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Braves look to continue momentum in Boston

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A five-game road trip begins with a two-game series in Boston.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Coming off a 4-3 homestand, the Atlanta Braves will hit the road Tuesday for a five-game trip beginning with a two-game stop at Fenway Park to take on the Boston Red Sox. Atlanta dropped two of three to the Mets and the series opener against Pittsburgh before exploding for 33 runs and 16 homers over the final three games with the Pirates. The Braves lead the majors with 78 home runs, no other team has more than 68. The difference between the Braves and the second-place team is as big between that team and the 10th-place team, or the 10th- and 20th-place teams. (It makes one wonder how good the Braves’ record would be right now if they weren’t also eighth in homers allowed.)

A huge part of Atlanta’s offensive breakout has been the performance of Austin Riley. After turning in a solid April, Riley has scorched the ball in May, hitting .342/.420/.658 with a 185 wRC+. He has six homers this month with four of those coming in his last three games. Peeling back to April 18, Riley has a 209 wRC+ with all nine of his homers, by far the best hitting mark in baseball since that date for anyone with as many PAs as him (Fernando Tatis Jr. and Buster Posey are both close, but have only about 70 percent of his PAs in that span). Riley is also tied as the most valuable player in baseball since that date overall with 1.9 fWAR, after starting the season putting up around -0.4 fWAR through his first two-and-a-half weeks.

The Braves will begin Tuesday’s series with a 23-24 record and have not spent a day above the .500 mark this season. They entered Monday’s off day tied with the Phillies for second place in the NL East and 1.5 games behind the Mets whom they will see over the weekend when they head to New York.

The Red Sox have been one of the season’s biggest surprises so far and are tied for the AL East lead with the Tampa Bay Rays with a 29-19 record. Boston leads the majors in runs scored and are fourth in homers. Interestingly, they are only 13-12 at home and are 16-7 on the road so far in 2021. While not expected to be particularly competitive in a tough AL East, the Red Sox have put together a complete performance — they are top five in multiple roster components, including hitting, starting pitching, and the bullpen.

Xander Bogaerts is off to a career-best start at the plate and is currently second in MLB in fWAR with 2.7. J.D. Martinez has put his struggles from 2020 behind him and has been a top-15 position player in baseball, and Rafael Devers rounds out Boston’s fantastic 2021 trio and is tied for fourth in the majors with 13 home runs.

Tuesday, May 25, 7:10 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

Charlie Morton - (9 GS, 45 IP, 26.9 K%, 8.3 BB%, 4.60 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 3.45 xFIP)

Charlie Morton will get the start for the Braves in Tuesday’s opener. Morton bounced back from a pair of rough outings with a solid performance against the Mets where he allowed two hits, one run and struck out eight in six innings. Morton’s curveball has been his best pitch this season holding opponents to a .141 batting average against (.191 xBA, .259 xwOBA). Morton has pitched better than his numbers this season but has seemed to have one rough inning per outing that has skewed his overall results. He was able to avoid that last time out and will be looking to do so again Tuesday. Like many Braves hurlers, he has also been killed by a very high HR/FB rate, which currently sits at 18.2 percent.

Garrett Richards - (9 GS, 51.1 IP, 20.7 K%, 10.6 BB%, 3.72 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 4.32 xFIP)

The Red Sox signed Garrett Richards to a one-year, $10 million deal this offseason and he has put together a solid season so far. He has posted a 2.55 ERA through four starts in May. He allowed seven hits and walked four but allowed just two runs in 6 2/3 innings in his last start against the Blue Jays. Unlike most of the Braves’ arms, he has benefited from a good strand rate and fly balls not turning into homers. The Braves will likely need to tee off on his four-seamer to do damage, as his slider and curve have both been effective so far.

Wednesday, May 26, 7:10 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

Drew Smyly - (7 GS, 37.0 IP, 20.8 K%, 8.2 BB%, 5.11 ERA, 6.37 FIP, 4.96 xFIP)

It has been a shaky season overall for Drew Smyly and although the recent results have been positive, there are still some underlying reasons for concern. After a rough start that saw him post an 8.05 ERA through four April starts, Smyly has allowed just four earned runs through three starts in May (2.00 ERA). Still, the velocity on his fastball is down a full mile per hour from last season and his K-rate is hovering at 20.8 percent of the time while the league is striking out 24.1 percent of the time. His FIP and xFIP (4.09, 4.49) have been much better than their horrid marks on April, but are probably still below the Braves’ expectations. The long ball has been a major issue as he has given up 11 on the season and at least two homers in four of his past six starts, including two to the non-slugging Pirates his last time out. That means this could be a scary start for the Braves, though they may be hoping the Green Monster works in Smyly’s favor.

Nick Pivetta - (9 GS, 47.2 IP, 25.4 K%, 12.2 BB%, 3.59 ERA, 3.44 FIP, 4.42 xFIP)

Nick Pivetta is no stranger to the Braves after spending the first part of his career with the Phillies. Pivetta has enjoyed more success since joining the Red Sox, though he did allow seven hits and four earned runs in five innings at Toronto in his last start. Pivetta has been a much better pitcher at home posting a 3.16 ERA in five starts while allowing a single homer in 25 2/3 innings, though a lower xFIP on the road suggests this won’t stick.

Pivetta has been close to dominant this season overall, but a lot of this is driven by yielding just three longballs in nine starts. He has a good fastball-curveball combo that’s tough on batters, but he also walks a lot of guys. His fastball has yielded a very low xwOBA-against, so getting it and hitting it hard could be a key for the Braves.