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Starting Nine: Can reinforcements fix Braves struggling bullpen?

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Will Mike Soroka’s setback make Atlanta a player in pitching market? Plus, Ronald Acuña Jr.’s plummeting K-rate and Freddie Freeman’s fastball woes

League Championship - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Seven
Shane Greene, who had a 1.69 ERA against right-handers last season, will try and boost a Braves bullpen that has been 29th against righties (5.89). 
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Patience has been preached, but the Braves find themselves in a position where restraint is being tested as they tread waters they haven’t since the days of the rebuild.

Regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s series finale against the Blue Jays, Atlanta is a below .500 team this deep into the season for the first time since 2017, when they would go on to drop 90 games. They haven’t made the postseason with a losing record at this stage since 2010, and FanGraphs’ latest odds give the Braves just a 31.9 percent chance of making it to October.

Adding doom to the gloom comes Wednesday’s setback for Mike Soroka, and another night of frustration via what’s been one of the National League’s shakiest bullpens (12th with a 4.66 ERA).

Don’t panic. Not yet anyway. But it’s been a decidedly different feel for a team with swagger to spare over its three straight NL East title runs.

1. Reinforcements are here (with more coming), but can it save this bullpen?

When considering the construction of the Braves bullpen — which was, as spring training broke, heavily influenced by who had options remaining and who didn’t and has since been a cavalcade of erratic play — it’s best to imagine general manager Alex Anthopoulos throwing darts. Blindfolded.

Atlanta is 23rd in bullpen ERA (4.66) a year after finishing fourth overall and second in the National League, and has the fifth highest WHIP (1.47), while also ranking 25th in batting average against (.249) and 23rd in walks per nine (4.46).

Seven arms have thrown 10 or more innings and only two — Luke Jackson (1.93) and Will Smith (2.57) — have ERAs under 3.38 and three are at 4.50 or higher. Nate Jones has been cast off after walking 8.71 per nine, and so has Carl Edwards Jr. with an 81.00 ERA after a third of an inning of work.

Help is here with Chris Martin riding in Wednesday as a solution after landing on the injured list April 4 with shoulder inflammation, Sean Newcomb is back, too and Shane Greene has finally signed, returning on a one-year, $1.5 million deal. The Braves have also signed Tanner Roark to a minor league deal and claimed Jay Flaa off waivers from the Orioles.

While the bullpen has had its collective issues, it’s been far worse for righties. Atlanta is 29th in ERA (5.89) and wOBA (.374) from its right-handers, and aside from Jackson, doesn’t have an option with an ERA under 4.66.

But are the reinforcements enough? Tuesday’s loss to the Blue Jays, in which the rock-solid-to-that-point A.J. Minter and Jacob Webb faltered in a three-run eighth, was the third in 17 games in which Atlanta led after seven innings. A year ago, they were 23-0 in those games. Wednesday, the bullpen gave up four runs as Teoscar Hernandez homered off Jackson and Josh Tomlin. While Newcomb struck out two in a scoreless eighth, Braves relievers have allowed the NL’s third highest slugging percentage (.443) so far in May.

Some of it has clearly been circumstantial. Without Martin (and Greene, for that matter), there’s been more situations like Tuesday’s, when Minter and fellow left-hander Tyler Matzek have served as the main setup men. The Braves have played 22 of their games against four teams (Nationals, Yankees, Phillies and Blue Jays) whose righties rank in the top 13 against southpaws, and Atlanta’s relievers have allowed the league’s highest .wOBA against righties (.351), 18 points higher than any other NL team.

The return of Martin and Greene’s impending arrival could fix that. Last season, when Martin had a 1.00 ERA and Greene posted a 2.60, both were strong against righties (Green had a 1.69 ERA and Martin 1.80), but more than anything, it may give Anthopoulos reason to put the darts away.

At least until the trade deadline.

