Through 20 days of the 2020 MLB season, the Braves are one of just three teams to have played 20 games. That’s a challenging stretch in the middle of a regular 162-game season with a healthy rotation, but it’s especially brutal when it’s to start the season after a shortened Spring Training with a rotation consisting of one reliable piece. Yet somehow, the Braves find themselves two games over .500, just a game behind the Marlins (who have only played 12 games) for first place.
Before the season even started — with a healthy roster — the first 20-game stretch looked like quite the gauntlet. The Braves schedule began with eleven games against a more than respectable Mets squad and fantastic Rays team. They then had to face the up-and-coming Blue Jays, followed by the Phillies and Yankees before their first off day of the season. With everybody healthy and a shortened offseason, I would have accepted 10-10. Now, taking all of the injuries into account, seven or eight victories might have sounded more realistic. But this team just knows how to win, and they have continued to find new ways to do so early this season.
Without a starting rotation after Max Fried, the Braves bullpen has been able to save the day more often not. The high-priced late innings guys, like Mark Melancon, Chris Martin, and Shane Greene, have been worth their contracts, but it is the arms that weren’t even expected to be on the major league roster in March that have made all the difference.
Josh Tomlin finally gave up his first two runs yesterday, but he’s been a chameleon for Brian Snitker out of the ‘pen so far. The 35-year-old has appeared in nearly half of the Braves games (8) and in every situation possible. It could be the second inning or the eighth inning of a tight game, and Snitker would throw Tomlin in there without hesitation. So far, it’s paid off for the Braves.
Tyler Matzek has been used in a similar way to Tomlin early this season and been just as successful, appearing in seven games (ten innings) and boasting a 1.80 ERA with 12 strikeouts. The former first-round pick is well on his way to resurrecting his career in Atlanta after five years out of the majors, and it’s not unfathomable that the Braves attempt to stretch him out as a starter, given all of their problems in the rotation.
A.J Minter is another surprise out of the bullpen early this year. The hard-throwing lefty went from major league closer to AAA in 2019, but he’s bounced back with confidence this season. Minter’s given up just one earned run in 7.2 innings (1.17 ERA) and has ten strikeouts. Adding these three guys to an already stellar staff at the back end of the bullpen has made covering up for the starting rotation possible.
The bullpen hasn’t been the only thing that has kept the Braves afloat. Their lineup also deserves a lot of praise for that. They are currently averaging 5.2 runs per game (4th in the MLB), and some people thought this offense wasn’t even top ten when fully healthy.
The major league team single-season record is 1,595 strikeouts by the 2019 Tigers, who went 47-114.
The Braves have a majors-high 203 strikeouts in 20 games, but rank seventh in OPS (.753) and fourth in scoring at 5.2 runs per game.
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) August 13, 2020
Atlanta’s offense hasn’t been 100% all year. Ozzie Albies started the season playing through a wrist injury and was put on the 10-Day IL last week. Now, his best buddy might be joining him. Ronald Acuña has missed the previous two games with wrist inflammation and is out for the next three at least before he is re-evaluated. This is especially disappointing because Acuña was finally hitting his stride after struggling with the fastball the first week of the season.
Freddie Freeman also hasn’t been himself for much of the year. Save for a couple of monster performances; he’s barely hitting over .200 this season, forcing others to step up. And they have — in the form of Dansby Swanson, Marcell Ozuna, Travis d’Arnaud, and Tyler Flowers.
Swanson was the team’s MVP of the first two weeks of the season, helping the Braves to a hot start. He’s fallen off a bit over the last week or so, but he did have three hits in yesterday’s game. Hopefully, that’s a sign of things to come because the Braves will need his offense without Acuña or Albies in the lineup.
Marcell Ozuna has been just what the doctor ordered so far, racking up four homers and 11 RBIs with an OPS of .861. It was going to be nearly impossible to replace Josh Donaldson’s production without re-signing him, but in a 60-game campaign, Ozuna might be able to put up comparable numbers.
The best offensive free agent signing thus far, though, has been Travis d’Arnaud. Because he missed some time early in the season with symptoms of the coronavirus and splits reps with Tyler Flowers, he’s only played in ten games, but he already has two homers with 11 RBIs and a .350 batting average.
Speaking of Tyler Flowers, the man is off to a scorching start offensively. Even though it’s only been six games, he has a .375 batting average with an OPS of 1.233. His OBP so far this season is a ridiculous .545.
This Braves offense is at about 50% of its potential, and they are still finding ways to come up with timely hits and score runs. It may not be sustainable over this entire 60-game season, but it will be necessary over the next week or longer. Without Acuña and Albies, and with the state of the starting rotation, unexpected players must pick up the slack, or there’s no way the Braves stay above .500.
All things considered, this has been a scrappy start for the Braves. They’ve been dealt a brutal hand, but they’ve made the best of it. Brian Snitker and Co. must continue to figure things out on the fly, but it’s possible for the Braves to capture their third straight division title, and perhaps go even further if they can get healthy.