If you look at the standings right now, the MLB landscape probably looks very different from what you originally imagined. The Mets currently pacing the NL East right now isn’t necessarily outlandish, but the Braves and Nationals bringing up the bottom was unexpected. Meanwhile, heading into Monday’s slate, the Reds lead the NL Central with the Cubs in last, the Royals lead the AL Central with the White Sox and Twins battling for third-place, the Mariners lead the AL West with the Astros three teams behind, and then there’s the AL East — a division currently led by the Red Sox. It’s also a division that features a last-place New York Yankees, who, through 15 games so far in 2021… has only won five times. With the major’s second-largest payroll this season at roughly $202 million, how does this happen?
Well, just as many teams have in 2021, New York is playing well below its potential. The Yankees’ underwhelming play — its worst start to a season in over two decades — has caught the attention of many people, and Jay Jaffe at FanGraphs on Monday detailed the Bombers bombless stretch so far…
So what’s ailing the Yankees, who at the outset of the season were projected for an AL-best 95.4 wins? First and foremost, they’re in the midst of a power outage and are scoring just 3.67 runs per game, second-to-last in the AL. Their .346 slugging percentage is in a virtual tie for the major league’s lowest, and while some of that is a function of their .210 batting average (the AL’s second-lowest, one point ahead of Cleveland), their .136 isolated power is 13th, and their 16 homers are 10th. For a team that ranked second last year in slugging (.447) and homers (94) and first in ISO (.200), that’s a nasty surprise.
If there was ever a time to match up with New York, folks… it is right now. Starting on Tuesday, the Braves and Yankees will hook up for a quick two-game series in New York.
Ozzie Albies: Braves manager Brian Snitker hopes the second baseman will be available for the first game on Tuesday versus the Yankees. Albies was out of the lineup on both Saturday and Sunday, battling a calf ailment.
Ronald Acuna Jr.: RAJ is day-to-day after undergoing an MRI during the team’s off-day on Monday. Acuna came up with a sore abdomen after sliding home to score in Sunday’s win. Hopefully, an extra day off on Tuesday is sufficient, and the Braves can get its star hitter back for the second game against New York on Wednesday.
Max Fried: The Braves starter felt some soreness on Sunday, but the team is hopeful Fried will return for his next scheduled start, which could be as soon as this coming weekend against the D’Backs. However, with another off-day coming on Thursday, Atlanta won’t necessarily need to add another starter until after April 27th. Fried is currently dealing with a sore hamstring.
Here are the pitching matchups for the Braves-Yankees series on Tuesday and Wednesday…
Game 1: Tuesday @ 6:35 PM / Bally Sports South
Charlie Morton vs. James Taillon
Charlie Morton enters his fourth start of the season looking solid thus far, despite a bad-luck-driven 4.76 ERA; his FIP in 17 innings sits at a strong 2.63. The 37-year-old veteran has done exceptionally well limiting hard contact — 34.9 HardHit%. So far, opposing batters have posted just a 7% barrel rate, but like many Braves pitchers, Morton has been BABIP’d to death in 2021, currently running a .381 BABIP — a whopping 73 points higher than his career average.
"I just remember being really, really excited, not just to be drafted but also be drafted by the Braves."
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) April 14, 2021
Morton will start the first game in New York on Tuesday with the unfortunate disadvantage of familiarity going against him. Seven current Yankees hitters have at least 15 PA versus him, including several that have absolutely crushed the righty. Yankees veteran outfielders Jay Bruce and Brett Gardner, in particular, each have hit Morton well. The former has hit .265 with seven XBH (three HR) and nine RBI in 37 PA, while the latter is 8 for 22 (.364 AVG) with five XBH (three HR) and six RBI for his career. The Braves starter has reached six innings in each of his last two outings, though he allowed five runs versus Miami in his most recent start. The Braves need to set the tone in Tuesday’s game, and Morton’s veteran experience against AL clubs should help do just that.
While Morton has done well limiting hard contact, the 29-year-old James Taillon has not, hence his current 7.56 ERA in his first two starts (8.1 IP). The Yankees righty got hit pretty hard his last time out, a start versus the Blue Jays in which Taillon allowed five runs from eight hits, lasting just 3 ⅔ innings.
