Braves can’t get going because they’re still not hitting

The Braves scored 15 runs over three games against the Padres over the most recent weekend. They still lost the series because they kicked the ball around the field and the bullpen, usually reliable, faltered. The Braves tightened their defense at Milwaukee but lost the series opener because they couldn’t hit. They got good pitching to win the middle game but lost the finale Wednesday as their bullpen again went bust.

See where this is going?

It’s not just that the Braves (17-21) lost two series in a row to make it 32 consecutive days with a losing record. It’s also that they continue their pattern of fixing one thing, only to have something else go wrong. I’ve covered a lot of teams that say they just need to put everything together at the same time but never do.

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The Braves have 124 games left on their schedule, but “it’s still early” can quickly become urgent until eventually it’s too late. The walk-off win against the Red Sox on May 11 wasn’t a catalyst. The Braves can’t keep talking about how they got hot last year in July on the way to the World Series as evidence they’ll do it again. First, they have to put together one sustained stretch of winning this year.

Mainly, that means the Braves need to start generating more offense. Now that the starting pitching has stabilized, that’s the one area on which they haven’t been very good all season. The Braves rank last among MLB teams in strikeout percentage, 25th in batting average and 20th in on-base percentage (all rankings before Thursday’s games).

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The Braves have managed to rank 18th in runs scored per game because they are fifth in home runs and seventh in extra-base hit percentage. That all-or-nothing offense isn’t sustainable. It’s not difficult to identify the main culprits.

Ozzie Albies and Travis d’Arnaud are performing a bit below their usual standards. Matt Olson has wobbled over the past month after a great start. But it’s Adam Duvall and Marcell Ozuna who are dragging down the offense. Lineup depth is supposed to be a strength for the Braves. It can’t be so long as Ozuna and Duvall are scuffling this badly.

Ozuna hit a homer during the comeback victory against the Padres on Saturday. He homered twice more during the Brewers series. Ozuna still is hitting only .218 for the season, with a .262 on-base percentage. Only 49 regulars in MLB have a lower batting average and only 20 have a worse OBP.

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Duvall is one of them. He’s hitting .198 with a .257 OBP. Duvall’s strikeout percentage is worse than all but five qualified hitters in MLB. Those five players all have more home runs and a better walk rate than Duvall. He’s always been a free swinger, but Duvall is providing negative offensive value now that he’s not driving the ball when he manages to make contact.

Braves manager Brian Snitker keeps running out Duvall and Ozuna. Some of that is because the Braves have been short on outfielders with Eddie Rosario on the injured list and Ronald Acuña in and out of the lineup. But Snitker has continued to use Ozuna as the designated hitter, even with Acuña back. Maybe Ozuna’s recent homer surge is a sign that Snitker’s patience will pay off, but if his production continues to tank, it doesn’t make sense to keep playing Ozuna when almost anyone else is a better option.

The one mitigating factor for the Braves’ struggles at the plate is that their best hitter has played in only 12 of 39 games. Acuña didn’t play at all during the Padres series and missed the opener at Milwaukee. Acuña has produced when he’s been in the lineup. He can’t carry the lineup if so many other Braves hitters are producing below their norms.

The Braves already face steep odds to win their fifth consecutive National League East title. The Mets (25-14 to begin Thursday) haven’t really cooled off a bit. They’ve lost one series in their past four. Before Thursday’s games, none of the three major statistical projections gave the Braves more than a 26% chance of winning the division.

All those forecasts predict that the Braves will win about 87 games and give them a better-than-even chance of making the playoffs. The PECOTA projections at Baseball Prospectus are highest on the Braves, with 70.1% odds to make the postseason. FanGraphs says the odds are 61.4%, and FiveThirtyEight puts them at 57%.

The Braves began Thursday with a better record than only four NL teams. Two of them, the Reds and Pirates, aren’t trying to win. The Nationals and Cubs will reach that point soon and start selling off contracts. That means the Braves are essentially in last place among NL teams that have real postseason ambitions. That’s a bad look for the defending World Series champs with June fast approaching.

Before this past week, you at least could say the Braves held their own against the best opponents. Now they are 8-10 against foes with winning records and 9-11 against losing teams. The Braves had two more losses than wins to end April. Now they are four games under break-even.

Maybe this weekend’s trip to Miami is just what the Braves need. They lost a home series to the Marlins but are 23-10 at Miami over the past four years. The Braves begin next week with a home series against the Phillies. The Marlins come here next weekend before the Braves are at the Diamondbacks, who no longer are awful.

It’s hard to predict what the Braves will do over that stretch. Just when it seems they’ve fixed one thing, something else goes wrong. When that keeps happening to a team it’s sign that it just isn’t very good. We can’t yet say that about the Braves. It’s still May. If they start generating more offense, then we won’t have to say it at all.