It’s almost hard to believe, but we are just about one-third of the way through the season. What’s even harder to believe is the Mets having a 9.5-game stranglehold on the NL East as June begins. It’s been a tough start to the season for the defending World Series champions, and there’s been a lot more bad than good. But today, we will focus on the good, highlighting the three biggest strengths for the Braves to this point in the season. Tomorrow will highlight the negatives, which there are a lot more than three, so I thought I would begin with the easier version of the two.
The left side of the infield
Since about the middle of April, Dansby Swanson might be the best shortstop in baseball. His defense, as always, has been spectacular, but it’s been his scorching hot bat that’s carried the Braves for the last month-and-a-half. Over his last 38 games, he’s hitting .316 with an .889 OPS. Now, this is who Swanson is. He’s bound to cool down some, and he’ll probably have another three week slump where he looks like he should still be in high-A ball. But as always, Swanson will bounce out of it, and so far, he’s been the Braves best player.
For the first couple of weeks, it looked like Austin Riley may never stop hitting. Then he hit a month long slump, and it was fair to begin wondering if last season was a bit of a flash in the pan. Now, he’s red-hot again. At the end of the day, Riley’s been right there with Swanson as the most productive hitters on the team so far. Riley leads the team in homers, and he’s hit .413 over his last 11 games. The Braves will need a lot more of that from their slugging third baseman if they want to catch the Mets.
The top of the rotation
I talked about it in an individual article, but Max Fried and Kyle Wright might be the most underrated one-two punch in baseball. As a whole, the Braves rotation has yet to hit its stride. Charlie Morton is off to a rough start, and they still haven’t figured out who will be the fifth starter. Eventually, I think this unit will be one of the best in baseball, but so far it has been Max Fried and Kyle Wright carrying the load.
Fried’s start to 2022 is almost identical statistically to his 2021 season. However, the eye test tells me this is the best he’s ever looked. I think a patented Max Fried streak could be on the horizon, like the one he had after the All-Star break last season. The addition of a changeup into his arsenal gives him a legit five-pitch mix, and his velocity is up this season. There are few guys I’m taking in the National League over Max Fried.
I tabbed Kyle Wright as my pick to be the next breakout star in Braves Country, but I didn’t even expect him to come out this red-hot. He’s been the best pitcher on the team so far this season, and there’s nothing about it that’s flukey. The former 5th overall pick sports a 2.41 ERA and 10.0 K/9, but the thing that excites me the most has been his consistency. Wright only has one bad start all season and has given the Braves seven quality starts out of ten tries. Every time he goes out, he gives the team a chance to win. That’s what the best pitchers do, and Wright is quickly rising to the top of the ranks in the majors.
Initially, I didn’t want to give an entire section to one player, but A.J. Minter deserves it for his performance this season. A once highly-touted relief prospect, Minter was tabbed as the Braves closer of the future from the jump — a role that he struggled mightily with in his younger years. However, the way he’s battled through the ups and downs has been so impressive. He was one of the key pieces to the Braves World Series run last season, and now he’s carrying that momentum into 2022.
I haven’t looked around the league, but there can’t be many relievers putting up the kind of numbers Minter is so far this season. The man is sporting a 1.23 ERA, and even crazier, his 0.92 FIP suggests he’s been unlucky to this point. Minter has a career-high 13.1 K/9, and he’s only walked four batters in 22 innings. If you’re expecting any regression, I wouldn’t hold your breath. His Baseball Savant page is also a sea of red. Minter has far and away become the Braves best reliever.
Photo: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire