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Braves scald, sizzle, sparkle in stunning April

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Who knew the Braves had this in them? Perhaps the real treasure was inside them all along.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Everyone who thought the Braves would have a winning record in April 2018, raise your hands. Okay, now lower them if you thought the Braves would finish the season’s first month with a winning percentage north of .590. If your hand is still raised, you are A) a wizard and B) a weirdo for raising your hand in response to an article you’re reading on the internet. The Braves’ 16-11 mark was very impressive, as far as endpoint measures go. Just how impressive? Here’s a litany of statistical tidbits:

  • They currently have the eighth-best record in MLB (fourth-best in the National League).
  • They’ve scored the third-most runs per game in MLB, and the most in the National League.
  • They’ve allowed the 11th-fewest runs per game in MLB, eighth-fewest in the National League.
  • They have the league’s sixth-best run differential, and are under their Pythagorean Expectation by one win.
  • Given that the rest of the NL East has been tough, the Braves are currently first among all MLB teams using Baseball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, which adjusts run differential by the difficulty of the schedule faced to date.

Fun stuff, right? Here’s some more fun stuff. The last time the Braves had a month this good was the trail end of 2016, when they finished the season on an 18-10 note. You have to go all the way back to 2014 to find an April better than this one (17-9). (Incidentally, those two months are the only ones better than April 2018 since the start of the 2014 season.) It’s been fun. The Braves also reeled off many, many series victories. They’re not quite Diamondbacks-level as far as what’s happened so far, but it’s tough to look at the below and not be impressed:

  • Series win to open the season against the Phillies;
  • Series win against the visiting Nationals;
  • Series win at Coors Field;
  • Series loss (the only one so far) in Washington;
  • Series “split” thanks to weather conditions at Wrigley;
  • Series win against the Phillies at home;
  • Series “win” thanks to weather conditions at home against the Mets;
  • Series split (four games) In Cincinnati;
  • Series win in Philadelphia.

Again, I had this team finishing fourth in the division this season, so this has been not a breath of fresh air, but one of those runway wind machines kicked into my face. Good times.

The Braves are on pace for 96 wins. They’re not going to win 96 games. Please don’t dropkick another piece of machinery at me. But, even if you figure they’re the same team they were before all this winning madness, the expectations have changed, just due to the banked wins. If you thought they were a 72-win team (you’re a pessimist) and still do, they’ve still banked enough wins to finish with 76. If you thought they were a 79-win team, like I did, they’re pushing 82 wins right now. If you thought they were a .500 team before the season, they might push 83-84 wins and possibly a playoff spot, just based on the banked wins of this hot start.

Let’s look at the various components of their performance:

  • The Braves’ position players finished first in MLB with a 122 wRC+. The next-closest teams? The Yankees and Athletics at 115. That’s a pretty big gap. (The cynic in me feels compelled to point out that the Braves were only 18th in MLB in xwOBA in April, so some regression is likely coming, but shh.)
  • The Braves also put up a strong showing defensively. They finished fourth in MLB for the month (third in the NL). Even by other measures, such as straight UZR (third) and DRS (sixth), they were generally towards the top.
  • They were even top five in baserunning value, finishing fourth.
  • Overall, the Braves led all of MLB in position player WAR in April, finishing with 6.9. The Yankees were second with 6.1.
  • The pitching, well, the pitching wasn’t as exciting as the hitting. While the rotation did finish fifth in ERA and seventh in ERA- (adjusted for park/league/etc.), the rotation’s FIP- and xFIP- were a middling 18th and 16th, respectively. The rotation finished in the bottom tenth of MLB rotations in terms of innings pitched; those two things combined to saddle the Braves with only the 23rd-most valuable starting rotation in April. It’s a good thing the bats carried the slack, because...
  • ...the bullpen didn’t help much. The Braves’ relief corps finished 17th in ERA-, 19th in FIP-, and 30th (erm, gulp) in xFIP-. Value-wise, it was an average (16th) relief performance. WPA-wise, it was an average (15th) relief performance. Let’s hope that homer suppression either continues or other things improve, because, well, 30th in xFIP is not where you want any team to be. Also, no recap would be complete without a token mention of the fact that the Braves’ bullpen had a hilariously inconceivable 15.7 percent walk rate in April. Last year, no team had anything near that (14.2 percent was the closest) in any calendar month. You have to go all the way back to July 2011 to find a rate higher. Thanks, 2011 Tampa Bay Rays.
  • Put these together, and the Braves finished with the 21-most valuable pitching staff by fWAR, or 20th by RA9-WAR. But hey, great hitting and livable pitching. It worked this time.
  • For what it’s worth, Braves pitchers did allow the 16th-lowest wOBA and 21st-lowest xwOBA, so it wasn’t all bad.

