I can no longer blame those that have become worried, for this is no longer just a rough patch for the Braves, who on Sunday dropped their fourth-straight game. The weekend sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays really hurt, and as of Monday night, Atlanta’s postseason odds looked much different than they did mid-week last week. This past Wednesday, per FanGraphs, the Braves had a 55% shot at reaching the postseason, to go with a 24.2% chance of winning the National League East. Now — as of Monday — those above odds have fallen to 30% and 11.3%, respectively. It’s essentially the Mets, riding way up at the top… and then the rest of division…
The Braves haven’t started like this in a while. In fact, you have to go back to the 2017 season to find a first-28-game stretch worse than this year’s, when Atlanta started off the campaign 11-17 and a whopping nine games back in the division. Thankfully, in 2021, the entire NL East has struggled, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Braves are currently playing to the level of its rebuild days.
Obviously, the manager of the team is supposed to stay positive, and Brian Snitker was following Sunday’s loss, saying “we’ve just got to keep fighting through this thing and hopefully get hitting on all cylinders”, but it feels like we’ve been using the word hopefully for far too long this season. When are the Braves just going to go ahead and do it?
Well, hopefully Atlanta can starting on Tuesday as the team will begin its second series of the 2021 campaign against Washington (this time in DC) — the division leader entering Tuesday, and a team the Braves swept in a doubleheader back on April 7th.
Here’s a look at the pitching matchups for the upcoming series between the Braves and Nationals…
Game 1: Tuesday @ 7:05 PM / Bally Sports Southeast
(2.96 ERA) Huascar Ynoa, RHP vs. (4.64 ERA) Joe Ross, RHP
Huascar Ynoa is still skating by with some pretty scary batted-ball rates, although he’s now got back-to-back strong outings, pitching to a 1.59 ERA with 14 strikeouts and three walks in 11 ⅓ innings over his last pair of starts versus the Diamondbacks and Cubs. Ynoa is doing all of this while sporting — if he qualified — by far the highest Barrel% (15.2%) and HardHit% (51.5%) in the majors, giving him an expected-ERA nearly two runs higher than his actual one (4.66 / 2.96). Luckily for the Braves young starter, the Nationals have been horrible against the slider this season, and Ynoa’s slide piece has generated whiffs at 40%+ clip, so hopefully those hard hits keep going to defenders and not over the wall on Tuesday.
Two weeks ago, Joe Ross put together perhaps one of the worst outings of the young season when he allowed four home runs against the Cardinals, including ten runs from eight hits and three walks. St. Louis’s lineup primarily did its damage against Ross’s fastball, considering of the eight batted-balls the Cards hit at 100 MPH+, five were off the heater. The Braves aren’t as good of a fastball-hitting team as they’ve been the last few seasons (roughly average right now), but maybe this is a game that could change that. And it’s not just the heater that’s hurting Ross in 2021. Three out of four of the 27-year-old’s offerings so far have allowed a .400+ wOBA, including a .592 wOBA allowed with his changeup. Game 1 on Tuesday should be a big day for Atlanta’s offense.
Game 2: Wednesday @ 7:05 PM / Bally Sports South
(11.45 ERA) Max Fried, LHP vs. (4.43 ERA) Erick Fedde, RHP
It appears we’re finally getting Max Fried back, which should hopefully serve as a massive boost for the Braves starting rotation during an important series versus a division rival. It’s no secret that, in the short time he’s been healthy, Fried has suffered from some drastic regression in 2021 (albeit a good portion has stemmed from lousy luck). Opposing batters are hitting him at a career-worst level, and his dominant curveball just hasn’t been effective, allowing a .444 AVG thus far (though a much more palatable .259 expected-AVG). Game 2 on Wednesday will be a huge one simply because we’re all wondering (and hoping) that the old Max Fried will be back. Because if he’s not… this frustrating start to the season will get a helluva lot worse.
