Braves: How high is the panic meter?

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In what now feels like a depressing, nightly journal entry, I must sit here and describe how, once again, the Braves found a way to lose on another game. Atlanta fell 6-5 to the Marlins in extras on Wednesday, despite mounting an impressive five-run deficit through the first seven innings. 

Starter Charlie Morton bent but didn’t completely break, allowing five runs from seven hits through six frames in an outing that probably went an inning too long. However, Morton still managed a season-high nine strikeouts, and compared to Max Fried‘s performance from Tuesday, it was a rather decent start. The Braves bullpen was mostly positive as Sean Newcomb, Luke Jackson, and Will Smith came together with three scoreless frames. However, something was bound to break and did eventually when Tyler Matzek served up the go-ahead RBI double off the bat of Jesus Aguilar.

Sure, the bullpen has to get better, but it’s even more frustrating that — with the top of the Braves order due up and Ender Inciarte already on second base — the Braves couldn’t muster anything in the bottom of the tenth. I’m frustrated. You’re frustrated. This is NOT how any of us expected the season to go. 

And what makes this poor stretch of play especially difficult to accept is that, meanwhile, Ronald Acuna Jr. is currently playing better than anyone in the game — a hot streak the Braves should absolutely be taking advantage of by racking up wins. 

https://twitter.com/Braves/status/1382489449016221701?s=19

 

Acuna may have the best season of his life in 2021 and win the MVP, but he’s not going to keep this up for 162 games. Following Wednesday’s loss, he is up to six home runs already, all while hitting .447 with a 1.500 OPS. Again, he did his best to lead the Braves to victory, finishing Wednesday with a 3 for 5 performance, including two homers, a double, and four RBIs.

Atlanta should be winning these games! But they aren’t. And now, 12 games into the season, the Braves find themselves three games back from first place in the division. To make matters worse, the Braves are in the midst of an ugly four-game losing streak, with three of those losses coming against one of the worst teams in baseball entering the year.

Should Braves Country be in a panic? Or is this simply a funk the team will eventually work itself out of?

You may not want to hear it right now, but no… you shouldn’t panic… and yes… this does look like a temporary issue.

 

Solid input but poor outputs

At the time of this writing, stats from Wednesday night’s game haven’t been included on sites like FanGraphs and Baseball Savant, so the data I’m going to use going forward is all through Tuesday’s game. But the numbers illustrate a classic case of some poor luck for the Braves this season, on both sides of the ball. 

Offensively, it’s absurd, really. The Braves rank in the bottom-five in both AVG (.215) and BABIP (.253), but at the same time, the lineup is first in the majors in HardHit% (46.5%) and average exit-velocity (91.5 MPH), as well as fourth-best in Barrel% (10.2%). Some of those impressive hard-contact stats are somewhat due to Acuna playing like a madman at the moment, but how many times have we seen Ozzie Albies, Marcell Ozuna, or even Austin Riley absolutely smoke a ball… and it ends up an out?

The Braves have had no trouble squaring up pitches. They just are not hitting them where defenders aren’t. And it’s gotten so bad that the Atlanta lineup is literally one of the worst hitting offenses in the majors (AVG wise), even though it’s the sport’s hardest-hitting one. 

And it’s the same dilemma on the pitching front too, where the Braves have really performed quite well as an overall unit, at least in terms of what they can actually control on the mound. Combining the team’s starters and bullpen, Atlanta has pitched to a 3.59 xFIP (ninth-best in MLB) to go along with 10.38 strikeouts per nine (fourth-best) and 3.36 walks per nine (also within the top-ten).

However, that xFIP isn’t what actually shows up on the field, and the Braves ERA as a team has ballooned to 4.52 due to the third-highest BABIP-allowed (.322) in MLB. Admittedly, the bad luck isn’t as dramatic for Atlanta’s pitching as it is for their hitting. Braves pitchers are still simply allowing too much hard contact, surrendering the seventh-highest HardHit% (41.6%) in the majors. But we’ve seen plenty of little flares go for run-scoring hits this season, and unfortunately, the majority of those lucky hits have come against the Braves. 

Defensively it is still way too early to really tell exactly what’s going on. From an eye-test point of view, I haven’t seen any defensive issues really at all, save for maybe a few blunders here and there. According to Statcast‘s OAA (Outs Above Average), the Braves are below-average with -1 OAA, though the 17th ranked team (White Sox) through the 23rd ranked team (Astros) all have the same rating with Atlanta at no. 22. Over at FanGraphs, the Braves have two defensive runs saved (DRS) thus far, which puts them in a tie for sixth-most in the majors (and there are a ton of ties right now). There’s still just too much early-season noise to supremely conclude.

So what are we supposed to do then… pretend everything’s fine? No, but by at least examining some of these rate stats and predictive metrics, there’s a strong chance that the Braves climb out of this miserable hole they’re in. 

Some of those hard hits will start finding holes; eventually, if Atlanta’s pitchers can continue to throw the ball well, many of those lucky hits from opposing teams will start turning into put-outs or strikeouts. That’s why we have some of these advanced statistics to help tell us where teams are likely headed.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Braves’ brass should just sit on their hands and do nothing, hoping good fortunes will come. The team could really use some bullpen help, which I’m sure we’ll detail here on the site sometime soon. With outfielder Cristian Pache on the IL with a groin strain, currently leaving only Inciarte as a replacement, the Braves should also sign some type of bat to fill the void. As our own Alex Lord reported on Wednesday, neither Mike Soroka nor Chris Martin has a timetable for a return at the moment, so that’s at least one area of the club where there is a real justifiable reason to bring in some reinforcements. 

But the biggest thing to remember is that there are still 150 games left to play. A 4-8 record is certainly an underwhelming performance thus far, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t be frustrated or disappointed. However, entering Wednesday, the Braves still had a nearly 50% chance at making the postseason (second-best odds in the NL East), according to FanGraphs‘ playoff odds, which given how terrible things have gone this season, is still pretty damn good. 

Team-wise, the 2021 season has been a disaster thus far, and the Braves need to wake up soon. But at this particular juncture, there shouldn’t be any panic. Although, if by Memorial Day (May 31) — roughly a third of the season (53 games) — things still haven’t changed… then let the panic ensue. 

 

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