Today the Braves will enjoy its second off day this week, a nice reward following a recent onslaught of injuries and what wound up being a series draw at Yankee Stadium as Atlanta defeated New York 4-1 on Wednesday. The latest win wasn’t exactly pretty: starter Ian Anderson walked four batters in his outing, and the Braves offense combined for just four hits overall, including only one XBH on the night — a solo-home run by Austin Riley, his first of the year.
This 2021 Braves team still doesn’t feel like it’s found a rhythm, and it doesn’t help when two important hitters in the lineup have yet to find any type of consistent groove. Entering Wednesday, second baseman Ozzie Albies and shortstop Dansby Swanson had combined for just a 64 wRC+ this season — leaving Atlanta’s lineup consistently punchless at the plate, especially with the rest of the offense’s struggles.
Both Albies and Swanson rank within the top 10 at their respective positions in terms of the quality of their contact, but results-wise, each has performed well below league-average.
Among all MLB second baseman, Albies is tied for seventh in HardHit% (40%) and ranks sixth in xwOBA (.381), but those hard-hit balls obviously are not finding gaps, allowing him just a .148 AVG thus far; per Statcast, when accounting for his exit-velocity and launch-angle, Ozzie should be hitting a solid .302 this season, along with nearly a .500 SLG%.
It’s the same situation with Swanson as well, who ranks seventh among all shortstops in xwOBA (.355) and fifth in HardHit% (47.6%). Dansby’s case seems even more dramatic, given he’s hitting line drives at a 26.2% clip, which, entering Wednesday, was the fifth-best rate by players from his position, not to mention the highest rate of Dansby’s career.
The obviousness of Albies and Swanson’s bad luck this season is even more apparent when looking at the actual player leaderboards on FanGraphs.
In Albies’ case, take a player like Yankees second baseman DJ LeMahieu, and compare their stats thus far in 2021…
Albies: 4.4 Barrel%, 40 HardHit%, .381 xwOBA
LeMahieu: 4.3 Barrel%, 38.3 HardHit%, .369 xwOBA
As far as balls put in play, these are two players hitting the ball at an almost identical level of quality, with Albies actually hitting slightly better.
Now, look at the same two players’ actual results-based numbers…
Albies: .148/.262/.333, 64 wRC+, -0.2 fWAR
LeMahieu: .300/.382/.417, 133 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR
Wow. As you can see, Albies may be hitting the ball a bit harder and squaring up pitches a tad more often, but because of what happens after those balls are hit — an aspect of hitting a batter obviously has very little control over — his numbers are way short of what LeMahieu’s are. Albies has been extraordinarily unlucky… while LeMahieu… has not.
As mentioned earlier, poor Swanson has had an even worse run of bad fortune compared to his colleagues playing the same position. Look at a player like Miami’s Miguel Rojas, who, on paper, is one of the top guys at shortstop this season.
But look how much better Swanson has been in terms of contact…
Swanson: 9.5 Barrel%, 47.6 HardHit%, .355 xwOBA
Rojas: 2.0 Barrel%, 29.4 HardHit%, .332 xwOBA
I mean, looking at those three metrics, which player would you rather have at the plate? Swanson is head and shoulders above Rojas. However, like Albies, Dansby’s ability to square up nearly half the balls he has put in play in 2021 isn’t translating to the stat sheet. And as a result, Swanson and Rojas have had very different seasons so far…
Swanson: .190/.282/.302, 65 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR
Rojas: .327/.403/.455, 142 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR
Swanson’s expected AVG sits at .256, to go along with an expected SLG% of .492, but again, the actual results on the field are nowhere close.
But as the title of this post indicates, early-season stats are simply misleading as there aren’t enough inputs to allow the actual outputs to settle down. We all already know this. The term “SSS (small-sample-size)” has been a popular part of baseball for as long as people began keeping up with stats, especially in recent years as stats have continued to become more advanced and do a much better job of being predictive.
The Braves have played a whopping 18 games in 2021, and I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to getting all worked up about Atlanta’s performance at this point in the season. Still, we must remember that all of this — the good AND bad numbers — is just noise and will eventually begin to even out. Numbers that look incredibly unsustainable right now should evolve into something closer to what the predictive-based metrics are showing. Just like the fact that Ronald Acuna Jr. probably won’t continue to hit .400 this season, Albies and Swanson most likely won’t maintain a sub-.200 AVG.
The Braves two middle-infielders aren’t broken. If anything, the duo is actually hitting the ball better than they ever have right now… it’s just not showing up on the stat sheet, or more specifically, the stat sheet that illustrates actual results. Give it enough time, though, and I bet you they will.