The Braves have had an interesting ride over the first two months. It started off with a bang, and it looked like they could be on their way to something special. But the month of May has brought some hurdles. The Braves are 11-13 over their last 24 games and are coming off a series in which they lost to arguably the worst team in the history of Major League Baseball. It’s been ugly of late, but when you look up, the Braves are still in first place and just 0.5 games behind the Dodgers for the best record in the National League.
Over this rollercoaster ride of two months, there have been many intriguing storylines, some bad and some good. Here are three stats that explain some of those storylines.
When talent meets experience
Ronald Acuña Jr.’s start to 2023 has been nothing short of incredible. It’s overwhelmingly evident the injury that hobbled him in 2022 is behind him, and nothing is holding him back. This is the Ronald Acuña Jr. Braves fans were used to watching pre-injury. Or is it?
There are actually signs that this is a much better Ronald Acuña Jr. than we’ve ever seen before. He’s in the 100th percentile in xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG. His .323 average is 40 points higher than his previous career high, and while that could decline, I don’t think it will be too severe.
The thing we’ve seen from Acuña this season that’s been different than ever before is his K%. We are two months into the season, and he’s only striking out 13.7% of the time. That’s over 10% below his career average and ranks in the 91st percentile.
Despite that, Acuña’s wRC+ is right around his career bests in 2020 and 2021. The reason for that? He hasn’t been quite as good in the power department; however, it’s not for lack of hitting the ball hard. He’s in the 99th percentile when it comes to Average Exit Velocity, and when the ball has left the yard, they’ve usually gone well over 400 feet. In fact, 72.7% of Acuña’s homers have been considered “no doubters” this season. Eventually, the home runs should come in bunches.
So, is it possible we see an even better version of Ronald Acuña Jr. over the next four months? I wouldn’t count it out.
Braves bullpen isn’t as bad as you think
On paper, the Braves bullpen was set to be one of the best in the league coming into the season. In fact, FanGraphs even ranked them #1 in their bullpen rankings back in March. I don’t have to tell you that hasn’t been the case. Joe Jiménez has not been what the Braves had hoped. Lucas Luetge only made nine appearances before being DFA’d. Raisel Iglesias has missed most of the season. And perhaps most importantly, AJ Minter has been nowhere close to as productive as he was a season ago when he was one of the best relievers in baseball.
However, Minter is a perfect microcosm of this entire bullpen. He owns a 6.83 ERA, but his 3.08 FIP suggests he’s been the product of some abysmal luck. And the fact that he even has a FIP that low while currently boasting a 1.1 HR/9 is almost unbelievable. His fly ball to home run rate is hovering over 11%, the highest of his career.
That’s bound to come down, and in time, Minter’s ERA should plummet. In fact, FanGraphs currently has his fWAR at 0.6 despite his struggles, putting him on pace to earn 1.8 on the season, which isn’t that far off from the 2.1 he earned a season ago.
Have some patience with Minter, and the same can be said for the rest of the bullpen. The Braves group of relievers currently ranks 15th in the league in ERA, but they are seventh in FIP, and that’s without their closer for most of the season. It’s not perfect, and obviously, it was expected to be better, but this group is far from bad. The surface level numbers will show that in time, and with another addition at the trade deadline, the Braves bullpen will be viewed as elite again.
Bryce Elder is defying the laws of advanced analytics
I know I just typed up an essay mostly talking about advanced analytics, and while they are fun to use and serve a purpose, they aren’t bulletproof. Nobody exemplifies this more than Bryce Elder.
Elder has been the leader of the Braves staff this season after starting the year in AAA. When you watch him, there’s nothing flashy or sexy about the way he pitches. He doesn’t overpower opponents or even strike out many batters. As a prospect, Elder was projected to be a backend starter, and his Baseball Savant page paints the picture of a pitcher that should be one of the worst starters in the league.
- 13th percentile in Average Exit Velocity
- 10th percentile in HardHit%
- 48th percentile in xERA
- 31st percentile in xBA
- 36th percentile in K%
- 8th percentile in Fastball Velocity
- 4th percentile in Fastball Spin
This guy sucks! So how is he leading the entire league in ERA?
The one thing that’s become clear with Elder is he just straight up understands how to pitch. He has a plan and executes it. Last season, his slider was his best pitch, but he only threw it 26.9% of the time. Now, he’s using it nearly 40% of the time, the most of any offering. Here’s another interesting tidbit I found when digging around in Elder’s numbers, and it’s yet another example of having a plan with every hitter and executing it.
Elder’s thrown his 4-seam fastball 133 times this season. 126 of those fastballs came against left-handed hitters. It’s his most thrown pitch against lefties, and he only uses it on 12.8% of his pitches overall. The same can be said of his changeup. He’s only thrown in 124 times this season, but 88 of those have come against lefties compared to just 36 against righties.
I would be shocked if Elder wound up leading the MLB in ERA at the end of the season, but this is no longer a small sample size. He owns a 2.48 ERA over 20 starts. This is a case where advanced analytics don’t tell the true story. Elder throws strikes, and he doesn’t stray away from his gameplan, and I’m intrigued to see how the rest of his season pans out.
Photo: Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire