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Braves keep summer of fun rolling through July

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It wasn’t the team’s scalding-hot June, but it was a good month all the same.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

After play on June 30, the Braves had a .588 winning percentage and a 5.5-game division lead. Their 50-35 record was second-best in the NL and fifth-best in baseball.

After play on July 31, the Braves hold a .587 winning percentage and a 6.5-game division lead. Their 64-45 record is second-best in the NL and fifth-best in baseball.

In other words, July happened, and the Braves rolled right through it. It wasn’t the team’s dominant, 20-8 June, but it was a microcosm of what the team’s done all along: rack up wins, mixing and matching contributors and different ways to win ballgames, but generally coming out on top.

  • The offense was a bit of a dropoff, finishing 12th in MLB in wRC+ for July, compared to fifth in MLB on the year. The result was a middling aggregate position player performance (13th in MLB in fWAR); the Braves still sit fifth in MLB for the full season in this measure.
  • The rotation, meanwhile, was quite good, with an aggregate 2.1 fWAR that placed it 9th in MLB for the month. That helped pull the aggregate rotation performance from below-average to average, as it is 17th in fWAR for the year among MLB teams. The MLB ranks for July for the rotation by ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP- were eighth, ninth, and 12th, respectively, so beware some HR/FB regression. (For the season, these ranks are 14th, 15th, and 16th.)
  • And then we come to the bullpen. It was so bad. So, so bad. Just abominable. The Atlanta relief corps accrued -1.1 fWAR in July. That’s not only the worst in the month, the gap between them and team number 29 (the Reds) is the same as the gap between 29 and 25. The bullpen was also below-replacement by RA9-WAR, though, somehow, miraculously, top 10 in WPA with a positive mark. (WPA, man.) The real “achievement” of the relief corps in July, however, was to plummet the team’s aggregate bullpen rank all the way down to 30th (last!) in MLB for the entire season. There are currently only six teams with below-replacement bullpen performances by fWAR to date, and the Braves are the worst of these. Fun fact: all five NL East teams are in the bottom nine bullpens for the league, and three NL East teams (Braves, Phillies, Mets) are the bottom three. Perhaps the only thing that’s kept the bullpen even somewhat afloat is run prevention beyond effective pitching, as the relief corps is 19th in MLB with +1.4 RA9-WAR, even despite shedding 0.3 of it in July.

In June, the Braves lost just one series. In July, the Braves couldn’t quite replicate that feat, dropping two, including a two-game sweep at the hands of the Royals. But, they didn’t stay in the doldrums for long, ending the month with a 4-2 road trip through Philadelphia and Washington. Here’s what the month looked like:

At this point, it’s not clear whether, when taking everything into account, July was “normal” or perhaps disappointing. The Braves’ aggregate matchup-based forecast for the month projected a 13-11 record, while using the “above 50 percent win expectancy equals a win” method suggested a 16-8 July. They ended up a bit better, with the clear discrepancy being the high-win expectancy losses to the Marlins and Royals.

There was a lot of great stuff, performance-wise, in July. Let’s take a look.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for July 2019 Performance - Position Players

Let me be clear: Josh Donaldson was the bringer of pain for opposing pitchers this month. He put up a 164 wRC+, 10 homers (more than he had singles), and a top-20 batting line in baseball for July. He hit a game-winning homer to cap the month for the Braves.

And yet, and yet... Freddie Freeman did something pretty awesome in July. It wasn’t even a good month for him, with a 120s wRC+ that represented a personal nadir for the season to date. But boy, did that 120 wRC+ count. In only six games during July did Freeman post a negative WPA. He had as many games with a negative WPA as with a WPA of 0.120 or higher, which is pretty ridiculous given that since 0.500 WPA is a win in any given game, it means he hurt the team offensively as frequently in July as he contributed about a quarter of a victory. He had 12 high-leverage PAs during July, in which he hit two three-run homers, and added a double, three singles, and two walks. Yes, that’s a 385 wRC+.

Josh Donaldson had the context-neutral performance in July down pat, but Freeman stacked his positive offensive outcomes for maximum damage.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for July 2019 Performance - Starting Pitchers

I wrote this in June: It was Mike Soroka in April. It was Mike Soroka in May. It’s still Mike Soroka in June. Will it ever not be Mike Soroka, ever again? Who knows? Who cares?

In July, I have an answer: yes, it’s not Mike Soroka... this time. Instead, let’s go with someone else, a hurler who helped the Braves top the Nationals twice in three starts and grab a couple of other victories as well. No, the peripherals weren’t as good as Soroka’s, but they weren’t far off. Yes, that’s right, it’s Julio Teheran, whose 0.7 fWAR in July was second behind only Soroka, and whose WPA led all Atlanta hurlers for the month.

