Much to the chagrin of anyone who has watched starters not named Max Fried (and now Ian Anderson) labor through a start, the Braves didn’t make a splash by bringing in a top-flight arm at the trade deadline. But on the flip side, the plan to have a player hit three home runs in a game seems to turbocharge the offense seems to be working to perfection.
If what did (or more to the point didn’t) happen ahead of Monday’s cutoff to aid the roster underscored anything, it’s that while each Anderson gem is a gift, this team is only going to go as far as its most consistent and most valuable asset takes it.
Which leads us into Fried and the conversation we all need to start having.
1. Max Fried, MVP candidate
We’ve reached the point where Fried has all but guaranteed that he’s going to at a minimum, have the Braves’ best Cy Young finish in 18 years, and potentially its first win since another left-hander, Tom Glavine, in 1998. SportsBetting.ag this week announced Fried with the second-best odds for the award at 3/1, trailing only the Cubs’ Yu Darvish (2/1), with the trio of the Mets’ Jacob deGrom and Reds’ Trevor Bauer and Sonny Grey at 6/1.
But the love shouldn’t stop there. It’s high time we start discussing Fried as an NL MVP contender as well.
In Baseball Reference WAR, Fried had the National League lead at 2.6 after his last start — though he’s now 0.1 behind the Diamondbacks’ Zac Gallen after he pitched Wednesday — while FanGraphs has Fried tied for sixth at 1.8 behind the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. (2.6), the Giants’ Mike Yastrzemski (2.3), the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts (2.1), the Rockies’ Trevor Story (2.0) and Cubs’ Ian Happ (1.9). Yet those same odds that have Fried near the top of the Cy Young challengers include all the others on that WAR list, but don’t have Fried on the board for MVP.
Tatis is a force of nature on a team setting the narrative for 2020, Yastrzemski is almost singlehandedly keeping San Francisco in the postseason hunt as its only player above 1.0 WAR on Baseball Reference or FanGraphs. Both should be major players in this race, but Betts is one of eight Dodgers hitting above league average (with two more at 98 wRC+ with a minimum of 50 plate appearances) and they’re arguably still the class of the NL if the outfielder were still patrolling in Fenway Park, Story’s Rockies are 9 1/2 games back in the NL West and currently the final wildcard team, and the Cubs’ offensive firepower has been as much Jason Heyward (157 wRC+) and Kyle Schwarber (as many homers, 10, as Happ and one fewer RBI at 21) as it has Happ. When it comes to Darvish, the Cubs have another 1-plus fWAR pitcher in their rotation in Kyle Hendricks, and if you take the other seven players to start a game for the Braves this season (which includes Ian Anderson and Mike Soroka), they have a combined minus-0.4 fWAR.
The case for Fried simply lies in this question: are the Braves still sitting atop the NL East without him?
Removing the three starts from Mike Soroka before his season-ending Achilles injury on Aug. 3, non-Fried starters have a 6.91 ERA and allowed 25 total home runs, and that includes a pair of gems from Ian Anderson in the last week. Even if we assume the same run production the Braves had have all season (5.2) in those eight starts Fried has made — in which Atlanta is 8-0 — they have five runs or fewer in four of them, while scoring eight or more in three. Sub in anyone other than Fried, whose season includes an NL-best six wins, and it’s likely the difference between the Braves sitting atop the NL or looking up at the Marlins or Phillies, who are both three games back.
Instead, we’re talking about a run in which Fried is the first lefty to allow zero home runs through eight starts with his team winning every game since Babe Ruth — a running connection with this team of late, as you’ll see — in 1917.
Since 2011, when Justin Verlander ended the drought by becoming the ninth pitcher — and first since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 — to claim a Cy Young and MVP when he led the AL at 8.6 bWAR, a pitcher has topped their league five times. Only the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in 2014 (8.6 bWAR), would turn that into sweep of the top two awards, with DeGrom (an NL-best 10.3 bWAR in 2018) coming in fifth in the NL MVP voting with just one first-place vote, and Fried playing at this level is going to continue to be challenging for the NL bWAR crown.
Make the case that a pitcher shouldn’t be an MVP, but in a season in which small sample sizes have given us the likes of the Reds’ Jesse Winker (190 wRC+) as the NL’s second most productive hitter, shouldn’t complete dominance be the true measuring stick?
Fried’s value has been undeniable. Soroka was lost, Ronald Acuña Jr. has been in and out of the lineup and hasn’t amassed enough PAs to be a qualified hitter, Ozzie Albies has missed nearly a month and Freddie Freeman went through a nine-game stretch in which he hit .129/.229/.258, no one could be asking more or more consistently from Fried. Granted, Marcell Ozuna (161 wRC+ and 12 home runs) has been spectacular and Dansby Swanson (114 wRC+ is playing at a career level), but with how shaky the rotation has been — and the fact that no real help came at the trade deadline — Fried has been the constant amid the highs, and the more regular lows surrounding him, and the 26-year-old has been the biggest piece in the Braves trending toward another division title.
That’s not just undeniable. That’s not just Cy Young. That’s MVP.
