prove to be much more efficient than the free-swinging lineup that consistently produced frustration last year.

The Braves have produced the franchise's four-highest strikeout totals each of the past four seasons and been set down by whiffs during 22.6 percent of their plate appearances both of the past two years. Atlanta's reliance on power proved effective when it won the National League East with the help of an NL-best 181 homers in 2013. However, the Braves died by the sword, too, as they totaled just 123 homers en route to recording 79 wins last year.

Coming off just their third losing season since 1990, the Braves will no longer have the benefit of the instant offensive capabilities of Heyward, Upton and Gattis, who combined to hit 62 of those 123 homers. Instead, Atlanta will be more of a station-to-station club that will rely on the added speed provided by some newcomers and the more consistent contact the Braves believe they will generate throughout their lineup.

The Braves are hoping to follow the blueprint of the 2014 Royals, who advanced to Game 7 of the World Series with a club that hit the fewest home runs in the Majors and also struck out fewer than each of the other 29 clubs.

"If we strike out less and put the ball in play more, I think that's the name of the game," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "Steroids are out of the game and home runs are not the big thing anymore. The game is changing and you have to be able to put the ball in play [more] than we did the past couple years."

It is never wise to put too much stock in the statistics compiled during Spring Training. But the numbers compiled since the start of the Grapefruit League season at least give the Braves some hope that they will indeed place more pressure on opposing defenses by putting the ball in play more consistently than they did the past two seasons.

The eight position players -- Freeman, Jace Peterson, Andrelton Simmons, Chris Johnson, Jonny Gomes, Eric Young Jr., Nick Markakis and Christian Bethancourt -- expected to be in the lineup most consistently during the early part of the season have combined to strike out in 18.9 percent of their plate appearances.

"You can tell there is going to be more contact," Simmons said. "The question is, are [the balls] going to fall?"

While that remains to be seen, any projections of this offense have to account for the fact that far fewer balls are going to fall over the outfield wall. Thus the Braves are going to have to hope Young, Peterson and Markakis get on base frequently and lessen the chances of opposing pitchers pitching around Freeman, who could easily draw 100-plus walks as he sits in the middle of the lineup without any legitimate protection behind him.

"I got walked 90 times last year with Justin Upton behind me," Freeman said. "It's going to be a lot different this year, but that is where you have to rely on your teammates to get the job done."

While the Braves are certainly hoping Young, Markakis, Gomes, Peterson and backup catcher A.J. Pierzynski enrich the offense during their first season with the club, they are also hoping new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer's approach will help Simmons and Johnson bounce back from the disappointment they both experienced last year.

With the potential to create more baserunners and scoring opportunities courtesy of the speed Young and Peterson can provide at the top of the lineup, the Braves could produce more consistent action from an offensive perspective this year. But as Simmons noted, that excitement will only linger if the desired result is consistently realized at the end of games.

"Winning is more enjoyable," Simmons said. "We'll see once the season starts and we have the whole team together, we'll see how it goes. I can't predict the future, but it definitely feels like this team is going to create more contact."

Coming off a pair of seasons in which a strikeout was a result at the conclusion or 22.6 percent of the plate appearances, it won't be hard for the Braves to create the feel of greater contact. The greater challenge will be proving this added contact is as valuable as the power that is no longer present.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.