The Braves are now officially a quarter of the way through the lengthy MLB season. For fans, however, it is more like, “Where did that month and a half go?” It feels like just yesterday Braves’ Twitter was in all-time panic mode after being swept by the Phillies to open the year. Tiger memes were everywhere, and by no coincidence, things began to turn around.
At 21-20, the Braves are holding down second in the NL East – 3.5 games back of Philadelphia. It’s way off from what many were expecting from this squad, but it only takes a couple of long winning streaks for the men to separate themselves from the boys in the MLB. That’s the difference between .500 ball and winning 90+ games, and there are numerous ways for the Braves to get there.
7. Mike Foltynewicz’s K%
It’s a minuscule sample size of three starts, but Folty has been nothing close to the pitcher he was in 2018 since returning from an elbow injury he suffered during spring training. This was a guy who finished top-ten in the Cy Young race and made the All-Star team a year ago. Now, he’s being hit to the tune of a 5.94 ERA and has a -0.6 WAR.
Foltynewicz’s fastball velocity is down a mile or two. He’s no longer touching 99-100. Instead, he stays steady in the 94-96 range. But more egregiously, none of his offspeed pitches are moving as they have in the past. When Folty is in the high-90s with his nasty slider, he’s nearly unhittable. Unfortunately, that pitcher has not been around in 2019. Folty’s strikeout percentage is in the bottom 5% of the entire league. He’s only striking out 13.2% of his batters compared to 27.2% from last year. The Braves are hoping this regression is due to rust, but I have my reservations. There could be a lot more to this story in the future.
6. Austin Riley’s 14 home runs
After a sluggish start, Riley is abusing AAA pitching like Gwinnett’s version of Barry Bonds. He’s hitting .351 with seven homers and eight walks in his last ten games, bringing him to 14 home runs on the season. The Braves have also started testing him out in left field regularly, and Riley has shown little difficulties holding it down. With Ender Inciarte off to an abysmal start, we could see Riley up sooner than anybody expected. If the Braves top prospect shows he can slug it the same way in the majors, Atlanta’s offense – which isn’t too shabby as is – will be ten times more daunting for opposing pitchers.
5. Ozzie Albies’ Splits
Ozzie spent last April introducing himself to the MLB world with an unbelievable tear. That month alone catapulted him to the All-Star Game, but the rest of his season was sub-par at best.
Fast forward to 2019, and Albies once again began the year on fire, slashing .289/.348/.496/.844 with six home runs and 12 RBIs in the season’s first month. Unfortunately, the calendar has to flip to May, and Albies is not seeing the same sort of positive results. He’s slashed .222/.236/.352/.588 in twelve games this month. Hopefully, that’s nothing more than a coincidence, but these next stats are not.
Albies is batting .231 with a .680 OPS from the left side of the plate this year compared to .378 with a 1.022 OPS from the right side. That continues his trend from 2018. Switch-hitting is cool and all, but only if the results follow. Maybe there is a moment down the road where Ozzie becomes a full-time right-handed hitter. For now, it’s nothing more than something worth monitoring as the season goes on.
4. Max Fried’s BB/9
Max Fried was the talk of April, quickly earning his way to the top of the rotation after being left out initially. The lefty spent most of the time coming out of the bullpen for the Braves in 2018 – something that Fried said was a catalyst for his success as a starter. It allowed him to trust his stuff and let hitters know “hey, come and get it.”
As a result, Fried has only walked nine batters in 44.1 innings pitched. That’s a breath of fresh air on a staff that leads the MLB in walks. As Freddie Freeman has attested to, Fried’s stuff is as good as any prospect he has seen. If the southpaw can continue to keep his walks down, he will progress into the top-of-the-line starter the Braves are in desperate need of.
3. Dansby Swanson’s plate discipline
We have seen Dansby Swanson get hot for stretches over the years. The difference is usually those moments are accompanied by some good luck. This year, it has been the exact opposite. Swanson is putting up career highs in nearly every category, yet he’s been extremely unlucky at the plate thus far. There are tons of stats you could attribute to his newfound offensive ability, but the most noticeable one is his plate discipline.
Swanson was among the biggest suckers in the league for a breaking ball down and away. It did not matter how dirty the ball was going to get; the former #1 overall pick was hacking. He swung at 36.5% of pitches outside the strike zone in 2018. This year it is down to 25.8%. It’s simple: the more strikes you swing at, the easier the game is. Swanson is more comfortable in the box and finding his pitch to drive. Dansby’s offense is not only sustainable, but it could be better as the year goes on.
In 2018, the Braves walked 635 batters (second in the MLB and first in the NL). For some reason that wasn’t treated as much of a priority this offseason, and Atlanta is paying for it substantially. They lead the league in walks with 168, putting them on pace for 672 walks. There’s not much else that needs to be said. This pitching staff needs to start manning up like Max Fried and throwing the ball over the plate.
1. Mike Soroka’s 1.21 ERA
This section could be titled “everything about Mike Soroka.” Braves’ Country had a right to be worried after Soroka missed the majority of last year and then suffered a similar shoulder injury to begin the season, but the former first-round pick has put those concerns to rest over five starts this season. His WHIP is a hair over one, and that includes his walk (and HBP) numbers being higher than they usually are. Soroka’s ability to change speeds, limit quality contact, and control the strike zone might already be the best in the organization. If game one of a playoff series is tomorrow, the 21-year old with less than fifteen MLB starts under his belt is getting the ball. Soroka’s a pleasure to watch every time he takes the mound.