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Make-or-break July sort of broke the Braves

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It’s hard to obscure the fact that the Braves comported themselves terribly in July.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

You know, for whatever reason, the Braves haven’t been big fans of July lately. The last time they had a winning July was 2013. They really doubled down on their poor performance during the calendar’s seventh month this year, though — with their first losing month of the season, and their worst since August of last year.

The real killer, though, was that July was a chance for this upstart Braves team to make some waves. I noted at the beginning of the month that pretty much every series during July was with a contender, and the Braves just utterly fell on their face during this entire stretch. Aside from finishing up a sweep of the Cardinals on July 1, the Braves consistently eroded their own playoff position while bolstering that of their opponents. We’ll go series-by-series in a minute, but the real kicker is that the worst part of this month is that the Braves went back to doing what they were doing between 2015 and 2017: serving as an ineffective roadblock to better teams, like the sort of random barrels you see during car chase scenes that inevitably get upended and hurled in the air after a high-speed collision. In other words, they were the Washington Generals to the other contenders’ Harlem Globetrotters... again.

Specifically, if you look at it series by series:

  • The Braves finished off a sweep of the Cardinals on July 1. Their playoff odds were essentially 50% at the time, and things were looking pretty good.
  • They then flew to New York. After a first-game win that saw their playoff odds crest to a season-high 56%, they then lost the next two, falling to 49%. 1-for-1 in series losses to contenders.
  • It was then off to Milwaukee for a matchup of two of the best clubs in the NL. (The Braves had the NL’s third-best record at the time.) Before the series started, the Brewers had playoff odds of 70%. The Braves lost three of four and mostly got walloped. When the dust settled, the Braves had fallen back to the fourth-best team in the NL, and their playoff odds had slid to 37% (a 12% loss). Meanwhile, the Brewers increased their playoff odds by 8% at the expense of the Braves. 2-for-2 in series losses to contenders.
  • After that, the Braves headed home for what should have been some respite: a two-game set against the non-contender Blue Jays. However, they only managed a split in these two games, and their playoff odds were at 38% at the conclusion of this series as a result.
  • Then, the Diamondbacks came to town to end the season’s “first half.” Arizona arrived with 42% playoff odds. By the time they left, those had increased to 50%; the Braves’ were basically unchanged. 3-for-3 in series losses to contenders.
  • The first series after the break was interrupted by rain, so the Braves only got in two against the Nationals in Washington. They also split those. Not much changed here, playoff odds-wise.
  • It was then time for another reprieve: a two-game set in Miami. But, the Braves only managed to split this one, too, not making up any ground. That would prove costly because...
  • ...the Braves returned home to host the Dodgers for four, and again lost three of four. By the time this series ended, the Dodgers had added 1% to their near-unity playoff odds... and the Braves had dropped by 8%. 4-for-4 in series losses to contenders.
  • At least ending the month on a positive note, the Braves won two of their first three against the Marlins, with the final game to be played on August 1. Their playoff odds sit at around 31% as of the end of July, about half of what they were when the month started.

Only the Cardinals, Mariners, and Nationals saw greater playoff odds dips during the month. As a result, the Braves now have their work cut out for them. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you go 0-4-3 in completed series for the month. If not for those three extra wins at the beginning and end, things would be even direr.

There are 58 games to go, and the Braves currently sit at 57-47. They’re “on pace” for 89 wins, but the projections see them closer to 84. They’ll need to outperform the projections to make the playoffs. Per Fangraphs, the 25th to 75th percentile range of their win outcomes is now 82 to 87. Unless August and September look like July (which I’m massively hoping they don’t), it should be an exciting finish as they chase a playoff spot.

Usually, when a team is bad during a given month, it’s because they didn’t play well, by which I mean, they didn’t get good performances from their players — this isn’t surprising. That’s pretty much exactly what happened for the Braves in July.

