Braves: Full-season or not, this team has the pieces to get over the hump in 2020

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2020 has caught hell from the beginning, leaving many of us wishing it would just hurry up and end already. In a time when only cardboard cutouts are allowed to visit the park, and games are being postponed/canceled daily, the 2020 campaign just hasn’t felt too enjoyable. Although for the Braves, so far, 2020 has been quite fun.

Through their first 14 games, the Braves are 9-5 and coming off a walk-off win Thursday night against the Blue Jays, when none other than 36-year-old Nick Markakis went deep in the first game of his season (welcome back!), sending all of those paper fans in a frenzy as the Braves squeaked by 4-3. 

 

Those moments have already become a staple in the Braves’ season thus far, but with nearly 25% of the schedule in the books — after just 2 weeks of play — it may be difficult to fully appreciate just how impressive the Braves have really been. However, for a bit of perspective — using a multiplier of 2.7 to account for such a shortened schedule — the team’s 9-5 start this season would be in line with a 24-14 (.631%) record under normal circumstances.

Just how great of a start is that for the Braves? Well, when comparing the Braves’ performance through their first 23.3% of games over the last few seasons, the team’s start in 2020 is the best yet:

  • 2019:18-20 (.473%)
  • 2018:23-15 (.605%)

And that’s pretty crazy, considering the terrible hand the starting rotation has been dealt. Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez haven’t even contributed (and both perhaps never will), and Mike Soroka was lost for the season earlier this week. 

Sure, the number of starting arms available is still impressive. However, right now, the Braves have more quantity than quality, given Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, and Touki Toussaint have combined to start 8 of the team’s 14 games so far and sport a bloated 9.08 ERA. However, Newcomb and Touki did look better in their most recent outings, as the former allowed just two runs and struck out four in a 3-2 loss on Wednesday, while the latter mixed in his breaking ball seamlessly on his way to a 9-strikeout gem last night. Hopefully, those are signs of things to come.

In case you missed Touki’s breakout start…

 

But there’s no doubt the absence of Mike Soroka will cost the Braves a few wins in 2020. The 23-year-old was walking a few more than usual during his first three starts of the season. However, his poise and consistency were still there, suggesting that he was once again on track to be one of the better starters in the National League this season. 

Granted, his buddy Max Fried seems more than capable of holding down the fort while Soroka recovers from his torn Achilles — an injury that will cost last year’s NL Rookie of the Year runner-up all of 2020 and maybe even the first few months of 2021. Through Fried’s first three outings, he’s surrendered just four runs and five walks, giving him a sparkling 2.04 ERA / 2.35 FIP — the former rate ranking 8th-best in the NL.

 

So far, it appears Fried has continued upon his improvements from his 17-win 2019 season, now throwing his offspeed almost twice as much and seeing positive results. Adding a changeup to an already dominant repertoire that features a mid-90s mph fastball and deadly curve should only allow Fried to flourish even more this year. 

However, as long as the bullpen is there to keep things in line, the Braves will always have a chance to win. 

 

As the tweet above shows, the Braves’ relief core leads the NL in several significant categories and trails only the Dodgers in FanGraphs WAR. Through their first 58 innings, the Braves’ bullpen struck out 10.24 batters per nine to go with just 2.48 walks, all while maintaining a 2.69 ERA/2.78 FIP.

It’s still early, and we’re looking at an incredibly small sample of numbers, but there’s no telling what the Braves’ win-loss record would be right now if it weren’t for guys like Josh Tomlin, Luke Jackson, A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek — all pitchers (save for Jackson) that were only expected to contribute in lower-leverage situations entering the season. Despite a blown save during Thursday’s matchup against Toronto, Matzek hasn’t allowed a single run yet through his first four appearances, and neither has Tomlin or Shane Greene. 

It has been refreshing to see some of the “other” relievers step up this season, affording the Braves’ go-to guys more rest. In fact, Mark Melancon — the team’s primary closer — just picked up his first win on Thursday and has tallied only four innings so far. There’s also Chris Martin and his 2.25 ERA (though 5.48 FIP), who has only logged four frames.

This newfound depth up and down the Braves ‘pen has been crucial during a time when one of the team’s most prolific pitchers was sidelined, as lefty Will Smith was just activated from COVID-19 list on Thursday. As our own Jake Gordon relayed yesterday, Smith is ready to go now, and manager Brian Snitker should start working him into games ASAP. If Smith can come in on a roll, that’ll make this group that much more dominant, which would be perfect timing as the rotation continues to find its groove. 

And speaking of finding its groove, the Braves’ lineup has begun to morph into quite the offense over the last several games.

Thanks to some early-season slumps by several key players, the Braves entered yesterday’s game hitting just .232/104 wRC+, but improvements from Freddie Freeman (who homered Thursday) and hot starts by Dansby Swanson (.296 AVG) and Marcell Ozuna (.277 AVG) have kept the team going strong. For the first two weeks, entering yesterday’s matchup, the Braves have followed closely to that of an all-or-nothing type offense, slugging 19 home runs (tied for 2nd in the NL) while striking out 29.2% of the time (2nd-highest K rate in MLB). 

And though Swanson started out as hot as any in baseball, at one point leading the league in hits and RBI, his approach at the plate has fallen right in line with the rest of the team. After peaking as high as a .417 AVG, Swanson has gone 3 for his last 16 in the last four games, pushing his K-rate up to 36.8%. 

 

Swanson’s start to 2020 is reminiscent of Austin Riley’s breakout from last year when the prospect third baseman seemingly carried the Braves on his back… all while maintaining an unsustainable all-or-nothing strategy at the plate. Hopefully Swanson’s fall to more “everyday-type” play won’t be as drastic as Riley’s. 

 

Must keep it going

Even though the Braves’ starting rotation needs help after suffering an unfortunate injury to their ace, and the lineup has yet to fully “click,” the team has the pieces to win a third-straight NL East title and potentially push far into the postseason. However, more than any other year, it’s going to take luck and some of the best work thus far by Brian Snitker and GM Alex Anthopoulos. 

By this time next week, the season will be a third of the way completed… and the week after that it’ll be halfway over. There’s no time for any rough patch this year. 

We touched on the topic here last week, but at this season’s Aug. 31 trade deadline, Anthopoulos will need to make some additions, and those additions — as in previous seasons — will be crucial to how the Braves perform during the campaign’s second half. Bringing in just the right player at the right time could instantly propel the Braves into a championship team down the stretch… which isn’t that far away on the calendar. Also, how Snitker handles this team — especially the bullpen — will play a big part in how long the Braves can continue the kind of season they are having. 

So put aside the slow starts, pitcher injuries, and all the baked-in craziness of a 60-game regular season, because this could be the year the Braves finally put it all together from start to finish and win a World Series. Players have come and gone over these last couple of seasons, and there were times it felt like the team had what it took to go all the way. But leave it to the Braves to decide to be a top-tier contender this season, when even the potential for an actual postseason is in serious jeopardy. Regardless, if they can clean things up in a few areas between now and the end of September, 2020 could somehow get a whole lot better in Braves Country.

 

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