As of April 22nd, the Atlanta Braves are 12-8, and are sitting just two games out of the NL East lead despite having to reschedule two games. This young group, led by a handful of solid veterans, is right where the Washington Nationals wish they were this early in the season.
While it’s important to take an early surge with a grain of salt, there are still several positive takeaways from the Braves’ hot start, and there’ll be plenty more to get excited for over the next few months. Because there will be many moving parts, though, fans are likely going to have to settle with a roster move or two that they might not agree with.
I’ve taken time off from writing to take in the first few weeks of this season, and like most Braves fans, I was hoping Ronald Acuña would be in Atlanta by now, but this front office seems to be far more conservative in some areas than the Hart/Coppolella regime. Regardless, it’s evident that this Atlanta Braves team is going to make some noise in the NL East in the coming years, and we may be seeing the beginning of this now.
What is it about this Braves club that works so well? As a whole, the team is fairly young and inexperienced, but veteran leadership and quick development have these kids in position to get a taste of postseason action early in their careers. To get a better idea of how this club has come together, as well as what’s in store, let’s dig into a few hot topics.
A bit of over-performing?
Ryan Flaherty‘s batting average for the 2018 season (.362) matches his career slugging percentage…so yeah, that. However, one guy playing out of his mind doesn’t mean that this level of play by the Braves is unsustainable. He’s just getting a disproportionate amount of the team’s luck, as indicated by his .444 BABip.
Usually, when one guy is over-performing, there’s another guy on the same team that is under-performing, and that guy is Ender Inciarte. Ender’s batting a cool .241 in 19 games, but it’s worth noting that he was batting .246 on May 13th of last year, and he finished that season with 200 hits. Ender will come around, and when he does, it will balance out the inevitable regression headed towards Flaherty.
“If Ryan Flaherty is over-performing, then so is Dansby Swanson, right?”
Wrong, little voice in my head that sounds like Ryan Cothran. The only thing these two guys have in common is that they were first-rounders out of Vanderbilt. While Dansby may have peaked in college in regards to overall dominance, he still has a good shot to be a productive, everyday MLB player, and that starts by improving in areas where he once struggled (i.e. hitting a slider).
Seeing Dansby make adjustments and improving at the big league level well before his peak years is a great sign, and with a little luck, he could finish the year batting over .300. He and this young Atlanta Braves core will be a force to be reckoned with once the other pieces fall into place in the coming years.
Will Ozzie stay this hot?
Yes. Well, close.
Last year, Ozzie Albies hit six home runs in his 57 MLB games between August and Steptember, and I thought I was impressed. In just 20 games this season, he’s hit six home runs, and he leads the National League in runs (21), doubles (9), and total bases (55). Now, I’m impressed.
Throughout the off-season, I was told repeatedly that Albies has legitimate 20-25 home run power, and of course I was skeptical. He’s 5-foot-8 and 21 years-old, but then there are guys like Jose Altuve and Jimmy Rollins who make/made their money by putting the “small guy” stereotype to rest.
Rollins and Altuve didn’t develop serious power until their mid-20’s, but Ozzie’s already a stud at 21. There’s no doubt in my mind that he can finish the 2018 season with 20 or more home runs. He’s got the perfect role as the Braves’ 2-hole hitter sandwiched between two guys who force pitchers to give Albies something to hit, and that situation is only going to get better in the coming weeks.
Throughout his minor league career, Ozzie Albies averaged about an extra-base hit every three games, and he owns a .790 OPS against minor league pitching — not bad for a little guy that shot through the system. However, since being called up last August, Albies is collecting an extra-base hit just about every other game. Credit that in part to the quality of pitches he’s been seeing, but there’s no ignoring the fact that Ozzie’s playing like a top-10 player.
“Year of the Folty” (Part 2)
Don’t get your hopes up just yet, but Mike Foltynewicz has pitched exceptionally well so far this season. Folty’s racked up 26 strikeouts and has allowed just six earned runs in four 2018 starts, and it’s looking like the 26-year-old may have finally figured things out.
If Foltynewicz can run off a few sub-3.50 ERA seasons for the Atlanta Braves, trading Evan Gattis will have finally paid off. He’s capable of doing so but it’s going to take a heavy dose of maturation and control (both pitch command and emotions). Otherwise, Folty could be headed straight for the bullpen…or the trading block.
Folty’s made four solid starts to begin the season, and from this short stretch, I’ve noticed something about his performance in relation to someone who is seen as one of the game’s elite arms:
Through his age-25 seaon (97 starts, 600 IP), Justin Verlander owned a 4.18 career FIP along with a 110 ERA+. The young righty was walking 3.3 batters per nine innings, but was allowing fewer than a hit per inning while striking guys out at a moderate rate.
Now four starts into his age-26 season, Foltynewicz has appeared in 89 games (69 starts, 404 total IP), and while his 4.43 FIP is a bit higher than Verlander’s mark, it’s clear that the difference between these two through 25 is Folty’s 10.0 hits allowed per nine innings. In fact, Foltynewicz has walked batters at a lower rate than Verlander did through 25.
