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Starting Nine: Ian Anderson, The Ace That Was Promised?

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Fried? Soroka? Anderson making his case as potential centerpiece of Braves rotations for years to come. Plus, Ronald Acuña’s MVP odds increase and Ozzie Albies’ historic doubles pace

Chicago Cubs v Atlanta Braves
Since 1901, Ian Anderson’s 2.20 ERA is the 17th best of any pitcher who made their first 11 appearances as a starter, and his 1.09 WHIP is 20th since 1961 and the best of any Braves arm through that stage of their career. 
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Sage is all the rage, on the precipice of becoming this season’s Tiger Woods meme, as the Braves are back to .500 and tied for the lead in the tightest division race in baseball.

Fourteen unforgettable innings against the Diamondbacks were replaced by 23 runs and counting against the Cubs in a four-game series, but the ship is far from righted for a team that has hit the most home runs of anyone (36) and is 23rd in starter ERA (4.76).

As the opening month of the season draws to a close, FanGraphs’ postseason projections have the Braves with just a 23.8 percent chance of winning the National League East compared to the Mets’ 68.1, and the NL’s fifth-longest odds of reaching the playoffs at 54.9 percent.

But after Dansby Swanson’s dive into the mystical, things have at least started to take shape for the three-time defending division champs, headlined by starting pitching, with back-to-back shoutouts from Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa.

It’s only fitting, then, that it’s that topic that leads off this week’s Starting Nine.

1. Ian Anderson, The Ace That Was Promised?

Maybe he was a prisoner of the moment, but when a Hall of Fame pitcher wants to put a crown on a young arm, you listen.

In the midst of Tuesday gem, Chip Caray mentioned that the soon-to-be 23-year-old Anderson has dropped his prospect status — going over 50-innings mark — to which Tom Glavine replied “You never wanted to go from the prospect list to the suspect list. (Anderson)’s off the prospect list, but he’s not a suspect. He’s a bona fide star.”

It’s just 11 starts but consider what those 11 outings have included. The seven scoreless innings with one hit allowed the right-hander spun against the Cubs made Anderson the first pitcher in the live-ball era (since 1920) with three outings of at least six innings with no more than one hit through this stage in his career. Glavine didn’t do that. Neither John Smoltz nor Steve Avery or any of the other pitchers the Braves have developed.

The high volume of arms that former general manager John Coppolella amassed came with it the promise that, just by the sheer numbers alone, one would eventually ascend to ace status. Mike Soroka — currently on the injured list with shoulder inflammation and working his way back from a torn Achilles — has been an All-Star, had a top-six Cy Young finish and been runner-up for Rookie of the Year; Max Fried — also out nursing a hamstring issue — was top-five in the Cy Young voting a year ago, was in the top-20 in the MVP balloting as well and won a Gold Glove from 2020.

Maybe one of them ends up planting their flag as the true ace for the Braves for years to come, but the right bet may be on Anderson, because while Fried and Soroka have been stellar they haven’t been across-the-board as dominant as Anderson as this point in the former No. 3 overall pick’s career.

Since 1901, Anderson’s 2.20 ERA is the 17th best of any pitcher who made their first 11 appearances as a starter, and while Soroka (2.02) beats him there, Anderson has a 1.09 WHIP (20th since 1961) to Soroka’s 1.19 and the most strikeouts (72) of any starter in franchise history through 11 outings. Fried trails both with a 2.25 ERA in his first 11 starts with a 1.25 WHIP and 52 Ks.

Certainly, it all underscores the potential of how great the Braves rotation could be. Only the Nationals (0.0) have a worse fWAR out of their staff than Atlanta’s 0.5, and whenever Soroka returns — he just resumed throwing Tuesday and it’s looking like that could stretch into June — and if Fried (11.45 ERA) can get his mojo back, there’s all the makings of the elite staff many envisioned.

But whatever shape that rotation takes, Anderson is making the case that, for the present and future, he’ll be the one that headlines it. As Ronald Acuña Jr. said this week: “He’s a superstar in my opinion.”

