Struggling Braves Won’t Have Huascar Ynoa or Mike Soroka for Awhile

Despite all the injuries the Mets are dealing with — including losing two key regulars to hamstring injuries in the same inning on Sunday and then two more players the next day — they still lead the NL East with a 20-17 record while the Braves lag behind and languish below .500 at 20-23. The latter’s hopes for a fourth straight division title have taken a significant hit over the past several days with their own losses of two starting pitchers. Mike Soroka, who had yet to appear for the team this year, underwent exploratory surgery on his inflamed right Achilles tendon on Monday, while Huascar Ynoa was diagnosed with a fracture in his right hand sustained when he punched a dugout bench in frustration on Sunday, thus interrupting a breakout season. Both will be out until at least the All-Star break, and quite possibly longer than that.

For Soroka, this is just the latest disappointment in a frustrating series of events that began last August 3. Three starts into the follow-up of a stellar rookie season in which he made the NL All-Star team and placed second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, he tore his right Achilles, sidelining him for the remainder of the 2020 campaign. The Braves hoped that he would be available to join their rotation by mid-April, but after making just one Grapefruit League appearance and several in simulated games at the team’s alternate site, he was shut down due to shoulder discomfort and wasn’t cleared to resume throwing until late April.

After experiencing renewed discomfort in his surgically repaired Achilles during his recent workouts, Soroka had an MRI, and when that proved inconclusive, he underwent an exploratory procedure and clean-up by Dr. Robert Anderson, the surgeon who performed his initial repair. Via The Athletic’s David O’Brien, Anderson will reevaluate the pitcher in two-to-four weeks, “to determine if anything else needs to be done and when he might be able to resume his rehab schedule.”

As for Ynoa, after being pulled following a five-run, 4.1-inning start in Milwaukee — just the second time in eight starts in which he’d allowed more than two runs — he punched a padded dugout bench with his pitching hand. As anyone who’s watched Bull Durham can attest, that’s a no-no. In the annals of 21st century pitchers who have injured themselves while punching inanimate objects, the likes of Kevin Brown, A.J. Burnett, Ryan Mattheus, Alex Reyes, and Julian Tavarez at least had the presence of mind to follow Crash Davis’ advice and use their non-pitching hands. On the other hand (literally), anger seems to have clouded the sensibilities of John Lamb, Hunter Strickland, and now Ynoa, as they made efforts to turn their meal ticket into a maraca.

After Ynoa began experiencing significant pain in his hand during the team’s flight back to Atlanta, he underwent tests that revealed a fracture. Manager Brian Snitker said that he’ll miss substantial time. “It’s going to be a couple months that he’ll be down, then we’ll have to get him built back up.”

That’s a devastating blow given the work Ynoa had done thus far. After being knocked around for a 7.30 ERA and 5.10 FIP in 24.2 innings in 2019-20, the 22-year-old righty added nearly two miles per hour to his fastball velocity (from 94.8 mph to 96.7, according to Statcast) and had pitched to a 3.02 ERA and 3.74 FIP in 44.2 innings this year. In his April 14 scouting notebook, Kevin Goldstein shed some light on what changed:

The Braves raised his release point a touch this year, and the early results have been the best we’ve ever seen from him, including a career-high 10 strikeouts against Miami on Monday night, helping to cement his spot in Atlanta’s rotation for the time being. Ynoa is a pure power pitcher, with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball with a bit of rising shape leading the charge. His slider is performing quite well, and is what evaluators refer to as “velo-driven,” with it’s 85-89 mph velocity generating the performance here more than any kind of big break. Changeups and two-seamers are rare, and it’s a challenge to survive in a starting role with a two-pitch mix, but if both are swing-and-miss pitches, it can be done. Most importantly, Ynoa is throwing more strikes than ever. He’s not exactly commanding anything, but there’s at least control, and the raw stuff is good enough to succeed as long as he can keep his spray in the zone. This all looks and feels like a step forward, and Ynoa is suddenly another young starter with star-level potential for the Braves.

Ynoa’s 27.9% strikeout rate, 6.1% walk rate, and 15.8% strikeout-walk differential are all the best among Braves starters and rank among the NL’s top 15, and he’s further added to his value by going 6-for-17 at the plate with a double and a pair of homers, including a May 4 grand slam off the Nationals’ Tanner Rainey. His 1.2 combined WAR (0.7 pitching, 0.5 hitting) is good for second on the team behind only Ronald Acuña Jr.

