I’m more concerned about the Braves’ pitching

Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud (16) confers with starting pitcher Drew Smyly as shortstop Dansby Swanson (background) approaches the mound after Smyly gave up a two-run homer to Arizona Diamondbacks David Peralta in the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Truist PArk in Atlanta. Smyly relinquished five runs during the first inning. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud (16) confers with starting pitcher Drew Smyly as shortstop Dansby Swanson (background) approaches the mound after Smyly gave up a two-run homer to Arizona Diamondbacks David Peralta in the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Truist PArk in Atlanta. Smyly relinquished five runs during the first inning. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

This will sound weird, given that the Braves just became, per Elias Sports, the first team in the annals of big-league baseball to complete a doubleheader while managing just one hit. But here goes:

Me, I’m more concerned about the pitching.

You know me: I’m a pitching guy. If you pitch well, you win. If you don’t, you won’t. In 1995, the Braves hit .250 and scored 645 runs; the MLB averages were .267 and 698. Those Braves won the World Series.

Through 21 games, the Braves are hitting .215. That puts them 25th-best among the 30 MLB clubs. But they’re 10th in OPS, tied for fourth in home runs, 15th in runs. Their BABIP – batting average on balls in play, which doesn’t count home runs – is .249, third-worst in the majors. A low BABIP is an indicator that you’re hitting better than it seems, although it’s hard to ascribe going 1-for-42 over two seven-inning games to lousy luck.

Arizona’s Zac Gallen entered Sunday’s Game 1 with an ERA of 3.76; Madison Bumgarner’s ERA when Game 2 began was 8.68. The Diamondbacks’ ERA as of Sunday noon was the second-worst in MLB. This wasn’t a case of the Braves being overwhelmed by Koufax and Drysdale. More alarming is this: Even after the most tepid of day of offense on record, the Braves are hitting better than they’ve pitched.

The Braves are 29th in team ERA. Only the Angels have been worse. The Braves are 27th in batting average against and WHIP (walks/hits per inning). They’re 26th in home runs yielded. They’re 26th in FIP (fielding independent pitching), which is to pitchers as BABIP is to hitters, sort of. The Braves’ ERA last year – which saw the implementation of a universal DH – was 4.41, 15th-best in the bigs. That was with the Braves getting next to nothing from Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz, Cole Hamels, Sean Newcomb and Felix Hernandez, five of the six guys who were expected to staff the rotation as of March 2020.

The number of young Braves who did great postseason work (Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Huascar Ynoa) augured happier days in 2021. So did the acquisitions of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. But look now. Max Fried’s ERA is 11.45, and he has been on the injured list for two weeks. Smyly also did a DL stint; his ERA is 7.20. Anderson, Morton and Ynoa have been pretty good, but there’s concern, yet again, as to the state of Soroka’s right shoulder. He was expected back in May. We’re nearly there, and he hasn’t resumed throwing since being shelved.

The Braves’ batting numbers are LOL funny. Of the everyday eight, only Ronald Acuna is hitting above .250. Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Travis d’Arnaud and Marcell Ozuna are below the Mendoza Line, which is .200. Asked after Sunday’s DH about the National League East, Freeman said: “All our batting averages are .140 to .200. We need to hit if we’re even going to look at the standings.”

Asked about the Sunday tandem of Gallen/Bumgarner vis-à-vis other pitchers they’ve seen, Freeman said: “I’m going to say, since I’m hitting under .200, that (all opponents) have pitched great all year.”

Fact check: Freeman is hitting .205. Had his line drive to right-center in the sixth inning Sunday’s Game 1 been caught, he’d be at .192. His career average is .294. He’s as proven a commodity as there is in the sport, and he hasn’t hit a lick, either.

Said manager Brian Snitker, speaking Sunday: “I hope all of them start hitting … (Hoping is) all you can do.”

If you don’t score, you can’t win. Sunday’s games showed how much more difficult it is for a team that’s not hitting to rouse itself. The Diamondbacks led 3-0 after 2½ innings in Game 1; they led 5-0 after a half-inning in Game 2. That had nothing to do with the Braves’ hitting, or the lack thereof. That was a function of starting pitching. The ERA of the Braves’ starters is 5.13, third-worst in MLB. As calculated by FanGraphs, their starters’ aggregate WAR (wins above replacement) is 0.2, the worst in the sport.

Said Freeman: “It’s April. We’re OK. April 25th wasn’t the Atlanta Braves’ day.”

As of Monday morning, the Braves were two games out of first place in the National League East. Only one team in the division is above .500. That’s the Mets, who are 9-8. There’s the encouraging part. Here’s a more sobering truth: Among NL clubs, only Colorado has lost more games than the Braves’ 12.

The Braves keep saying it’s early, and they’re not wrong. (“We have 141 games to go,” Freeman said.) They should start hitting. If they don’t … well, that would make it much more difficult, though not impossible. What would be impossible is to finish first over a six-month season with bad starting pitching. The Braves got away with a crumbling rotation last year, but they played only 60 games. They’ll play 162 this time. This rotation was supposed to an upgrade over 2020. So far, it has been more of the same.

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