2. Lock up Ozuna before the DH rule is defined in NL for 2021
It’s unlikely Marcell Ozuna spent his free-agency reading “The Secret,” but he made a very self-help, Law of Attraction kind of play in betting on himself with on one-year deal that has paid off to the tune of a career-high wRC+ and a home run production that would have him on a 50-plus HR pace in a typical 162-game season. Historically-speaking, Tuesday was the culmination as he homered three times against the Red Sox, becoming the first NL player to do so at Fenway Park and the 25th visiting player to join a list that includes Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, Lou Gehrig, Hamon Killebrew and Frank Thomas, and almost inexplicably, a 26th player just 24 hours later in teammate Adam Duvall. The talking point that his advanced metrics spoke to a turnaround was real, with Ozuna ranking 19th in exit velocity (92.5 mph average), and he’s in the 95th percentile in hard hit percentage (50 percent). While the Braves were willing to let Josh Donaldson, coming off his own one-year gamble, walk after his age-33 season last winter, can Atlanta afford to do so again? The designated hitter is the wildcard here, and while it has yet to be determined whether it will be around for the 2021 season, it’s all but expected that it will be part of the 2022 collective bargaining agreement. If it means needing to play Ozuna in the field next year — as discussed here multiple times, it’s not as bad as some moments may suggest — and there’s a logjam in the outfield alongside Acuña with Ender Inciarte, Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, it’s still a worthwhile maneuver if it comes with this level of production (.295/.383/.605), though the thought is there’s no putting the lid back on the DH box in the NL. But wouldn’t the smartest move be to sign Ozuna before that’s even decided? Wait and there are 14 other teams interested in adding his services as a DH, and while we don’t know the impact the pandemic and financial losses will have on contract offerings, guaranteeing Ozuna is there to protect Freeman in (and hopefully beyond) his contract year should be priority No. 1.
3. Time to turn to these arms to shore up back end of rotation
The biggest deficiency in this Braves team is clear. They have a top-10 offense (110 wRC+), a top-five bullpen (2.2 fWAR) and despite Fried’s consistency, the 24th-ranked rotation (1.2 fWAR). So, to say the trade deadline was underwhelming is an understatement. With all due respect to Tommy Milone, he’s not stabilizing things and did little to change that thinking in lasting just 2 1/3 in his Atlanta debut, giving up seven runs and two homers. Despite the glaring need, a source had relayed that the Braves were unlikely to do much before the deadline, and while general manager Alex Anthopoulos said it was largely about not wanting to give up a bevy of talent, an underlying issue was also financials — with the Braves among the teams that had suffered massive financial losses amid the pandemic, bringing in $197 million less in April-June than it did in the same time period of 2019 — and some hope that internal options can fill needs. It has been puzzling to watch Robbie Erlin, who has allowed nine combined runs in his last two outings and seven home runs in 18 2/3, get consistent starts over the likes of Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright (though it feels Erlin is headed for a likely DFA given his struggles Wednesday night in Boston). With the options at Brian Snitker’s disposal set, thoughts of bolstering the starting staff turn to Gwinnett and the alternate site, where Mike Foltynewicz has been progressing since he was designated for assignment — Anthopoulos said the right-hander has gained 10 pounds and his velocity is pushing back to 94 mph — Cole Hamels is progressing after being shut down with triceps tendinitis and Wilson and Wright have elicited positive reports. Hamels threw a bullpen session Sunday and is set to face live hitters soon, with the GM saying the question now becomes whether the Braves let him build up innings against the Braves’ pool of additional hitters, or whether it would be more valuable to have him do so at the big-league level? The real question with both Foltynewicz and Hamels is what do the Braves have to lose by keeping them in Gwinnett? Per FanGraphs, they have a 98.7 percent chance to make the postseason and the clock is ticking on figuring things out on the back end of the rotation. At a minimum, Wright, who is on the same throwing schedule as Erlin, could slide into make Monday’s start vs. the Marlins. However, it would seem to be in the Braves’ best interest to work as many of those arms at the alternate site into the mix sooner rather than later and let them get in work against someone who’s not part of the same organization before the page turns to the postseason.
4. Inciarte, Pache and the reality of things
No qualified hitter has a lower average exit velocity that Ender Inciarte and it isn’t close. He’s nearly five MPH less than the Pirates’ Cole Tucker, the next-closest player at 82.3 mph. Claim it’s because pitchers aren’t hitting in 2020, but go back to the start of the Statcast Era (2015-on), and it’s the ninth-worst average exit velo, the worst of any position player and lower than the likes of current/former Atlanta pitchers Foltynewicz (78 mph), Anibal Sanchez (78.6), Mike Soroka (79.1) and Julio Teheran (82.6). Exit velocity isn’t the end all, be all and even in his 200-hit, All-Star season of 2017, Inciarte was at 82.8 mph (12th) and Ichiro Suzuki made a HOF career out of ranking in the bottom one percent of the league in the category. The problem lies with Inciarte slashing .193/.273/.250 with a minus-0.3 bWAR that is better than just five outfielders (minimum of 90 PAs) and he has the lowest Defensive Runs Above Average (0.3) of his career after averaging 6.6 in his first four seasons with the Braves. It makes it that much more confusing with Pache having been called up, bypassed over Inciarte for offensive reasons and then moved back off the active roster. Like the rotation being forced to give Anderson the reigns due to a lack of production, the outfield finds itself in the same position with a young option that is at least worth a longer look than he’s been given. Frankly, it can’t get much worse.
