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Starting Nine: Careful criticizing Ronald Acuña’s aggressiveness in monster year that’s going to waste

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Plus, the bullpen keeps finding ways to outdo itself, Ozzie Albies’ extra-base spree and the return of Freddie Freeman’s opposite-field power

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves
Ronald Acuña Jr. is on pace for the the third season of 45 or more homers, 30-plus doubles and at least 30 in history, while the Braves have yet to play a game above .500.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A whopping 7 1/2 games out of first place and a season-high five games below .500. After a run of National League East titles and 90-win seasons, simply put, the Atlanta Braves are in a bad way.

The franchise hasn’t been this far back in a season in which it made the postseason since 1914, and since moving to Atlanta, have never been further back than six games (1993) in a playoff year.

Trying to make sense out of what’s changed (beyond just blaming the bullpen) will make your head hurt. Much of the focus — and manager Brian Snitker’s ire — after Wednesday’s 10-8 loss to the Red Sox, though, centered on Ronald Acuña Jr., who was thrown out trying to make it to third on a one-out double in the ninth.

“You can’t do stupid things like that and expect to win games,” Snitker said. “We have the tying run to the plate in the MVP (Freddie Freeman), and you get thrown out by 10 feet. You can’t do that expect to win. That’s not excited, either. These guys have hit a lot of base hits, doubles, the whole thing. Just being aware and smart. And you just can’t just make those kinds of mistakes and expect to win.”

Acuña’s aggressiveness provided the soapbox, but the Braves did have a 7-6 lead before Shane Greene walked the bases loaded in the seventh and was replaced by A.J. Minter, who gave up a grand slam to Christian Arroyo. Acuña made a mistake, and he said as much — “Looking back on it now, that was my bad,” he said through interpreter Franco Garcia. “I made a mistake. I obviously should’ve given the hitter behind me a chance to drive in a run.”

But don’t put this loss or what’s been a wildly disappointing season on him. It’s worth noting the different tenor in Snitker’s comments back on May 19, when Dansby Swanson was thrown out trying to steal third in the eighth inning of a tie game (a game ultimately won by an Acuña walk-off home run). What went down Wednesday wasn’t on Acuña and with the bullpen’s issues, injuries and an avalanche of other issues playing a major role in the Braves’ place in the standings. If not for Acuña’s ridiculous start, the Braves would be in worse shape than they are as they waited for Freeman to regain his mojo.

There’s a real question worth asking when it comes to Acuña and a team that is failing to live up to expectations.

1. Will Acuña’s monster year go to waste?

Acuña is having a monster year, second in the National League with 18 home runs, ranking second in fWAR (3.2) and sitting fifth in all of baseball in wRC+ (164). He’s the NL’s leader in All-Star voting and is behind just the Mets’ Jacob deGrom (+200) and the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. (+275) in MVP odds at +420. Meanwhile, Atlanta has not played a single game above .500 on the year, five tries being met with losing skids.

Is what’s shaping up to be one of the great individual seasons in franchise history, in danger of being for naught?

If there’s a silver lining in what’s transpired over these past two-plus months, it’s that the Braves aren’t in a bigger hole. Per FanGraphs, they have an 11.5 percent chance of making the postseason, their division title chances have slipped to 5.4 percent. But while the Mets have taken the East lead, a rash of injuries and offseason acquisition Francisco Lindor’s slow start (94 wRC+ and six home runs) have at least throttled their success as they have the fewest victories (35) of any division leader.

Word this week that Mike Soroka and Huascar Ynoa could be back in late August will help a pitching staff that has allowed 323 runs, better than only four NL teams in the Pirates (327), Reds (333), Rockies (358) and Diamondbacks (385). Of course, that won’t aid a bullpen that has taken the loss in 18 of Atlanta’s 35 defeats but asking less innings of that relief corps would be a benefit down the stretch.

We could go on and on, but you already know the bad, as the offense is without two Silver Slugger winners in Travis d’Arnaud and Marcell Ozuna and reigning MVP Freddie Freeman is heating up, but the overall numbers are his worst since 2012 at 117 wRC+. The bright spots of Austin Riley’s All-Star push and Ozzie Albies’ surge since late May (.943 OPS), notwithstanding, help hasn’t always been there as Acuña slashes .292/.396/.606 with 42 RBI, 34 extra-base hits and an NL-best 13 stolen bases.

