Braves: Biggest surprises of the 2020 season 

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We’ve come a long way since that Wednesday morning on June 24th — the day MLB announced that the 2020 regular season would take place, proposing a shortened 60-game schedule largely featuring intra-division play as well as an interleague slate mixing AL and NL teams by their geographical divisions. After what seemed like an eternity of fighting between the league and the player’s union, there finally appeared to be a compromise.

However, the 2020 season hasn’t exactly gone unscathed. Across MLB, there have been COVID outbreaks, even poor air quality, chronic injuries, and surprising performances by numerous players (both good and bad). When a sport decides to slash its regular season schedule by over 60%, it’s only natural that some craziness will ensue. 

So the following list features the Braves’ biggest surprises in 2020, ordered from most to least surprising. With no way of quantifying how unexpected any one event is (at least not yet), the storylines below are purely anecdotal. You may have other surprises from 2020 not listed here that you believe should be included, so be sure to let us know what you think on Twitter…

 

Ian Anderson’s Composure as a Big Leaguer

It was really difficult to decide which Braves’ storyline was most-surprising, as there have been at least two or three that I never would’ve expected… and the absolute calmness and dominance of Anderson, in my opinion, takes the cake. 

We knew Anderson was talented, given he was the team’s third-overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft and currently the Braves’ top pitching prospect, not to mention the fact he’s posted elite numbers down on the farm for the last four seasons, including a Double-A best (while he was there) 11.92 strikeouts per nine in 2019, which earned him Minor League Pitcher of Year for the Braves

The list goes on and on, in terms of compliments that give Anderson a reputation as one of baseball’s up and coming big-league starters. However, I don’t think anyone expected him to pitch as he did in his MLB debut against the Yankees on August 26th, or during the following three outings afterward. And as we sit here today, the 23-year-old native of New York has a 3-0 record to go with a sparkling 1.64 ERA across his first 22 major league innings. Anderson doesn’t just look like a top-prospect having some success in the majors. He has pitched for the Braves like a two or three-year ace, punching out six or more batters in each of his starts but one.

Some of you may claim that you expected all along to see Anderson start a playoff game in 2020 (which is definitely what he has earned and is on track to do), but I’m not ashamed to admit that I never saw this coming. We’ll see if he keeps it up, but to me, Anderson’s performance so far has been the biggest surprise of 2020 for the Braves. 

 

Austin Riley’s Improved Approach at the Plate

I don’t know about you, but after Riley fell off a cliff (performance-wise) last season I really believed that perhaps we were simply expecting too much from him at the plate, which could have easily been the case following his initial 20-game stint with the Braves in 2019, in which he slashed .329/.369/.696 with nine home runs and 26 RBI from the mid-May to early June. Although, given Riley was striking out at a 34.1% clip during that extraordinary stretch of play, we should’ve known his hot-hitting was bound to subside. From June 7th through the end of the 2019 season (60 games), Riley hit just .185, and that already-bloated K rate listed above grew to 41.5%. With an end-of-season walk-rate of just 5.4%, it was clearly evident that the Braves’ prospect third baseman still had a lot of work to do in terms of his approach at the plate.

Fast-forward to 2020, and Riley now has a much more balanced approach, currently donning a K rate (22.5% as of Friday morning) that’s around the MLB average while losing only a minimal amount of power (though there’s no way to truly know without a full-season) — he homered in Friday’s game versus the Mets, giving him eight for the season. And per his Statcast profile, Riley’s plate discipline improvements show up even more. His overall chase-rate is down a little over 6% right now, and even better, he’s currently whiffing at pitches at a rate almost 10% less than in 2019. 

So maybe you saw Riley’s bounce-back coming this season (though he was still at just a .238 AVG / 85 wRC+ before Friday’s game), and perhaps I gave up on him too quick. But I don’t think any of us could’ve predicted the strides he’s made with strikeouts. Hopefully, the trend will continue. 

 

Everything About Adam Duvall

Until I dove a little deeper, I was prepared to list Duvall as the Braves’ biggest 2020 surprise, but all of this actually started at the tail end of the 2019 season, when he slashed .320/.320/.640 with two home runs during the last week of the regular season (7 games / 5 starts). I know those aren’t exactly jump-off-the-page type numbers, but he then followed those up with an .879 OPS in the team’s NLDS series versus the Cardinals, as one of only a few Braves that actually hit during the playoffs. 

Through Thursday, thanks to two different three-homer games, Duvall is up to 15 home runs for the 2020 season, which is tops on the team and tied for fourth-most in the majors; and as I wrote here earlier this month, he has finally returned to the player the Braves traded for back at the 2018 deadline — a guy, who while with the Reds, posted back-to-back 30-homer seasons in 2016 and 2017. 

