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Atlanta Braves scuffle through May

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April was marked by streaks. May was marked by a tragic injury, bad pitching, and another sad road trip out West.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Los Angeles Angels
Brandon Phillips actually made this catch, though.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

One bit of traditional baseball wisdom entails taking stock of a team’s performance around Memorial Day. Well, it’s now a few days past that holiday, and the Braves sit at 22-29, on pace for a 70-win season. The month of May did not help their cause: after a 10-13 April, the Braves followed that up with a 12-16 effort in May. More dreadful, though, was the highly unfortunate injury suffered by Freddie Freeman. Before his injury, Freeman had already compiled 2.7 fWAR and a 207 wRC+. Freeman hasn’t played in two weeks (and won’t for at least six more), but is still fifth in baseball by fWAR, and has produced more offensive value than any player other than Mike Trout (who, as part of this vengeful May, is also now out of action with an injury of his own).

As I noted last month, April was weirdly full of streaks for the Braves. May, however, was not: the Braves had one six-game losing streak, and one three-game winning streak, but otherwise kind of bounced back and forth. Of the month’s 28 games, 12 of them were part of either a two-game winning streak or a two-game losing streak. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s how the month transpired, series by series:

  • Lost a series at home to the Mets;
  • Swept at home by the Cardinals;
  • Swept in Houston by the Astros in a two-game set;
  • Won a series in Miami;
  • Took two straight in Toronto, then split the remaining two games of the series in Atlanta;
  • Took a series from the Nationals at home;
  • Split a four-game series at home with the Pirates;
  • Lost a series in San Francisco; and finally
  • Lost a series in Anaheim.

The Braves will enter June with the league’s sixth-worst record (Phillies, Padres, Marlins, Giants, Royals are teams that are even worse, and yes, right now, the Phillies have a worse record than the Padres). They also have the league’s sixth-worst run differential, and have given up the third-most runs per game in baseball. The pitching’s been bad, folks. There’s no way around that.

Recall that before the season, I had the Braves pegged at 76 wins, and most expectations were in a 70-76 win range. Right now, with the existing record banked, the Fangraphs end-of-season projected record is 71-91 for this crew. It’s a slight improvement over the last two seasons, to be sure, but it’s hard for me to say that the Braves haven’t been disappointing to date, with Freeman’s injury creating a giant black mark on the entire season.

Breaking down the month by team production components doesn’t reveal many silver linings:

  • Hitting-wise, the Braves had half of the month with Freeman, and half without. Their position players ended May with an aggregate 100 wRC+ for the month. They did, however, finish last in the majors with just 23 May home runs, which is maybe a little weird given the narratives about the heightened offensive production associated with SunTrust Park thus far. The Braves finished 18th in MLB in position player production for the month, and eighth in MLB by this metric. Not awful, but hardly exciting. We miss you, berserk video game numbers Freddie Freeman. For what it’s worth, the bench trio of Emilio Bonifacio, Danny Santana, and Jace Peterson were ridiculously awful in May. If the Braves got just replacement-level production out of those three guys, they’d jump five spots on the monthly position player value rankings.
  • The pitching, and specifically the rotation, were abysmal. The rotation placed in the bottom five by ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and tied with the Reds for the worst fWAR mark in the month, while ranking second (to the Phillies) in terms of worst RA9-WAR. It almost goes without saying that the rotation was substantially below replacement level. Atlanta starters only struck out about 13 percent of the hitters they faced, the worst mark in baseball for the month, and were tied for fourth in homers allowed, with 30. In today’s game, hitting few homers and allowing a lot of homers is a good way to end up with a pretty crappy month.
  • The bullpen was relatively sparsely used in April, but bounced back to average usage patterns in May. While it had a very good run, driven by some great pitching from Jason Motte, Jose Ramirez, Arodys Vizcaino, and Jim Johnson, the monthly aggregate puts the relief corps in the middle of the pack, with a 3.86 ERA (16th in MLB), 4.19 FIP (23rd in MLB), 4.46 xFIP (22nd in MLB), and a below-average-ish leverage-weighted FIP-based performance (0.2 fWAR, 22nd in MLB). The four aforementioned relievers did pitch very well throughout the month, but 26 innings of awfulness from Josh Collmenter (booted off the team), Eric O’Flaherty (DLed with a ruptured success gland, perhaps?) and Ian Krol (can now be found under the dictionary definition of “reliever volatility”) erased almost all of that good work on a value basis.

