The Braves’ magic number is down to six before they can start packing their bags for Texas and the postseason bubble. While the expanded format and subtraction of travel days through the first three rounds could lead to some hairy situations for the National League East leaders and its rotation, no offense is doing more damage in September than Atlanta’s at an MLB-best 4.6 fWAR and 111 runs scored.
It’s the catalyst of that offense that’s the focus as we open this week’s Starting Nine, because like seemingly everything else in this weird pandemic-affected season, it all starts with the Braves’ four-time All-Star first baseman.
Freddie Freeman is the only qualified MLB player ranking top-3 in each of the following categories:— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) September 14, 2020
2nd in OBP
3rd in OPS
3rd in wRC+
3rd in fWAR pic.twitter.com/RsFqMOHNsY
1. The Season of Freddie
There are telenovelas that are filled with less plot points than the last two months have provided Freddie Freeman.
The sport’s first major star to test positive for COVID-19 (and have a harrowing tale to tell from that bout), Freeman returned to salvaged his string of Opening Day starts, then after 10 seasons and 105 plate appearances with the bases loaded, he finally hit his first grand slam and followed it with another 24 hours later, and he logged his 1,500th career hit last week. On a personal level, he and wife Chelsea also announced they are having twin boys, and he gave every other dad out there an unmatchable feat as flew two hours to see son Charlie’s first tee ball practice, then got back on a plane for that night’s game in Washington.
To top it all off, the franchise cornerstone is making a run at the National League MVP — which is suddenly catching on beyond those with 404, 470, 678 or 770 area codes — bolstered by his challenging for the circuit’s first Sabermetrics Triple Crown in 11 seasons.
Through Wednesday, Freeman is tied with the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. for MLB’s fWAR lead at 2.9 and is second in wRC+ (189), on-base percentage (.470), slugging (.648) and wOBA (.459) and third in batting average (.352). He trails only the White Sox’s Tim Anderson (.374) and Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu (.373) in average across both leagues and the Nationals’ Juan Soto in OBP (by .005) and slugging (.060) in the NL, though Soto has 68 fewer plate appearances than Freeman’s 217.
That has Freeman very much in the running to claim the three categories that make up the Sabermetrics Triple Crown — leading in average, OBP and slugging — with 10 games to go.
There have been 69 Sabermetrics Triple Crown winners going back to 1901, with the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera the last to do it in 2013, and no one from the NL has done it since the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols in 2009. The only Braves player on the list of winners is Rogers Hornsby, who did it in his only season with the franchise in 1928 when it called Boston home.
With Sabermetrics becoming the common tongue and no longer the lunatic fringe side of baseball, what would pulling off that Triple Crown mean for Freeman’s bid for the Braves’ first MVP since Chipper Jones in 1999? Since 1982, 11 players have been Sabermetrics Triple Crown winners, and only two of them — Jason Giambi in 2001 and Mark McGwire in 1998 — didn’t follow it up by claiming the MVP.
While it had seemed difficult to supplant Tatis as the Padres look to end a 14-year postseason drought, Freeman is now getting love from odds-makers, with betoline.ag having the Braves star going from 22/1 odds on Sept. 1 to 9/2 with its Sept. 15 update, with his hitting 148 percent above league average this month with six home runs and an MLB-best 25 RBI. Those are the third best odds behind Tatis and the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, both at 5/2.
It strengthens Freeman’s case that Tatis is struggling in September (77 wRC+, while hitting .184), and while Betts is having a red-hot finish (154 wRC+ this month), he’s aided by a rotation that has held opponents to the game’s lowest wOBA (.244). We all know the offense has largely been propping up the Braves, with the starters’ .376 wOBA against ranking 27th since the left-hander last pitched Sept. 5.
Freeman has surged to become the Braves’ most legitimate MVP contender since Andruw Jones finished second to Pujols in 2005, and at a minimum appears poised to top the franchise’s best finish since Freeman himself was fourth in 2018.
It’s the Season of Freddie, and now he’s challenging for the hardware to prove it.
2. Postseason schedule does Braves’ rotation no favors ...
By now you’ve heard one of the biggest gripes with this expanded postseason schedule: it includes zero off days between the Wild Card, Division Series and Championship Series games. Basically, it means shortening a rotation — a la what the Nationals did to perfection last season with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin amassing 76 percent of the team’s starts in its championship run — isn’t an option. There’s the underlying storyline that this wasn’t explicitly spelled out for teams before the Aug. 1 trade deadline, which likely would have forced a number of general managers (Alex Anthopoulos among them) to do more to address shortcomings. But in the here and now, it makes that unless Max Fried is going to start on short rest in a series, that last outing from Kyle Wright, and whatever is to come from Cole Hamels, who debuted Wednesday, loom large. Atlanta isn’t alone in its rotation struggling to pitch deep in games, with fellow postseason contenders Tampa Bay (by design) and Toronto joining the NL East leaders in the bottom six of the league in innings pitched, but the Braves have 29 games in which their starter has failed to go beyond four innings, trailing only the Red Sox (31). This setup does Atlanta no favors in that regard.
3 ... but the lineup could take advantage
We know how explosive this lineup can be (just ask the Marlins and that NL-record setting 29 runs), but these Braves have done considerable damage against the backend of rotations, which could prove big in this schedule. While pitchers that lineup as the top three of their respective rotations have a 3.84 ERA against the Braves, those who slot as fours or fives have been blistered to the tune of a 6.04 ERA.