Since World War II, there have been 18 individual campaigns by Braves players that ended with a higher wRC+ than the 164 Acuña currently has, including the MVP years of Freeman in 2020 (187 wRC+) and Chipper Jones in 1999 (165). In a twinge of irony when it comes to wasting these gargantuan seasons, only four of the years ahead of where Acuña is right now ended in a Braves playoff berth, with those Freeman and Jones years, along with Ozuna in 2020 (179 wRC+) and Hank Aaron in 1969 (170 wRC+). Pardon the foreshadowing if it comes to that.

The last time the Braves had a season this productive in a non-playoff year came in 2008, when Chipper had 174 wRC+ to go with a 7.1 fWAR and a .364/.470/.574 slash line. That season, Atlanta went into June 17 at 6 1/2 games back en route to dropping 90 games and finishing 20 out of first place.

There’s no denying the greatness of what’s unfolding with Acuña, who is on pace for 47 home runs, 39 doubles and 34 stolen bases. Only Alfonso Soriano in 2006 and Larry Walker in 1997 have ever had 45-plus homers, 30 or more double and surpassed 30 steals, and Ron Gant in 1990 and ‘91 stands as the lone Braves player to have a 30/30/30 season.

The cavalry, as it were, appears to be coming with d’Arnaud potentially back around the same time as Soroka and Ynoa, and the Braves should be among those teams looking to buy ahead of the July 30 deadline, with needs in its bullpen and in the outfield. Hope remains, but as each step forward with this team is met with another one or two or three back, you have to wonder. The brightness of Acuña’s season continues — and while there are missteps along the way like Wednesday night that were his own doing — unless this team starts finds a way to play collectively at a level that has escaped it all season, his year may just end up being the sensational amid a heap of frustration.

2. Bullpenning a sad song

As previously mentioned, the Braves bullpen has been responsible for 18 of the team’s losses this season, which is now tied with the Twins for the MLB lead. The latest defeat was pegged to Shane Greene, who now has a 15.00 ERA after four appearances and has allowed multiple runs in two of his outings. Five of the relief corps defeats have been charged to Will Smith, while Chris Martin has three, and it has Atlanta on a dangerous pace. It’s trending toward 44 bullpen losses, which would be not only the most in franchise history, surpassing the 35 set in 1989 when the Braves dropped 97 games, but would break the MLB record of 40 from the Astros in 2013. While last season’s group was 21-9 and the 2019 team went 37-19, no Atlanta bullpen has reached 30 since 2008 (another callback to that ridiculous Chipper Jones season).

3. Ozzie has been extra

After a setback of a 2020, Ozzie Albies is doing more than just bouncing back in ‘21. The NL leader in the first phase of All-Star voting among second basemen (his 17 percent of the vote are five percent ahead of the Pirates’ Adam Frazier), Albies is in strong position to become a first-time starter. But beyond the popularity contest, he’s hitting 20 percent above league average, his best first half of the season since 2018 and with 33 extra-base hits, is trending toward 85, which, in the modern era, has been surpassed by only Aaron in 1959 (92), Chipper Jones in ‘99 (87) and Eddie Mathews in 1953 (86). Albies has been doing two things exceptionally well this season: hitting at home and hitting against lefties. He trails Acuña (1.042) and Riley (.961) in home OPS, and just Acuña (1.077) with a .984 vs. southpaws, which ranks 15th overall in the NL. Those two things weren’t happening last season, when Albies had a paltry .657 OPS at Truist Park and was at a career-low .491 against left-handed pitching.

4. Dansby’s safe at home

Speaking of raking at home, that continues to be the side of Dansby Swanson’s game that makes his road struggles palatable. He hit a three-run, game-tying home run Wednesday, his 10th of the year compared to just one away from Atlanta. He now sports a .899 OPS in 36 home games and has a .480 OPS in 29 road games. Swanson has typically been better at home, with 2019 (.795 OPS on the road vs. .648 at home) marking the only year in which he’s been better away from SunTrust/Truist Park, but things have gotten kind of ridiculous. Last year, Swanson’s splits were at 1.066 (home) and .618 (road), with the home OPS 12th best in the NL and just five players had a lower OPS on the road. No one’s calling for Swanson to sit away from home (although he’s having his worst year of his six in the majors), but he’s currently the worst qualified hitter in the NL in road OPS and tops only the Orioles’ Ryan Mountcastle (.443) overall.

