It never fails. We spend an offseason and all of spring training analyzing a team’s strengths and weaknesses, and then the for-real games begin and it turns out we’ve gotten much, if not everything, wrong. We say again: Baseball is weird. As a case study, we offer the 2021 Atlanta Braves.
1. We figured these Braves would hit. One weekend into the season, they were last in the majors in OPS. Two weeks later, they’re fourth in OPS and runs, first in homers. They’re not hitting for average — the collective number is .235, 14th-best among 30 clubs — but this is the 21st Century, which means nobody who’s anybody cares about batting average.
2. It’s a good thing nobody cares about batting average; otherwise we’d be a bit concerned. Ronald Acuna leads the National League in Triple Crown numbers: He’s hitting .417 with seven homers and 16 RBIs. Only one other everyday Brave has as many as 10 RBIs, and that’s Freddie Freeman. Among the usual starting eight, only Acuna is hitting — pause for effect — above .232. The NL average is .233.
3. Marcell Ozuna hit .338 over the truncated 2020 season; he’s at .232 now. He struck out 60 times over 60 games last season; he has struck out 22 times in 16 games in 2021. Dansby Swanson’s OPS last season was .809; this year it’s .621. Ozzie Albies’ career batting average is .275; he’s hitting .157.
4. So: They’ve started to score, but they’re a long way from peak offensive capacity. If you believe in the law of averages, this is a good sign. With only Acuna holding up his end, they’re 7-9. They’re within 2-1/2 games of the division-leading Mets. They haven’t allowed themselves to be buried.
Credit: Nam Y. Huh
Credit: Nam Y. Huh
5. The biggest source of concern as of opening day was the state of the Braves’ bench. Apart from Acuna, that bench has been the best part of the 2021 Braves. They’ve gotten seven home runs and 19 RBIs from Pablo Sandoval, Ehire Adrianza and Guillermo Heredia, each of whom has been cut by some team in the past seven months. Sandoval hasn’t started a game. Adrianza has started four, Heredia three. Each has more RBIs than Swanson, Austin Riley and Cristian Pache, a threesome that has registered 39 starts.
6. The Braves’ team ERA is 4.93, the 27th-worst in MLB. Their WHIP — walks/hits per innings pitched — is the 26th-worst. Opponents are hitting .261 off these pitchers, which is 29th-worst. Max Fried and Drew Smyly are on the injured list. Mike Soroka is again having shoulder issues. Chris Martin, whom the Braves consider their best reliever, is on the IL, too.
7. The Braves’ starters rank 27th in ERA; last year’s starters ranked 28th. The bullpen ERA is 15th-best; last year’s bullpen was fourth-best.
8. It’s not as if the Braves have been throwing the ball all over the lot. They’ve made four errors, which is tied for the lowest total in baseball. (The Padres’ Fernando Tatis has made seven by himself, and he has started only eight games.) That said, the Braves rank 29th in defensive efficiency, a Baseball-Reference metric tracking the percentage of balls in play that become outs.
9. The Braves’ announcers have been saying since the opening weekend that this team hasn’t had much luck. Because nearly everything in baseball can be measured, there’s a case to be made that the Braves have indeed been unlucky. Their BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is .271, the 20th-highest in MLB. Their pitchers’ BABIP is .329, which is the absolute worst. The big-league average is around .300, which suggests the Braves are due for a regression toward both means.
That’s a slew of numbers. Apologies if any eyes have glazed over. The takeaway from all the above, though, is that the Braves, who haven’t pitched or hit very well, aren’t in bad shape. Nobody in the NL East has caught a flying start. It’s slightly troubling they’re already five games behind the Mets in the loss column, but only slightly. (Remember, the Mets started three games late because of the Nationals’ virus issues.)
If anything, the Braves should be thankful that they’re no longer in the NL West. If they were, they’d be six games behind the Dodgers. In the East, being 7-9 isn’t alarming. These hitters aren’t apt to underperform much longer. At issue is whether the rotation will stabilize. It should, but with arms you never know.
One thing we do know: Soroka is the most gifted pitcher this team has under contract. If his latest setback turns out to be a blip, the Braves should be fine. If not … well, the 2018 and 2020 division titles were mostly won without him. Given the improvement of the East, finishing first sans Soroka would be tougher.
Tougher, but not impossible. This is baseball. Weird things happen. Sometimes the best news comes on an off-day. Acuna had an MRI on Monday. It showed nothing seriously amiss. That’s the biggest win of 2021.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution