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Starting Nine: Braves stats to build on and those worth throwing out for 2021

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Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies’ plate discipline in the spotlight on stats that were highs and lows of last season

League Championship - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six
Ronald Acuña Jr.’s zone swing rate fell from 71.5 percent in 2019 to 65.7 in 2020.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Small sample sizes were the only sample sizes in the truncated 2020 season, and with those 60 games came stats that were otherworldly — the Nationals’ Juan Soto with a league-leading 200 wRC+ — and completely forgettable — think Max Scherzer’s career-worst 1.34 HR/9 — and the Braves had more than their share in each category.

Like a lot of homes, yours may have the declutter bug to start 2021 — an annual tradition unlike any other, shoutout to the wife there — so, what to hold on to? What to let float into the ether? From a new level in Ronald Acuña Jr.’s game to a step-back season for Will Smith in the first season of his three-year deal, this week’s Starting Nine dives into the numbers Atlanta is hoping will carry into 2021, and the ones it wants to leave behind.

Keep It

1. Ronald Acuña Jr.’s walk rate

Amid a season in which his averaged dipped to a career-low .250 and the strikeout rate sat at a career high of 29.7 percent, Acuña still bashed his way to a Silver Slugger with a .406 on-base percentage and .581 slugging, producing a .987 OPS that was tied with American League MVP Jose Abreu for ninth in the league. He posted a ridiculous .331 ISO that trailed only Soto’s .344 and the .333 posted by the Yankees’ Luke Voit, as Acuña hit 14 home runs and 11 doubles, but the walks were the biggest leap as he drew free passes at an 18.8 percent rate (up from 10.6 in 2019). That figure ranked fourth in the league and was better than teammate and MVP Freddie Freeman (17.2 percent). At the core of that jump was simply laying off pitches everywhere, as Acuña’s zone swing rate fell from 71.5 percent to 65.7 in ‘20 and he swung 23.5 percent of the time at offerings of the zone compared to 26.7 in ‘19. Across pitches below the strike zone, Acuña swung at no less than 44.44 percent in any of the quadrants in ‘19 and was below 36 in two of the three quadrants in ‘20 (see above). Considering the work Acuña is putting in on speed this offseason, his drawing more walks after a mere eight stolen bases in 2020 figures to make him that much more dangerous.

2. Ian Anderson’s wCH

The poise was immeasurable, but from what we can measure, the biggest surprise with Ian Anderson in appetizer to being NL Rookie of the Year favorite was without question the dominance of his changeup. It dazzled as he the organization’s third-ranked prospect posted a 33.3 strikeout rate over the 176 changeups he threw as batters hit a paltry .104. That gave Anderson a 4.4 wCH, which would have been top 10 had he threw enough innings to qualify, putting the 22-year-old right-hander ahead of the likes of the Indians’ Cy Young winner Shane Bieber (2.0).

3. Dansby Swanson’s games played

Swanson delivered a career year in 2020, hitting above league average for the first time at 116 wRC+, while slashing .274/.345/.464, all of which were the best of his five seasons. The biggest key was, simply, something that has been a problem for the past two years: injuries. Landing on the injured list in 2018 (wrist/hand) and 2019 (heel), Swanson played every game in 2020 and racked up 237 at-bats, the most in the NL and trailing only the Royals’ Whit Merrifield (248) and the White Sox’s Abreu (240). Knock it for being half the length of a normal season, but it was the highest percentage of games played by an Atlanta shortstop since Andrelton Simmons played in 96 percent of games in 2013. For those wondering, the Braves have never had a player at the position play every game in a full season, with Jeff Blauser’s 161 in 1993 coming the closest.

4. Tyler Matzek’s K/9

One of the best stories in baseball — not just the Braves — last season, the former first-round pick was 10th in the NL and 14th among all relievers with 13.34 strikeouts per nine. He was even more effective over the last month of 2020 as that number jumped to 14.49 in September and 15.1 in the postseason as he fanned 14 of the 34 batters he faced. That 13.34 K/9 ranks as the fifth highest in franchise history, trailing only Craig Kimbrel in 2012 (16.66), 2011 (14.84) and 2014 (13.86) and Bill Wagner in 2010 (13.50). With no determination yet as to who will get the closer role in 2021, Matzek has shown he’s worth a very long look.

