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Starting Nine: Where’s the energy? Where’s the swagger? Braves still searching to find identity

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Injuries, lackluster play from key pieces have played part as Atlanta is missing the bite and enthusiasm of the past two seasons

Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves
The Braves are 20-24 after Wednesday’s loss, their ninth in 17 games against sub-.500 teams. Atlanta has its fewest wins at this point of the season since 2017.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A spark.

The Braves have been looking for one, this team lacking the energy, enthusiasm and swagger that defined them in 2019 and 2020. They’re still mixing it up when the opportunity presents itself, but it’s had the feel of going through the motions. At 20-24, Atlanta has its fewest wins at this stage of the season since 2017, when it went on to drop 90 games.

Sage wasn’t the answer. Dansby Swanson’s step into the superstitious did result in three straight wins vs. the Cubs in late April, but it was an afterthought once the Blue Jays piled up 26 runs in three games.

A wild 12-inning come-from-behind victory over the Phillies on May 8 could have been that moment, as Pablo Sandoval forced extras and Ehire Adrianza won it, but the Braves would lose three of the next four and six of nine in all.

Maybe, just maybe, it was in Ronald Acuña Jr.’s game-winning home run Wednesday against the Mets, the National League MVP candidate - and the surest thing with this team at this point — mouthing, a la Vince Carter in the Dunk Contest, “it’s over” as he gestured to his teammates.

A game later, the bullpen coughed up three more runs and the lowly Pirates ended up celebrating at Truist Park in extra innings, the possibility there that Acuña’s walk-off may end up being another missed chance to get this team going.

It hasn’t all been bad. Acuña is leading the NL in home runs (13), Austin Riley and his 136 wRC+ have been a welcome surprise and the Huascar Ynoa show was must-see (before he opted to take out his frustrations on a bench). But plenty has yet to follow the plan for the three-time defending NL East champions, who are looking up at the Mets, Phillies and Marlins in the standings and have been hampered by injury and some surprisingly lackluster play from key cogs from last year’s run.

With the season past its quarter mark, we’ve reached the point of small sample sizes going from a blip to a reality, and with a team still trying to find its identity, here’s how we got to the point where we’re questioning what’s wrong with these Braves and the hope and dread that comes with each.

1. Freddie Freeman’s uncharacteristic start to MVP follow up

The last 10 winners of the NL and American League MVPs have averaged 150 wRC+, a figure that Freeman hasn’t met year in and year out, with 2020’s career-high of 187 marking the first time in four seasons he’d gone over 50 percent above league average. But even measured against his own standards — the first baseman hasn’t been below 132 in a season since 2012 — the current 122 wRC+ is a step back. The home runs are coming, with 12 in all and he’s in the 89th percentile or higher in hard-hit rate (51.6), 90th in average exit velocity (92.4 mph) and 84th max exit velocity (111.7), 92nd percentile in xBA (.303) and 98th in xwOBA (.353). The problem has been a .214 BABIP, which is just behind former Brave Jason Heyward (.216) for 149th among qualified hitters and he’s made 22 outs on balls of 95-mph or more, tied for most in the NL and one behind the Mariners’ Kyle Seager for the MLB lead. Only 14 hitters have faced the shift more than Freeman, who has seen it in 101 of his 189 plate appearances and against the defensive alignment he’s at just 36 wRC+. On the heels of his rare day off, Freeman has a 1.036 OPS over his last 11 games, which have included four home runs. Freeman is returning back to his typical ways after an up and down April.

