clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Starting Nine: Is a sizable free-agent pitching deal finally paying off?

New, 45 comments

Braves may have made mistake with lack of Freeman contract talks, Anderson’s gem and d’Arnaud’s struggles

Atlanta Braves v New York Yankees
At 0.6 fWAR, Charlie Morton is already closing in on the best fWAR by any free-agent starter GM Alex Anthopoulos signed to a substantial deal.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Let’s take stock of things.

Three fifths of the starters are on the injured list, the outfield is scraping the bottom of the depth bucket and the Braves have their fewest wins 18 games into the season since 2017.

On the flip side, no one has hit more home runs than Atlanta’s 26 and it’s one of just three National League teams hitting at or above league average (101 wRC+) despite just two Opening Day starters — Ronald Acuña Jr at 254 and Freddie Freeman at 133 — doing so individually.

It’s been a mixed bag, to say the least, as the Braves prep for their second homestand of the season and we’ve plenty to get into in this week’s Starting Nine.

1. Is a sizable deal for a free-agent starter finally working out?

When it comes to offense, short-term deals have paid off in a big way for the Braves under Alex Anthopoulos.

Josh Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna gambled on themselves with one-year pacts the last two seasons that paid off and Travis d’Arnaud’s two-year contract resulted in his becoming a Statcast god at the position in Year 1. But what Atlanta is still waiting for under Anthopoulos, is to hit on a substantial deal doled out to a free-agent pitcher.

That might just be happening with Charlie Morton.

It’s just four starts in, but the 37-year-old right-hander is trending in the right direction with a 3.02 FIP (17th among all starters), 0.78 HR/9 (19th), 1.17 WHIP (30th) and 0.6 fWAR. The 3.91 ERA isn’t exactly dominant, but Morton has rattled off three straight starts of at least six innings, two of them — April 9 vs. the Phillies and Tuesday against the Yankees with just one earned run — which were the quality starts for the Braves before Ian Anderson’s gem Wednesday night.

No, Morton’s numbers aren’t overwhelming and getting excited about them speaks to the lack of success that has come with hitting the open market for veteran arms. Think Cole Hamels, who signed for $18 million before last year and pitched all of 3 1/3 innings, or Dallas Keuchel, who produced a ho-hum 4.72 FIP and a career-high rate of 1.28 home runs per nine on a $21 million deal prorated to $13 million, which was the second highest contract paid to a starter that offseason.

So far, you can think Drew Smyly, too. Brought in with Morton on a questionable one-year, $11 million contract, and is currently on the injured list with forearm inflammation after posting an uninspiring 5.73 ERA, giving up three home runs in 11 innings and the highest hard-hit rate (61.3 percent) on the entire pitching staff.

“But what about Anibal Sanchez?” you’re clearly thinking at this point. No doubt, Sanchez was a deft move, making 24 starts and 25 appearances in all in a turn-back-the-clock 2018 in which he had a 2.5 fWAR, his best since his heyday in Detroit. But Sanchez was picked off the trash heap after the Twins let him go in spring training and played for a mere million. The other veteran arms we’re talking about were substantial investments, added with the expectation they could bolster that season’s rotation. The results from that end haven’t been nearly as stellar as what Anthopoulos has been able to deliver on offense. In fact, Morton’s 0.6 fWAR has him already close to passing (0.8 by Keuchel) for the best mark by any Braves free-agent starter who came in on a significant deal.

Speaking of investments, there were 38 one-year deals given out to starting pitchers this winter and not only did the Braves hand out the two highest that weren’t qualifying offers, Atlanta was the earliest to get these deals done, signing both Morton and Smyly before Thanksgiving, a chance to be snake-bitten, as the likes of J.A. Happ (Yankees), James Paxton (Mariners), Robbie Ray (Blue Jays) and Chris Archer (Rays), all signed for no more than $8.50 million.

Those quick strikes given the way the market evolved put the rotation additions that much more under the microscope. While they may have been brought on to cement a staff with its share of questions, Morton is at least showing signs of being more than just a veteran presence. That’s proving invaluable given the state of things.

Mike Soroka, who was shut down when he experienced shoulder inflammation, still hasn’t thrown yet, of which manager Brian Snitker said, “he’s so far away right now, it’s not even relevant.” Smyly is expected back Saturday, but Max Fried remains day-to-day with a hamstring strain. Anderson, at least, has shown signs of recapturing his 2020 form (more on that later), but in all, Braves starters have the seventh highest ERA (4.93).