4. The one team the Braves don’t want to face
All that being said, there’s one Wild Card Series matchup that should have the Braves worried and it’s the one they’re currently in line for. The third seed behind the Central-leading Cubs and the West’s top team, the Dodgers, Atlanta would face off against the sixth-seeded Reds, who have two qualified starters tied for fourth overall in fWAR — Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo at 2.1 — and two more at 0.8 fWAR or higher with Sonny Gray (1.5) and Tyler Mahle (0.8). Cincinnati is the only NL team with four starters at 0.8 fWAR or higher, joined by the Indians and Twins among all teams, and while Gray is currently on the injured list with a right mid-back sprain, he could return for the final series. The Braves are a game behind the Cubs for the No. 2 seed, which would currently mean facing the seventh-seeded Phillies (Chicago owns the tiebreaker due to divisional records). Atlanta is hitting 24 percent above league average with 16 home runs in 10 games, including tagging ace Aaron Nola to the tune of a 5.53 FIP in 10 2/3 innings. The final 10 games lean in the Braves’ favor in terms of getting that No. 2 seed, with a .454 winning percentage (26th) among remaining opponents, while the Cubs’ remaining schedule is 16th (.498), with three games each vs. the two best teams in the AL Central, the White Sox and Twins.
5. Cole Hamels debuts and Braves may have an actual rotation
Cross the long-awaited Braves debut — long-awaited in terms of the recipient of the largest single-season contract the franchise has ever doled out for a pitcher — of Cole Hamels off your list of 2020 happenings, and it’s hard to remember a more important three innings out of a 36-year-old that hadn’t pitched in nearly a year. Hamels wasn’t phenomenal, but he was effective Wednesday in Baltimore, allowing three runs on 3 1/3 innings and retiring 10 of the 14 batters he faced, with the fastball reaching 91 mph and the changeup generated a 30 percent whiff rate. He’s in line to make another start Sept. 22 against the Marlins and could get another in the final series with the Red Sox as he looks to build up to close to 90 pitches ahead of the postseason. Hamels even being on the mound is a positive given his multiple setbacks (shoulder and triceps) and the Braves don’t need him to be their savior, just something close to stable. This rotation isn’t going to scare anyone in the postseason past Fried, who is set to return Friday vs. the Mets, and maybe Ian Anderson. But at least with Hamels actually playing and Wright’s last outing it’s feeling like there’s a blueprint as opposed to throwing darts. That’s a positive turn given how shaky things have been with this staff, and we still don’t know how Mike Foltynewicz could factor in.
6. Sunday’s finest, and a case of the Mondays
With home-field advantage out the window with MLB bubbling up for the playoffs, the Braves should be circling those potential Sunday matchups as something close to it. Atlanta is an MLB-best 7-1 on Sunday (after being 18-9 last season) with a plus-41 run differential on that day, a .327/.413/.580 slash line with 13 home runs and 44 extra-base hits. It’s also been the stage for all three of their shutouts. Of course with the MLB trying to avoid the ratings monolith that is the NFL, there are only three postseason games scheduled for Sundays, two of which — Game 7 of the NLCS and Game 5 of the World Series — that the Braves could potentially play in. Unfortunately, if the Braves make it to the League Championship Series, it’s scheduled to started on Oct. 12, a Monday. Atlanta hans’t won a postseason game on that day of the week since Game 5 of the NLCS vs. the Padres, dropping each of the last five and all of them ending the Braves’ season.
7. So you’re saying there’s a chance?
The Dodgers remain the class of the NL per Las Vegas, with Sportsbetting.ag’s keeping the West leaders atop their updated odds at 3/1 to win it all, with the Rays the American League favorite to claim the World Series at 15/2. Atlanta has the circuit’s third best chance at a championship (14/1) and is 7/1 to win the NL, with Los Angeles at 3/2, while the Padres are sitting at 9/2. It’s not much better than where the Braves started the season (16/1 to win the World Series; 8-1 to take the NL), but consider the Nationals faced the 11th-best preseason odds last year (16/1) and in the last five seasons, teams with the 16th (Royals in 2015) and seventh (Astros in 2017) highest odds all claimed a title. Only the Cubs (2016) and Red Sox (2018) actually delivered on that favorite status, and the Dodgers already failed to come through with that standing last year.
It’s September 15 and Adam Duvall already has TEN homers this month. pic.twitter.com/VAyEPfULU9— MLB (@MLB) September 16, 2020
8. Adam Duvall’s magic month
On Sept. 1, Adam Duvall was 164th among all qualified hitters at 91 wRC+, but thanks to his tear this month, he’s jumped to 55th (135 wRC+) behind a month in which he’s hit 92 percent above league average with 10 home runs (three more than the Nationals have hit since Aug. 31), which is one shy of the franchise record set by Eddie Mathews in 1959. With 10 more games to play in the regular season, you have to at least like his chances of taking down Mathews, thought it may be a stretch to reach Bob Horner’s 14-homer July of 1980 for the highest single-month total for any Braves player since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966, as well as Joe Adcock’s franchise mark of 15 set in July 1956. But considering Duvall is going deep every 6.3 plate appearances in September, best not to discount the hot hand.
9. Panda arrives, but don’t hold your breath
The Braves have brought a panda to their alternate site, with veteran infielder Pablo Sandoval inking a minor-league deal. It wasn’t going well in San Francisco, where the two-time All-Star had a paltry 54 wRC+ and .220/.278/.268 slash line with one home run in 90 plate appearances, but in Sandoval’s defense, he is coming off Tommy John surgery in September. There are shades of when the Braves signed Ryan Howard in 2018, only to release the former MVP after he struggled at Triple-A, and with Sandoval not on the 40-man roster as of Sept. 15, his only path to postseason playing time would be requesting permission from the commissioner’s office as an injury replacement. The switch-hitting third baseman has had success against left-handed pitching (134 wRC+ in just 10 plate appearances) and with Austin Riley at 47 percent below league average, maybe there’s the makings of a platoon, but it stands as nothing more than an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass depth move for the sake of a depth move.