After a dreadful end to June in which he suffered three consecutive implosions with homers and walks galore, Teheran rebounded like nobody’s business as the calendar turned. He shut out the Marlins (again), did alright in San Diego, somehow managed to semi-outduel Patrick Corbin, suffered (for once) a defense that didn’t back him against the Royals, and then kept the Nationals off the board as the Braves pounded their pitching. That’s a pretty cool month, and in terms of results, a better one than either Soroka (two outings in which he allowed four runs) or Dallas Keuchel (six total starts, a couple of clunkers mixed in).

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for July 2019 Performance - Relief Pitchers

Really, no one should get this. The bullpen was so bad in aggregate, and even the livable performances weren’t good, just livable. Seven different relievers put up below-replacement-level performances for the Braves in July, with previous heroes Luke Jackson (-0.3) and Anthony Swarzak (-0.4) the biggest offenders. Sean Newcomb was the only guy to put up above-replacement performance during the month, but even he skidded late, ending the month with two problematic outings in which he shed buckets of WPA.

So, let’s go with Josh Tomlin, I guess. He pitched the most innings of any Braves reliever in July, and they were not good. They were innings. But, he pitched them, indeed. Like Newcomb, Tomlin shed WPA twice over the course of the month. Unlike Newcomb, his foibles were less costly, as one outing simply made a Newcomb-extended deficit worse, and another yielded a couple of runs in a three-run game but preserved the lead in an eventual win. Still, what a month, and not in a good way.

I doubt anyone was really wondering why the Braves spent their entire Trade Deadline action picking up not one, not two, but three relievers, but this is pretty clear. When the guy who did the least damage to your team’s chances of winning in the bullpen for an entire month was the mop-up/long reliever, you’ve got problems. Maybe they’re fixed now? I guess we’ll find out.

Best Offensive Play

This is Freddie Freeman, making it count. Eighth inning, on the road, tie game, two outs, two on, and boom. He knew it. That’s how you win baseball games in 2019.

The Braves are no strangers to late-inning horrorshows in San Diego. Freddie Freeman ended that nightmare before it could begin.

Best Run-Stopping Play

Yeah, you knew it was going to be this. Who better to deliver a mind-bogglingly-good result in an impossible situation than the Flummoxer-in-Chief?

I mean, seriously, what? What do you even say about this? I don’t know what kind of magical amulet Culberson found that makes him not only be present in these situations improbably often but thrive in them as well, but, clutch it tightly, Charlie. Clutch it for dear life.

Most Dominant Offensive Performance

Including this game here makes sense, because it was a Josh Donaldson game in a Josh Donaldson month. On July 13 against the Padres, Donaldson was somehow everywhere. In the first, he hit a two-run homer. He made outs in the third and in the sixth, but as the Braves fell behind, he used his other skillset to help catch his team up.

In the eighth, down by one, he stood in the box to lead off the frame against very hard-throwing, very wild Gerardo Reyes. Five pitches later, including an obligatory hack and miss at a 3-0 fastball, Donaldson stood on first base with a leadoff walk. Three batters later, he scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly. Unfortunately, that was all the Braves got in that frame, and the game went into extra innings. So, once again, Josh Donaldson led off an inning, this time against Luis Perdomo. This time he saw six pitches and took two hack-and-miss swings, but found his way to first base once again. Two batters later, he’d score from second on a single (run, Josh, run!). Hunter Renfroe weirdly didn’t even attempt to make a throw, and that was that. (It wasn’t really that, that game was crazy, even after Donaldson did his best to end it smoothly.)

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

Seven scoreless innings in a game with goose eggs all around until the eighth? Sign me up, Mike Soroka. With little margin for error and things not quite going his way here and there (.353 BABIP-against), Soroka somehow found a way to keep the Padres off the board for inning after inning. The Padres threatened in the first, and didn’t score. They loaded the bases in the second, and Soroka materialized a strikeout of Fernando Tatis Jr. to end the threat. By the sixth and seventh, he was facing the lineup a third time and not yielding anything. He finished with a 9/1 K/BB ratio and a .237 xwOBA-against. Freeman hit the homer in the eighth, and Soroka was pumped. So were we.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

This is really kind of a joke. As mentioned, the bullpen was so bad in July that there aren’t really many (any) good choices here. So let’s just give it to Josh Tomlin, who made Josh Donaldson’s 10th-inning homer against the Nats stand up, despite having to face a lefty as the winning run, and then having to face Anthony Rendon as the same after that. You did it, Josh! Now get this bullpen the hell out of July and into its post-Trade Deadline configuration.

Most Crushed Ball

Dinelson Lamet can fool you once. Dinelson Lamet can maybe even fool you twice. But if you should happen to come across Dinelson Lamet a third time...

What a ridiculous monster shot that was.

Worst Offensive Result

This was indeed the month of Josh Donaldson raking, but it was also the month of one particularly bad Josh Donaldson result. The Braves were down one to the Marlins with runners at the corners and one out. Anything other than a double play would at least have kept the inning alive. Josh Donaldson hit into a double play. So it goes.

The Braves had no anti-Sergio Romo magic in the ninth and suffered one of their worst (as in, most unexpected, given the matchup) defeats of the season as a result.

