Despite being besieged by injuries to the starting pitching rotation, the Atlanta Braves sit in first place in the National League East and slightly edge the Los Angeles Dodgers for best winning percentage in the National League.
It’s the classic case of a team finding its cohesion through different guys stepping up in different games to make a difference. A post-hype prospect like Orlando Arcia begins to thrive in an everyday role, even bouncing back from a hand injury to ward off Vaughn Grissom from taking his job.
Even slumping veterans like Marcell Ozuna, who looked like he was cooked, have been bringing some A-game to help the Braves stay atop.
Now almost one-quarter of the way through the 2023 season, here are three keys to how the Atlanta Braves sustain their winning ways.
The Atlanta Braves Winning Ways
MVPs Will MVP
Spencer Strider has appeared semi-mortal in the month of May, twice allowing four earned runs over five innings. Of course, he’s also struck out almost half the batters he’s faced during that time, which is remarkable and what this ace should do when he aces.
Strider currently possesses a 2.96 ERA, and Statcast has his expected ERA at 2.69 – which is top 9% in the league.
While the batting average has room for improvement – and improve it should, considering he’s striking out more than ever – Matt Olson is still crushing baseballs with regularity and posting Barrel and Walk rates in the 97 percentile.
This terrific combination of power and on-base skills shows Olson with a 138 wRC+, which is one of the best of his career.
Nobody should worry about Austin Riley, because all of his metrics line up with past indicators. The dongs will come, and the average should maintain, if not improve slightly. If anything, he’s improved his Outside Swing rate by 4%, in addition to increasing his walk rate.
And last but obviously not least, Ronald Acuna Jr. not only stands out as the Braves’ most valuable player but may take home the MVP award in the National League.
But first, here are some negative metric indicators about Acuna that might actually be interpreted as positive anecdotal indicators. Acuna ranks by Statcast in the first percentile of Outs Above Average – a metric that might give some insight into a player’s defensive prowess. His Outfielder Jump also lags – despite his Sprint Speed being in the 82 percentile, which is pretty good.
In short, it seems like Acuna has been saving his best for the bat and throttling back his hair-on-fire play in the outfield to limit injury exposure. That’ll work. Especially when every other Statcast metric lights up exquisitely red, showing Acuna’s elite hit tool is at peak performance.
The most exciting of these indicators for Acuna to hang his hat on would be the fact that his three expected performance metrics (xBA, xwOBA, xSLG) all classify in the 100 percentile. And he’s already hitting .347 with a baller OPS of 1.042.
Unexpectedly Strong Farm System
Some may remember that the Braves organization lost a chunk of their prized minor-league system due to questions over international signings. Despite this setback, the Braves have received major contributions from the minor-league farm system in the past couple of years but in particular this year, as their starting rotation depth has been under assault.
Bryce Elder doesn’t throw very hard. In fact, his sinker only averages 89.4 mph, which is in the bottom 10 percentile of the league. It’s also not great by results, only garnering a pedestrian 16.5% whiff rate.
Elder’s slider, on the other hand, is a different story. That pitch generates a fantastic 28.7% whiffs, and he throws it about as much as the sinker. What’s interesting is his four-seam fastball gets similar whiffs to the slider, but he only throws it 13% of the time.
Regardless of these wonky underlying factors, Elder has been a revelation in the wake of injuries to both Max Fried and Kyle Wright. Over 52 innings, he’s posted one of the best ERAs in the game at 2.06 and struck out 45 batters.
More help could be available soon. Michael Soroka got off to a rough start in AAA, as he continues to rehab multiple injuries. He righted the ship in his last start, though, giving up one run over 4 2/3 innings and striking out five.
AJ Smith-Shawver could be the next Spencer Strider. This is not to say that the pitchers are comparable by stuff or abilities but rather that, like Strider, Smith-Shawver could come up and dominate seemingly out of nowhere.
Recruited out of high school as both a football and baseball athlete, once Smith-Shawver committed to baseball, he accelerated his developmental growth at a surprising clip.
Almost overnight he not only added velocity to his fastball but has now begun to command both a plus slider and curveball. The results at AA have been stellar and earned him a promotion to AAA. He struck out five over five innings in his first start – in what also could be one of the few starts he makes a AAA.
Deep Bullpen Getting Deeper
Since returning from an injury that kept him shelved since Opening Day, newly acquired closer Raisel Iglesias has endured a couple of hiccups leading to a loss and a blown save. The good news is he’s successfully converted two saves and will continue to round into form.
Iglesias is generating a superb 16% Swinging Strike rate, with which he has tallied over 10 K/9. He’s also not walking anyone, so if he can continue the strikeouts and curtail some of the homer issues, all should be well in the Braves’ final inning.
Arguably, an even more impactful bullpen acquisition, which went under the radar, would be the guy who stepped up while Iglesias was on the injured list. That would be former Tampa Bay Rays reliever Nick Anderson, who continues his odds-defying comeback journey after bursting on the scene a few years ago as a late-blooming, late-inning hammer for the Rays.
Anderson continues to ride a two-pitch mix, which he splits equally in deployment. Producing very similar strikeout and walk rates to Iglesias, Anderson has earned a Save and seven Holds as a high-leverage option for the Braves.
Jesse Chavez would be another veteran Braves reliever who’s shoving like never before in a late-career resurgence. He’s striking out batters at a career-best 11 K/9, which is backed by a 13% swinging strike rate, also a career-best.
Chavez has been an opener and earned eight Holds working in middle relief and continues to defy age at 39 with his fastball/cutter combo that has him at a cool 2.21 ERA.
Finally, the guy who was expected to hold down the ninth while Iglesias was out, A.J. Minter, has been something of a volatile commodity this season. There are a few reasons to hope his performance will improve, however. Underlying metrics paint a portrait of previous seasons with similar Swinging Strike rates and virtually no change in pitch mix or velocity.
His current ghastly 7.78 ERA may seem to leave no reason for hope, but his expected numbers of xERA, FIP, and SIERA are all almost four earned runs better. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of shuffling the bullpen roles back into place so that Minter can settle back into dominating as a set-up man.
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