Recently, we were able to experience what it’s like to have an Acuna-less Braves lineup for the past two games — each against the Yankees. 23-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna has been sidelined with an abdominal strain he suffered back in the fourth inning of the team’s win over the Cubs on April 18th.
Acuna is expected back for Friday’s series opener with the Diamondbacks, but those last pair of games were tough. Sure, Atlanta split the series with a bad New York team on Tuesday and Wednesday. But after averaging 7.3 runs per game in the three games leading up to that two-game set, the Braves — without its star — combined for just five runs in both affairs with the Bombers, including only four hits as a team in Wednesday’s second game win.
In 7 games… when you hit .385 with:
*13 runs scored
You get named NL Player of the Week.. Congrats Ronald Acuna pic.twitter.com/P1e3rFzqhe
— Zach Klein (@ZachKleinWSB) April 19, 2021
It’s a very no-duh statement, but the Braves really need Acuna. He’s the lineup’s lead-off guy, the one who starts everything for Atlanta’s offense, and… oh yeah!… he also just so happens to be one of the hottest hitters in baseball right now, carrying a .419 AVG with seven home runs and a 1.373 OPS through the team’s first 18 games. Losing him would, let’s just say, greatly impact the Braves playoff odds in 2021.
Highest OPS with RISP, 2019-present:
➡️1) Ty France: 1.187
2) Mike Trout: 1.176
3) Bryce Harper: 1.154
4) Fernando Tatis Jr.: 1.115
5) Freddie Freeman: 1.112
— Daniel Kramer (@DKramer_) April 23, 2021
And then there’s first baseman Freddie Freeman, who so far this season hasn’t been as hot as his teammate but still sports a 133 wRC+ so far despite an uncharacteristic .222 AVG. Yeah, we’re already pretty familiar with how things operate when Freeman’s not in the Braves lineup long-term because it happened in both 2015 and ’17 when he missed 44 and 45 games, respectively, due to a wrist injury. The first time Freddie hurt his wrist, Atlanta’s offense plummeted quickly, and through that Freeman-less stretch during 2015 (June 18th – July 24th), the Braves offense averaged just 2.7 runs per game, going 13-17 with a .234 AVG and .636 OPS. The second time… well… the second time Atlanta actually played well, winning 24 of 44 games during that stretch without their first baseman in 2017, while also scoring 4.4 runs per game, hitting .265, and posting a .729 OPS.
But let’s not pretend those previous stints — one bad and one pretty good — are predictive for what to expect if Freeman were to miss any real length of time this season. You don’t have to look very closely at the Braves depth chart to discover that there isn’t much after the team’s 2020 MVP this year. Sure, prospect Bryce Ball looks to be a real big-league masher… one day… but that day is not right now. Regardless, it’s certainly no secret that Atlanta’s bench, in general, is shallow in 2021.
But on Wednesday, FanGraphs senior writer Dan Szymborski attempted to quantify just how impactful it would be to lose Acuna or Freeman. In his post titled 2021’s Most Irreplaceable Players, he used ZiPS player projections to illustrate the difference in a team’s playoff odds — with or without some of the biggest stars in MLB — listing both Acuna (no. 3) and Freeman (no. 10) within the top 10.
2021 Playoff Odds (minus Acuna / Freeman)
|PLAYER||PLAYOFF ODDS BEFORE||PLAYOFF ODDS AFTER|
Now, these aren’t actual playoff odds for the Braves. Because the above figures are ZiPS-based and compiled from the player projection system, the figures are simply saying, “these are the team’s odds when accounting for Acuna and Freeman’s 2021 ZiPS projections, and these are what they are without them”. But the point remains: losing Acuna this season would cut the Braves playoff hopes in half and losing Freeman is nearly just as bad.
As of Thursday, FanGraphs gave Atlanta — currently 8-10 — 51.6% odds at reaching the postseason, essentially a 50/50 shot at this point. It’s probably accurate to say that without both Acuna and Freeman, those coin-toss chances become much worse, maybe even as low as 25%.
It’s remarkable just how much these two players mean to the Braves and the magnitude of their impact. The duo of Acuna and Freeman can’t take Atlanta to the postseason all by themselves, but they obviously play a huge part in the team’s future success. Take how light the Braves depth currently is, then consider the production of these two star players, and it’s definitely a plausible claim to say Acuna and Freeman are exactly what we all most likely thought to begin with… they’re simply irreplaceable.
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