There’s no other way to put it: the 2021 campaign is off to a dreadful start for the reigning NL East champions. Seemingly nothing can go right. The starting rotation has been as shaky as ever, even after Alex Anthopoulos spent precious dollars to bring in Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. The bullpen has been equally as unreliable — if not worse — and the offense, which was arguably the best in all of baseball last season, is slumping from top to bottom outside of Ronald Acuna and Austin Riley.
The best part about the beginning of the season thus far is… the rest of the NL East has been just as inconsistent, allowing the Braves to stay within reach of first place. In a typical season, the Braves might find themselves 5-6 games back after such a lousy start, but luckily, they sit just 1.5 games behind the Phillies — a winning streak away from taking their rightful place at the top of the division. However, among all the disappointments for the Braves, and there have been a lot of them so far, sits an unexpected shining star — Huascar Ynoa.
Who would have thought through the first month of the season that 22-year-old Huascar Ynoa would be the Braves’ most reliable starter, and outside of Ian Anderson, it’s not particularly close. Through seven games (six starts), Ynoa has a splendid 3-1 record to go along with his 2.36 ERA. He is striking out exactly ten batters per nine innings compared to just 2.1 walks per nine — by far the lowest mark of his young career.
But Ynoa isn’t just doing it with his arm; he’s making plenty of noise with the bat as well. He’s homered in each of his previous two starts, including a grand slam that broke last night’s contest against the Nationals wide open. And the funniest part is — his performance at the plate yesterday actually dropped his season average. Ynoa went 1 for 3, which caused his batting average to slip from .400 to .385. However, his slugging percentage now sits at a silly .923 mark. Here’s another crazy stat: Ynoa’s only allowed nine earned runs this season, and he has six runs batted in. In his past three starts, he has three times as many runs batted as earned runs allowed. Because of this, he is now tied with Ronald Acuna for the highest WAR (1.7) on the team and is on a nearly 9-WAR pace for the season.
So just what can we reasonably expect from Ynoa the rest of the way? Obviously, he can’t keep this offense up, but can he enter the same conversation as other talented young arms that have come through the system, like Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Ian Anderson? I think the answer is yes, but it might be best to temper expectations as far as this season goes.
Ynoa’s numbers on the mound have been fantastic at the surface level, but some underlying metrics suggest regression is inevitable. According to Baseball Savant, Ynoa is in the bottom 35% of the league in all of these statistics — average exit velocity, hard-hit %, xwOBA, xERA, xBA, xSLG, and barrel %. His batting average on balls in play against him is just .225 (.300 is considered league average), so eventually, some of this stuff is going to catch up to him. It also doesn’t help that he’s primarily a two-pitch starting pitcher, which doesn’t often lead to sustained success at the major-league level.
With that being said, there is plenty of reason to believe Ynoa can blossom into a middle-of-the-rotation option at the very least. The two pitches he does utilize the most — fastball and slider — are pretty effective. His heater can hit triple digits, and his slider is as filthy as a bathroom gas station. That offering alone has led to 28 strikeouts and a .175 batting average against. If he can continue to improve his changeup and become more confident in the pitch, that might be all he needs to go from good to great. Keep in mind, Ynoa is still just 22-years-old, and what he does have often can’t be taught. He’s a bulldog on the mound that isn’t afraid of anyone, and that confidence is only growing as he continues to string together high-quality outings.
For now, it might be unrealistic to expect Ynoa to keep up this kind of production on the mound, but the Braves really don’t need him to, as long as other arms like Max Fried and Charlie Morton begin to pull their weight. If Ynoa can be a solid 4-5 in the rotation for the rest of the season, the Braves will have gotten more than enough out of him, and who knows, if the starting pitching begins to strengthen as the season goes, Ynoa could be an option to bolster the bullpen.