2. Does latest Soroka development make Braves buyer in pitching market?

Manager Brian Snitker opened Wednesday’s pregame media availability with a statement that was a brutal blow to Mike Soroka’s path back to the Braves rotation. Discomfort in his Achilles. Exploratory surgery. It’s unknown how much longer this will shelve the right-hander, who hasn’t pitched since Aug. 3, but it makes the expected June return as he dealt with shoulder inflammation seem far-fetched. “I hate it for him personally to have this setback,” Snitker said. “And we won’t know until after the surgeon goes in and sees exactly what’s going on.” The one positive is that it wasn’t related to any one incident, so it wasn’t necessarily a reaggravation of the injury, just “something that wasn’t right.” It could be nothing and Soroka may be back before the All-Star break — or it could lead to an ever longer wait. If Soroka is out longer than initially thought, will it make the Braves players ahead of the trade deadline? While outings like Max Fried’s gem against the Blue Jays (six one-run innings) are a positive, and Huascar Ynoa has been brilliant and Ian Anderson solid, Charlie Morton’s ERA (4.98) is his highest in 11 years and Drew Smyly’s FIP (7.34) is the third highest of anyone with at least 25 innings pitched and Bryse Wilson has shown flashes but has also lacked consistency. It’s a group that remains 27th in starter fWAR (0.9) and 21st with a 4.45 ERA, and those growing innings by young arms are going to be a point of concern after the shortened 2020 campaign. With the likes of the Tigers’ Matt Boyd, the Rockies’ Jon Gray and German Marquez and seemingly the entire Giants rotation (all free agents in 2022) potentially available, there will be options.

3. Acuña’s home run pace and plummeting strikeout rate could put him in insane company

Strikeouts don’t matter, they tell us. Fine. But it’s still OK to be taken aback when a player cuts what was one of the league’s highest strikeout rate nearly in half and still leads the majors in home runs. That’s what is unfolding with Ronald Acuña Jr., whose 14.8 K-rate is down 14.9 percent from 2020, all while he’s leading everyone with 11 home runs. The Braves young star is one of only two players in double figures in home runs that’s below a 15 percent strikeout rate (the Indians’ Jose Ramirez being the other with a 12.7 K-rate to go with 10 HRs) and even the great Mike Trout, who has hit eight home runs, has fanned 28 percent of the time. Acuña is currently pacing at 50 home runs with 99 strikeouts, which would put him in some pretty insane company. There have been 18 seasons in which a player hit 50 homers with less than 100 Ks, four of which were by Babe Ruth, two via Willie Mays and Ralph Kiner and Jimmie Foxx also did it twice. No one has pulled it off since Barry Bonds in 2001 (73 homers with 93 strikeouts) and no Braves player has ever matched that kind of place discipline with massive power numbers.

4. Overall production is building, as Swanson’s peripherals rise

There’s no doubt Dansby Swanson’s 2020 — fueled by a .350 BABIP, as he hit 16 percent above league average — was aided in coming with in a small sample size season. He hasn’t gotten off to the greatest of starts to this year, either, currently at 75 wRC+, but the May numbers have been more encouraging (109 wRC+, with two home runs and two doubles) and so too has the quality and consistency of contact at the plate. Swanson’s in the 70th percentile in hard hit rate (45.1 percent), which is ahead of the Indians’ Jose Ramirez (44.9) and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant (44.3) and represents more than a four percent jump year over year. He’s also trailing only Ronald Acuña Jr. (94.6 mph) and Freddie Freeman (92.7) among Braves with an average exit velocity of 90.7 mph, the highest of his six seasons. The only shortstops with higher exit velocities are the Dodgers’ Corey Seager (91.3), the Astros’ Carlos Correa (90.8) and the Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette (50.5).

5. Freeman struggling with the fastball

Freddie Freeman’s next home run will be his 250th, making him just the sixth player to reach that figure in a Braves uniform as he’ll join Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, Dale Murphy and Andruw Jones. But the final miles on the road to that milestone homer have been ... very un-Freeman like. He’s currently at 111 wRC+, a career low for any of his 11 full seasons and his OPS (.795) is tied for his worst since 2011. For a player who is defined by his consistency, Freeman’s sweet spot percentage (33), is a 16.2 percent drop from his MVP 2020 and he’s getting beat on fastballs with a career-low .194 batting average against them and has already fanned nine times on the pitch after 14 over last year’s 60 games. Pitchers are taking notice. Of the 13 pitches Freeman faced in a three-K night in Tuesday’s loss, 11 of them were in the fastball family (including all six by Tyler Chatwood in an eighth-inning strikeout) and so far, this is the highest amount of fastballs (60 percent) that Freeman has faced in a season.

