Early signals good for Braves, so no worries about their record

The Braves made it to their first off-day of the season with two more losses than wins. They’ve been a little better than average at creating scoring chances, slightly below average at scoring runs and bad at preventing them. That’s the gist of the first 14 games for the defending World Series champions.

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This is your reminder that those aren’t nearly enough games to judge the Braves. I’m guessing that waiting-and-seeing is easier for Braves backers after the team went from a losing record through July to Series champions in October. If the Braves are still a middling team deep into this season, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has proved he can make moves to change that.

Just because it’s early doesn’t mean any red flags should be ignored. I’m just not seeing many with the Braves. Really, it’s more of the opposite.

The key veteran players who’ve been bad so far have long track records of being much better. Some youngsters with question marks already are starting to answer them. The schedule is about to lighten. The Marlins are here this weekend, then the Braves have an off-day before a home series against the Cubs.

And oh, by the way, Ronald Acuna is expected back from the injured list within two weeks. He’s on a rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Gwinnett. Acuna was putting up MVP-caliber numbers when we last saw him in July. His pending return is among the reasons why the Braves will score more than their current 3.86 runs per game.

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The question is whether the Braves can improve on allowing 4.86 runs per game. Pitching depth is their weakness. They’ve already demoted one starter, Huascar Ynoa. Charlie Morton has been effective in one of three starts. Rookie Bryce Elder has been ineffective in two.

No big worries there. The shortened spring training has confounded the early results for all MLB pitchers. Two mistake pitches cost Morton on Wednesday in Los Angeles. Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright both just had good outings against San Diego’s potent lineup. Max Fried has been very good. Wright is off to a good start.

The Braves will have to live with some up-and-down results from their starting pitchers. That’s the reality of relying on so many young arms. Before the season, I argued that the Braves won’t repeat as Series champs if enough of them don’t come through. Ynoa hasn’t done it yet. Wright’s early results are encouraging. Elder will get more chances to hold down the No. 5 slot.

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Anthopoulos tried to add a quality starter before the season. When that didn’t happen, the GM settled on building a deeper bullpen. That group ranks 12th among MLB ‘pens in Fielding Independent Pitching, which attempts to strip luck out of the equation, and 14th in Wins Above Replacement (all rankings before Thursday’s games). Braves relievers have allowed 45% of inherited runners to score, the third-worst rate in the majors.

Those numbers come with caveats. Closer Kenley Jansen allowed three runs in his Braves debut and hasn’t allowed a base runner in four games since. The Braves traded Sean Newcomb on Wednesday for Jesse Chavez. Whichever reliever takes Newcomb’s innings will have a low bar to clear to be better. Maybe Chavez can rediscover the magic from his 2021 stint with the Braves.

Most signs point to the pitching getting better. The Braves haven’t been that bad at the plate given that they rank 16th in on-base percentage. They are making good contact: seventh in average exit velocity, tied for fifth in hard-hit percentage. The Braves are tied for first in the majors with 16 home runs, but only one came with a man on base. Raise the OBP, keep hitting homers and the runs will come.

There are sound reasons to think that will happen. Among the eight Braves hitters with at least 35 plate appearances, five have posted an OBP significantly below their career norm. Sabermetricians tell us that two important underlying numbers for OBP, strikeout rate and walk rate, don’t stabilize until 60 and 120 plate appearances, respectively.

Acuna will help out the on-base percentage. His .399 OBP over the 2020 and 2021 seasons was second best among Braves regulars behind Freddie Freeman (.412). Acuna ranks eighth in MLB for extra-base hits per at-bat since debuting in 2018. He will hit plenty of homers and be on base frequently when his teammates do it.

There might be cause for concern if the Braves still aren’t getting on base much two weeks from now. Right now, it’s statistical noise. Matt Olson and Austin Riley won’t keep up their hot pace to begin the season. They won’t have to do that for the Braves to score more runs.

Dansby Swanson won’t keep striking out more than 40% of the time. Travis d’Arnaud won’t stay at zero walks. Eddie Rosario will have better luck than one of 10 batted balls going for hits. Those numbers will improve as the sample size increases.

The Braves needed a break after playing 14 consecutive days to start the season. The first weekend doubled as a celebration of their Series title. They haven’t looked like contenders yet, but it’s early. The underlying signals indicate they’ll find that championship form once they get more chances.

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