The Atlanta Braves will enter play on May 31 in second place in the NL East, 9.5 games behind the New York Mets. They do not play the Mets again July 11-13, so they will need to make progress around the edges in the next month and a half to keep pace. The Braves play the Mets 15 more times including nine times in two weeks in August.
Let’s break down how the Braves can secure their fifth consecutive division crown.
With Ronald Acuna Jr. the Braves are 11-10. While nothing special (on pace for 85 wins), it is a much higher pace than the Braves are without Acuna (69 wins). In those 21 games, Acuna has slashed .286/.394/.429, notching a pair of home runs and nine steals. He has posted 0.7 bWAR in that span, good for eighth on the team in 2022.
Acuna has been good (OPS+ of 127) but not quite what he was in 2021 (154 OPS+). However, it is promising for him to have a .294 batting average and .412 on-base percentage in the month of May. His quality of contact has been excellent (.379 xwOBA, 16 points better than his actual wOBA), and it would only improve if his strikeout percentage returns to his career norms.
Where is Mike Soroka?
After tearing his Achilles twice, Soroka is closing in on his return. For the time being, Soroka’s timetable is around the All-Star Break. This is a case of "break in case of emergency," but even a rusty Soroka would be better than the parade of fifth starters the Braves have tried in 2022. Bryce Elder, Tucker Davidson, Huascar Ynoa, and Kyle Muller were horrific, and the pair of Spencer Strider and Jesse Chavez are bullpen arms for the moment.
Even if Soroka played as he did in 2018, the Braves could use solid innings from another starter to preserve their bullpen. It would be another tool in Brian Snitker’s toolbelt.
Angels in the Outfield
Outside of Acuna, the Braves have had gigantic outfield issues this season. Marcell Ozuna might have 10 home runs in 48 games, but he has a putrid .269 on-base percentage. Somehow, Adam Duvall has been even less productive. Through May 30, he has slashed .189/.258/.268 with 60 strikeouts. His OPS+ is closer to zero than the league average.
Travis Demeritte was slightly better than Duvall, but he has gone back to Gwinnett. In his place, Michael Harris has brought good defense and a 1-for-9 start. Eddie Rosario is on the injured list, but he was slashing .068/.163/.091 before he left. Guillermo Heredia has also been ghastly in a 4-for-39 start.
Acuna will be fine moving forward. However, Ozuna, Duvall, and Harris desperately need to improve on their current performance. Ozuna struggled mightily in May (.640 OPS) after a reasonable April (.747 OPS). Duvall has an OPS below .500 for May. Both players are inherently streaky, but they need a hot month soon.
To his credit, Ozuna has strong underlying metrics with a 75th-percentile xwOBA and several other Baseball Savant metrics in the 90th percentile and above. On the other hand, Duvall is in the bottom 10 percentile in xwOBA, expected batting average, and strikeout rate.
Dansby Swanson has held up his end of the bargain. So far, he has a strong OPS+ of 111, and he has been elite defensively and on the base paths. Outside of his horrific strikeout record, Swanson is having one of his best seasons. He has a 70th-percentile xwOBA, even better than what he posted in 2020.
Matt Olson and Austin Riley are both sitting with an OPS+ over 120, but they have been hot-and-cold throughout the season. Olson’s isolated power is down from his Oakland days. In a similar vein, Riley has a lower walk rate from his last two seasons. While they have near-identical wOBAs, Riley is underperforming by 36 points. Olson will continue to plug along, but Riley should be expected to improve.
Max Fried and Kyle Wright have both been excellent. Ian Anderson has been around league average. Charlie Morton has been a concern so far as he enters May 31 with an ERA+ of 83. He has his worst walk rate since 2008 and his lowest strikeout rate since 2015. Morton could bounce back, but his peripherals have been disastrous at best. His Baseball Savant page is littered with dark blue circles, and he is trending the wrong way.
As mentioned, the Braves have had a revolving door of pedestrian fifth starters, so having a fourth wheel that is shaky hurts even more. The Braves have yet to win three games in a row, and they have not been above .500 since the third game of the season. Despite the sturdy top three arms, Morton and the fifth starter have let the total unit down.
The Braves have several key factors that could swing in their favor moving forward, but they have to make their momentum and start chipping away at the Mets. Some will say "oh, the Braves did it last year," but the Braves need to be aggressive in accumulating wins in the win column.
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