Today’s exercise is to identify the five Braves who will be of the most importance over the second half, which mathematically isn’t quite a half, but never mind. It is not, we stress, an attempt to underscore the obvious.
Freddie Freeman? He’s essential every day. So’s Ronald Acuna. Mike Soroka is a big deal every fifth day. That’s why they’re All-Stars. So don’t look for any entry that says, “So-and-so needs to keep doing what’s doing.” Just assume we hold those truths to be self-evident.
What follows is the attempt to circle the five Braves who need to do something different, or better, or both. In ascending order, here we go.
5. Ozzie Albies. OK, we kind of lied. The Albies of June/July has been dandy. The Albies of May was not. His on-base percentage that month was .294, his OPS .615. His OBP in June was .386; in July, it’s .478. His OPS in June was .970; in July, it’s 1.288. He’s again playing like an All-Star, which he was this time a year ago.
The issue with Albies has been his reluctance to accept a walk. He’s becoming slightly less reluctant. Over 684 plate appearances last season, he walked 36 times. Over 388 PAs this year, he has walked 31 times. It’s possible this has more to do with batting eighth, which he has done in 24 of his 89 starts. Fourteen of his 31 walks, or nearly half, have come with him hitting ahead of the pitcher. And yet: He’s slugging .620 in the 8-spot, better than he has anywhere else in the lineup.
Going by O-swings (offering at pitches outside the strike zone) and Z-swings (inside the zone), little has changed. He’s swinging about as much as he did last season with essentially the same rate of contact. Albies could just be a guy who blows really hot or really cold, which we’ve seen already. He hit .281 with an OPS of .834 before the 2018 All-Star break; he hit .221 with an OPS of .624 afterward. This offense is stout enough to subsist with Albies not doing much, but the Braves are a different entity when he’s raking.
4. Nick Markakis. His first-half production has been acceptable. It’s only when you contrast this year’s first half to last year’s that you start to squirm. At the break in 2018, Markakis was hitting .323 with an OPS of .877, which was how he came to make the All-Star team for the first time in a 13-year career. This year he’s hitting .286 with an OPS of .799, which wasn’t All-Star stuff but hasn’t marked a collapse.
Markakis’ second half last season did constitute a crater; he batted .258 with an OPS of .701. He was 34 then. He’s, duh, 35 now. A similar slide this year would leave the Braves in a pickle.
Ender Inciarte hadn’t hit a lick before he hurt his back in May; his rehab stint just began with him going 1-for-13 for the high Single-A Fire Frogs. The Braves could give Charlie Culberson more work — he has started three games this season — or they could make Johan Camargo, who has been dismal, a semi-regular outfielder. But the latter hadn’t started a big-league game as an outfielder before this season. Do you dare to head toward October with converted infielders, Austin Riley being the other, as your corner outfielders?
3. Dallas Keuchel. He’s here for two reasons — to eat innings and to start playoff games. His four starts have been neither dazzling nor dire, which you’d expect from someone who hadn’t worked a big-league game since October. He’s not a strikeout pitcher anymore, but he’ll induce ground balls and give a professional effort every time out. As we speak, the Braves have two men they can pencil in as October starters. One is Soroka, who’s 22. The other is Keuchel, who just arrived. More about this momentarily.
2. Chad Sobotka. If we’ve learned anything about Alex Anthopoulos, it’s that he’s precise in his public utterances. Last week the Braves’ general manager said: “We think internally that Sobotka’s got a chance to continue to take off and be a late-inning reliever.” Maybe you read that interview and thought, “You mean the guy with the 5.49 ERA? Really?”
In Sobotka, the Braves see someone who changed his pitch mix and has, since returning from the minors after a tweaked oblique, been lights-out. His post-recall stats: 7-2/3 innings, one earned run, three hits, two walks, seven strikeouts. What’s different is that Sobotka is, at the Braves’ request, throwing his slider more than his fastball. Opponents have slugged .171 against that slider.
The belief — this is me talking, not Anthopoulos — is that the Braves aren’t comfortable with Luke Jackson as their closer. Anthony Swarzak has been immense as a hold guy, but he’s not a ninth-inning man. It could be that the Braves’ postseason closer is on someone else’s roster. (Keep an eye on Will Smith of San Francisco as the deadline nears.) It could be that Sobotka gets a shot at closing and runs with it.
1. Mike Foltynewicz. The Braves’ approach to deadline dealing hinges on the erstwhile All-Star. If Foltynewicz sorts himself out with Gwinnett, the pursuit of another starting pitcher becomes a luxury. If he doesn’t, it’s an utter necessity. This is the man who started Game 1 and Game 4 in the NLDS last year. This is a big-time arm who, for one shining season, was a big-time pitcher. But his slider stopped sliding — opponents slugged .183 against it in 2018; they’ve slugged .585 this year — and everything stopped working
The Braves are convinced Foltynewicz is structurally sound. If they knew what ails his slider, they’d have fixed it. His demotion was them saying, “Go down there and try anything/everything.” The Braves can probably — probably, I say — win the East without Foltynewicz. To stick around in October, they’ll need either him at his 2018 peak or someone who can approximate that.
Maybe it’s Marcus Stroman. Maybe it’s Madison Bumgarner. The trouble is that their sellers will want prospects only in return. Anthopoulos would have to decide: How do you balance what might happen in one postseason against the next several years? As melodramatic as it sounds, much of the Braves’ future — both short- and long-term — hangs on one lost slider.