The number that truly matters, it sits at 91 1/2. That’s the over/under on the Braves’ wins this season as they try to make it four straight National League East division titles and look to get the sour taste out of their mouths after finishing one win away from a spot in the World Series.
But it’s the numbers within the numbers that will define the season. The East is going to be a gauntlet, with four teams projected for at least 80 1/2 wins, tied with the American League East, which just so happens to be its NL counterpart’s interleague partner again this year. While the win total is important, it’s not as key as the accumulation of performances that lead to whatever that number of Ws is.
It’s the about journey, not the destination, ya’ll. The Starting Nine dives into the stats that will set the blueprint for these Braves as they open the 2021 season.
Only the 1998 Braves have had four players hit 30 or more home runs in a season — Andres Galarraga (44), Chipper Jones (34), Javy Lopez (34) and Andruw Jones (31) — on a team that produced a franchise-record 106 wins. Atlanta is projected by Steamer to have three easily reach 30, with Ronald Acuña Jr. (40), Freddie Freeman (32), Marcell Ozuna (33). Ozzie Albies (28), who would be vying to become the third Braves second baseman to reach the 30-homer plateau after Davey Johnson (43 in 1973) and Dan Uggla (36 in 2011), and Austin Riley, with an average of 27 per the major forecasts, are the most logical wild cards that could expand that number. The 2019 Twins are the only team to have five 30-HR hitters, and while getting to four is no guarantee, two of the last three teams to have four, the 2009 Phillies and the 2019 Astros, both made it to the World Series.
MVFree can pack his bags for Atlanta right now. pic.twitter.com/KlECoiAKJa— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) March 28, 2021
How does one follow up an MVP season? There hasn’t been a back-to-back winner since Miguel Cabrera in 2012 and ‘13 and we’re entering the 12th season since Albert Pujols last did so in the NL. The odds aren’t in Freddie Freeman’s favor, tied for sixth at +1200 with Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor and Christian Yelich, with Ronald Acuña Jr. the top Brave at +800. Instead, let’s focus on the kind of production that has become the expectation a year after an MVP run. The last 10 winners in both leagues have averaged 150 wRC+, topped by Yelich’s 175 in 2019, with Bryce Harper’s 111 in 2016 the lowest. Before last season, when he hit 87 percent above league average, Freeman had topped 150 wRC+ three times, the last coming in 2017. He’s projected at 139 wRC+ by Steamer and 136 via ZiPS.
No, it doesn’t have the same ring to it as 40/40, and it’s surely not on the list of season to-dos for Ronald Acuña Jr., whose slimmed down presence make you think he’s setting his sights on torching base paths (and we know the home run stroke is ready to roll). There have been 20 players who have reached 35 home runs and 35 steals in the same season and none of them were able to follow that up with 40/40 in the next full campaign. They’ve averaged 29 home runs and 27 stolen bases (with Acuña’s shortened season of 2020 numbers taken out of the equation), with Barry Bonds’ 40 homers and 37 steals in 1997 the best production a year after a 35/35 season. ZiPS’ projections are the highest on Acuña’s steals at 33, with Baseball Reference putting him at just 22.
It’s absurd that after bringing the designated hitter to the NL last season we’re asking pitchers, whose primary function isn’t to hit and who haven’t done so in a regular season game since the calendar read 2019, to do so again in 2021. ... but I digress. The absence of the DH means Marcell Ozuna will see considerable time in the outfield again, and while he isn’t the train wreck some have made him out to be — the man does have a Gold Glove, after all — it’s not the optimum use of him, either. Ozuna has posted a negative dWAR in each of the past five seasons and had a negative defensive runs above average in four of those years. That includes 2017’s Gold Glove-winning year when he had a minus-0.1 dWAR and minus-4.3 DEF. Having Cristian Pache to his left will help, and the offensive firepower will outweigh anything that happens in the field, but what level of defense Ozuna can play in manning a spot on a daily basis figures to be a point of conversation all season long.
Charlie Morton target practice pic.twitter.com/koukTRf3vY— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) March 28, 2021
Stability was a missing ingredient from the Braves rotation last season, when they had eight players make starts and only Max Fried reach double digits. Hence the acquisitions of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly on one-year deals to supplement Fried, Ian Anderson and Mike Soroka when he returns. But consistency has been absent for years, with the Braves last getting 25 or more starts out of four starters in 2014 with Aaron Harang, Mike Minor, Ervin Santana and Julio Teheran. How much Brian Snitker ops to skip starts or provide off days after the lack of innings last season is a factor here, but given the offense’s bankable firepower, this group’s reliability is key.
Dansby Swanson’s 2020 was — much like d’Arnaud — full of gaudy stats that will come with doubters. His 1.9 fWAR, 0.1 ahead of Lindor (he of the $300 million-plus contract offered by the Mets) and equal to the Dodgers’ Corey Seager, may not be the reality of the 27-year-old shortstop. But whatever you want to buy into, there were peripherals that were continuations of Swanson’s 2019. Among them are a hard-hit ball rate that sat at 40.7 percent after a career-high 41.6 in 2019. That had Swanson looking like a 20-home run threat in ‘19 before he was sidelined by a heel injury and last year had him on a 27-HR pace. Swanson making hard contact at that 40-percent clip again figures to set the stage for a season that answers any questions about his 2020 numbers.
“Whenever they want to use me, I’ll be ready to go.”— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) February 20, 2021
Will Smith is not concerned about bullpen roles. pic.twitter.com/sG0I1JJVRd
Last season was beyond forgettable for Will Smith, whose 7.38 FIP was more than double that of his All-Star 2019 with the Giants and 5.31 ahead of his career best in ‘18. Smith’s spring, in which he’s struck out 11 in 5 2/3 innings over six games sets the stage for a bounce-back, and at the left-hander’s best he’s averaged 12.73 K/9. The Braves bullpen, which opens 10 deep, will have plenty of high-leverage options with Chris Martin, A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek, but Smith is going to get the bulk of the save opportunities. Him returning to those gaudy strikeout numbers are going to be key to here after losing Mark Melancon and Shane Greene.
These Travis d'Arnaud moments are so wholesome. pic.twitter.com/3Srh63IZ6U— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) February 21, 2021
Amid the questions that come after Travis d’Arnaud’s career season — which included a 144 wRC+ that is 13 percent better than his previous career high and a BABIP of .411 that was .118 ahead of his past best — the central query should be this: can he handle the workload ahead? D’Arnaud hasn’t caught more than 105 games since 2014 and averaged 79 games in each of the last five full seasons. Not adding another veteran option, instead going with the unproven Alex Jackson, with William Contreras waiting in the wings, the Braves have painted themselves into a corner at the position. No Atlanta catcher has caught 121 or more games since Brian McCann, who did it in seven times from 2006-2012.
Cristian Pache doesn't have an 80-grade field tool for nothing. pic.twitter.com/SHtGjCvJ0J— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 30, 2021
Since World War II, there have been just 13 outfielders who had 2.0 or better dWAR as rookies and just five since 2012, the last coming with the Nationals’ Victor Robles (2.7) in 2019. Andruw Jones is the only Braves player on that list, posting a 2.5 dWAR in 1997. That brings us to Cristian Pache. This spring did little to alleviate any concerns about that bat, as the 22-year-old hit a paltry .184 with a .289 on-base percentage, striking out 11 times. The defense is the reason he’ll be on the field with the offense a developing bit of gravy, and Pache putting up the kind of dWAR that speaks to those elite skills will be crucial as he finds himself offensively.