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Starting Nine: Revel in season of limbo that made full Ynoa Experience possible

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Ronald Acuña Jr. putting safety over a dash at 40/40, future arrives at catcher with William Contreras and Slamlanta arrives

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals
Huascar Ynoa’s wRC+ (245) is fifth among players with at least 10 plate appearances, ahead of April’s American League Player of the Month, Byron Buxton (242).
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Real question: is the National League East good?

Three of the offenses are 21st or worse in FanGraphs WAR, with the division-leading Phillies and Nationals tied for that spot at 2.8, and the Braves and Nationals are among the majors’ four worst pitching staffs at 27th (1.0 fWAR) and 30th (0.2). It’s the only division with three teams are minus-11 or higher in run differential, including Philadelphia at minus-14, and the only team that’s in the positives is the last-place Marlins at plus-18.

Whatever we’re watching play out in the NL East, it’s at least expectedly tight, with Miami just two games out and that’s weighing in the Braves’ favor, as they still search for their footing through 30 games.

Atlanta is two games below .500 with a minus-9 run differential, which has included Freddie Freeman at just 101 wRC+ through 131 plate appearances and two more regulars at least 30 percent below league average in Marcell Ozuna (70) and Dansby Swanson (65).

The fireworks that have come in D.C., coupled with the work of Max Fried and Huascar Ynoa on the mound, are positive developments for the three-time defending division champs. But the best thing that has happened to the Braves so far is that no one has put a stranglehold on the East.

It’s there for the taking, if anyone can get it together to do so.

1. Revel in season of limbo that made full Ynoa Experience possible

Collectively, MLB offenses have been beyond anemic in 2020. They’ve been some kind of lifeless, specter, trudging through the first month-plus of the season like something out of a George Romero flick. There is just one offense — the Reds at 5.24 runs per game — that ranks in the top 150 of offenses in the Expansion Era, the league’s .233 batting average is a 12 point drop over 2000, which is below the record low of .237 from 1968, a season of ineptitude at the plate that led MLB to lower the pitcher’s mound a year later.

They’re not solely to blame, but in their return to the plate, pitchers have certainly played their part. They’re hitting a paltry .109, which is behind 2018’s .115 average for the lowest of any full season on record. Not to bring religion into the conversation for those purists, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for those who don’t want to watch pitchers flail their way through at-bats, with this winter’s collective bargaining agreement all but certain to make the designated hitter a fixture in the NL.

It was one of winter’s biggest missteps that MLB and the union couldn’t hammer out an agreement to keep the DH in 2020. Neither side wanted to give up a bargaining chip with sights on the CBA battle to come, but this season of limbo has come with a gift. Without it we’d only be getting part of the Huascar Ynoa Experience.

While the 2.36 ERA (15th overall) through seven starts has been a revelation, what Ynoa has done as the plate is simply mind-boggling.

With Tuesday’s grand slam — the fifth ever for a Braves pitcher and the first since Jaime Garcia, who was traded for Ynoa, in 2017 — the Atlanta right hander has two of the three home runs hit by pitchers this season (the Brewers’ Adrian Houser has the other). He’s the first pitcher with homers in back-to-back games since the Mets’ Steven Matz in 2018. With five hits in all in 13 plate appearances, Ynoa is slashing .385/.385/.923 and among all players with at least 10 PAs, his 245 wRC+ is fifth, just behind Mike Trout (251) and ahead of April’s American League Player of the Month, Byron Buxton (242).

Since the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, only 15 pitchers have hit at or above league average in a season — Bud Norris was the last to do it in 2016 at 102 wRC+ — and depending on how long he stays in the rotation with Mike Soroka working his way back, Ynoa is pacing toward challenging Lew Krausse (253 wRC+ in 1974) for the team’s best in that span.

There’ a level of strategy and gamesmanship stripped from the NL with the DH, but last season was a fiend getting a taste and this scribe wanted more. That’s coming. There are too many careers potentially extended with it being in NL, but in the meantime, a bit of gratitude to the ineptitude of the league and union this winter for not reaching an accord on the DH for 2021.

Without their animosity toward each other, we wouldn’t have the season that has given us Ynoa doing a Steve Nebraska/Shohei Ohtani impersonation.

So, revel in it for as long as he gets turns in the rotation, even if it means suffering through the .280 OPS and minus-22 wRC+ pitchers are combining for in the meantime.

