If the Braves are to win the National League East this season, they’ll do it by hitting enough to overcome spotty pitching. That’s how they did it in 2018. This year set up similarly because their one big free-agent acquisition was a slugger, and the Braves decided to rely on young arms across the staff.
The good news for the Braves is their bats have kept them afloat through the first month. After 21 games, they ranked tied for seventh among NL teams in runs scored. That could be much better with timelier hits. The Braves’ on-base percentage through 21 games ranked first in the NL, and their batting average was third.
Good offense is why the Braves entered Tuesday just one-half game behind the Mets and Phillies in the East. Those teams and the Nationals have pitched significantly better than the Braves (and so have the Marlins). The Braves so far have hit enough to make up for their pitching.
That doesn’t mean it necessarily will stay that way. It will be another 40 games or so before you can be reasonably sure that what hitters are doing then is what they will do through September.
Still, I feel confident that, barring major injuries, the Braves will continue to get by with their bats. Their hitters who are producing big now have a long history of doing it. Some of the hitters who aren’t hitting eventually should.
It wasn’t unreasonable to predict the Braves would be a very good offensive team this year. It was optimistic because the Braves have youth among their top hitters. There’s a chance that what they’ve done in their short careers isn’t what they’ll do going forward.
But there’s also the chance they are just getting started. That’s clearly the case for Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna. He hasn’t even played a full season, but already is threatening Freddie Freeman’s long reign as the Braves’ best hitter.
Acuna was fantastic as a rookie, especially after the All-Star break. He’s even better to begin this season: .307 average, .429 on-base percentage and .600 slugging percentage through 21 games. It’s safe to put Acuna in the category of Braves batters who will keep raking.
Freeman belongs on that list, too. He’s done it for going on seven seasons now and still is in his prime. Also include the big-money addition, Josh Donaldson. What he’s doing now is a notch below what he did before he started getting hurt, but it’s still very good, which sounds about right.
That’s three great hitters. The Braves can match big bats with the best of them. They don’t have another everyday player you can be sure will put up big numbers, but there are a few candidates to provide good production.
Catcher Tyler Flowers will cool off, but his track record indicates he’ll give above-average production at the plate. I figured Nick Markakis will end up about average, same as last season, but maybe he can keep doing better than that if manager Brian Snitker limits his workload.
Add those two to the top three, and the Braves have pretty good lineup length. That leaves three more everyday players and the utility man as wild cards. The outlook is mixed with that group.
On the one hand, there’s a lot to like about Dansby Swanson’s season so far. He’s chasing fewer pitches, taking more walks and hitting the ball harder and higher than ever. I was skeptical Swanson could become even an average hitter. I might be wrong.
On the other hand, Ozzie Albies, Ender Inciarte and Johan Camargo are trending in the wrong direction.
Albies has great potential, but poor plate discipline still is holding him back. According to tracking data, only 17 everyday players in 2018 swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside of the zone than Albies. He’s chasing at an even higher rate this season.
There’s still time for those three to pull more weight at the plate. Albies has the talent to do it, Inciarte is a notoriously slow starter and Camargo had only 46 plate appearances through 21 games. Get at least two of those three going, and suddenly the Braves have a scary lineup top to bottom.
If they keep scuffling, the Braves have enough offense to stay competitive. Acuna, Freeman and Donaldson are the sure things. Flowers is reliable. Markakis appears to be aging well. Swanson is healthy and seems to have figured some things out.
If the Braves get better pitching, or even if their current guys throw more strikes, they might even get some separation in the East. They’ve got the bats to do it.
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