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The Braves have thrown themselves into the Pit of Despair

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Dank and chill, underground and windowless, lit by flickering torches. Frightening.

MLB: APR 14 Marlins at Braves Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It is May 19, 2021, and the Braves find themselves in the Pit of Despair. “The Pit of Despair?” you may ask, “What’s the Pit of Despair?” Allow me to elaborate.

This is the Pit of Despair. (Note: after compiling this post, the Braves nudged themselves a bit further into the Pit, and are now at 25.4%.)

Why is that the Pit of Despair? Because of this:

In other words, with their stupid 4-3 loss to the stupid injury-ravaged Mets because of a stupid Tomas Nido homer off of stupid Will Smith, the Braves are basically at their lowest point since they became contenders.

Oh, sure, there’s that other Pit of Despair. You know, the one with the chains, and the spooky lighting, and that albino fella. The thing with that Pit of Despair, of course, is that only the Prince, the Count, and the Albino knew how to get in (and out). For the Braves’ current predicament, well, it isn’t quite a mystery. They weren’t clubbed on the skull, with the camera fading to black, only to wake up in a different setting. No, it’s been 23 losses in the span of 42 games that’s put them here, and it’s happened because of stuff like this:

Rotten outcomes on contact. The Braves have the second-biggest gap in baseball between their wOBA (offensive outcomes) and their xwOBA (offensive inputs, in terms of exit velocity and launch angle). Believe it or not, if baseball were just and hitters were rewarded for how well they struck the ball, the Braves would have the third-best offense in baseball, ahead of the Dodgers. They’d be ahead of all but two AL teams, even though those teams get a DH and the Braves do not. Instead, they’re 12th in wOBA, and when you adjust for the fact that Truist-is-not-a-word Park has played really hitter-friendly over the last few years, their team offense is more like 17th overall. This is really a teamwide epidemic, too. Among the 369 MLB hitters that have put 25+ balls in play so far this season, Freddie Freeman is 30th in terms of how cursed his outcomes have been relative to his inputs. Marcell Ozuna is 40th. Travis d’Arnaud is on the shelf for a while, but he clocks in at 43rd. Ozzie Albies is 68th. Dansby Swanson is 75th. Even Cristian Pache, who had so many more problems than xwOBA underperformance, sneaks into the top 90 at 84th. The Braves have eight lineup spots, they’ve had some of the worst xwOBA underperformance in the league at six of them for substantial stretches of time.

Oh, sure, you might say, but surely someone is making up for it by being blessed rather than cursed, yeah? Well, kinda. You’ve got fortune smiling on Guillermo Heredia (59 PAs), Ehire Adrianza (75 PAs), and Austin Riley. It’s not that the Braves don’t appreciate the help where it comes, but it just isn’t enough. The average team has three players underperforming their xwOBA in the bottom quartile of all players. The Braves have six, one of only two teams (Yankees are the other) with that particular bit of misfortune.

Rotten infield positioning. The Braves have not been good defensively. They’re 20th in team DRS, 22nd in team UZR, and 22nd in team OAA. But that belies a more annoying story. Statcast has an “estimated success rate” feature that is basically an evaluation of a team’s or player’s positioning. It essentially says, irrespective of whether a player made a play, how often does the play get made, based on where the player started (and other stuff about the ball in play, the speed of the runner, and so on). In the outfield, the Braves’ estimated success rate is fine — 89 percent, seventh in MLB. In the infield, mamma mia! They’re third-worst in baseball, at 71 percent. By comparison, the third-best team is at 76 percent. This may not seem like a lot, but it kind of is, amounting to something like one extra play a game that’s a hit instead of an out. Combine this with the fact that the Braves have a middling strikeout rate, and it’s not great. Given the third-worst estimated success rate, you won’t be surprised to learn that they are third-worst at converting grounders and liners into outs.

But of course, the reason why this really hurts is because...

Please stop the homer barrage. The Braves have hit the most homers in baseball. That’s cool. Unfortunately, they’ve given up the fourth-most homers in baseball. It’s gone down a bit since earlier in the year, where it was far and away tops in MLB, but the Braves are sixth in HR/FB rate notched by opposing hitters. Combine this with them “allowing” the fifth-highest BABIP to opposing hitters overall, and you’ve got a conundrum. The defense isn’t doing a good job of stopping balls in play from being hits, but the winds of fate are also carrying quite a lot of balls out of the yard when hit by opposing batters. Again, the Braves have a middling team strikeout rate, so it’s not like they’re minimizing their exposure to contact, either.

This has all added up to be somewhere between an epic annoyance and an epic problem. By xFIP-, the Braves aren’t great, 19th in MLB, but you can live with that if other things are working (other things are not working). But the HR/FB nudges their FIP- to sixth-worst. It’s actually kind of a miracle their ERA- isn’t worse than fifth-worst when you think about it this way. Thanks, outfield defense, I guess.

Rotten outcomes on contact redux: bullpen edition. The Braves and Yankees have far and away the worst xwOBA underperformance when it comes to hitting against opposing teams’ relief pitchers. The Braves are marginally worse than the Yankees in this regard. This is just legitimately brutal. We’re talking the seventh-best xwOBA against bullpens for the Braves, but the tenth-worst wOBA. Does it feel like the Braves keep coming up just short late? That’s just Fortuna’s wheel kicking you and the Braves in the ‘nards.

