At this point, the Atlanta Braves’ 2021 season reminds me of a joke I heard a lot growing up that, when translated, goes something like this:
Did you know that the Soviet Union is the most progressive country in the world? Things were already better yesterday than they’re going to be tomorrow!
If that doesn’t sum up this chart, well, I got nothin’ else.
As a result of, well, everything that’s happened over the last two months, the Braves enter Memorial Day in pretty much the same place they’ve been all season: they can easily clamber back into playoff contention relevance by reeling off a streak of good baseball, but, you know, they have to actually do that. There are still four months left in the season, but that’s only relevant to the extent said good stretch is coming at some point.
You can pretty much see why the Braves are where they are in the table below, which lists every team with playoff odds higher than the Braves right now. The Braves are the only team on the list that hasn’t gone better than 6-4 in a stretch of 10 games.
So, the reality is that the Braves have been the Sick Man of Competitive Baseball pretty much all season. To turn it around, they pretty much just need to... turn it around. And maybe stop losing games to a Mets roster that resembles the Flying Dutchman.
To that end, the Braves’ Memorial Day matchup is one that hasn’t been quite so disconsolate so far: the Washington Nationals. Yes, there are only two teams that the Braves have played multiple series against where they’ve been more successful than not: 5-2 against the Cubs, and 5-1 against the Nationals. The Nats themselves, meanwhile, have been pretty terrible — at 21-28, they have the eighth-worst record in baseball. They’ve lost four in a row, followed up a 10-12 April with an 11-16 May so far, and have gone to battle with an underwhelming roster. Their rotation and bullpen both rank (slightly) below the Braves in fWAR, which is kind of crazy if you think about it. And yet, even the Nationals have tallied a 7-3 stretch on the season already. Still, the Braves are missing Max Scherzer in this series, so there’s the hope that they can survive whatever Trea Turner’s going to do them and start reeling off a lot of wins. Maybe? Please?
The pitching matchup in this series opener is nothing but favorable to the Braves, too. Charlie Morton will get the ball for Atlanta, hoping to build on arguably his best start since 2019, when he carved through the strong Red Sox lineup for seven frames, including an unscathed performance the third time through the order. Morton’s pitching triple-slash is now a pretty cool 100 ERA-/90 FIP-/80 xFIP-; he’s some HR/FB and strand rate stuff away from a performance rate similar to his last few years, and is currently at 3.5 fWAR/200 innings, which is pretty much in the vicinity of what anyone could have expected when they signed him. Morton hasn’t yet faced the Nats this year, but he did get plinked for three runs in five innings by them in 2020 (3/1 K/BB ratio, no homers) in a 6-1 loss to Scherzer.
The Nats, meanwhile, will send out Joe Ross, who’s dragged them down more than bolstered them up to this point. Ross has a 20.5 percent HR/FB, which has really killed his value, though it’s not like he’s pitching particularly well otherwise either: 129 ERA-/137 FIP-/115 xFIP-. He’s one of six Nationals arms (and one of three (!!!) starters) with negative fWAR on the season, and hasn’t been eating innings either, as he’s failed to make it past four frames in each of his last three starts. The Braves beat him back on May 4, even though he allowed just two runs in 5 1⁄3 innings with a 3/2 K/BB ratio — not surprisingly, the game was a scoreless tie until the Nationals let Ross pitch to Ronald Acuña Jr. and company a third time, at which point two hits in four batters (including an Acuña dinger) chased him from the game.
So, there you have it. The Braves continue to walk a fine line between theoretical/potential relevance and a complete faceplant. They’re returning home to face a team that’s played even worse than they have, with a favorable pitching matchup. The bullpen is well-rested, given all of the off-days this past week. Maybe they’ll finally get some going. But if they don’t, and keep treading water, I’m sure we’ll just rehash these same thoughts next week, maybe even next month. We’ll see.
Washington Nationals @ Atlanta Braves
Date: Monday, May 31, 2021
Time: 5:10 pm EDT
Location: Truist Park, Atlanta, GA
TV: Bally Sports South
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network, La Mejor 1600/1460/1130 AM
XM Radio: Ch. 89