  • As a team, the Braves were 17th in wRC+ for the month. But, they struggled to convert this mediocre hitting performance into runs, finishing 26th in runs scored. A big part of that: they finished bottom 10 in the league in homers, and this number looked far more dire before they got a bit homer-happy against the Marlins to close out July. The defense was still good (seventh in MLB, lagging adjustments disclaimer), but overall, it was not a good month for the position players: they finished 16th in MLB in total production.
  • While the offense regressed towards something generic, it was the pitching that really dragged the Braves ‘neath the tides. The rotation finished 21st in ERA (fourth-worst in NL), 25th in FIP (fourth-worst in NL), and 20th in xFIP (fifth-worst in NL). By fWAR, the aggregate production was nearly replacement level (0.2 fWAR for the entire rotation). At least they weren’t the Padres, who finished the month with a 7.12 ERA, 5.55 FIP, 5.13 xFIP, and -0.5 fWAR. Yikes.
  • The relievers also didn’t help much. ERA (14th in MLB, eighth in NL) and FIP (17th in MLB, sixth-worst in NL) were both middling. The xFIP was good (3.77, seventh in MLB, fifth in NL), but that’s not a huge consolation for games already in the books. The bullpen finished 13th in MLB in WPA and 20th in fWAR, unable to bail out the rotation sufficiently. As a result, the aggregate pitching staff finished dead last in MLB in fWAR. There’s your “broken” thing for the month.

Part of the issue was that there actually weren’t very many good performances. A.J. Minter’s eight and a third innings somehow led the team in fWAR for the entirety of July. Meanwhile, Sam Freeman (under six innings), Evan Phillips (just over six innings), Julio Teheran (just over 27 innings), and Sean Newcomb (just under 27 innings) all mostly got blasted, with FIPs and ERAs over 5.00 (and often well over). Even Newcomb’s stunning near no-hitter could only redeem his month-long numbers so much. No Braves pitcher, aside from Minter (0.40 FIP, 1.98 xFIP) was actually particularly good during July — even the better performances were decent but not superlative.

The same held true for the hitters, a weird way. While six lineup regulars or semi-regulars (Freeman, Culberson, Markakis, Acuña, Camargo, and Albies) had above-average batting lines, the remarkable thing was just how little this actually mattered. During most games, the hitting failed to convert results into runs; as a result, only four hitters finished the month with positive WPA. Only one hitter (Nick Markakis) managed a total WPA above 0.05. Three hitters (Albies, Flowers, Inciarte) managed to have a total WPA of -0.25 or less, while Markakis’ 0.25 led the team. The fact that Albies had a great overall batting line and terrible WPA also illustrates just how miserable of a month the Braves endured. Also, Kurt Suzuki put up a 44 wRC+ in July, so... yeah.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for Position Player Excellence in July 2018 - Nick Markakis

You know, when I first started drafting this, I was going to withhold this award. Or, give it to Julio Teheran. Why? Because until July 31, Markakis had a paltry +0.03 WPA for the month. That meant that the Braves’ hitting WPA leader for the month was Julio Teheran with +0.11. Yeah. In fact, July 31 only sort of helped. Here are the five Braevs leaders in hitting WPA this month: Nick Markakis (0.25), Julio Teheran (0.11), Kolby Allard (0.06), Charlie Culberson (0.05), Freddie Freeman (0.03). Now, let’s compare that to the fifth-highest hitting WPA in previous months: April = Ronald Acuña, 0.32; May = Dansby Swanson, 0.28; June = Johan Camargo, 0.22. That’s... pretty pathetic.

But, Nick Markakis had a big game on July 31, so I guess that’s all that matters.

Overall, the Braves just had a very strange offensive month. Freeman led the team with a 133 wRC+, while Camargo and Acuña had five homers each. Markakis ended up slightly behind both, with three homers and a 127 wRC+, and the team’s highest OBP for the month (.366). He had his share of both good and bad games (WPA > 0.1 in four games, WPA < -0.1 in three games, but perhaps July ended just in time for him to collect this meaningless award.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for Starting Pitcher Excellence in July 2018 - Anibal Sanchez

Yes, the time has come to recognize Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez made five starts in July; the Braves won three. This has nothing to do with Sanchez in and of himself, who was only average-ish (3.48 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 3.79 xFIP) during the month. He had two good starts (before the All-Star Break, a combined 14/1 K/BB ratio and just two runs allowed in 12 and two-thirds), while his three other starts were kinda eh (11 runs and a 16/7 K/BB ratio in 18 and one-third, at least three runs allowed in each). Still, it’s hard to argue given that behind Sanchez, the Braves won 60 percent of their games and he never got shelled. By comparison, every other Atlanta starter had negative WPA on the month, including Sean Newcomb (shelled twice, okay start, decent start, near-no-hitter, Braves went 2-3), Mike Foltynewicz (one good start, and then 18 runs allowed over his next four starts, with him looking like 2016-2017 Folty, Braves went 2-3), and Julio Teheran (shelled twice, one mediocre start, two good starts, Braves went 2-3).

