Due to unique circumstances (albeit not so unique anymore), the Nationals will open its 2021 regular season nearly a week late. And with a dreadful 0-3 start behind them, the Braves are looking for a much-needed first win after being swept by the Phillies over the weekend, featuring a combined three runs in three games.
The Braves totaled three runs while being swept by the Phillies to open this season. This is their lowest run total through the first three games since they tallied two runs while being swept by the Expos to begin the 2003 season.
— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) April 4, 2021
Fortunately, there are 159 more games to go…
But moving forward: on the mound for Tuesday’s Braves-Nationals series opener, Washington’s former Cy Young — Max Scherzer — is slated to face one of Atlanta’s two November signings — lefty Drew Smyly — in what could be an opportune time for the Braves offense to get going.
For a lineup collectively slashing .128/.180/.223 with a whopping 13 wRC+ thus far in 2021, there’s perhaps no other team in need of a boost more than Atlanta. And with a favorable matchup versus the 36-year-old Scherzer on Tuesday, the offense will hopefully break free.
A declining heater
Last season, the Braves bats unleashed themselves on Mad Max. After beginning the 2020 campaign with his usual dominant-like start — pitching to a 3.40 ERA through his first nine outings (50.1 IP) — the hard-throwing righty was walloped in a September 13th start against the Braves, in which Atlanta’s offense tallied six runs from nine hits, including two home runs. Scherzer still somehow managed ten strikeouts in that 5.1-inning outing, but when the Braves weren’t swinging and missing, they were spraying extra-base hits all over the field.
Ozzie makes it two 2-run homers off Max Scherzer this inning.
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) September 13, 2020
In all, during that late-season game, five Atlanta hits had exit velocities of 100 mph or more, plus four more that were hit at least 95 mph. Throughout his outing, the Braves were squaring Scherzer up. And a lot of the damage done by Atlanta then was due to something that, now into his late-30s, seems to be plaguing the Nationals ace… Scherzer’s fastball has drastically lost its effectiveness.
In that 2020 outing, of the nine hard-hit balls hit by the Braves that day (those with exit-velocities of 95+ mph), six were off Scherzer’s four-seam fastball — a pitch that opposing batters hit to the tune of a 129 wRC+ last year (the second-highest wRC+ allowed of his career). Sure, 2020 was a small sample of data and perhaps shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but Scherzer’s heater also saw a decline in spin-rate, finishing the season with an average of 2,472 RPM, down from 2,550 from back in 2016. Is 78 RPM really that big of a difference? Perhaps not. But given that in each of the last four seasons, Scherzer’s average exit velocity allowed continues to spike, it’s most likely a contributing factor.
Although don’t get me wrong, Scherzer is still a beast. In a full season of starts (from 2013-19), this is a guy that hasn’t dipped below 5 fWAR, including three NL Cy Young awards to go along with seven top-five finishes in his career. Year in and year out, he’s among the top arms in the majors, and even now into his post-prime days, can rip off stretches of dominance matched by very few pitchers of his generation. Take away his rough outing from last year, and over his career with Washington, Scherzer wields a 3.36 ERA with just a .214 AVG allowed from opposing Braves batters in 18 starts. Those are numbers of a guy that has generally had success against Atlanta’s offense.
However, with the Braves obviously frustrated from a poor start this season, any little edge or advantage could open up the floodgates for a team loaded with prolific hitters up and down its lineup.
Scherzer has leaned heavily on his heater throughout his entire MLB career, going to it at least 40% of the time in each of the last five seasons. If he hasn’t done something to improve it in 2021, that one pitch could be just what Atlanta’s lineup needs to get back in the win column on Tuesday. Regardless, Scherzer’s fastball and how the Braves lineup performs against it should be something to keep an eye on.