Now, on to the recognition.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for Position Player Excellence in April 2018 — Freddie Freeman, with the Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo Backing Band

In such a great offensive month, it was difficult to pick and choose. So, recognition goes to the following three compadres. Freddie Freeman, terrifying wrist injury scare aside, continued to instill dread in the hearts of pitchers everywhere. To that end, pitchers pretty much just stopped pitching to him, as his walk rate (16.7 percent) was 14th-highest in MLB for the month. Freeman’s 167 wRC+ for the month was good for 15th in MLB; his 1.3 fWAR was good for 17th. He was also 34th in WPA, second on the team. Here’s something else that’s night terror-inducing if you make your living pitching to major league hitters: Freddie Freeman has actually underperformed his xwOBA to date by about .070 points. Sure, he was “only” a top-15 hitter in MLB this month. But, he was seventh overall by xwOBA. His stats should have been even better. Terrifying, but great for Freeman and the Braves.

However, this section would be remiss if it didn’t mention two guys, for totally different reasons. One of these guys is Johan Camargo. Johan Camargo only accumulated a paltry 19 plate appearances in April, thanks to an injury suffered in Spring Training and the “emergence” of Ryan Flaherty, who rode a crazy BABIP to leading the league in batting average for a while at the start of the year. But, consider this: Camargo only played in seven games in April. In six of those, he didn’t do anything to the win expectancy. In one, he added 10 percent. In another, he added 21 percent. In a third, his magnum opus, he added a whopping 54 percent. More on that later. That’s how you make your limited playing time count, I guess.

And, of course, we come to Ozzie Albies. Did you know that Ozzie Albies is tied for the National League lead with nine home runs? Did you know that Ozzie Albies is 16th in MLB with a 165 wRC+? You should. I don’t think he can sustain a HR/FB rate north of 20 percent, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned: don’t tell Ozzie Albies what he can’t do. Because he’ll homer off of you. He’s sixth in MLB in ISO. My brain is leaking out of my ears and it feels quite good, thanks for asking.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for Starting Pitcher Excellence in April 2018 — Mike Foltynewicz

The Braves used six starters for the entire month. That feels more impressive than it should be. Just six! Julio Teheran had a few good starts but also got mauled in others. Matt Wisler mixed in a surprising, smothering performance with a clunker-type appearance. Brandon McCarthy outpitched his peripherals and bamboozled hitters — aside from a poor start against the Reds, he basically gave the Braves five-ish innings of above-average run prevention each time.

Then, you have Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz. Newcomb had a really bad start to open his season. Then he had a phenomenal, fist-pump-worthy outing in Denver. Then he was kind of average the rest of the way, with walks, strikeouts, some runs, and so on. You could make the case that Newcomb didn’t really do anything too different from Foltynewicz in April. I think that’s fine. I still like Foltynewicz better. For one, Foltynewicz never had any particularly awful starts. Yes, his first start was a bit rough. But, he never allowed more than two earned runs in a start. He also had three one-run outings in six tries. Even when he failed to last five frames against the Reds, he limited the damage to two runs. There wasn’t a standout pitcher for the Braves in April, but if I had to pick one, I’d pick Foltynewicz. Hopefully there’s some more consistently awesome stuff waiting in the wings as far as starting pitching goes.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for Relief Pitcher Excellence in April 2018 — Shane Carle and A.J. Minter

I don’t really know anything about Shane Carle. He came out of nowhere, and my interpretation of that was that he was another replacement-level arm. He has been anything but. Here’s something crazy: among all pitchers, not just relievers, Carle was essentially top 30 in April by fWAR, with 0.7. Among relievers, he’s third. Among relievers with 10 or more innings so far in 2018, he is 20th in ERA- (25), 26th in FIP- (51), and 66th in xFIP- (84).