The Braves’ rotation was mostly an impediment to their play in July, aside from Sanchez. This will need to improve if the Braves are going to have a better August and September.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for Relief Pitcher Excellence in July 2018 - Jesse Biddle

Biddle did this in June, and he kept doing it in July. Minter had the gaudier stats, but he had the easier ask — he pitched only eight and a third frames, of which only a couple were pressure situations (because the Braves were bad nearly all month). In addition, Minter doesn’t get this by default because on July 10, he melted down and gave up a game to the Blue Jays. (A bit more on that later.)

Biddle, meanwhile, kept doing what he did — putting zeroes up there. Biddle made 10 relief appearances over the month, and finished each with positive (or zero, in one outing) WPA. In the two outings in which he allowed runs, they were mostly in garbage time and didn’t affect the Braves’ ability to win the game. And, once again, he delivered the Biddle special at least once: scoreless, multi-inning, late-game relief work. On July 2, he kept the Yankees scoreless in the ninth and tenth as they tried to capitalize on walkoff territory at home, giving the Braves a chance to win it. He also gets a shoutout for his work on July 30, where he entered the game with a runner on second and none out, tying run at the plate, and ended the inning without allowing a run.

Biddle’s stats on the month aren’t great (2.45 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 3.33 xFIP), but he kept the Braves in every game he pitched and then some. Minter had the eye-popping numbers (3.24 ERA, 0.40 FIP, 1.98 xFIP), but blew up more than the Braves could really afford him to during their worst month.

Best Offensive Play - Acuña Bombs Bronx

Ah, this. When July Braves baseball was still fun, until it wasn’t. How’s about a game-winning extra-inning homer for your first game in (New) Yankee Stadium? Ronald Acuña Jr., step right up!

After a game full of stupid homers, a stupid homer ended up winning it for the Braves. Homers are great, even the stupid ones. Unfortunately, July didn’t have enough homers for the Braves, and too many against the Braves. (The Braves finished the month with the second-highest homer rate allowed, to go with their bottom five rate of actually hitting homers.) But this one was great, short porch or not.

Best Run-Stopping Play - More Biddle Magic

Same game as above — before Acuña could deliver a victory, Jesse Biddle had to stifle the Yanks. Biddle actually started his night in the bottom of the ninth by allowing a single to Gleyber Torres. There’s no good video of this to embed, but Biddle then saved his own neck, and that of his team, by getting Brett Gardner to roll into a double play.

An inning later, Biddle once again got into trouble, as a ground rule double put the winning run on third with one. But, two strikeouts later, the game was intact for Acuña’s game-winning homer in the 11th. Here’s a video of the last of those strikeouts.

Most Dominant Offensive Performance

A lot of repeats may happen here, as this wasn’t an awesome month, as I’ve stated a lot. For this, it seems likely to be Acuña’s debut in the Bronx. Not only did he hit a game-winning homer, but he also drove in the go-ahead run earlier in the game with a double down the left-field line.

A huge game for him, no doubt, as he went 2-for-5 with three driven in, including the last three runs the Braves would score. No batter had a higher WPA in a single game in July than Acuña’s .410 in this game.

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

Well, duh. It’s the game in which Sean Newcomb nearly threw a no-hitter, just allowing a measly single to Chris Taylor with two outs in the ninth. A great way to turn the page on what was a really terrible and trying month for the young left-hander, and an absolute jolting thrill to watch as July tumbled to an end.

The Braves are still looking for the first no-hitter since 1994, but you don’t need to look any further for their best starting pitching performance of July, as this was it.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

See that time Jesse Biddle prevented the Braves from getting walked off on by the Yankees for two straight innings, above.

Most Crushed Ball

Johan Camargo absolutely obliterated this CC Sabathia pitch on Independence Day. There were a lot of super-cheap homers hit in this series, but this Camargo shot was definitely not it.

One of the weirder things about this is that Camargo killed the ball (109 mph off the bat) and hit it at a good angle, yet the wind or something got in the way and had it only travel 389 feet. In that same game, Ozzie Albies hit another Sabathia pitch at 104 mph with the same angle, and it traveled 410 feet... but was caught for a harmless out.

