Braves won it all without Ronald Acuña before, and this team is much better

They just need good hitters to get going

Ronald Acuña didn’t play beyond July 10 of the 2021 season because of a torn ACL in his right knee. The Braves were 44-44 at the time. They went on to win the World Series.

Acuña won’t play beyond May 26 of this season because of a torn ACL in his left knee. The Braves were 30-20 after winning Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh. Can they repeat their feat from 2021?

“It’s about getting hot at the right time” said Braves outfielder Adam Duvall, who also played for the 2021 team. “In ‘21, we got hot at the right time.”

That 2021 Braves season is still hard to explain. They acquired four outfielders in July trades. Two of them, Jorge Soler (World Series MVP) and Eddie Rosario (NLCS MVP), would hit for the Braves like they hadn’t before or since. The Braves got 6⅓ scoreless postseason innings from a pitcher they’d signed to a minor-league deal in April (Jesse Chavez) and great October performances from former top prospects who hadn’t panned out (Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson).

I evaluate teams based on evidence that I can see and measure. But the 2021 Braves seemed to have intangible factors working in their favor. The whole added up to more than the sum of the parts. That kind of chemistry is impossible to duplicate, but the 2024 Braves don’t need to do that to get similar results.

This team without Acuña is better than the 2021 team. The Braves have a deeper lineup now. They’ve got a better starting rotation even with Spencer Strider (elbow) out, and more good arms in the bullpen. The 2024 Braves started this week a game behind the pace from last season, when they won 104 games; the 2021 Braves were a game below break-even at the All-Star break and won a weak NL East with an 88-73 mark.

The things that must go right for the Braves now that don’t involve getting unexpected contributions from fringe players. The Braves just need their best hitters to perform up to expectations. There’s a much better chance of that happening than all the surprising developments from the 2021 season.

Collectively, Braves hitters have swung and missed on pitches in the strike zone more often than any other lineup in MLB. But when they do make contact they are hitting the ball harder (average exit velocity: 90.3 mph) more often (44.4% of balls in play are “hard hit”) than any other team.

“As I’ve been out for the last couple weeks, I’ve been able to sit back and watch and it’s like, ‘I’ve never seen so many hard hit balls that are outs,’” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “I think we’ve just got to keep plugging. I know we haven’t clicked on all cylinders. But I think — I don’t think, I know — it’s coming.”

Atlanta Braves third base Austin Riley (27) hits during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Truist Park on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Atlanta.

(Miguel Martinez/ AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Riley’s return will help. He was back in the lineup on Monday after sitting out since May 12 because of soreness in his left side. Catcher Sean Murphy is back, too, after he was placed on the injured list on opening day with an oblique injury. That’s two more big bats for the Braves.

I’m not trying to downplay the impact of Acuña’s loss. The reigning NL MVP was having a bad season by his standards: .716 on-base plus slugging with below average defense per the metrics. That just means Acuña was due to go on the kind of awesome streak that we’ve seen from him so many times before. Now the Braves won’t get peak Acuña this season.

But this is still a good Braves lineup without him. Here was the top five on Monday: Ozzie Albies, Riley, Marcell Ozuna, Matt Olson and Murphy. That’s a very good group of hitters (and Travis d’Arnuad is a good bat for the days when he catches instead of Murphy). It’s just that Riley and Olson are performing below their usual standards (and so was Acuña before his injury).

And its not as if the Braves have scuffled offensively all season. Through April they led MLB in runs scored (5.42 per game) and had the second-best team OPS in the majors (.772). The offense can’t be written off after one bad month for a team of good, veteran hitters — especially with Riley missing two weeks and Murphy not playing at all.

“We started off the season hitting well, then here recently it hit a little wall,” Duvall said. “But that’s part of the season, part of playing 162 games. You are going to go through some stretches you don’t feel like you are doing what you are capable of.

“But we’ve got a lot of guys who have been here before, a lot of veterans. There’s no doubt we will get going like we should.”

The Braves will have to do it without the NL MVP. The plan is for Duvall to take Acuña’s spot in right field while Jared Kelenic plays left field full time. The Duvall/Kelenic platoon in left field had produced a combined .646 OPS. Duvall has a track record of doing much better than that, including good results against right-handed pitchers (.753 career OPS before Monday).

It would help the Braves if Duvall, Kelenic and Michael Harris II provided more punch from the bottom of the lineup. But that would be a bonus. So long as the pitchers stay healthy, this Braves team will go as far as the top of the lineup carries them. Acuña isn’t there anymore, but he also wasn’t there the last time the Braves won the World Series.

“We’ve been here before,” Riley said. “We’ve just got to go out there and do it.”

The odds of that happening now are a lot better than they were in 2021.