Sunday’s Humiliation Highlights Braves’ Slow Start

Officially recognized or not, one team’s no-hitter is another team’s humiliation, and so the Braves were nearly doubly humbled during Sunday’s twin bill against the Diamondbacks — and at home, no less. In the opener at Truist Park, Zac Gallen held Atlanta to a lone Freddie Freeman single, while in the nightcap, Madison Bumgarner kept them completely hitless while facing the minimum number of batters. Though the Braves rebounded to beat the Cubs on Monday, they’re just 10-12 thus far, tied for third in the NL East and bearing only passing resemblance to the team that has won three straight division titles.

To be fair, until Sunday the Braves’ fortunes had been on the rise. After opening the season by sandwiching two four-game losing streaks around a four-game winning streak, they had gone 5-2 by taking two out of three from the Cubs in Chicago, splitting a two-game set with the Yankees in the Bronx, and then winning the series opener against the Diamondbacks. Even so, the team entered Sunday hitting just .228/.323/.424, and they’ve fallen to .219/.315/.407 (97 wRC+) even with Monday’s 8-7 win. They’ve managed to stretch that discouraging batting line to 4.50 runs per game, good for fifth in the NL, but on the other side of the ball, they’re allowing a league-worst 5.00 runs per game.

Sunday sticks out like a sore thumb, though, so we’ll dig into the offense first. By getting just one hit over two games of any length, the Braves became just the second team in the past 113 years to join a very short list:

Two Games, One Hit
Team Opponent Start End No-Hit Pitcher PA R H BB SO AVG/OBP/SLG
BRO STL/CHC 9/24/1906 (2)* 9/25/1906 Stoney McGlynn 56 1 1 4 10 .020/.093/.020
BOS BRO 9/5/1908 (2)* 9/7/1908 (1) Nap Rucker 57 1 1 2 14 .019/.054/.019
HOU CHC 9/14/2008* 9/15/2008 Carlos Zambrano 59 1 1 4 20 .019/.102/.019
ATL ARI 4/25/2021 (1) 4/25/2021 (2)* M. Bumgarner 45 0 1 2 13 .024/.089/024
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = no-hit game, regardless of official MLB designation.

A few explanations are required here. In the 1906 games of the Brooklyn Superbas (later the Dodgers), they were no-hit over seven innings by McGlynn, but scratched out a run via a walk and an error in the first inning; darkness ended the game with the score tied 1-1. The Superbas were on the other end of the equation two years later against the Boston Doves (as the Braves were known from 1907-10 after being purchased by brothers George and John Dovey). In that one, Rucker didn’t walk a batter or give up a hit while striking out 14, but three Doves reached base due to errors. While the Doves collected just one hit in their next game two days later, they did win that one, 1-0, making them the only one of the four teams here to collect a W. The Cubs-Astros games were relocated from Minute Maid Park to Miller Park due to Hurricane Ike, making Zambrano’s no-hitter the first ever thrown at a neutral site. With two seven-inning games, this year’s Braves didn’t extend their futility for quite as long as the other teams, but there’s still no fig leaf that can hide a 1-for-42 showing.

By re-signing free agent Marcell Ozuna in February, the Braves basically kept intact an offense that placed second in the NL last season at 5.80 runs per game, shedding only free agents Adam Duvall and Nick Markakis, the latter of whom retired. While they weren’t going to sustain that level of scoring over a 162-game season, they had every reason to think their offense would be better than it’s been. It’s been decidedly top-heavy, with Ronald Acuña Jr. off to a spectacular start, hitting .361/.460/.764 with seven home runs for an NL-best 219 wRC+, but only two other regulars with a wRC+ of at least 100. Freeman, the reigning NL MVP, is hitting .208/.358/.468 (121 wRC+); he began the year by going 5-for-35 with four homers in his first 10 games, yielding an .038 BABIP, though he’s now up to a comparatively robust .169 in that department. Austin Riley’s hitting .246/.382/.344 (106 wRC+), reasonably productive but surprisingly powerless.

Additionally, the team has gotten a 97 wRC+ from its center fielders, but at least that mark is on the rise. Highly-regarded rookie Cristian Pache opened the year as the starter, but went just 2-for-30 with one walk and 13 strikeouts before landing on the Injured List due to a groin strain; upon being reinstated on April 24, he was optioned to the alternate training site. Ender Inciarte and Guillermo Heredia have shared the job since then, and have both been productive in small samples, with the latter getting the lion’s share of the playing time so far.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ozuna, Ozzie Albies, and Dansby Swanson are carrying batting averages of .186 or lower, with Travis d’Arnaud having gotten off the interstate only with Monday night’s two-hit game. Ozuna’s .298 on-base percentage is the only one of that quartet above .265, while Albies’ .366 slugging percentage is the only one above .343. The quartet’s wRC+ figures ranged from 58 (Ozuna) to 73 (Albies). It’s grim.

For as bad as the individual slash stats generally look — to say nothing of their basis in small samples — the Braves hitters are underperforming substantially relative to their Statcast metrics.