Ynoa’s loss leaves Ian Anderson as the only Braves starter with an ERA that’s better than league average, and the same was true with regards to FIP until Charlie Morton’s strong outing against the Mets on Wednesday night:

Braves Starting Pitchers, 2021
Ian Anderson 45.0 3.20 79 3.60 90 4.30
Huascar Ynoa 43.2 3.09 77 3.75 94 4.70*
Charlie Morton 45.0 4.60 114 3.89 97 3.72
Tucker Davidson 6.0 4.50 111 4.13 103 4.48
Max Fried 28.0 5.46 135 4.21 105 4.76
Bryse Wilson 18.0 5.50 136 6.36 160 4.10
Drew Smyly 31.0 5.23 129 6.49 163 5.60
Kyle Wright 4.1 4.15 103 7.98 201 6.78
All statistics through May 19 and include only performance as a starter except *

As a unit, the Braves rotation ranks ninth in the NL in ERA (4.28) and 13th in both FIP (4.50) and WAR (1.7), a major disappointment given that they were forecast as the eighth-best unit in the majors via our preseason Positional Power Rankings. Home runs have been a particular problem; the starters’ 1.51 yielded per nine innings is the league’s third-worst, while their 24.2% strikeout rate and 8.4% walk rate are merely middling.

Max Fried has strung together three one-run starts since returning from a three-week absence due to a right hamstring strain suffered while running the bases on April 13, but the two pitchers on whom they spent money via free agency, Morton and Drew Smyly, have been shaky. Morton had a stretch of allowing four or more runs four times in a five-start stretch; Wednesday’s effort was his first quality start in nearly a month. For as mediocre as his results have been, he’s the only one who has suppressed hard contact enough to have an xERA that’s better than the league average. Smyly has also pitched well in his last two outings after four straight with at least four runs allowed, only one of which lasted six innings. Even so, his 2.61 homers per nine is still the highest rate among NL starters with at least 30 innings, and his 10.4% strikeout-walk differential ranks in the bottom quartile of that group.

Tucker Davidson, a 25-year-old lefty, turned in a solid six-inning effort against the Mets on Tuesday in just his second major league appearance. The team’s No. 13 prospect entering the season, he’s got a 91-95 mph fastball and two breaking balls that are occasionally plus, though his command is just 40-grade. While he was optioned back to Triple-A Gwinnett after his outing, he’s in the mix to fill Ynoa’s slot along with Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright, neither of whom has pitched well in their limited opportunities either this year or last. The former has a 4.15 ERA and 5.04 FIP in 26 innings as a starter over that span, the latter a 5.10 ERA and 6.11 FIP in 42.1 innings in that role. Touki Toussaint, who was roughed up as well in his stint with the team last year, has been shelved by a shoulder strain and as such isn’t a candidate for the fifth spot.

Even if one of those young pitchers emerges as a stable fifth starter in Ynoa’s absence, the team is likely to be in the hunt for outside help come July — if, that is, the Braves are showing enough to mark themselves as contenders. Their problems right now are hardly confined to the rotation. Marcell Ozuna (.207/.283/.331), Dansby Swanson (.209/.270/.361), and Travis d’Arnaud (.220/.253/.341) have all been dreadful, with a wRC+ of 72 or lower, and Freddie Freeman (.227/.353/.481, 122 wRC+) has been nowhere near last year’s MVP form. Their defense is in a virtual tie for the NL’s third lowest defensive efficiency (.685, 16 points below league average), and their bullpen has been nothing to write home about either. At 29.7%, the team’s Playoff Odds are less than half what they were heading into Opening Day (63.8%); the 34.1% drop is the NL’s largest. Maybe it’s enough to make somebody want to punch something, but please, not with the pitching hand.

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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

newest oldest most voted

As a Braves fan, I keep telling myself that it can’t get any worse. There have been some positive signs of late. Freddie over the last 14 games has produced a 171 wRC+ and .5 fWAR. So he may be turning it around. Acuña is healthy and raking again for us. And security is now alerted to any wooden benches that may be looking for trouble, so that shouldn’t be an issue any more either.

Antonio Bananas
Antonio Bananas

Silver lining is the whole division is under performing. Only 3.5 back despite an inspiring start.