If you watched the entire series between the Braves and the Blue Jays over the weekend, the ending on Sunday felt justified. It was bad baseball for Atlanta, resulting in a sweep that culminated courtesy of a two-run walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth yesterday afternoon. The Braves faltered in all facets of the game, showing they are far from a flawless team, and they’ve now lost four games in a row for the first time in forever.
The good news is they still boast a 25-15 record and own the largest division lead of anybody in baseball at 5.5 games, but things no longer seem as perfect as they did earlier last week. There is some cause for concern, but which issues are legitimate and what are overreactions?
Inconsistencies at the top of the lineup
Ronald Acuña Jr. began the season on fire and has not slowed down, but the two sluggers behind him–Matt Olson and Austin Riley— have been hit or miss the entire campaign. Olson does have 11 homers and an .866 OPS, so he’s been far from terrible, but it’s impossible to ignore his unsightly 32.8% strikeout rate and .227 batting average. He’s also been much worse since a scorching start to the season, hitting just .163 with a .717 OPS in his last 24 games.
I wouldn’t say there’s any reason to be concerned with the Braves first baseman, but fans must come around to the understanding that this is who he is as a player. Ever since coming to Atlanta, he’s been an extremely streaky hitter that strikes out a lot, takes his walks, and hits homers. Olson’s never going to bat anywhere close to .300, but as long as he hovers around 40 home runs, he’ll always be a valuable piece at the top of the lineup.
Riley’s issues have been a little more glaring. He only has six homers on the season, and around the same time Olson started to go cold, so did Riley. Over his last 23 games, Riley’s failed to hit over the Mendoza Line, recording a paltry .198 average and .574 OPS, which has caused some fans to fret and beg that he be moved down in the lineup.
I couldn’t disagree more. Perhaps Brian Snitker decides to move him a spot or two. Riley hit cleanup yesterday instead of third, but there’s no reason to panic and move him from the top of the lineup. This has been one of the best offensive players in the majors over the last two seasons, and he just signed a ten-year extension for over $200 million less than a year ago. The struggles are frustrating, but starting out the season slow is nothing new for Riley. He usually gets hot around the summer months, and I expect nothing different from the Braves third baseman this year.
A struggling bullpen
Coming into the season, the Braves had one of the better bullpens on paper, but they haven’t performed like it of late, and it’s primarily because their two best arms are not living up to expectations.
After being arguably the best lefty reliever in baseball last season, A.J. Minter is off to a dreadful start in 2023. He boasts an 8.05 ERA, and it seems like every time Brian Snitker turns to him in a pivotal moment, he cannot come through.
It’s been frustrating, but like Riley, I don’t see much reason to worry about Minter. He’s still striking out 30% of the batters he’s faced. The stuff doesn’t look any different, and his advanced metrics speak to that. Minter owns a 3.05 FIP and 3.55 xFIP. He’s been one of the most unlucky pitchers in baseball, with a .392 BABIP against him. That’s not going to continue. His control has been slightly worse than it was a year ago, but it hasn’t been egregious. Eventually, Minter is going to figure it out, and I expect it to happen sooner rather than later.
Raisel Iglesias has missed basically the entire season, but he returned a little over a week ago, and he’s already given up four times as many runs over 3.1 innings than he did in 26.1 innings for the Braves last season. The slight dip in velocity is a little concerning, but I’m going to chalk that up to him being injured. This has been one of the best closers in baseball for a long time; as long as he’s healthy, the Braves should be in good hands at the end of games.
Outside of those two, the Braves bullpen has actually been rather impressive. Nick Anderson and Michael Tonkin have been fantastic under the radar finds. Dylan Lee and Jesse Chavez continue to shove, and Kirby Yates is beginning to round into form. The three guys that have struggled out of Atlanta’s bullpen–Collin McHugh, A.J. Minter, and Raisel Iglesias–have been three elite relievers for years, and there’s no reason they won’t get back on track with time.
Injured starting rotation
The Braves starters were far from the problem in their series against the Blue Jays. Spencer Strider was dominant, Bryce Elder continues to prove he’s no fluke, and even the relievers performed admirably in the bullpen game on Sunday. However, missing Fried and Wright remains by far the biggest concern surrounding this team moving forward.
The Braves can’t keep doing bullpen games all season, or their relievers will be drained by the All-Star break. They have to find answers fast, and I’m not sure there are any internal ones to turn to. Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd are nowhere close to major-league ready, and Michael Soroka is not either. The Braves internal options are bleak, and it’s almost impossible to acquire anything worthwhile this early in the season. Alex Anthopoulos will need to perform a miracle, and even that might not be enough. Max Fried and Kyle Wright can’t return soon enough.
Photo: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire
You must log in to post a comment.