With that said, there were still some notable and laudable things in sometimes-aggravating, sometimes-soporific, and sometimes just plain baseball-y month.

May’s Most Excellent Braves Hitter

Sure, he only played for half the month, but Freddie Freeman continued his unholy assault on all sorts of pitching before his wrist’s soul-rending, hearstring-tearing run-in with an Aaron Loup-hurled baseball.

While not quite as berserk as his April (227 wRC+), Freeman still put up a 177 wRC+ in May, belting five homers and five doubles in 64 plate appearances in the process. Just to put that into perspective, Matt Kemp also had a crazy 150 wRC+ for the entire month, but “only” managed to hit four homers in over 120 PAs. I miss you, Freddie Freeman. Get well soon, and may your rampage continue unceasingly when you return.

May’s Most Excellent Braves Starting Pitcher

The rotation was bad. Really bad. However, Jaime Garcia was good. Really good. Garcia threw up a 2.45 ERA over the month, aided in large part by a .242 BABIP and a groundball rate a hair over 70 percent. His FIP was not quite that sparkling (3.71), but keeping the ball out of the air helped him give up just two homers in the month and keep his team in games, even when he was walking guys and not really striking anyone out.

Overall, Garcia had two bad starts at the beginning of the month (four runs in each), but then proceeded to allow just one earned run over his next three starts (through he did allow three unearned runs across those three starts).

Garcia continues to show some weird variability with regard to his peripherals (in four of his ten starts, he’s walked more guys than he’s struck out, but he also has two starts where he had a 6/1 and 8/0 K/BB ratio), but the Braves were in every single game he pitched this month and either won them, or lost them by two runs or fewer. Despite a not-so-great April, Garcia has vaulted to the top of the rotation as far as year-to-date stats with his strong May. He has the best ERA and FIP among the bunch, and is very close to Mike Foltynewicz in xFIP. Hopefully a sign of things to come (or, well, continue) for the lefthander.

May’s Most Excellent Braves Relief Pitcher

As noted, there was a lot of good relief pitching from the non-soft, non-fleshy part of the bullpen. But, someone who stood out, in part because of a defiance of expectations moreso than his specific numbers, was Jason Motte. Motte was called up at the very end of April and made just one appearance that month. That was also the only appearance this season in which he allowed any runs, as he went 13 appearances (12 innings) in May without giving up a run.

To be honest, Motte’s peripherals aren’t great. He struck out nine men while walking six in May. His sparkly 0.00 ERA for the month is driven by a .167 BABIP-against, and his xFIP is a gnarly 5.01, much worse than the Ramirez-Vizcaino-Johnson trio, who had May xFIPs in the 2.00s or 3.00s. Still, an impressive monthly showing for a guy who started this season in the minors and looked pretty washed up last season. Will someone want Motte at the deadline, as a veteran reliever touting a low ERA? Probably not, but it doesn’t hurt to keep showcasing him in middle relief in the interim, at least until the Braves decide it’s time to bring up Akeel Morris or another deserving relief prospect.

Note: The following recaps of some of the best and worst plays of the month don’t include Freeman’s injury (too physically and psychically painful).

Best Offensive Play - Markakis doubles, ties game, sets up walkoff

This whole game (May 23, against the Pirates) was actually fairly insane, with the Braves taking a lead in the bottom of the seventh, giving it back up in the top of the ninth, and then walking off in the bottom of the ninth thanks to a Matt Adams single.

Before all that, though, Nick Markakis did some great two-out hitting off of lefty reliever Tony Watson to tie the game, ensuring the Braves wouldn’t lose in regulation. You can watch it here (sorry, still no embeds).

