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Starting Nine: In awe of Acuña ... and not much else

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Ronald Acuña Jr. is on another level, but struggles (Max Fried, bullpen, and on and on) have Braves still trying to get on track

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves
Small sample size this: red-hot Ronald Acuña Jr. is on pace for 82 home runs, 82 doubles, 14 triples, 162 RBI and 41 stolen bases.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Here’s the list of Braves who put together a better opening month of the season than the one Ronald Acuña Jr. is currently having:

...

That’s the list, because halfway through April, no one in franchise history has ever been better Acuña right now. His 1.500 OPS is ahead of the record 1.483 Hank Aaron posted in the opening month of 1959 and his 285 wRC+ is tracking to surpass the 220 that Freddie Freeman racked up in 2017.

It took Joe Musgrove tossing the Padres’ first no-hitter to deny Acuña Jr. winning National League Player of the Week last week, and barring something historic, Acuña is going to be hard to deny for the NL’s best this week, potentially April, and we may just be seeing the start of career year for one of baseball’s undeniable young talents.

But for all the Acuña love, the Braves are ailing, sitting in last place in the NL East with Max Fried and Cristian Pache joining Mike Soroka and Chris Martin on the injured list, and Freeman joins Acuña as the only other player in the lineup hitting at or above league average.

We’ve much to get into in this week’s Starting Nine hits, but first, a little bit more on Acuña ...

1. The wonder of Acuna

Banished from hanging out with Miss Lippy while she was busy caught in some tantric dance and lathering glue on her face (i.e. “Miss Lippy Time”), Billy Madison returned to the playground, caught a dodgeball one-handed proclaiming “Now, you’re all in big, big trouble” and proceeded to unload on the rest of his kindergarten class. That’s Ronald Acuña Jr. right now, lording over, and simply having his way with MLB pitching (though it remains unclear whether it’s Brian Snitker or a member of his coaching staff that’s exfoliating with glue). Consider the pace he’s on two weeks into the season: 82 home runs, 82 doubles, 14 triples, 162 RBI and 41 stolen bases. It’s not happening, but he’s currently sporting an MLB-best 287 OPS+, leads the National League with a 1.500 OPS and with 13 extra-base hits in all, is a mere nine away from breaking the Braves record of 22 set by Ozzie Albies in 2018 and 10 behind Jermaine Dye’s 23 for the most of any player since 1901. At this rate, he could be alone at the top by mid-next week, as Acuña has a ridiculous 1.954 OPS and nine extra-base hits in the last six games. Acuña’s Statcast percentile ranks look like the surface of Mars, as he is in the top 96th percentile or higher in exit velocity, average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and on and on. The scariest part for the rest of MLB is the evolving plate discipline, with the whiff rate down 14 percent at 15.9 and he’s dropped his chase rate in half to 10.1 percent. By any measure, the man is playing on another level right now.

2. Lifted up, back where he belongs

We all know who No. 2 works for, with hitting in that spot proving the punctuation on Freddie Freeman’s MVP 2020, as he slashed .390/.512/.690 with 18 extra-base hits over 26 games. There was reason to be miffed when the return of pitchers hitting in the NL meant a return to dropping the first baseman back to third, but Ozzie Albies’ issues at the plate forced Snitker’s hand and Freeman is back behind Acuña again. It was a return to the top four in the order, Acuña, Freeman, Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud, that made the Braves into the second most potent offense in the majors in 220, rankings behind the Dodgers in home runs (103) and runs (348). “I just kept seeing all these situations where Freddie could be coming up hitting,” Snitker said. “We’re not hitting on all cylinders offensively, obviously, and you never know. Just changing the scenery of where you are in the lineup might prove to be a good thing. These guys are going to hit and, hopefully, changing the scenery is good for them.” It has for Freeman, who responded with four hits in first two games back at second, and while they were both Braves losses, the offense totaled 13 runs and matched its season high with eight runs on Tuesday. There was a point where Snitker tried batting Acuña in a spot more traditionally suited for his RBI skills but realized the errors of his ways (or as the manager himself put it, “Some dumbass kept him out of the leadoff role”). Maybe this will lead to a similar change of heart, and maybe some more self-deprecating from Snitker.