The same mistake with starters, over and over and over. The Braves have played 42 games. A starter has faced some batter for the third time in 37 of them. This makes the Braves the third-highest in this regard, with the Red Sox and Athletics higher, and the 37-game mark shared with the Rockies, Dodgers, and Giants.

The league, as a whole, has allowed a .323 wOBA, 4.42 FIP, and 4.42 xFIP when their starter is facing anyone for a third time in the game. The Braves are allowing a .384 wOBA (fifth-worst), 5.54 FIP (sixth-worst), and 5.37 xFIP (fourth-worst). Of the five teams that also let starters face batters for a third time with the same rate, four of them (can you guess which of the four) allow no worse (and usually much better) than an average wOBA, FIP, and xFIP in those situations. That fifth team? It’s the Rockies. The Braves are handling their starters like the Rockies. That’s despair-worthy in and of itself.

It’s even more ridiculous than this, though. You could point and say that the Braves have no choice: their bullpen is so bad that leaving the starter in isn’t any worse. You’d be wrong. Braves relievers in innings 4-6 have allowed a .370 wOBA, 5.47 FIP, and 4.95 xFIP. The Braves are also fourth-highest in baseball in letting a starter face the lineup a third time in a high-leverage situation, and are fourth in “number of pitcher PAs in non-low-leverage in innings 4-6.”

Leaving a starter in to face the lineup for the third time has literally resulted in runs the last four times the Braves have tried it. Going through the game logs, it’s just a bloodbath of bad decisions, on loop. On May 13, Charlie Morton turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit by facing the lineup a third time in the fifth. On April 10, the Braves had a 3-2 lead, that become a tie when Andrew McCutchen homered off Ian Anderson when seeing him a third time, and then a deficit when Bryce Harper did the same. These were the most egregious ones, I haven’t listed all the other leads lost due to the same decision. Yet, there is no suggestion that it is changing any time soon: a guy making his second major league start was left to face the lineup a third time yesterday, without having full platoon advantage, after hitting for himself with the tying run on second the prior inning. There’s unavoidable stuff that happens to you (random flame spurts), there’s stuff you need to get burned by a few times to appreciate its impact (sinking sand), and then there’s purposefully maiming yourself so the R.O.U.S. knows just where to find you. The problem is that the Braves still don’t think the exist, even after they’re gnawing on their pitchers’ arms with reckless abandon.

Look, I could go on and on about this stuff. Like good ol’ Mr. Tolstoy wrote in that book where a lady throws herself in front of a train because she was the Tsarist Russia version of Ned Stark or whatever, every unhappy baseball team is unhappy in dozens of countless ways. The reality is that most players on the team are underperforming their projected talent level as it is. Combine that with the pinch and/or heaping of poor fortune, sprinkle in some pretty brutal injuries, add a particularly egregious blown umpiring call, and that’s how you get here. By which I mean, that’s how you end up in the Pit of Despair.

Need more gruesome detail? I’ll oblige. This is the first time in 2021 that the Braves are no longer projected to finish second in the division. It’s bad, folks. Joe Girardi apparently hates his Phillies, and they’ve still leapfrogged the Braves in terms of end-of-season win expectation. But that’s not even the grim stuff.

The reality is that coming into the season, the Braves’ playoff odds were as high as they were (over 60 percent) not because the Braves had some neato-burrito roster, but because the NL was in a weird COVID-plus-Dodgers-and-Padres detente. You had the Dodgers with basically the best projections ever handed out, the Padres and Mets hanging out with rosters that were, on paper, bangin’, and then, aside from the Braves, a sink full of ehhhhhhh. Through mid-May, it hasn’t quite played out like that. Oh, sure, the Dodgers, Padres, and Mets have been good. But the ehhhhh that padded the Braves’ chances for a fourth consecutive playoff appearance has morphed into craaaaaap from the Braves’ perspective. The NL Central was supposed to be a slog, but the Cardinals have one of the better records in MLB by just being generically decent at everything, while the Brewers might have the pitching to hang around as well. The Giants came out of nowhere to buttstomp the Braves (and everyone else) after their pratfall, as Atlanta’s scuffling has largely been to their benefit. Not that they’ve needed some specific benefit to date, as they have baseball’s best record at the time of writing.

So that’s where here is: four games back in the division, four games under .500, projected for 82 wins, projected for a third-place divisional finish, with only the eight-highest playoff odds in the NL. Basically the only commiseration available (the albino fella isn’t much help in that regard) is that the Twins have been even worse. Yay?

But hey, there are 120 games left. That’s a lot of games. So many games. On the one hand, pleee-e-enty of time to get the butts in gear. On the other hand, you remember the thing about the Pit of Despair, right? The idea is that you’re there until they kill you, and the antagonists always insist on you being healthy before you’re broken again. That’s why it’s the Pit of Despair and not the Hole of Equivocal Feeling, after all.

Are you, dear reader, little Fred Savage right now? Do you think this is how the story ends? If so, you might be forgetting something.

The Braves need a miracle. It’s very important. The thing is, though, that graph up above? Those odds weren’t at zero. They weren’t even at say, five. They were at 25 percent, and while that’s uncomfortably close to dead, it just so happens that the Braves are only mostly dead. As we should know, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive, and if the Braves happen to be all dead at a later point, I guess that’s when we start rooting through their clothes for loose change. But for now, slightly alive it is.

I just hope they have fun storming the castle.

(And let’s ignore the fact that Miracle Max charged sixty-five for his services. Do the Braves even have sixty-five at this point? Who knows.)