Through 16 games, the Atlanta Braves find themselves 2.5 games adrift in the National League East despite a rather disappointing start to the 2021 MLB season.
Heading into the season 12 players could be singled out as the most important players to the Braves winning their fourth straight NL East crown. Here is a look at how those 12 players have started the season.
2021 MLB Season: Atlanta Braves
Timing is everything. Through 15 games, Travis d’Arnaud floundered to a .553 OPS and an OPS+ in the 40s. It was unlikely that d’Arnaud would match his ridiculous .919 OPS and 136 OPS+ 2020 season, but the expectation was that d’Arnaud would be a borderline average hitter. Game 16 of the 2021 MLB season brought d’Arnaud more success as he had a pair of extra-base hits including his second home run of the season, raising his OPS by 97 points. The Braves will hope that his three-RBI game against the Chicago Cubs is a sign for future success rather than a fluke.
Statcast does not have glowing descriptions of the 2020 Silver Slugger, but expect his surface stats to improve to match the batted ball data. He may not be as good as his 2020 self, but he is a better hitter than the surface stats have shown so far.
While the batting average (.232) is low, Freddie Freeman has productive on-base and slugging percentages for a strong OPS of .930. He is another player that torched the Cubs in the 16th game of the 2021 MLB season, giving an extra boost to his stats, hiding the first three weeks of below-expectation play from the 2020 NL MVP.
As the season progresses, his actual stats should begin to match his expected stats as the first baseman continues to mash the baseball. He is in the top-10 percent in average exit velocity, xwOBA, expected batting average, expected slugging, strikeout rate, and walk rate: all signs that point to another dominant season for Freeman.
Unlike his previous teammates, Ozzie Albies did not get the benefit of the 13-4 win over the Cubs. Albies has one of the largest gaps between real performance and expected performance. His slash line of .157/.262/.353 yields a subpar .615 OPS and 61 OPS+. However, he has an expected slash line of .306/.381/.500 (using xwOBA instead of OBP).
Albies is currently dealing with an injury, and he has been kept out of the lineup in the last two games against the Cubs. He is not on the injured list, but the Braves are being cautious with the former All-Star.
Austin Riley entered Game 16 of the 2021 MLB season with a brutal .182/.275/.182 slash line. He had a pair of singles and a pair of hit by pitches to boost it to a slightly more respectable .213/.321/.213. He is the only everyday player without an extra-base hit.
For every other Brave, there is some sort of silver lining. However, the real stats and expected stats agree that Riley has been struggling. Even with his 69th-percentile outs above average figure bolstering his all-around game, Riley has struggled at the plate. His xwOBA, expected batting average, expected slugging percentage, barrel percentage, whiff rate, and chase rate put Riley in the bottom 25% of Major League Baseball. His average exit velocity is in the seventh percentile. Riley will need a sizable overhaul to be even a halfway decent hitter in 2021.
Despite not receiving much of a boost from the 13-4 win over the Cubs, Dansby Swanson is trending in the right direction. The surface stats are ghastly (.203/.299/.322, 65 OPS+), but the batted ball data paints the picture of a well-rounded shortstop. Swanson has been an above-average defender and base runner in 2021, and his expected batting stats have been strong. His expected slash line of .270/.366/.523 places Swanson among the better-hitting shortstops in baseball.
Swanson has been hitting the ball hard, ranking in the 65th percentile in average exit velocity and 75th percentile in hard hit%. He has struck out more than the Braves would like, but his career-average strikeout rate is lower than the rate he is currently striking out at.
The batted ball data of Marcell Ozuna paints an inconclusive picture. Ozuna is in the 77th percentile for average exit velocity and has one of the hardest-hit balls of the season, but he sports horrific expected stats, and he has a 14th-percentile strikeout rate. His surface stats (.230/.329/.279, OPS+ of 63) are not dissimilar from his expected stats (.221/.296/.365).
So far, Ozuna’s biggest problem has been his launch angle. 41.7% of his batted balls have been fly balls compared to just a 22.2% clip of line drives. If Ozuna can reduce the number of pop-outs and fly-outs that he hits, expect his expected data to dramatically improve and be more in line with his near-Triple Crown production in 2020.
It has been an ugly start for Cristian Pache. Through 11 games and 31 plate appearances, Pache just has four hits and one walk. His slash line of .133/.161/.200 (OPS+ of -5) is comically bad. His expected slash line (.123/.149/.195) does not post a glowing review either. Pache has struck out in 41.9% of plate appearances while only posting the one walk. Even Pache’s defense has been poor in 2021 as the rookie is in the 29th percentile in outs above average.
Pache is currently on the injured list, and the Braves were getting suboptimal offensive production from his replacements until Guillermo Heredia had three hits including a pair of home runs, driving in six runs in Atlanta’s 13-4 win over the Cubs. Even if Pache is not a productive hitter, he will need to be a plus-level base runner and fielder for Atlanta.
Ronald Acuna Jr.