It’s not a Donaldson/Ozuna kind of impact — not yet and maybe not at all — but Morton is at least trending toward the kind of production that has been largely lacking with the expensive short-term rotation adds.

2. Did Braves make a mistake with Freeman negotiations?

Asked Tuesday about any updates on his contract negotiations, reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman said what he said the last time he was asked about any updates on his contract negotiations: there aren’t any — and he doesn’t expect it to happen “any time soon.” The first baseman, who is in the final year of an eight-year $135 million deal inked before the 2014 season, called the prospect of discussions now “a distraction, and I don’t like distractions.” That’s not exactly a new stance. Before Francisco Lindor signed his $318 million pact with the Mets, he had said he wouldn’t talk money once the season started. The likes of Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, and on and on were against negotiating after Opening Day, and while the Braves getting Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies’ deals done into the 2019 season may have provided hope otherwise, it’s a stance Freeman has earned as an established multi-time All-Star. But it all bodes the question: did the Braves make a mistake in not getting something done before Freeman ever arrived for spring training? They had an exclusive window to talk with their franchise cornerstone and are now running the risk of 29 other clubs having an opportunity to state their case. None of this is to drum up fears of either team or player moving on. Freeman has been clear many, many times that he wants to start and finish his career in Atlanta, but when you know both sides want to get something done and you leave a window open, there’s at least a shred of doubt that slips in. He may well stay with the Braves and retire with the Braves, but the only team he’s said he ever wants to play for may no longer have the luxury of avoiding a bidding war, and be it losing Freeman or having the price driven up, this has the potential to go a direction nobody wants to see.

3. Ian Anderson, at last

So, we’ve finally located the Ian Anderson that had a postseason that put him in line with Cristy Mathewson. After a pair of lackluster starts, the rookie went into Yankee Stadium with a 4.70 ERA — and having allowed two more home runs in 15 2/3 innings than the one he gave up in 50 innings across six regular-season starts and four in last year’s playoffs — and Anderson was simply outstanding. He held the Yankees scoreless over 6 2/3 innings — the first time in 2021 that a Braves starter went into the seventh — and allowed just four hits. While the changeup was again his most effective weapon (38 percent whiff rate), the four-seam fastball continued to be the reason why that secondary pitch is so dominant. That pitch, which has the league’s third best active spin rate (99.7 percent) had a 35 percent whiff rate on the fastball in an April 15 start against the Marlins, and a 19 percent whiff rate on 21 swings last night, leading to a 38 percent whiff rate on that changeup. Putting a bit of icing on the start, Anderson’s four strikeouts give him 64, the most for any Braves starter through their first 10 outings, passing Brandy Beachy’s 60.

4. No reservations about these reserves

Few teams have leaned more on their bench to start the season than the Braves, and no one has been more effective doing it. Atlanta’s 32 plate appearances by reserves are the seventh-most in MLB, trailing the Giants (53), Diamondbacks (43), Cardinals (40), Pirates (36), Brewers (34) and Marlins (34), but among teams with at least 30 PAs from pinch hitters, the Braves are far and away the game’s best with a collective 172 wRC+. That includes Pablo Sandoval, who leads all pinch hitters with a ridiculous 335 wRC+ in 12 plate appearances with a .690 wOBA and three home runs. He’s also drawn as many walks (three) as Travis d’Arnaud, who has 51 more trips to the plate. Not to be outdone, Ehire Adrianza has a 279 wRC+ off the bench, largely behind a three-run home run against the Phillies on April 9. There’s a long way to go, but he Braves haven’t had a bench that hit above league average since 2010, when Brooks Conrad and Eric Hinske led a reserve corps that was seventh (101 wRC+).

5. He took a walk

Austin Riley finally came through with his first home run of the season Wednesday against the Yankees, and that it took 64 plate appearances to get his first extra-base hit underscores how big a struggle the start his third season has been. Nearly every Statcast percentile rank is a dive into the abyss. Riley ranks in the seventh percentile in average exit velocity (84.7 mph), the expected slugging is in the 13th percentile (.335) and the expected batting average is in the 22nd percentile (.214). But it’s not ALL bad. Riley drew a pair of walks Wednesday against the Yankees, the second of which paid off as he strolled home after Freeman drew a bases-loaded walk in the fifth inning. On the season, Riley has drawn seven walks in 63 plate appearances, a 10.9 percent rate that’s a monumental jump from the 7.8 percent he had last season and the 5.4 percent he posted as a rookie. There’s a growing plate discipline, with Riley’s chase rate (27) at a career low and his on-base percentage up 74 points year over year at .375, a big reason he’s closing in on a near-league average wRC+ (95) despite what’s been lacking in the overall production.

