Even With the Return of Acuña and Ozuna, the Braves’ Outfield Has Scuffled

© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Last fall, the Braves won a championship with an outfield that bore no resemblance to the one that they used for the first half of the 2021 season, as circumstances required president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos to perform an on-the-fly remake that yielded impressive results. In fact, two of the four outfielders he acquired in trade in July, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler, wound up winning MVP honors in the postseason, the former in the NLCS against the Dodges and the latter in the World Series against the Astros. Yet even with two of the principals whose absences necessitated that makeover — Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna — back in action, this year’s outfield has been a major weakness for a team that has stumbled to an 11-15 start.

We’re still in small-sample territory to be sure — particularly with regards to the individual performances — but through Wednesday, Braves outfielders have hit a combined .191/.261/.331 for a 72 wRC+ in that role, the fifth-lowest mark in the majors. Worse, the team has dipped into the same player pool to cover its designated hitter spot, and they’ve done more sinking than swimming, hitting .171/.235/.226 for a 36 wRC+, the majors’ third-lowest mark. That lack of production has weighed down the team’s entire offense, which ranks 12th in the NL at 3.77 runs per game. Not to be outdone on the other side of the ball, Atlanta’s outfield is tied for last in the majors in both UZR (-6.3) and DRS (-7), though here I’ll remind everyone not to get overly-invested in four week’s worth of defensive metrics; both the outfield and DH spots are second-to-last in the majors in WAR, with -0.8 and -0.9, respectively. In Tuesday’s doubleheader loss to the Mets, their outfielders and DHs went a combined 4-for-28, though Travis Demeritte did drive in their only run that wasn’t accounted for by Matt Olson’s three-run homer, and Acuña collected one of their two extra-base hits outside of Olson’s pair.

To be fair, the sorry statistics above include only five games worth of Acuña, who’s showing signs of returning to form after tearing his right ACL while trying to make a leaping catch last July 10. The 24-year-old superstar was activated on April 28, but the team has taken a cautious tack regarding his usage, playing him in the field three times, DHing him twice and giving him a day off as well — a situation that’s further exposing the lack of production from the rest of the unit.

When Acuña went down last year, he was hitting .283/.394/.596 (157 wRC+), leading the NL in WAR, and making a case for himself as the league’s MVP. His loss felt particularly acute with Ozuna already out of action since late May, first due to a pair of fractured fingers and then an arrest on charges of aggravated assault strangulation and misdemeanor battery; he was placed on administrative leave while Major League Baseball conducted an investigation in connection with its domestic violence policy. With both stars out, and with center field largely a sinkhole, Anthopoulos traded for Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, Soler, and Rosario in July. All four made significant contributions down the stretch and in the postseason, capped by the aforementioned work of Rosario and Soler. The team’s gaudy World Series ring even includes a pearl in tribute to Pederson’s iconic necklace, as well as the date 7-30-21 commemorating the acquisition of the other three outfielders.

Like most teams, the Braves didn’t get a whole lot done before the lockout began in December, though Ozuna was reinstated to the roster after having a 20-game suspension retroactively applied. Once the lockout ended in March, Pederson and Soler officially left the fold via free agency, with the former inking a one-year deal with the Giants and the latter signing a three-year deal with the Marlins. Rosario stuck around Atlanta with a two-year, $18 million deal. Duvall declined his end of a $7 million mutual option but remained arbitration eligible, and will be paid either $9.925 million or $10.925 million this year, not including the $3 million buyout he pocketed. That’s a nice bump from the $2 million he made last year and from the team that non-tendered him in December 2020 to boot, but then a 38-homer season accompanied by a league-leading RBI total and a Gold Glove will do that, even when you post a .281 on-base percentage.

The Braves also made two other outfield-related transactions of note in March. On March 14, they traded prospect Cristian Pache — who started nine of the team’s first 11 games last year before being sent back to Triple-A — to the A’s as part of the package that brought back Olson. Two days later, they signed Alex Dickerson to a one-year, $1 million deal.