5. Real sign of life for MVFree

When Freddie Freeman hit a solo home run to left field Wednesday against the Red Sox, it was more than just his third since June 10 and the 16th of the season. This was Freeman doing what he focuses on: hitting the ball with authority the opposite way, as he delivered his first homer of the year to left field after hitting four there in 2020 and 11 in the last full season of 2019. Since the start of May, Freeman is hitting .400 on balls to left field, a figure that sat at .481 in his MVP season. There’s still the matter of that BABIP, which even since June 1 is at .270 and .240 on the season, but Freeman driving the ball with authority to left field is a welcome and positive development as the first basemen tries to get things back on track.

6. Innings build for Ian Anderson amid recent ups/downs

Kyle Muller, the Braves’ fifth-ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline, made his debut against the Red Sox on Wednesday night, the left-hander giving more fire to those questioning Snitker’s bullpen machinations as Muller was thrust into a one-run game for his MLB debut and gave up two runs. The first glimpse of the 2016 second-round pick, which came against the American League’s sixth best offense (10.1 fWAR), came at the expense of another short outing from Ian Anderson. He exited after four innings, having allowed four runs on seven hits, marking the third time in the last four outings in which Anderson has lasted 4 1/3 or less and the third time in four games he’s yielded four runs and six or more hits. There had been discussions this spring about how the Braves would manage innings after last season’s abbreviated schedule, and with 70 on the year, Anderson has more than doubled the number of innings he threw last season (32 1/3). It may not be time to panic just yet. A start before this latest against Boston, Anderson shut out the Phillies over seven innings, but with a 5.59 ERA over his last four outings and Anderson on pace for 187 innings, workload can and should be a topic of conversation.

7. Telling stretch awaits

At this point, every series and every game are heightened as the Braves struggle to get back to .500, but with seven games against the Mets before July 2, it feels like this could be a defining point of the season — and those games against New York are just part of the story. Atlanta will also play four against the Cardinals and Reds, and while facing the Mets head-to-head presents an opportunity for a team looking to claw its way back up the division, consider that while the Braves are dealing with St. Louis and Cincinnati around those Mets series, the NL East leaders will face the struggling Nationals five times and the Phillies, who their 6-3 against, four times. Suffice to say, performing well against the Mets isn’t the only key in these coming weeks as the Braves face a top-six offense in the Reds (107 wRC+) and the Cardinals, who have Nolan Arenado (124 wRC+ and 12 home runs) and Paul Goldschmidt (164 wRC+ in June) rolling.

8. When No. 3,000’s just not good enough

Over his 20-year career, Hall of Famer Paul Waner amassed 3,125 hits, 168 of which came in a Boston Braves uniform, but on this day in 1942 came the hit that “Big Poison” made certain never was. In the second game of a doubleheader against the Reds, Warner hit a grounder toward Eddie Joost that the Cincinnati shortstop couldn’t field cleanly, a stab at the ball knocking it to the ground. Waner was credited with the hit, his 3,000th. As players moved toward him to celebrate, Waner waved toward the pressbox, shouting at scorekeeper Jerry Moore “No, no. Don’t give me a hit on that. I won’t take it.” Moore relented and Joost was charged with an error. Two days later, Warner got No. 3,000, which at time made him just the seventh player to ever reach that milestone. No one would join him for nearly 16 years.

9. Father’s Day and the art of the dad joke

As we celebrate Father’s Day this weekend (shout out to all the dads out there), let’s dial it back to the days when the dad of the Braves clubhouse was still setting the tone. A Nick Markakis smile is rarer than a clean inning out of this current bullpen (sorry), so enjoy Charlie Culberson trying to coax one out of the grizzled veteran in this run of dad jokes, and the comedic timing on Markakis’ delivery. It’s as amped-up as you can imagine.