The Braves are 19-22, which has led to people reminding me constantly of how they downgraded in certain areas. In most cases, it’s way too early to tell if they really did, but I will admit there are areas of this team that don’t look nearly as potent as they did a year ago. Austin Riley doesn’t look like an MVP candidate, and natural regression could be smacking him in the face after his breakout 2021 campaign. Matt Olson — while he hasn’t been terrible by any means — isn’t coming close to filling the shoes of Freddie Freeman at the moment. And the outfield is also clearly lacking the depth that made it so strong to end last season.
The promising news is all of the problems I mentioned above could be fixed by the end of the season. I don’t believe the Austin Riley we saw last season was a fluke. Eventually, he should break out of the current funk he’s in, and Matt Olson should as well, who has proven to be an All-Star caliber first baseman over the last few seasons. The outfield is the biggest question mark this team has, but Acuña returning full-time should help things considerably. Eddie Rosario will be back at some point as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Braves added some better depth via trade before the deadline.
The sky isn’t falling in Atlanta. Things just aren’t clicking like the Braves had hoped before the season began in some areas. However, just as there are positions where the Braves seem to have downgraded, there are others where they have significantly upgraded, and it shouldn’t remain that way the rest of the season.
Due to poor roster construction and injuries, the Braves catchers were among the worst units in the league last year. The starter, Travis d’Arnaud, missed most of the season with a torn ligament in his hand, and even when he was available, he looked like a shell of the player that won a silver slugger in 2020.
Behind him, the Braves trusted Alex Jackson, but it didn’t take long for them to figure out he wasn’t a major-league caliber option. He was quickly sent back to Gwinnett and eventually traded to the Marlins. For most of the season, the Braves relied on Kevan Smith and Stephen Vogt. Smith was abysmal, and while Vogt had his moments, he wasn’t anything above replacement level. Essentially, the Braves got nothing out of their catchers last season, which hasn’t been the case early on in 2022.
Travis d’Arnaud has performed like one of the best catchers in the league. He’s already recorded 1.0 fWAR this season, thanks to his 116 wRC+ and much-improved defense behind the plate. By himself, he’s already provided much more value for the Braves this season than all of the catchers combined last year, and he’s not alone.
William Contreras, who a lot of people were ready to give up on after last season, is breaking out. In just 38 plate appearances, he has six homers and a 205 wRC+. He’s only appeared in 10 games all season, yet he’s accumulated 0.6 fWAR. That kind of pace isn’t sustainable, but he’s the backup, and he’s already been better than all of the catchers the Braves utilized last season.
The stats may not back this up through the first quarter of the season, but the rotation is substantially better than it was last year, and over the course of the season, that will shine through. Max Fried is a superstar that’s posted a 2.70 ERA in his last seven starts. Kyle Wright has also emerged as a top of the rotation option early on this season. Charlie Morton started off sluggishly, but he’s begun to find his form of late, just like he did in 2021. And I’ve stated several times, there aren’t many #4’s better than Ian Anderson. The fifth spot in the rotation may be a revolving door, but the Braves have a lot of options and time to figure it out. Overall, this is a significantly better group of starting pitchers than Atlanta was working with last season.
When it mattered most in 2021, the Braves bullpen was elite, especially in the playoffs. However, for most of the season, they were an average group. They finished 12th in fWAR (3.6) and had an ERA of 3.97 to go along with a 4.08 FIP.
They are a much better unit this season. Through just 41 games, they lead all teams with 2.6 fWAR. They also lead all teams in FIP (2.80) and K/9 (10.87). The Braves bullpen is the best in the majors, and they haven’t even had a healthy Tyler Matzek to this point. If he can return to form following his stint on the IL, this group will be head and shoulders ahead of everyone, and they also might add Kirby Yates later in the season.
When you’re 19-22, everyone wants to talk about the negatives, and there are certainly some areas of concern with this Braves team. But there are also some glaring positives at positions that weren’t that good last season. Eventually, things will even out, and the Braves will go on a run to close the gap in the division. There’s just too much talent on this roster for it not to happen.
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