Braves: Biggest regression candidates in 2021

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The Braves are just days away from their Spring Training opener against the Rays, set for this Sunday (February 28th). And after a Tuesday waiver claim of outfielder Philip Ervin, the team’s major league 40-man roster is officially full. We here at SportsTalkATL have profiled, previewed, and projected numerous Braves players so far this offseason, including some of the organization’s top prospects, but today we begin another series: the upcoming season’s regression and breakout candidates. 

This two-part series, based on 2020 results, aims to predict which direction several of Atlanta’s hitters and pitchers are headed in 2021. Some played well-above their actual talent level last season, while some just never seemed to get going, whether because of injury or simply a lack of time to turn things around. That can happen when the regular season schedule is slashed by over 60%. 

Our first installment today will look at the Braves regression candidates. Though each player may be listed below for different reasons, I’ve based the list in terms of the difference between each player’s projected 2021 WAR (via FanGraphsZiPS) relative to what they were on pace to actually produce over a full year last season. Because the 2020 campaign was obviously shortened, calculations were required. So for hitters (other than catchers), I used 600 PA, for catchers 400 PA, starting pitchers 200 IP, and relievers 60 IP. It’s not perfect, of course, but it at least provides a rough idea of how much some of these players over or undershot their actual talent level.


Ian Anderson

Anderson’s 1.95 ERA (2.54 FIP) and 11+ strikeouts per nine over 32.1 innings pitched last season takes the cake… by a long shot. The former first-rounder was on pace for a ridiculous 6.8 fWAR in 2020, which two seasons ago would’ve made him the third-most valuable pitcher in all of baseball, just behind Jacob deGrom (7 WAR) and Gerrit Cole (7.3). Yeah, despite his incredible talent, I think it’s safe to say that Anderson should expect to experience some regression this coming season, and according to ZiPS he’ll be lucky to reach the 2-WAR threshold, coming in with a 1.7 WAR projection. That’s a 5.1-WAR difference, by far the most considerable difference of this list, between actual performance last season compared to projections for this season. I don’t necessarily agree with ZiPS here, and I think that’s pretty conservative, but expecting a 6-7 WAR performance by Anderson this year would be insane.


Freddie Freeman

Before you freak out, understand that there are multiple levels of “regression.” And while Freeman ranks high on this list, it’s certainly not because I expect him to have a poor year this season, just not exactly the type of season he had in 2020 over the course of a full season’s worth of PA. The fact is, Freeman’s MVP performance in 2020 wasn’t necessarily an outlier as we’ve watched him come close to winning the award for over a decade now (five top-10s in his career). However, the Braves franchise player was on track to tally 7.5 WAR in 600 PA last season, a mark that’s over 2.5 WAR more than what he averaged from 2016-19 (his last four full seasons) and 1.4 WAR more than his career-high of 6.1 back in 2016. Of course, it wouldn’t be crazy for Freeman to put together a similar performance in 2021, but it’s definitely not a level anyone should expect. Braves Country will be more than happy with the 4-WAR campaign ZiPS expects him to produce: slugging nearly 30 homers, knocking in over 100 runs, and hitting .300 on his way to another MVP run.


Max Fried

Even though we Braves fans have the utmost appreciation for his level of play, Fried has flown under the radar these last couple of seasons. Last year’s NL Cy Young candidate (finished 5th) currently sits just outside the NL’s top 10 (11th) in starting pitcher WAR from 2019-20, less than 0.5 WAR behind the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw during that span. Of the 4.5 fWAR he’s combined for in 2019 and ’20, 1.5 came in his 56-inning sample during the latter season, an incredible 5.3-WAR pace when stretched over a 200-inning season. And other than Freeman, I really didn’t want to include Fried on this list. After seeing just how great Max was at suppressing homers in 2020, to go along with him being perhaps the best strikeout-pitcher in Atlanta’s current rotation, I honestly believe (if healthy) he’s truly capable of such a performance level at some point in his career. But expecting 0.32 home runs per nine allowed and a 2.25 ERA (3.10 FIP) — like he did last year — over a full 2021 season just isn’t realistic… at least not until we see that Fried can consistently remain healthy over multiple full seasons. ZiPS sees him as a 2.5-3 WAR pitcher (2.7 to be exact) in 2021, and I believe that’s a solid projection for a player with barely over a full season’s worth of major league innings under his belt (281.1 MLB innings). 


Dansby Swanson 

Swanson was one of the five-best shortstops in baseball last season, hitting .274 with 10 home runs and a 116 wRC+, good for 1.9 fWAR (fourth-most by a SS and 11th-most by any hitter overall). The former first-overall pick, after parts of five seasons featuring his share of ups and downs, had finally arrived. However, such an immediate surge in performance means there’s bound to be at least some regression in his future. Dansby was on pace for 4.3 WAR in 2020, which doesn’t seem too outlandish until you consider the fact that he’s never even reached the 2-WAR threshold during his career. I’m not saying he isn’t capable of such a season, but in his three full seasons as Atlanta’s shortstop (2017, ’18, ’19), Swanson combined to accumulate just over 3 WAR (3.3). We know he isn’t the same hitter that he was several seasons ago, but that’s still a helluva jump. Projected by ZiPS to hit .251 with 19 homers and 81 RBI (90 wRC+) in 2021, equaling 2.1 WAR, even “regressing” relative to last season’s pace is still an excellent year for Swanson. 


Travis d’Arnaud 

In just 44 games last season, d’Arnaud matched his 2019 WAR total (1.6), on his way to a .321 AVG and 9 home runs, all while playing strong defense behind the plate for the Braves. His 144 wRC+ in 2020 was 14 points higher than his single-season career-high and 43 points above his current career-average. From a WAR standpoint, stretched over a sample of 400 PA, d’Arnaud was on pace for 3.4 fWAR last season, a mark he’s hit just once before, back in 2015. However, leading up to 2020, injuries and ineffectiveness allowed him to average just 1 WAR per season from 2017-19. No matter how you slice it, d’Arnaud’s coming off a breakout performance, which already makes his 2-year, $16 million contract well worth the investment. But like the players above him, his play in 2020 just doesn’t seem sustainable over a full 162. With a 1.6-WAR projection by ZiPS, d’Arnaud’s offense is obviously expected to decline somewhat, falling to a below-average 96 wRC+ this season to go along with 16 homers and a .264 AVG. Those numbers may seem cruel, but that’s what happens when a breakout-player is coming off a season in which he ran a .411 BABIP (2nd-highest rate in the majors in 2020, among players with at least 180 PA). 

Next, we’ll take a look at the Braves most likely to break out this season.



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