Braves needed a pleasant surprise - and Huascar Ynoa obliged

Huascar “Babe” Ynoa stands today as one gleaming exception to a thus far spectacle-starved Braves season.

ExploreMark Bradley's advice for fans: Have a little faith in these Braves

With so much of this team playing at half-mast, it’s Ynoa, you-know-a, who leads the starters in wins (4) and ERA (2.23). Add to that a slugging percentage a couple of hundred points ahead of Ronald Acuna’s, and here you have an early front-runner for the Astonishment of the Year Award.

OK, no one actually calls the 22-year-old George Herman Ruth knock-off “Babe.” But there is some reason to, given his work of late. Between a strong four-start win streak and the pair of home runs he’s hit over this recent span – one a grand slam – he has an intimate statistical link to Ruth, who began his legend as a pitcher.

It is, in fact, the most jarring numerical footnote to the first six weeks of the Braves season. He’s the first player to have a sub-1.30 ERA as well as a 1.300-or-better slugging percentage (minimum 10 at-bats) over a four-start span since Ruth in 1916. It’s as if the National League temporarily suspended its little designated hitter experiment just for him.

Ynoa, who has all of 65 innings pitched and 15 at-bats in his major league life, votes for restraint. “I think I have to keep putting up numbers to earn a name like that,” he said during a Thursday interview, the grand understatement loud and clear even through the filter of an interpreter.

The great challenge in addressing Ynoa’s startling start as a starter is figuring out, well, where to start.

The hitting part is the odd twist, the sixth toe at the foot of this tale. Here’s a guy, after all, who before this season figures he hadn’t batted since his time on the playground in the Dominican Republic (he signed with Minnesota as a 16-year-old). Swinging a bat, he looks like a man in a great hurry to be anywhere else, his left lead leg kicking out toward the third-base line before the ball arrives. And then he just whales, all as controlled and measured as a gate swinging at the lead edge of a tornado.

And, yet, he will go into today’s scheduled start with a .400 batting average, three of his six hits being for extra bases, including home runs in consecutive starts. His grand slam May 4 vs. Washington was as legit as Bill Gates’ credit rating, traveling 427 feet to straight-away center.

In a season of struggle, Braves regulars are at least having fun with this. “No one has asked for advice or anything like that,” Ynoa joked. “There’s always a little bit of smack talk about it: ‘We don’t know how you’re getting these balls out while kicking that foot out to third base at the same time.’”

There appears to be little science or technique to Ynoa’s plate approach. Just as there likely will be no pinch-hitting assignments in his near future.

“I see a big ol’ strong kid who’s, like, playing country hardball,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Believe me, he’s not over-analyzing anything. He just sees that ball and hits it.”

Ynoa concurs: “That’s definitely my mentality: See the ball, hit the ball. I’m really just trying to put the ball in play any time I’m up there.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

But it’s the pitching component that is of vastly more importance to the Braves. Word is likely to leak that Ynoa can turn on a fastball, and his batting numbers will get back in line with reality. That’s to be expected. It’s his continued good work on the mound that this team so badly needs.

What he has done to date has been nothing less than revelatory. As the Braves’ starting staff has had to adjust to the lingering absence of Mike Soroka, the injury-interrupted progress of Max Fried and the spotty performances of free-agent signees Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, Ynoa and Ian Anderson have been the most consistent, stabilizing influences.

Ynoa’s contributions have been singularly the most surprising. When the Braves acquired him in a 2017 trade with the Twins – for starter Jaime Garcia and spare catcher Anthony Recker, he was another young project in need of tinkering and a working knowledge of the strike zone.

Just another in a long line of young Braves pitchers who walk the slick ledge between the bullpen and some future starting assignment, between Truist Park and Gwinnett. Many fall off into the abyss, a few arise under circumstances that Braves Hall of Famer John Smoltz for one finds almost unfair. Smoltz looks back on his own career and wonders if he would have survived his slow start in today’s show-me-something-quickly-kid environment. He sees Ynoa as already overcoming some steep odds.

“Give me a young pitcher who gives you two or three good starts out of five, that’s a great ratio. What Ynoa’s doing is way ahead of the ratio. Anything you get now is a bonus. And as he gets more confidence and starts feeling it, who knows?” Smoltz said.

“My big problem is that guys are pitching for their lives now. They feel, here’s my moment, and if you’re not ready for it, you’ll find yourself bouncing back and forth. Ynoa’s opportunity came, and now he feels like, ‘OK, I can do this.’”

In the COVID-19 fog of 2020, Ynoa appeared in nine games, with five starts of little distinction (no decisions, a 5.82 ERA). Scarcely noted in the carnage of a rout but of great personal importance was one National League Championship Series mop-up relief appearance with the Braves down 15 to the Dodgers. In that, Ynoa pitched four scoreless innings.

“It definitely helped my confidence. It’s something I felt that strengthened me. It sort of eliminated any fear – I’m not afraid of anybody – and give me the confidence and attitude to go out there an believe in myself,” Ynoa said.

He honestly can’t say he knew he was going to experience any kind of breakthrough in 2021. “I didn’t know I was going to be a starter this year,” he said. No one did.

“Thank God everything has worked out well, and the results have been there,” Ynoa said. “This has always been my dream – to be a starter in the big leagues – fortunately things have been turning out well, and I’ve been given the opportunity.”

And the impact on the Braves, as they have looked to shore up the rotation?

“It’s been huge,” Snitker said.

“And it’s been neat to see, how far he has come from last year. To see the job he did last year for us in different roles was really good, but he has just continued to progress. He’s been very receptive to things that we’ve worked with him on (from fine points like disrupting the rhythm of would-be base-stealers to tweaks to his delivery that along with maturity has added velocity).

“He’s a good development story from where we started with this kid.”

Ynoa primarily still is a two-pitch pitcher (fastball/slider), an unfinished product, a Babe in the woods. But with every start these first two months, you can almost see the trade that brought him here gaining luster.

The son of a clothing-factory worker and a nurse in Puerto Plata in the Dominican, Ynoa was like so many children on that island fixed on baseball. There was no Plan B for his future, he said. It was baseball or bust. “There was no other way around it. That was my only focus, and I was not going to let myself not do that,” he said.

Same for his older brother Michael, a pitcher who has kicked around a handful of organizations, has 45 appearances with the Chicago White Sox and is back in the Dominican now working to catch on with someone else.

Consider, then, the sudden change in the arc of one career. Ynoa came to this country a teenager, new both to a culture and a profession. He underwent a gradual coming of age that is common both to pitchers and good bourbons. And suddenly, in the span of five days in April, he got both his first major league win and first home run.

“Very emotional days, both of them put together,” he said, refusing to rank one above the other. He has the balls from both feats, he said, trophies that soon will be shipped home.

You don’t have to call Ynoa “Babe.” Just call him blessed. And certainly call him to the mound every five days or so, and ride those blessings while you can.


PITCHING

Wins: 4

Loss: 1

ERA: 2.23

BATTING

Games: 8

At bat: 15

Hits: 6

Home runs: 2

Average: .400