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Braves experience oddball May

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The Braves won 16 games and stayed on track, but May defied conventional narratives.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been doing monthly recaps for a few years now, which means a decent-sized handful of months. Usually, I have no trouble summing up one portion of the calendar with some kind of overarching narrative, even if it’s one as simple as “they good” or “they bad.” May 2019, though, defies any attempt to do this. May 2019 doesn’t care. May 2019 was a really weird month. You’ll see why.

If you look just at the top-level results in the standings, May was a successful month for the Braves. They went 16-12, a mark that only nine teams exceeded in the month. No, they weren’t the Yankees, who went a stunning 20-7, but 16-12 is a better mark than what the Braves managed in any summer month last season, en route to 90 wins. The Braves finished April only two games out of first place, but with a sub-.500 overall record and playoff odds of 36 percent or so, basically smack-dab in the middle of the National League. At the end of May, they sit tied with the Padres for the second Wild Card spot at 30-27, with much more agreeable playoff odds of 53 percent despite adding a game to their in-division deficit. Only the Twins, Red Sox, and Brewers did more to increase their playoff odds during May. The Fangraphs playoff odds page estimated the Braves to win 83 games by the end of the year at the end of April. It’s up to 85 right now. Unsurprisingly, these numbers all hover around the 84ish win preseason expectation for this team, and the Braves actually improved upon it with their play in May. All of these are good things, right? I’d say yes, they definitely are. It’s just that how the Braves got there in May was more than a little odd.

In April, the Braves combined a great position player performance (top five in the league) with awful pitching (bottom five in the league) to end up basically where you’d figure such a combination would: around .500. In May, though, things got weird.

  • The Braves finished 22nd in baseball with a 91 position player wRC+. That, frankly, sucks.
  • They finished middle of the pack in defense, and DRS doesn’t make an appreciable increase here, despite UZR being weird for the Braves so far in 2019.
  • They finished 21st in baseball in position player fWAR in May; even if you were to credit them via DRS rather than UZR, you’d still end up with a team ranked 17th or so.

So, the offense was not good. But they finished 16-12. That means the pitching was good, right? Haha, no.

  • Overall, the Braves finished 17th in pitching fWAR in May. The starters were dead average (15th in MLB); the relievers were not (22nd in MLB).
  • They managed to prevent runs well (90 ERA- for the staff as a whole, 10th in MLB), but the peripherals were more middling (104 FIP-, 107 xFIP-, 18th and 23rd in MLB, respectively).

Basically, on a context-neutral production basis, the Braves should have gone something like 12-16. (Don’t believe me? Just look at their run differential, which is a step below context-neutral production yet ended up negative for the month.) Instead, they went 16-12. Now, one way to talk about that would be a narrative of “the Braves got very lucky in May.” You could leverage all of the above, and even the fact that game-by-game win probability expected only something like a 14-14 record for the month, in support of that narrative. Except... even that narrative doesn’t work, because luck has layers, too.

Consider xwOBA, and consider the Braves in April, and then in May. In April, the Braves’ hitting (including pitchers) had an xwOBA of .344, fourth in MLB and second in the NL. They had a wOBA of .348, fifth in MLB and second in the NL. The offense was good, and not particularly lucky. Remember, that group finished fifth in overall position player value (including defense dragging them down) last month. In May, the Braves’ hitting had an xwOBA of .341, sixth in MLB and second in the NL. But wait, you might recall from above that I described the hitting, quaintly, as, “It sucked.” And indeed, the Braves’ wOBA is 24th in MLB for May, fourth-worst in the NL. You can probably figure what’s coming: the Braves’ bats got horrendously unlucky in May. Not only is the Braves’ wOBA-xwOBA gap of -0.035 the worst in baseball for the month, it’s nearly 50 percent bigger than the second-most unlucky team, who only had a gap of -0.024. So, there’s no easy narrative here. The Braves’ offensive results sucked. The Braves’ offensive inputs, however, did not.