A fastball/slider pitcher whose heater averages 93-94 MPH this season, Taillon’s slider is the only offering that has given him success in 2021, currently holding opposing batters to a just .077 AVG while serving as his put-away pitch — two-strike pitches that result in a strikeout — 33.3% of the time. His other three pitches? Taillon’s fastball, curveball, and changeup have allowed a combined .666 AVG this season, including four of his five XBH allowed. As far as Atlanta’s looks versus him, only Marcell Ozuna has logged more than three PA against Taillon as the Big Bear is 4 for 10 (.400 AVG) with two RBI.
Game 2: Wednesday @ 6:35 PM / Bally Sports South
Ian Anderson vs. Corey Kluber
Surprisingly, given the Braves’ current starting pitching issues, Ian Anderson has actually benefited from some good luck in 2021. The 22-year-old righty really needs to do a better job of missing barrels as both his 12.2 Barrel% and 46.3 HardHit% are unsustainable, shown by his 4.70 ERA but 5.83 expected-ERA (per Statcast).
Ian Anderson’s a rock and roll star, an ace pitcher and a painter 👨🎨 pic.twitter.com/35FIiyNTKN
— Danny Hacker *is Good Enough* (@theGREATdanny94) April 15, 2021
Through three starts so far this season, Anderson has kept with his fastball/changeup combo, throwing the two offerings over 75% of the time while also mixing in what so far has been a dominant curveball versus primarily right-handed batters — .182 AVG allowed with the breaking ball overall. He has yet to reach six innings in a start in 2021, and Anderson’s most recent outing was a bit wild as he walked four Marlins in five innings back on April 15th. However, the strikeout stuff is very much still there, shown by his 11.15 strikeouts per nine. With him still in the very early portion of his MLB career, the Yankees have only seen Anderson once, and within New York’s current lineup, only Luke Voit (currently on the IL) has managed a hit off the Braves pitcher, going 1 for 3 with a home run.
Corey Kluber gets out of trouble in the first! pic.twitter.com/OyjFqPpLPS
— Talkin' Yanks (@TalkinYanks) April 14, 2021
Fortunately, it appears the Braves will miss Yankees star pitcher Gerrit Cole this series. Instead, concluding the two-game set with a matchup against 35-year-old veteran Corey Kluber. Kluber, whose tallied just 36 ⅔ innings combined in the last two seasons due to injuries, is definitely not his 2014-18 self from back in his Cleveland days — a five-year stretch in which the righty averaged just over six fWAR per season and posted a 2.94 ERA as a bonafide ace starter.
For 2021’s sake, Kluber’s biggest problem is walks as he’s serving up free passes at a 13.2% clip (or 6.1 walks per nine). And to add insult to injury, when he does find the strike zone, opposing batters are teeing off, averaging a 46.9 HardHit% and a 15.6 Barrel%, hence the 6.10 ERA entering this series.
Once armed with a consistent mid-90s MPH fastball, these days Kluber mixes three pitches almost equally with his 87 MPH cutter, 81 MPH curveball, and 90 MPH sinker, though the first offering of those three has been his only decent pitch thus far; opposing batters are hitting just .222 versus Kluber’s cutter.
Since he spent so many years in the AL Central, most of the Braves lineup has only faced the Yankees starter a few times. Freddie Freeman is 0 for 6 with three strikeouts versus Kluber, and Ozzie Albies is 1 for 4 with a double. However, wouldn’t you know… it’s Ender Inciarte that’s enjoyed success, going 3 for 8 (.375 AVG) with a double and two RBI lifetime against Kluber. Too bad Ender is hurt right now.
With the Yankees’ offensive struggles so far in 2021, coupled with the fact that the Braves are facing the back-end of New York’s starting staff, Atlanta could very easily sweep this two-gamer. Although, there’s also the chance that the Yankees bats finally decide to wake up. I know this season hasn’t been the best for the Braves so far, but I’m definitely going to hope for the former. It’s time to get rolling with a nice long winning streak!