Ian Anderson, Filthy 88mph Changeup. pic.twitter.com/AGFb9Sd88q— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 2, 2020
5. Ian Anderson’s changeup becoming absolutely deadly
When he first joined the Braves organization after being drafted in 2018, Ian Anderson had, at that point, just scratched the surface with his changeup, throwing it sparingly in high school. It’s now become his best secondary pitch, which the Yankees and Red Sox can most assuredly attest. He’s thrown it 35 times in his two starts with a 44.4 percent whiff rate and 0.77 wOBA, which included nine swing and misses against Boston with the pitch. Opponents have just two singles against the changeup (.118), compared to .177 vs. the fastball (which was what New York’s Luke Voit tattooed for a home run in Anderson’s debut) and .222 off his curveball. It’s the foundation for an overall swinging strike rate of 14.5 that, if he had enough innings to qualify among the league leaders, would be put Anderson at 11th in MLB, ahead of the Phillies’ Aaron Nola (13.6), the Indians’ Carlos Carrasco (13.5), the Reds’ Trevor Bauer (13.5) and Fried (11.7).
6. We may be witnessing the best of Markakis at the plate since joining Braves
The marathon of an MLB season has long been the return to the mean to offset Small Sample Size Theater. But this 60-game sprint is going to give us eye-opening stats that will live forever on the back of baseball cards, and it’s trending toward being the best of 35-year-old Nick Markakis’ career. He’s hitting 40 percent above league average (his previous best was 138 wRC+ in 2008) with a .385 wOBA (just behind the .392 he also had that season) and with a minimum of 50 PAs, he has the 14th-best average in the NL (.318). Over the past 12 games, he’s hitting .347 with nine doubles, 151 wRC+ and a .402 wOBA and hit 73 percent above league average in August. These past three years, the innings have caught up to Markakis as he’s faded in the second half, with no better than 88 wRC+ after the All-Star break, including offsetting a 133 wRC+ in the first half in 2018 and 107 in ‘19. Whether he can continue to keep up hitting at a career-best clip, the month that was stood as the highest wRC+ that Markakis has had at any single month since he joined the Braves in 2015.
7. Austin Riley is finding his footing after a horrendous start
The Braves are tied for the second lowest overall production at third (minus-0.2 fWAR), speaking to just how dire things were on Aug. 8, when Austin Riley was slashing .118/.205./.324 with a startling 35.9 percent strikeout rate and Johan Camargo had a .641 OPS. In the 19 games since, Atlanta has been ninth at the position (131 wRC+) with Riley getting the start 19 times, including 14 straight — a game in left field Aug. 15 the only time he wasn’t at the hot corner — and Riley is tied for the sixth-best ISO (.246), while hitting 36 percent above league average (10th) with a .904 OPS (ninth). The strikeout rate is still high (23.7 percent, which ranks 10th), but Riley has delivered four home runs, four doubles and a triple. After a bumpy start, it would appear that he’s settling into the position quite nicely.
8. Links on links on links to The Babe
The say things happen in threes. Apparently, that’s also true when it comes to things involving the Great Bambino. Three times in the past week, the Braves have found themselves linked to Babe Ruth. It began Aug. 26 with Nick Markakis pulling even with the slugger on the all-time doubles list (then passing him three days later), then it was Fried’s aforementioned win streak with a lefty, and then came the piece of history that Ozuna and Duvall supplied. The duo became the first teammates in history to hit three home runs in consecutive games, besting Ruth and Gehrig, who did it May 21 and 22, 1930 with two games of doubleheaders separating their feats.
9. A first season without facing the arms that have defined the Nationals
Last season, the Braves went two months before they’d take on Stephen Strasburg, and waited five months before they had to face Max Scherzer, then saw him twice in the last month of the season. It appears that as Atlanta readies to play the Nationals in eight of the next 11 games, beginning with Friday’s doubleheader, it will go the duration of this abbreviated 2020 season without seeing either on the mound. Strasburg’s season is over, rehabbing at home after undergoing carpal tunnel surgery and Scherzer pitched in Wednesday’s loss to the Phillies, with his next scheduled start coming Monday against the Rays, after the four-game set at Truist Park is over. Barring any changes, the Braves would miss Scherzer again when they head to D.C. for four more games Sept. 10-13, with Atlanta currently slated to face Austin Voth, Erick Fedde, Patrick Corbin and a yet-to-be-named starter in each four-game set. This will mark the first season since Strasburg broke into the league in 2010 that the Braves didn’t see him at least once, and the only time in Scherzer’s seven years with the Nationals that Atlanta missed him entirely.