2. Safety over a dash at 40/40?

With three steals in the first 10 games and home run numbers to spare, Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 40/40 pace seemed secure. But he’d go 17 games without a stolen base, prompting the pregame question to Brian Snitker on Wednesday about the lack of aggressiveness on the base paths from his outfielder. It’s not that Acuña doesn’t have the green light — Snitker reiterated that Acuña dictates when he’s going to take off — and it has nothing to do with Freddie Freeman having moved up to the No. 2 spot in the order behind Acuña. It was a byproduct of the outfielder trying to stay on the field after missing two games last month with an abdominal strain. “More trying to protect himself ... eliminating the diving,” said Snitker. “Wanted to take care of himself for the long haul.” Acuña must have been trolling Twitter, because after drawing a third-inning walk, he took off on the first pitch to Freddie Freeman for his fourth steal, coming with such a great jump that Nationals catcher Yan Gomes didn’t even attempt a throw. The lesson here is Acuña’s picking his spots, and while that may keep him from history — he’s on pace for 21 steals and 54 home runs — and hurt the brand of the guy who opted to produce an Acuña 40/40 tracker, Acuña playing it safer isn’t a bad thing.

3. The future has arrived in Contreras after missteps in catcher development

William Contreras unloaded on his first career home run Wednesday, giving him four hits in 10 at-bats. It certainly feels like the Braves catcher of the future has arrived, even if it became the present faster than expected with incumbent Travis d’Arnaud on the 60-day injured list and backup Alex Jackson joining him among those out of commission. Barring a move to bring in another backstop, it feels like Contreras’ job, the potential homegrown answer to missteps in catching development, missteps that begin with how badly Atlanta miscalculated what it had in Christian Bethancourt. The faith the organization had in the last Braves catcher of the future, a top-100 prospect in 2014 and ‘15, allowed Atlanta to let Brian McCann leave as a free agent after 2014, trade 2013 second-round pick Victor Caratini to the Cubs for Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell in 2014. To their credit, when it was clear that Bethancourt wasn’t going to become the next link in the Javy Lopez-Johnny Estrada-McCann chain (and neither was offense-first Evan Gattis), the Braves tried to go the depth route, drafting Lucas Herbert in the second round in 2015 (the same year they inked Contreras as an international free agent), Brett Cumberland in the same round a year later, and dealt for Jackson, a former first-round pick, after the ‘16 season. But Carantini is the only Braves pick at the position since McCann took hold in 2005 to become a viable MLB starter and the misplays left them without answers. Atlanta was forced into a string of veterans with A.J. Pierzynski, Tyler Flowers, Kurt Suzuki, and now, d’Arnaud. To be fair, d’Arnaud was better than anyone could have expected in 2020 but was struggling to start the year before a thumb injury that figures to sideline him for most of the season. Contreras finally being behind the plate and having 2019 first-round pick Shea Langeliers on the rise, signals searching for long-term answers at catcher may finally be a thing of the past.

4. Taking it to the Max

After an 11.45 ERA through three starts — the worst of any qualified starter — anything positive was going to be welcome as Max Fried made his return to the rotation Tuesday after an injured list stint with a hamstring injury. The Gold Glove-winning left-hander cited his timing as the key issue hampering him in those pre-injury outings, in including the last two, in which Fried allowed 12 earned runs on 17 hits in six innings. “I wasn’t as crisp in my delivery,” he said of his adjustments. “I just wasn’t as timed up. I felt like I was really late and falling forward, wasn’t really driving the baseball like I was last year.” Against the Nationals, he looked like the Fried that posted a 2.25 ERA and 3.19 FIP in 2020, yielding one run on four hits with six strikeouts and a walk over five innings. The ERA is still an inflated 8.44, but he’s now fanning 11.25 per nine, a high as a full-time starter and among the biggest things Fried had going for him in D.C. was simply limiting hard contact. It’s been a major problem, with a whopping 21.4 percent year-over-year increase in his hard-hit rate after last season’s 23.8 rate that was in the league’s 98th percentile. Through three games, Fried had allowed 19 hits of 95 mph or more, including 10 the last time out against Marlins, but he held the Nationals to a season-low three. While he allowed three of 102.9 mph or more (including Yan Gomes’ home run), the average exit velocity of 82.5 mph was more than four mph less than Fried’s average and more in line with 2020’s 83.4 mph, which ranked in the 82nd percentile. It’s hard to see Fried’s first outing back as anything but a step in his reclaiming the form that made him a Cy Young contender last year.

