Bad-luck Braves built to last after surviving first third of season

Braves slugger Ronald Acuna Jr. was heating up before a wrist injury sidelined him. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Braves slugger Ronald Acuna Jr. was heating up before a wrist injury sidelined him. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Braves staggered to their first off-day on a season-long losing streak of three games. Only three MLB teams had fewer innings per start from their pitchers and only four had worse ERAs. Two of their best hitters, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, are sidelined with injuries with indefinite dates of return.

Yet the Braves made it through the first one-third of this truncated season with the most victories in the National League East and a 7-4 record against division foes. Sweep the three-game series at Miami this weekend, and the Braves will be in first place with 37 games to go.

“We’re doing pretty good to be 11-9 right now, really,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “And we’ll get healthier. At some point in time, we’re going to get healthy again and get on a run.”

Better health is not forthcoming for the starting rotation. Staff ace Mike Soroka (Achilles) is out for the season. Veteran Cole Hamels (triceps) hasn’t thrown from a mound yet. The Braves have only one good starter, Max Fried. They don’t have a permanent starter at all for two of their rotation spots.

The shaky pitching is not a small concern. Relying heavily on unproven arms was a risk/reward play that has not paid off. The same is true of paying Hamels $18 million (now prorated) when he wasn’t as good for the Cubs after an oblique injury last year. (The Giants paid Braves castoff Kevin Gausman half that, and he’s been very good.)

Two Braves veterans at Gwinnett, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, already have washed out of the rotation this season. Promoting top pitching prospect Ian Anderson would mean sending him out for his MLB debut after 5 2/3 innings of live game action this year at spring training. If the Braves were to make a trade by the deadline at month’s end -- which wouldn’t make sense if it costs much at all -- they’ll join a crowded market for quality starting pitchers.

Those are not good options. The Braves might as well wait and see if Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright can be effective starters.

“You’ve just got to hope that they improve and grow up right in front of our eyes,” Snitker said. “That’s what we’ll do. We are just going to have to keep with them, (keep) working with them. They are sharp kids with good stuff. Hopefully they’ll make some adjustments. This is good on the job training for them.”

Two weeks ago, I noted why that’s a perilous plan for the Braves. Since then Wright has made small strides and Toussaint had one good start out of three. Newcomb was even worse. He’s had plenty of chances to prove himself. Wright and Toussaint still are green, so at least there’s a chance they’ll harness the talent that made them first-round draft picks.

Snitker can use a quick hook on his starters because his relievers have been outstanding. The bullpen’s 3.22 ERA through 20 games is fifth-best in the majors. There hasn’t really been a weak link among the group. Four relievers have yet to allow an earned run over a combined 17 innings: Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, Chad Sobotka and Will Smith. Three other Braves pitchers rank among the top 20 in WAR for MLB relievers: Josh Tomlin, Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter.

Not much has worked out for the rotation. Nearly everything has worked for the bullpen.

“That’s why are sitting here 11-9, and not 9-11, is because of that bullpen,” Snitker said.

I don’t think Braves relievers are due for a fall. Over-usage would be a concern if the innings weren’t so spread out.

Entering Thursday’s games, the 86 2/3 innings pitched by Braves relievers were fourth-most in MLB. But only Tomlin and Matzek has pitched more than 8 1/3 innings. And the ‘pen is getting even deeper: Smith just returned from the COVID-19 list, and Chris Martin is eligible to be activated from the injured list next week.

The Braves’ offense has hammered out runs while getting less-than expected from key hitters. The Braves entered Thursday ranked fifth in runs per game. That’s despite ranking 15th in on-base percentage and tied for the second-most strikeouts.

The Braves have been doing it with power: They ranked seventh in extra-base hit percentage. It’s been spread throughout the lineup, and Freeman hasn’t clubbed balls at his usual clip. But it’s hard to sustain offense with a lackluster OBP.

As usual, Freeman still has been valuable because he’s drawing a lot of walks. The on-base laggards include Albies (0.186 OBP in 46 PAs). That’s unlikely to continue once Albies (wrist) is healthy. Snitker said he doesn’t expect Albies back in the lineup within the next week.

Acuna was just getting started when he left the lineup Tuesday. He totaled three home runs in Sunday’s doubleheader at Philadelphia after hitting one in his previous 15 games (68 plate appearances). Snitker said his wrist still is too sore to play in Miami.

The Braves will have a formidable lineup once Acuna and Albies produce at their typical level. That should more than offset any decline in production from Marcell Ozuna and catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers. It might make center fielder Ender Inciarte’s struggles not matter so much so long as his defense isn’t slipping.

The Braves have won more games than they’ve lost while not playing to their full potential. Winning half their final 40 games almost certainly would be good enough to make the playoffs. This year that requires a second-place finish or earning one of two wild cards. Entering the weekend, the Braves have a roughly 8-in-10 chance of making the postseason, according to FanGraphs.

A lot would have to go wrong all at once for the Braves to falter. The starting pitching never gets better, and even their deep bullpen becomes taxed. Albies and Acuna never find the right feel (wrist injuries are tricky for hitters). The power-dependent offense fizzles.

But a lot already has gone wrong for the Braves through one-third of the season. They still are winning. It’s the kind of resilience we’ve come to expect from the Braves. Add better injury luck to their built-to-last bullpen and big bats, and the Braves will have plenty of staying power.

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