Yeah, it’s early. But the Braves should be better than this

Braves starting pitcher Drew Smyly reacts after giving up a two-run home run - one of three he allowed - against the Toronto Blue Jays during the third inning  Friday, April 30, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. Smyly, who joined Atlanta as a free agent in the offseason, is 0-2 with an 8.05 ERA after four starts. (Mike Carlson/AP)
Braves starting pitcher Drew Smyly reacts after giving up a two-run home run - one of three he allowed - against the Toronto Blue Jays during the third inning Friday, April 30, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. Smyly, who joined Atlanta as a free agent in the offseason, is 0-2 with an 8.05 ERA after four starts. (Mike Carlson/AP)

Credit: Mike Carlson

Credit: Mike Carlson

A week ago, there was a communal gnashing of teeth over the Braves’ historically feeble performance in a Sunday doubleheader. They’d gotten one hit in Game 1, no hits in Game 2. If that wasn’t rock bottom, what would be?

ExploreBraves ‘lucky’ division equally bad

Sure enough, the Braves won their next three games, outscoring the Cubs — who are awful, by the way — 23-7. By the close of business Wednesday, they were back to .500 and, wonder of wonders, tied for first in the National League East. Corner turned, right?

Look now. The Braves have lost four in a row. It’s the third time this season they’ve done that, and we’re just into May. They’re in fourth place, ahead of only Miami.

We can stop asking ourselves when these Braves will start hitting. As we speak, hitting is a lesser worry. They’re second in the majors in homers, fourth in OPS, ninth in runs, 12th in batting average. What seemed a local phenomenon a couple of weeks ago — a lineup with so many proven hitters logging averages near/below the Mendoza Line — has been revealed as the new norm.

The deadened-on-purpose ball has made the mightiest of batting orders look puny. The overall MLB batting average in 2019 was .252; today it’s .234. The Braves are hitting .238. The Dodgers, who were supposed to win 120 games, are hitting .240. The Yankees are hitting .221. It’s not just the Braves. It’s everybody.

Braves stats

There is, however, one category in which the Braves stand alone. They’re last — 30th of 30 — in ERA. Worse than Colorado, which plays at altitude. Worse than Cincinnati, which plays in a bandbox. Worse than Detroit, which is 8-21.

Some of this is due to injury. Max Fried hasn’t pitched since April 13. Drew Smyly yielded seven earned runs in his first two starts. Then he went on the 10-day injured list. Since his return, he has yielded 10 earned runs in two starts. His ERA is 8.05. Charlie Morton’s is 5.08. Mike Soroka was just moved to the 60-day IL, which means we won’t be seeing him for at least another month. Thank heaven for Huascar Ynoa.

The starters’ ERA is third-worst in the majors. The bullpen ERA is seventh-worst. The Braves were outscored 26-12 over three games by Toronto, which is playing its home games in Florida and which entered the weekend at 11-12. (Oh, and for reasons unclear, the Braves do their worst work on Sunday. They’re 1-5.)

This isn’t to suggest they’re doomed. Only two NL teams have won fewer games, but nobody in the NL East is above .500. Washington was in last place when the weekend began; after sweeping Miami, the Nats are tied for first. As tepid as the Braves’ start has been, they’re not staring up from some abyss. That said, they’ve just lost — for at least two months — the player they were least equipped to lose.

Travis d’Arnaud hurt his thumb Saturday night. He’s scheduled for surgery this week. Manager Brian Snitker said Sunday that the catcher is expected back this season. The intervening weeks could be difficult.

D’Arnaud doesn’t just play the most difficult position; he also bats cleanup. Alex Jackson, the No. 2 catcher, went on the IL with an iffy hamstring; he’s 1-for-23. William Contreras, who’s 23, was summoned from the alternate site to catch Sunday’s game. He has 13 MLB at-bats. He was ranked the Braves’ sixth-best prospect by MLB.com. He was not among ESPN’s list of baseball’s top 100.

Braves catcher William Contreras follows through on a run-scoring single against the Toronto Blue Jays during the second inning Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. (Mike Carlson/AP)
Braves catcher William Contreras follows through on a run-scoring single against the Toronto Blue Jays during the second inning Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. (Mike Carlson/AP)

Credit: Mike Carlson

Credit: Mike Carlson

“He’s going to be doing the bulk of the catching,” Snitker said, though it’s clear even the manager wasn’t prepared for such a development. Snitker twice referred to Contreras as Willson. That’s his brother, who works for the Cubs.

The Braves do have Shea Langeliers, who is a top 100 prospect. But, owing to COVID, the Round 1 pick of 2019 has had only 239 professional plate appearances, none above Single-A, none since 2019. The Braves signed Jeff Mathis in March, but he’s a stopgap at best and maybe not even that. He’s 38. His career batting average is .194. Alex Anthopoulos is surely scrounging for any/all help.

As for Soroka, still the most important player in the organization: His shoulder issues remain a concern. (Baseball axiom: Elbows are easy to fix; shoulders are hard.) Last year’s injury wasn’t arm-related — Soroka tore his Achilles — but a tender shoulder shut him down in 2018. Of his 37 big-league starts, 29 came in 2019. The only thing he has left to prove is that he can stay healthy, which for a starting pitcher is the most important thing.

Not that projections mean much this early, but FanGraphs assigns the Braves a 12.5 percent chance of winning the East — and a 1.8% chance of taking the World Series. FanGraphs also has them winning 82.1 games. That’s not what anybody around here had in mind.

The Braves should be better than this. That they haven’t been so far doesn’t mean they can’t be. But time’s a-wasting, and the Phillies and Mets and Nationals have yet been given no reason to check the standings and abandon all hope. At some point, you are your record. The record says the 2021 Braves have worked 4-1/2 weeks without spending a day above .500.

About the Author

ajc.com

In Other News