Foltynewicz is essentially a younger, less polished version of Justin Verlander that hasn’t yet mastered the art of going deep into games. So far this season, though, the Braves have to be proud of what he’s been able to do, posting an impressive 7.6 hits and 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings. There’s no guarantee that Folty will go on the type of run that Verlander did if he figures things out, but there certainly won’t be fans screaming for him to be traded or moved to the bullpen.
It’s reasonable to see Mike being a solid number three or four starter with a chance at being a top-of-the-rotation guy, but this can only happen if he can maintain a WHIP of 1.300 or lower while still being this high-strikeout guy. That’s exactly what Verlander’s done for most of his career, and when he hasn’t, it’s been obvious.
What exactly is this bullpen?
This seems to be the question I’ve asked myself most frequently throughout this rebuild. Arodys Vizcaino and Jose Ramirez were introduced to fans a few years back as they were robbed of their beloved Craig Kimbrel, but since then, neither of those guys has shown that they’re ready to lead a playoff-caliber bullpen.
Ramirez had back-to-back decent years in 2016 and 2017, but his 4.88 FIP and 4.2 walks per-nine last year along with control issues early this year may have Alex Anthopoulos looking in another direction and possibly non-tendering Ramirez.
Like Ramirez, Vizcaino is a fireballer, and you’ve got to think that being able to touch triple digits when needed creates the illusion that a pitcher is better than he actually is, especially when his go-to pitch is his fastball (i.e. Mauricio Cabrera). It’s one thing to be like Craig Kimbrel or Andrew Miller with lethal secondary stuff, but when a reliever can’t go to his breaking pitches in any count, hitters are eventually going to have enough film to figure out all of his tricks.
Thanks to the emergence of a few new faces, this Atlanta Braves bullpen isn’t leaning too heavily on its fireballers anymore, but Ramirez and Vizzy may be of negative value to the club once their luster has worn off.
There seems to be a revolving door in Atlanta’s bullpen this year, but that problem should be solved sooner rather than later, although it arguably could’ve been solved already if not for Akeel Morris being DFA’d, but that’s an entirely different story.
What the Atlanta Braves currently have is a pretty average MLB bullpen, but with a couple of tweaks/additions, this group could add a few more wins to the club’s projected total. I’m banking on A.J. Minter being a huge piece of Atlanta’s ‘pen moving forward, eventually ascending into the closer role permanently. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but from the way he looks, to his stance before he winds up, to even his pitching style, Minter bears an undeniable resemblance to Craig Kimbrel.
The best part about this Atlanta Braves club is that the minor league talent is far from being gone, despite how some may feel regarding the results of this past offseason’s investigation. What the organization lost, aside from the third-round draft pick, was merely depth at the lower minor league levels — but that’s old news.
Enough can’t be said about Ronald Acuña prior to his arrival in Atlanta. Fans don’t know when he’s coming, beat writers don’t seem to know when he’s coming, and the Braves’ front office doesn’t seem to be too worried about it. However, while Acuña is the most exciting Braves prospect since Jason Heyward, he’s not the only guy that could be making his way to Atlanta this season.
Luiz Gohara, Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Dustin Peterson, Austin Riley, Alex Jackson, and Max Fried are just some of the other young guys that have a chance to make an immediate impact upon arrival to Atlanta at some point this season. While a couple of those guys may be further out than others, it’s clear that there’s no shortage of quality talent in this system.
Aside from the obvious Acuña, the guy from this group I’m most excited to see over a full big league season is Luiz Gohara. Last year, he was the hardest throwing left-handed starting pitcher in all of baseball, and his slider topped the whiff rate charts (min. 100 pitches thrown). He’s only 21 years-old, but don’t tell him that.
With this group of youngsters, of course, come the growing pains, and they will be excruciating, but that’s okay. You can’t expect every guy to get called up and immediately be Clayton Kershaw. It just doesn’t happen. What you can bank on, though, is the Braves having more than enough talent to compete in a division that looks to be up for grabs over the next few years.
May is going to be an exciting month for Atlanta Braves fans. Ronald Acuña and Luiz Gohara will have arrived, and there’s a good chance Mike Soroka won’t be far behind them with the way he’s started the 2018 campaign. Even if the Braves lose more games than they win once these guys are called up, there is going to be tons of exciting baseball for the fans.
As the Bravos get into June and July, these youngsters will be put to the test. Can this team hold up collectively over the course of 162 games, or will the young guys fold under pressure? If the club is sitting above the .500 mark headed into late July, don’t be surprised if Alex Anthopoulos decides to go after a bullpen arm or two to make a premature run at the playoffs.
Regardless of the outcome of this season, the future is bright. Top-tier talent will still be pouring into Atlanta in three years, and by then, the big league club will already by leading the NL East, and there’s only one thing Braves fans can do from now until then: Wait on it.