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What went wrong in the Game 2 loss for the Braves

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It was like Groundhog Day, but with grounders. Grounder Day.

Divisional Round - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Once again, the obvious answer to the post’s title is that they lost. Furthermore, it’s that they lost their second consecutive game while once again getting creamed by the one thing they haven’t been able to do: hit homers. Now, the Braves’ backs are against the wall, and it’s absolutely imperative that they don’t do the same thing they did in this game if they want to play more than one additional game in 2018.

In this game, the Braves sent 30 men to the plate. Of those 30, 25 ended their plate appearance with a ball in play. What I want to focus on are the plate appearances where the ball in play was at the belt or above. Why those? Well...

  • The league xwOBA on contact on pitches in the top two-thirds of the zone is .393. (Overall league xwOBA on contact is .362, so basically restricting the sample to only the top two-thirds of the zone increases the expected result.)
  • For four-seam fastballs, the league xwOBA on contact in that area is .405. For simplicity’s sake, the average hit probability on contact is about 34 percent. For sliders, the corresponding xwOBA is .372, and the corresponding hit probability is 32 percent. The grounder rate is 30% for fastballs and 36% for sliders.
  • For Clayton Kershaw overall, the xwOBA on contact in the top two-thirds of the zone was .342 this year. That breaks down as .356 in terms of xwOBA (32 percent hit probability) for fastballs, and .318 (29 percent hit probability) for sliders. The grounder rate is 30% for fastballs and 59% for sliders. In other words, Kershaw’s slider, even when left relatively up, results in a grounder rate nearly twice as high as a league-average slider there.

Keep these numbers in mind as you review the following.

The futility for the Braves really began in the second inning. Ozzie Albies was the first player to waste a perfectly hittable pitch, a meatball of a 90 mph fastball that went for an easy infield pop-up. That was immediately followed by Ender Inciarte doing something just as awful, swinging at a similar but slightly faster (92 mph) fastball and turning it into a fly ball with literally a zero hit probability.

Then, futility turned to absurdity. Charlie Culberson led off the third by grounding a slider above the belt into the dirt with a negative 12 degree launch angle (9% hit probability). Johan Camargo hit the fourth of four straight sliders he saw, one that hung right over the middle of the plate, at a miserable 62.6 mph. Freeman followed that up by grounding out on his own pitch at the letters, a fastball (11% hit probability).

In the fifth, Albies somehow knocked his own pitch at the letters, a 91 mph fastball, into the ground with a -5 degree launch angle. At least that one had a 28% hit probability. Still, no dice. Culberson then basically repeated his previous at-bat, again grounding out on a slider above the belt (17% hit probability).

In the sixth, after a leadoff hit-by-pitch, it was Acuña’s turn to disappoint, as he rolled over his own slider offering at the belt (17% hit probability).

Nothing changed in the seventh: Markakis hit a high hanging slider into the dirt weakly (11% hit probability).

The eighth at least showed progress, but it was too little, too late. Ozzie Albies finally roped a slider that was up (81% hit probability, 13 degree launch angle), but it went right to short for an out.

To summarize: the Braves ended four of their 30 PAs tonight with fastballs in the zone and belt-high or above. Their grounder rate on those was 50% vs. 30% for Kershaw’s fastballs there; their average hit probability was 10% vs. 32% for Kershaw’s fastballs. The Braves ended another six of their 30 PAs tonight with sliders in the zone belt-high or above. Their grounder rate on those was 83% (you can get it down to 67% if you want to consider the Albies comebacker a liner instead) vs. 59% for Kershaw’s sliders there. Their average hit probability on these elevated sliders was 25% vs. 29% for Kershaw’s slides there, thanks almost entirely to Albies’ one liner, since the remaining five all had hit probabilities below 20%.

So, that’s a third of the team’s PAs ending on pitches up, and a fifth on elevated sliders (which should have been identified as a pretty clear key to success before the game), for which the Braves had literally nothing to show in this game.

Combine that with the fact that they once again did not walk, and that another five PAs ended on contact outside the strike zone (including one of their three hits on the night, weirdly enough, on a pathetic Ender Inciarte roller with a laughable 30.3 mph exit velocity), and the Braves once again threw away literally half their PAs on either making contact by chasing when they shouldn’t have, or by making terrible contact when good, or at least semi-decent contact was warranted.

This trend didn’t end when Kershaw departed, either, though the game was mostly a foregone conclusion at that point. Pinch-hitter Lucas Duda grounded out on an elevated cutter (somehow), and then Johan Camargo swung at three straight pitches out of the zone, popping up the third one for the game’s penultimate out.

They’ve got one more shot at reversing this unfortunate set of results, on Sunday night. We’ll see what happens.