Best Run-Stopping Play - Vizcaino and the concept of better to be lucky than good

In the eighth inning of a game in Toronto, the Braves were clinging to a one-run lead against the Blue Jays with Arodys Vizcaino on the hill. Vizcaino did not start off auspiciously, allowing a single, hurling a wild pitch, and then walking the batter to put the tying run on second and the go-ahead run on first with none out. He battled back to strike out apparent doubles machine Devon Travis on four pitches, bringing Darwin Barney (actually his name) to the plate.

Barney hit a 1-0 pitch back up the middle on a line, and things looked dicey for a second. Luckily, however, Brandon Phillips was positioned well to snag the ball out of the air and flip to Dansby Swanson for an easy twin killing. The liner had a hit probability of 73 percent according to Statcast, but the positioning worked out for Vizcaino and the Braves, who went on to win the game by a 9-5 score after piling on three runs late. You can watch it here.

Best Single Player Offensive Domination of a Game - Hi, Matt Adams

Braves first basemen dominating. What else is new? Less than a week after Freeman’s injury, Matt Adams found himself starting for the Braves against the former division rival Pirates. The main thing in this game was that Matt Adams got the walkoff hit in the bottom of the ninth to end a crazy game. But, that was just the capper to a three-hit effort that saw him finish a triple short of the cycle. Earlier in the game, he hit a leadoff double and scored the first Braves run to trim a two-run deficit in half. Then, down by two again, he crushed a pitch into the stands for a solo home run to again trim the deficit. That set up his fateful single off of lefty Tony Watson to send the Braves and their fans home happy.

Best Start - Jaime Garcia dominates Giants, also creates only runs

Get this: on May 26, Jaime Garcia pitched six and two-thirds scoreless innings against the Giants. Unfortunately for him, his teammates were unable to do anything at all against San Francisco starter Matt Cain. So, Garcia took matters into his own hands, hitting an RBI single that resulted in the game’s only two runs scoring on the play (after Brandon Belt’s errant throw from left field allowed another runner to score).

The start had the best Game Score (v2.0) of any Braves outing in May, came in a close game, and had the added, delicious icing of Garcia also contributing at the dish to basically hand-deliver a win all by his lonesome. You can watch all the good stuff here.

Best Relief Outing - Jose Ramirez, I guess?

Weirdly, May was not really rife with particularly exciting or emphatic relief outings. I guess it’s kind of hard to have one when your rotation is getting shelled fairly often. So, with that said, I’ll volunteer the following.

On May 29, Julio Teheran carried a 6-3 lead into the bottom of the seventh in Anaheim. He got the first out, but then hit a batter and allowed two singles to the dynamic duo (not really) of Cliff Pennington and Eric Young Jr., putting the tying runs on base. Brian Snitker summoned Jose Ramirez from the bullpen against former Brave Cameron Maybin, representing the go-ahead run, and Ramirez got the best possible outcome: a 5-4-3 around the horn double play to squelch the threat. Quite a great fist-pump moment, and something that happens very rarely on Atlanta road trips out west.

Seriously, if you bothered to stay awake for this, didn’t it get you exclaiming and gesticulating wildly?

Most Crushed Ball

Matt Kemp obliterating balls is fun. I bet Max Scherzer doesn’t think so, though. Kemp turned around a 93 mph Scherzer offering, blasting it into the left-center field stands at about 108 mph. Neat. Everyone talks about the boost that SunTrust Park gives to right field-bound balls, but Kemp’s moonshot needed no park help, as it traveled an estimated 418 feet. Fun!

Worst Offensive Play - Unfortunate double play precludes sweep of Nats

You know how Vizcaino appeared above with the liner off of Darwin Barney’s bat that worked out great for the Braves? Well, the same thing also happened with the Braves on the receiving end, against the Nationals.

