COVID-19 may clog Braves’ good chemistry, but they’ll win the East

072120 Atlanta: Atlanta Braves Matt Adams is congratulated by teammates hitting a walk off home run for a 10-9 victory over the Miami Marlins during the ninth inning in an exhibition game on Tuesday, July 21, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Braves won back-to-back National League East titles because of the strength of their talent. They still have a lot of that in 2020. The Braves also did on the strength of a strong team spirit. That might not be so easy to maintain with COVID-19 forcing interpersonal connections to become more impersonal.

Forbidden: Freddie Freeman’s hugs. Frowned upon: Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson’s jump-and-bump celebrations. MLB protocol states that on-field personnel “should practice physical distancing to the extent possible within the limitations of competition and the fundamentals of baseball.”

Few MLB teams seemed to have as much fun celebrating walk-off wins as the Braves. Chasing the teammate who got the big hit or swarming him at home plate are out, too. At least Ronald Acuna still can flip his bat after smashing home runs.

The limits for on-field celebrations may make the Braves less fun to watch. They won’t necessarily affect the good chemistry that helped make them division champs. It’s all the other COVID-19 restrictions that could get in the way of that. Maintaining physical space is not conducive to team bonding.

There is assigned seating on buses to road ballparks an designated partners for playing catch. Players arrive at stadiums in small, separate groups for screening. Locker stalls in the clubhouse must be at least six feet apart by MLB rule. Some pregame meetings may be held virtually.

A three-man “taxi squad” can travel with the team. Those players won’t be in dugouts unless they are active for the game, and neither will any other players unlikely to play. They could sit in the stands, spaced out, with other non-active players. Or those players may not be at the ballpark at all.

Can the Braves develop their usual strong chemistry under these circumstances?

“I kind of feel this clubhouse and what these guys have going on here we’ve worked really hard (to build) not just these three weeks, but over the last three years,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s pretty solid. But it is a different element when not everybody is here every night. It’s kind of where we are at as we try to no not have a lot of guys around.

“That takes away from it a little bit. I think overall it’s going to be pretty strong here.”

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves manager Brian Snitker feels confident the team is prepared to start the shortened 2020 game season after few weeks of training.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

I believe Snitker. He’s shown that he can manage a clubhouse. Of course, it helped that generational talent Acuna joined Freeman in the clubhouse for 2018 and rejuvenated slugger Josh Donaldson followed in 2019. No manager wins without lots of good players.

But Snitker’s knack for getting his guys to pull in the same direction has been a factor for the Braves. I tend to focus on the things that can be measured. Snitker has made me better appreciate things that aren’t. General manager Alex Antohopolous co-signs that approach by building a roster with players who fit.

Still, how the Braves’ team chemistry will play out is one of the mysteries of this strange season. It would be true even if two key parts of the mix weren’t missing.

Donaldson’s personality meshed well with Braves teammates once they became accustomed to his brashness (and once he proved to be among their best players). He signed with Minnesota in January. The Braves will miss Donaldson’s bat, but at least they’ve had time to develop an atmosphere without him.

That’s not the case with another team leader, Nick Markakis. He reported for summer camp before deciding to opt out. Markakis was a revered figure in the organization because of his consistent, focused approach.

Said Freeman: “Can’t replace Nick Markakis and what he brings to this clubhouse, this team.”

There’s no other player like Markakis in the clubhouse. That might affect team cohesion. But the Braves can replace Markakis’ production. He’d been an average hitter since being selected to the 2018 NL All-Star team. New outfielder Marcell Ozuna promises to provide at least that and maybe more if he continues to hit the ball hard and gets better luck.

Really, outside the unanswerable issue of chemistry, starting pitching is the only area where I have big questions about the Braves. Staff ace Mike Soroka and Max Fried are solid at the top of the rotation. With Cole Hamels on the shelf, pitchers 3-5 are kind of crap shoots: Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz and (probably) Kyle Wright.

The Braves aren’t apt to be as good at the plate overall. Donaldson was no worse than their third-best hitter in 2019. Ozuna hasn’t had a year that good since 2017. But the Braves will hit plenty once Freeman gets his timing down after missing most of summer camp recovering from COVID-19.

This all comes with the caveat that there will lots of randomness in this 60-game season. You’re probably going to get tired of hearing that, but it’s true. The beauty of baseball is that, over 162 games, it does a good job of determining true performance. Luck will play a bigger role this year.

One bad week at the plate is like three bad ones during a 162-game season. A pitcher who makes back-to-back bad starts will get maybe nine more chances to make it up. This is assuming the full season will be played.

The circumstances make it tricky to predict how the Braves will fare in 2020. They would be a clear pick to win the NL East over 162 games. Over 60 games, they could fall victim to bad luck. I still think their talent is good enough to overcome any hard luck outside of major injuries or COVID-19 infections for key players.

Freeman, Acuna and Albies are a good top three. There are plenty of candidates to provide lineup length behind them. Soroka is good. Fried is underrated. The bullpen is deep with reliable arms.

That’s enough talent for me to believe the Braves will win another NL East title. I trust that Snitker and his veteran players will keep the intangible factors in their favor, too.

“Everybody is grown up in here even the young players step up and do the same thing and be mature and to be professional,” Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte said. “We are all on the same page.”

That should be the case even if COVID-19 means they avoid the same spaces, if they can help it.

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