The team knew Acuña wouldn’t be available to start the season. He’d undergone surgery just before the All-Star break, and returned to taking on-field batting practice on January 12, but his recovery had not progressed far enough for him to play in Grapefruit League games, and the understanding was that he would join the team in early May. Without him, the Braves appeared ready to roll into the season with an Ozuna-Duvall-Rosario outfield, backed up by Orlando Arcia and Guillermo Heredia, and Dickerson as the designated hitter — not a very strong looking arrangement, but not intended to be a permanent one, either. Still, nobody could have envisioned this kind of flimsiness.

Ozuna led the NL in both homers and RBIs in 2020 while hitting for a 178 wRC+, but he was struggling mightily last year (.213/.288/.356, 73 wRC+) before he broke two fingers sliding into third base on May 25. He’s shown some power early, collecting nine extra-base hits, but with just one hit in his last 20 plate appearances, including an 0-for-8 in Tuesday’s doubleheader, he’s hitting just .225/.259/.392 for an 86 wRC+. He has been overly aggressive at the plate, with his 38.9% chase rate and 53.2% swing rate both representing career highs, and both about six percentage points above his career rates (did someone say pressing?). If there’s good news, it’s in his batted ball stats, particularly his 13.3% barrel rate and 48.2% hard-hit rate. His Statcast expected numbers are solid, with a .275 xBA, .548 xSLG, and .356 xwOBA; the 156-point gap between his actual and expected slugging percentages places him in the majors’ bottom 20 among the 169 players with at least 75 PA.

Duvall has batted ball stats ahead of his actual stats, but that’s not saying much given his .178/.240/.267 (47 wRC+) line and 33% strikeout rate. Though he’s averaging 91.1 mph with his exit velocity, and his 44.1% hard-hit rate is actually above last year’s mark, his 6.8% barrel rate is less than half of last year’s 16.1%. In fact, he has the majors’ fourth-largest year-to-year drop in barrel rate thus far:

Largest Drops in Barrel Rate, 2021-22
# Player Team 2021 2022 Change
1 Shohei Ohtani LAA 22.3% 8.7% -13.6%
2 Bobby Dalbec BOS 20.2% 8.7% -11.5%
3 Joey Votto CIN 17.2% 6.7% -10.6%
4 Adam Duvall ATL 16.1% 6.8% -9.3%
5 Tyler O’Neill STL 17.9% 9.8% -8.1%
6 Dylan Carlson STL 7.0% 0.0% -7.0%
7 Jesse Winker SEA 11.2% 4.2% -7.0%
8 Josh Donaldson NYY 17.4% 10.5% -6.9%
9 Randy Arozarena TBR 8.2% 1.6% -6.7%
10 Nathaniel Lowe TEX 9.5% 3.0% -6.6%
Minimum 400 plate appearances in 2021 and 75 in ’22.

Duvall has been utterly bedeviled by breaking balls thus far. Where he hit .256 and slugged .605 against them last year, he’s at .139 AVG/.167 SLG this year, and his swinging strike rate against such pitches has risen from 19.5% to 26.9%. He’s additionally hitless against offspeed pitches, which foiled him last year as well (.132 AVG/.264 SLG); against those two categories, he’s barreled just one ball so far (3.8%).

While Ozuna and Duvall at least remain available, Rosario could be out of action until after the All-Star break. He went just 3-for-44 with five walks and 10 strikeouts before going on the injured list on April 26 due to blurred vision and swelling in his right eye; he underwent laser surgery and will miss eight to 12 weeks. The Braves were unaware of his condition until he told them, and at this writing, neither he nor the team have provided clarity (sorry) regarding the cause or the timing of the problem.