Eric Fedde is coming off his best start of the season, an outing versus the Blue Jays last week in which he allowed just two hits, one run, and struck out seven in six innings. However, in his four starts leading up to that one, Fedde’s ERA sat at 5.51 as each time he failed to surpass the 5th inning. The 28-year-old righty is a sinker/cutter guy, and so far this season, his cutter has been lights out, allowing just a .125 AVG. The Braves haven’t been very good versus the cutter either, ranking 19th in MLB against the offering per FanGraphs Pitch Value. However, several key contributors in Atlanta’s lineup are plenty familiar with Fedde. In fact, the quartet of Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and Austin Riley have combined to hit .387 with five XBH in 39 PA in their respective careers against Fredde. This is a solid matchup for the Braves offense, and hopefully, the bats will provide Fried with some support in his first start back.
Game 3: Thursday @ 4:05 PM / YouTube
(8.05 ERA) Drew Smyly, LHP vs. (1.40 ERA) Jon Lester, LHP
No offense to Drew Smyly, for I don’t believe he’s truly as bad as he’s been in his last three outings. Hell, no big-league pitcher is. But that doesn’t change the fact that the 31-year-old lefty has managed to post a 10.38 ERA and allow eight home runs in his last 13 innings, or the fact that his nine homers allowed in his first 19 frames of the 2021 season is the most homers allowed by a Braves pitcher in that span of innings since at least 1920. At the time of this writing (late Monday night), MLB.com didn’t have any probables listed for Atlanta, but ESPN had Smyly pegged for Game 3 on Thursday. Part of me hopes this is wrong and that by the time we get to Thursday, the Braves will have announced that they’re going in a different direction. I mean, the Nats aren’t exactly world-beaters on offense this season, but Smyly just doesn’t have it right now. If he does start this game, manager Brian Snitker needs to have Smyly on an incredibly short leash, especially if the Braves are on the cusp of a sweep by Thursday.
Jon Lester just made his first start of 2021 on April 30th, and he pitched well, tossing five scoreless innings versus the Marlins. The 37-year-old veteran southpaw missed nearly the first month of the year due to a parathyroidectomy, which until today, I had never heard of (apparently it’s the removal of one or more glands or tumors from one’s neck, though per Google it’s not too invasive of an operation). Obviously, one five-inning start isn’t a lot to go by in terms of notes, however, in last week’s outing, Lester leaned on his changeup a bit more than usual, and that could be a good thing for the Braves, who’re currently leading the majors in offense against the offspeed offering. Also, outfielder Marcell Ozuna and second baseman Ozzie Albies evidently see the ball well versus Lester. The former has a career .286 AVG with three homers in 23 PA against Washington’s lefty, and the latter is 6 for 8 (.857 AVG) with a homer so far. Thursday could be a good day for both Marcell and Ozzie.
The Nationals enter this series with the Braves winners of their last four, while Atlanta has lost their previous four. But Washington’s offense hasn’t been anything special so far this season, putting together a collective 92 wRC+ and just 3.5 runs per game. In comparison, Atlanta’s offense is at a 106 wRC+ and is currently scoring 4.5 runs per game.
And the Braves’ more prolific lineup wouldn’t be that big of a deal if the Nats had its usual dominant starting rotation, but in 2021, that hasn’t been the case. Washington’s starting staff, like Atlanta’s, has struggled to the tune of a 4.80 ERA to go along with 1.93 HR/9, joining the Braves as the highest homer-rate in baseball.
There are actually a lot of similarities between the Nationals and Braves. These were two teams expected to perform well… and so far, neither have, save for Washington’s recent surge that has them atop what’s been a pretty mediocre NL East division. Regardless, though, Atlanta’s offense really needs to take advantage of the fact that it’s missing the top arms in Washington’s starting rotation. Stephen Strasburg has been banged up, and Max Scherzer isn’t really the Scherzer of a few seasons ago, but anytime you’re able to avoid those two in a three-game series against the Nats… you better take care of business. So far this season, the Braves haven’t been able to do that, but hopefully, that begins to change on Tuesday.