Asking for help: How would you fix the Braves?

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Will Smith (51) celebrates the win against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the ninth inning of a baseball game Saturday, June 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
Caption
Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Will Smith (51) celebrates the win against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the ninth inning of a baseball game Saturday, June 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: AP

On March 31, FanGraphs gave the Braves a 63.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. That seemed low, seeing as how this team had won the National League East three years running, but mathematical projections haven’t always been kind to the Braves. (And not just the Braves. Google “why PECOTA hates your team.”)

The Mets, for whom the numbers crunched more favorably, were handed an 82.2 percent chance. Today the Mets sit at 83.6 percent. As for the Braves: Their odds don’t sit at all. Metaphorically speaking, they’ve fallen off the chair. Their chances of qualifying for postseason are 14.9 percent. Sixteen of the 29 other MLB clubs, including the Phillies and Reds, are assigned a better shot.

For two months, we’ve been thumping the small-sample-size drum. We can’t anymore. The Braves have played 63 of 162 games. That’s more than in last summer’s COVID-contracted irregular season. We’re two weeks beyond Memorial Day, within sight of the Fourth of July. These Braves — stop me if you’ve heard this — haven’t spent a day above .500.

Season so far

Logic insists that can’t continue forever. On Wednesday, they were one out from being 30-29, but a guy playing his first big-league game hit a home run off the Braves’ high-salaried closer. It wasn’t until Sunday that they got around to winning No. 30. By then, they’d lost 33.

As of now, what’s left to say? That they should be better than this? (Been saying that every week since Easter.) That they need to start winning a bit more often? (More than a bit, actually.) That something needs to change? (Yeah, but what?)

Let’s stick with that last part. If you had the power to tell the Braves what to do — and if you did, you’d be the billionaire John Malone and you mightn’t give a hoot about baseball — what alterations would you make?

Fire the batting coaches. The Braves rank 23rd in the majors in hits. They rank third in the only hit that’s supposed to matter — the home run. It’s just when it comes to the small stuff — base hits and batting average — that they’re substandard. They’re seventh in slugging percentage, ninth in runs. They have the 12th-most strikeouts, which isn’t great, but the team with the most whiffs is Tampa Bay, which has MLB’s best record.

If the Braves were to can Kevin Seitzer, Jose Castro and Bobby Magallanes — yep, they have THREE hitting coaches, not counting consultant Larry Wayne Jones Jr. — they’d be laughed out of the academy of advanced analytics. They’d also be firing guys who, as recently as last season, presided over an attack that yielded four Silver Slugger winners. Coaches aren’t the issue, but it is fascinating that in extra innings, when small stuff becomes big because you start with a runner in scoring position, the Braves are 1-6.

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Braves starting pitcher Drew Smyly comments on his execution of pitches and the end of Atlanta's losing streak in Miami.

Change the rotation. Sounds easy. Just drop Drew Smyly, right? And insert … who? Bryse Wilson, he of the many promotions/demotions to/from Gwinnett? Mike Soroka isn’t yet available, though the Braves believe there’s a chance he could be by summer’s end. Huascar Ynoa is waiting for his broken hand to mend.

Truth to tell, the starting pitching has stabilized. The Braves are 15th in rotational ERA. Ian Anderson has been quite good. Max Fried has undergone some slippage. Charlie Morton has been only OK. Tucker Davidson has been a revelation. Smyly has been the worst of the lot — his FanGraphs WAR is minus-0.4 — but he did win Sunday. The Braves have bigger issues than their No. 5 starter.

Change the bullpen mix. Here’s the bigger issue. The Braves are 26th in bullpen ERA. They’re 18th in FanGraphs WAR and 19th in FIP (fielding independent pitching), which hints they might be a tad better than ERA might indicate. They’ve blown 11 saves in 24 chances. (AJ Minter is tied for the big-league lead in blown saves with four.) In 46 appearances as a Brave, Will Smith has yielded 10 home runs — not counting the one to the Dodgers’ Will Smith in Game 5 of the NLCS.

The Braves are paying Smith $13 million per season. The Padres snagged Mark Melancon, the Braves’ closer at the end of 2019 and again last year, for $3 million plus a buyout year. He leads the majors in saves. This is why teams are reluctant to splurge on a closer unless he’s Mariano Rivera, and nobody is Mariano Rivera. The Braves were so unhappy with this bullpen mix that they re-upped Shane Greene a month into this season; since acquiring him at the 2019 trade deadline, they hadn’t deemed him closer material. Their favorite reliever remains Chris Martin, but he’s 35 and has six career saves. Expect more movement here.

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna steps up to plate during game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)
Caption
Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna steps up to plate during game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Put Ronald Acuna in the heart of the order. Brian Snitker prefers batting Acuna leadoff because he’s capable of making it 1-0 with one swing. That said, the Braves are without middle-of-the-order hitters in Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud. The great Freddie Freeman is having his worst season. Ozzie Albies has hit cleanup, which isn’t what anybody had in mind. Austin Riley has hit everywhere from fourth to ninth.

The Braves’ seasonal OPS from its leadoff hitter — Acuna has taken only one at-bat anywhere else — is .954. No other slot in the order is above .798. Cleanup hitters are hitting .672, which is awful. Do you switch a guy who’s more than pulling his weight in the hopes of rebalancing an imbalanced lineup?

The Braves believed they’d built a roster without a glaring weakness. They’ve spent 63 games not being good at anything except hitting home runs. They’re lucky to be only five games out of first place, but even that bears an asterisk. Owning to the Mets’ COVID-delayed start, they’re eight games ahead of the Braves in the loss column.

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