And even though we saw signs late last season, Duvall’s 2020 should still be labeled as a surprise, as he’s already surpassed his ZiPS projection for the year, which had him pegged for ten homers, 34 RBI, and a .235 AVG in 52 games — good for 0.5 fWAR. Yah, compare that to his current numbers: 15 homers, 32 RBI, .255 AVG through 48 games, equaling 0.7 WAR. Duvall was on track to have a solid year, but I don’t think many folks expected anything quite like this.

 

The Rise of the Offense 

I’ve already covered some of the Braves’ offensive storylines with Riley and Duvall’s excerpts above. Still, the team’s lineup really deserves a player-by-player breakdown because essentially everyone has hit in 2020. However, I’ll break this down into different parts…

 

Dansby Swanson’s emergence 

Admittedly, there actually were numerous fans on Twitter calling for a Swanson breakout in 2020, so I won’t pretend that no one predicted a big year.

But let’s not pretend it isn’t a surprise that the Braves’ shortstop is currently hitting .278 with just as much WAR through 50 games this season than he had in all of 2019 (and that’s even taking into account that, entering Friday’s game, he was just 1 for his last 24 since September 11th). 

 

Marcell Ozuna’s Return to Youth

We knew Ozuna had the power stroke, for that’s why the Braves signed him this offseason for $18 million. However, the 29-year-old outfielder hasn’t hit .300 since his All-Star days with the Marlins, when he was… let’s just say… a bit more toolsy. He was at a .314 AVG entering Friday, and all that contact hasn’t impacted his power one bit, as he’s also now up to 15 home runs (tied with Duvall for most on team and the National League).

Even though he hit just .241 in 2019 with the Cardinals, ZiPS projected a .281 mark in 2020. Well, Ozuna’s easily surpassing that prediction, as well as his season total for WAR.

 

The Bullpen’s Consistency 

As of right now, the Braves wield MLB’s third-best bullpen (via FanGraphs WAR), and it’s been right up there among the best in the majors all season

Braves ’20 Bullpen Ranks (by month)

July — t-3rd-best (0.5 WAR)

August — 7th-best (1.2 WAR)

September — t-1st (1.2 WAR)

 

Thanks to Chris Martin, Shane Greene, and Mark Melancon (all acquired at last season’s trade deadline, by the way), the Braves have been lights out when it comes to bullpen play; and for once in what has seemed like years, the relief core is pitching well each and every night. 

Of course, the sample-sizes are incredibly small, but of the 17 relievers to log innings from the Braves’ bullpen in 2020, only five are currently maintaining an ERA above 4.15, and two of those are Chad Sobotka (67.50 ERA) and Patrick Weigel (27.00 ERA), who’ve tallied a combined 1.1 innings. And of that same group of 17, eight currently are striking out 10+ batters per nine, while ten relievers are averaging less than 3.5 walks per nine. 

This is easily the best bullpen the Braves have had in a while, and given the money invested this past winter, perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a surprise. However, I’m not so sure any of us expected this sort of consistency. 

 

Freddie Freeman Moving Around in the Lineup 

Sure, this one isn’t all that significant, but it did surprise me when manager Brian Snitker penciled in Freeman at the no. 2 hole on August 16th against the Marlins — the first time Freddie played in a game and batted anywhere but third since the 2016 season (he hit cleanup against the Red Sox on April 26th that year). 

And the fun didn’t stop there. Freeman has hit second in the Braves’ lineup 16 more times since that game against Miami, as Snitker has occasionally went with Ozuna in the three-hole this season. I love it. Move Freeman around a bit, for it could allow other guys in the lineup to get going. Although it has been quite comical over the years because it’s almost as if the Braves’ first baseman just will not hit anywhere else. I’m sure Freeman doesn’t mind, but it’s quite obvious that he enjoys being the third hitter in the lineup. Regardless, it’s pretty surprising when he doesn’t, especially after three-straight seasons there.

 

Honorable Mentions

Here are a couple that perhaps could’ve also been included to the list above…

 

The Bat Returns for Tyler Flowers

Despite an ungodly 41% strikeout rate, Flowers is somehow still slashing decent for a catcher (and great for him) .245/.344/.396 with a two-year high 101 wRC+ in 17 games. Just about anything is better than what he provided on offense in 2019, and Flowers has played well when needed. 

 

Redemption for A.J. Minter 

One run allowed in 18.2 innings (19 appearances) so far for Minter — good for a tiny 0.48 ERA and perhaps the unofficial title for Most Improved Brave of 2020. He has walked a few more than preferred, and he no longer punches out opposing batters like he once did, but Minter has turned around what looked to be a career-ending decline in 2019. 

We’ll cover the Braves’ biggest disappointments of 2020 next. 

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