I’m not going to pretend that some of those numbers aren’t really bad, but seriously, universe, what gives? Six of the 50 least-lucky players in May by this measure (minimum 30 PAs) were Braves. The Braves did not have anything even remotely close to canceling this out, as Josh Donaldson’s 0.013 gap was not even in the top 140 luckiest among the 360ish players with 30+ PAs in May. So, in the end, the Braves were lucky by one measure (they won more games than expected) given their production, but unlucky by another measure (their results were worse than their inputs). Baseball is weird. Shrug.

Also, note that the pitching-and-defense gap (run prevention, in other words) for the Braves is not that pronounced. In May, they yielded the 11th-lowest wOBA but the 16th-lowest xwOBA. This was the fourth-luckiest run prevention in baseball for the month, but nowhere near as egregious as what happened on offense. On balance, in terms of comparing wOBA and xwOBA, the Braves were really unlucky in May. And yet, 16-12 for the month. I’ll go with “small sample weirdness” over “karmic adjustment,” but in the end, they sit at 30-27, right on pace for a mid-80s win total that was prognosticated for the squad at the beginning of the season.

Perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it too much. But, if we just take a quick glance game-by-game, we can further see that this was a weird month in many ways.

The Braves went 6-2 series-wise in May, including the tail-end of a four-game split with the Padres and losing the first game of the Tigers series, which will wrap up in June. They won six straight series in the middle of the month, bookended by a sweep in Los Angeles and a two-game sweep at the hands of the Nationals. Even that’s kind of weird. If you use only the win probabilities in the image above, the Braves were expected to go 14-14 in May, based on opponent quality and pitching matchups. However, if you count any “favored” (above 50 percent win expectancy) game as a potential win, then 16-12 makes sense, though the Braves actually went 11-5 in such “favored” games and 5-7 in “unfavored” games, so they kind of did more under-dogging than over-dogging, I guess. They had that crazy comeback win against the Cardinals, their a priori least-likely win of the year. Meanwhile, the month-ending loss to the lowly Tigers was one of the biggest blown win expectancies of the season, second only to the game they dropped to the Marlins in early April.

Anyway, it was a weird month. Nothing written in this monthly recap can change that. Let’s move on to player- and event-specific stuff.


Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2019 Performance - Position Players

Austin Riley was the most fun thing about May. Austin Riley might be the most fun thing about the universe. Riley only played in 15 of the month’s 28 games, but finished second on the team in position player fWAR, with 0.8 to Freddie Freeman’s 0.9. In those 15 games, he put up a 191 wRC+ and a .390 ISO, along with a bonkers .356/.397/.746 triple-slash. He hit seven homers in 15 games, which is wild.

Since his debut, only five players have a better xwOBA. Only 10 have a better wOBA. Only one player, Cody Bellinger, has a better xwOBA in as many or more PAs as Riley does; only Bellinger and Mitch Garver (what) have a better wOBA with that same restriction.

But that’s not even the craziest thing about Austin Riley, which has to do with the fact that his WPAness is his godliness. Austin Riley had 1.64 WPA in May. Recall that WPA leads to a win at .500 (because each team also starts with .500, and 1.000 is a victory), which means that Riley contributed over three WPA-wins himself... in 15 games. For comparison, the next-highest position player WPA total for the month was Freddie Freeman, at 0.53, in nearly twice the games. For the entire year, Riley now ranks 17th in overall WPA among position players, and 25th in baseball. Only Christian Walker has more games with a WPA of 0.3 or more (four) than Riley does (three) so far this season. And again, he’s played half a month. Such fun. I, for one, welcome our new Austin Riley WPA overlords.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2019 Performance - Starting Pitchers

It was Mike Soroka in April. It’s still Mike Soroka in May. At this point, Mike Soroka is kind of like the invincibility-granting Super Star from the Mario series. You grab him, you’re good for a short duration, but then you have to rely on not-him for a while. And sometimes when you grab him, you don’t need him, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome anyway.

May 2019 was Soroka’s first full month as a major leaguer; he had never had more than three starts in a calendar month prior to his five outings this month. Now, his May 2019 wasn’t as good as his April 2019: 2.07 FIP / 2.87 xFIP / 21.1% K%-BB% in April; 3.29 FIP / 4.09 xFIP / 11.9% K%-BB% in May. Yet, it could also be argued that he actually managed hitters even a bit better: .309 xwOBA in April; .301 xwOBA in May.

