Acuña’s Return Is Just One Piece of Braves’ Turnaround by Jay Jaffe June 14, 2022 Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports Until he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last July 10, Ronald Acuña Jr. was building a case to win the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. His season-ending injury forced an already scuffling Braves team to scramble for replacements, but thanks in large part to an outfield reconfigured by a flurry of July trades, the team overcame the devastating blow and won its first World Series in 26 years. With Acuña still recovering from his injury, the Braves got off to a sluggish start this year, but since the calendar flipped to June, they’ve reeled off a 12-game winning streak, the longest in the majors so far. The run has more than cut the division deficit in half and pushed them into a playoff position, and while their 24-year-old superstar right fielder has led the way, he’s hardly doing it alone. The 2022 season did not begin well for the defending champions, who posted losing records in both April (10–12) and May (13–15). Those struggles enabled the Mets to build a 10.5-game NL East lead through the end of May, the third-largest in the history of division play (since 1969). Through those first two months, the Braves were outscored by 16 runs, scoring 4.14 per game and allowing 4.46. Their offense hit just .235/.304/.405, but under the adverse conditions that hitters faced early in the year, that was still good for a 97 wRC+. Their hitters did strike out a major league-high 26.2% of the time, but a .292 BABIP (five points above the average for the first two months) and 62 homers (fifth in the majors) helped to offset their contact woes. The offense was particularly dragged down by the production of their outfielders, who collectively hit just .194/.255/.330 with a 30.6% strikeout rate and a 63 wRC+ over those first two months; from among those numbers, only their slugging percentage wasn’t the majors’ worst (it was 27th). I’ve covered the ongoing saga of Atlanta’s outfield multiple times; the play of July acquisitions Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Soler was the key to last year’s turnaround and postseason run once Acuña went down. Duvall and Rosario, the pair that the Braves retained, were among the early-2022 laggards; the latter, who underwent laser surgery on his right eye to correct blurred vision, has been out of the picture since April 24. Acuña, who did not make his season debut until April 28, the Braves’ 20th game of the season, started in right field just 11 times in April and May, serving as the team’s designated hitter another 10 times. Initially and quite understandably, he showed a bit of rust with the bat, striking out 11 times in his first 28 plate appearances, but he began turning things around with a 5-for-11 showing against the Brewers that included two homers (off Eric Lauer and Corbin Burnes) and a double as the Braves took two out of three at home on May 6–8. He’s more or less stayed hot ever since, and over the past few weeks has played almost exclusively in right field, only spotting at DH. During the winning streak, Acuña has hit .349/.431/.674 (200 wRC+) with four homers, with three in a two-game span on June 5 (off the Rockies’ Robert Stephenson) and June 7 (two off Cole Irvin, including one that led off the home half of the first inning). On Saturday against the Pirates in Atlanta, he hit another leadoff homer, this one off Zach Thompson, and later raced home from first base on a bloop single into right field by Dansby Swanson, scoring standing up: The leadoff homer was the 25th of Acuña’s major league career, which began in 2018; since that season only George Springer has more (32), with Pederson and Mookie Betts (both with 21) the only other players with at least 20. Overall, Acuña is hitting .306/.407/.516 with six homers and a 155 wRC+ in 150 PA, and in case you were worried about his agility in the wake of his knee injury, he’s stolen 11 bases in 14 attempts, though his Statcast sprint speed is only in the 73rd percentile so far, down from last year’s 97th. He’s flat-out punishing the ball when he makes contact, with a 92.5 mph average exit velocity, 17.9% barrel rate, and 51.7% hard-hit rate, all of which place him in the 94th percentile or higher. It is worth noting that even while hitting grounders at a career-high 47.1% clip, his .598 xSLG is just a few points off last year’s high (.603). He’s fallen well short of that mark with his actual slugging percentage, but his 82-point shortfall is merely 74th in that category. Duvall, who hit an anemic .190/.258/.268 (49 wRC+) with just two homers in 186 PA through the end of May, has hit .289/.325/.816 in 40 PA during the streak. He’s homered five times in that span, including twice against the Pirates on Sunday and once against the Nationals on Monday; in the latter game, he drew his first two walks of the month. With that big night, he surpassed Acuña for the team’s highest wRC+ during the run (206). Duvall started 43 of the team’s first 