The Braves are back in action on Friday night, returning for a seven-game homestand after going 3-2 on the road. Sitting at 8-10, they’ll need to go 5-2 to climb back above .500 for the season, but the team’s playoff odds are back above 50 percent (for now), Ronald Acuña Jr.’s return to the lineup might be imminent, and the Diamondbacks seem like a fine opponent to rack up wins against... except that they actually come into this series with a better record than the Braves have managed (9-10), and have won four straight.
Overall, this year’s crew in Arizona doesn’t have the lofty aspirations of the Braves — with the Dodgers and Padres in their division and the league’s 20th-highest payroll, this is more of a “see what you have year” for the Snakes. Yet, they haven’t fared too poorly in the early going, led by a top-10 offense through this point. Yet, there has been a problem in the desert, and its name has been pitching. On the year, the Diamondbacks are dead last in fWAR, the only team currently below replacement level (-0.2) by this measure. Both the rotation and the bullpen have been among the worst in the league, and certain members of the relief corps (Riley Smith, Chris Devenski, Yoan Lopez, and Alex Young) have bled runs and win probability all over the place in April.
Arizona’s scheduled starter for the series opener, Luke Weaver, hasn’t really been part of the team’s procession of ineffective hurlers, but he hasn’t been much of a salve in that regard, either. After moving from St. Louis as part of the Paul Goldschmidt trade, Weaver broke out in a big way at the start of 2019 season, but missed pretty much the last four months of the season with a forearm strain. He put up 1.8 fWAR in just 64 innings to that point, setting a career high despite working over 130 innings at a much worse clip the season prior. 2020 was not as kind to Weaver — while there weren’t huge changes in his arsenal, he lost some downward motion and therefore separation between his “rising” four-seamer and his changeup and cutter, leading to fewer whiffs and a lot more elevation from opposing hitters. The result was 10 homers allowed in just 52 innings, below-average run prevention marks across the board, and just 0.5 fWAR for the season, but at least he was healthy.
Weaver comes in to this start as kind of an interesting throwback given today’s pitching landscape. When he broke out for those two months in 2019, he still gave up very hard contact, but had enough punchouts despite not very many whiffs or chases to be a highly effective starter. Fewer whiffs really hurt him in 2020, and his walk rate went from elite to above average. Through three starts in 2021, he’s been an extreme pitch-to-contact guy, pounding the zone and giving up hard contact, but refusing to walk anyone. Case in point: he’s had one walk in three starts, but has already given up four homers in 16 2⁄3 innings. The Braves haven’t hit too well so far, but they have hit a lot of homers, so this might work out really well unless Weaver flips the script. Note that while one of Weaver’s three 2021 starts so far was arguably the best of his career (seven scoreless against the Reds, 8/1 K/BB ratio), he only lasted four frames in his most recent outing (four runs against the Nationals with a 3/0 K/BB ratio and a homer yielded), so he’s not exactly on a roll in the early going.
Countering Weaver for the Braves will be Huascar Ynoa, who after his most recent outing, is definitely no stranger to the longball. Ynoa stunned observers and opposing lineups in his first two starts of the year — intended to be a “starter” for at least one bullpen game in the early going, he tossed five scoreless innings (5/1 K/BB) in his first outing, and then six scoreless (10/1 K/BB) five days later. Unfortunately, the Cubs pounded him for three homers (six total runs) in four innings at Wrigley Field (5/1 K/BB, though!), making him a match for Weaver’s four dingers in 16 2⁄3 innings with four dingers in 16 innings of his own. In short, both pitchers have allowed hard contact, but Ynoa’s had the whiffs going while Weaver has limited free passes. This could be a good compare-and-contrast matchup with two offenses that have had pretty similar outcomes in the early going as well.
In 2019, Weaver dominated the Braves in two starts, allowing just one run in 12 innings (15/3 K/BB) as the Braves lost both games. They did pound him in 2018 when he was a Cardinal, but that was before his breakout. Ynoa, meanwhile, has never faced Arizona, though this wouldn’t matter too much anyway, because the current Arizona lineup is a morass of unfamiliar names: in their most recent series against the Reds, position players drawing starts have included guys like Pavin Smith, Wyatt Mathisen, Josh VanMeter, Nick Heath, and Josh Rojas. If you’ve heard of them before, props to you! (I think I was aware of the existence of Smith and VanMeter but not the others.)
Arizona Diamondbacks @ Atlanta Braves
Friday, April 23, 2021
7:20 pm EDT
Truist (sigh) Park, Atlanta, GA
TV: Bally (sigh) Sports South, MLB.tv
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network, La Mejor 1600/1460/1130 AM
XM Radio: Ch. 186