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Adventures in extreme leverage: 2021 Braves edition

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Get that heart rate up

New York Yankees v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Remember when, as a kid, your flights of fancy led you to pretend you were batting for your favorite team in a situation of the utmost importance? That situation was not the top of the third, with two out and none on, yeah? Instead, we’re talking bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, maybe two out, that sort of thing. That gradient of importance is what Leverage Index is meant to capture.

To get a little more technical, the idea is that for every combination of half-inning, score, baserunners, and outs, there’s a historical win expectancy based on all the baseball games played before. That’s how we know that the home team, down by two, in the bottom of the ninth, with a man on second and two outs, only pulls out a win a little over four percent of the time, or a visiting team up by four in the top of the third, with two out and a man on first, wins right around 85 percent of time. (For all these and more, Greg Stoll’s Win Expectancy Finder is an invaluable resource, and is now updated for 2021.) Since we know the win expectancy for every possible game state, that makes it easy to calculate how much win expectancy would change when the batter at the plate has a specific result, whether that result is an out, or a double, or a homer, or is beaned by a pitch. Since we also know the relative frequency of each result, Leverage Index is basically just a way of capturing how “swingy” a given situation is, that captures both: (1) how much win expectancy might move based on the result of the current plate appearances; and (2) the likelihood of win expectancy moving a lot.

Conveniently, the Leverage Index for an average situation is 1.0. Meaningless situations that basically can’t have an effect on game outcome are closer to zero, anything below 0.85 is considered to be “low leverage.” A value of 2.0 is the start of what we consider to be “high leverage,” and also indicates that the situation is twice as “critical” (I prefer “swingy”) as an average situation. Note that the incidence of leverage isn’t evenly distributed — baseball games are full of quiet moments, and as a result, only 10 percent of situations are high leverage, while 60 percent are low leverage. It’s just that the 10 percent is sufficiently swingy to balance the non-swingy 60 percent.

Anyway, all of the above was just a preface to the below: the five (well, kind of four) highest-leverage situations the Braves were involved in this year! It sort of goes without saying, but all of these situations were the bottom of the last inning in the game, with the bases loaded, two out, and a one-run lead, because that’s how you get the crazy-high leverage. Each of the plays below was about 10 times as “swingy” as the average play.

Technically on the list: Jacob Webb versus the Mets, October 2

So, this is something between “honorable mention” and “who cares,” because this situation came after the Braves clinched the division, in the penultimate game of the regular season. Which is, after all, why Jacob Webb found himself in this situation instead of anyone else.

The Braves entered the top of the ninth in a position to add insult to insult, as they were once again beating the Mets, 6-3, after having sewn up the division. Richard Rodriguez, however, faltered once again, retiring just two of the five batters he faced, allowing a leadoff double to James “I was basically only a useful MLB player against the Braves in 2021” McCann, a triple to Kevin Pillar, and then a single to Brandon Nimmo. The two outs Rodriguez “got” involved a .510 xwOBA lineout, and 380-foot fly ball by Francisco Lindor with a 1.259 xwOBA that just happened to be hit to dead center. In Rodriguez’ defense, the triple he gave up was basically a cheapie flare that landed just fair in the right-field corner, but still, it was a mess.

So, to clean up said mess, the Braves went to Jacob Webb, who had a big part in creating his own extremely-high-leverage situation. Webb walked the first batter he faced on six straight changeups. The seventh pitch was spiked in the dirt, leading to an intentional walk that loaded the bases. That brought up Jonathan Villar in our specific bases loaded, two out situation. Webb threw one fastball (also a ball) in this PA, but got two whiffs on changeups later. The end result? Villar swung at yet another changeup way low, and hit it weakly to second to end the game:

Alright, so that one was a little boring, since it really didn’t count. Let’s go to the real adrenaline-pumpers.

#4: Will Smith versus the Marlins, July 2

The Braves entered a weekend series against the Marlins at 39-41, four games back and in third place in the division. If you recall, this was the game where Pablo Lopez plunked Ronald Acuña Jr. to start the bottom of the first, and was immediately tossed. Acuña scored, and that was literally the only run of the game up into the top of the ninth.

That made for a tense game, but it got crazier in the ninth. Will Smith started the inning by getting former and eventual Brave Adam Duvall to ground out, but then missed badly with a 3-2 slider to Jesus Aguilar and walked him. A flare to right put runners on the corners (Aguilar was initially called out on Acuña’s throw, but ruled safe after replay review), and Smith followed that by walking Jorge Alfaro on five pitches to load the bases.