46 games in center field, a position that he had scarcely played before last season, when he won a Gold Glove while seeing time at all three positions. Though he’s been up to the defensive demands of the position, according to the metrics, the team felt that the extra running was having an impact upon his offense, and so in late May, manager Brian Snitker shifted him to left field to replace the skidding Marcell Ozuna and to accommodate the arrival of 21-year-old Michael Harris II, the team’s third-round pick from 2019 — a move that has helped on both sides of the ball. Ozuna, who starred for the Braves in 2020, struggled last year and didn’t play after May 25 due to a pair of fractured fingers and then an arrest that led to a prolonged investigation and a 20-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. He has yet to sustain much offense this year, and overall is batting .227/.269/.403 (84 wRC+); throw in his subpar defense (-3.4 UZR, -4 DRS, -2 OAA), and he’s been half a win below replacement level. He’s now the primary DH, with Harris manning center. Chosen out of Stockbridge (Georgia) High School, Harris, a 6-foot, 190-pound lefty, entered the year as the Braves’ fourth-ranked prospect but hadn’t played above High-A. After just 43 games at Double-A Mississippi, where he hit .305/.372/.506 with five homers and 11 steals, he got the call on May 28, thus leapfrogging Drew Waters, Atlanta’s second-round pick in 2017 and current center fielder at Triple-A Gwinnett. While Harris’ 3.3% walk rate, 41.7% chase rate, and 13.9% swinging-strike rate are all somewhat troubling, thus far he has hit a respectable .293/.317/.466 (115 wRC+) and shown off impressive speed and defense. What’s more, he responded well to hitting coach Kevin Seitzer’s adjustment to lower his hands, which prevents him from wrapping the bat behind him. We haven’t published the Braves’ top prospects list just yet, but Eric Longenhagen mentioned him in Tuesday’s Top 100 Tweaks piece, briefly discussing his swing change and noting that he had moved from a 45 FV prospect to a 50 FV one. Longenhagen additionally shared a draft of Harris’ prospect writeup with me, including a more detailed read on the adjustment: Harris’ hands start and are loading much lower now, which may prevent him from cutting down at the baseball quite so much. It’s only been about two weeks since he’s made the change, and of the balls in play since, roughly 52% [now 57%] of them have been on the ground, which is still not great, but the fact that he’s continued to hit big league pitching as a 21-year-old who’s making a swing change on the fly is incredible. It’s too early to draw any real statistical conclusions about what kind of impact this swing change will actually have on Harris’ power output; it may enable him to hit more homers and/or exacerbate some of the issues Harris has already had with in-zone, letter-high fastballs. Despite his 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Harris drew praise for his plate discipline from Seitzer via The Athletic’s David O’Brien. “His strike-zone recognition has been really good. His left-on-left at-bats have been really good — that’s probably impressed me the most, his takes on left-on-left sliders, chase pitches… [And] the defense is just such a huge plus out there, my gosh.” Elsewhere in the lineup, Swanson (112 wRC+ through May, 182 since), Austin Riley (126 wRC+ through May, 144 since), and backup catcher/DH William Contreras (185 wRC+ on both sides of the divide via a scorching .292/.376/.674 line with nine homers in 101 PA) have helped fuel the surging offense, which has averaged 6.92 runs per game during the streak while hitting .282/.343/.551 (143 wRC+). On the other hand, Matt Olson hasn’t joined the ongoing slugfest; after hitting .263/.373/.484 (138 wRC+) through May, he’s down to .200/.273/.340 (62 wRC+) during the streak. Ozzie Albies, who has hit just .244/.289/.405 for a 91 wRC+ overall, did not get it going during the streak, either. Alas, on Monday night against the Nationals, after hitting an infield grounder via an awkward swing, he tripped while leaving the batter’s box and limped off the field. X-rays revealed that he suffered a fracture in his left foot, which will sideline him for the foreseeable future. Orlando Arcia, who took over after Albies left the game, is the likely fill-in. In 56 PA this year, he’s hit a sizzling .313/.393/.458 with a 138 wRC+, nearly twice his career mark (72 wRC+). The Braves have yet to announce a timetable for Albies, but they did place him on the 60-day IL and recalled utilityman Phil Gosselin, who could share in the second base duties. Odds are that they’ll be in the market for a more substantial stopgap at the keystone before trade deadline. On the other side of the ball, the Braves have allowed just 2.92 runs per game during the streak, some of which is owed to a defense which has helped trim the team’s BABIP from .294 to .284. The performance of the rotation, which overall ranks an unimpressive 10th in the NL in ERA (4.22) and seventh in FIP (3.90), has largely