3. Minimum Fried? That isn’t what anyone expected

There’s a case to be made that after a year away from hitting, NL pitchers were bound to have injuries among their ranks in returning to an offensive role in 2021, hence Max Fried landing on the 10-day injured list with a strained right hamstring sustained while running the bases Tuesday night. But that conversation takes away from the real question: how did we go from Maximum Fried to Minimum Fried in the blink of an eye? After a top-five Cy Young finish last season, the left-hander is in a bad way with an 11.45 ERA through three starts with a 6.32 FIP and he’s allowed three home runs and hit four batters (those last two figures just one below what he registered all of last season). Among the 92 pitchers with at least 11 innings, only three have a worse fWAR than Fried’s minus-0.1 in the Brewers’ Brett Anderson at minus-0.2 and the Pirates Chad Kuhl and Mariners’ Marco Gonzales at minus-0.4. The hard-hit rate on Fried is up 21.4 percent so far, up to 45.2 and he’s getting batters to chase outside the zone nearly five percent less than in 2020, resulting in a .503 wOBA (a figure that was at .276 in ‘20). It seems that vaunted curveball hasn’t been nearly as effective, and while with a .557 wOBA against over the 55 he’s thrown and in the few occasions Fried has offered a sinker — 13 so far — it’s just been pummeled to the tune of a .786 wOBA. Likely most frustrating for Fried, is there hasn’t been a major red flag in his arsenal. The curveball profile is what we’ve come to expect (64.9 inches of drop, still elite and in line with last season at 67.6) and the four-seam velocity (93.9 mph) is nearly unchanged (93.1 in ‘20). He has struggled to put batters away in two-strike counts, allowing a .349 wOBA compared to .237 in those counts last season, but a year after being this rotation’s stabilizing force, Fried has been anything but in 2021’s first month.

4. Ain’t that a kick ... or lack thereof?

Tied with Acuña for the highest exit velocity on the short season at 114.1 mph and ranking in the top 96 percent in MLB there and 71st in barrel rate (12 percent), Marcell Ozuna was still connecting the way we’ve expected, the breaks just weren’t going his way ... until Tuesday night. Through the first 10 games, Ozuna had a collective BABIP of .238, while slashing .139/.244/.139 and a .193 wOBA, his wRC+ a mere 18. But he broke out Tuesday against the Marlins, going 3-for-5 with his first home run of the season and while he followed it by going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts Wednesday, an eruption amid his current struggles was certainly a positive. The change? Ozuna went with a muted leg kick compared to what he was using in 2020 (see above for the height of that kick this week vs. last year) Whether it’s a change to just a tweak get his timing back, it’s not that dissimilar to what Ozuna went through from his last season in Miami (2017) to his first in St. Louis (2018) — see below — where he went to a simplified version of swing after hitting 27 percent below league average in his first month in a Cardinals uniform. Simplifying things may well set the stage for Ozuna to get his groove back.

5. The struggle is real with Austin Riley

Austin Riley’s maximum exit velocity — 112.1 mph — is in the top nine percent of the league, but it was anything but elite as he dropped an awkward-looking, 50.2-mph-off-the-bat single on the first base foul line for a single Wednesday night. You know you’re out of sorts when the bench has to remind you when it’s time to mix it up (as illustrated above). It was the kind of batted-ball event reserved for the likes of a light-hitting pitcher (see the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler at 55.9 and speaks to the wild inconsistencies that are again coming with the 24-year-old third basemen halfway through the season’s first month. His wOBA is 80 points lower than last season at .226, and after barreling 10 percent of balls last year, it’s a mere 3.8 percent right now, ranking in the 22nd percentile league-wide and his minus-0.2 fWAR is the second worst among third basemen, trailing only the Rockies’ Josh Fuentes (minus-0.3). It’s really difficult to find a positive within Riley’s game at the moment. He previously feasted on fastballs, but has a .162 wOBA against them, including .082 vs. four-seamers, which he was .316 and .301 against in his previous two seasons and he’s just not making quality contact, with a sweet spot percentage (23.1) that represents a minus-7.6 drop year over year. Riley’s not alone in struggling within this offense, but he was one of the few question marks with it entering 2021 and isn’t doing much to show he’s figured out how to consistently hit major league pitching.

6. Ynoa what time it is

Was this the stealthiest and deftest of John Coppolella’s many moves? He was there for the deals that brought in Fried, Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte, took the likes of Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson and Austin Riley in the draft and unloaded B.J. Melvin Upton’s deal. But think about what the Braves gave up, and the glimpses of what they’ve seen with Huascar Ynoa. Jaime Garcia and Anthony Recker, that was what Atlanta sent the Twins for the 19-year-old Ynoa, who had that point had a 5.26 ERA in 25 2/3 innings in the minors. Garcia lasted just one start with Minnesota before they dealt him to the Yankees and Recker never made it past Triple-A with the Twins or Arizona the next year. Ynoa’s brilliance may not last, but his 12 innings this season have resulted in a 0.75 ERA that’s ninth best in MLB, a 2.23 FIP (18th) and 11.25 K/9 (17th) and shown he deserves multiple turns in a rotation that was already sans Soroka and now down Fried as well. There were plenty of more high-profile maneuvers Coppolella pulled off in his run, but the development of Ynoa has made this potentially one of the most impressive.