Carle’s performance has also been somewhat strange, as far as his effects on game state. He’s only had four of his 13 outings lower his team’s probability of winning, but three of them were hefty (21 percent WPA loss, 19 percent WPA loss, 13 percent WPA) loss. But, he’s also tossed five outings where he added 10 percent or more to his team’s winning percentage. This might not be that weird in a vacuum, especially not for a high-leverage reliever, but that’s not how Carle has been used, at all. Maybe that will change going forward, but it’s kind of hard to accumulate a lot of WPA in long relief. Yet, that’s what Carle’s done.

On the more traditional-but-less-traditional reliever value front, we have A.J. Minter. Honestly, A.J. Minter’s stats have not been that great, and certainly not what anyone expected of him. His 2.13 ERA is fine, but the 3.83 FIP is blergh and the 5.05 xFIP is blaring warning strobes into my eyes. He hasn’t had the strikeout pitch working (a strikeout rate under 22 percent), but he’s also walked the park (a walk rate near 20 percent). That’s not a good mix. And yet, and yet... Minter leads the relief corps in WPA. He’s only harmed his team’s chance to win the game twice. He’s had five outings (out of 13 total) with a WPA boost of 0.1 or higher, and another at 0.09. Some of that WPA had little to do with him (like the D.J. LeMahieu inning-ending liner double play at Coors in early April), but even though he hasn’t pitched in a way that’s conducive to getting the job done, he’s gotten the job done. If he can right the ship with regards to his peripherals, this will all fade away. If he can’t, well, that won’t be great for anyone.

Best Offensive Play - CamarGOAT

The highest single-play WPA for the Braves in April came on something inexplicable: a Johan Camargo groundball RBI triple.

This was just a very strange play. Yes, the ball had a 54 percent hit probability, because it was scalded at 105 miles per hour. But still, those are usually singles, what with their launch angle at 2 degrees. But a triple? And not only that, but a game-tying triple that put the winning run on third with none out? Oh, and it came in Camargo’s first start and seventh plate appearance of the season. By the way, a ball hit at roughly that speed with roughly that launch angle has only been hit for a triple seven other times, going back to the start of the 2015 season. So, not as rare as you might think, but still... strange, and awesome. (One of those other seven was a bases-clearing triple by Adam Wainwright!)

Best Run-Stopping Play - Ozzie Albies is Superman, Saves Minter

Ozzie Albies saved the bacon of both the Braves and A.J. Minter with a superhuman leap. Minter had entered in the ninth of a tied game, failed to retire Tony Wolters on a bunt single, and then walked Chris Iannetta. He did get a pop-up for the first out, but D.J. LeMahieu scolded a ball up the middle. Fortunately for the Braves, and very unfortunately for the Rockies, Ozzie Albies was there. Or, would get there.

The Braves would lose after Arodys Vizcaino issued a walkoff walk in the next inning, but man, what an awesome play.

Most Dominant Offensive Performance

Honestly, even though it was just the one hit, you can’t top the sheer magnitude of that Camargo triple. Sure, there were monster games aplenty for Braves hitters. But how many of them turned a deficit into essentially a win with one swing? I think that was the only one in April.

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

Julio Teheran was the Braves’ worst starter in April. But, he also had the Braves’ best start in April. Life is full of contradictions.

Coming into the Saturday contest against the Mets, I’m not sure that anyone would have pegged Julio Teheran as outdueling Jacob deGrom. And, indeed, he didn’t: both pitchers worked their way to a scoreless standstill after seven. Still, Teheran was phenomenal. he allowed just five baserunners and struck out six. He’s had better starts in his career, sure, but none definitely better since 2016 (though he did have a few contenders in 2017). That’s the kind of Julio Teheran the Braves are hoping makes a resurgence when they’re ready to compete (which apparently might be now?).