maintained its pre-streak divide between over- and underachievers. Max Fried (2.64 ERA, 2.90 FIP) and Kyle Wright (2.57 ERA, 2.85 FIP) have both pitched very well all season, but Ian Anderson (4.81 ERA, 4.52 FIP) and Charlie Morton (5.67 ERA, 4.58 FIP) have walked too many hitters and paid the price. Wright, the fifth pick of the 2017 draft, is enjoying his first sustained success in the majors and is worth a whole article (note to self); batters have managed just a .221 wOBA against his curveball and a .183 mark against his changeup, both of which are much improved. Anderson’s strikeout rate is down four percentage points from last year, to 19.2%, and his strikeout-walk differential has dropped five points to a meager 8.3%. Eep. Six other pitchers made starts for the team in April and May, a couple of them as openers, but the one who has stuck around into the streak is of the most interest: Spencer Strider, a fourth-round 2020 pick out of Clemson University. After making appearances at five levels in 2021, from A-ball to the majors (2.1 innings in two October regular season games), the 23-year-old righty broke camp with the team and made 13 relief appearances, mostly in low-leverage situations. He posted a 2.22 ERA, 1.45 FIP and an ungodly 38.9% strikeout rate on the strength of his high-90s fastball/slider combination, then joined the rotation for his first start on May 30 against the Diamondbacks. Though he’s totaled only 14 innings across three starts, he’s pitched to a 2.57 ERA and 2.92 FIP in that role, with a 33.3% strikeout rate and a changeup that so far has proved to be an effective third pitch. Here’s a sample of what Longenhagen has to say about him: Strider’s moniker is appropriate considering his delivery is so explosive thanks largely to his powerful lower half, while his arm stroke looks almost effortless. Additionally, Strider’s fastball has big carry and flat angle, making it a dominant, 80-grade pitch that should at least enable him to be a great late-inning reliever on its own. His slider, which was reworked during his  TJ rehab to feature more vertical action, is still below-average and not nasty enough to miss bats in the strike zone. It is hard, typically in the 83–87 mph range, but has short movement… While he does appear to slow his arm speed when throwing the changeup, Strider’s fastball arm speed is already so (seemingly) low-effort that he might get away with it, and while he lacks feel for locating his changeup consistently right now, that pitch shows at least as much potential to become a bat-missing offering as his slider — at least it did during my in-person look against the D’Backs. This is definitely a one-pitch guy right now, and at age 24 you’d typically have no compunction bucketing this guy in a bullpen role… But this is an elite pitch we’re talking about, and while it runs counter to his secondary deployment so far, I think there’s room to project on Strider’s changeup [and] hope he’ll eventually have a second above-average offering… In the meantime, the raw power and quality of his fastball will be tested by better lineups who know how to make adjustments and anticipate its line once they’ve seen him once or twice through the order. For what it’s worth, in the start that Longehagen saw, Strider didn’t get a single swing and miss on the seven sliders he threw, but he’s gotten 14 on the 49 thrown in his two starts since (28.5%) and given up just one base hit in 13 PA. Overall, batters have hit and slugged just .179 against the slider, with a 52.1% whiff rate and just an 84.1 mph average exit velocity. We’ll see how well those hold up as more of the league gets a look. As for the bullpen, through the first two months it led the majors with a 2.98 FIP and 3.1 WAR and ranked second with a 3.30 ERA. It’s only gotten stingier during the streak, with a 1.56 ERA and 2.33 FIP, not to mention a 30.8%s strikeout rate and 4.1% walk rate. All of this has happened with 2021 postseason stalwart Tyler Matzek on the injured list; he’s been sidelined since mid-May due to shoulder inflammation and only recently began playing long toss. New closer Kenley Jansen and new setup man A.J. Minter have been particularly noteworthy in picking up the slack; the former has a 3.25 ERA and 2.20 FIP and has already notched 18 saves, and the latter, whom Ben Clemens profiled recently, has a 1.01 ERA and 1.01 FIP. The Braves’ run has roughly doubled their odds of overcoming the Mets’ hot start to win the NL East, and boosted their chances of making the postseason by nearly 23 percentage points: Braves Change in Playoff Odds Date W L W% Div Lead Win Div Clinch Bye Clinch WC Make Playoffs Win WS April-May 23 27 .460 10.5 16.5% 6.8% 43.8% 60.4% 6.3% June 12 0 1.000 5.0 33.6% 28.7% 49.4% 83.1% 10.6% Change +17.1% +21.9% +5.6% +22.7% +4.3% As with last year, when they were just 52–54 through the end of July, the Braves have avoided letting a sluggish start define their season. They’re a long way from matching last year’s impressive conclusion, but their June surge gives them a fighting chance at a repeat performance.