7. Bullpen remains a work-in-progress (i.e. sign Shane Greene)

Tyler Matzek has again been nails with zero earned runs and 14.29 K/9 through 5 2/3 innings over six games, Sean Newcomb looks like a man possessed — wielding a fastball that’s reached 96.5 mph and averaged 95.3 mph, higher than in any previous season — and Braves Twitter’s favorite punching bag, Luke Jackson, has yet to allow a run in five appearances. Meanwhile, the rest of the arms that were expected to be the backbone of the bullpen have struggled, with Will Smith sporting a 4.50 ERA, A.J. Minter is at 5.06, Josh Tomlin sits at 4.76 and Chris Martin, who remains on the IL with inflammation in his throwing shoulder, is at 5.40. Then there’s Grant Dayton, prioritized because of his lack of options, has appeared in just two games to the tune of a 9.00 ERA. Bringing in Tucker Davidson with Fried hitting the IL could provide a boost, but a year after ranking in the top 10 in fewest walk per nine (3.53), the Braves are 28th (4.98), with Minter and Nate Jones leading with four walks apiece. Somehow, amid all that, this group still has the fifth best FIP (3.21) and is eighth in ERA (3.32), but it doesn’t change that what was perceived as the main question mark with this team is operating as such. The roster machinations are going to continue as the Braves played the options game to start things off, but it’s a work in progress that could use an upgrade. Until Shane Greene finds a home, expect his name to keep coming up as a potential solution.

8. Replay going against the Braves has been a long-standing tradition

The Phillies will return to Atlanta on May 7, and you can rest assured that Alec Bohm will be greeted with plenty of reminders that he has yet to touch home plate. That moment isn’t going to stop getting Braves fans, and really anyone with a disdain for the replay process, riled up. Watching what everyone save Philadelphia manager Joe Girardi seemed to be a no-brainer of a bad call be backed up the replay center no doubt has Atlanta fans thinking one thing: replay hates the Braves ... and you may have a point. Last season, Brian Snitker issues 13 challenges and just four were overturned, a 30.7 percent rate that was well below the league average of 42.4 percent, a broken record as Atlanta was also below the MLB average in 2019 (40.6 percent to the league’s 44.4 percent), 2018 (40.3 to MLB’s 46.7), 2017 (37.0 by Atlanta; 48.2 overall) and 2016 (41.8 compared to MLB’s 42.4). The last time the Braves were at or above league average in having replays go their way was in 2015, when they were at 48.9 percent, just ahead of the league’s overall 47 percent and they were also ahead of pace in 2014, the first year of the system, with a 67 percent rate compared to MLB’s 47.4.

9. On Jackie Robinson Day, paying tribute to Sam Jethroe

Today is the 17th Jackie Robinson Day and every year since 2009, his No. 42 has been worn on this day to commemorate the anniversary of the Hall of Famer’s debut with the Dodgers. But often lost in the celebration of what Robinson meant to breaking the sport’s color barrier is those who would go on to do so for the rest of MLB’s teams. For the Braves, that was Sam Jethroe, who played his first game April 18, 1950, going 2-for-4 with a home run in the franchise’s Boston days en route to becoming the oldest Rookie of the Year to date at 33. Of note, he would also hit the last grand slam in Boston Braves history, coming June 8, 1952 against the Cubs. Nicknamed “The Jet,” Jethroe led the majors with 35 steals in each of his first two seasons and Dodgers legend Don Newcombe, who played with Jethroe in Montreal, called him “the fastest human being I have ever seen.” Worth its weight considering Newcombe also played with Robinson and played against Willie Mays. It’s hard not to think what Jethroe would have done had he made it to MLB in his prime, and the travesty of a “tryout” with the Red Sox in 1945 — two years before Robinson’s Dodgers debut — that took a year to arrange and only happened due to the pressure of Boston city councilman Isadore Muchnick and Wendell Smith, the sports editor of the ‘Pittsburgh Courier,’ — considered the defining paper for African Americans — after the Red Sox had claimed they’d “never had a request for a try-out by a colored applicant.” Jethroe, Robinson and Marvin Freeman were scouted for all of 90 minutes. None of them were offered a contract.