Rounded to two decimal points, Soroka has yet to post a negative WPA outing in 2019. He did have a marginally-tiny -0.004 WPA against the Marlins, but that’s it. He then bookended the month with another not-too-great outing WPA-wise against the Cardinals (just +.009), but was straight-up dominant in his other three starts, with a combined WPA right around 1.000. He allowed just six runs in five starts all month, never had a Game Score (v2) below 62 (and hasn’t had one below 60 on the season) and had his best career start, eight innings of one-run ball against the Giants, as well.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2019 Performance - Relief Pitchers

Due to some kind of rotation pseudo-logjam and a pressing need in the bullpen, Touki Toussaint spent the entire month of May working as a reliever. In some ways, it didn’t always go well: he posted a very generic 4.17 FIP and 4.22 xFIP for the month; his 0.1 fWAR pales to Luke Jackson’s 0.7 in the same span.

Yet, Toussaint did some ridiculously beneficial yeoman’s work in his kinda-sorta-long-relief-but-also-maybe-high-leverage-relief? role. He threw four one-run innings in “relief” of the ejected Kevin Gausman against the Marlins. He soaked up three innings after Gausman was destroyed by the Nationals at the end of the month. Of his other five outings, all but one lasted more than an inning. He took the guesswork out of Brian Snitker’s job description for multiple innings at a time, and did pretty well when doing so.

Most critically, Toussaint only really helped his team win games in May. Aside from letting the Nationals score tack-on runs when the game was already out of reach, he always provided positive WPA, and often heaps of it. On May 23, he got seven outs against the Giants, all in walkoff territory, including a ninth-inning groundout that stranded the winning run at second. In the two outings before that, he retired all six batters he faced in close games.


Best Offensive Play

What’s better than a homer? A grand slam. What’s better than a grand slam? One that turns a deficit into a lead. Say hello, Ozzie Albies:

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=1509ef1f-eef8-413c-8a94-41f8ff4242b7

(Sorry for no embeds, Baseball Theater appears to be down at the time of writing.)

Weirdly enough, Albies now has three career grand slams, but two have come against the Marlins. The game turned into a 9-2 laugher, but it did so in large part because of Albies’ slam, which turned a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 lead. It also came off Nick Anderson, the lone above-replacement member of Miami’s relief corps, so that’s pretty cool.

Best Run-Stopping Play

On May 15, Mike Soroka completed seven scoreless frames against the Cardinals and gave way to Dan Winkler, who basically threw only balls and issued two straight walks, putting the tying run on base. Perhaps uncharacteristically but in most welcome fashion, Brian Snitker then yanked Winkler and inserted de facto closer Luke Jackson to face Paul DeJong.

That went about as well as could be expected, even with Jackson initially falling behind DeJong by a 2-1 count:

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=4be6acbd-c3ad-49ad-bfad-f6722272df8b

Just like that, the Cardinals went from tying run on first, zero out, to tying run at the plate, two out. Jackson also made short work of said tying run by striking him out, and finished out the game from there.

Most Dominant Offensive Performance

Just your usual Austin Riley, WPA God thing here. May 23: game-tying two-run homer with two out in the eighth? Check. Game-winning single in the 13th inning? Check. Sure, Riley only went 3-for-6 in the game overall, but he was the only guy responsible for runs coming across the plate for the final six innings of the game and hand-delivered a win to the Braves. (Small assist to Dansby Swanson for getting on base in front of him both times in the late innings.)

https://www.mlb.com/gameday/braves-vs-giants/2019/05/23/566495#game_state=final,lock_state=final,game_tab=videos,game=566495

So. Much. Fun.

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

Mike Soroka Day, indeed. On May 15, before Jackson elicited that fateful double play, Mike Soroka hurled seven scoreless frames. His K/BB ratio wasn’t great (3/3), he hit a batter with a pitch, and his xwOBA-allowed was his second-highest of the year, a not-great .367. Yet, watching the game, you kind of got the sense that he was just toying with a pretty potent Cardinals lineup. Case in point: two walks and a hit-by-pitch loaded the bases in a very uncharacteristic third, bringing up Paul Goldschmidt. Not to worry, the Super Star comes through and grants a double play through its invincibility magic. The Cardinals put the tying runs on base with a walk and a single in the sixth? Ho-hum, tapper to the pitcher and an overpowering strikeout of Jose Martinez.

