The 2022 Braves won 101 games without great performances from their three highest-paid non-pitchers. One was Marcell Ozuna, about whom we say no more. The other two were All-Stars in 2021. Ronald Acuna was again in ‘22; Matt Olson was not.
Among last season’s Braves, Olson finished seventh in WAR (wins above replacement); Acuna was ninth. They were capable of better. We’re seeing it now.
We’re seeing it often, but we’re especially seeing it early. Acuna and Olson have batted 1-2 in the Braves’ order every game so far. Leading off 19 times, Acuna has 11 hits and one walk. He has scored six first-inning runs. Batting second 19 times, Olson has three home runs and five RBIs. He has scored four runs.
Acuna’s first-inning OPS – 1.576.
Olson’s first-inning OPS – 1.041.
Let’s add the Braves’ No. 3 hitter. Austin Riley had a breakout 2022. He’s off to another statement-type start. He’s batting .588 in first innings, with 10 hits, four homers and eight RBIs.
Riley’s first-inning OPS – 1.873.
As of Friday morning, the Braves had scored 17 runs over 19 first innings. They’re 10-2 in road games in large measure because they’ve scored in the first inning seven times. The team that scores first in baseball wins roughly 67% of the time. In seven of the season’s first 10 road games, the Braves led before the other team came to bat.
Acuna ranks first among MLB players in runs, fourth in on-base percentage, sixth in offensive WAR. Olson is second in RBIs, 10th in OPS. Acuna is first among National Leaguers in runs created; Olson is seventh.
Acuna is 25. He arrived in the majors in 2018. He’s a three-time All-Star. He has won two Silver Sluggers. By this point in his career, most of us would have figured he’d be hitting third in the order, third being even more glamorous than the cleanup spot. But Brian Snitker, having had the bright idea of letting Acuna lead off five years ago, hasn’t yet been given reason to change.
When leading off a game, Acuna’s career OPS is .879. He has 27 home runs. He has 112 hits, 32 walks. If you’re a starting pitcher, which is worse – seeing him hit a ball 440 feet, or seeing him draw Ball 4 and wreak base-path havoc? Acuna might well be baseball’s most gifted player; he’s the scariest by 10 miles.
Olson fits nicely behind him. Last season, his first as a Brave, he batted everywhere from second to sixth. Making him the “2″ to Acuna’s “1″ has made for a jackhammer opening act. The first guy up can drive himself in. The second can drive them both in. Olson strikes out a lot – he leads the majors with 31 – but he’ll take a walk, too. Even in 2022, a down year by his standards, he hit 34 homers with 103 RBIs.
And that’s how it begins: Acuna the righty hitter, Olson the lefty, Riley the righty. It has been that way for the season’s first 19 games. The Braves are 14-5. Can’t argue with results.
The rest of the order has been in flux. Travis d’Arnaud, Michael Harris and Orlando Arcia have been injured. Ozuna is 4-for-49. Sean Murphy started the season 0-for-8, but is 14-for-42 since. He has moved, in increments of one, from the eighth spot to the fourth. He has four homers and 12 RBIs as the Braves’ cleanup hitter.
Murphy’s OPS in the fourth spot – 1.271.
From the middle to the bottom, this lineup can hit better. At the top, it’s near peak capacity. Acuna, Olson and Riley are in their 20s. None is in his early 20s. They’ve been around. They’ve won things.
Seeing them lead off a game leaves their manager with a warm feeling. The guy in the other dugout feels a chill. Matters can go really wrong really fast against this bunch.
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Credit: Channel 2 Action News