6. Late production proving a missing ingredient

Sure, Saturday’s 12-inning over the Phillies was epic and Pablo Sandoval has had a year’s worth of moments off the bench in just over a month. His four pinch-hit home runs are tied with Tommy Gregg (1990), Evan Gattis (2013) and Johan Camargo (2019) and he’s done it in just 17 at-bats off the bench, and he’s sixth among all players with a .496 wOBA in the seventh inning on. But even with the Panda’s heroics (and a nod to Ehire Adrianza), the Braves haven’t been the same team in the late innings that they were a season ago. In 2020, Atlanta’s .819 OPS in the seventh-on was second to only the Padres’ .848, and now they’re 26th (.612) and are 1-14 when trailing after six innings. Dig deeper and the Braves are 28th in eighth-inning runs (nine) and have the league’s worst OPS (.445), are 23rd in the ninth in runs (seven) and 26th in OPS (.516) and rank 21st in extra-inning OPS (.583). Going into the season, the Braves had 85 final at-bat wins since Snitker took over in 2016, including eight last year. This season, they have two.

7. Interleague woes continue

Swept by the Blue Jays in three games in Dunedin, Fla., things haven’t gone much better as things shifted to Atlanta this week, but the struggles against the American League have become an old, tired storyline for the Braves. In the first 17 seasons of interleague play, they had the best winning percentage in the majors in those games (.530), but in the eight seasons since then, it’s become a disaster. Atlanta is 63-84 (.429), putting it ahead of only the White Sox (.408 at 58-84) and Reds (.381 with a 56-91 mark). As the Braves are finding out, the AL East just keeps flexing its muscles, with four of the top seven performers against the NL — the Red Sox are first at .634, with the Yankees fourth (.572), the Rays in sixth (.566) and the Jays seventh (.537) — and even the Orioles are .500. Unfortunately, Atlanta has one more against the Blue Jays in this series before taking on the Red Sox four times before the All-Star Game and faces the Rays three times and Yankees twice more after the break.

8. Huascar who? Bask in Tobin’s monster day

Huascar Ynoa’s exploits at the plate have been basically Ruthian. His last four starts have included a 1.11 ERA and 1.300 slugging percentage, making him the first player to slug over 1.300 with a sub-1.30 ERA in a four-start span since Babe Ruth in 1916. Crazy impressive ... but he’s got some work to do to on the mound and at the plate equal Jim Tobin. On this day in 1942, Tobin hit three home runs and pitched a complete game as the Boston Braves beat the Cubs 6-5. The Boston Post called it “one of the most astounding feats of baseball history” as Tobin hit a solo shot in the fifth inning and another in the seventh, then delivered a two-run homer in the eighth, while also allowing three runs on five hits on the mound. He’s the only pitcher in the modern age to do deep three times in a game, and as impressive as it was, it could have been even more so. In Tobin’s first at-bat, he barely missed another home run as Chicago’s Bill Nicholson snagged a ball at the right-field wall.

9. Dialing it back to the franchise standard of consistent power

No one has hit more home runs than the Braves’ 51 and they were second to only the Dodgers with 103 a year ago, but the 1998 squad remains the benchmark for home runs when it comes to streaks. On this day of that ‘98 season, Ryan Klesko hit a two-run homer against the Cardinals, making it 25 straight games with at least one HR. That run, which at the time was an NL record and tied the MLB mark, would be snapped the next day. It remains a record for the Braves, who would go deep in 23 straight games in 2006 but is now tied for the most ever in the NL with 2016 Cardinals and Padres and is fourth all-time behind the Yankees (31 in 2019) and Astros (2019-20) and Rangers (2001) with one in 27 straight.