The Braves did not hit a single homer with 99 hit probability in July. Go figure.

Okay, now time for the bad stuff, of which was there was a lot more than good stuff in July.

Most Painful Opposing Plate Appearance

Sometimes, when things are going all wrong, like when the Braves were getting dismantled by the Dodgers, you want to try something weird because the usual stuff isn’t working. But, I’m not sure that’s the best idea in all cases. For example, using Luke Jackson in a one-run game may not be the greatest use of the team’s resources. It certainly wasn’t when Yasiel Puig transformed a modest 1-0 deficit into triple that with a moonshot.

That... that’s no fun. It being predictable made it far worse.

Most Painful Braves Plate Appearance

Ugh, this stupid double play. It’s ruined my mood, just thinking about it. The previous night, the Braves had fallen for the third game in a row in their opener in Milwaukee. That game could be written off, though: Max Fried had struggled with command and a blister. The following night, though, the Braves teetered further, as Mike Foltynewicz got burned by giving up a two-run homer to Tyler Saladino, and then a three-run homer to Jesus Aguilar. Things weren’t looking so good. Then, the Braves furiously rallied in the seventh, scoring three times and bringing the deficit to within one run. That inning endured its own disappointment when the Braves failed to score the tying run from third with none out thanks to the futile efforts of Danny Santana, Ender Inciarte, and Ozzie Albies, but still worse was to come.

The Braves then rallied again in the eighth, courtesy of a one-out single from Nick Markakis and a walk drawn by Kurt Suzuki. That brought up Camargo, who had singled in the seventh... who then hit into an inning-ending double play.

The Braves had no rallies left in them, and ended up losing the game by that same 5-4 score. This is definitely one of those “good overall offensive month dragged down by awful timing for poor results” sorts of things that happened repeatedly to the Braves in July.

Worst Single-Game Hitting Performance

While Jesse Biddle and Ronald Acuña were having fun doing superlative things in their first appearance in the Bronx, Freddie Freeman had a miserable day. He went 0-for-5 with a strikeout and three weak grounders. The one time he did make solid contact and barreled ball, it had the audacity to go for a flyout rather than anything else. Just brutal.

If this sorta-routine 0-for-5 seems weird to you, it kind of is. Yet, it was the worst single-game WPA mark for any Brave in the month. The reason why it stands out is because it was a close game with meaningful PAs (in which Freeman failed to increase his team’s win expectancy). In most games this month, the Braves’ hitters couldn’t rack up much win expectancy, because the game was often out of reach.

Worst Single-Game Starting Pitcher Performance

One of the few chances the Braves had to find their footing during their brutal July schedule was against the Marlins. They clobbered the Fish on July 23, and sent Julio Teheran to the mound in an attempt to secure a two-game sweep (and what would be their only series win of the month).

Instead, Teheran was awful. After the first inning, the Braves were down 2-0. After three, they were down 4-1. The Braves battled back to 4-3 in the top of the fourth, and then Teheran completed a self coup-de-grace. He gave up a leadoff double to opposing pitcher Wei-Yin Chen, hit a better with a pitch, and after a fielder’s choice failed to retire Chen on a play at the plate, allowed an RBI single and then a three-run homer to Starlin Castro. He had a nine-spot hung on him, and it was awful.

One day, the Braves may actually want to limit Teheran’s exposure the third time through the lineup. They didn’t on that afternoon, and paid the price.

Worst Single-Game Relief Pitcher Performance

Speaking of respite, the Braves returned home on July 10 to face the Blue Jays, who along with the Marlins, were the only non-contenders they would face during the month. After an effective Julio Teheran start where he didn’t allow any homers to Marcus Stroman led to a 1-1 tie entering the eighth, the Braves turned the ball over to A.J. Minter, and things went poorly.

The inning started with two consecutive errors and then a pop-out. But then the floodgatse opened. Randal Grichuk lined a Minter pitch for a single. Russell Martin hit a grounder that scored the go-ahead run. Kevin Pillar singled, and it was 3-1. Just like that, things went south. Shane Carle didn’t help matters by allowing consecutive doubles to definitely put the game out of reach, but Minter did the initial damage here (as did the errors). Not great, for a game the Braves probably needed to win.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

It was that Yasiel Puig homer off of Luke Jackson. You could probably tell, too. 109 mph off the bat. Blam.

See you next month! Hopefully it’s better for the Braves than July 2018!