It’s no surprise the Braves’ offense is surging. I figured that would happen, even after that debacle at the Dodgers two weeks ago. But I doubted the Braves have enough pitching to be more than mediocre, and I didn’t mean only the bullpen.
It turns out I could be wrong about that. The Braves’ bullpen remains shaky, but their starters are on the come. That’s despite the best pitcher from 2018 making only five starts and two rotation slots being filled with unproven young arms.
“They’re a mature group,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters in San Francisco, where the Braves finished a series against the Giants on Thursday afternoon. “They’re young, raw and talented. And they’re learning. It’s good on-the-job training right now.”
That’s usually a bad circumstance for a contending team. It’s worked out for the Braves because Mike Soroka and Max Fried have been quick learners. Kevin Gausman has been good, too, and Julio Teheran hasn’t been bad.
The starters were key to the Braves winning nine of their past 13 entering Thursday. They still were 1-1/2 games behind the Phillies in the NL East before the finale at San Francisco. The Phillies can hit, too, but their starting pitching has fallen off. And now Philadelphia is facing a tough portion of its schedule after the Braves made it through a similar stretch looking good.
To my surprise, the Braves did that it in large part with a sustained stretch of good starting pitching. Entering Thursday, Braves starters allowed two or fewer runs in eight consecutive starts, the team’s longest such streak since Sept. 20-26, 2017. Braves starters posted a 1.45 ERA over those eight games.
The good pitching started before then. Braves starters had a 2.97 ERA in May entering Thursday, third-best in the NL behind the Dodgers and Cubs. Braves starters covered 115 innings this month through Wednesday, fourth-most in the NL. Staying away from their thin bullpen is key.
Mike Foltynewicz (6.91 ERA in five starts) has been the weak link since returning from an elbow injury. He may not be much longer. Foltynewicz has his best start Sunday. A good outing at St. Louis on Friday would be another sign that’s he’s rounding into form.
If “Folty” gets going and Soroka and Fried really are as good as they appear, the Braves will have a solid rotation. It still won’t be great at the top, mind you, but deep with effective pitchers. Certainly, it would be good enough for the Braves to win East with the way they can hit.
I didn’t expect to believe that nearing the end of May. This was to be a rickety Braves rotation. Before the season, Gausman had the top projected FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement among Braves pitchers. He ranked 34th in the NL. Foltynewicz was next in projected WAR. He ranked tied for 40th.
The Nationals and Mets were expected to have the best rotations in the East. Both staffs have two ace-level pitchers. The Braves have one, maybe.
FanGraphs projected two Mets pitchers would finish top 10 in WAR among NL starters: reigning Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom (No. 1) and Noah Syndergaard (No. 8). The Nationals had three pitchers among the top 20: Max Scherzer (No. 3), Stephen Strasburg (No. 15) and Patrick Corbin (No. 17).
Washington’s rotation has been as good as expected. Nationals starters had the NL’s top-ranked WAR entering Thursday, with Scherzer and Strasburg one-two. The Mets ranked just seventh in starter WAR. The Phillies were 12th, two spots below the Braves.
Those Braves numbers include three starts apiece for Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright. Newcomb is in the bullpen now, and Wright is at Triple-A Gwinnett. The rest of the season should include Foltynewicz and Soroka in the rotation, which improves the outlook.
Soroka could end up being the best Braves starter, if not now then later. He’s produced 1.2 WAR in seven starts. That was 22nd-best among NL pitchers entering Thursday’s games. Every pitcher ranked ahead of Soroka in that cumulative statistic has made more starts, with 13 of them making 10 or more before Thursday.
Fried also is giving the Braves more than expected. FanGraphs projected he would produce 0.7 WAR over 62 innings. He’s already produced 1.0 WAR in 54-2/3 innings. Fried’s effective pitching in limited duty the past two seasons was no fluke.
Soroka and Fried are very talented pitchers. Maybe they regress, but as Snitker noted, they are mature and getting better. If Soroka and Fried do wobble then Foltynewicz, Teheran and Gausman are the veterans who can provide stability.
That makes for a potentially deep Braves rotation. I didn’t see that coming.
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