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How Three Below-Average Outfielders Sparked History

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When the sun rose on August 3rd, the Atlanta Braves sat wallowing in third place in the NL East. They had trimmed the Mets’ lead to just 3.5 games but were still locked in purgatory. Atlanta had spent zero days above .500, now 106 games into the season. Even the two worst teams in MLB (Arizona and Baltimore) had been above .500 for a time.

Days earlier, the fanbase collectively threw its hands in the air. People called for Alex Anthopoulos’ job.

What the Hell are the Braves doing?

On July 10, it seemed the season was lost with the injury to Ronald Acuna Jr. The enigmatic superstar tore his ACL, and his tears mirrored those of Braves Country. The season was over. Atlanta went from minutes away from the World Series to third place in the worst division in baseball. It was Atlanta sports in a nutshell. The Falcons had the high watermark of franchise history before blowing a 25-point lead in Super Bowl 51. The Hawks won 60 games and were the top seed in the 2015 Eastern Conference before being swept out of the playoffs. It was just another scratch in the prison cell of Atlanta sports.

Anthopoulos was making scratches of his own. While the rest of the National League clamored for the stars of the imploding Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs, Atlanta swung a deal for a 94 OPS+ platoon bat: Joc Pederson.

Author’s Note: It was at this point that I scrapped my ideas of the Braves trading for the big fish in the pond. I wiped away the six names I had written on my whiteboard. I stared blankly, almost as if I was wiping away the season.

The justification was easy. Anthopoulos was pretending that the Braves were still in contention. They were buying low on a struggling former All-Star. Atlanta was doubling down on a homer-happy lineup with a player who had bashed 25 in a season four times. It was a white surrender flag, but that flag did have a star from the 2015 All-Star game. It could be worse.

15 days later, Anthopoulos continued the calls. He eyed a slugger from an American League team that had been underperforming. It was another corner outfielder. He strikes out a lot. He can hit 40 home runs in a season. Anthopoulos also had his eye on a left fielder in the NL East. He had an incredible hot streak in the last year, and perhaps he could capture that magic in Atlanta. Can you guess the players?

Joey Gallo & Kyle Schwarber

Jorge Soler & Adam Duvall

Jorge Soler was a home run champion. In his last full season, he whacked 48 home runs, more home runs than he had 350 games he played in 2014-2018 and 2020. He also led the AL in strikeouts in 2019.

But that was 2019. Soler had a .370 slugging percentage in 2021, contributing to an abysmal .658 OPS and 78 OPS+. Atlanta was calling upon a -1.3 bWAR player.

Are you serious?

Adam Duvall is a familiar name to Braves fans. He spent parts of 2018, 2019, and 2020 with Atlanta. He hit 26 home runs in 98 games between 2019 and 2020. Sure, Duvall’s career was slightly below average (97 OPS+), but at least he had been producing with the Marlins in 2021 (102 OPS+, 2.1 bWAR).

The fit was odd as all three players fit the same “corner outfielder that hits a lot of home runs and strikes out a lot” mold. What’s the point?

We are back to August 3rd. The Braves are heading to St. Louis for three games with the Cardinals. They have alternated wins and losses for the last 17 games. “Momentum” is just a word in the dictionary for the Braves.

Then, it happened.

After an Ozzie Albies walk, Soler sent a pitch 409 feet into the stands at Busch Stadium. Three singles later, Duvall walked. Pederson then singled home another run.

It was just one inning, but something flipped for the Braves.

The 6-1 win over the Cardinals marked another notch in the win/loss/win/loss chain for the Braves. The Braves are 53-54.

For the second consecutive night, it was the trio of new faces contributing to the victory. Soler unloaded a solo shot in the fifth, and Duvall smoked a two-run shot in the sixth. Pederson laced a two-run triple in the eighth. The Braves won 7-4, getting back to .500.

This was the eighth time that Atlanta had pulled to a .500 record (including Opening Day). They were a spectacular 0-7, including a trio of one-run losses to the Phillies.

Heading into the eighth inning in the third game of the Cardinals series, the Braves trailed 4-2. Pederson had launched a home run in the fourth, but it was not enough for the moment. After a Soler flyout for the second out in the eighth, Atlanta had just a 7% chance of victory.

Freddie Freeman singles. Austin Riley homers. Dansby Swanson doubles.

Duvall cannot possibly produce again. Right?

Alex Reyes made the process easier by plunking Duvall.

This is a key spot for Pederson. Can he deliver again?

Reyes lofted in four pitches outside the zone, and Pederson walked to first.

Three walks later, both Duvall and Pederson had crossed the plate. Soler, the 11th batter of the inning, drew a fifth-straight walk, driving home Atlanta’s sixth run of the inning.

Trade deadline addition Richard Rodriguez and Will Smith closed out the eighth and ninth innings, and Atlanta had done the impossible. They were above .500.

Atlanta returned home and took two of three against the Nationals and Reds, jumping to a 59-56 record. They then went on the road, sweeping the Nationals, Marlins, and Orioles in succession, moving up to 12 games above .500. After being down 7.5 games in mid-June, Atlanta stood five games clear in the NL East.

All told, the Braves went on a 16-2 run, tying the franchise’s best 18-game run.

August & Beyond

The division is far from wrapped up as the Braves are facing a daunting 10-game NL West circuit with three home games against the Giants, three games at Dodger Stadium, and four games at Coors Field. Atlanta also has trips to Oracle Park and Petco Park later in the season before closing with home series against the Phillies and Mets. However, Atlanta flashed its immense potential by taking care of business in nine consecutive must-win games against the punching bags of baseball.

With this hot streak, the Braves are now third in the NL in runs per game, second in home runs, third in slugging percentage and fourth in OPS. Duvall and Pederson have continued to be slightly below-average hitters (92 and 98 OPS+ respectively), but with increased production from the infield and Soler’s 122 OPS+, Atlanta is an offensive force to be reckoned with moving forward.


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Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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Ryan Potts is an avid football and baseball fan. He covers the NFL and Major League Baseball, focusing on the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Braves.