Braves: Is this the best infield in franchise history?

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The Braves have certainly had some great infielders. Chipper Jones and Eddie Mathews is a duo that immediately comes to mind as not only two of the best third basemen in franchise history, but also two of the best players overall. It’s a rather well-known fact that this has always been a franchise built off of superb starting pitching, although the Braves have also featured its share of prolific infielders. But of course, Jones and Matthews weren’t stars for the Braves at the same time, which is why we more-easily remember the greatness of pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

Reciting the best starting rotation in Braves history is a fairly easy task. But doing the same for its infield is a bit more difficult.

… or is it?

 

The tweet above is a nice conversation-starter. However, according to FanGraphs WAR, the Braves have compiled an above-average amount of WAR at all non-catcher positions in the infield this season. And as you can see, most of them aren’t just simply above-average…

2021 Braves Infield FanGraphs WAR Ranks (among MLB)

  • 1B – 3.7 WAR
  • 2B – 3.4 WAR
  • SS – 3.3 WAR
  • 3B – 3.3 WAR

Now, we know how important WAR is, as it’s currently the best stat we have that quantifies a player’s overall contributions. But for Atlanta, it’s on offense that the infield has positively impacted the team the most.

 

Having every member of your infield tally 25 or more homers is quite the accomplishment, but it’s not just homers for the Braves. Looking at Baseball Reference’s 2021 MLB Team Position Performance by OPS really puts everything in perspective.

  • 1B – .887 OPS (4th)
  • 2B – .811 OPS (5th)
  • SS – .811 (7th)
  • 3B – .910 (1st)

At the plate, essentially every member of the Braves infield is in the midst of a career-best season in 2021, which in turn, has no doubt made it one of the best in baseball. I mean, how rare is it for an entire infield to exceed its pre-season projections? Consider the following performances for the Braves’ infielders below…

 

1B – Freddie Freeman

2021 stats: 126 G, 27 HR, .296 AVG, 137 wRC+, 3.7 WAR

I’m not so sure you can say Freeman is having a career-best season in 2021, given he did win the NL MVP last season. But he is once again performing at an elite level, which is exactly what he’s done ever since debuting in the majors roughly a decade ago. At the rate he’s currently going, Freeman will easily surpass his ’21 ZiPS projections, again finishing a campaign with a .300-ish AVG, 35-ish homers, 100-ish RBI and 4.5-5 WAR. That’s not quite what he was on pace to achieve in 2020, but it’s damn good enough to help lead this Braves offense.

 

2B – Ozzie Albies

2021 stats – 125 G, 24 HR, 10 SB, .274 AVG, 125 wRC+, 3.5 WAR

Ozzie is in the process of possibly putting together the best season of his career as he’s performing near his 2019 level (4.6 WAR). A jump in walk-rate coupled with a drop in strikeout-rate (along with some adjustments with his stance) have unlocked some more power for the Braves second baseman, and with 30-ish games left to play, he’s only three homers away from surpassing his single-season best of 24. And it’s not just Ozzie’s counting stats and plate discipline that’s giving him the extra boost in 2021. Per FanGraphs, his 6.5 BsR (Base Running) is the second-best mark in baseball, behind only Whit Merrifield.

 

SS – Dansby Swanson

2021 stats: 127 G, 25 HR, 9 SB, .266 AVG, 113 wRC+, 3.3 WAR

Swanson is already at an entirely different level this season, on his way to compiling nearly twice as much WAR as he did in 2020, when he finished that year with a career-high 1.9. Everything is clicking for the shortstop, including a newfound power stroke that’s resulted in a career-best 25 homers and 77 RBI. Also, like Ozzie, Dansby has made some strides with his K rate, which has allowed him to make more contact, further improving his results at the plate. The last two seasons have really changed the narrative surrounding Swanson, and at this point, it seems like a given the Braves will eventually lock him up with an extension. Shortstops that can slug 30 homers – which is what Dansby’s on pace to hit in 2021 – don’t grow on trees, and his defense has always been elite.

 

3B – Austin Riley

2021 stats: 126 G, 27 HR, .300 AVG, 140 wRC+, 3.3 WAR

Perhaps the most-improved and most-impactful Braves infielder in 2021, third baseman Austin Riley has officially broke out. And this doesn’t seem like the unsustainable-type breakout from 2019 either, for Riley’s plate discipline is right where it needs to be (9.2 BB% / 24.5 K%). You name it and the kid is doing it, already recording career-bests in homers (27), RBI (77), AVG (.300), wRC+ (140) and WAR (3.3) — not to mention Barrel% (12.9%), HardHit% (43.8%) and wOBA (.385). We always hoped Riley would one day become this type of player, and damnit here he is. For several seasons now, the Braves have always had a weakness at the hot corner… but that certainly isn’t the case anymore.

Along with an improved starting rotation and bullpen, these four players above have helped turn this season around. Perhaps we’re accustomed to this kind of play from guys like Freeman and maybe even Albies, but the big difference-maker for 2021 is the fact that both Swanson AND Riley appear to have figured things out at the plate. Add it all up, and by the time this season ends, this could be the best Braves infield of all time. Either way, it’s been incredibly exciting to watch, and hopefully it continues on into the final month of the regular season.

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