Dickerson didn’t fare much better. Coming off a disappointing 2021 season (.233/.304/.420, 97 wRC+) after a breakout ’20 (.298/.371/.576, 151 wRC+), he went just 4-for-33 with a homer and three walks while playing almost exclusively in the DH role; he spent one inning in right field on April 20. The Braves designated him for assignment on April 28 while activating Acuña about a week ahead of their previously targeted May 6 date for his return. Dickerson cleared waivers and accepted an assignment to Triple-A Gwinnett.

With Rosario and Dickerson both gone, the Braves have given more exposure to Heredia, Arcia, and Demeritte. Hereida hasn’t hit, going 3-for-27 with a 46.7% strikeout rate, but the other two have been productive within their limited roles. The 27-year-old Arcia, a shortstop-turned-utilityman who entered the year with a career line of .242/.293/.363 (70 wRC+) and was even worse than that last year, has hit .296/.394/.370 through 33 PA, walking at a 15.2% clip (more than double his 6.8% career mark) and barreling three balls, one more than he had in 89 PA last season. The 27-year-old Demeritte, a 2013 first round pick who didn’t play in the majors last year after hitting .217/.284/.323 with the Tigers in ’19-20, has hit .303/.368/.545 through 38 PA; his two homers are double Duvall’s total.

Acuña is just 3-for-20 with a 34.8% strikeout rate at this writing, but Monday and Tuesday offered strong signs of his returning to form. In the third inning of Monday night’s game, he legged out a chopper to third base against Chris Bassitt; while he was initially ruled out, the call on the field was overturned. In the seventh inning of that game, he put a charge into a Bassitt slider and hit it 109.4 mph to deep center field, where Brandon Nimmo made a leaping catch to rob him of an extra-base hit. He began Monday’s nightcap by roping a Carlos Carrasco fastball into the left field corner for a double. Not only was it his first extra-base hit of the year, its 116.6 mph exit velocity was the 10th-highest of any batted ball in this young season.

Even given those signs that Acuña is close to all the way back, the Braves are going to proceed with some caution, with manager Brian Snitker saying that he might not be used on an everyday basis in the field until July, when he’s a year removed from surgery. In light of that, don’t hold your breath waiting for a return to center field, where he played just two games last year. Even so, already on the road trip to New York the Braves have relaxed what might be called the Ronald Rules. Monday night’s game represented the first time this year that he played the day after traveling, and Wednesday afternoon’s series finale was his first time playing a day game after a night game, albeit as the DH.

A fully operational Acuña would be a huge boost for the defending champions, though they’ll still need Ozuna and Duvall to start hitting as well, and they’ll probably need another productive bat in the mix, too, given how unlikely it is that Arcia and Demeritte can maintain their hot starts or that the collection of journeymen they have stashed at Gwinnnett — Dickerson, Delino DeShields, Phil Gosselin, Preston Tucker — can provide an upgrade. Between Anthopoulous’ deals and their rally from a 52-55 record last year, they’ve proven to themselves that a slow start can be overcome, but with the Mets (18-8) already seven games ahead of them in the standings, they have their work cut out.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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1 year ago

Sorry. It is the Mets year. They may have successfully bought the title this year

1 year ago
Reply to  miltonfriedman

I just enjoy someone who shares a username with a prominent economist bemoaning someone “buying” something.

1 year ago
Reply to  Phil

prominent quack*

1 year ago
Reply to  Phil

I don’t get why a team paying its players rather than the owners pocketing more profits is described as buying a championship. The problem is the other teams not investing more.

1 year ago
Reply to  demilio

TBF, these are not mutually exclusive categories.

Antonio Bananas
1 year ago
Reply to  Phil

I’d love to see some version of LVT applied to baseball franchises. Don’t tax them on payroll, tax them on the value of the unimproved franchise.

Do you see the cat?

1 year ago
Reply to  miltonfriedman

The mets are the luckiest hitting team (.309 BABIP, 1st in MLB while 29th in hard hit rate), that offense is going to fall off a cliff fast.