Worst Pitching Result

Luke Jackson did not have a good month. In fact, he’s never had a month as bad as his July 2019 as a Brave, by FIP, and only a brief, eight-batter stint last April was worse by xFIP. Through June, Jackson’s pitching triple-slash was 2.85 / 2.74 / 2.33, with both a .340 BABIP-against and a 22.2 percent HR/FB taking a toll on his results relative to his inputs. In July, Jackson’s luck somehow got even worse, though his inputs were also horrid. His pitching triple-slash transformed into 9.00 / 7.33 / 4.53, his BABIP-against grew from .340 to .444, and his HR/FB near-doubled from 22.2 percent to 42.9 percent. Everything was bad.

Nothing summed up the badness more than this, a two-out game-tying moonshot by Victor Robles in the ninth.

It was, once again, the perfect combination of rotten luck and rotten performance for Jackson in July: yes, Jackson gave up the game-tying blast, but the prior baserunner had reached on a 50-50 grounder. In a fitting encapsulation of the Braves’ July, however, they simply scored more runs and won the game after Jackson coughed up the lead. So it goes. (But hey Braves, maybe also stop letting it go that way thanks.)

Worst Offensive Performance

See that Donaldson double play, above? Combine that particularly odious outcome with the fact that earlier in the game, he had:

  • Grounded out to the pitcher;
  • Walked, but then was thrown out at home trying to score; and
  • Struck out looking when down by a run...

... all before hit fatefully-unfortunate double play, and there you go. It was bad. Fortunately, he wasn’t, not after that game.

Worst Starting Pitching Performance

In some ways, this perhaps isn’t fair, as the Braves once again hung the rookie out to dry to try and preserve their embattled relief corps a bit, but Kyle Wright was once again putrid on July 18. He allowed two hits in the first, but got out of it thanks to a crucial double play converted off Juan Soto’s bat. The Braves handed him a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the inning, and he fared better in the second, allowing one single and grabbing three outs in the air. And then, not kablam-o.

A leadoff single to the opposing pitcher, Stephen Strasburg. Later in the frame, a triple, a double, a walk, another walk, a walk with the bases loaded, and then a double. Oh, and then Touki Toussaint came on and gave up a three-run homer to Strasburg, saddling Wright with an even uglier line. Wright yielded a collective .497 xwOBA to the 17 batters he faced — that’s the worst mark for any outing by a Braves pitcher this year in which they faced that many batters or more. Let’s skip any video of this.

Worst Relief Pitching Performance

So many to choose from, but it’s an easy choice, representing not just a bad performance by itself, but the breaking of a tentative promise of deliverance.

Like many relievers, Anthony Swarzak is good until he isn’t. For two months as a Brave, Anthony Swarzak put up an absurd 0.42 / 2.80 / 3.57 pitching triple slash, allowing just one run (on a solo homer) and only 17 total baserunners across 21 13 innings of work. (The run mattered, but only in retrospect, as it turned a 4-2 deficit into a 5-2 disadvantage, though the Braves would score two runs later to make it a pretty unfortunate dinger to yield.) After July 21, though, things came to a screeching halt:

  • July 23: three batters faced, two hits, one walk, all three batters ended up scoring;
  • July 30: four batters faced, two hits, including a homer (at least he got a strikeout);
  • July 31: four batters faced, three retired, solo homer yielded.

July 23 is the real bugbear here, and it contributed to a terrible loss suffered by the Braves. The Braves had just tied the game in the seventh on a miraculous two-out Freddie Freeman single against sidearming southpaw Tim Hill. Swarzak came on, faced pinch-hitter and former Brave Lucas Duda... and promptly yielded an absolute bomb of a homer to untie the game. He then allowed a walk and a single, and was unceremoniously removed from the game in favor of Wes Parsons, who allowed two more runs to score thanks to two more walks and a hit by pitch. Yes, this is a thing that happened for the Braves in a month in which they went 14-10 and gained ground in the division. Oy.

It’s always weird when Lucas Duda bats with Brian McCann catching, like a husky dude-oriented episode of Orphan Black.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

Ah yes, the monthly recap flavor where I embed multiple videos of Nationals homering off Luke Jackson. My favorite, except not.

This ball went super-far, and it wasn’t even one of the usual super-crushed pull-side lasers.

And now, for the most fun part of this recap, the cheapest homers:

Braves’ cheapest homer

Josh Donaldson, just sneaking a looper down inside the foul pole. 13 percent hit probability! That’s usually a fly-out to center or in the gap.

Cheapest homer allowed by the Braves

The camera work in the clip above is very misleading, as this is a routine 356-foot fly ball in most parks. A while ago, the Phillies were struggling with figuring out why they were giving up so many homers. I’m hoping they at least considered the fact that the ridiculous dimensions of their home field might have something to do with it. This ball was 91.5 mph off the bat and had a hit probability of five percent. It went for a back-breaking two-run homer.

See you next month!