6. Catchers are raking ... except for the reigning Silver Slugger

Catchers are having a moment. Wilson Contreras’ 161 wRC+ makes him one of five qualified hitters at the position at 39 percent above league average or higher, with Yadier Molina (160), Wilson Ramos (149), Salvador Perez (146) and J.T. Realmuto (142) also doing damage. But it doesn’t stop there, as there are 10 teams (Reds, Diamondbacks, Cardinals, Brewers, Yankees, Cubs, Royals, Phillies, Tigers and Angels) with an OPS of .807 or better three weeks into the season. There were just six such teams one month into last season (and five at the end of the year) and six in April of 2019 and four across the season. It’s the hottest start for catchers since 2004, when 10 teams ended April at .811 OPS or better. But it’s also missing one backstop that hit at a career level last year: Travis d’Arnaud. The reigning Silver Slugger winner is at a paltry 56 wRC+ after that number sat at 144 last year with a more than 21 percent drop in his hard-hit rate (36.6 percent) and a year removed from a 137 wRC+ with runners in scoring position, d’Arnaud is 100 percent below that rate in 2021. Considering the workload he’s carrying, it’s not a strong start for the only experienced catcher on the roster.

7. Guillermo, from out of the shadows

Cristian Pache has been cleared to resume all baseball activities and he’ll begin working out at the alternate site, but as the defensive wunderkind and Ender Inciarte (hamstring) continue to be out, can we talk about their replacement in the lineup, Guillermo Heredia, for a second? A 30-year-old who has averaged 86 wRC+ is playing above his head (204), punctuated by Sunday against the Cubs, when he delivered just the third multi-home run game for an Atlanta-era center fielder (following Ron Gant and Andruw Jones) can’t be counted on for consistent production, but he’s had a 1.328 OPS in four straight starts. We may have already seen the height of Heredia with his outburst in Wrigley Field, but the only legitimate center field option currently available is at least, for the moment, bolstering what’s been mediocre offensive play at the position (the collective .690 OPS is 15th overall).

8. Happy anniversary, Smoltzy

On this day in 2008, John Smoltz struck out the Nationals’ Felipe Lopez with a split-finger fastball on a 2-2 count in the third inning at Turner Field to become the 16th player with 3,000 strikeouts. It was part of a 10-K day for the then-40-year-old — who was just three weeks from turning 41 — who based on innings pitched (3,386) would become the sixth-fastest to reach the plateau. Only Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling and Roger Clements got there faster than Smoltz. Of course, Smoltz went through multiple elbow surgeries and also spent more than three seasons in the bullpen, working as the Braves’ closer from 2002-04 and as a reliever in part of the 2001 season, so time is relative. After that historic outing, Smoltz would make just two more appearances with the Braves. “This was a pretty incredible moment,” Smoltz said at the time. “There were so many people pulling for me to get this done. I wanted it to be at home. I think the fans deserved to see it here and be a part of something.”

9. When Jose Fernandez dueled Alex Wood

April 22 also brings back memories of a 2014 duel of what looked to be two of the foundational arms in the NL East for years to come when the Marlins’ reigning Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez faced off against Alex Wood, who was in the midst of a nearly 3.0-fWAR season. Fernandez matched a career high, fanning 14 in eight shutout innings, allowing just three hits along the way, while Wood gave up four hits and struck out 11 in eight innings. It was Wood who took the loss in a 1-0 Miami win. The two teams combined for 28 strikeouts with no walks, the first game since at least 1900 with that many Ks in a game without a single free pass issued. It’s a somber reminder of the talent lost with Fernandez gone too soon, and just how high the potential seemed for Wood — who was traded the following season in the ill-fated Hector Olivera deal — seemed at the time. “It [stinks] to be on the wrong end of it,” Wood said that night. “But from a pitching standpoint, I think [Fernandez] would probably tell you the same thing, it doesn’t get any more fun than that. That’s like going back to high school days when you match up against your rival across town.”