2. Ozuna in the midst of a major drop off

Among all players in the top 25 in fWAR last season, Marcell Ozuna is the only one currently in the negative, sitting on minus-0.3. That from the NL’s home run and RBI king of a year ago, whose 2020 fWAR of 2.5 was equal to Mike Trout. After a career season, some kind of regression was expected — especially with Ozuna shifting back to an everyday outfield role after largely manning the designated hitter spot last season — but this is ridiculous and magnified after the Braves brought the 30-year-old back on a four-year, $65 million contract that includes a club option for 2025. The hard-hit rate is down 13.6 percent to 40.8 and into the 50th percentile (see above), his barrel rate has dropped eight percent (a 7.4 percent decrease) and Ozuna’s strikeout rate (23.4) is up and his and his walk rate (8.9) is down from last year. Breaking balls have proven a major challenge, with Ozuna hitting a paltry .100 with a .145 wOBA and a 36.4 whiff rate. Things looked like they might be improving when he had a .950 OPS and three homers over 10 games from May 5-15, but since then he has one hit in his last 27 at-bats. Whether being back in the field is playing a factor or not, Ozuna was a catalyst in this offense a season ago and is putting up the worst wRC+ and fWAR of any of eight previous seasons. The good news is it couldn’t get much worse, but Ozuna has a big hole to dig himself out of.

3. Swanson’s struggles after breakout season

This isn’t an indictment of Swanson, it’s just a reminder how unrealistic it was to expect his 2020 numbers — 116 wRC+ and .809 OPS — to become the new baseline. That might have been peak Dansby. But in his defense, he may also not be the player who’s currently hitting 19 percent below league average either — that a big drop off from the 72 wRC+ he averaged in 2018 and ‘19 — and has the fourth highest strikeout rate in the NL (30.7 percent) and the lowest average (.222) and on-base percentage (.281) of any of his six seasons. Among all shortstops, Swanson is 23rd with minus-4.8 offensive runs above average, down from 9.5 last year. Orlando Arcia raking to the tune of a 1.199 OPS and seven home runs in 61 at-bats in Triple-A Gwinnett hasn’t helped the optics, though Swanson did break out of his shell Wednesday against Pittsburgh, going 3-for-4 with the above double and a home run. Whether or not that gets him going, expecting Swanson to again have a higher fWAR than Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Corey Seager just wasn’t realistic, but being on pace for the most strikeouts (202 at this rate) in Braves history makes the overall struggles of his season thus far that much tougher to swallow.

4. A rotation missing key ingredients and consistency

You have to go back to the end of the 2019 season to find the last time a Braves rotation was operating at full health. It never happened last year, as Cole Hamels didn’t arrive until mid-September, and at that point, Mike Soroka had already been lost for the season with an Achilles injury and Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb had been cast off to the alternate site. We may or may not see the rotation in full in 2021 either, as Soroka remains out after the latest setback in his return from an Achilles injury and no update will come until he meets with Dr. Robert Anderson — who performed exploratory surgery and the clean-up on the right-hander — again in two-to-four-weeks. Then came Huascar Ynoa, who was a surprise on the mound (3.02 ERA) and the plate (1.118 OPS) delivering a serious blow — both to himself and this rotation — in breaking his hand out of frustration Sunday and is out at least two months. As it stands, Ian Anderson is the only available starter with an ERA+ over league average (135 to be exact), Max Fried has been improved but still sitting on a 5.46 ERA and new additions Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly are 97th (4.60 ERA) and 112th (5.11) among starters with at least 20 innings. In all, the Braves are 23rd in ERA (4.51), 25th in fWAR (2.1), despite the fifth most quality starts (19). The Braves would seem in a position to be shoppers ahead of the trade deadline, but will they be?

5. Bullpen centerpiece hasn’t been lockdown

So far, so good with Chris Martin in his return, as he’s he’s allowed one hit in four appearances since his return, and word that Shane Greene is expected to start pitching for Gwinnett next week is another positive for this bullpen. But at this point, only seven have a higher ERA (4.83) out of their relief corps and eight are walking more batters than the Braves’ 4.43 per nine. Atlanta has allowed the sixth most runs in innings 7-9 (63) and the third most in extra innings (11). In the ninth, the Braves have the eighth highest ERA (4.22) — which brings us to Will Smith. The closer has the second highest ERA (4.50) of anyone with seven or more saves, with that average equal to last year’s career high. He’s not giving up home runs at quite the same rate (0.50 per nine compared to 3.94), but the xFIP (3.79 is just a tick behind 2019’s 4.22) and he’s walking batters at a higher rate (4.0 per nine) than at any point since his 2015 breakout with the Brewers. Batters are simply pummeling Smith’s fastball, with his highest average against (.333) and wOBA (.390) in seven years. While he did get out of a jam Wednesday, that came after the Mets’ Cameron Maybin reached on a wild pitch. He’s kept opponents off of the base paths in just seven of his 20 appearances so far. Not exactly lock down.

