Braves: 5 biggest surprises of the first half of the season

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The Braves are a juggernaut; there’s no other way to describe it. They have a chance to tie the record for the most wins in a month in franchise history with 21 and have won 13 of their last 14, including five straight. The offense is the best in baseball in just about every category, and their pitching has been able to withstand a plethora of injuries, leading to a 53-27 record.

The Braves won a remarkable 101 games last year on their way to a 5th straight NL East title, yet this year’s team feels as if it is on a totally different level. So, what have been the five most surprising aspects that have led to the Braves reaching these new heights?

Ronald Acuña Jr.

Why not start off with a bang? Ronald Acuña Jr. has been far and away the best player in baseball, not named Shohei Ohtani. And while Braves fans have come to expect greatness from Acuña ever since his major-league debut, there had to be at least some concern about whether he would even return to the player he was pre-injury.

But not only has Acuña been able to reach that level again, he’s the best he has ever been by a wide margin. He’s currently on 40/70 watch, and that’s not a typo. He also has the highest batting average of his career by nearly 40 points, thanks to a strikeout rate that sits at 12.6%, which is just over half of his career average. The mental side of the game is starting to catch up to the physical side for Acuña, and he’s well on the verge of history because of it.

June Kirby Yates

I wrote about this yesterday, but Yates has started to turn back the clock in June. He was having a real problem with his control over the first couple months of the season, which slid him down the pecking order in the bullpen. However, since June 9th, he hasn’t walked a batter over 11 innings. Yates has also struck out 18 over the stretch and is looking like a dominant relief pitcher again. It’s a small sample size, but the Braves have to be licking their chops at the idea of Kirby Yates returning to form after a rough few years.

Orlando Arcia

Arcia is experiencing the first real slump of his season right now. He’s 2 for his last 28 at the plate, but that shouldn’t take away from all the good he’s done in the first half. Winning the job alone out of Spring Training was a surprise. But not only has he done that, he’s also performed better than just about any other shortstop in the National League and will likely represent the NL in the All-Star Game. Absolutely nobody predicted that to start the season, and I think he’ll continue to be a valuable piece to the Braves moving forward.

Bryce Elder

If Bryce Elder doesn’t make the All-Star Game, the All-Star Game shouldn’t exist. I know he’s not the sexiest pitcher, and even people in his own fan base expect him to regress. But so far, he’s been absolutely lockdown for the team with the best record in baseball. If the season ended today, he might just win the NL Cy Young.

Elder has been the best pitcher on the Braves and leads the National League in ERA and ERA+, and unlike most people, I don’t see a bunch of regression in his future. The young man just knows how to pitch, especially with runners on base, and induces a ton of ground balls. Combine that with his ability to limit his walks, and it’s a perfect recipe for success. But regardless of what other people believe, there’s no arguing he’s been one of the biggest surprises in all of baseball this season.

Marcell Ozuna since May

I actually predicted a Marcell Ozuna resurgence before the season, but I’ll admit, my feelings were starting to change quickly after he looked like a tomato can in April. Ozuna was undoubtedly the worst player in baseball during that stretch, but since the calendar turned to May, he’s performed like an All-Star, hitting .310 with 14 homers, good for a .976 OPS.

Photo: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

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