2. Acuña takes the lead

There’s been no one better than Ronald Acuña Jr. in the National League in the season’s opening month, and it’s not especially close. Despite missing two games, he maintains a sizable lead in fWAR, 0.6 ahead of the Nationals’ Trea Turner at 1.2, is tied for the MLB lead in home runs (eight) and tops the circuit with 222 wRC+. Acuña also has the NL’s highest average exit velocity (95.9 mph), the longest home run (481 feet) and the highest hard-hit rate at 61.2 percent. That tear, which includes the highest wOBA (.498) of any full month Acunã has spent in the majors, has also seen him vault into the lead in the NL MVP race, with moving the outfielder’s odds from +1000 to +300, nearly double the current value of the next player behind him (the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. at +600). By comparison, Freddie Freeman was at just +2200 in the early goings of last season en route to winning the award. The results haven’t always been there with this offense — as Dansby Swanson said “Early on, I was making the joke that we should just change our team name to the Atlanta Acuñas” — but a spectacular start has made Acuña the man the rest of the NL’s MVP contenders are trying to keep pace with.

3. Marcell Ozuna and the waiting game

Asked how long into the season he stops seeing a player’s performance as a small sample size, manager Brian Snitker relied “(Some people say) 100 at-bats, 45 games, things like that. I think you just take it a day at a time. ... I don’t know that there’s a definitive number.” Certainly, there’s an element of being responsible in how much we buy into a player’s performance 24 games in, but with 104 plate appearances under his belt, it’s safe to say that no matter what time frame you want to put on it, Marcell Ozuna is struggling. He’s hitting 40 percent below league average with three extra base hits after Wednesday’s home run, not exactly a welcome sign after signing a four-year, $65 million deal this past offseason. It’s not the worst of Ozuna in any month in which he’s had at least 100 PAs, posting a 37 wRC+ in August of 2016 with the Marlins and 51 wRC+ in July 2018, when he was in St. Louis. But in those past months, he wasn’t striking out at nearly the same rate, with a 14 percent K-rate in August 2016 and 17 percent in July 2018. Ozuna is currently fanning a 26 percent of the time, the worst since his first full season of 2014. It’s hard to pinpoint one problem considering there’s currently so many, with Ozuna hitting just .158 on fastballs and .143 against breaking pitches and even when he’s making contact, he’s not doing it with the same authority, with his hard-hit rate dropping from a career-high 54.4 percent last year to 39.1 percent and his barrels are down 7.6 percent to 7.8. There’s a chance that being out in the field again with the DH missing in the NL is playing a part, but the maestro of “mixing it up” hasn’t been the same. His seventh-inning homer Wednesday against the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks — who Ozuna has now taken deep in 38 career at-bats, this time going 453 feet at an exit velocity of 107.6 mph — is a start in making everyone forget about the struggles for a moment.

4. Should Braves be early buyers in catching market?

Speaking of trying to get their 2020 groove back, Travis d’Arnaud is turning into a poster boy for the small sample sizes of the pandemic-shortened season, with a mere 52 wRC+ as we near the end of the first month of the season. Among the 163 qualified hitters across the majors, only 10 have been worse than the Braves catcher, who hit 44 percent above league average last year. With d’Arnaud expected to take on the brunt of the starts, Alex Jackson has played in seven games so far, and Ynoa’s personal catcher has been worse than the veteran d’Arnaud at the plate (.053/.217/.053 for minus-16 wRC+). In terms of overall production at the position, Atlanta is 27th (minus-0.4 fWAR) after finishing no lower than ninth in any of the previous four seasons. There’s not much help available on the open market with former Braves Tyler Flowers and Rene Rivera and Russell Martin and Matt Wieters the only remaining unsigned free agents from last season, and while they could always bring up William Contreras and hope the prospect can provide a spark in working in tandem with d’Arnaud, it may be time to look to the trade market to try and find a solution. The Tigers’ Wilson Ramos is an unrestricted free after this season — in which he’s due $2 million - and is one of four qualified catchers hitting over league average at 112 wRC+ and has hit six home runs in 83 plate appearance (and done so with just a .208 BABIP). Rebuilding Detroit is certain to move Ramos, and unless d’Arnaud turns things around in a hurry, he may need veteran support to lighten the load.

5. On the double

There’s only one way to categorize the doubles pace that 24-year-old Ozzie Albies is off to: historic. He’s now at 105 through 426 career games, the 12th most of anyone since 1901 and among second basemen, only Dustin Pedroia (126), Robinson Cano (117) and another former Brave, Marcus Giles (109) are ahead of Albies. But Cano and Pedroia were each a year older than Albies at this stage of his career and Giles was three years Albies’ senior. Albies, who has an NL-best eight doubles so far, is on pace for his third season in the las four with at least 40, which would have him in the 135 range through his fifth season. Tris Speaker, the all-time leader with 792, only had 82 through five seasons, while among the rest of the top five, that would put Albies right around the production of Pete Rose (143) and ahead of Ty Cobb (118). In the expansion era, Albert Pujols has the most through their first five years with 126, a number that Albies is almost guaranteed to surpass.

