Braves soon will be offensive force again

Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman reacts to a called third strike during the fourth inning of the first baseball game of a baseball doubleheader against the Washington Nationals, at Nationals Park, Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Credit: Alex Brandon

Credit: Alex Brandon

Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman reacts to a called third strike during the fourth inning of the first baseball game of a baseball doubleheader against the Washington Nationals, at Nationals Park, Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Braves were buoyed by their walk-off win to end the first homestand April 15. They won three of five on the road and returned to Truist Park this weekend with a sunnier outlook. The Braves were scheduled to play three games against the Diamondbacks (who lack good pitching) and four against the Cubs (who lack good hitting).

Injuries have been the main problem for the Braves. No one likes to hear that because it leads to feelings of helplessness. Key players get hurt, and there’s nothing the Braves can do but manage until they come back. The Braves have done that reasonably well, and now some of those injured players are returning.

The better reason to believe the Braves are ready to roll is that their offense is on the verge of breaking out. That’s not just because MLB’s hottest hitter, Ronald Acuna, returned to top of the lineup Friday. The numbers are ugly for several Braves hitters, but look at some of the data underneath, and it’s clear that they won’t stay that way.

Entering the weekend, five Braves regulars were hitting .222 or worse. Batting averages are notoriously fickle this early in the season. It looks only a bit better for the Braves when scoring chances are measured. They had a Weighted Runs Created Plus of 101 before Friday’s games. That’s about average, which isn’t good for a team that returned hitters one through five from last season’s great lineup.

Yet the Braves began the weekend ranked fourth in the National League in runs scored per game, second in rates of home runs and second in extra-base hit percentage. They ranked first in average exit velocity, as measured by Statcast. I’d be suspicious about the Braves sustaining those numbers if they were swinging and missing a lot. That’s not the case: They had a better strikeout rate than all but four NL teams and the fourth-best walk rate.

Those are the numbers that convince me that the Braves still can repeat as the NL’s best offensive team behind the Dodgers. The Braves hit the ball hard and produce a lot of extra-base hits with good plate discipline. Teams with that profile eventually score a lot of runs, unless those things are fluky. They aren’t for the Braves.

Acuna isn’t going to keep hitting better than .400 or club a homer at a rate of nearly every other game. He doesn’t have to stay in that stratosphere. The Braves have been a top-five scoring team in the NL while not getting the expected production from some key hitters. That’s going to change.

Catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s walk rate isn’t low because he’s swinging wildly. He’s just missing more strikes than usual. His history suggests he’ll figure it out. It’s doubtful d’Arnaud will repeat his career-best .919 on-base percentage from the 2020 short season. Something like his .732 OPS career average would suffice.

Ozzie Albies hasn’t produced close to what his contact numbers say he should. He’s chasing pitches, like usual. He’s also walking more than usual. Albies is hitting the ball hard and in the air. He’s another Braves hitter who just needs better luck on balls in play.

Like d’Arnaud, Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson hasn’t chased many pitches, but is swinging at strikes and missing them a lot. The contact has been good when Swanson puts bat to ball. He’s been a below-average hitter for his career, but whiffs have never been a big weakness for Swanson. I doubt they’ll continue to be a problem this year.

Marcell Ozuna is the question mark in the top half of the order. He was plain bad heading into the weekend. I don’t believe his good year in 2020 was a 60-game fluke. He did what he did the previous year: hit the ball hard while not striking out much. This year Ozuna hasn’t hit the ball hard while striking out way too much.

But Ozuna is the only scuffling Braves hitter that I’m not sure will get straightened out. Albies, ‘dArnaud and Swanson will be better. Austin Riley has drastically reduced his strikeout rate and just needs to make better contact. And Acuna will continue to be great.

That leaves the one Braves regular I haven’t mentioned,. Is there ever reason to worry that Freddie Freeman eventually will produce like usual? Never mind that Freeman was hitting .222 entering the weekend. He was still helping the Braves with five home runs and lots of walks. More hits are coming.

Freeman’s plate discipline is characteristically good. He’s also hitting the ball harder than ever. Freeman’s average exit velocity of 93.6 mph entering the weekend would be his highest during the StatCast era (since 2015) if he keeps it up. There’s a good chance he will: Freeman’s 92.4 average velocity over 60 games in 2020 was his best for a season.

Freeman will get on a roll hitting behind Acuna. Cleanup man d’Arnaud is ready to break out, too. Albies, Swanson and Riley will boost the bottom half of the order. Maybe I’m wrong about Ozuna, and he’ll start smashing the ball again. That would unlock the lineup’s full potential. Then the Braves would just need more healthy pitchers.

The Braves again have been forced to survive as their pitchers populate the injured list. They’ve been filling in starts with Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Huascar Ynoa. Unlike last year, the Braves don’t have a surplus of quality bullpen arms to cover innings. I won’t say there is no way their injury luck with pitchers can get any worse --we saw last year that it can — but it’s getting better now.

Lefty Drew Smyly was scheduled to pitch Saturday. He’s a solid veteran starter who should have better results after resting with forearm inflammation. Left-hander Max Fried (hamstring) may not be far behind Smyly. He’s had bad results in three starts, but he’s better than that. The bullpen depth has suffered without right-hander Chris Martin, who’s expected to return within a week.

Right-hander Mike Soroka’s latest injury has muddled the picture for Braves pitching. The expectation of a deeper staff was based largely on Soroka being at or near the top of it after returning from an Achilles injury. Now he’s shut down with shoulder problems for the second time in three seasons. There’s no timetable for his return.

The Braves have a chance to patch together an effective rotation with Soroka sidelined. Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton have been good. Fried and Smyly are capable of much more. Soroka presumably will return at some point.

By then, the Braves will be the offensive force that everyone expected.