After a 9-3 defeat at the hands of the Cubs last night, the Braves are once again on the road. Normally, you’d see “@TOR” on the schedule and figure the boys are headed north of the border... but in this case, they’re actually going south (and not very far south, at that). Yes, if you’re not aware, the Blue Jays are making their Spring Training abode of TD Ballpark their home-away-from-home in the early part of the 2021 season, due to travel restrictions associated with the ongoing pandemic. The Braves aren’t exactly unfamiliar with TD Ballpark, given that they’ve played numerous Spring Training contests there throughout the years — but a regular season game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin? Well, that’s a first... to be followed by a second and a third before an off-day and a three-game set in Washington.
The Jays and the Braves have trod somewhat similar paths through April. Both teams came in to the 2021 season with pretty high expectations, as Toronto made the expanded playoffs in 2020 with a 32-28 record. They would’ve missed a normal playoff set with their record, and were swept by the Rays in a three-game set. Still, they came into the 2021 season with playoff odds just above 50 percent, expected by Fangraphs’ model to finish with the best record (87 wins) among AL non-division winners, similar to the Braves’ 88. Yet, both teams will enter tonight’s game one game under .500, with playoff odds somewhat diminished from the start of the season. The Braves’ odds have fallen from 64 percent to 50 percent; the Jays’ have tumbled from by a similar margin, from 51 percent to 41 percent. Only the Yankees and Twins have had more damaging starts in this regard, though of course, there is so much season left that there’s basically nothing to really worry about, record-wise, for either team.
The Braves lead the majors in dingers and will likely enter May as a top-10 offensive and position player unit. The Jays, meanwhile, have been a bottom-10 team offensively with some defensive challenges as well. Both teams have some position player standout performances so far (Ronald Acuña Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) and some real drags. The Jays have six total players with 39 or more PAs and negative fWAR, which is really dragging down the great play they’ve gotten from Guerrero, Randal Grichuk, and Bo Bichette so far. Pitching-wise, though, the two teams are very similar — both have struggled to get value out of their rotations, with relatively high-ranking bullpens. Tonight’s matchup is going to pit two struggling pitchers against one another; hopefully the Braves’ offensive edge helps them to prevail.
Drew Smyly’s early tenure in Atlanta has hardly been a resounding success. In three starts totaling 15 innings, he has a nasty (not in a good way) 179 ERA-, 174 FIP-, and 117 xFIP-. He was shelled for five runs in the first last Sunday, part of an all-around ignominious day of baseball for Atlanta. Smyly’s issues have been myriad in the early going, but largely excising his cutter from his arsenal has made him more reliant on a fastball that was never particularly great — he’s been hit hard as a result, and hitters are having no trouble elevating either of his offerings at this point. His 23.1 percent HR/FB will probably come down, but his xwOBA-against (.370) and xwOBACON-against (.472) are both pretty horrific, so there’s a lot of work to be done on Smyly’s end (and plenty of time to do it).
The Blue Jays acquired Robbie Ray from Arizona last August, and then re-signed him to a one-year, $8 million deal in the offseason. Ray comes into this game with 16 innings across three starts, in which he’s posted a 69 ERA-, but a 142 FIP- and 123 xFIP-. It’s a line not really any better than Smyly’s, just luckier, as Ray is once again walking everyone (13 percent BB rate so far this season), and has a below-average strikeout rate so far to boot. Two starts ago, Ray walked six Royals in five innings, but somehow managed to avoid allowing any runs. However, it is worth noting that Ray had a very un-Ray-like outing in his most recent start — he gained a tick of velocity and put up a 9/0 K/BB ratio (yes, really). He did get popped for two homers and allowed three runs total, and the Jays lost the game... but the Braves will fare a lot better if he’s walk-the-park Ray rather than 9/0-K/BB-ratio-Ray.
Random nonsense fact: Ray has faced the Braves four times. In each start, he has walked exactly four batters.
Atlanta Braves @ Toronto Blue Jays
April 30, 2021
7:37 pm EDT
TD Ballpark, Dunedin, FL
TV: Bally (sigh) Sports South, MLB.tv
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network
XM Radio: Online/Channel 189