The frontrunner for NL MVP through 16 games, Ronald Acuna Jr. has the profile of baseball’s best hitter in the 2021 MLB season. He leads the Majors in runs, hits, home runs, slugging percentage, OPS, and total bases, additionally leading the National League in RBI, OPS+, and bWAR. His slash line of .419/.486/.887 (OPS+ of 253) has been downright dominant thus far. His expected data indicates that Acuna is experiencing some luck (.402/.521/.818), but he is in the 99th percentile in xwOBA and expected slugging and the 100th percentile in expected batting average, so even some regression to his batted ball data would leave Acuna as one of the best hitters in baseball.
Acuna ranks in the top 10% of average exit velocity, barrel percentage, strikeout percentage, chase rate, and sprint speed for good measure. He has been a 69th-percentile fielder according to outs above average. The only hiccup on Acuna’s season was a shortened game against the Cubs, but with an off day and designated hitter potential against the New York Yankees in the coming days, the Braves can get Acuna’s abdomen some rest.
Charlie Morton’s return to the Braves has had a less than ideal start. Through three starts in the 2021 MLB season, he has an ERA of 4.76 and an ERA+ of 93. His expected ERA lies in the 51st percentile, so Morton has been average to slightly below average so far. While his FIP of 2.63 indicates that Morton should improve, Atlanta has reason to hold its breath with the 37-year-old.
Morton sports strong strikeout (11.1 K/9) and walk (2.6 BB/9) rates, but he is getting hit as hard as he has ever been hit in the Statcast era. His cutter usage has nearly doubled in 2021, and batters are clobbering it to the tune of an expected slash line of .619/.885/1.542. Morton’s curveball and sinker have been up to the task, but 42.4% of Morton’s pitches have been cutters or four-seamers, both below-average pitches so far.
In 11 innings, Max Fried has allowed 14 earned runs. He has a WHIP of 2.545 including 18.8 H/9. He has allowed three home runs already as well. The only positive that Fried has shown to this point in his 11.5 K/9. Fried has an ERA+ of 39, and while his FIP is five full runs below his ERA, a FIP of 6.28 is a catastrophe. He ranks in the bottom 20 percentiles in xwOBA allowed, xERA, expected batting average allowed and expected slugging percentage allowed. No matter how you slice it, Fried has been a horror show so far in the 2021 MLB season.
Fried is currently on the injured list. He will need to make massive strides across the board to be a competent pitcher. After a 2020 season that saw all of his primary pitches produce a negative run value (good for pitchers), Fried’s four main pitches have been hit for a positive run value in the 2021 MLB season. Last season, Fried was among the best in baseball in most expected stats. This season has been a 180-degree transformation.
On the surface, Ian Anderson has been a solid pitcher so far for Atlanta. His 4.70 ERA, 94 ERA+, and 4.53 FIP are a little high, but there is variance in 15 innings pitched. With a glance at the expected stats, Anderson belongs in the same category as Fried. While Anderson has strong strikeout and whiff rates, he lags in every other stat.
Anderson is in the 28th percentile in hard-hit percentage allowed, 20th percentile in xwOBA allowed, 20th percentile in xERA, 16th percentile in expected batting average allowed, 23rd percentile in expected slugging percentage allowed, and 23rd in barrel percentage allowed. Opponents are teeing up Anderson and absolutely blasting the rookie. If there is any positive for Anderson, it is the microscopic sample size; he was dominant in a larger sample size in 2020. Atlanta hopes Anderson will find what made himself so dominant down the stretch in 2020.
The breakout star of 2019, Mike Soroka is still on the injured list. He does not have a clear timetable for return, and the initial prognosis of “late April” in the 2021 MLB season might be a little premature. Either way, the expected stats do not paint the prettiest picture for Soroka’s return. Despite finishing sixth in Cy Young voting as a rookie in 2019, Soroka experienced some fairly solid luck. With his inability to consistently generate strikeouts (27th percentile strikeout rate, 26th percentile whiff rate in 2019), Soroka must rely on forcing soft contact.
In 2019, Soroka generally did this, finishing in the 84th percentile in expected isolated power and barrel percentage allowed. However, it is a thin margin for error, and the more strikeout savvy pitchers on the Atlanta staff have been ripped to shreds in 2021, so one might imagine Soroka could have a rude awakening when he makes his 2021 MLB season debut.
As a whole, the offense has underachieved so far. Only Freeman and Acuna have produced at or above even the lowest expectations. The batted ball data projects will be joined by Albies and Swanson soon. A minor adjustment to Ozuna’s approach could also put him back among the best hitters in the National League.
On the other side of the field, the pitching rotation is worse than the surface stats show. Morton, Fried, and Anderson have been tattooed thus far, and even if you account for a small sample size, none of them possess elite strikeout figures that could provide some immunity to variance in batted ball luck. When Soroka returns from the injured list, he could be in for an ugly surprise.
The Braves are better than their 7-9 record shows, but the current rotation limits Atlanta’s upside moving forward. As long as the rotation is struggling, it will be difficult for Atlanta to string together wins in any meaningful capacity during the 2021 MLB season.
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