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

These types of performances are rarely heralded, and there’s generally not even video of them. But, let it be known that on April 24, 2018, Shane Carle worked two scoreless innings while the Reds were in walkoff territory. He allowed just a measly leadoff single, and retired the next six batters. In his second inning of work, he struck out the side on just 13 pitches.

With the Braves being so heavy into walks this month, it was an impressive feat. Unfortunately the Braves still lost, but well after Carle had given way to other relievers.

Most Crushed Ball

It’s funny — this one happened on Opening Day. And it was a monster.

You might remember this play. You probably do. That’s Hoby Milner on the receiving end, after Philadelphia manager Gabe Kapler pulled a shutout-pitching Aaron Nola with a five-run lead (for some reason). Freeman didn’t care. He turned around that full-count pitch, blasting it at 107.2 miles per hour into the stands. The Braves went on to win this game, Freeman kept raking, it was a great month.

Alright, now time for the bad stuff. It’s baseball, so overall success does not mitigate the existence of misery. It’s like life, I guess.

Most Painful Opposing Plate Appearance

There are a number of things to choose from here, but I’m partial (by which I mean, I burn with smoldering rage) at this one. It wasn’t really even a huge deal, and the Braves ended up winning the game, anyway.

The Braves carried a 2-1 lead into the ninth against the Nationals in Washington. Arodys Vizcaino was asked to nail down the game, and he started out well, getting a comebacker from Anthony Rendon. The meta-intrigue around this was that a few nights earlier, Vizcaino had melted down and walked in the tying run in Denver. Brian Snitker then gave him a nice four-run lead the next day to work with, and he settled that in 1-2-3 fashion. So that’s why this outcome was particularly crushing: this time, it wasn’t a walk.

Maybe it’s just me, but those “bolt from the blue” homers always hurt. The Braves had that lead since the fourth, and just like that, it was gone. (Also, believe it or not, this was the single biggest WPA-yielding play the Braves allowed in April.)

Worst Single-Game Hitting Performance

So, it’s kind of telling that this bit of ignominy isn’t remarkable in any way. Chris Stewart went 0-for-3 on March 30. It wasn’t really notable in any way, other than that it was a close game, and his outs came at inopportune times. Stewart didn’t even start the game; he entered after Kurt Suzuki departed with an injury. In the sixth, down by one, he made a leadoff out. In the eighth, still down by one, he failed to score the tying run from third with one out. I guess that’s kind of bad? (Preston Tucker drove in that run immediately afterwards, anyway.) In the tenth, with the winning run on base and two outs, he grounded out. The Braves would go on to lose in 11. Really, that’s it. That’s your worst singlgame position player WPA. That’s really a sign of how right the hitting went for the Braves in April.

Worst Single-Game Starting Pitcher Performance

It wasn’t the worst start of Teheran’s career, but it was the shortest. And it was the worst of April for the Braves, by far. Teheran got seven outs. He allowed five runs, three homers, and nine total baserunners. He only struck out two. His line could have been even worse, had Shane Carle not come in with the bases loaded and one out and put out the fire.

It says a lot about just how charmed April was for the Braves that they won this game. Not only did they win it, they crushed it, by a 13-7 score. I want to reiterate this: in a game where the Braves suffered their worst start of the month, they still had a win probability of 70 percent after their starter left the game.

Worst Single-Game Relief Performance

This one was a long time coming. It also came in a game that I believe (as did Joe Maddon, and Freddie Freeman, and so on) should not have been played.

Jose Ramirez came in to terrible conditions, a five-run lead, and men on first and second. Here’s what he allowed: strikeout, HBP, single (four-run lead), walk (three-run lead), double (tie game), intentional walk. That’s how you cough up over an entire win (-0.550 win probability) in 23 pitches. It probably shouldn’t have happened at all, but it did, and it was brutal. Two walks, two hits, five runs charged to Ramirez. Unfortunate, and a real low point in a great month.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

Just like Freddie Freeman absolutely mashed one on Opening Day, the Braves decided to return the favor by giving up a monster tater to Rhys Hoskins the next day.

109.7 miles per hour was the exit velocity reading. That’s... pretty crazy.

See you next month! (And also before that.)