Braves Lineup Regulars vs. Statcast
Player PA BBE AVG xBA dif SLG xSLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA dif
Ozzie Albies 83 60 .169 .314 -.145 .366 .513 -.147 .277 .381 -.104
Freddie Freeman 95 65 .208 .307 -.099 .468 .690 -.222 .352 .435 -.083
Dansby Swanson 88 53 .188 .240 -.052 .338 .475 -.137 .267 .333 -.066
Travis d’Arnaud 72 50 .209 .252 -.043 .343 .482 -.139 .259 .323 -.064
Marcell Ozuna 94 54 .185 .213 -.028 .235 .330 -.095 .254 .295 -.041
Ronald Acuna Jr. 87 61 .361 .390 -.029 .764 .815 -.051 .506 .504 .002
Austin Riley 76 44 .246 .229 .017 .344 .384 -.040 .330 .317 .013
All statistics through April 26. Yellow = at least .050 below expected.

Albies, Freeman, and Swanson all have batting averages at least 50 points below their xBA, slugging percentages at least 100 points below their xSLG, and wOBAs at least 64 points below their xwOBAs, and d’Arnaud is in that group on all but batting average. All of that is to say that they’re hitting the ball better than their results indicate. Those four hitters are in the 83rd to 95th percentiles as far as their wOBA-xwOBA gaps, and as a whole, this team has been generally unlucky, especially given that none of their players is outdoing their xwOBAs by more than 13 points. As a team, the Braves’ -.027 gap is the 10th-largest in the majors, though it’s worth noting that baseball as a whole is .020 below its xwOBA, and every team at least one point below expectations due to some combination of cooler early-season weather and the new ball; eventually, the metric will be recalibrated.

Given that the Braves are still scoring runs (Sunday excepted), arguably the bigger problem is their run prevention. Before getting to the pitching itself, it’s worth noting (with the usual provisos about early-season defensive metrics) that the team’s .690 defensive efficiency is second-to-last in the NL, 11 points ahead of the Mets (which, y-i-k-e-s) and 18 points below the NL average. That said, by DRS, the team has been seven runs above average, tied for fifth in the NL.

The rotation has been the biggest weakness, with the NL’s highest ERA (5.29) and second-highest FIP (5.13) thanks to a major league-worst 2.03 home runs allowed per nine. To be fair, the unit has been without Mike Soroka, who after missing all but three starts last year due to a ruptured right Achilles tendon has been sidelined by shoulder discomfort and has not resumed throwing yet, so he has no timetable for a return. Additionally, Max Fried has been on the IL since April 14 after tweaking his right hamstring while running the bases. The Braves are targeting their May 4-6 series against the Nationals for his return.

Individually, Fried (11.45 ERA, 6.27 FIP, 2.4 HR/9) and Drew Smyly (7.20 ERA, 6.89 FIP, 3.6 HR/9) have been the worst of the regulars (Smyly’s five-run first inning opposite Bumgarner wasn’t much help, to say the least), while fill-ins Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright, who have combined for three starts and 13.1 innings (2.1 more than Fried) have been torched as well. Morton is the only one allowing less than a homer per nine (0.95); he, Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa have all put up respectable if unexceptional ERAs and FIPs, but Morton is the only starter with a Statcast xERA — expected ERA based on batted ball stats — below 5.10.

The Morton/Anderson/Ynoa trio has pitched to a 4.04 ERA and 4.00 FIP across 13 starts, averaging just under six innings per turn, but in the team’s other nine starts, the other quartet has served up a 7.09 ERA and 6.48 FIP while averaging about 4.1 innings. Collectively, Braves starters have allowed five runs or more in seven starts, two more than any other NL team and ahead of only the Mariners among all teams; they’re 2-5 in those games, with Monday night’s win — during which Morton allowed five runs in 5.1 innings after being staked to a 4-0 first-inning lead — representing their second.

For all of that, we’re obviously talking about small samples again; of the “bad” quartet, Smyly’s 15 innings lead the pack, and even of the “better” trio, their totals are in the 20s. As for the bullpen, collectively it’s fourth in the NL in FIP (3.90) but 11th in ERA (4.32). The unit has done a very good job of keeping the ball in the park (0.82 HR/9), but its 25.7% strikeout rate is middle-of-the-pack, and its 12.8% walk rate the league’s fifth-highest. Their high-leverage guys — closer Will Smith, setup men A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek, and middlemen Luke Jackson and Nate Jones — are all walking too many batters, with all but Minter above 16.2%, and both Jackson and Jones basically underwater as far ask K-BB% rates are concerned (-3.0% and 0.0%, respectively). As problems go, the Braves have bigger ones, though getting setup man Chris Martin back from a bout of shoulder inflammation that has sidelined him since April 10 should help, and likewise with regards to lefty Sean Newcomb, who’s on the IL for what are reportedly COVID-19-related reasons.

At 10-12, the Braves are hardly buried, and at 45.6%, their Playoff Odds are still the NL’s fifth-highest, but the projected gap between them and the Mets, which was 3.5 wins at the outset of the season (91.5 to 88.0) has more than doubled (91.7 to 84.4). The numbers suggest their bats will come around, and Fried should be back soon and hopefully in better form, but this is a team that has work to do to turn their fortunes around.

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... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

Yeah, the Braves’ offense has looked comically bad at times, and yet…they are 11th in wRC+ in MLB. They have the 4th most home runs in MLB, despite not having a DH and the fact that they decided to stick a guy in CF for the first half of the season who is a worse hitter than their pitching staff.

They’re only 1.5 games back, and the team that is leading the division has the exact same run differential as them (the Marlins are the only team in the division with a positive run differential). So it’s not like they can’t come back.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

getting Fried back in a week and having their results fall in line with their Statcast numbers is absolutely a reasonable expectation.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Lot tougher competition this year, not that that’s a huge factor so far. But it will be.