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Starting Nine: The poster boy of Braves’ comeback artistry, pressure on Inciarte (again)

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Plus, some historically bad third base play, Markakis doubling way past legends and the search for breathing room in NL East

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves
Dansby Swanson has a 243 wRC+ with a 1.333 OPS from the ninth inning-on, punctuated by Monday’s walk-off home run, the first of his career.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

All Mother Nature did was Braves Country more time to get suitably hyped for its Pache Day celebration.

What’s becoming a (seemingly) annual birthright in watching this organization have a Top 50 prospect debut was delayed with Wednesday’s rain out against the Nationals, but with the arrival of the center fielder of the future, will come plenty of questions about the center fielder of the present in Ender Inciarte.

On what comes next in CF, some pretty horrendous play out of third base and plenty more in this week’s Starting Nine. But first, let’s talk about those comeback wins.

1. Clutch hitting and the poster boy of ‘Never Quit With Snit’

“These guys are never out of a game,” Brian Snitker said Monday what he’s said, in some variation, now 82 times since he took over on May 17, 2016. The Braves have made an absolute art form out of last-at bat wins in his tenure as manager, with that aforementioned 82 the most in the majors, but it’s not just the wins that stand out amid that last-gasp drama under Snitker.

It’s the complete dominance and how much it permeates this lineup.

Under his leadership, the Braves have a 166 wRC+ in the ninth inning and later, which leads MLB by a staggering 21 percent over second-place Pittsburgh (145) and Atlanta’s OPS sits at 1.032, with the Pirates second at .922.

That’s all included 12 walk-off home runs from nine different players — Charlie Culberson (two), Freddie Freeman (two), Nick Markakis (two), Lance Adams, Ozzie Albies, Johan Camargo, Matt Kemp, Jace Peterson, and Dansby Swanson — and 31 game-winning hits from 19 different players, with Swanson’s four leading the way, while Ronald Acuña Jr., Ender Inciarte, Brian McCann, Brandon Phillips, Albies, Culberson, Freeman and Markakis are the only others to end a game with their bat multiple times.

In that four-year span, Atlanta has also seen 15 players hit above league average in the ninth and into extra innings, led by Matt Adams’ 216, and this season the player who has provided the most of those winning moments in Snitker’s reign who has been at his, and the Braves’ best, in clutch situations.

Swanson leads the team with a 1.140 OPS in high-leverage situations (21st in MLB) and is 14th in the majors with a .444 average in that split. He sits at 243 wRC+ with a 1.333 OPS from the ninth-on, punctuated by Monday’s walk-off homer, the first of his career. Each season, he’s only improved with the pressure on, going from a paltry 35 wRC+ in his first full season of 2017 to 88 in 2018 and 102 wRC+ last year and these past two seasons, no Brave has more hits than Swanson’s 14 in the ninth and extra innings.

2. Pressure’s on Ender ... again

“I know he’s going to be excited about being out here,” Snitker said Wednesday of Pache. “He’s going to get gassed up and I’m excited about watching that kid play.” Now that Pache, MLB Pipeline’s 14th-ranked prospect, and whose defense has been likened to that of 10-time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones, is in Atlanta, the pressure ratchets up for the current center fielder, who has his own Gold Glove resume. We’ve been down this road with Inciarte before — twice, in fact — in 2018. First, he lost his leadoff role to Acuña and said all the right things as that season’s Rookie of the Year ignited the offense. Then there was Inciarte’s paltry .650 OPS and 79 wRC+ in the two months before that season’s trade deadline, including a .516 OPS and 43 wRC+ against left-handed pitching. The Braves went searching for an answer, acquiring a former All-Star outfielder in Adam Duvall, with the expectation it would create a platoon situation. Inciarte instead responded by hitting 11 percent above league average the rest of the season, including a whopping 175 wRC+ vs. lefties. Now we’re at it again, with the first night Pache was on the roster coinciding with Inciarte’s first three-hit game of the season and the first in two years. Markakis being on the injured list after potentially coming in contact with someone with COVID-19 created the opening to get Pache a taste of the majors and an audition for 2021 without losing a year of control, and unlike adding Duvall, there’s no secret that this is the player coming for Inciarte’s spot in the field. How the three-time Gold Glove winner continues to respond, be it to keep his place on this team or up his value in the trade market, figures to be a key storyline so long as Pache is in Atlanta.

3. Some historically bad third base play

The production the Braves are getting — or more to the point aren’t getting — at third base isn’t just bad. It’s an MLB-worst kind of atrocious. Through 15 starts from Austin Riley, 10 out of Johan Camargo and one by Adeiny Hechavarria, Atlanta has a collective minus-0-.7 fWAR at the position, worst in the majors and is hitting 48 percent below league average, saved by only the Reds (51 wRC+) by being last in the NL, and has a .249 wOBA, ahead of just the Blue Jays (.235) to stay out of 30th overall. Riley, who had to answer so many questions in the lead up to this season about his struggles vs. sliders, is actually hitting worse against fastballs (.118) than he is on breaking balls (.333 and all three of his home runs) and Camargo’s strikeout rate has jumped from 17.3 last year to 32.1, tied with Acuña for the highest on the team among qualified hitters. While it may have been unrealistic to think the Braves could come close to what they got at third behind Josh Donaldson — and robberies like Victor Robles stealing a home run away from Riley in Tuesday’s loss aren’t helping matters — ranking top five in fWAR in the NL at third (4.4), they’re currently on track to finish last in third base WAR for the first time since 1989.