5. Welcome to Slamlanta

First Cristian Pache, then Ynoa, and Wednesday, Marcell Ozuna followed with a grand slam of his own. While Ynoa and Ozuna’s came in back-to-back games — a first for the Braves since Eddie Perez and Ryan Klesko on Sept. 16-17, 1997 — in all it marked the first time in franchise history the Braves had hit at least three grand slams in the same road trip, and it’s put this squad on a torrid pace in the slam department. Add in Guillermo Heredia’s long ball against the Cubs on April 18 and the Braves have more slams than anyone else this season and have hit more than any other Braves team through this point in the season, surpassing the three they had in April/May five previous times (most recently in 2013) and we’re four games into May as of this writing. The most grand slams of any team came in 1997, when they hit 12 of them, including three by Chipper Jones — two of those coming against the Mets, in staying true to character — and while circumstantial, a lineup that is producing the most home runs in the majors (44 and counting) certainly has the firepower to make a run at that ‘97 crew’s slam total.

6. Let’s hear it for the lefties

The Braves’ parade of high-leverage lefties was on full display Wednesday, with Tyler Matzek striking out two in a perfect seventh, A.J. Minter leaving the bases loaded in the eighth and Will Smith going through Juan Soto for his sixth save of the season. It’s the perfect jumping off point, as since the start of last season, the Braves’ 161 innings out of left-handed relievers trails only the Giants with 183 2/3 and two of the biggest workhorses have also been two of the game’s best. Matzek tops the NL with 42 innings since 2020, while Minter is fourth (35 2/3), they’ve produced the circuit’s third (2.50) and sixth (2.71) FIPs in that span and are Nos. 2 (Minter at 0.3) and No. 4 (Matzek at 0.6) in HR/9. This season, the Cubs (3.19 FIP) and Brewers (3.29) have had the only better collections of lefties out of the bullpen than Atlanta (3.52), with the Braves buoyed by Sean Newcomb’s NL-leading 19.9 K/9 and Smith and Minter in the top five in batting average against at third (Smith at .150) and fifth (Minter at .163) in the NL.

7. When the pressure’s on ...

Acuña’s walk and Ozuna’s slam came — with an intentional pass to Freeman in between — came with two outs Wednesday, a situation the Braves have thrived in. Their .824 OPS with one out remaining leads the majors, so does a 122 wRC+ and 19 home runs and it’s been the stage for 48 percent of the team’s runs (68 of 140). That OPS is currently ahead of 2006’s .791 for Atlanta’s best since 2002, and while it’s been helped by Pablo Sandoval — who has a ridiculous MLB-leading 395 wRC+ with two outs among those with at least 10 plate appearances — it’s Austin Riley that is holding things down for the regulars. It’s been a marked improvement in Riley’s game, as he’s hitting .458 (11 for 24) with two outs after sitting at .206 as a rookie and .231 last season, his on-base percentage has skyrocketed to .606 (that was at .238 in 2019 and .286 in 2020) and he’s hit two of his three home runs with two outs.

8. A day for no-nos and almost-no-nos

No-hitters and no-hit bids have been par for the course for the Braves on May 6. In 1951, after Warren Spahn threw one of his 63 career shutouts, the Pirates’ Cliff Chambers stifled the Boston Braves bats in the second game of a doubleheader, a 3-0 Pittsburgh win. But Chambers walked eight and threw a wild pitch in what was the only no-hitter in the 38-year history of Braves Field. Fifty-nine years later, the Braves would deny the Nationals’ Scott Olsen a no-no when, after he’d retired 22 of the first 23 batters, David Ross broke up the bid with a one-out single in the eighth. Olsen lost the no-hitter and would leave without a win, too, when the Braves pulled even at 2-2 before Washington scored in the bottom of the ninth on a Willie Harris pinch-hit single. A year later, Derek Lowe flirted with a no-hitter in facing the Phillies and Cliff Lee. Lowe had kept Philadelphia hitless until the seventh, when Shane Victorino spoiled the bid.

9. Happy birthday to a former Braves top prospect

A happy 28th birthday to former Braves outfielder Mallex Smith. Granted his Braves days are long past, though there are some remnants of his time in the organization’s 2015 Minor League Player of the Year, who was dealt to the Mariners in January 2017 in a deal for Luiz Gohara and Triple-A reliever Thomas Burrows. Coincidentally, when the Mariners and Rays included him in a trade — the first time, not the one that took place 22 months later — it was for current Atlanta right-hander Drew Smyly. Anyway, it’s Smith’s birthday and a perfect time for the above throwback interview, where I pressed him to pick his forever walk-up song. His answer to this “deep question” was a fantastic selection.