What brought this situation to its highest-leverage head, was that Jon Berti fouled out, which meant the pressure was on for Smith and Sandy Leon, pinch-hitting for the pitcher’s spot. Smith didn’t really make a particularly great pitch on 0-1, but Leon also didn’t take advantage, hitting a routine fly ball to end the game. Phew.

Kind of an anticlimax in the end.

#3: Will Smith versus the Padres, September 26

Up above, we had a game that was meaningless, and a game that came a little too early for a ton of meaning. This game, though, was much more critical, as the Braves came into their series finale in San Diego with just a 1.5-game lead in the NL East.

This was one of Will Smith’s wildest outings of the year, and it, of course, came with the Braves holding a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. First was a leadoff walk due to another bad-miss full-count fastball. Then it was a five-pitch walk, with ball four again being a misplaced fastball. Smith got a huge break when he struck out Fernando Tatis Jr. on a blown call strike three, but followed that up by walking the bases loaded on four straight pitches. Smith battled back, striking out Trent Grisham on another miraculous blown call strike three, and that’s how we got to the third-highest-leverage moment for the Braves in 2021, with two outs, the bases loaded, and that one-run lead in the ninth.

The batter for this one was Ha-Seong Kim, and Smith made things extra-terrifying by falling behind 2-0. But then he got the count to 2-2, and after a foul, beat Kim on a challenge fastball to end the game and escape another ultimate-leverage situation without completing the implosion.

#2: Will Smith versus the Mets, June 21

June 21 was a weird day for the Braves in multiple ways. They had just split a doubleheader with the Cardinals on June 20, and had to play yet another doubleheader, this time with the Mets, a day later. Jacob deGrom beat them in the first game, so they came into Game 2 at 33-37, trailing the Mets by 6.5 games. The game itself was also kind of dire, as the Braves managed zero runs off Jerad Eickhoff through four frames; Eickhoff was making his first start of the year and hadn’t been healthy and effective since 2018. But, as soon as Eickhoff departed, Acuña popped Miguel Castro for a solo shot to lead off the fifth, and there was that lead, with nine outs to go, because this was a silly seven-inning game.

The Braves didn’t score again, so it was up to Will Smith. He started his inning with a groundout, but then back-to-back singles and a hit-by-pitch loaded the bases. One of the singles was a seeing-eye grounder, but still, no bueno. Kevin Pillar followed with a liner that was fortunately hit right at Austin Riley, who caught it and dove to tag the third-base bag. The initial call was “out,” which would’ve ended the game, but nope — replay review overturned it and gave us this #2: Will Smith versus one-time Braves farmhand Brandon Drury. Smith threw strike one, Drury fouled off three straight pitches, and then again, kind of anticlimax for the end of the game:

Very high leverage, very low xwOBA on that play.

#1: Freddie Freeman versus the Yankees, August 24

All of the prior items in this list involved a Braves pitcher, and all went well for the Braves. Yet, the highest-leverage situation, by a hair, has neither of these two traits. It was a Brave at the plate, and in the end, it did not benefit them.

The Braves were down 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth in this one, as Aroldis Chapman came on to try and get the last three outs. He did get two, but labored quite a bit, giving up a couple of singles and a couple of walks, including a bases-loaded free pass to Jorge Soler. That was what set up the single highest-leverage plate appearance involving the Braves this year, and also resulted in Chapman being lifted before facing Freddie Freeman in favor of Wandy Peralta.

If you’re a fan of tension, this inning, and really, this single plate appearance had it all, as Freeman and Peralta needed nine pitches to resolve the matchup. Across the nine pitches, Freeman swung at only one non-strike, and got ahead 3-1 before fouling off four straight changeups. He got a fifth, in more or less the same area as four other changeups in the zone, but unfortunately, did not get a safety out of it:

Aside from the result, another disappointment here is that Freeman didn’t really manage to do anything with a bunch of changeups in the proverbial wheelhouse. Oh well.

So, now you know about the Braves’ five highest-leverage plate appearances of the season. But, this may seem somewhat inconsequential given that none of these values are particularly cognizant of the Braves’ title run, caring only about the game state but not the state-of-the-season. For that, stay tuned for the same exercise, but using Championship Leverage Index — we’ll cover five more, all taking place during the World Series.