6. Who doesn’t love pitchers who rake?

No one is expecting Huascar Ynoa to turn into the Braves’ answer to Shohei Ohtani, but let’s just marvel for a second at what he’s been able to do at the plate to follow up that 2.96 ERA and two runs or less allowed in four of his five starts. In going deep Wednesday against the Cubs — that’s 397 feet at a 104.4 exit velo, a speed equal to Albies’ homer and at 10 feet further — as part of a multi-hit game, Ynoa became the first Braves pitcher with back-to-back games with one hit or more since John Smoltz in 2006 and the first Atlanta pitcher to homer since Julio Teheran in 2018. Ynoa is hitting .400/.800/1.200, putting him ahead of the Mets’ Jacob deGrom as the league leader in OPS for pitchers with at least 10 plate appearances. It’s all the more stunning considering that in six professional seasons before this, Ynoa had hit just three times, all coming in 2019 at Triple-A Gwinnett and he struck out all three times. Outside of two-way players like Ohtani and the Rays’ Brendan McKay, pitchers still shouldn’t be hitting, and its a given it will be out of the NL after this winter’s collective bargaining agreement negotiations, but Ynoa is holding it down as the only full-time pitcher who has hit a home run so far this season.

7. Luke Jackson putting 2020 struggles behind him

So, who had Luke Jackson as the with the Braves’ lowest ERA (1.04) and Fried with its highest (11.45) as we close out April? Anyone ...? A year removed from having the highest ERA of any Braves reliever with at least nine innings pitched — and by a large margin, with Jackson’s 6.84 ERA over two runs worse than Will Smith in his abomination of a first season in Atlanta — the right-hander is tops all Braves arms after 8 2/3 innings over nine appearances, and while there has been some cardiac moments with the walk rate (7.27 per nine), FIP (3.90) and xFIP (4.63) leave something to be desired, Jackson has thus far stranded 92.9 percent of runners. His ERA ranks 12th in the NL among qualified relievers, and there may be some cracks in the facade with those peripherals, including a 17.9 percent walk rate that’s in the bottom five percent of the league. Jackson hasn’t exactly returned to his 2019 form — a 2.99 xERA compared to a current 4.61 and 33.7 percent strikeout rate, which is now at 17.9 — it’s a considerable improvement from last season, when only nine bullpen arms had a worse ERA.

8. Joe Adcock’s blast

Acuña hit the longest home run of last season at 495 feet, and he currently has the second longest of 2021 with the bombe he hit Tuesday against the Cubs, which traveled 481 feet. Which brings us to this day in Braves history, when, in 1953, Joe Adcock became the first player to hit a home run into the center field bleachers at the cavernous Polo Grounds. The two-run shot off the New York Giants’ Jim Hearn that as estimated to have traveled roughly 500 feet. Only four players ever hit a home run into center at the ridiculously designed ballpark — it was 279 feet to left field, 450 to left-center, had a maximum distance of 483 feet to center, was 449 to right-center and 258 to right — with Adcock joining Luke Easter from a Negro League game, Hank Aaron and Lou Brock. After the game, Braves manager Charlie Grimm would buy Adcock’s home run ball from a fan for $25 (roughly $250 in today’s dollars).

9. Happy birthday to the man who caught the most important ball in Braves history

No, we’re not celebrating Marquis Grissom, though that final out from the 1995 World Series looms large, too (and for those keeping tabs on such things, Grissom’s birthday was April 17, so a belated 54th to him). We’re talking former Braves pitcher Tom House, who was on the receiving end of Hank Aaron’s historic 714th home run on April 8, 1974 and turns 74 today. House, who would go on to become known as the father of modern pitching mechanics and work with quarterbacks, with the likes of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Tim Tebow on his client list. He’s now the founder of Mustard, an app that takes his teaching to the masses. But back to 1974 and that ball. While Sammy Davis Jr. had offered $25,000 to whoever caught the historic ball that put Aaron past Babe Ruth, House immediately turned it over to Aaron. Magnavox, who had a promotional deal with Aaron for an exhibit called the American Freedom Train — the train would include the ball along with 500 treasures of Americana, including Martin Luther King’s pulpit and robes and the original Louisiana Purchase — gave House a home entertainment system. Years later, when House moved from one home to another out in California, his reward for giving Aaron that ball would wind up at a Goodwill.