4. Markakis just keeps doubling up

With Markakis’ next double, he’ll be pulling alongside not just a baseball icon, but an American institution, with No. 506 equaling Babe Ruth for 58th on the all-time list. If there’s one thing the veteran left-hander has been able to constantly deliver since joining the Braves, it’s doubles, with 23 two-double games since 2015, the most in the NL in that span and tied for second behind only Mookie Betts’ 25 overall. The 36-year-old has already delivered six in doubles in 34 at-bats since his return, and while a timetable on his return isn’t clear — there is no set days a player must be out in they are put on the IL over an abundance of caution and don’t test positive — Markakis was hitting two-baggers at a rate that would have given him 23 had he played all the remaining available games in this short season and had him one behind Willie Mays (522) and Ken Griffey Jr. (524), who are respectively, 47th and 48th all-time. Regardless how high he climbs in 2020, Markakis is going to continue finding himself alongside some eye-opening names as the doubles keep piling up.

5. Wright is on the wrong list to start his career

Kyle Wright may yet have a fantastic, productive and long MLB career, but the start he’s getting himself off to is etching itself into the dubious chapters of Braves history. He’s dropped each of his first six decisions and has an 8.53 ERA in those outings and the team has won just two of the 15 games in which he’s appeared. Wright is currently tied for the fifth longest winless streak by decisions to start a career by a Brave in the modern era with Aaron Blair (2016) and along with those players that are above him — Frank LaCorte, who lost nine in a row from 1975-76, and Joel De La Cruz (2016) and Dave Campbell (1977-78), losers of seven consecutive starts before their first win — it hasn’t exactly forecasted success. LaCorte was traded away after four-plus unproductive years, Campbell’s career lasted just two seasons, De La Cruz never made it back to the majors and Blair is pitching for the Constellation Energy League’s Eastern Reyes del Tigre. Of course, none of them were first-round picks like Wright, and no one is — pardon the pun — writing him off already — though his start was skipped after Wednesday’s rain out. But among those droughts to open a career, the right-hander is the only one who has had more walks (24) than innings pitched (22).

6. Tomlin itch scratched, now it’s time to keep him put

Considering the roller coaster ride every available Braves starter not named Max Fried (no offense, Robbie Erlin) has presented, it’s understandable that Snitker wanted to get veteran Josh Tomlin a starter after his 1.59 ERA, 1.12 FIP and 12.71 K/9 in 11 1/3 innings out of the bullpen. The 36-year-old didn’t disappoint in Tuesday’s start vs. the Nationals — his first since Sept. 25, 2019 and the second since the end of the 2018 season — allowing two runs over four innings and 51 pitches (36 strikes), and made it the 15th time a starter made it out of the fourth inning. After Wednesday’s rain out, Tomlin was announced as Sunday’s starter vs. the Phillies, and while the lure of having some consistency in the rotation is an appealing use of Tomlin, it’s not where he’s at his best. Since the start of the 2019 season, only the Reds’ Michael Lorenzen has more appearances of an inning or more among NL relievers and with no established answer in sight in bolstering Atlanta’s rotation. His ability to shield young arms is crucial. If he’s not likely to go more than four innings — Tomlin’s career splits in which opponents’ OPS jumps to .846 the third time through the lineup — then why potentially burn him before and after that outing and put more stress on a bullpen that’s already thrown 6 1/3 more innings than starters?

7. The search for breathing room in NL East

The American League East portion of the schedule hasn’t exactly been kind to the Braves. They’re 4-5 against it so far, having played the Rays, Blue Jays and Yankees and are one of two division leaders who are below .500 in Interleague play (joined by the A’s at 3-4). While Atlanta has continued to stand tall in the NL East with a 10-6 record this season, it hasn’t resulted in much of a cushion in the bid for a third straight division title, with just three game separating the Braves and the last-place Mets and Nationals. No other division is closer than a six-game gap between first and last place (AL Central). FanGraphs has Atlanta with the best odds of winning the division — 47.5 percent, with the Phillies next at 23.8 — and an 82.6 percent chance to make the expanded postseason and the next three weeks are going to loom large with 17 of the next 22 against East opponents (nine against Washington and six vs. Philadelphia and three more with the Marlins). Buckle up. Things are going to get really interesting.

8. Freeman has carved out place among Braves greats with two outs

Freddie Freeman has made an art out of going deep in two-strike counts. His home run in Tuesday night’s loss to the Nationals was the 67th of his career when down to his last strike, which is tied for the sixth most in the NL since the first baseman’s first full season of 2011 and he has 503 hits in those situations, 10th in MLB, and it all has him moving up the ladder among Braves. He’s now three behind Brian McCann in two-out home runs, while Andruw Jones hit 94 and Chipper Jones had 124 and is second to the Jonses in two-outs hits, with Andruw at 543 and Chipper with 728.

9. A surprising exit velocity monster

Adam Duvall has delivered the Braves’ hardest hit ball of the season - 114.2 mph on Aug. 9 against the Phillies’ Adam Morgan — and Freeman has the most hits of 95 mph-plus at 33, with Marcell Ozuna two behind him. But the lineup’s highest average exit velocity belongs to a surprising name: Travis d’Arnaud. He’s in the top six percent of the league (25th) at 92.3 mph and has a 52.5 percent hard-hit ball rate that’s in the top four percent in MLB (19th), with his hardest-hit ball coming at 108.3 mph on the above single off the Blue Jays’ Anthony Bass on Aug. 5. D’Arnaud was at 90 mph last season, but his previous high was just 87.9 and he had never had a hard-hit percentage above 40.2 in any of his previous four qualified seasons. In the Statcast era (2015-on), the Braves have had just one player rank in the top 25 in average exit velocity: Josh Donaldson last season (92.9 mph).