5. Austin Riley against the slider

Remember when this was the biggest issue facing Riley at the plate? Back in 2019 he was completely mystified by the pitch with a minus-5.4 wSL and 50.3 percent whiff rate as he hit .140 against the 274 pitches he saw. The word was clearly out as Riley faced the sliders 24.5 percent of the time, more than any other pitch. They came in bunches again in 2020, with Riley seeing 190 sliders (24.6 percent), but he posted a .307 wOBA after a .208 in ‘19 and the wSL climbed to 2.2. Unfortunately, searching for the slider made him susceptible to the fastball and changeup, as those went from a positive pitch in ‘19 to minus-2.1 wSL and minus-3.6 wCH, respectively, in 2020. Whether or not the Braves go out and make an addition at third base (Kris Bryant or Justin Turner, anyone?), Riley showed promise ahead of the hamstring issue that bothered him in September and there’s at least the foundation that he can start to add consistency to his game this upcoming year.

Throw It Out

6. Will Smith’s HR/FB

An All-Star in 2019, the Braves inked Smith to a three-year, $39 million deal and Year 1 didn’t go smoothly. His 7.38 FIP and 4.50 ERA were the worst since the lefty’s breakout for the Brewers in 2014 and most alarming was the rate at which Smith was giving up the long ball. He gave up seven regular-season home runs in 16 innings — tied for the second worst in the majors and bested only by the nine Heath Hembree gave up for the Red Sox and Phillies — and had the fourth highest HR/FB rate (33.3) of any reliever with at least 16 innings pitched. There was also the three-run blast he gave up to his name counterpart with the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series. Blame the fact that Smith missed all of Summer Camp and was out for the first two weeks of the season after a positive COVID-19 test, but Smith was expected to be a major weapon for Brian Snitker to use in high-leverage situations and he’s in dire need of a bounce back.

7. Ozzie Albies’ K/9 and BB/9

A right wrist bone bruise limited Albies to just 29 games last season, but when he was on the field — whether he was pressing to make up for lost time or not — the second baseman struggled. His strikeout rate climbed from 16 percent to ‘19 to 24.2 percent and his walk rate dropped to a career-low four percent. He was simply swinging more and missing more, with the swing rate at his highest yet (58.2 percent), while producing more swinging strikes (13.3 percent). It all resulted in a paltry 13.8 line drive rate for a player that has averaged 22.1 in his career and was at 25.5 in 2019’s Silver Slugger campaign.

8. Luke Jackson’s xFIP

He shed the punching bag label in 2019 when he was a 1.3 fWAR player and was fanning 13.13 per nine, but Jackson regressed in ‘20, and was again the fodder of Braves Twitter. The man once dubbed Your Friendly Neighborhood Slider Man saw that pitch go from a dominant 12.0 WSL in ‘19 to minus-4.6 and his ERA ballooned from 3.84 to 6.84. But most alarming was an awful 4.70 xFIP, a jump of 2.00 year over year as Jackson had a 38.1 hard-hit ball rate, his worst in a Braves uniform. With little movement so far in adding to a bullpen that’s without Darren O’Day, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon and the Braves tending him a $1.9 million deal, it appears he’s going be counted on to get back to his ‘19 ways.

9. Johan Camargo’s ... everything

Well, that’s not exactly fair. It was simply a bad season for Camargo, who hit .200/.244/.367 and was at 59 wRC+ and a negative fWAR (minus-0.2), one year after another negative fWAR (minus-0.5). He seemed a non-tender candidate, but the Braves brought Camargo back on a one-year, $1.36 million contract and we’ll put the focus on the stat worth getting rid of on the utility man’s strikeout rate. He fanned at a 27.6 clip in 2020, up from 17.3 in ‘19, and that wouldn’t be a death knell, except that Camargo also drew walks as the lowest rate of his four MLB seasons last year at just 4.7 percent. Whatever plans the Braves have for him in this upcoming season, it’s a stretch to see him returning to the promise his 3.3 fWAR 2018 forecasted, but his role on the bench is going to hinge on some semblance of plate discipline.