The Braves came close to sweeping their division-leading rivals in Atlanta, and narrowed the gap in the third game of the series to 3-2 in the eighth against the porous Washington bullpen. Koda Glover was summoned to slam the door, but allowed a leadoff single in the bottom of the ninth to Matt Kemp, bringing Matt Adams to the plate. Adams, like Barney, also swung at the second pitch he saw and put it in play, lining it down the first-base line. While that ball is often a double (hit probably of 65 percent), Ryan Zimmerman was holding the bag due to Kemp’s presence at first, snared the liner, and stepped on first to double up the runner and doom the Braves. You can watch it here, though the Braves chances fell through so fast it’s hard to really even see the ball between it being pitched to Adams and Zimmerman snaring it and stepping on the base for the second out.

Most Painful Opposing Plate Appearance - Jordy Mercer (momentarily) puts Braves behind

Before Markakis could come through for the Braves, Jim Johnson faltered in the top of the inning. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases with two outs, with the Braves hanging on to a tenuous one-run lead. That lead quickly became a two-run deficit, as Jordy Mercer continued to torment the Braves in fine fashion. This time, he looped a softly-hit single right over shortstop to push the tying and go-ahead runs across.

Luckily, the Braves would storm back and win this game, which is great, because losing on a two-run dunker would have been maddening. You can relive the pain here, if you’re so inclined.

Worst Offensive Game - Matt Adams is great, Matt Adams is terrible

Sometimes, you hit a dinger and get a walkoff hit in the same night, and it’s awesome. Other times, you go 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Welcome to Matt Adams. In this case, the bad game came two days before his heroics, but it wasn’t pretty.

In a game the Braves ended up losing by a single run, Adams struck out twice with a runner on second, once with no one on, and his only other out was the double play linked above as the worst single offensive play of the month in the ninth inning.

Worst Start - Bartolo Colon and the Braves who temporarily forgot how to play baseball

I considered not including this because of how much of a travesty it was, but no recap of a month could do justice in omitting this disastrous conflagration of incompetence.

It wasn’t really Bartolo Colon’s fault, as far as pitching. But, it was definitely the worst outing endured by a starter, and perhaps by the team, in the entire month. Actually, scratch that, it was the worst half-inning endured by anyone, ever, in history. I’m sure of it. Just read!

Ewwwwww.

Full video of this doesn’t even exist (it’s missing the most egregious play where Jace Peterson inexplicably booted a surefire double play ball that would have ended the inning before any runs scored), but if you really hate yourself, you could watch this, I guess.

Worst Relief Appearance - Jimplosion Johnson

As I said, that one game against the Pirates was crazy. So was Jim Johnson’s implosion in that game. Three singles and a walk that allow the tying and go-ahead runs to score is never great, even if the run-scoring hit was a bloop. Johnson clearly wasn’t himself in the outing, and was actually lifted for Luke Jackson (yes, really) before recording the third out.

It was the only negative WPA appearance Jim Johnson recorded in May, and the Braves still won the game, so not as painful as it could have been. Certainly not as painful as his terrible relief outing last month, which has a very good chance of ending up being the single worst half-inning for the Braves this season (if you’ve repressed the defensive ineptitude happy funtime hour discussed immediately above, anyway).

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

There were a few good choices here, including Brandon Belt’s complete to-date ownership of Mike Foltynewicz and Matt Adams creaming a Julio Teheran pitch before he was traded to the Braves, but the most painful has to be this stupid thing.

Darrell Ceciliani had one career homer coming into this game. His career wRC+ was 35. He had played parts of three seasons in AAA. He actually hurt himself (and hasn’t returned to game action since) on the swing, but still absolutely creamed an offering from Julio Teheran that pretty much went into one of those right-field restaurants. 109 miles per hour off the bat, 424 feet of estimated distance, it was nasty. Unless you were Darrell Ceciliani, of course, in which case it was probably awesome. And painful.

Hopefully there are no such meatballs given up by Braves pitchers in June. Or, if there are, that they come to noted ball-crushers, and not the likes of guys that never eclipsed 10 homers in any professional season.

See you next month!