6. The position that’s proved the biggest drop off

The start to the William Contreras era has been working out nicely, with the organization’s sixth-ranked prospect at 153 wRC+ and a .938 OPS through 55 plate appearances, including four home runs. Those numbers will likely level out given a 31.4 percent whiff rate and 29.4 percent strikeout rate, though the 23-year-old success and this still being a team that’s 24th in catcher fWAR (0.1) underscores the missteps that led to Contreras’ arrival. Before landing on the injured list with a thumb injury, Travis d’Arnaud was ailing at the plate (61 wRC+ and a .220 average) and the other backstop the Braves left camp with in Alex Jackson was worse (minus-17 wRC+). Contreras’ potential is real, but being thrust into the role, while Atlanta has mined for depth in Jeff Mathis (hitless in nine plate appearances before being designated for assignment and winding up ultimately in Gwinnett) and newly acquired Kevan Cash (a career .271 hitter with the White Sox, Angels and Rays) sounds like the scramble it is. A year ago, only the Phillies and Dodgers had higher fWARs at the position than the Braves’ (2.1) among NL teams. No offensive position has been a bigger drop off year/year.

7. Injuries, expectations and realities in center field

A close second in the drop in production has come at center. The hope with Cristian Pache was he’d provide just enough offensively that you’d live with the highs and lows given the defensive acumen. While he hit his first big-league home runs (a grand slam to be exact on May 1 vs. the Blue Jays) 22-year-old has struggled — hitting .111 with a .358 OPS — and he’s had issues staying on the field, first suffering a strained groin April 13 and missed 15 games, only to now be on the injured list again with a right hamstring issue. Ender Inciarte has also missed time, appearing in eight games with a hamstring injury. He has hit surprisingly well given his struggles the past few seasons (currently slashing .280/.333/.320) and still has it defensively, and just came off the paternity list (congrats). The team’s most consistently effective option in center has been Guillermo Heredia, who has 143 wRC+ in 67 plate appearances over 18 games, but nonetheless, the Braves are 28th in center field fWAR (0.0) a year after ranking seventh (1.8). They’ve already used five different players at the position, the most of any Atlanta team since 2018, and we’re still in the season’s first two months.

8. Not delivering consistently in the clutch

Acuña’s game-winning home run Wednesday marked the Braves’ third walk-off of the season and the fourth last at-bat win for the team, something that’s become a habit under Brian Snitker, with 89 since he took over May 17, 2016. While the heroics have still been there, where Atlanta has struggled is in late and close situations (a game in the seventh or later and the batting team is either leading by one, tied or has the potential tying run on base, at bat or on deck). The Braves rank 24th in OPS (.638) and 18th in runs scored (31) and before the series finale against the Mets, they were 0-8 in games in which they were tied after eight innings, a stat that fell to 1-9 after the series-opening loss to the Pirates. Last season, only the Dodgers were better than the Braves in late and close games (.898 OPS) and they were fifth in runs with 50.

9. Haven’t taken advantage of favorable schedule, and have gauntlet to come

The Braves opened the season with what was the ninth easiest schedule in April with a .492 opponents’ winning percentage based on FanGraphs’ 2021 projections, with a trip to New York to face the Yankees the toughest roadblock. But they would end the opening month two games below .500 at 12-14, and thus far have played 27 games against teams with winning records and are 11-16 and when they have faced teams that are struggling, they haven’t been able to capitalize, with Atlanta now 8-9 vs. opponents below .500, including being one-hit over a doubleheader against the fourth-place Diamondbacks. There’s little reprieve, with the current series against the Pirates followed by 20 of 27 games against winning teams, including the division-leading Cardinals, Mets and Red Sox, along with three vs. the defending champion Dodgers.