Patience needed for free-swinging Braves lineup

Offense will erupt again once hitters make better contact
Atlanta Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna, right, high-fives Ronald Acuña Jr. after hitting a three-run home run during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Wednesday, May 22, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna, right, high-fives Ronald Acuña Jr. after hitting a three-run home run during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Wednesday, May 22, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley)

The free-swinging Braves were a hit in 2023. That’s when they were making good contact on pitches over the plate, striking out infrequently and pounding a lot of homers. The results are lackluster now that the Braves are putting bats to balls a little less often, striking out a bit more and producing homers at a rate that’s below the MLB average.

If the Braves aren’t bashing the ball, then they don’t have much of a Plan B. This is not news to anyone who’s watched them struggle to score runs. It’s also not a problem to be fixed.

The Braves are who they are. They’ve got a lineup of big boppers. They are at the low point of a typical boom-or-bust cycle for a lineup of big boppers. It won’t last.

You can predict how veteran hitters will perform in a season within a range of outcomes by adjusting for their age. That’s assuming they aren’t hindered by physical problems. There’s no indication that’s the case for the struggling Braves hitters. I still believe they’ll get going.

The forecast at FanGraphs supports that view. It predicts that Ronald Acuña Jr. will end up with his second-best season behind last year’s MVP campaign. According to FanGraphs, Austin Riley, Matt Olson, Michael Harris and Orlando Arcia also will break out of their slumps. (The model has more belief than me that Jarred Kelenic will do the same.)

Even if the FanGraphs projections and I are wrong about those hitters finishing strong, it doesn’t mean lack of offense is a long-term issue for the Braves. This is not a lineup that needs change. It just requires patience. We know what these hitters can do in the long run.

Acuña ranks fourth among MLB outfielders in WAR since the start of the 2022 season (and he was playing hurt that year). Riley (third base) and Olson (first base) rank second at their positions and Albies (second base) is tied for eighth. Arcia didn’t get his shot to be a full-time player for the Braves until last season; he ranks 14th in WAR among shortstops since then.

Those hitters helped the Braves score an Atlanta-era record 947 runs in 2023. They’ll help the Braves score a lot of runs between now and October. Also remember that catcher Sean Murphy made only three plate appearances before going on the injured list. He had a breakout season as a hitter in 2023.

No doubt, the Braves’ offense hasn’t been pretty this season. They were scoring 4.6 runs per game through Tuesday. That ranks 10th in MLB, which isn’t bad for most teams but is for this one. The Braves scored an MLB-high 5.8 runs per game last season with essentially the same lineup.

The Braves were a great offensive team in 2023 because they had enough good hitters that two or three of them slumping hardly mattered. The boom-or-bust risk was spread throughout the lineup. It hasn’t worked out that way so far this season.

Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud have hit great. Albies has provided his usual solid output. Every other Braves hitter is producing below expectations. The main issue is obvious. Braves batters hit the ball hard when they make contact but that’s not happening often enough because of collectively poor plate discipline and, surprisingly, simply missing strikes.

Per Statcast tracking data, no MLB team is making contact on a lower percentage of pitches inside the strike zone. The Braves swing at more pitches outside of the strike zone than all but five teams. They have a higher percentage of swinging strikes than every team except Colorado.

It’s easy to forget the Braves weren’t a great contact-hitting team last season, either. The 2023 Braves missed a lot of pitches inside the strike zone, swung often at balls off the plate and had a ton of swinging strikes. They weren’t as undisciplined at the plate as they are this season, but they were definitely taking big whacks. It takes only a little less contact for a swing-and-slug lineup to lose its juice.

The Braves have the same lineup this year save for Kelenic’s addition and Murphy’s absence (he’s on track to return soon). The evidence indicates that, at some point, their hitters collectively will start making more good contact. That’s probably not a satisfying outlook for Braves backers frustrated by the offensive malaise. It will be even harder to take if the offensive turnaround doesn’t come.

But I’m guessing that even the harshest critics of the team’s hitters wouldn’t want this lineup broken up because of one year with too many whiffs.

Acuna, Riley and Olson are top-tier MLB players with team-friendly contracts. Under almost no circumstance would or should the Braves trade any of those three. Albies isn’t on their level, but his contract is probably the biggest bargain in MLB.

Arcia is the least accomplished player among the scuffling Braves. He’s also making below-market money for an average shortstop. The same goes for Harris so long as he’s playing good defense in center field. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos spent a lot of cash to grease the wheels for a Kelenic trade. The outfielder will be given the time to see if he can tap into more of his talent.

Good pitching is the best way to get through the bust cycles of a free-swinging lineup. The Braves’ staff has delivered despite Spencer Strider’s season-ending elbow surgery. It’s the main reason why the Braves have the NL’s third-best record with most of their lineup producing below expectations.

The Braves will be in top form again once their free swingers start making more contact. It’s coming.