Maybe dominant isn’t quite the right word, and this should be something else, like Soroka’s eight-inning start against the Giants or Gausman’s .181 xwOBA-against outing versus the Brewers. Yet, I’m going with this one — it came against a good lineup in a close game, and ended up being just the right among of stifling for the Braves to eke out a win.

https://www.mlb.com/gameday/cardinals-vs-braves/2019/05/15/567183#game_state=final,game_tab=videos,game=567183

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

This was already mentioned in part above, but Touki Toussaint really bailed out his team on May 23. He came on with the walkoff run on second, and got a groundout from Buster Posey, who was out, to send the game into extras. He pitched a scoreless tenth, with one walk and two strikeouts. He pitched a 1-2-3 eleventh. That didn’t directly set up the Braves to win in 13, but they couldn’t have done it without him.

There’s no highlight video of this, but there should be.

Most Crushed Ball

This came in a loss to the Dodgers, and was one of the only good things to come out of that series, but yowza, check this one out:

https://www.mlb.com/gameday/braves-vs-dodgers/2019/05/06/565815#game_state=final,game_tab=videos,game=565815

446 feet to center field, that’s pretty cool.

Alright, and now a quick review of the bad stuff in a very weird month.


Worst Offensive Result

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=42a36acc-1ee5-46b3-9bc2-b4603412ce27

Worst Pitching Result

Urgh, this was so dumb. Stupid game-losing 89 mph exit velocity bouncer that came after other even lower-hit probability rollers (25 percent, nine percent). Even the dagger in the heart had less than 50-50 odds of being a hit based on its exit velocity and angle. Just the worst.

https://www.mlb.com/gameday/braves-vs-giants/2019/05/21/566493#game_state=final,game_tab=videos,game=566493

This is why you should just strike everyone out.

Worst Offensive Performance

Who would have figured that the man they call Charlie Clutch was apparently super-unclutch in the May start he drew? While Austin Riley was single-handedly defeating the Giants offensively, Charlie Culberson went 0-for-6 with four strikeouts and a whopping -.377 WPA.

In the second, he hit into a double play with runners on first and second to end the inning. In the fourth, with the Braves down a run and runners on second and third, he fouled out to end the inning. In the sixth, again down a run and runners on first and second, he struck out to end the inning. He struck out to lead off the ninth in a tie game. He struck out to lead off the 12th in a tie game. Finally batting with the Braves up by a run in the 13th, he struck out with runners on first and second to end the inning. By far the worst WPA day of his career, but weirdly enough, not the first time he’s gone 0-for-6 nor the first time he earned himself a platinum sombrero.

Worst Starting Pitching Performance

This is a bit of a mea culpa on my part. When Kevin Gausman got absolutely destroyed by the Nationals, I was quick to characterize it as “just BABIP.” Well, that wasn’t entirely fair to BABIP — so for everyone who said it was more than that, I was wrong, and you were right. Instead, it was BABIP and allowing a ridiculously good quality of contact.

On the surface, the start doesn’t need much more explanation — Gausman got just three outs and allowed eight runs. It was something like the worst start of his career. While it wasn’t the highest xwOBA-allowed start for the Braves this year (Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright, and Bryse Wilson all had worse ones), it was by far the worst Gausman has had, with a gnarly .455 mark, and the worst such start for a Brave in May. Interestingly, though, it was also the unluckiest start for a Braves starter this year, as Gausman suffered an unthinkable .701 wOBA on his .455 xwOBA allowed.

So there you have it. Both bad luck and bad pitching. And a very ignominious loss.

Worst Relief Pitching Performance

It wasn’t Luke Jackson’s fault, but it was still super-stupid. .269 xwOBA-against, .567 wOBA against, -.919 WPA. Just the worst. No more of this, please.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

This came in complete garbage time, but yikes, Dan Winkler. How impressively this was torched doesn’t quite come across given that it was hit mostly on a line, but oof. Very oof.

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=706cf16c-51c1-463f-8e1f-4e3e56d28b99

See you next month!