Cunningham: Braves’ weakness - defense - could sink them in playoffs

Four players are weak links in the field.
Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies (1) makes a move for a ball during the third inning of the Atlanta Braves post season workouts in preparation for the MLB Playoffs at Truist Park, Tuesday, October 3, 2023, in Atlanta. The Braves first playoff game will be on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 at Truist Park for game one of the NLDS. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies (1) makes a move for a ball during the third inning of the Atlanta Braves post season workouts in preparation for the MLB Playoffs at Truist Park, Tuesday, October 3, 2023, in Atlanta. The Braves first playoff game will be on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 at Truist Park for game one of the NLDS. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

OPINION / BRAVES

Braves hitters didn’t produce much offense in the 2022 National League Division Series. That just means they are more likely to do it in this year’s NLDS. The more chances good batters get, the more likely they are to succeed.

Charlie Morton won’t pitch in the NLDS because of an injury. Spencer Strider and Max Fried will pitch, and they can start four of the possible five games. Morton will be back if the Braves advance to the NLCS.

I doubt hitting and pitching will sink the Braves. Defense could be another matter. The Braves are not good in the field. Only the Phillies and Marlins are worse among the 12 playoff teams, per FanGraphs metrics.

The Braves are set to send out a lineup with subpar fielders at four of the seven positions. There’s a long history of defensive miscues dooming teams in the postseason. If that happens to the Braves, then it most likely will be on the right side of the field.

Second baseman Ozzie Albies is a poor defender. First baseman Matt Olson is below-average. Ronald Acuna’s superlative throwing arm is offset by other weaknesses. Eddie Rosario isn’t good in left field in my view, though the advanced metrics don’t necessarily support it.

Among those three weak spots, second base is most worrisome because of the volume of plays that Albies must make. It’s inevitable that some of those plays will be tough. Weak fielders at first base and right field aren’t as costly. Or at least they’re not until those players make a mistake that costs runs and wins.

There’s no physical reason why Albies can’t be a good defender. He’s athletic and his arm is fine. The problem as I see it is that Albies tends to lose focus. That makes him a step slow on getting to balls he should reach or boot grounders that are within his grasp. It’s usually not a big deal over a full season. It can be a big problem in a short postseason series.

Olson is a big man (6-5, 225) who doesn’t move quick. That stands out because his predecessor, Freddie Freeman, is a big man who does move well. Freeman is particularly adept at tracking back to snag hard-hit balls that appear to be going by him. Olson just isn’t as good in the field.

Acuna is a poor fielder, according to Statcast tracking data. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that because he’s got one of the best outfield arms in MLB. I’ve seen Acuna make superlative plays on the run. How can Acuna be a bad defender when his arm is a cannon and so many of his catches are highlights?

But the more I think about it, I realize that Acuna sometimes needs to make those plays because he’s late getting to balls. That’s especially the case for balls hit in front of him. Statcast knocks Acuna for his late reactions, leading to limited range. Acuna may not foul up many plays, but there are plenty of balls he doesn’t get to that the average right fielder does.

Rosario’s arm isn’t good and he’s bad going to his left, but I’ve seen him make great plays down the right-field line. Statcast confirms those observations. It also seems to me that Rosario isn’t good with fielding balls in front of him, but Statcast rates him above average on those plays. Kevin Pillar, who usually starts in left against lefties, is a good fielder.

The Braves do have some defensive strengths. Catcher Sean Murphy is one of the best defenders at the most important position. Murphy is good at everything: framing borderline pitches so they look like strikes to umpires, throwing out runners and blocking pitches in the dirt. Braves pitchers frequently praise Murphy’s ability to call a game.

Centerfielder Michael Harris also is a good defender at a position where that’s valuable. Harris effectively chases down batted balls in all directions and has a strong arm. Shortstop Orlando Arcia’s arm isn’t great, but he almost always makes routine plays and can turn acrobatic ones. Arcia isn’t a wizard like predecessor Dansby Swanson, but there’s little reason to worry about him in the field.

The good defense played by Murphy, Harris and Arcia isn’t enough to offset the weaknesses at second base, first base, right field and left. That comes with the caveat that defense is hard to measure in baseball (though Statcast data has improved the endeavor). It’s possible that the numbers are missing something but, with the Braves, they mostly corroborate what my eyes tell me.

Defensive mistakes cam be especially deflating for postseason teams. Great pitchers can have bad days. Sluggers hit balls hard to the wrong place. Those things can happen. They happened to the Braves against the Phillies in the 2022 NLDS.

What shouldn’t happen is big-league fielders failing to make routine plays on the biggest stage. That’s not really true because players are human. They make mistakes. But defensive blunders are magnified in the pressure cooker of the postseason. We tend to forgive them less than home runs allowed by pitchers or batters who strikeout in big moments.

In 2018, MLB compiled a list of the “10 biggest gaffes in baseball history.” Defensive blunders in the postseason make up half the list. Braves backers who don’t want their team added to the list should hope that opposing batters don’t hit many balls hard to the right side of the field, or to the right of Rosario.