Let me get something straight right off the bat: I have NOT lost faith in the Braves starting rotation. I am completely aware that two of the staff’s most talented arms are currently on the injured list and that one has just returned to the active roster as of Thursday. I am also mindful of some of the horrible luck this team has encountered, both in pitching and hitting. This is not me panicking, nor is it me paying too much attention to small sample sizes. This is simply a possible solution to an issue that, if left unsolved, could potentially spoil the Braves 2021 season.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at five very unfortunate facts…
*stats are through Wednesday
Fact #1 — The Braves starting rotation currently ranks within the bottom-four in collective starting pitcher fWAR (0.5), pacing only the Nationals, Cubs and Pirates.
Fact #2 — Atlanta’s starting staff has so far allowed the second-highest home run rate (1.77 HR/9), lower than only the Nationals, whose starters have pitched 12 fewer innings than the Braves.
Fact #3 — The Braves rotation ERA of 4.93 is the seventh-highest ERA in MLB, despite the fact that of the six teams with higher ERAs, Atlanta has managed to strand the most runners, posting a 73 LOB%.
Fact #4 — While not entirely the pitcher’s fault, 23.4% of fly balls generated by Braves starters have resulted in a home run, which is by far the highest HR/FB ratio in baseball. The Nationals are second, but with a rate 5% lower.
Fact #5 — Atlanta’s starting staff has allowed the highest HardHit% (45.5%) in MLB this season, thanks to the fact that, thus far, it also happens to allow the second-highest Barrel% (11.3%).
There have been other contributing factors, of course, but I believe the primary reason the Braves lack the necessary rhythm to get things going this season is because of its underwhelming starting rotation. Sure, the offense has been a mess at times, and the bullpen has spoiled some should-be wins, but it’s the starting staff that seems like it oftentimes puts the team in a losing position. It’s only sometimes that the lineup is good enough on any given day to overcome that position and muster a win.
It’s still early, though. Obviously, 19 games certainly isn’t enough to go ahead and write off Atlanta’s starting pitching. And for goodness sake, up until Thursday, three of the five regulars from the staff were injured! Hell, two essential arms still are in Soroka and Fried.
This isn’t GM Alex Anthopoulos’ fault, and neither is it manager Brian Snitker’s. No one’s to blame… this is just how random variation has played out for the Braves starters so far in 2021. However, things can only really go one of two ways from here on out, right? Atlanta’s staff can start experiencing some much-needed positive regression… and the pitching gets better, or of course, this could be the beginning of one of the worst starting pitching performances in franchise history. And if it just so happens that, over the next month or two, things start trending towards the latter outcome… what in the world should the Braves do?
Well… as of today, at least, I believe Anthopoulos should aim his sites out West and give GM Scott Harris a call… because the San Francisco Giants have just what the Braves need.
You see, the Giants starting staff is doing just fine. In fact, San Fran currently wields one of the four-best rotations in baseball, per FanGraphs WAR, that so far has posted the fifth-best ERA (2.68). Giants starting pitchers are pitching so well right now that the team — thanks to a 12-7 record — is only two games behind the almighty LA Dodgers for first place in the National League West.
Johnny Cueto (currently on the 10-day IL with a lat strain), Kevin Gausman (remember him?), Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Sanchez, Alex Wood, and Logan Webb have all made a start for San Francisco this season, and all but one of those six pitchers currently sports a sub-2.50 ERA; Webb, in three starts in 2021, has a 6.28 ERA, though his xFIP is a much more palatable 3.67.
If you don’t love watching Johnny Cueto pitch, you are a pud. pic.twitter.com/95899g3N86
— Jared Carrabis (@Jared_Carrabis) April 9, 2021
Interestingly, most of these guys are veterans, as Sanchez (28) and Webb (24) are the only ones in their 20s. But age doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Giants rotation. These guys are dealing right now…
2021 Giants rotation
Cueto — 20 IP, 1.80 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 0.8 WAR
Gausman — 25 ⅔ IP, 2.45 ERA, 8 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.5 WAR
DeSclafani — 21 IP, 2.14 ERA, 9 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 0.4 WAR
Sanchez — 19 ⅔ IP, 1.83 ERA, 6.4 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 0.4 WAR
Wood — 5 IP, 0 ER, 7.2 K/9, 0 BB, 0.2 WAR
Webb — 14 ⅓ IP, 6.28 ERA, 9.4 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 0 WAR
You could make the case that an entire rotation lacking strikeouts like this probably won’t be able to sustain such strong run-prevention throughout an entire season; the Giants rank near the bottom-ten in MLB in strikeout rate. But if you can look past the middling K rates, you’ll notice that these are some great stats and very consistent staff.
Another takeaway from San Francisco’s rotation is that literally all of these guys could be free agents next offseason; Cueto has a $22-million club option with a $5-million buy-out for 2022, though the Giants are most likely to let him walk — he also has a trade-assignment bonus, totaling $500K the first time he’s moved; then after that, it’s $1 million per trade. Gausman, who accepted an $18.9 million qualifying offer this past winter, will hit the market. The trio of Sanchez, DeSclafani, and Wood are all pitching on one-year deals in 2021. For a contending team looking to rent a veteran arm to reinforce a struggling rotation, this is like Blockbuster; there are options for rent everywhere.
This Aaron Sanchez CB just falls off pic.twitter.com/nB3ENIlxrU
— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) April 7, 2021
And with the Giants, the situation is almost perfect if at least one of these players listed above can continue to pitch well. San Francisco never had intentions of competing in 2021; even now, having won 12 of their first 19 games this season, the team’s playoff odds sit below 15%, per FanGraphs. Team-wide regression is bound to sneak in at any point now for the Giants, just like the opposite should occur for the inconsistent Braves. Eventually, the Padres will get on a roll. The division will evolve into an expected clash between them and the Dodgers, leaving San Francisco to begin selling off its parts to continue the investment for the future.
It’s still too early to start discussing trades, especially with any one team. Remember, just 19 games! But if by Memorial Day the Braves are still unable to put together 2-3 consecutive quality outings from its rotation, then you should start seeing some trade analysis here at SportsTalkATL … and that analysis will start by looking at this group of Giants starters.
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